Chapter 2: Higher Ground
“I admire your courage,” Benley’s girlfriend, known as AJ, says softly.
I’m hoping Benley will have the same reaction. In fact, I’m hoping, by some miracle, that they will all be able to see passed my five-year disappearance. Then again, it may just be wishful thinking.
“Thanks,” I turn back to smile at her as she follows me off the plane.
My nerves have only heightened up until now. I don’t get nervous easily. It takes an avalanche to make me feel completely out of place, literally.
It’s only after we’ve collected our luggage that I hear his voice.
“No way on this damn earth can that be who I think it is!”
I grimace at hearing him shout it across all the people. I duck my head in shame as I try to walk passed him, but he’s not having it and neither is AJ.
“Tut tut,” AJ reprimands as she comes up from behind me, proceeding to push me straight into her boyfriend.
Again, I hide my face and try escape passed him swiftly.
Benley - at having enough of my games - grabs hold off my arm, forcing me to stop, “Your vanishing acts have come to a closing.”
I glance up at him with a sheepish expression, “Well hi there, BoyBand,” I greet with an uncertain wave. “Didn’t see you there,” I lie effortlessly, the moment as tense as it is awkward.
“A month my ass,” is his only words before he takes the initiative to embrace me tightly.
I stiffen, his actions unexpected, “BoyBand?”
“I gotta say, I missed the nickname,” he confesses, for once not complaining about the name.
Caught off guard, I awkwardly hug him back, surprised that he’s not infuriated with me.
He releases me to greet his girlfriend next, placing a light kiss against her lips.
I glance away, feeling uncomfortable. Maybe coming back was a mistake. These people, my people, don’t seem to need me around anymore. Everyone has their own individual lives now. I’m only intruding.
Benley sure seems to have matured in his physical appearance, reminding me of how long I’ve been away. His once clean shaven face is now ridden with slight stubble, and his black hair seems even darker than ever before. Fortunately, he’s kept his usual short haircut that he’s always sported.
“So you met her then?” Benley asks his girlfriend as he gestures over to me in pride.
AJ nods enthusiastically in response, “Oh yeah!” she confirms, “She’s great!”
Benley cracks a small smile and nods, agreeing with AJ, “She’s alright. Nothing special, but she will do.”
Some things just never change…
A ghost of a smile surfaces on my lips as I ease up slightly.
“Shut up, you Looney Tune!” I get my voice back as a chuckle spills from my lips, “I’m plenty special,” I argue, falling back into a familiar relationship with him.
If things could be this easy with the others, I wouldn’t be so nervous. Benley makes it easier than it should be. I appreciate his efforts in welcoming me back home. No doubt the others won’t be quite as forgiving as him.
I watch as he grins in victory upon seeing my reaction.
He turns to face AJ, “See,” he points my way, “told you that Aqueela’s an oddball,” he jokes, shooting me a warm smile in turn.
AJ decides to join in on the teasing and nods fervently, her blue eyes set on me as she feigns shock, “I’m starting to see it now,” she says before breaking out into a mischievous grin of her own, one that matches her boyfriend’s.
I can tell that this girl is going to fit in just perfectly.
Benley, only now noticing how AJ and I are straining under the weight of all our bags, decides to take the load off us like the gentleman he is. He places them on a luggage cart and begins pushing the cart as he heads for the exit of the airport.
He motions us along, “Let’s get going you two,” he orders calmly, laid-back as ever. He’s always been the easy-going type, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but it does anyway. I was expecting an entirely different reaction from him altogether.
“Wait, wait, wait!” I call as AJ and I quickly run after him in order to catch up with him.
He stops to arch a brow at me, “Yes?”
“Where is everyone at nowadays?” I ask casually, in dire need of some answers before I face all of them again. This is an intense return.
I don’t know who I’m dreading seeing most, Grey or Jay. Those two are crazy scary when they’re mad. Still, I’d have to choose Grey’s wrath to Jay’s disappointment. Heck, Bells will destroy them both.
Benley noticeably winces at my question.
“How about we talk about that later, yeah?” he says distractedly as he continues on walking, now picking up in speed as if dodging my questions.
For all I know, Benley’s the only one still currently residing in town.
I raise an eyebrow as I stare after Benley, now officially lost.
