Category: The Mighty Ducks (Movies)
Characters: Adam Banks, Anna Valentino, Charlie Conway, Dean Portman, Dwayne Robertson, Fulton Reed, Greg Goldberg, Lester Averman, Linda Chavez, Luis Mendoza, OCs - Multiple, Russ Tyler, Taz McDonald
Length: 40-50k words
Date Published: 1 Jun 2005 • Date Updated: 19 Aug 2006 • Chapters: 10 • Words: 43,060
Why? Vic and I have either Officially Abandoned Queertet or it is still on The Longest Hiatus In The World™, either way, it’s not moving forward any time soon. So this is what I have to offer. Vic may come up with something else. So go, bug her about. *innocent look*
The Fic: The prologue and the epilogue are in a weird format, kind of like a reality show. This is not the case for the rest of the fic. The actual chapters will be written in proper fic format (third person, past tense, and none of this smug-know-it-all tone).
Taryn Anne McDonald sits on a large brown leather-bound armchair, she’s wearing a red velvet dressing gown, a pair of wire-framed glasses that are a little too large for her small face, she’s wearing slippers that are obviously owned by a man but they match the dressing gown perfectly. On her lap is a large book, this is also bound in fine brown leather, the fact that the book matches the armchair conveys the grandeur of her surroundings. To her right is a small table holding a crystal glass containing the finest cognac in the state.
“Hello,” she says. “I’m here to set a few things straight. ‘What things?’ you ask? Well, let’s start with the Queertet.”
She opens the book on her lap, glances down at it, nods a few times, then looks back up again.
“Did you honestly believe all that drama came about because six teenagers came out at school? Honestly, how gullible can you get!”
She takes a sip of the cognac, winces and lets out a sound that’s very much like, “Bleeeuurah.”
“That’s it, Taz!” Adam shouts from the background. “Put the damned drink down, my dad is going to batter you when he finds out that not only are you wearing his favourite dressing gown and slippers, but you’ve stolen his special cognac! He only uses that when the boss comes to dinner!”
Taz pulls a face. “Back off, Banksie. I’m just putting the nice people straight. We’ve been lying to them for years.”
“Taz, that’s not even the Queertet manuscript you’re holding, it’s the Bible!”
“Not to sound like a complete fairy, but it does match the chair very nicely,” Fulton says.
Taz waves him off and addresses the people who aren’t in the room. “Look, I’m going to try and tell you what happened, you’re just going to have to ignore the anal guy in the background.”
Looking around the room, there is a bizarre lack of Maya, but weirdly enough, Linda is curled up on the sofa opposite Taz. Charlie is sitting next to her, letting Linda play with his hair.
Fulton gives Adam one of his scary looks. “You know it’s easier just to let her do these things. If you try to stop her it will only take her longer—and she’s more likely to get wound up and start getting silly.”
Taz frowns. “Thank you, I think.”
Adam grudgingly sits down next to Charlie, who rubs his arm sympathetically. “She won’t be long, just let her get it out in the open.”
Taz grins and starts again. “Just so you know, we wrote that at Adam’s beach house. We partied there after graduation—and since we’re being honest, we all took it in turns and we were all drunk as hell. In our defence, Portman makes a mean cocktail. I spent three weeks thinking I was a DVD after that.”
“In Portman’s defence,” Fulton speaks up. “Taz has always been a little slow on the uptake, it might not have been the fault of the alcohol.”
Taz pouts, things are obviously not going her way.
Portman gets up, picks her up and sits her on his lap. “Are you sulking, my little, Tazzie-wazzie?” He asks in a patronising voice, bouncing her on his knee like a toddler.
“Yes!” she snaps. “I just want to tell them how it was and you’re all being rotten!”
“Ah, poor baby,” he continues to use the same tone. “Come on, I’ll make them shut up, you just tell the nice people how it actually happened.”
“Yes.” Portman turns to the group. “You,” he points at Adam. “For the next five minutes I don’t want to hear another word about your father’s slippers, cognac or anything else. Linda, you’ll not encourage Taz to go off on a tangent. Charlie, you’ll not pull any of your weird faces that gets her giggling and Fulton, you will not intimidate her with that glare of yours.”
The group (which was already silent) looks at the floor nervously.
“Ok, Taz, the stage is all yours.”
Taz suddenly goes bashful. She takes another mouthful of the cognac, Charlie slaps a restraining hand over Adam’s mouth and Taz makes another bleeeuurah noise.
“Right. Ok. Yeah. So, we fictionalised a few things. Some things are true, some things did happen, but we changed the events to make the story funnier or angstier, apparently that’s what people like. For example, if you remember Adam eating the note that Charlie passed him, that did not happen exactly like that. What happened was, Charlie and Adam were in biology and it was pop-quiz day, Charlie hadn’t studied but he had a date that night, so didn’t want to be on detention. Adam passed him the answers and when Madigan caught them Charlie ate the paper. And just so you know, they got detention—but Maya and I weren’t there…”
“Which brings us to our next point,” Taz continues. “Two characters were entirely made up. The first is Maya. That’s because I’m single and I hate it, and the guys…” she sighs, “they felt sorry for me, so made me a girlfriend. The second is Damien, he does not exist either, his name is a play on my feelings towards a certain person. Damien is based on my friend’s sister, Shona. Shona is actually the devil, so that’s why we called her Damien—and she was always part of our lives. Annoyingly enough.”
“Some things are flat out B.S. I mean, could you really believe all that stuff about Connie? She’s evil, she’s good, she’s having—”
“TAZ!” Linda interjects loudly. “Remember, we never finished Sun?”
“Why was that again?” Portman asks, a smug smile on his face.
“Um, because after a week’s worth of your cocktails, Adam, Linda and I set off to buy some Lilt, even though you can’t get it in America, and then we convinced Adam to book us a mini-break in London on his credit card.”
“And what happened then?”
“We drank Lilt and vodka all day, then went to see Freddy vs Jason, then we drank some more.”
“And then I drank, and she drank, then we drank, then I drank some more,” Adam says with evident pride.
Charlie gives him a look. “We’re being far too smug here. The ‘I ran, then she ran, then I kissed her and we both ran’ jokes are used and abused too much.”
“Anyway, getting back to the absolute B.S…”
“Taz,” Linda interjects. “How do we know you’re not lying now? You could be about to spin another tale that is a fantastical leap of your imagination.”
Fulton nods. “I’ve see your bedroom walls, you’ve definitely got an imagination that’s not based in reality.”
Taz ignores them both. “Fulton and Portman are not now, nor have they ever been, a couple,” Taz says.
“We’re called The Bash Brothers for a reason.” Portman says. “We are like brothers, and dating would just be wrong.”
“But a couple of dodgy snogs under the influence of Portman’s cocktails are fine, are they?” Taz puts in.
“You be quiet, Taryn. It was a game of truth or dare and you kissed Charlie’s feet, so you’re in no position to pass judgement.”
“Ah, that was a good party.” Charlie grins.
“And Charlie and Adam are too volatile to ever date. They bicker like little old ladies. The kind that poison each other’s tea.” Linda adds. “And while we’re coming clean about relationships, Taz never had a girlfriend until the end of Freshman year—and we’ve already covered the fact that Maya doesn’t exist.”
“Thanks, Linda. Nice. Make me sound like a dateless loser, why don’t you?” Taz mumbles, then raises her voice. “And speaking of, what’s Linda doing here?” She turns to Linda. “What are you doing here, you snotty, freaky little activist, you?”
Linda shrugs. “I don’t know, I heard there was cognac.” She grins at Taz.
Taz grins back, and refuses to expand, so changes the subject slightly. “All of those people that you hated thanks to the story, they’re our best friends and the people that were our friends, they’re not so much. We thought it would be funny to write the homophobes as our best friends—if they ever saw our story, they’d be really upset—and our real friends thought the idea of them acting completely out of character was really funny, actually they helped us write it.”
“And we never even told you about Gabby, she was also part of it,” Charlie says.
“So Taz, tell us what really happened.” Fulton asks with a smile.
“Well, if you’ll all shut up, I will…”
Chapter 1: you’re going back
“Honey, phone!” Nancy Reed poked her head into the sitting room and gave her son a stern glare. She had gotten pretty good at condensing every single thing she wanted to say to Fulton into one facial expression. She had not been impressed that her son had only stuck at his new school for a matter of weeks before quitting, something he’d not intended telling her—but the determined look on her face had him spilling his guts in only a few minutes. The woman was incredible, a friend tipped her off that Fulton was in the mall during a school day and that was all it took.
She had told him endlessly that he was a good boy, a bright boy and he would do much better at Eden Hall than at the local public school. Several arguments had broken out about it, but now she had just got it down to a grimace, since words weren’t getting her anywhere. However, her tone had been light and friendly, this was because his mom was always conscious that some people had the idea that being poor and being a dysfunctional family went hand-in-hand.
Fulton got up and took the phone from her. “Yeah?” he muttered. His mom slapped his shoulder lightly. “Um, I mean, hello?”
“Dude, it’s me,” Portman’s voice came clearly over the line.
Fulton removed himself entirely from the sitting room, shut the door on his younger sister and brother who were watching The Smurfs, followed the phone cord all the way back to the hall and took a seat on the floor. “Hey,” Fulton said tonelessly.
“What’s up? And why are you at home? Were the dorms really that grim?”
“No, I quit,” Fulton replied, which wasn’t a lie—he just hadn’t bothered to tell anyone that he was going back tomorrow. The truth was, he was still considering hanging out with Charlie tomorrow, despite what he’d said.
“You quit? Why? Have you had a fight with the Ducks?”
“The Ducks are dead, Portman. Completely and utterly. If you had bothered to leave Chicago, you’d know that.”
“What do you mean, they’re dead?”
“I mean the team that was once the Ducks are now the Eden Hall Warriors, I mean Bombay isn’t around to make it feel like the Ducks, I mean the new coach, Orion, is a complete ass. Add to that Banksie isn’t even on the team any more, I’d say ‘dead’ sums us up just fine,” Fulton snapped, almost glad that Portman had called so he could take his anger out on someone who would understand. He was even almost glad Portman had ditched them because it meant that Fulton could offload on him completely guilt-free.
“Adam quit too?” Portman sounded very sceptical.
“No, Adam made Varsity. He’s the enemy now—apparently we’ve got to keep the healthy rivalry between JV and Varsity going.”
“He never said,” Portman said quietly.
“Yeah, because you guys were so close. Let me think back to your last conversation with him… ‘don’t tell me how to talk, rich boy!’” Fulton knew he was making this conversation unnecessarily difficult, but he couldn’t seem to help it. Everything seemed so new and different at Eden Hall, Portman wasn’t there, Adam was on another team, Charlie had a real attitude… Charlie was just a lot different, and Charlie had always been a constant in his life. Charlie was, for lack of a better way to put it, the nice one on the team. Now he was arrogant, stubborn and egotistical; he never used to lie, now he seemed exceptionally furtive.
“It’s not just you I keep in touch with,” Portman said defensively. “I talk to a few of the other Ducks.”
“You know, if you’d come to Eden Hall, it would really save on your phone bill.”
“The way you’re talking there’s no point, the Ducks are dead, aren’t they?” Portman said lightly.
“Yeah.” Fulton sighed. Offloading on Portman wasn’t actually doing him any good. Portman was taking anything Fulton threw at him with surprising good grace, and now Fulton was just tired. “Yeah, the day Charlie throws a punch at Adam, you know the team has died.”
“And the day your team sells you out for a damned scholarship…” Fulton added.
“Stop. Rewind. Charlie hit Adam? Why?”
“It’s Varsity, man. They hate us, we hate them, and Adam’s one of them…”
“So you ditched your friend because he was good enough to make another team? I can’t believe you did that, Fult. I thought you were…” Portman sighed, making a faint hrrr down the phone. “Varsity hates you—I bet they’re not fond of Adam and he’s enemies with the people who are supposed to be his friends? I can’t believe this. I just never thought I’d see you sell your friend out like that.”
“Sell out?” Fulton’s anger began to flow back. “I can’t believe you—of all damned people—are accusing me of selling out! You’re the one who couldn’t be bothered to come to Eden with us. You were the first sell out!”
“Is that what you think? Didn’t you even read that letter I sent?”
“Must have been real important if you couldn’t even call me to tell me.”
“Screw this, Fult. I don’t need this aggravation. I’ve got my reasons, but if you didn’t bother to find them out, then it’s your problem, not mine!” There was a click, then a dial tone.
Fulton sighed and replaced the handset.
Almost instantly it rang again. Fulton picked up. “I don’t need this aggravation either!” he snapped, forgoing any preamble.
There was a silence, then a small choked voice said, “Is that Fulton?”
Fulton blushed, cleared his throat and started again. “Yes it is. I’m sorry, I thought it was someone else. Who is this?”
“Fulton, it’s Casey, Charlie’s mom.”
“Hey, Mrs Conway, what can I do for you?” He asked in alarm, she sounded like she had been crying, and he couldn’t remember a time when any of his friend’s parents called for him. While it was true that his mother worked at the same diner as Casey, they didn’t call for social chit-chat, they were both too busy. This call was certainly for him. “Is Charlie ok?”
“I—I don’t know… I mean, yes. I think… No, it’s not Charlie… it’s Hans.”
Fulton took a deep shaky breath and waited for her to continue.
She composed herself and started again, her tone was no longer shaky, but it still wasn’t her usual voice. “Hans passed away this evening, when I told Charlie he went out for a walk. I let him, he’s an only child, he likes to figure things out for himself… even as a child he always liked to process… like the time when his mouse escaped and… I guess that’s not the point… but it’s been almost three hours and with you being his friend, I thought…”
“Would you like me to go look for him, Mrs Conway?” he offered, once he had worked out the main points she was trying to express.
“I know he spend the day with you, so I thought… I could send Alan, but… well…”
Fulton understood immediately. Alan was Casey’s husband. He seemed a very nice guy, but Charlie had never quite forgiven Alan for not being Bombay. Given Charlie’s recent attitude, coupled with the loss of the Ducks and Hans in one day, he wouldn’t have wanted to send Alan after Charlie either. “I’m sure he’s fine, but I’ll go and find him.” He paused. “I’m very sorry about Hans. He was a real nice guy.” He winced, you weren’t supposed to call dead people a ‘real nice guy’, you were meant to use words like ‘wonderful’ or ‘inspirational’, but Fulton didn’t think it would have sounded sincere.
“He was, wasn’t he.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’ll bring Charlie home to you.”
A few minutes later he hung up the phone again. His mother was standing above him, a concerned expression on her face.
“You’re not having a good day, are you, son?”
Fulton shook his head. “Hans died.”
She pursed her lips and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I liked him.”
“We all did.”
“And now you have to go out and find your friend.” She offered her hand to him and pulled him up off the floor. For such a compact woman, her strength was impressive.
“You do that then.” She gave him a quick half-hug, leaning into him and patting his back. The gesture was appreciated as neither she nor Fulton were particularly demonstrative with their emotions.
It wasn’t really hard to find Charlie, but Fulton understood that Casey hadn’t sent him search for Charlie, he had been sent to keep him company and stop him from doing something stupid.
Charlie, naturally, was at the pond they used to skate on when they were District 5. Fulton always felt a little like he was intruding when he came here, he hadn’t been part of their team then. He was just a guy who lurked in the background and scared off the Hawks for them. Mostly without the team’s knowledge. He had always prided himself on being protector of the team, but had never really thought about joining. He saw himself more as their mascot.
He took a seat on the bench beside Charlie.
“Did my mother send you?” Charlie spat out.
“Yes. But I would have come even if she hadn’t,” Fulton replied mildly.
“Why bother? You’re just another thing I’m going to have to do without.”
“You, for one. You’re going back to Eden Hall tomorrow. Don’t worry, I’m used to it by now, my dad, Bombay and all the guys in between them, the Ducks, Hans… You’re just a name on a long list.”
Fulton took a deep breath. “I’m not going anywhere. Just because I want an education doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. The Ducks are there, no matter what they’re called.”
“Should’ve known about Bombay too. Look how he was over the summer, bit of fame and he ditches us. Even before that—he was getting famous playing hockey, couldn’t be bothered to call my mom. No wonder she found someone else. Alan’ll probably be the next to leave.”
“He will if you give him as much attitude as you’re giving everyone else at the moment!” Fulton snapped. “You’re acting like this is only about you. We all feel cheated by Bombay, we all resent Orion for taking away our jerseys and we’re all gonna miss Hans. So stop acting like you’re the only one in pain here, Charlie. I miss Portman, did you ever think of that?” He sighed and thought of Portman’s words. “And I bet Adam misses us—at least we stayed together against Varsity. He’s all by himself, against us and them! Everyone’s screwed up at the moment. It doesn’t make you special.”
“Thanks for the pep-talk, coach,” Charlie sneered.
Fulton sighed deeply.
“It’s just… things… it sucks, y’know? Everything just sucks!” Charlie exploded finally.
Charlie slumped forward on the bench, his face in his hands. Fulton moved a little closer and put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder, squeezing lightly. “Things do suck. The way my mom tells it, that’s life. Things happen, things suck, and every so often things are great. Apparently things need to suck so you can really appreciate it when they don’t.”
“That’s great,” Charlie said flatly, the fight gone from his voice.
“Do you want me to lie? Shall I tell you that this is just a blip, things are gonna be great from now on, ‘cos you’ve done your time. You’ve had the sucky phase and you’re done?”
“I want that to be the truth.”
Fulton moved closer and put his arm around Charlie. “Yeah, me too.”
Fulton delivered Charlie home at around three a.m. He tried not to linger too long. Casey was making maternal noises and wanted to feed Fulton and give him a nice hot drink to warm him up. It wasn’t just that Casey’s parenting differed from the kind he was used to (if the positions had been reversed, Nancy would have told them that now she knew they were safe she was off to bed—if they were hungry there was probably something in the fridge), it was also he felt a little uncomfortable seeing Casey and her husband walking around the apartment in their nightwear and robes.
He arrived home about twenty minutes later. Surprisingly, his mother had waited up and having seen him walk up to the door, she had made him a cup of tea.
“Sit,” she ordered when he poked his head around the door to let her know he was home and safe and going straight to bed.
He obligingly did so. Nancy made two cups of very strong tea with lots of sugar. “How are you, kid?”
“I’m tired, Ma,” he said pointedly.
“So am I, and I’ve got the breakfast shift tomorrow. At least you can doze in class.”
Fulton gave her a look.
“Believe it or not, I was a teenager once. And I meant how are you? Not physically.”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
She shook her head. “I just don’t know whether that’s the truth or whether you’re not going to tell me because I’m your mother.”
“I think it’s the truth.”
“Well, that’s better. Take your tea up to bed, try not to wake Liv and Barney.”
“Thanks, Ma.” He got up and made for the stairs.
“I’ll wake you an hour before the taxi gets here.”
Fulton stopped dead.
“Yes, my son. I am ordering a taxi to take you to school tomorrow. I will have no arguments. Aside from everything I have already said to you about your education, it’s far more practical for you to live on campus. Aunt Sarah is coming to stay with us on Tuesday, and even if she weren’t, the twins are going to need separate rooms soon, they’re almost five.”
“You’re booting me out because the house is too small?” Fulton was almost amused. Only his mother could remain so fantastically pragmatic at nearly four a.m. And also manipulative. A taxi was a luxury the Reed family did without, the buses were pretty good. If his mother was going to pay for a taxi ride she knew Fulton’s sense of guilt over the cost would keep him in school, even if everything else told him to run for the hills.
“Yes. Now, bed. And don’t slop your tea on the carpet on your way up.”
Fulton shook his head in weary defeat. “Ok, you win. I’ll go back.”
“Good. I took the liberty of packing your bags for you. Also, while I was tidying your room I found something that might be of interest to you, I left it on your bedside table. Now, scoot. Bed.”
Fulton made his way upstairs and collapsed on his bed. His mother had obviously vented her worry at Fulton’s lateness on his room because it was spotless. His bed was neatly made, all of his clothes (that he hadn’t taken to Eden Hall) were either put away neatly or in the laundry hamper in the corner, (except a black suit, white shirt and tie which were neatly pressed and hanging outside his closet), even his posters had been hung straight instead of their usual haphazard formation. She had even unfolded one of his bandanas and used it as a cover for his bedside table.
Sitting up proudly, propped against his lamp, was the famous letter from Portman. His mother had even done her best to flatten it. After hearing second-hand from Bombay that Portman wasn’t taking up his scholarship Fulton had crumpled the letter and flung it to a far corner of his room and done his best to forget about it.
He sighed, took another sip of his tea, and opened it. Portman’s penmanship was akin to the results if someone steamrollered a hundred spiders on a sheet of college-rule paper. He didn’t set up letters the way English teachers liked, and it started abruptly:
Dude, I gotta tell you why I’m not coming to Eden. I don’t want this going round the Ducks, but I figure we’re like brothers and I can trust you with this. Look, did I ever tell you what my mom’s philosophy about parenting is? I think she watched Lost Boys too many times, because it goes like this: boys need a family, a mom and a dad.
I think she’s waiting for that dude—what’s his name, Edward Herrman?—to put in an appearance (minus the teeth and that butt-ugly jacket of his). Anyway, after we got back from the Goodwill Games, she’d found another ‘father figure’ for me. He was nice, we liked him. Until we found out that he was a lush. He’d been on the wagon all the time he was with her, up until about two weeks after he moved in. I don’t know what set him off, but he picked up the bottle again—turns out he’s not a nice drunk. Mom and I made a couple of trips to the Emergency Room before we managed to get him out the house. We changed the locks and called the police and that was that.
Until he showed up again, he’d holler at mom and threaten to kick the door in, we called the police every time, but you gotta understand, I can’t leave Mom alone at the moment. It’s just her, and it’s a ground floor apartment. What if he actually kicks the door in before the police get there? He’s already hurled a rock through a window. Look, I’ll try and work things out, once this is all sorted I’ll come to Eden, but I just can’t at the moment.
I wanted to call you about this, but Mom’s proud, she doesn’t like people knowing about our business, she’d be real hurt if she heard me talking about this on the phone, so it was easier to write it all down and post it out to you. I hope you get this before Bombay calls—he’s working on a way to let me come to school a semester late. He’s a good guy. Too bad he couldn’t stick around, but you gotta see his point of view. That’s a great job offer, and you can’t really expect the guy to put his entire life on hold just to make us happy.
Call me when you get this. We can’t talk about it, but just call me anyway.
Chapter 2: you’re gonna wish like hell you stuck with us
Fulton didn’t see Charlie for another day, until the day of Hans’ funeral. But as it turned out, he had his own problems to keep him busy at that point.
The trouble started at 8:57 a.m. on Tuesday, when instead of picking up his biology book with his math book, thus saving himself a stop-off at his locker in the break between morning classes, he only remember his math book. He was a little irritated with himself because he’d already missed breakfast and was hoping to hunt down Julie, who—since her minor feud with Goldberg—had a habit of having fruit with her at all times in case she got hungry. Instead, he had to make a stop at his locker, which meant doubling back on himself, the lockers were near the main assembly hall, math classes were on the floor above, biology, however, was in a separate building on the other side of the campus.
Fulton was just rummaging in his locker when someone literally fell on him, bags went flying, Fulton’s hand got a nasty scrape on the inside of the door and his locker spilled out pens, papers, books and folders in wild abandon. “What the…?” he grumbled as they fell.
“Ow, goddamnit!” an Irish voice squeaked indignantly. “Bloody Shona!” The owner of the voice was a small girl who, in all honesty, looked as if she should still be in middle school, but, most interestingly, her hair was bright purple. The child got up, stepping on Fulton as she did so and launched herself forward. Fulton followed her trajectory, and watched in baffled bemusement as she brought down one of the JV cheerleaders.
“Would someone get this thing off me?” the cheerleader called in pained tones.
“That’s what you get for pushing me, you big bully!” the purple girl snapped, administering a strong slap to the cheerleader.
When it became clear that no help was coming, the cheerleader pushed the purple girl off. “You’ll regret that slap, Taryn.”
“The only regret I have is that it wasn’t one of many, Shona!” Taryn responded. “And besides, don’t start on me. If you hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t have hit you.” She paused and thought. “Well, I might’ve done. But no doubt you would have deserved it.”
“I didn’t push you, Taryn. You fell. Would I, captain of the JV cheerleaders, top of the class and general favourite sophomore, stoop so low as to pick on a cripple? It’s not my fault you’re a clumsy oaf.”
“What’s going on here?” A stern voice cut through the commotion. Fulton winced internally and picked himself up. It was Mrs Madigan, the scariest teacher in the world.
“Nothing,” Taryn said sullenly.
“Mrs Madigan, she hit me!” Shona wailed, clutching her face.
“She did, I saw her,” another cheerleader appeared out of nowhere and helped Shona to her feet.
“That one wasn’t even here!” Taryn complained, pointing at the new cheerleader.
“Enough! You and—” she eyed Fulton’s long hair, his bandana and ripped jeans. “You! You’re both on detention. Run along, Shona.”
“Come on, Shona, I’ll get you some ice,” the other cheerleader offered, leading her away with a comforting arm around Shona’s shoulders.
“But she started it!” Taryn said petulantly, picking herself up off the floor.
Fulton winced again. Arguing with Madigan was one thing, arguing with Madigan using a five-year-old’s retort was another entirely. There was no way it would work.
“You, pick yourself up and get to class.” She turned to Fulton again. “I’ll see you both at four o’clock in room 14H.”
“But I have hockey practice,” Fulton protested.
Mrs Madigan intensified her ever-present glare. “You should have thought about that before jumping in the middle of a squabble then.”
Taryn suddenly ran out of steam, she turned awkwardly and began picking up her things. “Sorry about that,” Taryn said, in a quiet tone. “But she really did push me.”
Fulton grinned. “Yeah, but you got her back. That was a hell of a slap,” he said with genuine admiration.
“Are you going to get in trouble for missing hockey?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Probably. I’m used to it though.”
“Me too. Things like this are always happening to me.”
“In that case, I’m Fulton—just in case you need another crash pad, you can ask for me by name.”
She smiled back. “I’m Taz, only Satan calls me Taryn, so don’t go picking that habit up.”
“And Satan is…” he gestured in the direction the cheerleader had left in.
“Well, it says Shona on her birth certificate, but I figured it was just, y’know, a typo. She’s evil. I’ve known her for years. She holds coven meetings and invites Beelzebub over for sleepovers. How do you think she got so popular? She traded her soul. I’ve heard she’s even been dating the Anti-Christ.”
