Another school year started, another year of soul crushing, confidence breaking teachers pitting students against one another, praising those who are naturally gifted; who succeed without any teaching, hoping the average students kill themselves to improve and those who are subpar quit and do something ‘more suited’ to them than education, all so they can look good. I looked up from my locker, just before first period started and saw Josh Angevin as he walked down the hall toward me.
The sun hitting his deep, ocean blue eyes making them sparkle, his normally dark hair now seemed a light, pure brown, sitting with a perfect spiky quiff. He must have had a recent haircut; his hair usually covered those eyes, but I could see them clearly now. He always had it a bit longer on the top, I never understood why but I never complained either. He had his letterman jacket on, the scarlet red body a stark contrast the royal blue Marble Hills Technical School logo and the cream sleeves highlighting his natural tan. We spent a lot of time on the beach this summer but I was still somehow whiter than snow, although that might just be a comparison to Josh’s tan.
We had been best friends since high school started – since I helped him out in our first AP math class. Of course I knew him from when we were kids but we hadn’t really clicked until that moment. We always had that competitiveness between us, both academically, where he was edging me out, and athletically, where I had the advantage. So far we’d kept a good balance, using sport to socialize and spending most of our time together studying – we took all the same courses. You’d think that captain of the basketball and football teams and honor roll student would be king of the school, and in many ways he was.
Just walking down the hallway to meet me everyone greeted him, his friends, people who he barely knew, teachers, anyone who saw him. And he was always kind, making time for anyone who asked him, helped everyone he could. But he stayed away from the parties, the drugs and the alcohol, all the activities that the truly ‘popular’ kids did. He was the kind of person I aspired to be, but I never knew how he could do it, I could barely balance my schedule let alone do favors for the whole school like he did.
“Emma” he called out as he approached, opening his arms for a hug. As he embraced me for the first hug of the school year I could tell something was wrong. The only other time I had this feeling about him was when we were seven and he came to school the weekend after his mother’s death. His father had been drinking and got behind the wheel, a crash that changed Josh’s whole life – his father’s imprisonment as a result of the incident meant that he had to go live with his grandma. Nine years later and that same cold shiver ran down my spine, giving me goose bumps that had me believing my skin would jump off my skeleton. We hugged for a few seconds longer than usual, I squeezed a bit tighter, not knowing what to expect. He looked at my hair, his gaze following my black hair from the top of my head (which he could easily see being 6′1") to the bottom of my shoulder, avoiding eye contact as if it might break him.
We exchanged the usual niceties, still not revealing the problem as we walked to our first class of the year. I sat down, and he pulled the chair next to me, stopped for a second, as if unsure whether he would stay, and was seated. To anyone else it would have looked normal, but I could see the hesitation in his eyes, unsure of what move to make next. I knew not to press further during class, but that’s all I could think about throughout the lesson. As Josh sat there, uncharacteristically, I couldn’t help but think of worse case scenarios – was someone he loved in danger, hurt, dead. When the lesson came to a close, what seemed like a day later, we walked to our lockers – first mine, then his – in utter silence. I looked at him as we walked and all my stresses faded – school, sport, family, friends – all the drama gone, my only concern was Josh.
We headed outside to the courtyard, and went to our table, the isolated one furthest from the main building, where no one could interrupt us. We established that that was going to be our table in our first year, and by our Junior year, everyone knew never to bother us during free periods. The isolation was good, it allowed us to study in peace – but more importantly, it allowed us to have our private conversations.
“How are you?” I asked, concern growing in my voice.
He looked at me for a moment, not responding but desperately wanting to. I could see him trying to make his mind up, whether to tell me or not – ‘I’m good’ he responded with a forced chuckle. We stayed in silence for a moment, as I looked at him. The longer I looked the less he could hold on, tears slowly swelling in his eyes. After about a minute, he was sobbing on my shoulder and I just hugged him. I didn’t know how to deal with it in honesty, it made me uncomfortable but I knew he needed me and I knew I couldn’t be the first to let go. He tried to let go but I held on and he didn’t fight it. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t help him if I didn’t know what happened. So I asked him.
“What’s wrong?” I struggled to get the words out, not knowing what his response would be.
“Everything” he responded quickly.
