“See? I mean, my list is narrowed down considerably!” I said as I waved the printout in Dexter’s face. We were both in my room after school a couple of days after I discovered the document. Unfortunately, I had to wait for his counsel until today due to him getting sick. As much as I wanted to figure this out, I wanted him to be as non-contagious as possible when I spoke with him face to face. He’s my friend and all, but I don’t want or need him getting me sick.

He coughed a bit before he snatched my wrist with his clean hand. “Stop moving it around, asshole. You’re making me dizzy.” He plucked the page from me and I held up the note that was on my rose. Said flower was now sitting in a small cup of water on my desk. “So you’re right – it’s the same thing.” He thought for a second. “What was the point again?” he growled. “I hate being sick – I can’t think right.”

“What this means,” I said slowly, earning a glare from him since he thought I was treating him like a moron. “Is that the computer I ended up using a couple of days ago since mine died was used to write my little love note or love confession or… whatever. And since it was typed on a computer in that lab, I now just have to find a way to figure out who sits there in other classes.”

Dexter shrugged. “What do you need me for? It sounds like you have it figured out already.”

“Dumbass, you have computer class like second period with the same teacher. I don’t have it ‘til later and I want to find this out ASAP. I mean, I guess I could wait until my class but… I don’t wanna!”

Dexter laughed a bit until it turned into a cough. I patted his back a bit, hoping to ease the coughs. “Such a whiner. All right, I’ll see what I can do. If I don’t have any luck, then you’re on your own.”

My room door opened, admitting Dustin into my room. “Hey guys!” he said brightly.

“Little bro!” Dex said as best he could, but he still coughed a little. Dustin looked to me for a second.

“Relax Dusty. I think he’s not contagious any more. I mean, remember the past couple of days?” My brother giggled a bit before he smiled and rushed me. I had only a little time before he tackled me to the ground. I wanted to be mad at him, but I couldn’t. “What are you doing, jerk?” It came off sounding like a joke – not my intentions. But maybe it’s for the best. We wrestled around for about ten minutes, but I never did get the upper hand back from him – his surprise attack and constant pressing of his advantage didn’t allow me to catch my breath.

He held my wrists to the floor while Dexter acted like a wrestling referee and gave me a three-count, signaling that Dustin won. “Good, now you have to make dinner again. If I lost I’d have to have done it. And I’m worse than you are, especially since Mom’s all afraid I’m gonna burn my hand on the stove. She still thinks I’m six!” His face wrinkled into a look of poutiness and dejection. I’m not really sure where this sudden bet came from, as I already had a feeling I was on KP for the evening.

“She’s just being a mom,” Dexter said after blowing his nose once more. “My mom did the same thing to me when I was eleven. Too young to do things like cook or play football, yet too old to really play things like Go Fish or Old Maid. Eleven’s a tough age.”

“It is!” Dustin agreed wholeheartedly. Dustin finally slid off me and I realized I had a bit of a problem. The sweats I had on were a bit tented from the wrestling with my brother and I blushed, doing my best to discreetly hide it. “You got a boner while we wrestled?”

“Damn it, I just did, okay?” I shouted as I rolled over to hide it. “You’ll get to experience random erections when you go through puberty too, you know! So just… don’t point shit out like that!” It really angered me that he had to ask the question, even if he didn’t mean to embarrass me.

“Sorry for asking, jeez!” Dustin said as he crossed his arms in a huff. “I was just wondering!”

“Easy fellas,” Dexter said. “Everything’s cool, right?” Neither of us said a word to each other for at least a minute. Being the bigger man, I sighed my anger away as Dex coughed a little.

“Look Dusty. I’m sorry I snapped. It’s just… really embarrassing when people point things out like that. I mean, it’s only Dex here with us, but I don’t need you announcing shit like that to a room full of people. It’s just not cool.”

“I didn’t mean to make fun of you Chance. Honest. I just wanted to know… that’s all.” His voice was small and quite sad.