“You did just say she was Satan, now she’s dating him?”
“I know, but I have two plausible arguments. The first is that she’s just a really big fan. There are girls out there who call themselves Axl and stuff like that—Satan’s probably got a pretty big following too, though I doubt he could wail like Axl during Estranged or November Rain—”
“Totally, he calls that his ‘demon voice’,” Fulton agreed.
“Ah, a fan. I like you,” Taz nodded approvingly. “Although the Illusions shirt was a big hint too—though you can never tell who’s just being trendy and who actually likes what they have on their tees.”
“Or the other reason?” Fulton asked.
“The other reason is that the Anti-Christ is like the actual Christ, father, son and unholy spirit. She’s the son. Or daughter. Whatever. Either way, that is the concrete proof that Shona is actually evil.”
“Well, be sure to bring that up in religious studies.”
Her eyes lit up. “Now there’s an idea. Does this school have its own priest? My last one did. He wouldn’t perform an exorcism on Shona though, she was in the bloody choir. He liked her. I tried to tell him that the devil has many guises and that he really should read Needful Things as research but… well, I got booted out of the choir after that conversation, so…”
“You know, I really have to get to class,” Fulton said. The girl was amusing, but he didn’t want her to go thinking that they were friends. She was a little strange.
“Oh, what’s your next class?”
“Great, I’m going that way to the art block, I’ll walk you.”
Adam, too, was having problems. “No, Dad,” he muttered into the phone, scanning the halls for any potential eavesdroppers. He’d cut class in order to use the pay phone while nobody was around, but his instinctive self-protection was still working overtime. “The guys are fine, I’m not being bullied at all. It’s just tradition for Varsity to haze the freshmen, it’s put everyone in an awkward spot to have me in a Varsity dorm while I’m still a freshman. The Ducks think I’m in on the pranks and the Varsity guys are worried they’re letting me off too light.” Lying to his father was easy when he told the truth in a creative way.
“So you’re not being bullied?”
“No, Dad. I just want to room with a freshman,” he repeated for the umpteenth time. His voice lowered a little, he hated asking for this. “So please, can you make a call?”
“Are you sure—”
“—this isn’t going to be like last year?”
Adam sighed. After the Ducks beat the Hawks in the Pee Wee championship, Larson and McGill had felt a certain amount of residual animosity towards Adam. Larson had gotten over his momentary pang of conscience after he heard that Adam didn’t even need to stay in hospital overnight after slamming neck-first into a goal post, and he and McGill made a habit of following Adam wherever he went, taunting him, slamming him into walls, messing him up a little. Nothing really bad, just enough to make every single day he saw them unpleasant. Eventually, Adam resigned himself to playing hockey on his own front drive, or only going out with his brother, Danny.
Danny had caught on pretty quickly and made a habit of inviting his younger brother out wherever he went. These offers were also peppered with threats of telling dad or suggestions that they go round and beat the crap out of Larson and McGill. It went on for quite a while, but things finally came to a head after the Junior Goodwill Games when Adam, feeling confident with his recent success, waited outside one of their practices and started the biggest, bloodiest fist-fight the Hawks had seen since little Gordon Bombay called the captain of the opposing team a “stupid pansy” in 1973.
Philip Banks finally heard about this after Adam had been frog-marched home by Coach Reilly, nursing a black eye, a split lip and a big-ass smile.
Philip was still a little worried that his ignorance about this constituted parental neglect. It made things difficult for Adam when, once again, he was being hounded by morons and needed help without causing a fuss.
“Dad, I’m fine. I just want to room with someone my own age, y’know.” Adam decided that promising his father that he wasn’t being bullied was too big of a lie. It was the opposite of the truth. So he went back to his original plan, tell the truth. Creatively. “I just hate being different. When I joined the Ducks, they still thought of me as a Hawk, at the Goodwill Games everyone treated me like glass because of my wrist injury, now I’m the only freshman on Varsity. I just want something to be a little normal, ok?”
Philip Banks sighed. “If you’re sure that’s all it is. I’ll call Dean Buckley later.”
He hung up the phone and checked his watch. There was no point going back to lessons, there was only fifteen minutes before lunch. He might as well go up to his dorm and start packing. In fact, he might as well go up to his dorm and finish packing. The Ducks wouldn’t want him to eat with them and he couldn’t face sitting with Varsity.
The news about Hans’ death had filtered through to him by way of a note from Fulton pushed into his locker. He didn’t know whether to be thankful that at least one Duck had bothered to keep him in the loop or be fuming that none of the Ducks had thought to tell him personally. The situation was making him crazy, he felt like punching something. Julie told him that when Portman had been kicked out of the Iceland game she had entered the locker room to find him pounding his fists on anything that didn’t get out of the way. He hadn’t understood that amount of anger and frustration at the time, but he certainly felt that way now.
It wasn’t just one thing, it was the combination of everything. While it was true Adam wanted to be recognised as a good hockey player, he hadn’t wanted to be put on Varsity and taken away from his friends. He hadn’t wanted his friends to turn their backs on him because of it. He hadn’t wanted Varsity to resent him for being a freshman on their team. He hadn’t wanted to room with Jason Labine, who was fundamentally a nice guy, because it made life difficult for everyone. Varsity wanted Labine to prank Adam as much as possible, Labine didn’t want to, Adam didn’t want him to, but he didn’t want Labine to lose his team over it. He knew from personal experience that losing your team absolutely and unequivocally sucked.
And, more than anything, he hadn’t wanted Hans, the one person guaranteed to be able to see all sides of the equation, to pass away. It was just ridiculously unfair.
He sighed and made his way to his dorm to start packing.
Charlie was not an easy man to find, Fulton discovered, as he set out on his lunch to find him. And neither was Adam. He had assumed that Casey would send Charlie back to school pronto, as his own mother had done. A couple of questions to the Ducks revealed that if Charlie was back at Eden Hall, nobody had seen him.
This set Fulton on his next mission. On reflection, a note in Banksie’s locker was probably the most insensitive tactic in the world. He decided to find Adam—take on Varsity single-handedly, if need be—and have a decent conversation with him. He was probably lonely as hell, getting the cold shoulder from both his team and his friends.
With only twenty minutes before class, he finally resigned himself to the fact he was going to have to ask Varsity if they’d seen him. Which was even less fun than it sounded. Cole nearly took his head off before he even spoke for having the audacity to approach the Varsity table without an invitation. When he eventually was allowed to speak, Varsity made it clear that: a) JV should leave Banksie alone, he was a Varsity Warrior now, not a “little Duckie”; and b) that they didn’t know where Banksie was, and what was more, he was in big trouble about it. Varsity were supposed to eat lunch together. Period.
Fulton realised dismally that now he had not only missed breakfast and a snack, but also lunch. Furthermore, he was on detention straight after his afternoon classes, which meant it was going to be a long time before he ate. Twice he had missed out on food on account of other people.
It was not a good day to be a nice guy.
Fulton was early to detention. Taz was twenty minutes late. Madigan was furious with both of them. She gave Taz a severe dressing-down that had Taz close to tears. Taz tried to explain herself several times, but after a while it appeared she was only had the energy to either respond or stop herself from crying, so she opted for the latter.
Eventually Madigan finished, gave their assignments (a letter of apology to Shona for Taz, and lines for Fulton), and let Taz have a seat. Taz moved to take the seat next to Fulton and he realised that she was limping heavily. He assumed she’d hurt herself in the fight this morning and it had slowed her down and made her late.
Taz buried herself in her work, an arm curled protectively around her notepad. Fulton too turned to his lines, wondering if anyone in the world had actually successfully used the famous tie-lots-of-pens-together trick to get lines done quicker. Maybe someone like Portman might get away with it, his writing was terrible, even when he was trying his hardest to be neat, but Fulton had quite nice penmanship and anything like that would be easily noticeable.
About ten minutes into detention, Madigan sighed, announced that she had to run to the office to collect the next batch of pop quizzes she had to grade, and asked if she could trust them if she left them alone. The sight of Fulton obediently writing lines and Taz sniffling and snuffling into her notebook was probably more convincing than Fulton’s wary nod.
Not ten seconds after the door clicked shut, Taz began to cry. “I’m sorry,” she apologised. “I’ve just had a really bad day and I didn’t want to cry in front of her.”
Fulton could empathise.
Taz swiped at her tears and began to calm down almost as quickly as she’d started. “It’s just Shona being rotten, followed by double phys ed., I told Ms Joy that I can’t do cross-country running, but she wouldn’t listen and my best friend’s in the sick room—she usually stands up for me, and that stupid bitseach Madigan isn’t helping!”
“Bitseach, it’s Irish,” she replied. “My dad hates it when I swear in English, so I keep it in a language he doesn’t understand.”
“And your mom doesn’t mind?” he asked lightly, trying to cheer her up. Fulton didn’t deal with girls, unless you counted his sister Liv, she was easy to please though. Brandish a chocolate chip cookie and she would forget any earlier mood, fit, or grudge. Teenage girls were different—and difficult, his mother said, give it eight or so years and Liv would be a terror—they needed to be talked to nicely. And that was a tricky thing, according to movies. Teenage guys were always messing something up by saying the wrong thing—
Taz started crying again.
—sort of like that.
“No, my Mum’s dead.” Taz wiped her eyes again, aggressively this time. “I’m sorry, I’m not usually such a girl, it’s just I’m a little stressed, and then you said that and…” She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve.
Fulton was strangely pleased by the gesture, it said to him that she wasn’t that girly by nature. “It’s ok. I’m having a day like that myself. A friend of mine passed away a couple of days ago.”
Taz was instantly quiet and still. “I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “You’re probably sick of hearing it, but I am.” She opened her mouth to add more, then closed it again.
Fulton realised that he hadn’t heard anyone except his mother say they were sorry about Hans. Everyone who cared missed him too. Hans was a group loss, they all felt the pain. Nobody else at Eden Hall knew or cared about Hans. It was interesting (and kind of sweet) that an almost-stranger was genuinely moved by his loss.
Taz turned and reached in her bag. “Cookie?” she offered.
Fulton fell in love.
And that was how Taz integrated herself into Fulton’s life. Given that his life was already semi-dominated by a small woman who knew how to talk Fulton into anything, it wasn’t really surprising that his first and only girlfriend would be much the same.
Chapter 3: you probably want to be left alone
The day of Hans’ funeral was sunny and bright, and it struck Charlie that God—or whoever controlled the weather—had no respect for the dead. Funerals should be cold, nasty, wet affairs to reflect the emotion of the day—and to make anyone who didn’t really care for the deceased as miserable as those who did. In short, the whole world should feel as depressed as Charlie, and if that wasn’t possible then at least the thirty-odd people surrounding him should. He was convinced that nobody felt the loss of Hans quite so acutely as he did, he may have even been right; nobody else visited Hans after school, Bombay only got in touch with Hans when he was in town—which was less and less as his career took off—as for those dumb nieces of his in their traditional Scandinavian dress, Charlie knew they hadn’t visited Hans in well over three years. He’d seen photos of them, but none of them were recent.
Fulton had tried to manoeuvre closer to him during the service, but he had carefully kept his mother between them. When Bombay had approached, he had walked away, it was much easier than dealing with whatever happy-crappy advice Bombay had to dish out. Every time you touch the ice, remember it was Hans who taught you to fly? Bull. Pretty words, perfect for a funeral, but not honest words. The Ducks who had joined for the Goodwill Games had barely met him (yet there was Julie, bawling her eyes out as was expected by a girl at a funeral), they had been taught to play by their own coaches. They had been made Ducks by Jan—and where was Jan? Where was he when his brother had needed him? None of the original District 5 team had bothered to show, he had taught them to fly, but they weren’t there. The only original Ducks present were now the Eden Hall Warriors. It stank of hypocrisy. Why didn’t they just go the whole hog and boycott the funeral? They didn’t care about being Ducks, they cared about the game more than the team, so why pretend?
Charlie sighed. He thought he’d picked the right time to make his exit while everyone was hugging and exchanging niceties such as ‘it was a lovely service’ and ‘he was a wonderful man’. Obviously one person had noticed the direction he’d left in and followed him. He hadn’t thought he’d be found; he’d walked along the river until he found a bridge under which he could sit. It was a little chilly in the shade, which reflected his mood perfectly. The discarded beer bottles and cigarette packets only added to the atmosphere.
“My mother sent you again, didn’t she?”
“Actually, she told me not to bother you, that you’d probably want to be alone.” Fulton took a seat next to him.
“So why didn’t you do what she said?” Charlie asked.
“If it had been my mother, sure, I’d obey, but yours can be talked around.” When that got no response, Fulton sighed, a long-suffering expression on his face. “Because you look like you need a friend, and since I didn’t want to make nice with everyone any more than you do, I figured I’d come after you and see if you might actually talk to me.” He put his hand on Charlie’s arm. “I am your friend, you know. No matter what you say.”
“Everything’s falling apart,” Charlie said.
Fulton, as he had on the last occasion, put his arm around Charlie. “I think it just feels that way.”
Charlie shook his head, Fulton didn’t get it. How could he, when Charlie didn’t either? Everything was falling away, his team wasn’t around, Bombay wasn’t around and Hans would never be around ever again, but there was something wrong, beyond everything else. He wasn’t sure what it was, but the fact that Fulton had come after him twice made him try to verbalise it all. “I just feel so alone, like no matter how hard I cling to everything, it just falls away from me. Like Bombay, when he started playing hockey again, I used to call him all the time, tried to make him show as much interest in my Mom as he once did, but it didn’t work. Then when we were at the Goodwill Games, I tried to hold on to him long after he became Captain Blood, he came back, sure, but not because of me. Now the Ducks are gone, despite what I tried, Hans is gone, Adam’s gone to another team, Bombay’s not even in the same state as us anymore.”
“My best friend’s in another state too,” Fulton said gently. “I kinda feel like he bailed on me too—or I did. Then I looked at things from his point of view, and he didn’t bail on me at all. Things just got in the way, you know.”
“I do see it from Bombay’s point of view, but then I see it from mine again and it really hurts. And it’s not just that…”
“I know,” Fulton nodded. “I think it’s everything at once. Everything seems difficult at the moment.”
Charlie sighed, frustrated with his inability to get to the bottom of the problem. There was far more that he hadn’t verbalised. To start with there was his insecurities about hockey which had resulted in his recent attitude. He felt like he had to remain captain of the Ducks. Bombay had given him the C, but now Bombay wasn’t here and Charlie felt that he had to prove to Orion that he was the Captain, maybe he wasn’t the best player, but he could lead them. Had Bombay been playing favourites when he made Charlie captain? Charlie didn’t know, and it made him all the more volatile around his new coach and even his old friends.
Then there was that illusive something else. It was a kind of lagging feeling in his stomach, the sinking sensation that he’d forgotten something important, but had no idea what it was. With his current list of woes, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that he’d forgotten something, but this was more of a feeling that he had never known what it was. He sighed again, he couldn’t even pinpoint the feeling inside of him, his brain couldn’t begin describe it, so how could he talk about it to Fulton?
Charlie rested his head on Fulton’s shoulder, his forehead was resting on Fulton’s neck, maybe it wasn’t comfortable for Fulton, but he didn’t seem to mind, so Charlie stayed that way.
“Charlie,” Fulton broke into his thoughts. “What can I do to help you? I worry about you.”
Charlie shrugged. He felt like nobody could help him. He just wanted to go back a few years to that amazing feeling he had when the Ducks won the Pee Wee Championship, the fantastic feeling that his team, a bunch of rag-tag losers, had just trounced the Hawks good and proper, then turning around and seeing Bombay kiss his mom. He wanted that feeling back.
“Why don’t I set up a game of schoolyard puck tomorrow? Just the Ducks—we’ll get Banksie back, it’ll be like old times.”
Charlie felt hot tears burning his eyes. Nothing would make it like old times again. Hans was dead, Mom had married Alan, Bombay was a big important guy with no time for his old team, the Ducks were JV Warriors and Adam wasn’t a Duck or a JV Warrior. Too much had gone to get that old feeling back.
Fulton turned to face Charlie, his eyes full of concern. “I don’t know if it will make you feel better, but I promise that no matter what, I’m not going to leave you. We’ll always be friends. I’m not going anywhere.”
Fulton squeezed Charlie’s shoulder, inadvertently pulling him a little closer. Charlie looked up at Fulton, they were close enough for him to feel Fulton’s breath on his lips, and suddenly that illusive thing suddenly snapped into focus. There was absolute clarity. He moved closer and pressed his lips to Fulton’s. Fulton flinched backwards initially, but then moved towards Charlie, dropping his shoulder and turning slightly giving him easier access to Charlie’s mouth. For a few seconds. Before he broke away again.
Charlie didn’t know what happened after that. One moment Fulton was there, kissing him, the next he was walking away, muttering something about seeing Charlie at school.
Charlie watched his retreating figure sadly. Another name to add to the long list of people he had lost.
Fulton found Taz lurking outside his dorm room when he got back to Eden Hall. “I wasn’t going to be here when you got back,” she explained. “I was just going to leave cookies and go.”
He realised she was holding a package of Oreos, he blinked at it a few times, thinking of the way McGill called Terry, Guy and Jesse the Oreo line.
“You know, just in case you hadn’t eaten, like the other day,” she continued. On getting no response, she pressed them into his hand. “You probably want to be left alone, which is why I wasn’t going to be here.” She gave him a quick nervous smile, then started off down the hall.
Fulton blinked a few more times, his head far too full of thoughts. “Taz, wait.”
She obediently came to a sudden stop and turned to face him.
“I don’t want to be by myself.”
He let her into his room, Luis, his roommate, was still out. Fulton supposed the wake would go on for some time. He put the cookies on the bed, and was suddenly aware of the silence. He moved to his CDs to find something to fill the silence. Taz took his hand as he reached for Illusions I. “I’ll find some music. No November Rain for you. Any decent music was written with actual emotions in mind. What you really need is some senseless dirge that just fills the space. Believe me. When my mum died I spent ages listening to The Living Years, it ripped me to pieces until my friend actually burned the tape.”
“The Living Years?” he asked, sitting down on the bed.
Taz found some bland-but-popular-sounding music, and put it on at a low volume. It wasn’t his music, and it didn’t sound like Luis’ taste either. Then again, Fulton reflected, what he didn’t know about Luis could just about fit into the state of Texas.
“I think we should save that conversation for another day.” She sat on the edge of the bed. “Budge up a little.” She put her arm around his shoulders and pulled him back to lean against her chest. He wondered how ridiculous they must look, she was not just short, but proportionately small, whereas he was tall and, as his mother put it, still growing by the minute. An image from a movie he had watched with Portman popped into mind, the Great Child and the Dire Mother from Thirteen Ghosts. Without the blood and gore, it was probably how they looked. He let out a sharp laugh.
“What?” Taz asked.
“Just my thoughts.”
She didn’t reply, but her hand crept into his hair and began combing it with her fingers. It was nice, relaxing. It felt good to be held like this, he didn’t feel obligated to talk either, which was also nice. He felt tired from the amount of talking and comforting he had done over the past few days, it was good to be able to just shut down. He hoped that Charlie had been—Charlie!
For a few minutes he had been able to shut his mind down and not think of that bizarre kiss with Charlie. Strangely, he could rationalise the fact that he kissed Charlie back with more ease than the fact that Charlie had kissed him at all. He was fourteen, his emotions were all over the place, he had kissed back simply because it was his first kiss and he hadn’t really been expecting it. It had caught him unaware… but then, that hadn’t been his first reaction. His first reaction had been to jerk back, to kiss back had been his second reaction. He shook his head, trying to clear the thoughts in there and Taz giggled.
“What?” he asked, distractedly.
“Nothing, it just tickled.” She continued stroking his hair, and it soothed him once more, he felt a rush of warmth for Taz, who had taken a few minutes out of her life to see that he was ok. Maybe that’s all it had been with Charlie. Charlie had felt the same grateful feelings towards him, simply because he had made the effort to check on Charlie’s well-being. Tomorrow would probably be awkward, but it would be fine. There were no feelings involved in the kiss, or at least, none that were personal. They had both been overwhelmed by their situations, and somehow they had kissed. If it had been himself and Portman, they might well have ended up beating the tar out of each other. Things like that just happened at times of stress. Fulton relaxed again, throwing his arm around Taz’s midsection, feeling his eyes closing.
Tomorrow would be fine.
Fulton awoke to strong sunlight pouring through his window. He rubbed his eyes and groaned.
“Hey, man,” Luis said. He was already dressed, his hair still wet from the shower, or maybe just from the amount of gel on it, and sitting at the computer. “You were dead to the world, so I figured I’d let you sleep.”
Fulton groaned again and propped himself up on an elbow. “What time is it?”
“It’s a little after ten.”
Fulton flumped back on the pillows. “I need at least another two hours.”
“You do that. Try not to snore though, you’re wrecking my concentration.”
“Mendoza, it’s Saturday morning, what in the hell are you doing that requires concentration?”
“It’s called math, dude. You know, that subject with all those little things that aren’t letters.”
“Obviously you’ve not progressed to algebra then,” Fulton replied rather smugly. Witty put-downs weren’t his thing, especially before lunchtime.
“I’m more into the extra-curricular activities on offer at Eden Hall,” Luis replied easily. “Speaking of, your girlfriend said she’ll be on campus all weekend if you need her, she’s in room 217. She’s grounded apparently.”
“Do you mean Taz?” Fulton asked, deciding that if Luis was talking, then sleep wasn’t an option and he might as well get up.
“Purple hair, blue eyes, about yay high?” Luis held his hand up at desk level.
“That’s the one.” Fulton had noticed that Luis had referred to Taz as his girlfriend, but didn’t bother to correct him. First of all, denial only asked for more ribbing (Connie and Guy had been teased mercilessly until they finally admitted they were dating, then everyone immediately grew bored of the topic); second of all, Luis probably wouldn’t believe him. If he had come back to the dorm and found a girl lying on a bed with Luis, he wouldn’t believe him if he said it was innocent either; and finally, Fulton thought that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea if the Ducks did think he had a girlfriend.
Part of him hated himself for having these thoughts, but what if a Duck had seen the kiss? He knew it meant nothing, Charlie (probably) knew it meant nothing, but anyone who witnessed it might not. And if it did come up in conversation, Fulton would feel very much like denying that he and Charlie had a habit of locking lips—which would lead to teasing. And this was one thing that Fulton would certainly not nod and smile along with for the sake of peace and quiet.
Rather than keep thinking these strange thoughts, Fulton thought a subject change was in order. “Do you wanna play some hockey today? I think Charlie would really like to just play for the sake of playing with the Ducks. All of them, we’ll get Banksie in on it too.”
Luis looked up at the ceiling. “Thank you, Lord. I knew you were listening to my prayers.” He switched his gaze back to Fulton. “Anything to get out of math. It sucks.”
“Well, since you’re so eager to get away from your homework, you go round up the Ducks while I take a nice long shower,” Fulton said.
The game was fun, Adam thought, but it still wasn’t right. Bombay looked like he was having the time of his life, but then, that’s what he did. He walked in when there was a problem, gave some stupid advice and walked away happy that it was all resolved. He was never there for the aftermath, when the Ducks themselves picked up the pieces and actually dealt and moved on from whatever crisis had just gone by. Bombay wasn’t even the one who arranged this little get-together, it had been Fulton’s idea.
There was a weirdness in the group, and it wasn’t just about Adam, though he did notice a certain sense of unease from the rest of the Ducks. I made Varsity, he wanted to scream, it’s just a damned team. I haven’t grown horns and started sacrificing virgins to Beelzebub! But that wasn’t all that was wrong. Charlie was quite obviously still depressed, although he was managing to smile. Not that that meant anything. Charlie had smiled a heck of a lot at his mother’s wedding to Alan. Every picture showed a sunny grin on Conway’s face, it didn’t change the fact that he’d consumed half the contents of the free bar at the reception and Fulton had spent the whole evening looking after him when he got sick.
And there was another thing: what was up with Fulton? He and Charlie, who usually stuck together, had barely said two words to each other the whole time. Fulton had accidentally knocked Charlie over at one point, stopped, offered his hand, then appeared to think better of it and skated off.
Adam had a few bitter theories that Charlie had pissed Fulton off just one time too many and Fulton was having a hard time breaking his habit of baby-stepping Charlie through every goddamned emotion in his life. If that was the case, Adam was happy about it. It was about time that Charlie found out that the C Bombay had given him did not stand for Centre of the Universe. Adam could think of plenty of C-words that it might well stand for, but was too well-mannered to voice his thoughts.
Adam knocked Charlie to the ground, stole the puck and easily shot it into the trash can that was serving as the goal. There was some cheering, but nobody bothered to give him a celebratory hug or back-slap the way they did when anyone else scored. Not that he was bitter.
He just wished Portman was around. Portman might look like a goon, sound like a goon and act like a goon, but he wasn’t one. Acting was all it really was, Adam had come to realise. What Portman really did was distract whoever was around him. He made himself offensive so nobody would ask about his life, he made himself noisy and irritating so that nobody beat the crap out of each other when they were stressed—they would beat the crap out of Portman himself. The weird thing was, nobody else seemed to notice, not even Fulton. Portman had known how dejected everyone had felt when Bombay transformed himself into Captain Blood, so suggested they train, then started a fight with Julie over a stupid remark she made. It was only after the event that Adam noticed it had been Portman’s idea, and yet he had told Julie that he didn’t need the conditioning. Portman understood people, it was as simple as that.
Maybe with Portman here this crazy situation could be resolved. Or maybe it would just be a further distraction. Adam realised he didn’t care either way, just a change would be nice.
It looked like the game was wrapping up, most of the Ducks were sitting on the sidelines guzzling water, so Adam thought it was probably time to make a move back to the dorms. He didn’t feel like walking back with the Ducks, today had been weird and it would be nice to get away from the weirdness. Admittedly he would be faced with resentment from Jason Labine, his roommate, but that would be better. These people were meant to be his friends, but they had ditched him the minute he made Varsity—and they didn’t seem to realise that Adam was suffering on two counts every time the Ducks pranked Varsity. First he’d get pranked by them along with the rest of Varsity, then Varsity would knock him around a little, as it had been with Larson and McGill, these weren’t particularly violent incidents, certainly nothing that would keep him off the ice, but they were unpleasant, and more importantly they were unnecessary. It wasn’t Adam’s fault he made Varsity, but nobody seemed to care about that. At least with Labine he had never expected any better treatment. The Ducks were supposedly his friends, Labine owed him nothing.