Why won’t he just tell me?
AJ notices that I’m no longer beside her. She turns back to see that I stopped walking a while ago. She frowns as if puzzled by my reluctance to get a move on. She soon recovers and sends me a small smile, “You coming, ‘Oddball’?”
I nod hesitantly before sprinting after her.
“So where are you staying then?” AJ asks as we stop in front of Benley’s spotless Bentley.
She’s over friendly, not that I’m complaining. I like it. Benley needs a girl who can lift his mood. She’s upbeat and he needs that.
I had originally planned to stay temporarily with my grandparents or with Uncle Jeffrey (he happens to be visiting his parents, so he’s in town), but I’m not sure if that is the best option for me right now. I could just opt out and look elsewhere. My grandparents are not a healthy combination towards my mental state.
I fumble with my fingers uncomfortably as I shift position, not quite keen to answer her question until I figure it out myself, “Well, I…uh-“
“You can stay with us!” AJ cuts me off with pure excitement.
She chipped in to give her two cents worth when she saw me struggling to answer. She’s obviously seen the uncertainty in my eyes.
Her offer is sweet, but I don’t want to disrupt on whatever it is they have going on. Knowing me, I’m bound to somewhere along the line - take Jay’s house for example, I practically turned it into a guest house. Thinking back, I realize that I took him for granted. He was good to me and in turn, I was the opposite. He always gave and I always took. I was childish and ungrateful back then. It won’t happen again.
I open my mouth to protest, but shockingly enough, Benley is the one who shushes me, “I once told you that if you need anything, I’m your guy.”
I’m reminded of those same words he’d used on me when we landed up in mall prison. I’d been upset over Mason’s words and Benley, like the sweetheart he’s always been, had comforted me. It’s enough to bring a smile to my face.
“That offer still stands. It’s still on the table,” Benley nods at me in conviction and reassurance, true to his words. “All you have to do is speak up and we…” he motions to himself and then to his girlfriend, “will both have you covered with whatever it is you need.”
I pause, still not certain about this.
Benley sees my apprehensive stare and so looks unto AJ for back up, “Right, AJ?”
“Only of course!” she nods furiously, clapping her hands in insistence.
Fortunately, they’re on the same page.
He has found himself a real keeper in this girl. AJ has a heart of gold. She’s awesome. He’d better appreciate her. She’s a bajillion and an infinite two times better than Bex. She’s down to earth and genuine. It’s refreshing to be around.
I cautiously eye Benley, my eyes then straying to AJ as if to read her, “Are you guys sure?” I ask as I decide to take them both up on their offer. I might as well, but this time, I will contribute to rent, etcetera.
If I am to stay with them, it will just be temporary.
When I first moved into Jay’s house on my own accord, it turned out not to be temporary. I ended up staying with him for an entire year. I guess with him, everything just kind of feels permanent - or at least it used to feel that way.
“You don’t even have to ask, Aqueela,” Benley replies politely as if on cue, “we’re practically family by now,” he shares a smile with me.
I’m overcome by a strong wave of gratefulness and the urge to hug the life out of both of them. Me being me, I do. “Thank you!” I chorus in glee as I embrace both of them, appreciative.
They just saved me from staying with my whack grandparents.
AJ and Benley merely chuckle as they return my affection through hugging me back. Their kindness is in abundance. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t run into AJ on the plane ride here.
I step back from them to look at them, “No, really, thank you both so much,” I say, expressing my gratitude - it comes from the bottom of my heart.
I wasn’t expecting such a warm welcome home. If I have no one (say the others don’t forgive me), at least I will have these two.
“No thanks necessary,” Benley states nonchalantly, “I’m just glad you’re back,” he admits in a sincere tone. He proceeds by asking the dreaded question, “Are you here to stay?”
To my astonishment, it dawns on me that he has yet to ask why I didn’t come back in the first place. Had it been anyone else, they would have fished for a valid answer. I have to say, I may have missed softhearted BenBen, just a little…
My answer is instantaneous, “Yes,” I confirm, one hundred percent certain of myself this time ’round, “I’m back for good. No getting rid of me now.”
Benley merely smiles, not bothering to ask why the sudden change of scenery. He’s always been the type that lays low. He doesn’t press for answers or ask too many questions. He respects one’s privacy in spite of his own growing curiosity.