I both changed the subject and attempted to boost his mood some. “Hey, how about we both make dinner tonight? That way we have a fifty-fifty shot of surviving. How does mac and cheese sound with some hot dogs? I don’t think we can mess that up too badly.” Dexter laughed as we all stood up.

“I was in your Home Ec class, man. If anyone can mess up hot dogs and mac and cheese, it’s you!”

“Why don’t you go on ahead and get some water boiling on the stove. Be careful not to touch it once you kick the heat on.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Dusty sneered at me for a second before he let it drop into a normal look. “How are we gonna cook the hot dogs?”

“To play it safe, we’ll nuke them once the mac and cheese is done. Go on… I’ll be down in a few. I just have to tell Dex something.”

“Okay.” Dustin scampered off and a moment later I heard pans rattling around.

“What’s up?” Dex asked as he sat back down.

“I wanted to relieve you of the fact that I know Aimee’s not the girl who gave me my rose.”

“She’s not? How do you know this?” Dexter started to let his hope build even before I told him the best parts. I laughed a bit.

“Well at the end of the day yesterday I was at my locker and I heard her talking to her inner circle of friends or whatever. My locker door was blocking my face, but I heard her say everything. She thinks I’m an idiot for believing her, but she ‘doesn’t hold it against’ me. Thinks I’m way too cute to allow that to stop her.” My bud started to laugh. “She keeps trying to get me to sit with her at lunch and I keep turning her down. It’s starting to get frustrating.”

Dexter started to cough again since he laughed too hard. “Oh man, I can’t believe she thinks you think she wrote that.” Dexter’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Oh! Do I get to tell her off for you?! I’d so love to pay her back for trying to drown me with her hair the other day, among other things!”

I shook my head. “As much as I wish you could…” I really did. I don’t know how to turn a girl down, especially one as determined as Aimee. She’s always been focused on one thing at a time – mostly. Before she made up this whole charade of giving me the rose, I saw her with a different guy at her beck and call each week. Sometimes there were two a week. At the rate she’s gone this year, I’d have to imagine she’s running out of selections. That or she’s going back around for seconds. “I think she needs to hear it from me.” I winced. “How do I tell a girl no? And have her believe it?”

Dexter followed me downstairs as Dustin tossed the macaroni noodles into the boiling water. I reminded him to be careful and to stir the noodles once in a while. I learned the hard way during Home Ec, back in seventh grade, that if you don’t then the noodles stick to the bottom of the pan and if left too long, they can burn. But my friend gave me a few ideas of how to let her down easy at first, but he assumed those wouldn’t work from the outset anyway – not with a girl like Aimee. So he told me to wing it if the chips fell down that way. I checked on my brother and aside from a tiny bit of hot water splashing him, he was doing okay. I cooked the hot dogs and my brother managed to make some decent mac and cheese. Dustin thanked me over and over again for letting him do some of the cooking and I just shrugged off his compliments.

 

 

The weekend came and went and I wasn’t in that bad a mood. Dustin and I got along quite well and only yelled at each other once – not bad if I do say so myself. Dex recovered some more, thanks to some advice from his doctor, Dr. Beverly Adams – my mother. She called and, when I asked on his behalf, suggested more liquids to help with the coughing and to make them more productive… whatever that means.

Most of the week wasn’t too bad, but Aimee was like a lost puppy, following me almost everywhere I went. She started hanging outside my classes on Tuesday to say hi to me, and by Wednesday she started pulling out all the stops. She practically glued herself to me as I walked from class to class. And now it’s Thursday and I’m just about ready to stab her.

“Hey Chance.” I groaned at the sound of her voice. It was way too early to deal with her voice or her in general. I saw Dexter heading towards me. He had to hand in his missed assignments and only just got caught up. I turned and saw her with Rick. He stood behind her, out of her line of sight and I noticeably saw him eye my body quite a few times. I glanced back to see how far away Dexter was, but noticed he passed by Elliot’s locker. He seemed to be hovering, not really doing anything with his locker. For a tiny second Elliot’s face seemed troubled, but it faded quickly. I looked back to my friend and he didn’t seem to be happy about something. “Are you busy this weekend?”