He had made a habit of becoming invisible recently, he had read about it in a book by Philip Pullman, where a character concentrated on making himself seem small and uninteresting just by changing his body language. It seemed to work quite well. If he wasn’t wearing his Warrior jacket, Varsity would often overlook him—as would the Ducks. He sat down on the outskirts of the group and removed his skates, he flexed his toes a little and pretended to listen to the general conversation around him. He felt fairly certain that nobody would talk to him, so he could edge out gently. While skating off would get him away quicker, it would also be more noticeable.
He waited until Bombay started with some fantastically hilarious tale from work involving a pair of skis, a misdialled fax, a slightly lost glamour model and Don Tibbles before making his move away from the group. As predicted, nobody noticed. He walked away from the playground in his socks and waited until he was out of sight before putting his skates back on.
“What is it with people sneaking off at the moment?”
Adam turned to face Fulton. He should probably feel something other than anger at Fulton, because at least he had taken the time to push a note through the vents in Adam’s locker to tell him about Hans. But at the same time, Fulton had unquestioningly followed Charlie after his little hissy fit (Riley had overheard it all and retold it to Varsity, it was one of the few times Adam had genuinely laughed along with them as Riley mocked Charlie’s tone and words), but had not said a word to Adam since he made Varsity.
“I’ll go out on a limb and guess that people are avoiding you, Fulton,” Adam replied flatly. “It’s ok, once you get used to it.” He finished lacing his skates and stood up. As he pushed off, Fulton grabbed his arm and dragged him to a halt. “What?” Adam snapped. He idly wondered if threw a punch at Fulton, would Fulton hit back?
“I thought we could talk,” Fulton said.
Adam felt his temper rising, something that was becoming a daily occurrence for him since Charlie had hit him. “Well, Fulton, I know you’re not exactly the brightest Duck in the pond, but here’s how it works: we both said something out loud. We talked. You’re done. Now go back to your little friends and tell them that you tried your hardest to reason with me, but I’ve gone and got myself an attitude problem. Break it to Charlie gently, I know attitudes are Charlie’s signature at the moment.”
Whatever response Fulton had died on his lips. Adam gave him a bland smile, shook his arm free and skated off.
In books, when someone said something nasty to an estranged friend they tended to have guilt over it. It had to be a dark victory for them in order to convey a moral message. Adam felt no such guilt, instead he felt rather elated that he had let loose a few things that had been on his mind. Of course, it was only the tip of the iceberg, but it was a start. He was officially through playing nice.
When he got back, Mr Stiles, the dorm supervisor was waiting for him. Adam always thought that Mr Stiles’ school guidance councillor hadn’t done a brilliant job with him. Given that Mr Stiles was a short, scruffy, unfriendly-looking man, Adam always thought he would be more suited to a different job. Specifically an archivist in a basement of an old (and preferably haunted) library, the kind that featured in horror movies and creeped out the teenagers when they went down there to research local history.
He was a surly man who seemed to exist only to find some kind of rule-breaking and punish the rule-breaker in horrible ways. He never spoke unless it was to reprimand or go sneaking to the Dean about behaviour. He was not the most popular faculty member. However, when he opened his mouth and spoke, Adam almost loved him.
“Get your stuff together, do it quickly and quietly unless you want a detention. You’re moving dorms.”
Chapter 4: there’s a monster in my closet
Charlie walked back to the dorms with Averman, his roommate. “Glad you’re back, man,” Averman said. “There’s a monster in my closet. I swear to God it’s gonna eat me. Now you’re back it can eat you, giving me ample time to run away screaming like a girl.”
Charlie decided that Averman was probably the best person to be around at the moment. Charlie was feeling a little strange, his emotions couldn’t seem to settle, one minute he was happy—Bombay had come to see him, Bombay did still care about him—the next he was completely screwed up—Bombay wasn’t staying, it was just a quick-fix visit, Fulton seemed to be avoiding him—made especially apparent by the way he had skated off at the speed of light while Bombay was still talking. Averman’s bizarre way of talking would work well to keep him happy for a bit longer. It was just that…
He wanted to talk to Fulton. If it had been anyone else, he would have just resigned himself to the fact that he had lost faith in another supposed constant in his life, but Fulton was different. He had come after him repeatedly, unlike Bombay who turned up when the crisis was reaching fever pitch, “fixed” everything and left again without bothering to check if everyone really was fixed. And the whole reason that things were awkward probably needed some addressing. He hadn’t meant to kiss Fulton, he wasn’t sure why he had. He wasn’t into guys, or at least, he didn’t think so. God, there was a scary thought: if it got around the Ducks that he was into guys, his whole friendship with Bombay would be called into question. At the moment they had all privately psychologised him and decided that he wanted a father figure, but if the Ducks found out that he had kissed a guy they might start thinking differently.
But he wasn’t into guys. Was he? He wasn’t sure. He liked Fulton, sure. But in a guy way, hanging out together, eating junk food, playing hockey, not in a girly way, holding hands, kissing… but he had liked the kiss.
“Can you like a kiss, but not the person in question?” he asked, then was a little shocked that he’d said it out loud.
Averman gave him an odd look, thought awhile, then swatted him lightly around the head. “I’m the random one, not you.” Averman turned to a clump of Ducks further ahead. “Mendoza! Shimmy your Latin butt over here. Conway’s getting romantic with me!”
Charlie was mortified by Averman’s casual words.
Luis dropped back from the group. “What are we talking about?”
“Charlie just asked a very philosophical question and I think you’re the best person to redirect it to,” Averman responded. When it became apparent to him that Charlie was incapable of speech, he added, “he wants to know if you can enjoy making out, even if you don’t particularly lust after the person in question.”
Luis nodded. “That’s a resounding hell yes. A friend of mine threw an end of summer party just before I came to Eden, it got a little silly and we started playing spin the bottle. I had to make out with this horrible girl from my old school, you know the type, absolute bubble-head, nothing between her ears except vast space and the odd tumbleweed. But wow! That girl could certainly kiss.” He turned to Charlie, “Why do you ask?”
Charlie thought for a moment. “Well, Averman’s into drama, I was really asking him if he enjoyed making out with Cassie in Romeo and Juliet last year.”
“Uck, no. Too much spit,” Averman replied.
This spawned a conversation between Averman and Luis, evaluating all kisses to date. Naturally, Luis’ kiss-list was a lot longer than Averman’s. Charlie didn’t bother to participate, just nodded and smiled at the right places while his thoughts whirled on.
Well, that was ok then, Luis—who seemed to be an expert in this department—said that you could enjoy a kiss without lusting after the person in question. That meant that the kiss probably didn’t mean much. He wasn’t sure why it had seemed like such a good idea at the time. It had felt right then, all crystal clear and shiny-like, but now it seemed like a very stupid thing to do. There were too many repercussions to go kissing someone just because it made sense at that particular moment in time. Especially when that person was a guy.
What he ought to do was get a girlfriend. That way he could kiss her any time he wanted with none of this swirling confusion. And the key syllable there was girl. He wasn’t into guys, he really wasn’t into Fulton, they were just friends. Friends who had accidentally kissed. With no feelings in there at all. It was fine.
“I thought Conway might be getting lusted up over someone,” Luis was saying when Charlie shut his brain down and rejoined the conversation. “Seems quite a few people are pairing up now. Connie and Guy are giving it ‘one last try’—” at this point, all three of them snickered. Connie and Guy broke up often, sometimes more than once a week, and then a few days later, when the injured party had cooled down, they would agree to give it ‘one last try’. “—I’m seriously considering actually dating someone, rather than just fooling around, and Fulton’s gone and got himself a girlfriend.”
“You’re considering settling down?” Averman asked in outrage, but Charlie wasn’t listening. His heart had leapt into his throat when he heard that Fulton was dating a girl. No feelings about that kiss, eh? His mind mocked him. It was guilt, he told himself. Guilt that he had kissed someone that was already dating someone else. That was all.
Averman was begging Luis to tell him who this mystery girl was who had had such an impact on Luis as to make him consider steady dating rather than quick flings, but Luis was refusing to say.
“Who’s Fulton dating?” He asked over the din of Averman’s melodramatic pleadings.
“Tiny girl, very tiny. Looks like she should still be in middle school, purple hair, blue eyes, Irish accent. Cute, if you like dating anime characters. I think he called her Taz,” Luis replied. “He said they met in the hallway and got into detention together some time last week. She brings him cookies, it’s disgustingly sweet.”
“That is sweet,” Averman agreed. “We should put a stop to it immediately. We are manly men!”
Luis gave him a look. “Well, I am. Not sure about you two.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Averman asked in mock-outrage. “I’m very manly, I’ll have you know.”
“Averman, you like drama and poetry. You’re such a girl.”
“I am not!” Averman responded. “But I’ve been meaning to ask, does my ass look big in these pants?”
Fulton sneaked past Ms Harper, the girls’ dorm supervisor, which was easier than he thought it would be given his size, and walked up to Taz’s dorm room. He knocked on the door and it was opened by Taz, she grinned at him. “Hey, you wanna come in before someone realises there’s a boy on the floor?”
Taz’s room was a nice spacious room that caught the afternoon sun. It was done in a light girlish shade of pink. One half was shockingly neat; it contained a bed with a blue bedspread and the walls were clear except for two framed pictures, one an Escher print, the other had a hand-drawn picture of a rather stern-looking family of four. The other half was covered in junk that threatened to spill over to the other side, the walls were covered in scribbles and doodles and a poster of Guns N’ Roses, the bed had a purple cover, speckled liberally with splatters of ink and paint.
Standing in the room was a tall girl with long curly blonde hair, she looked very familiar. Then he managed to place her, it was Shona, the cheerleader who had pushed Taz over. “Oh, it’s the boyfriend,” she sneered. “Don’t let me intrude.” She slammed the door hard enough to crack the moulding on her exit.
Fulton frowned, he wasn’t sure what he’d done to deserve that tone, he hadn’t even been in the fight between Taz and Shona, he had just been on the outskirts. “You didn’t tell me you roomed with Shona, that must suck.”
Taz laughed bitterly. “That wasn’t Shona, that’s Gabby. They’re sisters. See?” She pointed to the framed picture of the family on the wall. On closer inspection, the two girls in it were very similar in looks.
“Oh,” he said.
Taz sat down on the purple bed and patted the space next to her. “Have a seat.”
“If that wasn’t Shona, why did I get the feeling she didn’t like me?” He sat down next to Taz.
“You just walked in at the wrong time. Gabby and I were having a big fight,” she said.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he offered. He wasn’t really sure why he’d come to see Taz, he supposed it was mostly because she seemed to let him turn his brain off. There always seemed to be something going on in her life and it served as a good distraction from his own. Once more the horrible thoughts danced back into his brain, boyfriends went to see their girlfriends. It was just something they did. Guy often snuck in to see Connie. He was acting like a boyfriend. Which just proved that he hadn’t wanted to kiss Charlie.
Taz sighed and leant back against the headboard. “Dunno. The fight just came out of nowhere. One minute we’re talking, the next Gabby’s yelling at me about the mess—which she’s lived with every day of her life since we were nine—the next…” Taz broke off. “Never mind, it’s stupid. It’s probably girly things. And it didn’t help that Shona popped round to raid my music.”
“I thought you hated Shona?”
“I do. Passionately. And she hates me. It doesn’t stop her coming by every single day so that we can exchange insults, sometimes while she’s here she nicks a load of my CDs. She’s a head cheerleader on the JV team, you know. She’s not really into pop music, so she grabs a handful of my stuff, listens to it, and decides what might work well for their next routine. I think she’s under the impression that we don’t notice, and we don’t bother to disenchant her on that part, it would only wind her up and make her worse.”
“I thought you were a Guns N’ Roses fan,” Fulton said, a little disillusioned by the admission that Taz owned pop.
“I am, but every so often, you just need pop to make you stop feeling stuff. Rock’s great, but it makes you feel. Pop’s just dirge, doesn’t make you feel anything—like I told you last night. Sometimes I just need that. And Shona needs it to do routines to.”
“So you’re friends with her?” Fulton asked in confusion. His instincts had been right, Taz’s life was certainly proving a good distraction.
“No, she’s like a sister. I hate her, she hates me. Gabby’s wonderful though.” There was a slight hint of hero worship in her tone then. “Gabby’s got the easiest summary for how we know each other. It simply goes: when I was nine her dad took over my dad’s company, and I took over Gabby’s life.”
The door opened and Shona walked in. Fulton was sure that this one was Shona because she was wearing a cheerleader uniform. “Taryn, I think that I—” She broke off when she spotted Fulton sitting on the bed next to Taz. She smiled widely, and Fulton felt slightly alarmed. It wasn’t a friendly smile. “This must be Fulton then. I’ll just leave you guys to it,” She left quickly.
“Is that family allergic to me?” Fulton asked.
“You’ve got to go now,” Taz told him, making shooing motions with her hands. “Go. Back to your dorm. Now!” She got up from the bed and stepped on a magazine, which slipped out from under her. She slammed into the bed, muttering pained curses as she went, and fell to the floor.
“Are you ok?” Fulton looked down and saw that she was crying, even though it hadn’t looked like a bad fall to him.
“No,” she said in a tight voice. “I’ve hurt my hip.”
“Your hip?” he asked, getting up to help her.
“It’s buggered,” she told him shortly. “Just get out of my dorm, I’ll be fine.”
“Let me help you up.”
“No, Shona’s gone running to Ms Harper, we’ll be in big trouble if she catches you here. Just go, will you?” She used the bed frame to haul herself up and let out another cry, her knuckles were white where she gripped.
“Screw that. Let me help you up, then I’ll go,” Fulton replied, moving to her side. “Which hip hurts?”
“Ok, then,” He crouched down behind her and put his hands firmly on her hips. “Excuse familiarity,” he mumbled. “I’ll try and keep your hips still while pulling you up.”
“Thanks. That’s what Gabby does when things like this happen.”
He pulled her to her feet, she let out another cry of pain and turned her face to his. “Thanks.”
“Did I hurt you?”
“No, my hips hurt me. It would have been worse without your help. I think I should lie down, keeping my body straight usually helps.”
“I’ll help you.”
“You should go, Shona won’t be long at all,” she said, but her hand was tightly gripping his wrist to take the weight off her right side. Later when Fulton took off his shirt he would find a small hand-shaped bruise from Taz’s fingers.
“You’re not good at letting people help you,” he said.
“I am,” she responded in a quiet tone. “If you knew me, you’d know I’ve got no pride whatsoever, it’s just Shona’s going to get us in trouble.”
Which is when Shona and Ms Harper walked in. It was hardly a shocking scene, Fulton and Taz standing in the middle of the room, even if his hands were still on her hips, Taz was quite clearly still in a fair amount of pain, but it didn’t matter how innocent they looked.
What mattered was that Fulton was a boy and Taz was a girl and they had been alone together in a bedroom. What also mattered was that Shona was heard by many people when she said in a very innocent tone of voice, “I was worried Ms Harper, Taz is like a sister to me, I’d never let anything happen to her. But the door wouldn’t open and I heard all this thumping and moaning. I didn’t know what to think.”
That was all that mattered.
The gossip took care of the rest.
Adam liked his new room. It was clean, it was far away from the other Ducks, and most importantly, he didn’t have to share it with anyone else. There was another bed in there, but the room had not been assigned to anyone yet. He was also feeling a great amount of fondness mingled with resentment for his brother, Danny, who had sent him a cell phone by courier. In the box with the charger (but no instructions) was a note, it simply read: I have no idea what’s going on in your life. How about you tell me?
He was now simply working up the courage to call his brother. The problem with Danny was that he was a fantastic older brother. There had been no time in his life when Adam had wished he was an only child, Danny had always stood up for him, always taken him out if Adam had nothing else to do, always fixed his problems. He was irritatingly perfect. Which made it impossible to lie to him. So when Danny would casually ask Adam how life was going for him, there would be no choice but to tell him everything. Especially since Danny already seemed to have a good idea of how life was going. The cell phone was almost brand new, Danny had been given it for his birthday, but he had sent it by courier to Adam so Adam would have no choice but to call him, tell him everything and have Danny fix his problems again.
What he wouldn’t give for a slightly abusive older brother right now.
He found Danny’s name in the phone book and pressed the green button.
“Spill it,” Danny said, foregoing any preamble.
“Hey, Danny. How’s life?” Adam said keeping his tone light.
“I got a phone call from Dad asking if you were having problems at school. He’s labouring under a happy delusion that you actually tell me your problems willingly. I said you were fine, then I bundled up my brand new cell phone and wasted a ton of money sending it by courier, then I cut class so I could sit in my dorm room all day by the phone. Cut the crap, Ads.”
“How mad would you be if I said I was fine?” Adam asked, very little hope in his voice.
“Very. So spill.”
Adam took a deep breath and wondered where to begin. Did it start with Charlie’s attitude? His own? How about the fact that Portman wasn’t here? No, it probably started with Charlie. Everything in the whole damned world was about Charlie, wasn’t? He thought about how tightly he had held on to Charlie earlier when they had tried to throw him in the trash can. He had tried to recapture the way he had felt for Charlie the day Charlie had given up his spot in the game against Iceland, simply because he knew it was more important to Adam to be able to play. When the feeling hadn’t come back, his anger and resentment seemed to bubble up tenfold.
“Adam,” Danny said warningly. “The contract for that phone is still in my name, I’m not wasting good money on listening to you breathe.”
“I hate everything!” Adam snapped. He had wanted to tell Danny to shut up, but he could never say anything like that to Danny, who always knew how to solve the problem—and more importantly, noticed that there was a problem when nobody else did.
“It’s a good start,” Danny said. “What do you hate most?”
“Charlie,” Adam replied without hesitation.
“Charlie?” Danny repeated in genuine surprise. “I always thought you two were…”
“Were what?” Adam prompted, when Danny didn’t finish.
There was a period of silence. “Good friends,” Danny said finally.
Adam’s heart gave a worried lurch. No. Please say this wasn’t one of Danny’s insightful moments. That would be incredibly bad, because if Danny had insight it meant that he’d grown accustomed to the idea, which meant that Adam should have no fear. Then Adam would have to confirm Danny’s insight. He wasn’t sure whether he was ready for that. Maybe he should just say something light (or at least, lighter), like ‘yeah, me too, but not now’ or something like that.
“That’s not what you were going to say,” Adam said, hating his brother’s ability to never get anything but the truth from him.
“Ok, it wasn’t,” Danny said agreeably.
“What were you going to say?” Adam wondered if Danny would be angry if he threw the phone out of the window in order to get out of having this conversation. He suspected that he might be, but only momentarily. Then, proving his perfection, he would hop on a plane, turn up on Adam’s doorstep and get confirmation of insight in person.
“I wasn’t actually going to say it out loud. I was just going to let you know that I knew,” Danny replied.
“Well, you’re wrong,” Adam said, a hint of smugness in his tone. “At least, with Charlie. It’s not Charlie.”
“Well done, baby bro,” Adam could hear the smile in his brother’s voice. “I’m glad you admitted it. I won’t ask who, unless you want to tell me.”
“I hate you,” Adam said with feeling, but underneath it all, he was relieved. Adam didn’t really feel comfortable talking to anyone, not even the people he called his friends. There was no-one but Danny who was really easy to talk to. “How long have you known?”
“When you got back from the Goodwill Games you were different, more confident. You know my friend, Ashley? Well, he was really quiet and reserved until he first got a girlfriend. I figured you’d fallen in love at some point while you were away. It was a matter of deduction after that, Connie’s dating Guy—and I know you’re too nice to steal another guy’s girl. And I don’t think you even mentioned the other girl.”
“Yeah, her. There were a few you didn’t mention, so I figured that you weren’t deliberately not mentioning her.”
“That brain is wasted in law school. Why don’t you see if the FBI is recruiting?”
Danny laughed, but it had a slight hollow quality.
“Have you told Dad you don’t want to be a lawyer yet?” Adam asked.
“Oh, we’re dealing with all of the big problems in this call, aren’t we?”
“You’re avoiding the question.”
“I’m the older brother, I get to fix your problems, you don’t have to fix mine.”
“I want to. Look, maybe he won’t mind. Remember how he was after the Pee Wee playoffs? He didn’t care that I was a Duck not a Hawk, he said he just wanted me to be happy,” They had gone through this several times, but it didn’t diminish Adam’s determination to help Danny the way he had always helped him.
“I think he’ll be more mad about this, Ads. Hockey isn’t life—or at least, what team you played for in the Pee Wees really doesn’t make much difference when the NHL teams are signing you up.”
“Why don’t you tell him anyway? Sure, he might get mad, but at least he’ll know. It’s going to kill you trying to please him. After you graduate it will be much harder to tell him—you know he’s talking to Ducksworth Saver & Gross about getting you a job.”
Danny sighed. “I know that. I know. And you’re right, of course you are, I didn’t get all the brains in this family. It’s just hard.”
“It’ll be harder lying to him.”
“You gonna tell him what you told me today?” Danny asked. He wasn’t malicious, he never was. It was just the simplest way to put things into context.
Adam shook his head, even though Danny couldn’t see it. “I get it.”
“Now we’re depressed, aren’t we?” Danny said, though he sounded as if he was already regaining his cheer. “Let’s talk about your problems, they’re much easier to fix than my own.”
“I’m ok,” Adam told him.
Adam hoped it was true.
Chapter 5: we’ll be weird together
Fulton sat at the back of the bus sulking. He was in a generally crabby mood and didn’t really want to sit with anyone. The day hadn’t started that well and it had got progressively worse. He and Taz were grounded (hockey games aside). A grounding at Eden Hall was quite comprehensive. He was given a pink photocopy of his timetable, every teacher had to initial it to prove he had been at class, he had to get it signed at lunch—where he wasn’t allowed to sit with the Ducks, but had to sit alone on a table to the side of the long teacher’s table, Taz was on another table on the other side of them—then at the end of the day he had to be checked into his dorm, which meant the nine p.m. curfew had to be obeyed to the letter. This had annoyed Luis no end, because it meant that he too had to be present at the check-in, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. They had both been given demerits for having a messy room—another thing that Luis wasn’t going to forgive him for any time soon.
The gossip had done the rounds at an amazing speed. In the time it took between leaving Taz’s dorm, being yelled at by Dean Buckley and getting back to his own room, the news had already reached Luis, who had heard that Fulton and Taz had been caught doing the naked and nasty. Trying to explain to Luis had only made the problem worse. On reflection, the words, “No, see, her hips were hurting so I had to pick her up,” weren’t really the most impressive or intelligent line of defence.
Luis had actually been suitably impressed with Fulton, given that Fulton had only known Taz less than a week; as a couple, Fulton and Taz had moved with a lot of speed. If the gossip was true. And who cared if it wasn’t?
That was, he was impressed until he heard about the grounding and realised that the punishment was going to rebound on him. So now he was furious with Fulton and was refusing to have anything to do with him. Luis had, foolishly, chosen to sit with Guy, Connie was sitting with Ken. Fulton wasn’t sure whether this was a choice they had made because they had broken up again, or was it because they were together again, and they were just trying to prove that they weren’t all over each other. Either way, Luis was getting his ear chewed off by Guy, so he wouldn’t be in a particularly friendly mood this evening—that’s if Luis would even talk to him. Fulton suspected that as soon as he was un-grounded, Luis would be pleasant again. So already his grounding was wearing thin.
Then, less than ten minutes ago, Orion had taken him to a side and shouted at him for indulging his hormones and making life difficult. Apparently Orion had spent most of Sunday in the Dean’s office, trying to convince Dean Buckley that Fulton shouldn’t be benched as punishment. Luckily he had succeeded, but all the same, it wasn’t how he had wanted to spend his weekend. Then, to make matters worse, Orion had said (in a very embarrassed tone of voice) that his door was always open, and if Fulton wanted to talk about anything he was available. And the very worst was when Orion had lowered his voice to an almost-whisper and muttered that Fulton should be “careful” and added something about “responsibilities”. It took a few seconds of confusion before he figured out that Orion was telling him to use contraception, then he felt thoroughly humiliated. It almost made Fulton want to say, “I kissed a guy a few days ago, how do you feel about that?” just to convey his lack of interest in doing anything remotely like that with Taz.
And now, as he sat, he was beginning to wonder why he didn’t want to do things like that with Taz. She was nice, she was pretty, her hair was strange but it smelt pleasantly of coconuts, and they got on well. Why didn’t he want to do things like that with her? Why had he never even considered making out with her until now? If Luis’ standards were anything to go by, he really should want to.
But he didn’t.
There was something comforting about Taz, something friendly, and not really particularly girlish about her. He didn’t really see her as someone he could date, he saw her only as a friend, and his brain almost went into meltdown as he tried to push himself into seeing her as something more. He liked her, that was true, but that’s all it was. He was fond of her, and he thought that one day he might possibly love her, but again, only as a friend.
Fulton’s head automatically jerked up on hearing Coach Orion say Charlie’s name, a hint of surprise in his voice. Fulton heard Charlie say that he wanted to come back, his tone was sincere and apologetic, then Charlie boarded the bus. There were grins and high-fives all round, then finally Charlie looked to the back of the bus and met Fulton’s eyes. Sit with me, Fulton said mentally. Sit with me and we can be friends again. I’m sorry I knocked you down, then skated off. I’m sorry for that kiss, whatever it meant, I’m sorry I walked away when I promised I wouldn’t. Sit with me, be my friend.
Charlie held his gaze for a few seconds, his expression blandly pleasant. He took another step.
Then he sat down next to Russ.
Fulton sighed. Who needs you anyway, Conway, he thought, trying to ignore the crushing disappointment of Charlie’s simple action of sitting with someone else. I don’t. I don’t need you, I don’t need to be your best friend, I don’t need your stupid kisses that ruin our friendship, I don’t need your sulks and moods. What I need is a girlfriend. And I’m going to get one.
Adam lay flat on his bed, exhausted after another gruelling practice with Coach Wilson, his hair was still wet from the shower. Ordinarily he would have put a towel down to stop his pillow getting damp, but he was too tired to bother. Emotionally as well as physically. He was sick of being piggy in the middle. The Ducks, despite the informal game on Saturday, had not spoken to him since, not even Fulton, who he thought might have tried to speak to him again. Adam had not heard the rumours about Fulton and Taz, and was unaware of Fulton’s grounding.