He says nothing more as he places our luggage in the trunk of his car. AJ takes passenger seat whilst I take back, Benley being the driver.
It’s minutes later when Benley finally gives into temptation and says something Jay related, “I hope you two work out this time ’round,” he adds casually, his dark eyes meeting mine from the car’s rearview mirror.
His all knowing statement is followed by silence, and then some more.
“So this is it,” Benley says as he opens the front door to his house, “nothing too fancy, but it’s home.”
AJ is the first to force her way in before falling face first onto the couch’s cool leather surface, “Gosh!” she grumbles out as she makes herself comfortable, “I’m exhausted from that flight.” she complains tiredly. “I think I might be suffering from jet lag,” she adds.
I laugh at her statement, but it soon becomes apparent that she’s dead serious.
Benley’s quick to step in and correct her, “AJ, you only suffer from jet lag when you travel across different time zones,” he explains before pointing out the facts, “New York is only an hour ahead of Minnesota.”
“Shut it!” AJ sits up straight as she glares at her boyfriend, “I’m too exhausted to argue with you right now,” she whines, a yawn escaping her.
“Busy day?” I ask her teasingly.
She shakes her head at me, her lips quirking up into a half-smile, “You have no idea, Aqueela.”
I think I got the gist of it. I had one hectic day too.
“Go rest, AJ,” Benley suggests, “in the meantime, I’ll have a talk with Aqueela,” he updates her, keeping her posted as to what’s going to happen.
“Good idea!” AJ claps as she springs back up to her feet. “You can break in the ground rules for her so long,” she jokes.
I watch her disappear into a room after that.
“She’s only joking…” Benley quickly jumps in to defend her, embarrassed, “I think,” he adds sheepishly.
I nod, not meeting his gaze just yet as I put his mind to rest, “I figured, silly.”
If there is anyone who knows about joking, it’s me.
I glance back at him in approval, “She’s something else. I like her. I think she brings out a good side to you.”
Benley scoffs at that, “Please, I’m all good,” he kids, “it’s me that brings out all the good in her.”
I snicker at his obvious denial, “Sure sure, whatever you say LeyLey,” I toy with him, choosing to go with it.
“Don’t patronize me!” he flashes me a devilish grin before taking on a more stern expression, “But if I’m being honest, you’re right,” he admits, “she brings out the best in me.”
“I do, don’t I?!” AJ calls from inside her room, making it obvious that she’s eavesdropping on our conversation.
I chuckle. She might just as be as crazy as me.
“Go to sleep already, Princess!” Benley shouts back in response.
“Not without my Prince Charming!” she yells out childishly, reminding me of myself - but the more vocal version.
“I’ll come check on you later!” he calls over his shoulder, his eyes still intently trained on me as he offers me an apologetic expression for the interruption.
“Not you! Did you not hear me? I said ‘Prince Charming’ not ‘Prince Wannabe’!”
Benley tunes her out after that, refusing to take her belittling. He glances my way instead, blocking out her protesting, “Let’s take a walk.”
His tone isn’t giving much room for argument.
He offers me his hand, helping me up from my seat.
As we stroll along the asphalt, I’m reminded of all the times I’ve previously walked here. It was different back then, however, it feels incredible to be back in the streets of Burnsville, Minnesota again.
“So what’s this about?” I ask Benley, voicing my concern when he doesn’t take the opportunity to explain himself. I’d like to be debriefed before continuing forth.
“A lot of things have changed since you’ve last been here,” he informs me as if reading my mind. “The squad kind of died, dismantled and disintegrated when you left. You brought us all together and when you left, there wasn’t anyone to keep us all intact.”
“What?” I ask softly, shocked by what I’m hearing.
“You’re the one that kept everyone together. You were the superglue behind us. When you left, it all came undone and things spiraled out of control,” he explains, his sadness over the situation evident in his dark eyes.
It’s not like there was much control when I was around either.
Stunned by the latest revelation, I shake my head defiantly, refusing to believe it. “How is that possible? I thought we were all friends,” I protest, puzzled and hurt to hear that they’ve all separated from the friendship to lead their own individual lives.
“We were,” Benley emphasizes the ‘were’ part to make his point explicitly clear.