“Um… yeah, I have to make sure my little brother stays out of trouble. Mom’s away at a medical conference still and Dad’s busy doing something for the army base both days.” I wished that she would just take a hint for once!

“So what about next weekend?” she pressed. Dexter finally joined the party as I started to get frustrated.

“I don’t know. I might have to watch him then too. My folks spring things on me at the last second a lot of the times. And I really can’t say no to them regardless of whether I make plans ahead of time – it’d have to be like a month notice or something.” I felt a reassuring hand on my shoulder from Dex – he knew I was starting to get pissed by the subtle change to my voice and stance.

“How about he lets you know when he’s free Aimee?” Dex said coolly. Her eyes snapped to him.

“What are you, his personal assistant?” she nearly growled. “I think Chance is a big enough boy to handle this on his own. So why don’t you step off, Pagano?”

“He may not be my ‘personal assistant’, as you called him, but he is my best friend,” I said heatedly, getting her attention back onto me. I saw a slightly worried look in her eyes as the bell rang. I walked away, but I felt someone following. It was Dex.

“Did you know that Rick was eating your body alive while he stood with her?” He stopped me before I went into first period. “Like, I mean it looked like you were prime rib, grade A steak standing before him.”

“Whatever. As long as he doesn’t rape me I don’t care.”

“Doesn’t it bother you a little?” The tone in his voice didn’t convey disgust or anything of the sort… mostly I picked up a creepy vibe emanating from him.

“Maybe a bit, since he seems to get it on with most anyone and hasn’t decided to stick with one guy. He tried to get me to have some ‘fun’ the other day with him. I turned him down.”

Dex started to get worked up when I mentioned Rick’s proposition, but cooled down upon uttering my refusal. “Good. I’d have to hurt him if he did anything you didn’t wanna do.”

“Relax Dex, it’s okay. Get to class before you’re late – we can talk more at lunch.” He nodded before he tore down the hall, but almost took out Elliot. The kid I nearly mowed down the other day adjusted his bag and followed after Dex. He did seem to glance in my direction once before he was out of sight. I stepped into the classroom before the bell sounded.

During the rest of the morning, my thoughts decided to drift towards the idea that maybe… maybe I didn’t get the rose from a girl. I mean, it’s possible right? That maybe it’s from… a guy. Someone like Rick, perhaps. Maybe it actually was Rick. I don’t know much about him to know if what he wrote was within his style or whatever. Given what I do know, I don’t think it is, but I’m not going to rule it out or anything. I still need to get that list from Mrs. Lee to know who sits where I did a few days ago. Both Dex and I haven’t been lucky enough to see all of her rosters – we know she has four classes during the day. I think Dex and I have two of the four names between us, but before I start ruling anyone out, I want all the names.

I got a text from Dexter between second and third periods saying that he got the other two names and he’d tell me at lunch. I tried to focus on the lesson at hand, but I found it hard, now knowing that I had all four kid’s names, or would soon. It also didn’t help because Aimee also has third period with me and she kept tossing me notes – none of which I read. A few times she almost got both of us in trouble. What she was doing wasn’t endearing me to her at all. Even as just a friend.

Lunch rolled around and somehow I managed to slip away from the evil woman for a few minutes. I got my food and sat down with Dexter at our table. “All right. So what are the names?”

“Okay, so you already had Tiffany Celli and Elliot Pearson’s names. The other two are Ricky Dresden and Dawn Ambrose. We can safely rule the boys out, so that just leaves the two girls. So which one–”

I cut him off. “Dex, in this day and age you can’t rule anyone out. I mean you’re the one that told me that Rick was eating me with his eyes this morning, right? Maybe he sent me the flower and has been messing with my head some.”