Varsity had taken Adam’s dorm move exceptionally personally. They weren’t stupid enough to do anything to him that couldn’t be explained. On the ice it was different. There were so many legal ways to flatten someone you didn’t like—especially if that person was pretty good at stealing the puck. Then there were plenty of times when Wilson was looking the other way and the not-so-legal checks came into play.
He felt sore all over, as if the practice had been harder than usual, but there was no real specific pain like there would be from a beating. Well, except for his cheekbone, and he genuinely believed that injury had been an accident. Coach Wilson had called for everyone to take a knee and Adam had taken his helmet off before making a move towards Wilson. Cole had playfully pushed Labine, who hadn’t been expecting it. Labine had shot forwards, clutched at Adam for balance, and Adam had fallen head first toward the ice. Unluckily his hockey stick had broken his fall. His fingers got a little flattened but were mostly protected by his glove; it was his face that had caught the most of it.
He stretched a little, trying to get comfortable, but it wasn’t any good. He felt as if he’d… well, done a whole practice single-handedly against Cole. He was tired, but too uncomfortable to sleep, which was a bad thing. It gave his mind chance to wander. At least being flattened by Cole for two hours straight had made his mind focus only on avoiding as much pain as possible.
Now that he was lying down, doing nothing, he was beginning to feel a little bad at snapping at Fulton. Maybe it had been wrong to take his anger at Charlie out on Fulton. While Fulton did make a habit of baby-stepping Charlie through life, at the time when Adam had yelled at him, he seemed to be in some kind of fight with Charlie himself. What he should have done was entice Fulton over to the dark side and they could have complained about Charlie together.
Adam shook his head. That was dumb, really shockingly dumb. He and Fulton weren’t particularly good friends, and even if they were, the idea of Fulton saying anything derogatory about Charlie, openly or behind his back, was simply impossible to picture, no matter how mad Fulton might be with Charlie at the time.
Adam sighed. What he really wanted was someone on his side. Just for a little while. Someone who wasn’t bound by blood to agree with him. Danny was great, but as an older brother he was contractually obligated to take Adam’s side. He rolled over on his side and picked up the cell phone that Danny had given him.
“Emergencies only, Ads. That thing costs me a fortune—and I will be getting it back off you,” had been Danny’s final words on the subject of the cell phone on their last conversation.
“This is an emergency,” Adam mumbled. “I’m tired, I’m sore and I’m—” he paused and thought about what else he was that necessitated his use of the phone. Finally his brain delivered an answer that was both true and argument-winning. “I’m lonely,” Adam said.
He dialled Portman’s number. Though he had only called Portman’s house once, he knew the number by heart from all the other times that he had dialled it and hung up before it could connect.
“Hello?” a female voice answered.
“Hello, Mrs Portman. Is Dean available to speak?” Adam asked politely.
“Of course.” He heard Portman’s mom call to her son, followed by, “It’s your friend, the nice one.”
He heard Portman’s chuckle. “You hear that, you’re the nice one!” Portman said.
“Apparently,” Adam said flatly.
“Oh god, another Duck’s been shot. Let me get comfortable.” There were some muffled clunks and rustling as Portman moved around. “Ok, I’m ready, I’ve got my soda, I’m sitting on the stairs, I’m good for at least twenty minutes before my butt goes to sleep.”
Portman’s slightly flippant tone annoyed Adam and he found himself snapping in return. “I’m glad, because I’d hate for my life to get in the way of your comfort.”
“Adam,” Portman said with ponderous patience. “I’ve been waiting for your life to get in the way of mine. Exactly when were you going to tell me you made Varsity?”
“Did you get a nice shiner when Charlie hit you? How have you been doing stuck in the middle of the Ducks—who have apparently drowned and been reborn as dysfunctional JV Warriors—and their feud with Varsity? And while we’re at it, how many messages do I have to leave before you return my calls? Ten? Twenty?”
In the background he heard Portman’s mom interject, “Don’t you be mean to him, Dean. He has manners, you could learn a lot from that boy—I bet he never had to take anger management courses aged twelve.”
“Your mom’s on my side, at least,” Adam said half-heartedly, but it broke the tension.
Portman chuckled. “Ok, she is. But seriously, are you going to answer my questions?”
“I guess I should have called you back,” Adam said. The messages from Portman had been piling up in his pigeonhole in the main entrance to the dorm block, but something had stopped him calling him back. It wasn’t just that calling Chicago ate money like nobody’s business, or even that calling Portman wasn’t something he wanted to do with a large audience of people who were patiently waiting to use the pay phone. It was more that calling Portman would be great. It really genuinely would. But then they’d have to say goodbye, and Adam would realise that he probably wouldn’t see Portman again.
Maybe he could fly out to Chicago at some point, but he doubted it. Portman couldn’t afford to fly to Minnesota, and if Adam was honest, it would most likely be Portman who made the effort. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see Portman, he was just worried that in the time between now and that distant time in the future would diminish their relationship. He couldn’t imagine anything more disappointing to fly out to Chicago and simply have an alright time with Portman. Towards the end of the summer, after the Goodwill Games, he and Portman had great times together. Anything less than that would hurt. So it was probably best not to go and just remember how good it had been, rather than how mediocre it might become. That was the difference between them, Portman would make the effort, he would want to know for sure.
“And he tries to avoid the bigger questions. Honestly, what is it about you Ducks? You’re all hopeless. It must be the water in Minnesota,” Portman said.
“What makes you say that?”
Portman sighed. “I may have fallen out with Fulton recently.”
“Yeah?” Adam asked in amazement. “Guess we have that in common.”
“You go first,” Portman said.
“No, I get the feeling that anything I say will lead us off on a tangent. You talk.” Adam was delaying, but there was logic to his tactic.
“Fine. I called Fulton on Tuesday, and we didn’t seem to be able to say anything nice to each other. He’s pissed that I didn’t come to Eden Hall—not that it matters, because he’s quit now.”
Adam did a quick count of the days. “Portman, Tuesday was the day Hans’ died. I heard that he came back to Eden the next day. Hans’ funeral was on Friday, Charlie came back to the team on Saturday.”
Portman’s sigh caused a loud hrrr-ing noise in Adam’s ear. “I have no sense of timing, do I?”
“I don’t know about that, everyone has off days. Remember when you wound everyone up during Bombay’s Captain Blood phase? That was great timing, better we rip each other to shreds in our free time rather than during a qualifying game.”
“Ah yes, the infamous moment when you thought I was a big goon.” Adam could hear that Portman was regaining his usual cheer.
“And about twenty minutes later I figured out you were a genius instead.”
“Well then, tell this genius what you said to Fulton, and follow that by everything else that has happened to you since I last saw you.”
So, strangely enough, Adam did. He told Portman absolutely everything that had gone on since the start of term, that he made Varsity, the pranks between the teams, his estrangement from the Ducks, his almost painful anger towards Charlie, what he had said to Fulton, and he finished with getting flattened in practice earlier by a “big lugnut on the Varsity team”.
Sometimes Portman asked questions, but mostly he listened. When Adam finished, there was a long silence, followed by, “Who was it who was gunning for you?”
“What does it matter?” Adam asked. “It was mostly legal checks, and it’s not like it matters exactly who it was. It’s not like you know any of these people.”
“Adam, just tell me who it was. It doesn’t make you a bad person or a weak person to tell me, it just makes you a person. It’s not like I’m going to hop a plan and flatten the guy. And aside from anything, if you call me in two weeks and tell me that you and Bob worked out your difference over a harsh game of checkers, I don’t want to ruin the moment by asking who the heck Bob is.”
Adam laughed. “That’s got to be the dumbest reason ever.”
“Shut up, I’m a genius. Tell me.”
Adam shrugged, even though the gesture was lost on Portman who was over three hundred miles away. “Fine, the goon’s called Cole, even though I can’t see us working out our differences, especially not over checkers.”
“Are you sure? How about Monopoly? That’s a nice long game, plenty of time for you guys to get talking.”
“I can’t believe I called you a genius.”
Fulton made sure he sat next Julie on the bus home so he could ask her for a favour. Now was a good time to ask Jules, she was feeling suitably dejected and a little devil-may-care about the rules, given Dean Buckley’s announcement that the Ducks’ scholarships may be revoked. Fulton himself was feeling indifferent to the news, if they were revoked it meant that he could go home. Maybe his mom was a bossy woman, but she was reasonable, and if Fulton had told her the truth about what he was doing in Taz’s room she would have believed him. She knew enough about her son to know when he was telling the truth. Or maybe, she knew plenty of ways to get him to talk, if she tried them all and the story remained the same, she knew he was not lying.
In theory, as a grounded person, Fulton should really go back to his dorm immediately, he wouldn’t be checked in until nine p.m., but the school trusted that he would do as they told him. Instead, he asked Julie to go to Taz’s dorm and ask her to come outside and talk to him. Nobody would really check up, and if they did, both Fulton and Taz could get their roommates to say they were in the shower. Fulton had already run this by Luis, who had curtly informed him that he was going to see his love interest and, if someone checked up on Fulton, Luis would not be around to cover for him. That was good enough for Fulton.
Julie had agreed then ranted that she hated the alumni. When Fulton had responded with, “Damn the man! Save the Empire!” she had rolled her eyes and spent the rest of the journey staring out of the window.
All the same, she had gone to collect Taz who was now walking towards him.
“Hey,” she said, joining him. “This is getting like stalking, you know. Most people don’t like seeing me twice in as many days, even Gabby, and she has to live with me.” Her tone was light, but her eyes were a little dull.
“Another fight?” he asked. When she didn’t answer, he tried again. “If it’s any consolation, my roommate won’t talk to me either. He’s really pissed that he has to be checked in at curfew, even though he didn’t do anything wrong.”
“That kinda makes me feel better,” she said. “Come on, let’s go.”
“I think us standing around in plain view of everyone is pushing our luck, given the reasons why we’re grounded. I know a place nobody goes. Come with me.”
She took his hand and began to lead him to the back of the school, behind some buildings that weren’t used for anything, as far as Fulton could tell. Eventually he found himself standing in a neatly kept courtyard that caught the afternoon sun nicely, surrounded by beds of immaculately kept roses and other more exotic blooms.
“What is this place?” he asked.
“It’s called the ‘Ornamental Garden’,” Taz told him. “Nobody comes here, most people don’t know about it and those who do are scared of killing the flowers. If you do any damage here, you have to nurse the flowers back to life—and if you can’t do that, and this is only as a last resort, you must pay for a replacement—then nurse that up to the standard of the rest of the flowers. And these flowers are pretty rare, so you’re looking at a lot of time and money. Pretty scary, huh?”
She led him to the one bench there, on the backrest there was an inscribed plaque with a name and some dates on it. “The last Dean of Eden Hall and founder of the school, he died at the age of ninety-eight. He was also Dean Buckley’s uncle. No nepotism here.”
“How do you know all this?” Fulton asked.
“Gabby and I explored a lot during our first week. We found this place while a gardener was tending to the flowers. Gabby was genuinely interested and asked a lot of questions, I wasn’t really listening, but Gabby was quite enthusiastic and kept talking about it.” She smiled at him, glanced at their linked hands and immediately let go. “But I’m guessing you didn’t want to see me for a game of Eden Hall Trivial Pursuit, so what’s on your mind?”
Fulton paused and thought. Now that Taz was here, he wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to say. Really, he should have asked Luis, but that would have been difficult to do, since Luis was barely talking to him. Guy might have been worth asking, but then again, Guy had started dating Connie aged ten, all he had to do was hold Connie’s hand and the rest of the Ducks worked out that they were a couple. There should be handbooks on dating, Fulton decided. Handbooks that told you what to say and how to act. Finally, he shrugged and glanced around the courtyard.
When it became clear that Fulton wasn’t able to speak, Taz opened her mouth again. “Fulton, why do you let people think I’m your girlfriend?” she asked in a quiet tone.
He met her eyes. “Do you want to be?” he blurted nervously.
She looked shocked, as if he had suddenly slapped her without warning. “What?”
“I mean, do you want to—” he shrugged, “—go out on a date with me?”
She laughed tensely. “You’re not serious, are you?”
His mind was quick to point out that he should feel crushing disappointment over this, but instead he felt defensive. That was all wrong, he should have felt defensive that Charlie didn’t want to sit with him, and hurt that Taz wasn’t taking him seriously, but it was all backwards. “No, I am serious. Why not? We get on well.”
“Fulton…” She shook her head in confusion.
“Don’t you like me? We’re friends, right?”
She put her fingers to his lips, effectively silencing him. “You’re actually asking me to be your girlfriend?” she asked, her tone was one of honest confusion. She took her hands away, stood up, and paced around, hands in her pockets.
She turned to face him. “You don’t want to date me, Fulton. I know you don’t. You’re too friendly to like me like that.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that nobody usually wants to be friends with someone like me because they’re scared I might wind up falling for them and they’ll be stuck with a freak like me lusting after them ‘til kingdom come. I could tell it never crossed your mind. You don’t even know I’m a girl.”
Fulton shook his head. “Those sound like your worries, not actual reasons.” But she was making sense. She was making far too much sense. It had never crossed his mind that Taz might fall for him, just like it hadn’t crossed his mind that he could date her. It just didn’t seem like an option.
She knelt down in front of him, resting her hands on his knees, looking up at him with big blue eyes. “Tell me honestly, do you really want to date me? I mean, not just taking me out, I mean do you want to make out with me, do you really want to…” She blushed and lowered her tone, “do those things that the whole school thinks we’re already doing?”
Fulton blushed furiously, shocked by her question. He remembered his second conversation with Taz, and how he had known that girls were tricky to talk to. This was a prime example. No answer would be right. Yes would make him sound like a fiend, no would prove her point.
“I won’t make you answer,” she decided, getting to her feet and walking a few steps away, her back to him. “But don’t ask me out and pretend you mean it when you don’t.”
Fulton looked at the floor, slightly ashamed. It really hadn’t been nice to convince himself that he wanted to date Taz. Using her to prove that he wasn’t bothered by Charlie was kind of dumb. “I’m sorry.”
She looked over her shoulder. “But the answer’s yes.”
He stared at her, absolutely baffled by the way her mind was working. “What?”
She turned to face him and shrugged. “Tell me why you’re so determined to date all of a sudden.”
He was absolutely not going to tell her that.
“If you don’t, I’ll assume it’s for the same reason as me. If you do, I’ll tell you my reason.” Taz took a seat next to him again and started speaking quietly, “Shona thinks there’s something wrong with me. I think she might be right. She says she’s going to tell my dad.” She took his hand. “If I had a boyfriend, he wouldn’t believe her. I trust you, and a lot of that is because I think that you’re a bit like me in that respect.”
Fulton rested his head on her shoulder, his worries, not falling away, but lessening slightly. Taz would understand. “There’s a guy,” he said, his voice dropping down just above a whisper. “He kissed me, and… I kissed him back, and it’s all… it’s all really weird.” Weird didn’t do it justice, but Taz knew.
“Well, we’ll be weird together, and let people think we’re not.”
Chapter 6: the fragmented team
Author’s Notes: In the following chapter we take a jump forward to the end of the JV vs Varsity game. Everything past Hans’ funeral was covered. I decided not to cover the scholarships or the final game because, first off, you guys already know what happened, in this series, those events happened as they did in the film, if we wrote it, we’d just be transcribing the movie; and secondly, it doesn’t really have any bearing on the story I want to tell.
Charlie hadn’t really considered bringing Linda with him to the team celebration, he had intended on taking her out for that coke he’d promised, then going on to Bar None, a club which wasn’t actually as cool as it wanted to be. Bar None catered to the under-agers, which meant some parents dropped their eight year olds off there as a free babysitting service while they went out to work—or on dates. There was no alcohol, the music was about ten years out of date (and not in a cool retro way), and the floor that was supposedly for dancing was usually filled with ten-year-old boys who would take a run up then skid along on their knees. All the same, it was just about the only place a group of twenty teenagers could hang out without someone’s mom getting in a mood, or the dorm supervisor grounding the lot of them.
He thought it would be a Duck-only celebration, but Luis had brought his cheerleader along, who in turn had brought some of her friends, Fulton had brought his girlfriend, who seemed to be in the middle of a war against a JV cheerleader, Averman had brought a couple of people from his drama class, and even Dwayne had come with a bunch of a non-Ducks, so Charlie had decided that he might as well skip the coke alone with Linda and go straight to Bar None with the group.
He glanced around, it was a weird looking group. Fulton leaning against a wall talking to his girlfriend, to Taz—his mind sneered at her name and told himself it was short for Tazble—instead of next to Portman. Portman himself was headed outside with Adam, a cheerful look on his face. Luis was away in a corner, making out with Mindy, instead of surrounded by his usual flock of girls—it was Averman who had a harem. About five girls were crowded around him listening to his jokes.
“Charlie, are you listening to me?” Linda asked quietly from across the table.
He blinked a couple of times. “I’m sorry,” he said sincerely. “I guess my concentration’s little shot from the game.”
She smiled. “It’s ok, I was probably boring you anyway. I get that a lot.”
“No, no, you weren’t—”
“Hey guys, can we sit?”
Charlie looked up and Fulton and Taz were standing by their table. “It’s just this place is filling up quick and I’d rather die than sit with Satan.”
Fulton gently nudged Taz towards the seat next to Charlie, while he sat next to Linda. The gesture was not lost on Charlie. Fulton seemed very conscious about putting a fair amount of distance between himself and Charlie since that Kiss. It had got to the point where Kiss needed a capital letter, in Charlie’s mind. It had been a small thing at first, but now it seemed to be the whole reason that he no longer had a best friend, and such an event was worthy of a capital letter.
“She means Shona,” Fulton explained. “The head of the JV cheerleaders. They don’t get on.”
This was followed by an awkward silence. Charlie stared at the table, refusing to meet Fulton’s eyes, he really wanted to talk to him, but not here, not with an audience. He stared resentfully at Taz. She shouldn’t be here, what was she doing with Fulton? And why the hell was she wearing Fulton’s Use Your Illusions shirt? Fulton had washed and worn that shirt almost daily over the summer, it was his favourite. He had told Charlie that he had done a month’s worth of hard chores for his mother before she gave him the money to buy it and it had been worth every penny. And now he’d given it to some girl? What was he thinking? How could he like a girl he barely knew enough to give her his favourite shirt?
“I’m gonna get a drink,” Fulton said at length. “Can I get you guys anything?”
“OJ would be nice,” Linda said politely.
“No thanks,” Charlie grunted, still refusing to meet his eyes.
“OJ for me too, please,” Taz said. “I get sugar-highed on soda, I annoy people then.”
You annoy people now, Charlie thought.
Again, there was silence. This time Taz broke it. “So, uh, what were you guys talking about before we rudely interrupted? Or was it some couple thing and I’m really getting in the way.” She exhaled loudly. “Boy, do I feel like a third wheel.”
Linda shifted in her seat, then smiled at Taz. “I was chewing Charlie’s ear off about Homecoming next month. I was thinking of boycotting.”
“Not going?” Taz sounded interested. “I’d love to, but I thought we had to go if we were living the dorm life.”
“No, I’m going, I was thinking more of boycotting the Homecoming King and Queen and I’ll look far more innocent if I’m present and being shocked by the boycott.”
“I’d love to pelt them with eggs,” Taz said. “That would take the smug smiles off their faces.”
“I’ve got something a little more elaborate in mind. This school is all about snobbery, it’s about rewarding the most popular and stomping on those who aren’t. Take Homecoming King and Queen for example, the prettiest and most popular are nominated—not those people who actually contribute to the community, and I would like to see some less shallow people made King and Queen.”
Taz got up from her seat and sat down next to Linda. “Tell me more about this, I’m interested, and I’m happy to volunteer my services.”
Charlie glanced up. Linda’s face with lit up with excitement that she’d found another devotee to her cause, Taz looked happy about the plan Linda was laying out. Charlie felt like punching something. He went back to moodily staring at the table top.
Adam leant against the exterior wall of Bar None, breathed in the fresh air, and gazed at Portman levelly. “You hopped a plane and flattened Cole,” he said accusingly.
“I did,” Portman agreed.
“You said, and I quote, ‘it’s not like I’m gonna hop a plane and flatten the guy’.”
Portman held up a hand, “At the time, that was the truth. Bombay turned up a couple of days after that call. Then, when it turned out that I could go to Eden Hall, it began to seem like a good idea.”
Adam sighed, the corners of his mouth twitching as he fought a smile.
“I’ll have you know that I had to take anger management classes when I was twelve. I thought I was very restrained,” Portman added.
Adam gave up fighting the smile. “I’m sure you mom would be very proud,” he said finally.
“I did it for you, you know,” Portman said, his tone suddenly serious.
“No, I mean, the fact the check was legal. That’s what I did for you.”
Adam met Portman’s eyes and smiled at him, understanding what Portman was saying. I played nice because I didn’t want you to be ashamed of me. “I’ve really missed you.” It wasn’t quite what he meant, but it was as near as he could get at the moment.
Portman nodded. “I know.”
And he did. He knew it wasn’t what Adam meant at all, but all the same, he knew.
Fulton returned to the booth, a little surprised by the change in seating. Now he’d have to sit next to Charlie. Charlie glanced up at him, then back to Linda. “Linda, do you want to choose some songs on the jukebox with me?”
Linda barely turned away from Taz. “In a minute, I’m just telling Taz about my plan. After that, sure.”
Fulton handed out the drinks and took a seat. Taz was half turned, facing Linda, listening with rapt attention to what Linda was saying. Fulton picked up one of Taz’s hands. She gave him a brief but brilliant smile, then turned back to Linda, though she did scoot around a little so holding hands wasn’t so uncomfortable.
Over the past couple of weeks, Fulton had become very good at being a boyfriend, and Taz had become very good at being a girlfriend. He walked her between classes when he could, they ate together, except when he was with the Ducks or she was with Gabby. He had learnt that Gabby didn’t seem to like him permanently, it had nothing to do with her mood with Taz, and Taz was intimidated by the Ducks. He carried her books when her hip hurt. They always remembered to hold hands. Taz had raided his closet, taking a few shirts, including his most cherished Illusions shirt—he had fought her kicking and screaming over that, but she had told him that boys always let their girlfriends wear their clothes. He suspected that, while that was true, she had stolen that particular shirt because she was a fan too. Finally he had let her have it, throwing an off-hand comment at her, “Fine, everyone knows that Appetite is the superior album anyway.”
That was the day of their first fight, with Taz rallying hard for Illusion II. They had nearly made up, but Taz had stopped him, and told him to go ask his friends how he should make up with his girlfriend. He had given her a hug for her brilliance. Then told her she was evil and rotten. She was proud of him. She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, then flounced off, shirt in hand, slamming the door behind her.
Fulton had sought Luis’ counsel over how to win Taz’s affections back. Luis, who was talking to him again at that point, had suggested flowers, and maybe poetry. Fulton didn’t go for poetry, so he tried flowers instead. He got her a bunch of roses. She accepted them, then said in a quiet tone that she always felt sorry for bunches of flowers, because they were dying in front of her eyes. She liked potted plants that had a chance to live better. Fulton told her they should continue the fight. She said that he was a genius.
He went back to Luis, telling him what Taz had said, only dramatising it to make it more of a fight and less of a strategic discussion. Luis suggested poetry again, apparently quoting Shakespeare’s sonnets was a key part of his (very successful) bid to win his girl. Luis was now officially a fan of romantic gestures, because in his words, “Let’s face it, they work.” Despite this, Fulton still wasn’t a fan of poetry and he knew that Taz wasn’t. Instead he translated Luis’ advice slightly and went into town and bought a poster of Axl Rose with his then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour, a still from the November Rain video, with lyrics on. Taz was suitably won over (and confided in a low tone that she adored Stephanie Seymour). She found some girls to tell about it, making a point to coo over how thoughtful her boyfriend was.
They were a very good couple. And the weird thing was, it was kind of fun. It was nice to have someone know his secret, but cover for him. Taz was like a comfort blanket that he liked to keep close by. He had also learnt lots of things about Taz, like more details about her hips (she had CHD—congenital hip displacement—which meant she was born with dislocated hips, they operated on her when she was eighteen months of age, since then she had a prominent limp because of the 4cm difference in the length of her legs, she had pain on a very random basis and one day would have to have a double hip replacement), she liked to draw, she smelt of vanilla and coconuts, and was allergic to touching, but not eating, popcorn. Things that boyfriends would know. They were good together. They just didn’t lust after each other.
Charlie made a move to take Linda’s hand, after he saw Fulton playing with Taz’s rings. Linda looked surprised but pleased, and Charlie flashed Fulton an odd, almost triumphant, look.
Just as Fulton was wondering whether he should try and make conversation with Charlie while the girls talked, or continue to pretend to listen to Linda, they were interrupted once more. This time by Adam and Portman. Neither of them looked entirely enthused about joining the group, and it was hard to tell who had forced who to come over.
“Can we join you?” Portman asked, looking straight at Fulton.
Fulton grinned, if Portman was asking him, it meant that he was well on the way to forgiving Fulton for his snotty behaviour towards him recently. Forgiveness was something Portman had in abundance and something he offered frequently, which was a good thing, because nobody else in the team seemed particularly good at seeking it. “Sure, let’s grab some chairs,” Fulton replied.
Adam looked around and quickly nabbed the nearest empty chair. A further scan of the room proved that all other chairs were taken.
“Taz, come here,” Fulton said, suddenly filled with cheer. “If you sit on my lap, someone can sit where you are—and I think Charlie might like to talk to his girlfriend at some point tonight, which he can’t do with you hogging her.”
Taz smiled at him and moved around to sit on his lap, Portman took her seat and Adam shunted the chair closer to the table. Once everyone was seated and Portman had introduced himself and Adam to Linda and Taz, there was an awkward silence once more. It was strange that it had only taken the past few weeks for this cluster of Ducks to lose the ability to communicate.
“Right,” Portman said, taking charge. “Not to go all AA-meeting style on you, but I think everyone here, bar the ladies, owes someone an apology, and I think we should all get it out of the way and get back to being friends, because I, for one, am sick of getting calls and getting someone yelling at me because they’re pissed at someone else and have decided to offload on me. I’ll go first. Fulton, I’m sorry for the things I said, I had no idea that Hans died that day, and even so, I should have told you what I had to tell you before Bombay did.”
