“So, hey, what was up with yesterday?”
Rock serves the volleyball and shrugs. “I've been under a lot of stress.”
I catch the ball and eye him suspiciously. Rock is my best friend, and by now, I've learned to tell when he's not telling the truth. “Right. What stress do you have? It can't be with your love life, that's for sure.”
He narrows his eyes. “Don't you dare move in on her.”
I raise my hands defensively, dropping the volleyball. “Hey, you know I would never do that! I just...worry about you guys sometimes.”
He sighs and rolls the ball back towards me. “I'm sorry, I just...I don't know...sometimes...”
I palm the ball and soften my voice. “Rock, it's me. You can tell me, you know that.”
“But not...here.” He glances around.
We're in gym, probably the best place to talk freely as no one can hear you over the echoes of other shouts and no one really cares anyway. Still, he looks pretty upset. I'll let it go for the time being.
“So, uh. There's that play tonight,” Not that I'm a fan of the drama club or anything, those stupid posters are just everywhere. “Are you gonna take Melissa?”
“It's Missy, and I don't know, all right?”
We resume tossing the ball back and forth over the net in silence. I try not to ask too many questions about him and Melissa, but sometimes, I can't help myself. I worry about her and I just can't help but think that I could be better to her than he is. That's natural, right? All boys think that about girls with boyfriends. He just...hasn't been paying much attention to her lately and I'm afraid...
The ten-minute warning bell rings, and we go in to change.
“Hey, sorry about that,” Rock tosses me his body spray. “Like I said, I'm uptight.”
You can say that again. I spray myself liberally with the deodorant. “It's okay. But what's up with the Missy thing?”
He shrugs. “Everyone calls her that now. I think it's cute. Don't you?”
As a matter of fact, I hate it. I have dedicated whole afternoons to thinking up nicknames for the girl of my dreams and Missy didn't even come near the list. It sounds degrading, like she's just another skinny airhead who takes pictures of herself in the bathroom mirror.
“Yeah. It's cute.”
I've never been much for speaking my mind.
“So, uh...about the play...” He pauses for a minute as he struggles back into his shirt. “You can take her, if you want.”
I evaluate my options. Wood's working that night (of course he is), but I don't want to leave the animal...Tanya home alone...
“I'll...have to ask for permission. But thanks.”
“Sure. No funny stuff.”
I grin. “You know me.”
“Besides,” He shrugs his backpack on and waits as I tie my shoelaces. “What do you need permission for? I'm sure he'll let you go.”
“I hope so.” Considering the fact that I'm asking permission from an illegal, supposedly nonexistent animal to leave it alone where it could easily be discovered...
She might get mad, and I don't want to get in trouble.
She's curled up on the bed, but when she hears my voice, she looks up. Looks up with a rather bored expression on her face, it's true, but still, it's acknowledgment.
“I have a question.”
She puts her head back down.
“Would it be all right if I...went out tonight?”
She stiffens and the hair on her back raises.
I sit down next to her. “Only for a couple of hours, then I'll take you out later, okay?”
She licks her nose, considering.
“I brought you beef jerky...”
She thinks for another minute, then gives a slight nod and closes her eyes. I can only imagine what she's thinking. All right, that's fine. Just let me go to sleep!
I touch her back gently, but this time I don't move fast enough to avoid a snap that leaves me bleeding.
She has a smug look on her face as she curls back into a ball. Let that be a lesson to you.
“Hey, what happened to your hand?”
I stuff it in my pocket. “Burned it.”
Melissa giggles. “Yeah, stoves are hot, remember?”
I laugh with her, our breath making thick white clouds in front of our faces. I love her laugh. I love everything about her...the way her cheeks get red in the cold, like they are now, the way she scrunches up her face when she gets mad, the way –
I give a little start. I tend to get lost in my thoughts a lot, and it's not always so easy to find my way back. “Sorry.”
“It's fine.” She flashes a smile. “So...did you find out what's bugging Rock?”
I shake my head as the light turns green and we cross the street. “I talked to him, but all I can get out of him is that 'he's stressed'.” I make air quotes and roll my eyes. “I don't know why, though. I saw his last report card and his lowest grade was a B plus. Can't you find out? Like, offer to take your shirt off or something?”
She laughs again. “First off, that’s nothing new to him. Second...” Her grin fades. “He...barely talks to me anymore.”
There's a short silence.
Then I throw an arm around her shoulders and start tickling her and once again, the sound of laughter rings out on the quiet street.