Before my friend could answer, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Alright Chance.” I cursed inwardly as I stood up and faced Aimee. “What’s going on? I thought you liked the rose I gave you. So what’s the deal? I’m getting the impression that–”

“Excuse me for just a second,” I said, louder than I intended. It had the effect of drawing a bit of extra attention. “For your information, I heard you talking to your friends about your little scheme. About how you saw me with a flower, but didn’t know who the hell would even bother to send me one. So Fowler, if you couldn’t even bother to send me one yourself, why are you so interested in me?”

“I did too send you the flower,” she blustered. “I even remember what I wrote on it–”

“Bullshit!” I shouted, tired of hearing her lie to my face. She flinched a little at the volume. “The damn card wasn’t even signed and yet you said it was! But humor me for a second if you intend to keep this up. What did the card say, if you remember it so clearly?”

“Look,” she said, her face hardening. “Does it really matter which girl gave you the rose? I mean, they didn’t have the balls to sign their name to it! I did mean to send you a flower, but I missed the deadline. Is that so hard to believe?”

“No not really,” I admitted. “But you taking the credit for whomever gave me the flower is low, Aimee. It’s dirty and cheap. I don’t like it.”

“But I like you! I was a little desperate, okay?!” For a few seconds, I saw some shyness scrawl onto her face, a timidity I didn’t think she could possess. “Ever since I saw you, I thought you were out of my league. That you were too good for me.”

“Says the princess whose daddy struck it rich,” Dexter muttered. I looked at him and I could tell he didn’t buy into her little sob story for even a moment. Ever since she moved from the neighborhood, she changed. She used to hang out with us from time to time and acted like one of the guys when she did. But then her dad made a fortune and pulled up stakes. Ever since then, she became more spoiled and yet more determined to get things out of her reach if money couldn’t buy it for her.

“How dare you disrespect my father, you son of a bitch!” she hollered. “My dad is a hell of lot more important that yours ever will be! He’s invented so many things that will make all of our lives better! So you can just step off that high horse you’re sitting on Pagano before I claw your eyes out!”

“Like you threatened to do to me back in second grade? A few months after you moved?” Aimee’s head swiveled back to me. “I haven’t forgotten that Fowler. And I owe Dex my life for standing up for me back then when your words ripped my spirit into tiny little pieces. He was there for me to help make sure I wasn’t too depressed. Of course we didn’t talk about the meaning of life or anything – we were seven, eight at best. But you still hurt me.”

“That was you?” she asked, genuinely confused.

“Yeah, it was.” Recalling that day, standing before her as she undressed me with the razor-sharp words an eight year-old shouldn’t know, feeling totally dejected when she decided that I wasn’t cool enough to be her friend any longer… all of that pain rushed to the forefront of my mind in the form of rage. “Just for the record, princess, I said I never forgot what you did to me then and I’m sure as hell not going to forgive you for it either! You’ve become self-centered, egotistical, and a conniving bitch. I’m amazed that you actually have friends that trust you since you also seem to be the queen of spreading gossip and destroying lives around here! So let’s make something else here perfectly clear: my gay ass would never, ever consider going out with you, even if I was interested!”

“Wh-What did you say?” Silence surrounded us as I came down from my deranged state. I felt a twinge of a headache coming on. Someone in the distance coughed a couple of times, just enough to break the oppressive blankness for a second as I processed and reworked what… I said…

Oh God. Oh fucking hell!

Aimee’s face twisted a bit into confused anger – she doesn’t get yelled at by anyone; she does the yelling. I saw indifference in most faces except for a few. Rick looked positively delighted, wearing a beaming smile. I saw Elliot with only a raised eyebrow before he shrugged and went back to eating. But I swallowed my heart back down as I slowly turned to face him. Dexter.

His face was too much of a jumble to even read properly.

Unable to decode his face, I did the only thing I thought sensible.

I ran out of the cafeteria and the school, and didn’t look back.

 

Published February 1, 2013

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