“My grandma collapsed this weekend, my father is getting out and Ashleigh seems to have no time for me anymore, none of which I can talk to anyone else about cause I’m not supposed to stress my grandma, Ashleigh has her own stuff going and no one can possibly understand what is happening to me” he continued.
He vented the rest of his problems for another five minutes, detailing how he was scared for his grandma, not just about her collapse but also with the release of his father. His rants about Ashleigh seemed to grow longer recently, but I didn’t mind. Josh’s voice had always soothed me, and he was always there for me, so how couldn’t I do the same? But this stuff, I didn’t know how to respond. I had never been through anything like this before, my parents were always there for me and I had a freakishly good relationship with my sister – like the type you see in those ’60s movies with the perfect family. I knew I was adopted and we had our own issues of course but we had always been safe and healthy. I looked at him for a second, trying to figure out how to respond.
“I’ll always be here for you” I said with a smile. What a pathetic attempt to cheer him up, I knew immediately as the words left my mouth. Was that all I could say to comfort my best friend in the whole world?
“I know... it’s just my grandma is like the only family I have left; you know? I haven’t seen or spoken to my dad since he went to jail. And when she collapsed on the weekend and I saw her on the floor my heart stopped for a second before I could react. The paramedics and doctors said she would be fine and that there wouldn’t be any long term damage but she would need bed rest for a few weeks. And now that my dad is getting out I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I can’t forgive him for what happened, I can barely even mention him or even think about him. And Ashleigh... I’m head over heels in love but I don’t know if she feels the same – her parents are divorcing and she doesn’t want to talk to me right now, she won’t see me and I want to be there for her and I just didn’t want school to start again. Can we just grow up? Can we skip school and college and just have a family with stable jobs?” he finished. His chest lifted a little higher , as if the weight of carrying this around had finally been split in half sharing it with me.
“I know it’s really scary right now, trust me I want to grow up too. Just have all the stress and anxiety of being a teenager over – no classes to worry about, not having to worry about love interests, no pressure to perform each week in volleyball. Especially the pressure to live – to go out and be young while maintaining perfect grades and playing well and just being perfect.” I forgot where I was going with this, to be honest... probably made him feel worse but it just came out, and I had to keep going until I got to something good. Something that may help him, even a little bit.
“But things will get better, right?” I asked haphazardly.
“The doctors said that Grandma Olivia will be fine which is excellent to hear. I can come over and help you take care of her whenever you need. And I know that things are hard with your dad, you don’t want to forgive him and that’s fine. You have no obligation to him – I think it might be good for you to get that off your chest but if you don’t want to, if you aren’t ready and never will be then you owe him nothing. And I know Ashleigh loves you too, she asks me every day how you are, if you talk about her, she just has a lot going on and doesn’t know how to deal with it. Just buy her flowers or chocolates or something and go to her house. Spend some time with her, do whatever she wants and tell her you love her! She can hear it from others but she won’t believe it unless you say it to her. Just take a deep breath and slow down. Trust me, it’s going to be fine.” I said these things, no idea if they would help him, but I didn’t believe a word myself. Not about his family or relationships, but honestly I didn’t know what the future would hold, for all I know we could all die tomorrow.
We spent the rest of the session studying, my mind still unsure whether I had helped at all and worrying about him, but that dreaded feeling was gone, he looked better and before either of us knew it the bell rang. We spent the rest of the day walking to and from class together, not talking about anything as important the rest of the day. When school finally ended, it was time for practice. We agreed to meet at his car at 5, we were going to his house after to study; and we went to our separate locker rooms.
I entered the girls’ locker room, the navy lockers lined up against the wall, the lighting so poor, you could barely see everyone’s faces. I headed straight to my usual locker, luckily it was still free, keeping my head down, still thinking about Josh as I changed into my sports uniform to get ready for Volleyball. I must have been completely out of it because when Rose walked over and started talking I nearly jumped. Rose was the normal rich girl; you know the type. The ones who think they are better than everyone else because they have more money, but are also somehow the nicest people you have ever met. If you are on her good side, life is a breeze, she gives the best presents and is a genuinely good friend.
