It was hard to keep his eyes open. The waning sunlight interrupting the cold January day was warm on his back. The teacher’s voice was going on and on about something or another. It was late afternoon only a few hours before school ended.
Not to mention the class was history, Roland Reeves’s least favorite subject.
Roland sighed tiredly, his cheek resting in the palm of his hand. His eyes were drooping as he stared out the window, the pen and notebook on his desk all but forgotten in front of him. Marcie would be pissed at him when she saw that he had zoned out once again, but she would grumble and glare until she handed him her notes like she did every time. He really didn’t deserve a friend like her.
He jumped when he felt someone smack him on the back of his head, turning around to give Logan Andrews a nice “what the fuck” look. Logan just shrugged, pulling his beanie down lower and handing him a note.
Roland already knew who it was from as he locked onto Marcie, who was sitting on the other side of the room closer to the back with a challenging look on her face. She raised an eyebrow at him, obviously telling him to read the note. He rolled his eyes and did so.
In all caps, the words PAY ATTENTION, STUPID were written and underlined in her neat handwriting. He turned to frown at her, but the brunette had already refocused on the lecture. That was Marcie for you. Smart and beautiful with every hair always in place and every outfit well-coordinated, but not afraid to be tough. Roland might have been annoyed with her commanding note if he didn’t know her so well, and if she wasn’t the one who helped him study so often.
He sighed, turning back to the front just as the lecture stopped. He could only imagine Marcie’s annoyed huff at the irony.
“Today I’ll be assigning you your semester projects,” Mr. Sanders said with a smile and a clap of his hands. He completely ignored the groans that echoed throughout the room, twirling a ruler in his hands. “No complaining: you all knew this was coming.”
It was only the third week of the new semester, just before February began, but Mr. Sanders was already assigning them their project. The younger teacher said it was because he wanted to give them as much time as possible without having to squeeze it in near the end. Roland was pretty sure it was because he didn’t want anyone complaining to him about not having enough time when they procrastinated and tried to do it in a day.
Flipping the ruler with way too much energy considering how tired Roland felt, Mr. Sanders began passing out the assignment sheets. “You’ll be picking out one of the books on the list I’ve included. Read it all the way through and create a presentation in whatever format you choose. I have a general slide format I’m looking for on there, but it’s flexible. Really, I’m looking for you to teach us your book: tell us the author’s argument, what historical event is going on, and how the timeline looks. In the end, all of us should understand that historical event and its main actors.”
Roland was already making a face. Most history classes were about reading the chapter, coming in to discuss, listening to the lecture, and trying not to fall asleep. But not Mr. Sanders’s class, no. The man just had to try and make his class more interesting. It was bad enough that they had to do these types of projects in English, but now in history too?
Roland saw some similarly unhappy looks on a few other peoples’ faces in the room, although then there were people like Marcie who just looked determined. Some of the history nerds actually wore smiles and were already going through the book list to pick their favorite.
Roland resisted the urge to roll his eyes, turning back to Mr. Sanders. The man’s enthusiasm hadn’t waned despite the obvious malaise that had descended upon them. He just pushed his glasses back up his nose and twirled the ruler around his fingers without dropping it.
“I’ll be giving you until Monday to give me your choice of book. Send your pick via email by then, but be aware that it’s first come, first serve. I’ll be giving you a yes or no on your option depending on if anyone else emailed first. Gina, that phone better be out to send me an email.”
All eyes went to Gina, the normally quiet girl who kept her head buried in whatever book she was reading that day. Roland was pretty sure he never saw her with the same book twice with how often she read. He was also pretty sure he’d never seen her talk either, although he did notice Marcie looking at Gina every now and again.
Gina cleared her throat, holding out her phone so he could see it. She messed with her too-large square glasses as she leaned forward.
Mr. Sanders stepped forward to see it. He raised his eyebrows. “I’m impressed with your speed, Gina, but no phones in class.” He made a motion as if to tell her to put it away, which she did with a pout on her face. “As for your book choice though, I’ll mark that one down for you,” he continued with a kind smile.
Gina looked up happily, a subdued smile gracing her features. “I’ve been wanting to read that one,” she said quietly.
Roland almost rolled his eyes, but it was hard to actually dislike someone like Gina. The girl was just so quiet and even-tempered. He did narrow his eyes at Marcie though, who was looking at Gina like the girl was just as interesting to her as the lecture they had all been supposedly listening to.
“Ten points to Gina,” Mr. Sanders said jokingly, moving on. “The rest of you can email me or let me know after class here if you’ve already made your choice. I’ll have a few class days where you all update me on your progress, but as always, come to me with any questions or concerns at any time.”