After a while, she's trying to get her breath back and obviously feeling much better. “Dash, you are the best friend ever.”
A little pang hits my heart. I'm not sure if it's jealousy or sadness, but either way, it hurts. This girl deserves so much more than what Rock is giving her right now...I resolve to tell him that later.
Before long, we've reached school. Other kids are pouring in the doors and I can spot Owen and Cheryl, making a scene in the middle of the crowd. I shudder, glad I met Melissa at her house so we didn't run into those two.
We stand in line for what seems like an eternity, making jokes and teasing each other, until finally we get our tickets and find our seats, which, because the world hates me, happen to be directly behind Owen and Cheryl's. I groan inwardly and hope they didn't see me.
I fight the urge to roll my eyes. Really, universe? Really? “Hi, Owen.”
He nods at Melissa. “That your girlfriend? I didn't know you had one!”
Melissa and I exchange glances. Then, she leans forward. “See, things are kind of complicated with us. I'm sort of dating another guy right now, but I'm also pregnant with Dash's baby. We figure as soon as the school year ends, we'll run away to Mexico and live with the roadrunners.”
I love this girl.
Owen laughs, but Cheryl raises her eyebrows at me like, Come on, you could do so much better.
I do roll my eyes then – I couldn't care less about insulting Cheryl. She couldn't ruin my life the way Owen could.
At that point, though, the lights dim and the music starts. The Chaos Couple face front again and I have to clamp my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing at the face Melissa makes at their backs.
The play is pretty lame...it's supposed to be Peter Pan, I guess, but the lead actor can't sing, the costumes look like they've been ripped out of a dog's mouth and the spotlight guy seems like he's had a little too much caffeine. The light keeps bouncing around the stage.
After watching about fifteen minutes of this nonsense, I turn and watch the girl sitting next to me instead. She's much better looking than those sets, anyway, with her long, wavy auburn hair, long, gorgeous eyelashes and slight smattering of freckles on her nose...I have literally written poems about those freckles. I've written poems about everything having to do with her...it was just my luck that by the time I had worked up enough courage to ask her out, Rock had swept her off her feet.
That was almost a year ago and I shouldn't be bitter, but I can't help it. It was almost cute at first, you know, when couples can't stop themselves from cuddling and smooching all the time, but...since the beginning of this school year, they've been distant. Or at least Rock has. I worry...
Melissa suddenly turns and catches me staring at her. She crosses her eyes and puffs out her cheeks and I grin.
She is so perfect.
“Well, that was a complete waste of time.”
During the play, it must have snowed a little, and there's a good two inches on the ground. It's still coming down, not as fast now, but all in all, it's a beautiful night.
“Not completely.” I toss her a candy bar, bought during intermission. “Anyway, better than staying home and being lonely, right?”
Her shoulders slump a little, and I realize too late that that was the wrong thing to say.
“Melissa – ”
“I'm okay,” She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear and smiles. “And why don't you call me Missy, like everyone else?”
I shrug. “I...I like your real name. And what I used to call you when we were little.”
She makes a face. “Mel? That sounds like a guy.”
I could give her a thousand reasons why I'd rather call her that...hell, I could sing her a song about her name, I've written two...but...well, as I said before, I've never been much for speaking my mind. I'm a little too withdrawn for my own good. Right now, for example, I should tell this girl how I feel and at least hug her or something...
But instead, I just shrug again.
I hate myself.
“So, uh...what was that thing at lunch yesterday?” She folds her arms tightly across her body.
“The thing you were avoiding...the stray dog or something?” She raises an eyebrow. “I'm pretty sure there's more to it.
“Um...” My pulse quickens. “Not really...someone in my building just found a stray animal and took it home. I wanted to make sure they knew how to take care of it.” There. Perfectly honest without telling the whole truth. I like it.
She chews on her lip, still skeptical. After a while, she relents. “Okay, then, can I come by and see it sometime? I like dogs.”
My heart is beating so loud right now, I'm surprised she can't hear it. “Yeah, I'll um...see what I can do.”
We've reached her house by this point, and we stand at the edge of her driveway. If this were one of my fantasies, I'd sweep her into a passionate kiss, she'd fall head over heels in love with me and Rock would miraculously be okay with it.
But this is reality and so instead, her brother hits me on the back of the head with a snowball.
Melissa giggles and runs inside. “Thanks, Dash!
“You're – ”
The door slams.I sigh.