I sigh at him in wonder, “Then where is everyone at nowadays?” I question, prodding for more information.
I don’t like what I’m currently hearing.
Benley sucks in a deep breath before answering me, “Greg still owns his bar. Haven’t heard from FeeBee. Grey is still around, not quite sure what he’s been up to-“
I cut Benley off upon hearing the news, “Ooooh! Is he with Nancy yet?” I interrupt excitedly.
Benley shakes his head, “No,” he answers.
My face falls in disappointment, “How come?”
“Nancy has a boyfriend, Ryan,” Ben replies. “Grey was so preoccupied with Jay at the time that he ended up forgetting about Nancy altogether…at least that’s what I heard from various sources.”
I swallow as the guilt sinks in. Benley means to say that Grey has been helping a distraught Jay move on.
“Gland, Jam and Oog have started a band. They’re on tour at the moment. They’re not well known yet. It’s called the ‘Dung Beetles’ and they’re horrendous. They claim to be making millions by the second, but I highly doubt it. My ears bleed when one of their hit singles come up on the radio station,” he chuckles.
I laugh aloud. At least some good has come out of all of this. I can’t imagine those three in a band, nor can I picture them succeeding or having any fans. Their only experience in a band was when we performed ‘Aqueela’s Entourage’ so that Max could ask Bells out. Man, how I miss them days.
“Last I heard, Emma and Xavier are engaged,” Benley states as if just remembering, “which reminds me, I need to congratulate them before they wed. They actually had the decency to invite us all to their wedding.”
Benley sees the hope in my eyes before he flattens it, “Well except for you, sorry,” he apologizes, truly feeling awful about it. “In their defense, they didn’t know that you’d be back in town,” he justifies it.
I’m really not surprised that they’re getting married. I knew from the start that the two had undeniable chemistry. They’ve always had a history.
“It’s going to be the wedding of the century seeing as Xavier is planning to blow billions on it in Vegas,” he tells me.
I pout at his words. I want to be invited too.
Benley, as if sensing my thoughts, speaks up, “You should attend too,” he suddenly suggests as if it’s no big deal.
I send him a deadpanned stare, “You know I can’t do that.”
Benley shakes his head at me, feigning disappointment as a faint grin masks his lips, “The old Aqueela would have killed for the chance to crash a wedding she wasn’t invited to.”
He’s right. It’s like I’ve lost all sense on who I used to be.
Thinking it over a second time, I change my mind. “I will be there,” I finally agree.
No way am I passing up a chance to relive the good ol’ days!
“That’s more like it,” Benley smirks, seemingly more chipper at seeing a glimpse of thee old Aqueela - kid Aqueela.
“Blub rub-a-dub-dub?” I question, intrigued to hear what he’s made of himself.
Benley grins, catching on, “Blubber’s in high school now, he’s in his final year. He’s on the football team. He and Susie are friends, sort of in any case. Luce misses her big bro though. You’d better tell Laiken to visit sometime.”
I gape in shock.
I’m more surprised that Blubber and Susie are friends than Blubber being on the football team.
“To think I was in my final year when I left. Now it’s little Blubber who is in his final year. It’s crazy,” I give life to the wild thoughts running through my mind.
I’ve missed out on so much and it’s all by my own doing. That short chubby kid has probably grown up so much since I last saw him. He’s probably worked off all his excess blubber. He’ll probably be taller than me now too.
The same with Susie, I assume. Her bows, pigtails, and frills have probably been replaced with makeup, heels, and crop tops. Or maybe she’s a ‘sneakers and jeans’ kind of girl. It’s not like I would know.
I open my mouth to say more but stop abruptly upon rounding the corner of the street where the ice-cream store is supposed to be.
My eyes fly wide open as I stare in horror at the food court in its place. I involuntarily emit a fierce growl followed by a yelp of despair.
What is going on?!
“What. The. Damn. Hell. Is. This. Abomination?!” I ask through gritted teeth, absolutely furious as to what I’m witnessing.
This is just plain sick. This is a cult, a heresy! Who would commit such a heinous crime like this?!
I turn to Benley for an immediate explanation. He’d better have a solution or I’m going to have to make a proposal to fix this mess.
He winces, flinching back.
“Alright, where’s the cameras?” I ask, frantically searching around. “I’m being punk’d, right?” I question.