Fulton looked at the table, he’d never felt so pathetic. Portman was apologising, in front of everyone, for being unreasonable, when really all he’d done is be a friend. “No, it was my fault. I hadn’t even heard about Hans when we talked. I read the letter that night. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you, Fulton,” Adam added.
“No problem. I meant to talk to you instead of pushing that note through your locker, I just couldn’t find you.”
All at the table seemed to turn towards Charlie, except the girls who were looking at each other in mild bafflement. Charlie continued staring at the table top. “I’m sorry about the way I’ve been acting.” He glanced at Fulton, then Adam. “Sorry, Adam.”
“Forget it,” Adam replied.
“God, I wish I had a sin to confess or an apology to make, I feel really left out here,” Taz said.
“You could apologise for you lousy judgement. Everyone knows that Appetite rocks so much harder than both of the Illusions together,” Fulton replied, and most of the tension at the table seemed to float away. Though Fulton was still getting some strange vibes from Charlie.
“Oh, Fulton, don’t tell me your girlfriend is a newbie,” Portman groaned. “Otherwise I will have to revoke my apology.”
“I’m not a newbie,” Taz responded heatedly. “I just think that Estranged is a work of genius and that song, especially when it’s with the rest of the trilogy, takes the Illusions albums to heights that Appetite could not reach.”
“Well,” Portman said. “At least she knows about the trilogy. Quick quiz: better drummer, Sorum or Adler?”
“Sorum, at least they didn’t have to dumb the Illusions songs down for him. Adler was stoned off his face so bad they had to make Appetite simpler for him.”
“Gilby or Izzy?”
“Gilby. And Axl’s a moron for firing him so often.”
Fulton shook his head. “If that’s true, why haven’t we seen Duff wearing a ‘Where’s Gilby?’ sign on his ass?”
“At least Gilby wasn’t the one who bailed out the day that the Don’t Cry video was being shot!” she replied hotly.
Portman pulled a face. “Well, she’s wrong on everything, but she can back up her answers. One final question, and your entire relationship hinges on this, so answer well. Fill in the blank, Slash is…”
Portman nodded. “I’ll let you keep her.”
“Thanks, man,” Fulton replied with a grin. Taz might be a flake at times, but she knew her GN’R. “So, who are you rooming with?”
“Adam, he’s got a room to himself at the moment, and they like us hockey players rooming together, it means that we’re less likely to wake up the entire floor when we’re getting ready in the morning.”
The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough, with Portman’s cheerful presence, even Charlie and Fulton were able to talk to each other occasionally. Linda and Adam found they had a shared interest in history and, more importantly, a shared fear of Mr Barber, and his strange fascination with squashing the dwarf to make a point.
Taz brought up Homecoming again, eager to get more involved with Linda’s plan, then she casually turned to Fulton and said, “You’re taking me, right?” Fulton had nodded agreeably, like a good boyfriend, and turned back to his conversation with Portman. After that, Charlie asked Linda if she wanted to go with him. She also agreed.
The six of them walked back to Eden Hall together. It wasn’t far and Taz seemed to be having a good day with her hips. However, she was cold, so Fulton gave her his jacket, with the stern words, “That you can’t keep. I am serious on this.” She had replied, “Of course you are, darling,” complete with a very patronising pat on the shoulder, then resumed her chat with Linda.
At this point Charlie offered Linda his jacket. She gave him a strange look, and pointed out that, unlike Taz, she had remembered to bring her own.
Taz and Linda were in separate dorm blocks, so Charlie and Fulton walked their respective girlfriends together towards the girls’ dorms, while Portman and Adam headed back to the boys’ blocks. Linda’s block was behind Taz’s, so they split up at Taz’s, Charlie and Linda continuing along the path, while Fulton walked Taz to the main entrance.
Taz and Fulton made show of canoodling in the alcove of the doorway to her block until they were sure Charlie and Linda were gone, then broke apart feeling slightly foolish. They had laid a ground rule of no making out; when called for, they would only peck on the cheek, but neither had wanted to fake that aspect of their relationship. While there were plenty of real couples who were happy to make out with an audience, there were also plenty who weren’t. Taz and Fulton had decided to pretend to be one of the latter. Canoodling simply consisted of hugs and giggles. It always made them feel very stupid that they were going to such great lengths to fool the world, themselves included, that they were normal. The rest of what they did wasn’t so bad, it was just an extension of their friendship.
Taz glanced around the edge of the alcove, making sure Linda and Charlie were out of earshot. She looked up at Fulton. “It’s Charlie, isn’t it?” she said softly.
He knew what she meant immediately. He was almost sure that hers was Gabby. The reason for this stupid charade. He nodded. “But how did you know?”
“Well, not that Charlie’s behaviour wasn’t a big flashing neon sign, but I was watching you too. His behaviour could be explained, I don’t know the guy. Maybe he’s shy, maybe that’s why he was copying you. But I do know you. You were weird, vibey. You two barely said two words to each other all night.” She glanced out into the night. “It’s a shame, because Linda has no idea. I like her, she’s going to get hurt if he keeps on with her.”
“What about us, will we get hurt?” Fulton asked.
“No, we won’t. We made the rules, we both know where we stand. It’s a shame about us too, because if we liked each other like that, we’d be great together.” She stood on her toes and kissed his cheek. “Night.”
“Night,” He echoed, then turned to walk back to his dorm. He shivered in the cold, and realised that Taz had successfully walked away with another of his items of clothing. He shook his head, smiling a little. They really were faking it well.
He noticed that Taz had spoken as if Fulton had admitted that he really had feelings for Charlie. He thought back over all of their conversations and realised that he had never told her otherwise. And Taz had also implied that Charlie was playing the same game as Fulton was. Pretending to like a girl to get away from his feelings of confusion. Maybe since Fulton had admitted it to Taz, it was about time he admitted it to himself. He did seem to have feelings for Charlie, what they were, he wasn’t sure, but he should really find out. And that would only happen if he actually got to talk to him.
As luck would have it, he could see Charlie making his way back down the path, so Fulton stopped and waited for Charlie to catch up. Charlie seemed to be taking his time, so Fulton waved, making it clear that he was not going to get bored and walk back by himself. Charlie obligingly sped up.
Before Fulton could speak, Charlie jumped in. “You know, I was thinking about what Portman said, and I think I owe you an apology.” He finally met Fulton’s eyes for longer than three seconds, something that hadn’t happened for a long time. “I’m sorry about… you know. I miss us being friends, and that… incident, well, it didn’t mean anything. We can be friends again, can’t we?” He didn’t wait for confirmation, he just kept going, his words coming out in a rush. “We could even double-date, since Taz and Linda seem to get along. And this Homecoming thing, I hear you have to buy the girls flowers, I’m not so good at that. Maybe we could go into town to buy them together. What do you think?”
What did he think? Well, he didn’t know what to think, since his heart was too busy being crushed between two steel hands after hearing that the kiss—no, “that incident”—had meant nothing. He didn’t want to double-date with Charlie, he didn’t want to have to watch Charlie be with a girl—a girl that maybe he genuinely did like after all—he didn’t want to go shopping for stupid flowers for the girls (especially since Taz was morally opposed to dying flowers and would rather have a potted plant). He wanted to understand what he was feeling, now instead it was all being swept away under the rug because Charlie had already processed and moved on.
But what did he say?
“That sounds great to me.”
Chapter 7: it’s not lying, it’s embellishing
There was a knock on the door, and Gabby glared at Taz, who was still in her pyjamas, dozing in bed. “I’ll get it then!” she snapped, got up from the desk and opened the door.
Taz frowned. Gabby had been impossible to live with recently. As a person who was always impossible to live with, it was a shock that after all this time Gabby was becoming one too. Her moods swung viciously, sometimes she was in a great mood, and she and Taz would curl up on Taz’s bed, watch dumb films, throw popcorn at the screen and hurl abuse at the contrived plots about “ugly” girls (girls in glasses and brown dungarees) getting makeovers (taking off the glasses, using a little mascara and lip gloss and changing into skimpy dresses) and winning the stud of the school, who secretly had a heart of gold underneath his Mr Popular exterior.
And sometimes Gabby was unreasonably snappish. Like this morning.
Of course, Gabby was probably still sore about the fight they’d had last night when Taz had wandered in wearing Fulton’s jacket. Gabby had sneered something about Taz turning into a simpering airhead over some stupid jock, and Taz had rallied to Fulton’s defence, twisting reality into romance, turning their strange meeting that laid out the rules of their “relationship” into a rather romantic scene, where Fulton had asked her out in the prettiest part of the school. Gabby had hit the roof when she found out that Taz had taken Fulton to the Ornamental Garden, but refused to expand on why this was such a bad thing.
“Oh. Well, you get points for not being the boyfriend,” Gabby said in an almost-pleasant tone, then went back to her desk, where she started gathering up books. “However, I’m going to the library. I need peace and quiet to study. See you later.”
She ducked past Linda Chavez and disappeared into the hallway. Taz indicated that Linda should come in and shut the door. “Have a seat, Linda,” She sat up and pulled her legs up to her chest. Linda took a seat on the end of Taz’s bed.
Linda glanced at her watch. “You do realise it’s almost midday?”
“Yep,” Taz nodded cheerfully. “But I didn’t have plans today, so I didn’t see the point in getting dressed.”
“So, have you come over to make more evil plans to boycott the Homecoming dance? Because if you have, then I have a couple of ideas.”
“Actually,” Linda looked worried. “I came to ask about last night.” She paused again. “It was weird, wasn’t it?”
Taz thought about how best to answer the question. Tact wasn’t her strong point. And neither was lying—romantic charade aside, and that was more like acting or embellishing than lying. “Yeah,” She said finally coming up with a response. “It was weird. And I think it was because we were there.” She decided not to go with lying. Embellishing was something she was good at, as well as creatively telling the truth. Outright lies were definitely Shona’s forte. “I mean, you saw how that Portman guy got everyone to apologise to each other. I think that’s where the weirdness came from. Apologising in front of a girl you’re trying to impress must be pretty hard, so after that he was probably going double-time at treating you nicely—taking his cues from Fulton. I think Fulton said you’re Charlie’s first girlfriend. He was probably nervous as hell.”
“You really think that?” Linda looked relieved.
“Sure,” Taz replied. One-word outright lies weren’t as bad as the lies Shona told, she told herself. She wasn’t a bad person, she was just protecting her friend.
“Oh good, I was worried I was some sort of challenge.”
“No, I don’t think that’s the case.”
Linda smiled and the frown lines fell away from her face.
“So, Charlie asked you to Homecoming, that’s a good sign. You’ve got your alibi. Now, I’ve got some ideas about that, like I said. You’re known as quite the little activist around here, I didn’t place you right away, but you were the one who got me to sign the petition about changing the name of the Warriors, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Well, I also remember that the Dean’s head spun round when you submitted it. Then you followed up with a couple of editorials in the school newspaper. That’s when the Dean started plotting your death,” Taz continued. “Am I right?”
Linda nodded again.
“Well, you’re going to need a back-up plan in case they find out that you’re planning something. And I have had a brilliant flash of insight.”
Taz leant forward. “You’re going to love this.”
Charlie hadn’t been kidding when he said he wanted to go into town with Fulton and choose the corsages for the girls. He turned up at Fulton’s door at midday, knowing enough to let Fulton sleep until then. But now he was absolutely set on dragging Fulton into town. Fulton dressed hurriedly, then realised that he was minus a jacket. “We’re going to have to swing by Taz’s dorm,” he said. “I’m not going outside without my jacket.”
Charlie looked thoughtful. “Should I say hi to Linda while we’re headed in that direction?” He wasn’t sure whether he should or not, but he was trying to copy how Fulton acted with Taz. The rules of dating were new and complex to him. He didn’t want to hurt Linda’s feelings by seeming disinterested, neither did he want to overdo it.
Fulton gave him a bland smile. “I think probably not. I think you might have made her a little nervous last night.”
“Yeah,” Charlie smiled sheepishly. “I think I probably did,” He had been so busy trying to keep up with what Fulton was doing, he wasn’t really paying attention to what it was he was copying. He had felt so foolish when Linda had pointed out that she had her own jacket. Fulton had a girlfriend now, and they looked good together. Charlie just felt like he should have one too.
Especially since Bombay’s visit. Before he left, he had said, “Call me, if you need a friend, if you need anything. Call me.” It was like he had noticed that there was something more than hockey and Hans bothering Charlie. It made him nervous. If Bombay could see it, Bombay who was away so often and for so long, then maybe it wouldn’t be long before everyone else started noticing too. A girlfriend would fix those problems, he was hoping that Linda could make him forget the Kiss, and if not, at least people would blame his distraction on healthy normal hormones instead of slightly wrong hormones.
They made their way over to the girls’ block. As always, Ms Harper, the dorm supervisor was thoroughly engrossed in her book and cheerfully oblivious as they snuck past her and up to Taz’s floor. Fulton knocked, and heard an, “It’s open,” in return. He and Charlie entered the room, and shut the door quickly.
Inside, they found Taz and Linda sat on Taz’s bed, eagerly looking over a laptop. Interestingly enough, Taz was still in her pyjamas, complete with fluffy bunny slippers.
“Nice outfit, Taz,” Fulton commented. He bent over and kissed her on the top of the head, then retrieved his jacket from the floor next to her bed.
She grinned at him. “We didn’t make plans, jammies make good weekend attire. What are you doing here?”
“Jacket,” he said sternly. “What did I tell you about not stealing it?”
While Fulton and Taz exchanged a few good-natured insults about the give and take in a relationship, Charlie turned his attention to Linda. “Hey,” he said a little shyly.
“Hey, yourself,” She smiled back. It felt good to be smiled at, but not good enough to cancel out that little tug on his heart every time Fulton smiled at Taz or said something nice to her.
“Sorry I was little weird last night. I was really zoned from the game, then I tried to over-compensate. I’m not usually that odd.”
“I know. I’ve talked to you before and you weren’t that weird then,” Linda said.
“So,” he shuffled awkwardly. “Fulton and I are going into town to buy corsages, I’d hate to make a wasted trip, so will you still go to Homecoming with me?”
“I said I would,” She smiled. “Besides, I need an alibi. Dating a jock will only help. By the way, Taz and I will be drafting you two for part of our plan.”
“It’s The Great Plan,” Taz interjected. Charlie could hear capital letters in her voice.
“The Great Plan, then,” Linda agreed. “You guys are drafted. So go, buy us flowers.”
“Fulton…,” Taz said.
“I know. I haven’t forgotten.” He dropped another kiss on her forehead, and he and Charlie left the room. Charlie’s heart may well have been left behind. He wasn’t sure what it was, the kiss or the fact that Taz had only said Fulton’s name, but Fulton had understood the full meaning. It wasn’t fair. He wanted their friendship to get back to the level where he could say one word and have Fulton understood.
Or maybe he wanted another Kiss.
It could go either way.
Taz and Linda were still scheming when Gabby returned from the library. “You!” Taz shouted excitedly. “You’re perfect!”
Gabby frowned. “Is that my laptop?”
“Have you heard about this stupid Homecoming dance?” Adam asked, from his place in Portman’s arms.
“Yeah, I think the troubled quartet mentioned it last night.”
“Troubled?” Adam asked. He hadn’t paid much attention to anyone last night. His mind had been taken up entirely with trying to understand that Portman was no longer in Chicago and, what was more, he was going to be living in Adam’s room for the rest of the school year.
“You didn’t notice?”
“Nope,” Adam dozily plucked at one of the hairs on Portman’s arms eliciting a surprised yelp from his boyfriend.
“Stop that.” Portman swatted Adam’s hands away. “And yes, troubled. Weren’t you paying attention?”
“Nope,” Adam repeated. “I have very little interest in Charlie’s little hissy fits. I’m usually on the receiving end and nobody but you has bothered to step in and back me up so far, so I’m not getting involved.”
“So, when Charlie said he was sorry and….”
“I told him to forget it, because I meant it. He should forget it. I’m going to try to.”
“But you didn’t forgive him?”
“Would you stop saying that?”
Adam briefly wondered whether a final nope would get a laugh or cause an argument. He suspected the latter. “Why should I, Portman?” he asked. “Honestly, why? Because he feels bad? If that’s the reason, then no way, Charlie doesn’t feel bad about it. Charlie’s preoccupied with something else at the moment, he hasn’t even realised…,” Adam tailed off, surprised to find himself close to tears.
“He hasn’t even noticed how much he hurt you?” Portman said gently.
“They were my friends, and they turned their backs on me because I had the misfortune to be good at something,” Adam said. “I had two groups of people against me and no-one for me. I don’t think I can just hear two un-felt words and let go of that. Maybe you can, but you’re a better person than me. I’m not that nice.”
“What’s the point of holding on to such a bad feeling?”
Adam sighed. “You know I don’t have an answer to that. It’s not like I want to feel this way, but I can’t just let go of it either.”
“It’s ok, it doesn’t make you a bad person.” Portman linked his fingers with Adam’s.
“Yeah, it does. I know it does.”
“No it doesn’t. I’m just a lot less involved than most in what went on here. So tell me about this stupid dance.”
“Mandatory attendance. I want to boycott,” Adam said.
“So boycott, we’ll stay here, being rebellious.”
“We can’t, they do random dorm checks to make sure nobody has stayed behind and is having their own parties. However, I am not going with a girl. That much I am boycotting.”
“Are you asking, in your usual meandering way, if I want to be a dateless loser with you at this stupid dance?”
“Yes,” Adam replied.
“Ok, you’re on, loser.”
Taz looked up from her sketchbook at Gabby’s third huff of annoyance in as many minutes. “Are you ok?” she asked.
Gabby pushed her hair out of her face and sighed when it fell back the minute she moved her hands. Taz put down her sketchbook and picked up a scrunchie from her bedside table and moved over to Gabby.
“Seriously, what’s up?” Taz said.
“Nothing, I’m just busy.”
Gabby’s tone was curt, and made Taz wince. She didn’t know what had brought this on. She had assumed that Gabby was a little cross about her use of the laptop (there had been strict instructions that Taz could only use it while Gabby was in the room), and Linda’s invasion of their room (Gabby didn’t like people in her space, she preferred Taz to go out and invade other spaces with her friends), but Gabby had made little comment about either.
“You say that, but you don’t tell me what you’re doing.” Taz moved to stroke Gabby’s hair into a pony tail, but as soon as she touched Gabby’s hair, Gabby jumped several feet in the air.
“I’ll do it, Taz,” Gabby snapped, grabbing the scrunchie from Taz’s wrist.
“Fine.” Taz was deflated, she moved back to her bed and picked up the sketchbook again. On reflection, her depiction of Buffy was all wrong, her nose was too wide, her eyes a little skewed, her hair was fundamentally wrong in some way that she couldn’t place. She shut the book with a snap and flung it on the floor in frustration.
Gabby glanced at the shiny cover of the sketchbook and sighed.
“What?” Taz demanded. “What was that long-suffering sigh about?”
“Either I’ll pick it up or you won’t, and if I don’t and you won’t, you’ll probably fall over it and damage yourself. Then you’ll be out of classes, resting your hip, and I’ll have to take notes for you and contact all your stupid friends in the classes that I don’t take for their notes, and it just takes up so much time when I’m busy!”
“Well, don’t go out of your way for me, Gabrielle,” Taz snapped back, not really sure why she was using Gabby’s full name. “And what are you so busy on anyway? Your French project? You could do that standing on your head. And it’s not your new horse, because otherwise you’d be out sharing your bad mood with the poor equestrian bods, instead of me.”
“Well, forgive me, it’s just a little hard to be sunshine and roses when your roommate is a complete mess and brings her silly friends and boyfriends into our room. I live here too, you know, and I’m sick of the influx of people. I can’t concentrate.”
“Concentrate on what?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t be interested,” Gabby replied quietly.
“I get it, don’t tell Taz, she’s too stupid. She won’t understand!” Taz snapped.
“No, don’t tell Taz because she doesn’t listen. She’s too preoccupied with her new boyfriend who’s become her new best friend!” Gabby’s face caved when she realised what she had said, then smoothed to an impenetrable mask.
“Gabby, it’s not like that!” Taz said, wounded. How on earth could she respond to that without explaining to Gabby that the whole reason she was hanging around with a new crowd was to prove that she wasn’t in love with Gabby. “It’s just that Fulton’s best friend is Charlie, and Charlie’s taking Linda to the dance, and with Fulton taking me… well, it’s a good thing that I get on with Linda. It would be awkward if we double-dated and Linda and I had to make polite small talk the whole time.”
Gabby took a deep breath. “Forget it, Taz. It doesn’t matter. I just don’t want your stupid friends coming into my room.”
“It’s my room too!” Taz yelled. “And Linda’s not stupid—none of my friends are. Just because we weren’t all brought up surrounded by the amount of poncey bloody antiques and first edition leather-bound books that you and Shona were, doesn’t mean that we’re vermin!”
“I didn’t say that!”
“Yes, you did. You keep saying that my friends are stupid, and I hate it. In case you hadn’t noticed, you’re my friend too. So, does this mean you think of yourself as stupid, or do you just not think of yourself as my friend?”
Gabby made no answer. After a few long and painful seconds, she gathered her books together. “I’m going to the library, some of us actually care about studying, not just fooling around with the boys here.”
The door slammed behind her.
“Guess you don’t think you’re stupid then,” Taz said softly.
After forty minutes and three sets of very bad directions, Fulton and Charlie managed to find a florist that actually still stocked corsages and boutonnieres so close to the dance. It was pointless for Fulton, since he wasn’t going to be buying a wrist corsage for Taz. He’d already seen what he was going to get her. While Charlie had been talking to Linda, Taz had given him some money and begged him to buy a boutonniere for himself. She was thoroughly involved in the planning stage of the boycott, and if she was caught she would probably be grounded and unable to get into town to order it for him. If nothing else, he and Taz were a pragmatic couple.
“What do you think Linda will like?” Charlie asked, looking thoroughly baffled by the vast array of flowers surrounding him.
“I have no idea,” Fulton replied flatly. While not as bad as double-dating, helping Charlie pick out a corsage for his date with Linda was not his idea of heaven.
“Well, what are you buying Taz?”
Charlie’s eyes bugged and the woman behind the counter couldn’t conceal her gasp of surprise. She hurriedly grabbed a book from beneath the counter, “Now I know it’s a little late and your selection may be somewhat limited, but I’m sure you’ll find something perfect for your date.” She shoved the book under his nose, and her eyes begged him to make a purchase.
Fulton slid the book over to Charlie. “I think maybe white might be an idea, that way it will go with everything. And Taz doesn’t like cut flowers. She likes potted plants.”
The woman mumbled something about how it wasn’t appropriate to give a girl a potted plant for an upcoming dance, and how a girl’s outfit wouldn’t be complete without a corsage. Fulton shrugged it off, he knew Taz, and she couldn’t care less whether she might be incomplete without a dying flower attached to her wrist.
Leaning against the counter, while Charlie poured over the book, taking the woman’s words as gospel, something caught Fulton’s eye. “Maybe I will buy something. How much are those?” He pointed and the woman followed his gaze.
She gave him a doubtful look. “The silk roses? Those are mainly for decoration, we sell them mostly to the art and drama students.”
“Taz is an art student, can I buy one?” Fulton was not budging on this. He was not buying some dumb corsage that would be dead by the next morning. However, Taz would like the silk rose. Everyone should be happy with that.
Finally he and Charlie left the shop, any further protests about the appropriateness of buying a girl a silk rose for a dance were cut off when Charlie’s hay fever began to act up, something that Fulton would be eternally grateful. This was not his idea of fun. Fun would be slicing off his own fingers if the comparison was watching Charlie pour over a book and having to listen to comments such as, “She’s got beautiful brown hair and pale skin, what do you think would suit her best?” which would be followed by, “Then again, anything will pale against her. She’s so pretty.” It made Fulton want to hurl.
But it wasn’t as bad as it could be. If Linda were here, then things would really be bad. He would have to watch as Charlie fawned all over Linda, safe in the knowledge that he was a perfectly normal boy with his perfectly normal girlfriend, and cheerfully unaware that his perfectly abnormal best friend was faking a relationship with an equally abnormal girl in the vague hope of trying to get past all of these abnormal feelings.
If Taz wasn’t on his side he didn’t know what he would have done. Which is why he dragged Charlie over to the other side of the mall to the jewellers. He had seen the necklace in the window when he and Charlie had been playing hooky, he didn’t know why it had caught his eye, but it had. It was a simple silver necklace, with a small flower shape made out of stones, lilac in the centre, clear on the outside. The stones were fake, but sparkly. He knew Taz wouldn’t care whether they were real or not. Besides, their relationship was a fake, but that still seemed to fool the casual observer.
He pointed it out to Charlie, part of him smugly thinking, Take that, Conway! My relationship is better than yours, and it’s not even real. If Charlie had decided to live a happy normal life, that was something Fulton was going to have to get used to, but it didn’t mean he was going to pull his punches. Charlie seemed out of his depth with dating, and this was another way to unnerve him. Maybe if Fulton kept this up, Charlie would be so thrown that he’d blow it with Linda. Which may lead him to reconsidering whether or not that Kiss meant nothing.
“Do guys have to buy girls jewellery for dances?” Charlie asked; he had a strange look in his eyes.
“No,” Fulton replied, pulling out his wallet. “I’m just getting it for her.”
“Is it an anniversary?”
“No, I just think she’ll like it.”
Fulton paid and they left the shop together. They walked in silence for a while, as they approached the bus stop to go back to school, Charlie suddenly grabbed his arm. “Fulton,” his voice was tight and his eyes hard. “Do you love her?”
Fulton thought about the question. He suddenly realised that his brilliant plan may have backfired, because he suddenly understood the look in Charlie’s eyes when he had been asking why Fulton was buying Taz the necklace. It had been hope. Hope that Fulton was somehow obligated to buy Taz something pretty, that he hadn’t wanted to, and that he wanted to maybe have a talk with Charlie that didn’t involve their girlfriends. They were nowhere near friends at the moment, it was simply that they had girlfriends now, and felt it safe to interact without the other one misunderstanding—or worse, as Fulton was beginning to realise, understanding—the other’s intentions.
But the truth was, he did love Taz. He just wasn’t in love with her, and he certainly didn’t want to do any of those things that the whole school thought they were already doing (as she had so rightly understood from the start). To say that he didn’t would be an insult to her, even if she never heard about it. She was the only person he whole-heartedly trusted at the moment and he did need her in his life.