Roland only vaguely paid attention to the example Mr. Sanders showed them on the projector, perusing the list a little before class ended. He didn’t really care what book he chose, but he didn’t want something that was like 800 pages.
He said as much when Marcie asked him why he didn’t just choose one as they walked out of class. Roland shrugged at her, looking down. It was a stupid, little thing, but he was thrilled he’d finally grown taller than her. Her teasing him when they both hit high school and she was still taller had been torture.
“I don’t see why you’re so interested in this anyway,” Roland sighed, frowning at Marcie as she leaned against the lockers, waiting for him to exchange his books.
She gave him a stern look, her perfect ponytail swishing behind her. “You’re learning about a specific topic that you wouldn’t get the chance to otherwise. You don’t think it’s interesting?” There was genuine surprise in her voice, as if she really didn’t get why learning was boring.
Roland rolled his eyes. “It’s just about more dead people who did something and are now in a history book. There’s an infinite amount of those dead people too. What’s the point in learning about one guy in the grand scheme of things?” He knew Marcie was about to lecture him, so he preemptively interrupted her with: “And what book did you choose?”
He leaned over to see her book list, her choice circled. “A book about sexuality in the GDR?” It seemed like an odd choice. He would have assumed Marcie would choose some big volume that would broadly focus on many topics, but she’d chosen something so specific.
For once, Marcie didn’t have a comeback right away. Roland raised his eyebrows as the girl snatched her list away and frowned. “I thought it was interesting,” she said shortly, defensively.
Roland felt some kind of tension between them, but if he was good for anything, it was ignoring awkward situations and moving on. “I just want a book that isn’t too long.” He looked at the list again, but none of the options looked any better than they had the last time he skimmed it.
Marcie rolled her eyes, the odd tension forgotten. She pushed herself off the lockers to walk to their final class together, rolling her eyes at him. “It wouldn’t kill you to read a longer book. It’s not like we don’t have tons of time anyway.”
If Marcie had time, everyone should. The woman was on the student council, tutored other students, and still got straight A’s. It was almost scary how well she managed her life sometimes. Roland, by contrast, did well enough. He got A’s and B’s, helped people when they needed it, and otherwise holed himself up in his room drawing. He had a normal life, a normal family, and was an average person. The only thing that made him stand out were his artistic skills, not that he showed those drawings to anyone.
“Maybe you could use the extra time to draw some people from your book,” Marcie suggested cautiously, already knowing the answer.
“No,” Roland said shortly, stepping around the band kids in the hallway. “You know I don’t show those to people.” Marcie, as his longest friend from his middle school days, was probably the only person who had seen a few. And that was only because they used to have art class together before school budget cuts.
Marcie just sighed at the familiar response, already having heard it many times before. Their conversation shifted to easy topics. It was always like this with Marcie: easy and calm. When she wasn’t giving him that stern look that she had perfected over the years at least.
Marcie had to stay after school for her student council work though, leaving Roland to head back home on his own. He breathed in the cool winter air, watching his breath form out in front of him. Snow crunched under his boots. The clouds had moved to cover up the sun, chasing away any warmth Roland had felt in class. It looked like it might begin snowing again soon.
Roland breathed out, relishing in the moments of silence which accompanied snowy days like this. After he left the hustle and bustle of school, all noise just seemed to stop. It was just the cool air hitting his face, his warm beanie on his head, the crunch of the snow and rock-salt underneath his boots, and the bracing feeling of the air in his lungs. Somehow, it made him feel alive, yet isolated. It was as if the whole world stopped until a car drove by or another kid walking home from school came into view.
His older sister’s car didn’t escape his attention as it went by. Elle had offered him a ride home multiple times, but Roland always refused. She always brought her loud friends who laughed obnoxiously and chattered away the whole time. Besides, she was a senior this year and Roland was a junior; Elle would be away at school next year anyway, so he’d have to walk eventually.
Not that Elle understood his reasons for wanting to spend some time with his own thoughts. She was the type who liked to be constantly surrounded by others and always holding a conversation. He would have questioned how the girls could talk to one another with the music so loud that he could hear it from the sidewalk if he hadn’t heard them screaming over each other before.
Roland shook his head, breathing in the cool air as he went. He wasn’t surprised that he was the first one to make it back home. Both of his parents worked, his father at an IT company and his mother as a hospital administrator. Elle always spent time with her friends after school. His younger sister, Fiona, would be at the baking club for a few hours yet. Even as a freshman, Fiona had already garnered a large group of friends thanks to her warm personality. Both of his sisters were definitely the “popular without trying” type.