He says nothing.
I thereby jump to my own conclusion, “Now that the cat is out of the bag, tell me B-Dawg, who kidnapped the ice-cream parlor? I want names.” I fire more questions his way, “Are we even on the right street?” Maybe we’re on the wrong street, that would explain it. “I’ve always sucked at directions,” I mutter, annoyed.
“And numbers, don’t forget numbers,” he pipes up. “Who confuses a month for five years?” he teases in an attempt to make light of the situation.
I narrow my eyes at him in warning.
He scratches the back of his neck in response as he takes a step back, “Yeah, so about that…” he trails off, allowing me to fill in the blanks for myself.
“Dylan went bankrupt. He had no choice but to shut down the ice-cream parlor. He’s now working in the business field with his father. Simo is his PA, not a very good one, but one nonetheless,” Ben answers me.
Dylan’s always had Simo’s back. Come to think of it, Simo hardly ever worked. He was always field-tripping with us, skipping out on his hours. Nonetheless, Dylan seems to have a good heart. He never dropped Simo then and he won’t now.
“What about Bex?” I play it cool, despite my mind wandering around the ins and outs of living without Dylan’s magnificent ice-cream store, that, in a way, brought us all together to begin with.
Forget me being the glue, the ice-cream store was the glue. How can I survive without my vibrant blue bubblegum ice-cream that Simo would always make (if he was actually working, that is) for me? Dylan’s store served the best ice-creams. I was looking forward to revisiting paradise.
The worst part about all this is the fact that the ice-cream store is where I first bumped into Jay - well in my books anyway. It’s no wonder I’m so defensive over the ice-cream palace. It’s where I first met the guy who changed my life.
I sigh internally. Jay’s house is not far now. I’m not entirely sure if I’m ready to see him just yet.
Benley frowns at me bringing up his ex’s name, “Bex left town a couple months ago. Not sure where she was headed. I didn’t bother to ask. She ended things with Dylan abruptly when he lost the ice-cream store. He’d been making good money, but when he lost it all, he lost Bex too.”
I didn’t take her for a gold digger. She must have crushed Dylan.
“I get the feeling that she left to study abroad, she always spoke about leaving the country back when…” he winces as he refers to it, “we were dating.”
He still only has derogatory things to say about her. She broke his heart. Hopefully, AJ can fill the void.
“Simo and Miss Wilson - Blubber’s mom - got married a little while after you left. Simo is enjoying the married life. Blubber…not so much. He resents the fact that his mom married his best friend, but he’s getting over it,” Benley grins, finding it amusing.
“Wow. Took him five years and he still hasn’t come around,” I joke, aware that it’s my fault.
I accidentally and unknowingly set up Simo with Blubber’s mom in order to get him off my back.
Ben nods, changing the subject, “Landon met some chick named Sarah. They live together now. He still attends his regular anger management classes, even more so now seeing as his worst nightmare, Xavier, is marrying his little sister.”
I never thought any girl would be brave enough to settle for Landon Kitler. That girl, Sarah, deserves an award.
“What about the last three?” I reason in a pleading voice, wondering why he’d left them out.
“I’m still in touch with Bella, Max, and Troy. I see them on a regular basis,” he explains.
I grin at the good news, overjoyed.
“Just a heads up, Bells will most likely make an attempt on your life when she sees you,” Benely warns, already preparing me for what lies ahead.
That’s not news to me. I’ve already predicted that happening. It’s inevitable.
“Will you protect me?” I ask, looking up at him as I think of all the ways Bells could torture me first before killing me.
“Definitely not. If anything, Bells just gets scarier as time goes on. You’re on your own,” he says, leaving me hanging, just like expected.
He’s still a coward when it comes to Bella Bensten, as are most, including me.
“How are those goofballs?” I ask in an affectionate manner as I think back on all the great times we had together.
I’d always been closer to Max and the Bensten siblings in comparison to everyone else. Troy was like a brother. Bells was a sister. Max was my other half.
“Max is at university, enjoying the campus life. He and Bells are still together. They split for a while when Bells and Troy moved back to Rome to continue their modeling careers. However, that fell through. Bells got bored and Troy got fired from the modeling business when he ‘accidentally’ set an instructor’s hair alight.”
What is it with Troy and fires?