But I wouldn’t dare getting on her bad side. As nice as she could be, she could be just as nasty. Anyone who ever crossed her, or her friends, would live to regret it. She had dagger eyes which could pierce through your soul, making you regret you ever opened your eyes that morning. She could make you feel so small, I should know. When I first joined the volleyball team, I accidentally took her locker. It didn’t have anything in it, no notice that it was hers but apparently there was an unwritten law that that was reserved for her. The first few months of being on the team, I felt like a total outsider, a type of pariah in the sport that had once been my safe haven. When I started in the team however, she quickly forgave me as I helped the team win games. She’s been my friend ever since, although, I use the term friend very loosely.
As she sat next to me I could see that her long, straight, blonde hair was now tied in a slick, high ponytail and she wore the regular maroon sport outfit, the school logo brightly blue in the middle of the shirt, a shirt which was nearly longer than her maroon shorts when let down. She always tied it with a hair tie to the side, so that the shirt didn’t hang over her shorts. The lighting in the room made her usually bright hazel eyes seem a dark brown, but all I could focus was the form in her hand.
“What’s that?” I asked her, some worry in my voice.
“It’s the permission slip for the away trips this year. You know it’s due today right?” She said, half condescendingly, half genuine concern.
She may not have been my favorite person, and I definitely wasn’t hers but we needed each other to win. And we were both uber-competitive, needing victory. I’m sure for her it has something to do with needing validation, and I probably have my own issues that made it necessary for me to win, but it didn’t matter. All that ever mattered in volleyball was winning.
I ran out before responding to her, my baggy shirt and shorts flopping as I picked up pace. I took a quick left out of the locker rooms, past the boys’ locker rooms and knocked on Coach Paulson’s door. Almost immediately the door swung open and I saw my tall bulky coach standing before me. He opened his mouth but I cut him off before he could speak.
“I’m really sorry I forgot the permission slip. Can I please get it to you tomorrow? It would kill me not to be able to play”. The words sprinted out of my mouth. The anxiety building up inside me.
He opened his mouth to speak again, but words didn’t come out. He simply nodded and closed the door again. Ugh, I thought. It’s only the first day back and I’m already disappointing my teachers. I headed back to the locker room, slower than I did to race to his door. Looking back, I’m not sure why I ran, I still had another 5 minutes to practice and nothing I said or did could change the fact that the slip was missing, but I couldn’t help myself. I entered the locker rooms and saw Rose on the other side, talking to a few other girls from the team. I took out my water bottle and sat in silence for a few minutes, waiting for Bella, our literal model of a captain to tell us to head out.
As practice started, my thoughts started to consume me. I missed probably every ball that came my way, but I didn’t care. The thoughts on my mind were too important. For the first time that day, I stopped worrying about if Josh was feeling better, or rather if I had helped him feel better, but about everything he told me. I thought mostly about his father. Anger swelled inside me as practice continued. How could he drive drunk? Why was he getting out? Had he reached out to Josh? How would he fit back in Josh’s life? The more I thought about him, the angrier I got. He had treated Josh so poorly before the accident, he barely had a right to be alive, let alone be released from prison. All my thought culminated in one of the worst things I had done: I spiked the ball over the net, straight into Rose’s face with such power she fell down. I heard a horrible cry and soon everyone surrounded her. Someone fainted, I couldn’t see who, but I could see why. I must’ve broken her nose with the amount of blood that was coming out. Bella shot me a disapproving look and helped get Rose to the Nurse’s office.
Great. My day just fell apart. Not only was my best friend going through some serious stuff, stuff that I didn’t know how to help him with, but now I had basically completely ruined my chances of playing volleyball this year. Coach Paulson walked over to me and started reprimanding me. I was going to explain but I thought it best to just sit there and take it, so I bit my tongue, hung my head down in shamed and walked to the locker room in isolation. Practice was most definitely over and no one from the team made an effort to speak to me, each slowly making their way out. The time was 4:55 when the last person walked out, and I sat by my locker for a minute, staring at the ceiling and hating school, life and pretty much myself.
I gathered my things and made my way, slowly, toward the parking lot. I saw Josh waiting in his car, walked to the passenger’s door and opened it. His music was blasting, and believe me or not he was playing Taylor Swift. His smile was beaming, covering his whole mouth. And the first truly good thing of the day happened, he was truly smiling, smiling with his soul, with his eyes, with every fiber of his being as he sang along to “Love Story”. My trouble began to fade as we drove, singing along to Taylor Swift, to his house.