“Hey man!” Averman suddenly leapt on Charlie’s back. “Corsage hunting, too?” Luis appeared at a more sedate pace behind him.
Fulton expected Charlie to drop the subject, but Charlie ignored Averman dangling on his back, and continued to hold on to Fulton’s arm with an almost painful intensity. “Do you?”
Anything Fulton might have wanted to say, anything he could have clarified, was not fit for the ears of Luis and Averman. Fulton’s feelings were private. Had Luis and Averman not shown up, maybe he might have found the courage to explain that yes, he did love Taz, but not that way. Instead, he simply answered, “Yes, I do.”
Charlie let go of his arm abruptly, and shook off Averman, depositing him neatly on his butt on the sidewalk, before walking away quickly.
“What was that about?” Averman asked, as Luis helped him to his feet.
Fulton shook his head. “It’s this dance, it’s making people weird.”
“Tell me about it,” Averman agreed. “I’ve had to kill three people, just to ensure my date is not allergic to her corsage. Of course, Mr Romance over there has known about this dance for ages and is all set.” Averman nodded in Luis’ direction.
“Girls like flowers.”
“Taz doesn’t,” Fulton replied automatically. It was so easy to slip into Boyfriend Mode now that he barely even noticed. “So, who’s your date?” He asked Averman.
“Chloe from drama. She’s also a cheerleader, Luis set me up with her. I’m terrified. She’s pretty and she knows it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a confident girl,” Luis said.
“Yeah, but you know what I mean.”
Fulton followed Luis and Averman to the bus stop, listening (but not really) to them bicker over the merits of taking Chloe to Homecoming. He just wanted to get back to the dorms and turn his brain off for a while.
Adam finally moved from his place in Portman’s arms to answer a buzzing from his phone. He was grateful for the distraction, because it seemed that Portman was thinking deeply about what he was going to say next. Something that filled Adam with alarm. Portman could talk cheerfully about nothing for hours, but after periods of protracted silence, there was usually a deep revelation to follow. As they had already covered the whole reason why Portman didn’t come to Eden Hall immediately, that wasn’t going to be this revelation. Portman seemed very intent on letting Adam know that his delay in coming to school was no reflection on their relationship. Which made Adam believe that the L-word might be looming over them. And right now, he did not want to hear that word.
So he was glad to receive the text. It was a message from an unknown number.
“Phone bill came in. Chicago? 2 hrs? Emergency? Ur dead! Danny.”
Fulton returned to the dorms to find a message in his pigeon hole to call his mother, which he did with great trepidation. It turned out that Charlie’s mom had told her that Fulton had a girlfriend. She was now demanding to meet the girl in question the following weekend, before Homecoming. Try as he might, he couldn’t seem to dissuade her from the idea.
Fulton hung up and sighed. It was one thing lying to an entire school.
It was entirely another to lie to his mother.
Author’s Notes: It killed me to put “txt spk” in Danny’s text message.
Chapter 8: the “Great Plan”
On Monday Taz and Linda began phase one of their Great Plan. It was pretty simple. The hook was to convince a majority of the students to nominate and vote for fictional characters to be Homecoming King and Queen. The reasoning was that since Eden Hall only seemed to vote for the prettiest and most popular for such titles, then why not vote for fictional characters, whose popularity far surpassed anyone in the school?
Using their influence over Charlie and Fulton, they had managed to get a fair amount of Ducks involved in the Great Plan.
Taz had spent the weekend with Linda hand-drawing cartoon icons, such as Homer Simpson, and the cast of Friends and Buffy on to flyers. Linda had dealt with the best way to word the text. As Taz had a study period first thing on Monday morning, she was elected to go to the school office and somehow photocopy at least a hundred of them. This was easy enough, because Fulton had been made to be the decoy, he borrowed Portman to help him. Together they skated down the hallway outside the school office, whooping and yelling loudly. The entire faculty set off in a chase after them.
With such a fantastic distraction, she was able to get several hundred of each variation of the flyers. It was just unfortunate that Taz left an original on the photocopier.
Later, the Bash Brothers would give the excuse that they were still hyped up over the JV Ducks’ win against Varsity. They were on detention for the rest of the week. They weren’t given simple detentions either, they were given more gruelling punishments. They were sent to the stables each evening to muck out the horses and fix and repaint anything that needed doing. It was strange though, they managed to get their jobs done in record time. It was almost as if they had a team helping them.
Taz made it to study hall only a few minutes late. Since this was custom for her, nobody really batted an eyelid. She took a seat next to Connie Moreau, a girl she had only met the day before and nervously handed her a sheaf of papers.
“They look good,” Connie said. “So, who am I supposed to give these to?”
“Anyone,” Taz said. “We want as many people as possible to at least consider the possibility of nominating a fictional character. Not everyone at this school is a complete preppy. Some people will think this is a good idea—and some people will just find it funny and go along with it. Feel free to give them to other people you think might be happy to hand them out.”
“Will do.” Connie gave her a grin. Then awkward silence descended. Taz mentally hit Linda. It was all fine and well campaigning for a better school, but she hated sitting with people she barely knew. It was ok if she didn’t know them at all, no talking was required, but a short conversation was meant to be followed with polite chit-chat and Taz was no good at that.
“Hey, you drew these?” Connie asked, indicating the Buffy flyer.
“Yeah,” Taz replied. “I like to draw.”
Connie looked almost shy. “I don’t suppose you’d draw me Harry Potter to go on my folder, would you?”
Taz smiled. Maybe it wasn’t so bad.
Taz, Linda and their band of merry helpers spent the morning break handing out flyers and talking to people, dodging any teachers they saw, and it seemed to be going pretty well. Though they did see several students who were carrying the flyers being interrogated by the teachers, most probably on where they had gotten them.
Halfway through the lesson after break there was an announcement over the PA system.
“Please can Linda Chavez, Connie Moreau and Taryn McDonald report to Dean Buckley’s office immediately.” It wasn’t a question.
Connie gathered her things and got to her feet, her face burning. Why was she being dragged into this? It wasn’t her idea, she had merely offered her services. Admittedly, she had found that she actually really liked talking to people and trying to change their minds about the school mindset of electing beautiful people to be King and Queen. And she probably had thrown herself into the plan with a little more gusto than most, because she felt it would repay Taz for the drawing she had requested. All the same, surely Charlie and Fulton should be on the list. They were responsible for dragging the rest of the Ducks into it.
She found Taz and Linda lurking outside the Dean’s office, waiting for her. They were glaring fiercely at each other and talking in low tones. As she approached they both gave her guilty looks. “We’re sorry,” Taz said.
“Yeah,” Linda said. “We are. Just act outraged. We’ll get you out of this.”
Before Connie could respond, Dean Buckley’s secretary popped her head around the door. “The Dean will see you now.”
It was Connie’s second time in his office, the first was when the Ducks had been after the assembly on the first day of school. She glanced at the ant farm, wondering if the Dean had noticed that it had been tampered with. She supposed that he hadn’t otherwise she would have been called back in here before now.
“Have a seat,” the Dean said.
They obligingly did so.
“So, do you want to tell me about these flyers that everyone seems to have at the moment?”
“The artwork is impressive,” Linda replied simply. “I’m very taken with the artwork.”
“And the text is very convincing,” Taz added, also a picture of wide-eyed innocence.
Connie fought hard to fight a smile. They were fooling no-one. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she said when Linda gave her a nudge.
“Girls,” Dean Buckley leant forward over his desk, resting his weight on his hands. “I know you all are involved.” He looked at them in turn. “Linda, this is clearly your work, you are well known for your stance on school tradition. Taryn, I’ve spoken to your art teacher, and she has confirmed that you are able to draw to this standard—she also mentioned that your signature is a butterfly. If you look closely there is a butterfly on each of the flyers.”
“It’s a frame job.”
He ignored her. “Connie, you were seen handing these flyers out.”
Taz gave her a ‘go ahead’ look. Connie didn’t know what to say, it seemed so cowardly to let the other two take the blame.
“I don’t know why Connie’s here,” Linda said. “Why would a jock want to boycott the Homecoming poll?”
“I gave a flyer to her,” Taz added. “She ripped it up and told me she was actually running for Homecoming Queen. Does that sound like someone who is on our side…?” She tailed off, noticing that everyone was staring at her.
“You gave her a flyer?” Dean Buckley asked.
Taz, obviously realising her mistake, quickly covered. “I mean, I passed one on. I thought it was a brilliant idea.”
Linda turned a furious glare on Taz.
Dean Buckley smiled at Connie. “You may go, Miss Moreau. But might I suggest that next time one of these two approach you—especially if they look like they’ve had a brilliant idea—you turn and walk away quickly?”
Connie got to her feet, taking one last look at Linda and Taz. Dean Buckley looked furious. Linda was still glaring and Taz looked almost amused. Connie shook her head. She wouldn’t want to be either of them at this moment in time.
Charlie met up with Linda at lunch. “So,” he asked. “How much trouble are you in?”
She smiled. “Detention. To be honest, they couldn’t do much to us. All we were doing was asking some students to think outside the box.”
“What about the dance?”
“Oh, we’re going. It’s part of our punishment.” Her smiled widened. “I thought it was a risk, but Taz was brilliant. She sat in his office, saying that she wasn’t going to the dumb dance and how it was horribly unfair that attendance was mandatory. The Dean got really annoyed with her and told her that we have to attend.”
Charlie frowned. He didn’t want to hear how brilliant Taz was. He got it from Fulton, now he was getting it from Linda. Even Connie had mentioned that Taz was going to do some artwork for her folder. What was the deal with Taz? Did she have to take over the lives of all of his friends?
“Are you ok?” Linda asked, noticing his expression.
“I’m fine. It’s just been ‘Taz this, Taz that’ recently, everyone’s going on about her. I’m so sick of it, what’s so great about her?”
Linda looked slightly offended. “Well, she did all the artwork on the flyers, her strategy was great—even if the plan didn’t really work out so well. And I haven’t been going on about her. You asked how it went. Why don’t you like her? She’s nice.”
“Forget it,” he snapped, then got to his feet and walked away.
It was bad enough that Fulton was in love with Taz, he didn’t need to be hanging around with another member of her fan club.
“Shona,” Gabby plopped her tray down next to her sister’s.
“Gabrielle,” Shona replied in an icy tone. “This section is for cheerleaders only. You are not a cheerleader.”
What you are is a pain in the ass, Gabby heard the unspoken addition to her sister’s statement. “I hate sitting here as much as you hate me here,” Gabby replied.
“Then please, don’t let me detain you.”
“In a minute. I need a favour.” Those words had nearly killed Gabby. She’d spent the entire morning practicing them in her head, trying to find the right casual tone to use. She doubted she had found it, she wasn’t Shona, after all. However, the key word had been favour and that was all that was needed.
Shona’s eyes lit up. “You need a favour from me?”
“Yes. You’re on office duty next week, aren’t you?” Office duty was an option that students could take. It won them extra credit to sit outside the Dean’s office, help his secretary, run errands, and study when they weren’t busy. Even though it bit into an hour of free time after school, it did get the student in question out of lessons all week, so there were many takers for the position, but only the favoured were chosen. Shona, naturally, was a very favoured student.
“I am. Which you know, because this involves the favour, and you would never go to all the trouble of asking me without checking your facts. So why not just ask the actual question?” Shona replied.
“I need to take office duty next week. I’m on the list, but not until next term. Will you trade with me?”
Shona gave her an appraising look. “Do tell me, because I’m very interested to know, why on earth would I want to do that? Why do you need to take office duty?”
Gabby paused. A lie would not work, Shona was the master of schemes, manipulations and untruths, she could spot a lie a mile off. A lie, no matter how elaborate, would not convince her. But the truth would be worse, it would certainly convince her, but it would give her plenty of ammunition to rip Taz to shreds. Shona already had plenty of that, but anything new would make her day.
Gabby sighed. It would have to be the truth. “I need a break from Taz. She’s driving me up the wall. I’d really rather it was this week, but you’re the only person I know on the list before it’s my turn. So will you switch with me?”
Shona smiled widely, showing beautiful pearly white teeth. “Of course, my dear sister. Anything to help you.”
Taz glanced around the cafeteria. Fulton was sitting with the Ducks, Gabby was—sitting with Shona? What was going on there? Since when did Gabby deliberately spend time with her sister? She supposed it began around the same time that she and Gabby started fighting. Despite their very obvious differences, the two had never fought before coming to Eden Hall. They would disagree often, but they managed to get around that with good-natured teasing and discussion, rather than vicious insults and raised voices.
She and Gabby had not managed to patch up their most recent argument; before there had been half-hearted apologies, or at least the standard excuse of PMS brought forth, but this time there had been nothing. No further fights, no mention of the last one, no apologies, it was as if it hadn’t happened.
She had hoped to corner Gabby at lunch and have a quick word, the public setting would keep both their tempers in check and force them to be polite. That was, if Gabby could be forced to discuss it, it was entirely possible that she would just leave, citing an excuse about needing to go to the library again.
Not that it mattered, because Gabby was sitting with Shona, and what was worse, they seemed to be getting along just fine, smiling at each other, no hint of the usual animosity. Despite that, there was no way in hell Taz was going to join them. Shona would have a field day if she knew that Gabby and Taz were not getting along. She’d find the reason (for Shona was far better at that than Taz, and would actually succeed), and then magnify it, she’d find an angle to keep the two of them far apart, and then drive a wedge between them. Or at least, make the existing wedge a heck of a lot bigger. And she’d do it for fun. Simply because she could.
Her situation with Gabby would just have to wait for its resolve.
Taz caught sight of Linda sitting alone and made her way towards her. Linda looked a little downcast. There’s a lot of that going around, love, better get used to it, she thought as she put her tray down next to Linda’s. “Hey, dudette. What’s happening?”
Linda sighed and pushed her plate away. “I don’t think Charlie likes me.”
Taz’s insides clenched up again. By this point, she would certainly call Linda a friend, and this was not a conversation she wanted to have with her friend. It would involve lying. Maybe she didn’t know the truth about Charlie, but she had a fair idea, an educated guess at least, and pretending that she didn’t wasn’t something she was proud of.
“I’m sure he does,” Taz said lamely.
“Really? Because I spend more time with him than you do, and I’m not sure at all.”
Taz looked down at the table. “You’re right, I don’t know him. But I know you, and I like spending time with you, so I can’t understand why anyone else wouldn’t. He asked you out, he’s been the one pursuing you all this time. I can’t imagine why anyone would do that if they didn’t really want to.” At least, not without laying out some ground rules first, she mentally added.
She hoped Charlie was going to get his act together soon, it didn’t matter whether he liked guys or girls or both or neither, if he kept on this way, Linda was going to end up with a bruised and battered, maybe even broken, heart.
“I just don’t get why it can’t be easy. I wish we were like you and Fulton.”
“Oh, you don’t want to be like us,” Taz replied, without thinking.
“What’s wrong with you guys then?” Linda looked interested, hopeful even.
Taz had no idea what to say. She knew Linda wanted to hear that she and Fulton weren’t perfect either, but she didn’t have any problems with Fulton, except that he wasn’t the person she was in love with. She shook her head finally. “It’s complicated.”
Linda was still looking imploringly at her, and Taz felt obligated to say something else. “I think we lie too much.” She glanced around the cafeteria, looking at Gabby and Shona in their intense conversation, Fulton sitting with the Ducks, not seeming to be interested in anything anyone was saying. “Everyone does though, don’t they? I expect we’ll all get found out some day.”
Portman had the red paint, Fulton had white. Monday’s punishment was to repaint the jumps on the outdoor equestrian school—the indoor ones were being used at the moment, but they would have to get them finished by the end of the week.
“Sorry about this,” Fulton said.
“It’s not so bad, it’s the mucking out the horses I’m not looking forward to,” Portman replied, prising the lid of his paint can.
“Well, try and get out of it. I’ll do your share,” Fulton started painting the bars, while Portman worked on the wings of the jump. “I’m really sorry, it’s just that Taz and Linda need a distraction, and what’s more distracting than us?”
Portman smiled at him. “You know what bugs me? The fact that you—and by you, I do mean all of the Ducks—beat yourselves up over the smallest of things, yet you’re completely clueless about the really bad things you do.”
Fulton didn’t look at him, but he did reply, then again, Portman had expected him to. He wasn’t like Charlie who just stuck his head in the ground and ignored the bad things.
“What’ve I done that’s so wrong?”
Portman sloshed some paint on the wing, it ran downwards and trickled over the metal bit that held the bar in place, he thought the Cowboy had told him the metal thing was called a cup. Not that Dwayne had a habit of talking about insignificant things, but last week the Ducks had been recounting their worst injuries, and Dwayne, having no stories about grave injury of his own, had told them about the time his friend, Will, from the equestrian department, nearly broke his back. Will had been practicing show jumping in the indoor arena a couple of weeks ago. Apparently a plastic carrier bag had blown into the arena just as he had been approaching a jump. The bag flew straight in front of the horse’s eyes and it refused. Will, who had been completely unprepared for a refusal, had shot over the horse’s head, and landed on the wing of the jump, the metal cup digging into the small of his back. He passed out and was carried off in an ambulance. Dwayne had finished the tale saying that he would have preferred to have been Will at the time, because watching Will fall was pretty much the scariest thing he had seen.
Portman realised that his mind had wandered, probably deliberately, because there was no way he could tell Fulton that what was really bothering him was Charlie’s treatment of Adam.
“You mean Adam, don’t you?” Fulton said with a sigh, neatly painting his bar with none of the haphazard disregard Portman was showing. “You know, I think about how we were to him then, and now when I look back, I wonder why I never stopped to think about Adam. I also think it’s easier for you to be objective because you weren’t there at the time.”
“The way I hear it, Charlie launched a vendetta against Adam and everyone followed unquestioningly until Charlie quit. Except you, who followed even after—because you walked out too.” Portman realised that their roles had been reversed. Now he was venting to Fulton about life, instead of the other way around.
Fulton didn’t look up from his painting. “You’re not wrong.”
He expected Fulton to continue, to say something in defence of Charlie, but there was nothing to follow.
“Are you ok, man?” Portman asked at length.
“About as good as I get.”
“That’s not really an answer.” There was a long pause of silence. “But I guess that’s as much as I’m getting. We’re friends, Fult. Why won’t you talk to me?”
Fulton glanced over his shoulder at Portman, then returned his attention to his painting. “I just can’t, not to anyone.”
Portman sighed. “Well, if you change your mind, my door is always open. Or I could make a great Rocket Queen reference here.”
Fulton turned and smiled at him. “Maybe at some point,” He said eventually.
On Tuesday there was another public announcement over the PA system.
“The school administration have decided to discount all nominations for fictional characters, despite an overwhelming number of nominations for Homer Simpson for Homecoming King.”
On Thursday the next part of the Great Plan went into action. This was the riskiest part of the plan, and the place it was most likely to fail. However, Taz had talked Gabby into playing this part. Gabby had “borrowed” Shona’s spare cheerleading uniform, changed her hair and affected her sister’s way of talking. She managed to successfully intercept Cheryl, the girl on office duty that week, and swap Linda and Taz’s new and improved ballot papers with the originals that Cheryl was about to distribute among the classrooms, under the pretence that she was Shona. After all, who would suspect the captain of the JV Cheerleaders of foul play?
Friday lunchtime brought about an announcement. “The Homecoming King and Queen this year will be Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg.”
Half an hour later, there was another announcement.
“Taryn McDonald and Linda Chavez are to report to Dean Buckley’s office immediately.”
Note: from here on, this has not been beta’d or posted to ff.net
Chapter 9: I don’t think I can do this
Despite everything, Taz and Fulton were still allowed off campus for the day on Saturday to visit Fulton’s family. Taz was under the impression that the school were desperate to get rid of her, if only for a few hours, but Fulton knew better. On receiving his punishment for the hi-jinks at the beginning of the week, he had been told that he would be grounded. He had been agreeable, then added, “But you’d best be the one to call my mother. She’s already got in the food for my visiting this weekend, she’s going to a lot of trouble because she’ll be meeting my girlfriend for the first time. She’ll be fuming that she’s wasted all that money. No doubt she’ll yell at me, but then she’ll call you. We’re on welfare, you know.”
They weren’t, but his point was suitably made.
But now, as he and Taz walked towards his home, he was starting to think he should have just taken his punishment and let his mother terrorise Dean Buckley. This was completely screwed up. He couldn’t believe he was about to lie to his mother so horrendously. He cursed Charlie for talking to his mom, then cursed Casey for good measure, for repeating what she’d heard to his mom.
Taz stopped dead. “I don’t think I can do this,” she said. “I don’t think I can lie to your mother. I’ve got no practice at that, and mums just know about stuff.”
Fulton heaved a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank god! I can’t do this either.”
Taz squeezed his hand. “Well, let’s just tell her that we’re really good friends, and then some rumours started, and we couldn’t stop them.”
“She’ll be disappointed,” Fulton said. “But it’s much better than lying to her.”
They took a deep breath and resumed their walk, once more in silence, though not holding hands this time. “This is it,” Fulton said, gesturing to his apartment building.
Taz grabbed his hand again. Fulton turned and gave her an enquiring look.
“What if she doesn’t like me?” she asked.
“What does it matter?” On seeing Taz’s face fall, he knew he’d phrased that entirely wrong. “I mean, once she hears that you’re not my girlfriend she won’t be grilling you so hard. And she likes all of my friends.” Taz still looked unconvinced. “Honestly. It would be a lot scarier if you were posing as my girlfriend, but we’ve just taken all the pressure off.”
“Fulton, this is important to me. You’re important to me. Most mums don’t like me. Gabby’s mum hates me, and…” she glanced at the floor and mumbled something he didn’t catch.
“What?” He stepped closer to her, to hear clearer.
“I said, since I don’t have one of my own…” She met his eyes. “It really matters.”
He wondered how he and Taz could easily be so honest with each other, when they weren’t in love. Especially given that honesty wasn’t usually present in any of the conversations with the people they were trying to fool. He and Taz had spent hours talking about their families, Taz was curious about his mother, and he was interested in hearing about her father. Given that they were each missing a parent, they made a good match. He had told Taz about his father taking off when he was ten and the twins were approaching one. She in turn had told him about her mother, what she could remember. He had known, but somehow forgotten, how soft Taz was when it came to mums. Especially since Gabby’s mother was a proper society lady and nothing resembling a substitute for Taz’s own mother.
Not having any words immediately to hand, he stepped forward, cupping her face in his hands, and placed a kiss on her forehead.
Taz and Fulton nearly shot out of their skins. Fulton had never seen his mother so animated before. She was a good mother, a pragmatic one, stern but kind, but not a particularly bubbly woman. But here she was, bustling out of the door, eager to catch them both in a big hug. Fulton shot Taz a worried look, only to find it was mirrored on her face. She already understood that his mother was thrilled that he’d got a girlfriend.
“Ma, this is Taz. Taz, this is my mother, Nancy.”
“Taz?” Nancy gave Taz an appraising look. “What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s short for Taryn,” Taz said, almost shyly.
“It’s a very nice name, which do you prefer, Taz or Taryn?” Nancy asked.
“I like Taz better, only my family calls me Taryn—and it’s usually when I’m in trouble,” Taz said, then winced, obviously worrying that it wasn’t a good thing to say to someone’s mother. Fulton gave her an encouraging smile.
“Well, come in!”
Portman stood outside Charlie’s dorm room, not entirely sure what he was doing there. In theory he knew: he was there to pound some sense into Charlie’s thick head, Charlie hadn’t even noticed how badly Adam had been hurt by his betrayal and now he wanted Charlie to know. Of course, that was the theory. The reality was that Adam would probably knock him unconscious if he knew Portman was there at all. Portman sometimes regretted teaching Adam how to throw a punch… although, part of him was glad. When Charlie hit Adam, at least Portman was certain that Adam had walloped him back with perfect accuracy and force.
He sighed, then raised his hand and knocked. Charlie opened the door looking a little bleary-eyed. Most of the Ducks liked to sleep late, at least until midday, on their non-practice days. Ordinarily Portman would have still been lounging around in his room too, but Adam had gone to the library for a study session with Julie, and Portman was left feeling a little bored by himself.
“Portman,” Charlie said in surprise. “What brings you here?”
Neither abject boredom, or the urge to beat you to a pulp, sounded appropriate, so Portman lied. “Just in the neighbourhood. Can I come in?”
Portman followed Charlie into the room. He noted smugly that it was smaller than the room he shared with Adam, and also, for some unknown reason, there was a chair jammed under the handles of the closet, effectively barring access.
Charlie followed Portman’s eye-line. “Averman’s convinced there’s a monster in there. I thought he was just joking, but he appears to be serious.”
Portman decided that Averman was either eccentric or the least subtle gay man in the world. Most probably the former, since this behaviour barely raised an eyebrow among his friends. “Any sightings of it?” he asked, deciding to keep the tone of the conversation light until he could find a subtle way to bring up Adam’s name.
“No, but something has been moving in the corner. I suspect it’s just the amount of socks that missed laundry day a couple of weeks in a row.”
“You’re a very gross man, Conway,” Portman said.
“They’re not all mine. Averman’s just as gross as me.”
“Speaking of roommates… I was wondering if you’d spoken to Adam recently?”
Charlie looked bewildered. “Should I have?”
I used to be jealous of you, Portman thought. I used to be jealous of the way you and Adam never used to have to talk to communicate, it was all in secret best-friend code. I used to worry that he talked about you so often. He used to love you, and that made me jealous. Now he doesn’t and you don’t even know he did in the first place.
Instead of voicing all of his thoughts, thoughts that might possibly get him beaten up—or at least, make himself and Adam the target of the juiciest gossip Eden Hall had ever seen—he shrugged. “I was just thinking that… well, I know you guys cleared the air after we kicked Varsity’s asses, but maybe it might be nice if the two of you hung out, y’know, like you used to.”
Charlie gave him a hard look. “Is that your way of telling me that saying sorry wasn’t enough?”
Portman sighed. So much for subtle. “Maybe you guys should just talk.”
“Portman, don’t you think I’ve got problems of my own?”
Portman held tightly to his temper, knowing that, not only would Adam never forgive him for interfering, he’d never forgive himself if he knocked the team captain unconscious. He took a deep breath, counted to ten and began again in an even tone. “Well, why not talk to Adam about them? Isn’t that what you used to do? Share your problems and fix them? You used to be friends.”