Roland had the house to himself for now. He didn’t bother to disturb the silence, heading straight to his room after slipping his boots off. He huffed as he fell into his bed, staring at the ceiling for a few minutes. The only reason he ended up moving was because he figured he should get started on some homework before his sisters came home and the house was filled with noise again.
Opening his laptop, Roland hesitated for a second before turning it on. He looked tired, even in the reflection of the dark screen. His skin was pale, contrasting drastically against his dark hair. Unlike his two sisters with their lighter hair, he took after his mother. Staring at that reflection, Roland couldn’t help but to think that he wasn’t anything special.
Neither of his parents or his sisters had blue eyes, which he supposed made him a little bit unique, but other than that, Roland was average. He blended into the background seamlessly, Marcie was his only friend, and he was more content to relax on his own than anything. He was definitely the black sheep of his family.
School wasn’t too difficult for him. He studied for grades that were more or less okay and did his homework. But after two hours of working and the arrival of his sisters, Roland grabbed his sketchpad and sat on his bed to draw.
Drawing was the only thing he could say he was somewhat good at. His pencil moved over the sketchpad seamlessly, drawing anything that came to mind. Roland let himself get lost in the motion, drawing and redrawing with heavy and light strokes, letting his hand guide him without his thoughts getting in the way.
It was as if the stress melted from his shoulders as he exhaled, forgetting about the sounds of his sisters outside the door, the stupid project he had for school, and his own exhaustion. Roland ended up with a picture of Marcie and Gina he drew from memory.
Gina had been reading as always, while Marcie surreptitiously looked down at the book in her lap. They didn’t hang out with Gina much, but sometimes ended up sitting with her when she sat down to read during lunch. Well, it was more like sitting next to her, since she never acknowledged them.
The drawing could have been a picture. The shading showed off their features while a slight breeze ruffled their hair. Marcie had been looking at Gina with that same attention she had that morning, a slight redness to her cheeks.
It didn’t surprise Roland that he’d ended up drawing Marcie. She was a frequent sketch of his, if only because he’d seen her almost every day for the past ten years. Considering the fact that he was only seventeen, ten years was a long time. He’d gotten better at recalling people’s features from memory too, as evidenced by Gina’s new appearance in his work.
Roland sighed, knowing that no matter how great his drawings were, they would never get him anywhere. That was the real reason why he never showed them to people: they would probably end up in a drawer at some point anyway, so he didn’t see the point in getting his hopes up with compliments.
Still, his let his thumb trace over the picture sentimentally. He had to quickly hide his work from sight when the door suddenly opened without warning.
“Elle, get out,” he said grumpily, glaring at her.
She had an issue with knocking before entering, but she at least stayed leaning on the door frame instead of stepping in. Her dark blonde hair tumbled over her shoulders, causing her to flick it away with one of her manicured hands. “What are you so upset about? It’s not like I caught you doing something dirty.”
She shrugged as if it would have been inconsequential even if she had. It probably would have been, although Roland would have never lived it down. He rolled his eyes at her, choosing not to continue that line of conversation. “What do you want?”
“Time for dinner. You were in here for a while,” she commented, obviously curious about what he had been doing.
Roland just huffed, putting his sketchbook away. No one in his family saw his drawings either, although both Elle and Fiona knew that he still drew. They even made sure to get him art supplies for every birthday or holiday while kindly not mentioning why he might need them.
“Come on,” she said. He didn’t protest when she looped her arm through his to lead him away. Roland actually smiled at the familiar gesture, looking down at her now that he’d finally grown taller.
Fiona was just pulling out the pizzas from the oven when they entered. Roland quickly went over to help her, admonishing her, “You should have told me you were cooking, Fi. I could have helped.”
“I’m fifteen now, Roland, I know how to cook a frozen pizza,” she said teasingly with a chuckle in her voice. She set one on a pizza pan and the other on the cutting board, taking out the pizza cutter to slice it.
Roland always forgot that Fiona was growing up. He’d always been two years older than her, helping her with anything and everything when their parents weren’t at home. Elle had done the same with him, and still hadn’t gotten out of the habit of checking up on him.
Despite her small size and skinny frame, Fiona sliced those pizzas like a pro while Elle pulled out plates and Roland handed out slices. The three of them ate alone at the table like they often did when both of their parents were still at work. Maybe it would have been lonely if they all weren’t already used to it.
Roland couldn’t help but to think of his history project again somewhere in between conversations. This was all he did, just about every day. If someone was studying him a hundred years from now, they’d be just as unimpressed with their project as he was with his.