“They both moved back here. Bells and Max are dating again,” he elaborates.
At least they’re back together. They belong as one.
“Bells is now majoring in fashion design. She’s also in a sorority. Oh, and Max is in a fraternity. Troy, for some reason, is also in a fraternity,” Ben shakes his head at his mention, “don’t even get me started on the fraternity wars between Max’s frat club and Troy’s. It’s ridiculous because Troy shouldn’t even be on campus. He’s not even studying.”
I giggle as I envision them all fighting over something as petty as fraternities and sororities. What a sight to see. “Typical. They’re all still taking life by the horns,” I grin, missing them the most.
“Tell me about it. I’m still the only sane one among us all,” Benley winks jokingly, using his ‘go2’ phrase on me.
He’s claimed to be sane since I met him. I don’t believe it for a second, not after I saw him perform on stage with Maxi-pad and Troy Story.
“Pshaw!” I scoff mockingly. “If you’ve been declared sane, I’m afraid for the nations. You literally pretended to be gay just to score drinks,” I remind him, getting nostalgic as I do so. Those were the days…
“Speaking of which, Troy came out with something strange,” Benley starts.
I stop him before he can say anything further on the matter.
“I knew it!” I interject. “He’s gay. He finally came out, didn’t he?” I ask, budding with exhilaration.
Benley laughs and shakes his head, “No. But if he were gay it would make sense as to why he’s taking a course in cosmetics. He started the course a year after you left.”
Troy can’t surprise me anymore. I’ve grown accustomed to his strange ways. In his defense, he is more in touch with his feminine side than the average guy.
Skeptical as I try to fit the puzzle pieces together, I have to ask, “How long is the damn course?”
Courses are usually short term. If Troy started the course a year after I Ieft, then that means he’s been taking the course for four years now.
“It’s a three-month course,” Benley answers me casually as if I should have seen it coming.
Only Troy will still be trying to pass a three-month course four years later.
“I’m assuming he’s not very good, maybe a weak area for him?” I take my chances in asking.
It really shouldn’t faze me. Troy used to carry a compact mirror around for goodness sake! He’d even cover up all his imperfections with concealer.
“He makes a mess of those girls’ faces. You should see the photos. He transforms them into clowns, but somehow, when he practices on himself, it’s perfection.”
“No doubt he sabotages those girls on purpose in order to be the best looking in the course. It sounds like something he would do. What he doesn’t get, is that him purposely messing up their faces is just going to end up in failure for him every time. He’s shooting himself in the foot. He’s like SpongeBob trying to pass a driving test. It’s in actual fact escalated to that,” he chuckles at Troy’s expense as if finding it hilarious. It is.
It’s when we pass Jay’s house that anxiety sets in. We were detrimental to each other, but I still wish to see him. My heart deflates when I notice all the lights in his house off. He must not be home.
I suck in a deep breath and summon the courage needed to ask the question roaming the back of my mind, “And in all honesty, how is Jay?”
Benley offers me a sympathetic pat on the back as an act of comfort as if he’d been expecting the question, “He was devastated when you left. He brooded over you for two years-“
“Two years?” I all but exclaim, moved.
Benley nods, “Emma and Grey talked to him, and eventually, with much debate, he decided to let you go and accept that you’re gone.”
I swallow sadly and avert my eyes as they blur over with tears.
“He’s no longer in town. Since then, he’s been backpacking around the world for three years. He’s doing well for himself. He’s a professional racer now and is practically famous in the car racing community,” Ben explains, truthful.
“Wow,” I smile to myself and wipe at my eyes, elated for Jay and his achievements.
He chased down his dream and that says more about his character than I ever did.
“Gratitude was also publicly extended his way when he volunteered to build shelters in Third World countries. His name is becoming widely known since he’s traveled so vastly,” Ben informs me. “But he has yet to return. Grey’s the one that has been looking after his place for the past three years.”
No wonder his lights are all off…
Here I am, stuck in the memories of the past, and out there - somewhere - he is, leaving his mark in the world in the way he’d always wanted.
I want to see him, even if I don’t deserve to.
Benley, as if noticing my broken expression at hearing that Jay’s gone, takes the liberty to brighten my day, “Don’t look so glum, he’s due to return in two weeks time.”
He’s coming back.