“We are friends,” Charlie snapped.
“Yeah? What lessons does he have on Tuesday? How did he get out of drama? Why does he hate geography? Do you know anything about his life at the moment?”
Charlie glared at him. “It’s not like I know those kind of details about anyone at the moment.”
“Well,” Portman said. “What does that say about you?”
“It says I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“You blew it, Charlie. You’re screwing up the best friendship you ever had, and you don’t even know it. And what’s worse…” Portman broke off, thinking of the way Adam desperately kept trying to change the subject every time Portman tried to say something serious about their relationship. “You’re screwing it up for anyone else who comes along,” he finished softly.
Dinner had gone well, Taz thought. Aside from her first comment to Fulton’s mum, she hadn’t said anything daft since then. Fulton’s brother and sister, Liv and Barney were adorable. When Liv had asked Taz if she wanted to play Barbies with her, Taz had been sorely tempted, and when Barney showed her his brand new scrapes on his knees from playing on his friend’s skateboard, Taz had been suitably impressed. Then she had rolled up the leg of her jeans and showed him hers. “But I wasn’t playing on a skateboard,” she told him. They had actually been courtesy of Shona who had “accidentally” bumped into Taz while she was out in the courtyard. It was one of the rare occasions when she’d been wearing a skirt, so her knees were nearly as bad as Barney’s.
She got the feeling that Fulton’s mum liked her, but was holding back a little in case Taz did something to displease her. She knew she’d scored points by winning the twins over. The feeling of being appraised was probably down to the fact that neither she or Fulton had managed to tell Nancy that they weren’t dating. And the fact that the twins kept chanting in eerie unison, “Fulton and Taz, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Fulton with a baby carriage.”
They just hadn’t managed to bring it up yet. Nancy seemed too pleased that Fulton was dating, and the kids seemed to really like Taz, and (chanting aside) were going out of their way to be nice to her, even vying for her attention.
Nancy glanced at Taz, then Fulton. “Liv, Barney, why don’t you show Fulton how nice you’ve kept your rooms now you’ve got one each?”
For Nancy, this was quite subtle, but Taz had no way of knowing this, and feared an interrogation. Fulton gave her a helpless look, and let the twins shepherd him towards their rooms, with Barney saying proudly, “I’ve got your room now. Liv wanted it, but I bit her!”
“There’s no need to look so terrified,” Nancy said.
“Do I really look scared?” Taz asked, but she knew she did. So far, she liked Fulton’s mum, and she knew Fulton cared a lot about her and hadn’t wanted to lie to her.
“You do.” Nancy’s look was kind, but still slightly remote. “I just want to make sure that you’re serious about my son. He’s a good boy, and he doesn’t deserve to be messed about.”
“I know,” she said, wondering what Nancy would think if she explained that she wasn’t the one messing him around, that in fact, the person who was causing Fulton so much grief was supposed to be his best friend. “I think the world of him.”
Nancy’s eyes hardened. “Well, don’t go doing anything stupid because you think you love him.”
Taz stared at her, a little baffled.
“I know the dance is next week, and I know that it’s a very romantic night—”
“Oh!” Taz said loudly, suddenly understanding what she was being cautioned about. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that.”
“Let me finish,” Nancy said, though her voice softened a little, and lowered to just about a whisper. “I wouldn’t be without Fulton for all the money in the world, but he was conceived on a similar night, when I was your age, and I want you to take that into consideration. Because I really missed being a teenager, while my friends were out partying after graduation, I was in a grotty room with my boyfriend, playing with my toddler, trying to keep him away from the mouldy walls and the cheap furniture that had a habit of collapsing.
“His father was a good man, but he stayed too long with me. We might have been in love then, but not the kind that lasts. And it was stretched thin over nine years. Fulton doesn’t know this,” Nancy continued. “You’ll keep it that way, yes?”
Taz felt her breath catch in her throat. She would have given anything not to be present for this conversation. Not only was it completely unnecessary, she felt that Nancy may feel humiliated when she eventually heard the truth about Taz and Fulton. She also now had a secret from Fulton, the one person on the planet who she always told the complete and utter truth to.
“You don’t have to worry, I won’t say a word. And we’re not that serious about each other.” Taz paused. That was some bad phrasing. “I mean, we’re exclusive, but we’re barely at the holding hands bit, you know? After all, I’m Catholic, we believe in anything that makes us nervous, and burning for all eternity for fooling around—that makes me nervous.”
Nancy threw back her head and laughed. “I like you,” she decided. “You’re good for my son.”
Charlie, having decided that maybe Portman had made a small point earlier, found Adam alone at the ice rink. Where else would Adam be during his free time? He was practicing his puck handling, something Charlie thought Banks never needed to practice. He was annoyingly gifted. Which was probably the cause of a lot of the problems between them. Charlie was not annoyingly gifted, he had to practice hard just to keep up with the team.
“Hey,” Charlie called out.
“Hey, yourself,” Adam replied, not looking up from the ice.
“That looks like it would be more fun if there was someone trying to steal the puck.”
“It probably would be,” Adam agreed, finally stopping, and skating over to the edge where Charlie was waiting.
“Can I join you?” Charlie asked, suddenly noticing that Portman certainly had a point. There was a time, not so long ago where he would have just joined Adam without waiting for permission.
“Put your pads on.”
“I’ll be fine, it’s only a quick game,” Charlie replied.
“No, Charlie. Put your pads on.”
Charlie met Adam’s blue eyes, and mentally took a step back. Adam did not look happy to see him.
Adam mistook his hesitance for a reluctance to bother with pads. “Seriously, Charlie,” he said. “I don’t think I can play nice any more, and I don’t actually want to kill you.”
With that, it hit Charlie how far his friendship with Adam had nose-dived over the past few months. Adam hadn’t sounded playful, he had sounded flatly resigned. He simply couldn’t change how he felt, how he couldn’t ‘play nice’ with Charlie any more.
“I’ll get my pads on then,” Charlie said finally.
Ten minutes later he joined Adam in the centre of the ice. “First to ten?” he suggested.
“I’m not keeping score,” Adam replied, knocking Charlie out of the way, stealing the puck and heading off towards the goal. He scored before Charlie could even get to his feet.
Adam rejoined Charlie, he didn’t say anything, nor did he have to. Charlie was beginning to understand what it might have been like to be Adam since he was put on Varsity, to be snubbed when trying to make friendly conversation, to have a friend make an unfair move on the ice due to hurt feelings rather than the game itself. He understood that it had really sucked to be Adam recently.
The next face off, Charlie was ready for him, though not for the force with which Adam slammed into him, it set him off course, and once again, Adam had time to score without Charlie getting in his way.
By the next time, Charlie was more than ready, he was back in the game. He slammed forwards with a force equal to Adam’s and shot off up towards his own goal. Adam was not far behind him, and gaining fast. Adam darted around in front of him. Orion’s voice echoed in his head, “Make him make the first move, Conway!” He idly thought that if they both adhered to that advice they’d all end up in the goal net, Adam, Charlie and the puck.
“I’m sorry, Banksie,” Charlie said, trying to meet Adam’s eyes.
Adam didn’t reply, he just darted around Charlie and made for the goal again, sailing the puck in perfectly before Charlie could catch up. It was no wonder Banks had made Varsity, he was just noticeably better at almost everything hockey-related than the rest of the team.
“Can we talk?” Charlie asked as Adam retrieved the puck.
“Why?” Adam replied. “I thought we were practicing.”
“Because we’re friends, it’s what friends do,” Charlie replied.
Adam laughed. “We’re not friends, Charlie. Friends don’t turn their backs on each other because of a slight change in situation—especially situations which nobody has control over.”
Charlie skated up to Adam and grabbed his arm. “I know, and I’m sorry. Can we at least try to be friends again?” He meant it too. Charlie realised that the Ducks were falling away from him, but that it wasn’t down to Orion, it was down to Charlie himself. His actions since the start of school had done nothing but put up barriers between the Ducks. Deciding that Adam was on Varsity and therefore an enemy had alienated Adam from all of the Ducks. Walking out on the team had thrown everyone into confusion over which ‘side’ they should be on, Charlie’s or Orion’s. His Kiss with Fulton had driven him further apart from his best friend. His anger at losing his friends had made him unapproachable, and most of the Ducks kept their conversations light and polite to him, nobody really talked to him anymore, unless it was to bravely point out his shortcomings. Even his bizarre relationship with Linda was serving as a barrier, one he had constructed himself, because it gave him a place to escape to.
Adam shook off his hand, but remained stationary in front of him. “Charlie,” his tone was weary. “It takes trust to be friends, once the trust is gone, you have to build it back up, you can’t just claim it back.”
“I still trust you.”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t trust you.” He put his hand on Charlie’s arm. “And do you really trust me now?”
“Don’t just say it, think about it. Tell me something about you, something private, the way you used to.”
The way you used to. It was true, Charlie used to tell Adam a lot. When had that stopped? A long time ago. The last time Charlie had sought Adam’s advice had been when Bombay tried to make it in the minors. He wanted Adam to help him figure out a way to keep his mother from falling out of love with Bombay with him so far away. They had come up with nothing, then Casey met Alan and it all fell apart.
At the wedding, it had been Fulton who looked after Charlie when he got sick from drinking too much. He wondered when the subtle shift started, when he began looking to Fulton for advice, and not Adam. At the Goodwill Games he had always sat next to Fulton during their lessons with Miss MacKay, and even though he had given up his spot on the roster for Adam, before then he hadn’t noticed that Adam’s wrist was bothering him.
What could he tell Adam now? That not so long ago he kissed Fulton and things were so confusing that he leapt head-first into a relationship with the first pretty girl he met to escape? It didn’t seem likely, he wanted to trust Adam with such a secret, but Adam was right. Somewhere along the line the trust had gone and it couldn’t just be called up out of nowhere.
Maybe people hadn’t left Charlie, maybe it was the other way around.
He shook his head. “I’ve got a secret, but I can’t tell you.” It was the most honesty he could offer at the moment.
“But I don’t think I can tell anyone else,” Charlie said. “It’s too private. I can’t even talk about it to the person who was there.”
Adam met his eyes. “I’ve got a secret too. And I don’t want to share either.”
“I guess that’s a start.”
Adam nodded. “Guess so. Maybe we could work up to actually sharing them.”
Charlie smiled, he was being given another chance. “Sounds good to me.”
“But you have to buy me dinner, I’m starving and I came out without my wallet.”
Portman somehow found himself in the library. It wasn’t really his thing, but Julie had asked (that’s how Ken phrased it, but his inflection read: demanded) that Ken study with her. She had an evangelical glint in her eyes at the time, Ken reported, and she had taken it as a personal challenge to get him up to an A, since his average was a B and B was so close to A. Ken thought that if he brought Portman along, her wrath would be deflected somewhat. Since Ken was the third Bash Brother, Portman felt obligated to help him out. He had been bored by himself anyway, Adam had gone off to practice, telling Portman very sternly that he wanted to be alone and Fulton had gone home for the day to see his mom.
On arriving, Ken and Portman soon realised that Julie actually had very little interest in raising Ken’s grades, and had simply wanted moral support for her study date with Scooter. The date was happening in the library because it was the last place the rest of the Varsity team would visit, thus eliminating the potential problem of bumping into them accidentally.
Luis had turned up about twenty minutes after everyone else, Mindy in tow. At this point, Scooter and Julie decided to “check out some books over there”, which translated as heading towards the back of the library where there was a comfy sofa, so they could talk in hushed tones.
“Who’d have thought the library would be such a hive of romance?” Ken muttered, glancing at Luis and Mindy, who were holding hands under the table.
“Pretty gross, huh, little Bash Brother?” Portman agreed. “It’s just wrong.”
“Luis!” Averman entered the library dramatically, eliciting a good few shhhh’s from the people around him. Portman thought that everything about Averman was dramatic recently. He couldn’t work out whether it was a good or a bad thing. Had Eden Hall brought him further out of his shell, or just sent him completely over the edge?
“I’m failing Spanish!” Averman shoved Ken over and perched on the edge of his seat. “Please tutor me. I shall be forever grateful.”
“How can you fail Spanish?” Luis asked. “It’s easy.”
“Of course it’s easy for you. You speak it fluently. Now tutor me. Or just do my homework, whatever is easier for you.”
Luis sighed. “I will do both. I will do your homework for you, and I will explain it to you, just in case Ms Ortiz is suspicious that you’ve gone from moron to genius overnight.”
Averman beamed. “You are wonderful! A prince among men! An angel! A darling!” Averman planted a big wet kiss on Luis’ cheek and wrapped his arms around Luis.
“Get off me! It’s all please-do-my-homework-kiss-kiss, and when the homework is done, where are you? Anywhere but near me! You’re a big, flirty user, Averman!” Luis grinned, apparently used to such behaviour.
Mindy frowned. “That’s, like, so totally gay.”
Luis and Averman suddenly stopped. Averman let go of Luis and Luis rounded on Mindy sharply. “Don’t say things like that.”
She looked surprised. “What?”
“Averman isn’t gay, that’s his version of charm, and if he were, it’s no big deal. We deal with his quirks, him being gay would be easy by comparison. I hate people who say ‘gay’ like an insult.”
She shrugged. “It’s kinda gross.”
“No, it’s not. It’s just different, and that’s your problem, nobody else’s. If that’s the way you really think, maybe you should just stay the hell away from me. And while you’re at it, just shut up. If you actually think that way, don’t share your opinions, it only makes you look like an idiot, and what’s worse, people look up to you, you’re just encouraging more morons to appear.” He stood up. “I’m going for a walk.”
Averman glanced around the table, then got to his feet and followed Luis.
Portman stared, a confused smile on his face. Surely there wasn’t another gay couple on the team?
Chapter 10: the opinion of the masses
Mindy crossed the campus quickly, the final class had just let out for the day but Shona and her cronies were grouped together by the fountain, obviously picketing for voters. Thanks to the various stunts from a couple of slightly odd Freshmen, the whole voting system for the Homecoming King and Queen had been reworked. Mindy, as one of the contenders for Queen, had heard that the winners would now not be announced until the dance itself, they would be kept under heavy wrap, so as not to invoke any more boycotting, and before they were announced, the names would be checked against the student list, ensuring that the winners were real and not fictional.
Mindy was past caring whether or not she won the crown by now. Strangely, the antics of the Freshmen had amused her. Perhaps it was because she had realised that she wasn’t going to win. Her popularity had taken a rather steep nose-dive when her relationship with Luis had been revealed. Cindy, her supposed best friend, had barely spent any time with her since then. Now she took a closer look, she could see Cindy with Shona and her crowd. She had also heard that Shona was Rick Riley’s date for homecoming. She wasn’t particularly hurt or surprised by that. Shona was a social climber, as was Rick, they made a nice pair, and Mindy had been the one to leave Rick, so she had no reason to feel betrayed.
Mindy winced internally, then pasted a smile on her face and turned towards Shona. “Hello, Shona.”
They exchanged air kisses and Shona gave her a warm smile. “How are you?”
“I’m good. Yourself?” Mindy replied, making sure her tone was perky, bubbly and slightly vacant.
“I’m also good. I’m glad to see the strain of running for Queen isn’t getting to you. The competition’s pretty fierce.”
Mindy wondered if that comment was meant to unnerve her. A couple of weeks ago, it probably would have. But then, a couple of weeks ago, she was Rick’s trophy girlfriend, revelling in the fact that she was beautiful and he was handsome, that they were both captains of their teams and they were living out an American dream. It was cute, clichéd and totally fake. Which is why, when Luis had pursued her with such dogged and sincere insistence, she had given in to him completely. He had been running purely on emotion, trying to get her attention, he held her hand, he looked at her face when he talked to her, he treated her like a princess. Rick just assumed that Mindy would always be there for him, and would probably have been happier looking in a mirror as he talked so he could watch the emotions flitter across his pretty face.
A couple of week ago, Mindy would have been horrified to have seen the ballot papers had been tampered with, she would have certainly reported it. But this time around, she had simply put a small X next to the names Rachel Green and Ross Geller and moved on, an amused smile on her face.
The only thing that was unnerving Mindy was that Luis was furious with her, so her plan was to get the conversation with Shona over and done with as quickly as possible and continue with her original plan to get to Luis’ dorm room and straighten things out.
“I’m holding up,” she replied when she realised Shona was waiting for an answer.
“That is the cutest barrette, it looks really good in your hair. Real diamonds?”
Mindy’s hands went automatically to her hair. The small clip had been a gift from Cindy, it was just a metal clip with obviously fake stones pasted to it, but it sparkled nicely on a sunny day and she liked to wear it. “No, just fake.”
“It fooled me.”
Mindy knew it hadn’t. Shona slipped an arm through Mindy’s and began walking with her. “I just want you to know that I’ll be voting for you. We’re not allowed to vote for ourselves and it means more to me that a Warrior gets the crown than anything else.”
Mindy knew what was expected of her and she worked out the best way to get rid of Shona. “Well, I’m voting for you too. I think you’re going to win, people don’t like me anymore. I’ll try and get my friends to vote for you instead. It’s like you said, it’s more important that a Warrior gets the title, than anyone else in this school.”
Shona’s smile widened further. “That’s so sweet. And don’t be silly, of course people still like you. I also wanted to clear the air with you, Mindy. I hope that you don’t mind that I’m Rick’s date for Homecoming.”
It suddenly occurred to Mindy that, not only did she not like Shona, she was a little scared of her too. She had been glad that Shona, despite being the same age as herself, had stayed back to be captain of the JV cheerleaders. It wasn’t just that she was afraid of losing her title as captain, it was that she didn’t trust Shona in the slightest. It was so easy to be injured when cheerleading, especially if you were a flyer. A step to the left from your catcher, then the whole team came tumbling down. She wondered just how far Shona was willing to go to ensure that she was captain, not co-captain, of the Warriors next year when she moved up to Mindy’s team.
“It’s fine.” On seeing Shona’s eyes harden a little, she realised her mistake. Shona wanted her to hurt over this. She hadn’t come to clear the air, she had come to gloat. “I mean, I really would have been happier if he’d stayed single for a while in case I changed my mind, but I’m glad he’s with you. You two are perfect together.”
“I’m so glad you feel that way.”
Mindy shook her arm free. “I’ve got to go, I’ve got someone to see.”
“Ok then. I’ll see you at Homecoming.”
Mindy moved on, glad to be away from Shona.
Portman found Luis in Averman and Charlie’s room. In theory, it looked like they were supposed to be studying together, as their books were strewn over the beds, but the harsh reality was that a movie was playing on the beat-up TV and both were thoroughly engrossed. In the sense that every time someone on screen spoke, the two yelled insults that seemed to centre around the defecation on Stephen King’s work.
“Hey there.” He let himself in and took a seat. Portman wasn’t really one for standing on ceremony.
“Thank god, a distraction,” Luis said. “Averman is making me watch Apt Pupil and it’s making my eyes bleed. Have you read Different Seasons? It’s one of King’s best, and yet this is just painful.”
“The one with Stand By Me in it?” Portman asked.
“The Body,” Averman corrected,
“And Shawshank Redemption,” Luis said,
“Rita Hayworth and the,” Averman corrected again,
“Shut up, Averman,” Luis said tiredly. “Two great adaptations, followed by this steaming pile of excrement. Don’t get me wrong, McKellen’s a God, but this bites the big one. If they butcher The Breathing Method, I’m going to have to kill someone.”
“I hear Tom Gordon’s next on the hit list,” Portman replied.
“Interesting. I predict a dismal flop, just like Cujo,” Averman replied. “Tom Gordon is all about a girl’s mental state. Putting that on film would be a difficult job, and just like Cujo, they’ll cut corners and it will die a painful death.”
“What about Castaway? That was much the same, that worked,” Luis pointed out.
“It worked, but I was bored,” Averman said.
“I can’t believe a drama student just said that,” Portman said. “I thought you guys were supposed to like boring films, it makes you look more intelligent.”
“Portman, my good friend, by now you should be well aware that I have no interest in being intelligent. It would be a shock to all surrounding me. And speaking of shocks, this is the first time you have visited our domicile, to what do we owe the pleasure?”
“It’s not my domicile, Charlie won’t swap with me, remember?” Luis said, a hint of resentment in his tone.
“Yeah, I don’t get that. I thought he and Fulton were good friends,” Averman said.
“Fulton snores,” Portman replied.
“Yeah, but so does Charlie,” Averman said. “And I’d rather swap with Fulton into your room.”
“Charlie told me about the monster in the closet,” Portman said. “And the scary socks.”
“That’s just about the only reason I don’t want to room with Averman. His socks terrify me. You’d think Charlie would be thrilled to swap with him,” Luis said.
Portman sighed. He’d come to simply tell Luis that his words in the library to Mindy had been really impressive, and now he had found yet more proof that all was still not well with the Ducks. Fulton and Charlie still weren’t friends, and the rest of the Ducks hadn’t noticed.
Averman glanced at the screen. “Hit him! Kill him! You’ve done it so many times before!” He sighed. “Pansy!”
Luis slapped him round the head. “Don’t.”
“I know,” Averman said quietly. “It just slipped out.”
“Actually,” this was the opening Portman had been waiting for. “That’s why I dropped by. I just wanted to say it was really cool what you said in the library.”
Luis shrugged. “Thanks, I guess.”
Portman’s curiosity bubbled over and he couldn’t help but ask. “So, are you guys…?”
Averman laughed. “You think someone can turn this boy’s head from Mindy? His goddess? You’re deluded, my friend.”
“You don’t have to be gay to be open minded,” Luis said simply.
At that point there was a knock on the door. “Come in,” Averman called.
Mindy stepped through the door looking nervous.
“Averman, let’s go for a walk,” Portman got to his feet.
“But it’s my room.”
Mindy gave Luis a nervous smile. “Can I sit down?”
“You can do what you want, it’s not my room.”
She sat down on the bed opposite him. “I’m really sorry. My problem is that I don’t really think, not until you came into my life. I just did whatever anyone expected me to. It’s what you do to stay popular, and that used to really matter to me.” She reached out and took his hands. He made no effort to stop her, so she took it as a good sign and continued. “But I did a lot of thinking after you left the library, and you’re right, it’s not gross, it is just different. And hey, I like guys, so I can’t really say that I don’t understand that point of view, right?”
He squeezed her hands and gave her a small smile.
“I’m not saying this just so you’ll stop being angry with me, I am sorry, and I’m really going to think about what I say in the future—even though nobody’s probably going to be listening.”
Luis kissed her hands. “But they do, that’s the trouble. You’re popular, you say something, then someone repeats it to get in your good books, it’s scary how easily your opinion becomes the opinion of the masses.”
“No, I do understand that. I just mean that Shona’s taking my place, and I’m happy to let her—but I don’t think she really worries about things like that.”
Luis pulled her forwards into his arms. “You don’t have to be responsible for everyone’s words, just your own. That’s all that I’m asking of you.”
“And I’ll do that,” She moved forwards and placed a light kiss on his lips. “And I really like that you told me off. Nobody ever has before, I like that. It made me realise…” She paused. It had made her realise that if she didn’t already love Luis, she was falling pretty damned fast and that she didn’t want to lose him. “It made me realise how good you are for me, and how important you are to me.”
“You realised that because I told you off?” He laughed. “You’re a strange girl, Mindy Pinkerton. It’s a good thing I love you.”
He looked worried that he had been caught saying such a thing out loud, she smiled and leapt forwards into his arms. “I heard that! You love me!” She kissed him again. “And it’s ok, because I love you too.”
Gabby looked up from her laptop and sighed with relief. One project down. One thing crossed off her list. She was so busy lately. Her parents had such high expectations of her. The problem was that Shona went first. Being a year older, she had managed to blaze a trail of perfect grades, a wonderful selection of extra-curriculars, and a whole host of adoring friends.
Gabby followed behind, mostly attaining the grades, with only one extra-curricular—horse riding—and no friends except for Taz. Even her teammates on the equestrian team didn’t much like her. They would politely interact with her, but after they rubbed down the horses and cleaned the tack, Gabby would hear them cheerfully calling across the stalls, planning how they were going to get a pizza delivered to the common room, or they might go for a walk. They never invited Gabby.
Gabby told herself that she didn’t care.
There was a whole list of things that Gabby told herself she care about, but they all centered around the same thing: Gabby was the pointless sister. The unlikeable one.
Even Taz had noticed. Taz had a new boyfriend, and a new best friend, and even the hockey team liked Taz.
Last year, at their previous school, nobody had liked Taz either. She and Gabby hadn’t minded that they were unwanted, because they were happy with each other’s company and they didn’t need anyone else.
Or so Gabby had thought.
Every time she saw Taz with the Boyfriend or The Best Friend (she couldn’t even deal with their names), poisonous hateful words would bubble up out of her. She meant to say something kind, something that would make Taz want to choose her, not them, but instead she found herself jealously snapping at her. And then having to make extravagant gestures to apologise.
Tonight was different, Gabby decided. Tonight she would not start her next project, she would not snap at Taz for making noise when she came in, she wouldn’t interrogate Taz about where she’d been, she wouldn’t be hurtful.
Tonight, when Taz came back, Gabby was going to put on one of those chick flicks that she always pretended she hated, but actually quite enjoyed, and she and Taz would sit down, watch, maybe eat some sweets, and they would have a nice time.
And at the end of that nice time, Taz would have to think to herself, Gosh, that was nice. I really should spend more time with Gabby.
And then when Gabby suggested that they go shopping for prom dresses together, Taz would be delighted to accept. And even though Taz was going to the dance with the Boyfriend, they would get to hang out, and it would be wonderful.
The door opened, and Gabby turned, a brilliant smile on her lips, ready to welcome Taz home.
The smile died on her lips when Shona stepped through the door. “Mother and Father are taking us dress shopping. They offered to invite the little cripple, but you’re going to tell her she’s not welcome.”
Gabby’s mouth fell open. For a few seconds, she couldn’t respond. “Don’t call her that! And I’m not saying that. She can come with us.”
“I’ll call her what I like,” Shona said. “And I don’t want her there.”
“Why? You always like it better when she’s there anyway. You like that she gets all scared of mother.”
Shona considered this and then nodded approvingly. “Ok, you’re right. I don’t care whether she’s there or not. I’m just interested in how upset she’ll get if she’s told she can’t go.” Shona did look honestly interested, and Gabby repressed a shudder. “And you’re going to tell her that, because you owe me for the office duty swap last week.”
“Oh, for pete’s sake, Shona!” Gabby snapped. “When I said I owed you a favour, I meant like doing your homework or fetching something from town with you. I’m not hurting Taz just because you like pulling the wings off flies.”
“Your best friend is a fly?” Shona waved Gabby’s objections away. “If I tell mother that we swapped office duty, and that there was all that hoo-har over the ballot papers and then if I tell her that Taz was behind it all… Taz’s not invited and Mother knows your best friend is a bad influence.”
Gabby gaped at her sister. All that was true. Mother loathed Taz. And with Shona at the helm, that tale would be a lot more scandalous. It would probably be enough to drive Mother to make a call that would land Gabby with another roommate.
And without sharing a room, there would be no reason for Taz to even talk to her.
“Oh, Gabby?” Shona said, stepping towards the door, and peeking back over her shoulder. She smiled. It was a sharp spiteful smile. “Be brutal.”
Chapter 11: “the daydream believer and the homecoming queen”
Though Linda wasn’t in the same dorm block as Taz, Charlie and Fulton had walked over together to pick up the girls because Taz had asked Linda if she wanted to get ready for the prom together. Fulton knew this wasn’t just girly bonding, Gabby had got herself a date for Homecoming and was actually getting ready in her sister’s room. In fact, Taz had told him that Gabby’s parents had flown in from Richmond to buy Shona and Gabby their dresses, and had then taken them out for dinner. In theory Taz should have gone too, but she had not been invited. It had been a bitter pill for Taz to swallow, and Linda provided moral support, even if she didn’t know it.
He and Charlie waited in the foyer of the block, Ms Harper was finally dragged away from her book and stood with a camera ready to take some pictures. Additionally, Mrs Layton, Head of Chemistry, darted around anxiously, taking a head count every couple of seconds to ensure that no boy sneaked off to a girl’s room.
Taz and Linda came down the stairs together, and for a moment, Fulton almost understood why someone might fall in love with Taz. She was wearing a simple charcoal grey velvet dress that somehow complimented her purple hair. He suspected Linda had been the one to tame Taz’s hair, because instead of being a flat mess of purple, it was off her face, caught back in some kind of elaborate twist that seemed to defy nature, caught in her hair was the silk rose he had bought for her. Taz caught sight of him, grinned and waved, and the moment was gone. She had gone from Girl back to Taz, and he was glad.
Though she looked pretty, he liked her best when she was just Taz, with her messy hair, her grimy fingernails and her sleeves hiding her hands, or her sweaters unravelled because she couldn’t stay still long enough to stop picking at it.
Linda also looked pretty, but then, she always did have a slightly more groomed air about her than Taz. He glanced at Charlie, who was watching Linda descend the stairs. He noted with a pang that Charlie looked thoroughly entranced by Linda.
Taz scurried up next to him. “Bloody heels are going to kill me, I swear.” She grinned. “And my, don’t you look gorgeous. If you weren’t already my date, I’d have ditched mine, tipped you the wink and tried to have my wicked way with you.”
Fulton blushed. “Thank you, I think.” He felt ridiculous, suits weren’t his thing. Let alone tuxes.
“But tell me honestly, there’s something still a bit rock n’ roll about you, what is it?” She gave him an appraising look, and finally rolled back his sleeve, giggling in delight when she found his extensive collection of leather bands still on his wrist.
“You rebel, Fult.”
“Speaking of rebels, you’re still not quite dressed up enough to be my date,” he said to her, bringing the necklace out of his pocket. “What say you put this on and stop embarrassing me?”
“Well, since you asked so nicely and didn’t make me blush by fawning all over me, I’ll do as you say.”
Fulton noticed that both Linda and Taz seemed somewhat anxious on entering the dance. Now, half an hour into the proceedings, they were worse. If he didn’t know better, he would have suspected them of speeding. Taz was distractingly wired, crossing and uncrossing her legs, bouncing her foot and shredding the neatly arranged name cards.
Linda had gone for the verbal assault. The Homecoming theme had been “Paradise at Home”, something that made Linda furious, bordering on homicidal. “I lobbied so hard for ‘Save the Environment’ but no, look at this! Paradise at Home! We have a home, all of us, and we should be thankful and appreciative, but this theme just highlights that we’re not,” She gestured at the extensive backdrop, a beautiful picture of a beach at sunset. “Where’s our nearest beach? It’s not exactly home, is it? There are kids half our age who work in sweatshops who earn less money in a year than some of these people get from their parents every week! It’s just wrong. It’s a stupid theme!”
“Hey!” Taz looked wounded. “I worked on that painting. I had to thanks to our little scams.”
Linda was instantly apologetic. “Oh, Taz, it’s a wonderful picture, it really is. I just wish we could have done something productive with our theme. Just think how much money was blown on this, we could have donated it to charity. Or we could have spent this money, but invited other less affluent students to join us.”
Taz rubbed Linda’s arm. “One campaign at a time.”
Linda didn’t look particularly consoled.
“I’ll steal it for you and put it on eBay,” Taz added, finally getting a laugh out of Linda.
Fulton looked over at Charlie, wondering if he knew what on earth was bothering the girls. Charlie just shrugged and returned to his meal.
Taz and Linda continued to be irritatingly excitable for the rest of the meal. Linda was served meat, even though she was a vegetarian. She put forth a very convincing argument when Taz (foolishly) asked her why she was vegetarian. Taz seemed torn between jumping on the bandwagon and finishing her meal in peace.
Finally they gave up trying to put the world to rights out loud and began whispering to each other, while Charlie and Fulton continued to exchange, increasingly irritated, baffled looks. The girls had given up on talking to them several courses ago.
Then the moment came, when Dean Buckley stepped up on the stage and turned the microphone on. He began his speech, and Taz’s hand crept into Fulton’s and began squeezing with painful intensity. He suddenly understood that boycotting the voting system hadn’t been enough for them. There was one more final payoff. He just hoped she hadn’t watched Carrie recently.
“And now, the Homecoming King and Queen!” Dean Buckley gave the crowd a well-practiced but not particularly amused smile. “Despite several fictional characters vying for the titles, it is my great pleasure to announce the winners.”
Taz’s fingernails dug into his hand.
“Dean Buckley for Queen!” she suddenly yelled out.
There was a smattering of surprised laughter, and Linda and Fulton took this opportunity to hiss at her to pipe down. He distinctly heard Linda say, “Don’t blow it.”
Dean Buckley patiently waited for the room to quieten again before continuing. Perhaps it wasn’t the first time he had heard that particular heckle. “And our Homecoming Queen is…” he paused dramatically. “Alexis Donoghue!”
This time another whisper went round the room, very distinctly, “Who?” However, Taz, Linda and many people sitting towards the back of the room leapt to their feet, applauding and whooping wildly.
The Dean had heard most of the room’s question of who Alexis might be, and glanced down at the card to see if he had misread the name.
“He’s gonna read it,” Linda said happily. “He’s got no idea who she is, he’s gonna read it!”
“Alexis is well known for her fund-raising events. She has been paralysed from the waist down since birth, but this has not stopped her from raising over $10,000 for charity. $2,000 of which was over the past year,” Dean Buckley nodded to himself, looking pleased that the cue card had provided such information.
“Nice going, Lex!” someone yelled from behind them. “Keep it up!”
Alexis’ date accepted the crown for her as the school, having no idea who Alexis was, had no reason to provide a ramp to the stage. Alexis smiled shyly around the room.
“And Homecoming King,” Dean Buckley went on. “Miguel Perez!” He looked down again, already anticipating some further information to be found on the card. “Most of you won’t recognise Miguel because he spends very little time here. After school every day he busses across town to tutor kids who have learning disabilities and stays there until curfew. On the weekends he helps out at a homeless shelter. Well done, Miguel.”
The cheering broke out again, from the same group of people. This time Fulton and Charlie joined in, both equally proud of their girlfriends for doing something so daring as rigging the entire voting system and not telling a soul about it.
Fulton turned to Taz. “Just tell me how.”
She shrugged, the picture of innocence. “Are you telling me you don’t believe Alexis and Miguel didn’t deserve to win?”
“No, I’m telling you that they wouldn’t have won. There’s a difference.”
“Ask me no questions…”
Taz and Fulton spiked the punch, it was the least they could do to celebrate the victories of Alexis and Miguel, but they hadn’t danced yet. Fulton was refusing to dance. After much pushing and prodding, he finally agreed to dance with her, as soon as something he actually recognised was played. Taz didn’t hold much hope, unless of course, there was a Beyoncé fan lurking in Fulton’s closet along with the rest of his secrets.
Linda had convinced Charlie to dance and was doing a pretty good job of not yelling at him every time he squashed her feet.
Gabby sauntered up to the table. “Hello, Taz,” she said coolly.
Taz bit her lip. If it hadn’t been for the fact that Gabby had called her ‘Taz’ not ‘Taryn’ she wouldn’t have known which sister she was talking to. “Hey, Gabby. Did you catch the show?” She gestured that Gabby have a seat.
Gabby sat down. Taz had a resentful moment just looking at the way Gabby moved, so slowly and elegantly, as if she knew she’d never have to play catch-up, that the world would wait for her. Taz was always falling down. It was no wonder that Gabby had gone cold on her; it had suddenly fallen into place for Gabby, the Tazs and Gabbys of the world should not mix because one gets left behind. It was easier to just keep them apart, then one would never miss the other.
“Shona’s spitting nails,” Gabby said in a low tone. “She was a shoo-in for Queen. If she finds out…”
“What do you mean, if she finds out. She already knows. She knows it was me. You’re fine, Gabby.” Taz reached for Fulton’s hand, wanting comfort from this icy conversation with her supposed best friend.
“Well, there’s that part where I’m not!” Gabby snapped. “There’s the part where I swapped office duty, I posed as my sister, twice, and now Shona hasn’t won Homecoming Queen. That’s really not fine.”
“Gabby,” Taz said softly. “You’re missing the point. It’s always about me. Why would your sister tear you down, when she could use this to get rid of me once and for all? If this gets back to the Dean and it’s coupled with my recent behaviour…” At this, Taz shared a significant look with Fulton. “She could get me expelled. Why would she go after you? It would only make your family ashamed.”
“Well, perhaps Shona is labouring under the foolish idea that ripping you to shreds will tear me down without bringing shame on my family.” Gabby’s eyes were as cold as ice, as cold as Shona’s.
Taz felt a lump build in her throat and hot tears scald that backs of her eyes.
“Gabby, dance with me?” Gabby’s date smoothly cut in. “Unless I’m interrupting.”
“No,” said Fulton, looking at Taz with concern. “I think we’re very much done here.”
Taz waited for Gabby to tell her date that she didn’t dance. That she wouldn’t dance. That she only danced with Taz.
Gabby took his hand.
“We’re done,” Taz said, scrambling to her feet.
When Linda excused herself to congratulate Alexis on a landslide victory for Homecoming Queen, Charlie made his way back to Fulton, carrying what little dignity he had left. Charlie was not a good dancer.
“Fult,” he said, not sitting down. “You wanna go outside for awhile? I’m looking for any excuse not to dance for at least three songs.”
Fulton looked towards the exits, the direction that Taz had taken off in. “I should really…” He paused. He knew he should wait for Taz, it was the proper thing to do, and she had looked upset. But Charlie was looking at him, and it was like all the masks had fallen away. Charlie was looking at him hopefully, simply asking if Fulton wanted to spend some time with him. And Fulton, selfishly or not, wanted to. “I guess Linda will be here.”
“Sure she will, and we won’t be long,” Charlie agreed.
They made their way outside. All the benches were already taken by the couples, but there were still some places to lurk that were relatively private. They stood leaning back against the wall, breathing in the cool crisp air. It was amazing how refreshing it was being away from the airless room packed with too many bodies flailing around to Britney and Brandi.
“What happened to us?” Charlie asked. He hadn’t meant to ask, but now the question was out of his mouth he thought he might as well continue. “We used to be friends.”
Fulton looked at him, his expression almost one of hurt. “What do you think happened, Charlie?” he said softly. “Honestly, what do you think went wrong?”
“I think that you moved on too fast!” Charlie burst out suddenly. “I think that you dealt and got on with it and left me confused and I’ve been trying to catch up and I just keep falling over instead.”
“You heard me. You figured it out first, you’re ok. I’m not. I…” Charlie didn’t know what to say, and suddenly, he didn’t have to because Fulton’s lips were on his, effectively cutting off his words, but finally communicating with honesty. His knees buckled slightly and he sagged against the wall, because it was back. That moment of beautiful crystal clarity. This was right. This was exactly what he wanted to do. Not fool around with Linda and like it on an aesthetic level but no more. He wanted this sensation of complete and utter wholeness that Linda could not provide.
On hearing a third voice, Charlie and Fulton broke apart guiltily. On realising he recognised that voice, Charlie’s fear took over and his common sense bailed out. He shoved Fulton hard away from him. “Get away from me, you fucking faggot. I’m not a goddamned freak like you!” Fulton fell back on his butt, and Charlie took off at a run, trying not to meet the eyes of the third person. But it was too late. Luis had seen him.
Taz had locked herself in a stall trying to bite back the tears. Or at least cry neatly. Linda had spent a good hour applying Taz’s (ozone and animal friendly) make-up. Taz was pretty sure that she looked like a deranged raccoon at the moment. Taz thought she had resigned herself to the fact that Gabby would never love her, at least, not the way she wanted, but as it turned out, she was nowhere near dealing with it. Because Gabby no longer wanted her friendship. The revelation had caused a shockwave in her emotions and the aftershocks were just as nasty. Gabby did not want a single part of Taz in her life any more. As friends, there was always this hope that Gabby would one day realise that just because they were both girls didn’t mean that they couldn’t be in love. Now they weren’t even friends. There was no friendship and no hope.
Friendship with Fulton was good, but it wasn’t the same as Gabby. Fulton hadn’t been the one who held Taz every night after her mother died. Fulton hadn’t cut his finger, then Taz’s own and promised to be blood brothers with her, so she’d never be alone. Fulton didn’t watch Stand By Me with Taz and remember that it was the last film that Taz had seen at the pictures with her mother, mum on one side, Gabby on the other. Fulton hadn’t been the one to force Taz to eat when the depression swept her. Fulton hadn’t been the one to storm in one day and burn Taz’s tape of The Living Years, a song that broke her heart even now. Fulton wasn’t Gabby.
She wiped her eyes again, carefully running the tissue under her lower lids, trying to remove the mascara that was no doubt running down her face. She took a deep breath. Maybe she was just fearing the worst. Maybe she’d had too much of the punch she and Fulton had spiked and she was actually in hospital with alcohol poisoning, hallucinating the whole night.
It was alarming how comforting that idea was.
She stood up, lifted her chin up, took another deep breath and let herself out of the stall.
“Taryn,” Shona said warmly. “My, don’t you look radiant tonight.”
Taz had thought she was alone. And if someone had to witness her distress, she would have given anything for it not to have been Shona. She took another deep breath. If Shona was going to tear her apart tonight, Taz was going down fighting. She hated Shona with every fibre of her being, she was going to give as good as she got. “You’re looking rather regal yourself. All you lack is the tiara.” Shona did look regal, though in a fairy princess way. Her gown—Shona never had dresses, only gowns—was a light and floaty material of white and pink. She looked like every man’s dream, from shining hair to pearly polished toenails.
Shona approached the mirror, and reached in her bag and brought forth a tiara. “You were saying?”
“You know what I mean, Shona. One that mummy and daddy didn’t buy you.”
Shona gave her hair a final flick, then turned to face Taz. “Don’t go pretending you’re not afraid of me. I know you are. I can undo you so easily, and your current attitude is only driving me on.”
Taz shut up quickly.
“Now, what’s this I hear about me, not once, but twice, intercepting Homecoming ballots?” Shona raised one eyebrow. “I don’t remember, do you suppose that Gabby might?”
“You’re not going to get her kicked out—your father would never forgive you, Shona. You’re the older one, you’re supposed to keep her out of trouble.”
“Like that’s a possibility with you around.” Shona advanced. “Now, I’m going to give you a piece of advice. A warning, perhaps. Stay away from Gabby. I know what you are, you’re just a dirty, filthy little dyke who’s in love with my sister. Do you know what she would think of you if she ever found out? Did you hear about why she swapped office duty with me?”
“Yeah, I already know. I asked her to, so she could pretend to be you,” Taz said, but she knew Shona had an answer, a better one. An honest one.
“Yes, I’ll admit, that was part of it. But she did it to make you shut up. All day, every day, you prattle endlessly, you’re impossible to deal with. How did she put it? Oh yes, ‘Taz is driving me up the wall’. She did you the favour to make you shut up. But she swapped office duty with me because she can’t stand you recently. Haven’t you noticed? She’s never around. She spends more time with me than with you recently. Isn’t her new boyfriend nice? I introduced them. She really likes him.”
Shona smiled and continued. “And I see you’ve got yourself a boyfriend. A nice dumb jock who might be stupid enough not to notice that you don’t really like him. I’ll admit, you’re doing a wonderful job, maybe you should go into drama instead of art. But you won’t be able to fool him forever. I know what boys want, especially jocks, they’re too stupid to want anything else. He won’t stay with you, nor will the next one, or the next, and it will eventually get around that you’re weird, that you don’t like fooling around. It’s probably a good thing Gabby’s got away from you before that rumour gets started. Because you know they’d say that Gabby was weird too. Maybe she’s even realised now. Maybe that’s why she’s trying to put some distance between you two, did you ever think of that? Did it ever occur to you that you don’t just disgust me, you disgust Gabby too?”
Shona had been getting progressively closer as she had been speaking, but now she moved backwards. She had the same poise and elegance as Gabby, and Taz hated it. “I’ll be seeing you,” Shona said, then paused at the doorway. “By the way, that was my friendly warning. My retaliation, that’s still to come.”
Taz felt sickening shivers run through her body. Gabby had been out a hell of a lot recently, and she never said where she had been. Had she really been with Shona? Was she backing away from Taz because she knew? While Shona may have been wrong about Fulton, Taz could guarantee that while Shona may not be telling the absolute truth, there was always a nugget or two slipped in there for validation. It helped to make you unsure whether she was lying the next time she spoke.
She glanced at herself in the mirror. She was a mess, her hair was falling down, her make-up was smudged and she looked sickly-pale. Above the mirror was a high windowsill and on it was a half-empty bottle of vodka. Taz eyed it with a little concern and a lot of hope.
What she needed was to get off her face.
Fulton picked himself up off the ground, and brushed past Luis without a word. Damn Charlie. Damn him to hell and back. What right did he have to keep doing these things and then just walking away? What kind of sick game was he playing?
“Fult!” A strangled voice called his name.
He half-turned to see Taz. She looked as bad as he felt, tears running down her face, make-up all smudged and an absolute desolate look in her eyes. “I hate this party,” she said, reaching up for comfort.
He wrapped his arms around her, stroking her hair, not only giving comfort, but taking it too. “I do too.”
“I hate everything,” she said. “I hate us not being right.”
She stood on her toes and kissed him, not their usual peck, but a full kiss. And he hated not being right too. Maybe this didn’t make him feel the way Charlie’s kisses did, but it was nice. Her lips were soft and she tasted of salty tears and some sort of alcohol.
He broke away. “Taz…”
“Don’t you want to be normal?” She was looking up at him with big bloodshot eyes, and trembling in his arms, with fear, pain, anguish, he didn’t know. But Charlie’s words kept bouncing back at him, he kept hearing his best friend tell him that he was a faggot and a freak. He didn’t want to be any longer.
“Then please, please, take me up to your room.”
Linda realised that she had been abandoned. She had danced a couple of times with Miguel, who was very shocked that he had been put in for Homecoming King (given his lack of interest in school social activities, it was unsurprising he hadn’t noticed the recent boycotts), and while he knew the votes had been rigged, he didn’t seem to know—or care—that he had never been on the original list of contenders.
Alexis had cornered Linda and thanked her. Linda feigned innocence, saying that Lex deserved to win. Lex wasn’t fooled in the slightest, but pleased. Apparently, quite a few people had come up to her, asking about how they could get involved in her fundraisers, so she didn’t really care how she won. If it highlighted some of her causes, then she was pleased.
But now looking around, she realised that Taz, Fulton and Charlie had all vanished. She supposed that Taz and Fulton were probably dancing (or making out) somewhere, so it was really Charlie that was missing. She made her way over to the Ducks’ table. “Anyone seen Charlie?” she asked, hoping to get a quick answer. She felt a little uncomfortable around the Ducks without Charlie, they were his friends, not hers and they seemed a rather tight bunch.
“I think he went outside for some air,” Russ replied. “I don’t blame him. There are too many people and too much bad music in here.”
“Well, I dare you to go and request something by Eminem then,” Averman replied. “Something soothing, like Stan.”
“Kim would be better,” Russ responded. “Could you imagine the Dean’s face?”
Linda took it as her cue to leave as the table began to list increasingly offensive songs that they wanted to request. She met Luis on her way out and asked him if he’d seen Charlie.
“Yeah, I’ve seen him,” he said, his face hard and his tone icy. “If I were you though, I’d keep him lost. Someone like him doesn’t deserve someone as nice as you.” And with that, he and his date continued on their way into the main hall, leaving Linda staring after them in confusion.
She shook her head and made her way outside. She knew Charlie had a temper, maybe he had managed to somehow offend Luis. If she hadn’t been so intent on attending Homecoming, she might have had second thoughts about her choice of date. Charlie could be very charming at times. With hindsight, even his behaviour the first night she had gone out with the team was quite endearing. She was his first girlfriend and his attempts to charm her did show dedication. However, he often went cold on her, and she had learnt not to talk about Taz while he was around, and she worried about his temper. She had no illusions of taming him, no fanciful ideas of a nice girl meeting a bad boy and charming him into being a nice boy. That was for books. In life when faced with a boy, you got what was in front of you.
She made her way past all the kissing couples around the edge of the building and finally found Charlie slumped against a wall, his head in his hands, a picture of emotional defeat.
“Are you ok?” She asked.
He looked up quickly on hearing her voice. He swiped at his face. “I’m fine. I just… all the noise and it was too hot in there… I’ve got a headache.”
Charlie was a very bad liar, and the pauses only hammered it home. She offered her hand to him. “You look terrible, are you sure you’re ok?”
He took her hand and she helped him stand. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close to him.
“Charlie?” He felt clumsy and unsteady and it occurred to her that he might be a little drunk. There was plenty of alcohol going around at the moment, there had been a bottle of vodka left in the girls’ bathrooms when she had been in there. “Have you been drinking?”
“No, but I wish I had,” he mumbled into her hair.
She pushed him back a little to give herself space to breathe. Something was very wrong with Charlie at this moment in time. “What’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer with words, instead he leant forwards and kissed her. There was something very wrong about this. When she didn’t kiss him back, his mouth moved from hers, trailing down her neck, then his hands started roaming. She pushed him back again. “Charlie, slow down, ok?”
“No, it’s ok. I won’t hurt you,” There were tears in his eyes as he moved towards her again.
“No! I don’t want to!”
“It’s alright,” he seemed to be talking to himself rather than her. “It’s all normal, it’s all ok. If Fulton’s—”
She pushed him back violently, her temper rising. “Fulton? I knew it!”
Charlie’s eyes widened in fear. “What do you know?”
“I knew I was just a stupid challenge! I knew it all along and somehow I convinced myself that you actually liked me,” She launched herself at him, beating her fists on his chest. “I hate you. You’re just a stupid jock with no feelings at all. I hate you!”
“Linda!” He caught her fists. “Please stop. It’s not like that, I promise.”
“Like I’m going to believe a word you say now!” Hot bitter tears were welling up in her eyes, she felt so humiliated. Part of her had always known that Charlie didn’t really like her, but she had pushed it back because she had liked him. “I hate you.”
“No, Linda, stop. And you don’t have to hate me, I hate myself enough as it is.”
She jerked backwards, freeing her hands from his grasp and began to walk away, determined not to cry in front of him.
“Please, Linda, I need a friend. I’m so messed up.”
She paused, turning slightly to him. “You could have had one, but it’s too late now. There’s not a single thing you can say to me that will change my mind.”
With that she turned on her heel and strode away, ignoring the sound of his sobs.
He seemed to break then, something crumpled inside of him, and despite her anger, she wanted to comfort him. But she didn’t go to him. He mumbled something that she didn’t catch.
“What?” She asked sharply.
“I said, I think I’m gay. And I’m really sorry, because I have tried so hard not to be,” He sank to the ground in tears and Linda realised that she had been wrong. As it turned out, Charlie had managed to find the one thing that would change her mind.
Taz had dressed and hurried back to her room, neither of them had found any words to say to each other and Fulton realised that he and Taz had certainly come to the end of their charade as a couple, and probably to the end of the line as friends too. He already missed her, she was whole-heartedly on his side at all times, and now there was a gap between them. Before she got up, they had stared at each other for a few moments, completely at a loss as to what to say, finally, she gestured that he should close his eyes so she could dress. Then she left.
He had lain in bed for a good long time, just waiting for some kind of positive thought to hit him, but nothing came. Charlie had decided which side of the fence he was on, and what was more, he was completely against anyone on the other side, Luis had seen them, Taz was no longer his friend. There was nothing good to have come out of this night, even if it had started so well with a victory for Taz and Linda. It had quickly slid downhill.
Finally he had gotten dressed and walked down the hall to Portman’s room, remembering that Portman had said that his door was always open and thinking that now might be a good time to find out just how good a friend Portman really was. He had already hit rock bottom tonight, if Portman was going to be outraged to find that Fulton was a fag, then so be it. Better now than later, because now he felt horrible, tomorrow he might feel slightly better and he didn’t want everything to come crashing down again.
He didn’t bother knocking, he assumed that Portman would still be at the dance, and he was just going to let himself in and wait. He pushed open the door and turned on the light, his jaw dropping in shock at the sight of Portman and Adam lying on one of the beds making out.
“Oh!” he said in surprise. “I’m sorry!”
Portman and Adam sprang apart guiltily. Adam found his voice first. “This really isn’t what it looks like.”
Portman gave him a hurt look, then returned his attention to Fulton. “Only if you think it looks like we were playing hopscotch, because to be honest, this is exactly what it looks like. I’m not going to lie to you.” He stood up and walked over to Fulton. “We’re still friends, right?”
At that, a damn inside just burst.
The tears started falling, it wasn’t noisy end-of-the-world wailing, he was just crying silently with no power to stop.