"Nala, wake up." Corbin pounds on his sister's door. Over the course of the previous week he has gotten used to their normal routine again. He drives her to school as Sean is no longer coming to pick her up. He does not need to ask why.
"I'm already up." She saunters out of her room with a gloomy expression. Corbin is not sure if she has been crying again but he doubts it. After the night she and Sean broke up she was determined to pretend nothing happened and even went to school rather than skipping like she would normally do when something went wrong. She seems to be putting on an act for either Corbin's benefit or her own.
"Want any breakfast?" Corbin offers her the cold food on the table. She hesitates as she sits down. She has been neglecting her diet and ignoring her track captain's instructions. She only eats a little of the available food and packages the rest up as leftovers before following Corbin out to his silver car.
Even though she has resumed most of her normal behavior from before meeting Sean, she has retained some of her new ideals, including dressing more lax instead of wearing the school uniform all of the time. Corbin has noticed this change and thinks it is for the better. He knows his sister has trouble doing anything without being told to. This may be a sign of her finally developing her own identity.
At school Nala acts as if nothing has changed. She has not told anyone about her breakup with Sean but it is more than obvious to her classmates now that they are not spending time together anymore. In fact, they are quite obviously avoiding each other.
At lunch, Trina approaches her desk to speak with her. "Peters, can I have a word with you?" she asks abruptly.
"You can talk and I might listen," Nala barely acknowledges her. It is another change in her behavior. She has been speaking her mind more freely; at least with people she does not like.
"I can't help but notice that you and Sean broke up," Trina mutters while twiddling her thumbs. "Does that mean he's fair game for us now?"
"Us? Are you still voting on who has the best chance with him?" Asia interrupts them.
"No!" Trina spouts quickly. After a moment she recollects herself though. "I took your opinion into account and have decided to pursue my own interests," she explains.
"Good for you," Nala gives a fake yawn. "Why do you need my permission then? If he says yes, then good for you."
"You really have broken up, haven't you?" Trina seems sad. Nala is a complete let down compared to the type of girl she believes Sean should date. How can anyone who doesn't take their relationship with him seriously even compare to Mina and her friends who try so hard?
"It's none of your business." Nala glares at her. "Just leave me alone."
"I used to think of you as the luckiest girl in the school. Now I think you're just pathetic," Trina scolds her. "You should have treasured what you had more."
"I did treasure it," Nala mumbles while looking down at her desk. Trina is surprised but remains unconvinced. She walks off with deliberate distaste.
"What exactly happened with you and your boyfriend?" Asia asks. "You just started eating lunch together and everything."
"It's complicated," Nala does not feel like explaining the fact that she was lying to everyone the whole time. "What about you? Have you decided what to do about Maddie?"
"Please don't talk about him." Asia starts to shiver.
"What happened to how compatible you two seemed when you were txting?" Nala pries.
"You were right; I was just seeing what I wanted to. Now that I think about it, he asked some pretty weird stuff."
"I'm sure you're just worried he believed half of your responses," Nala assures her.
"He asked if I've ever used an electronic toothbrush for something other than its intended purpose," Asia informs her. "Is that not the question of a creep?"
"I think it's the question of a joker like Maddie," Nala disagrees. "He was just trying to be funny."
"It was funny… when I couldn't see his face. Imagine him asking you that in person."
"Well…" Nala tilts her head in thought. "Oh dear. It feels like he was propositioning you."
"That's not all. I asked him if he had a girlfriend. Doesn't it seem like I was looking to date him?"
"Weren't you?" Nala raises an eyebrow.
"I don't know anymore." Asia is still trembling. "I think I went too far. I can't face him. He probably thinks I'm a tramp. He found my number on a bathroom stall after all."
"If he's not smart enough to figure out the truth or at least patient enough to let you explain it, then he's not worth your time and you can stop worrying right now."
"Why is your opinion of him so high?" Asia is confused. "I thought you two didn't get along."
"That doesn't mean I hate him," Nala spouts. "He's not the type of person I get along with but you two seem to match each other well. You were like clones with your noses glued to your screens for a good amount of time."
"Don't remind me," Asia groans while yanking on her pigtails. "It's so embarrassing."
"You're embarrassed about how similar you acted? What about the inappropriate txts you sent each other?" Nala reminds her.
"Are you still whining about your spandex? If you're so upset about it then you should wear normal underwear like everyone else."
"Now that would be embarrassing," Nala refuses.
"Maybe you like wearing spandex because it's part of your boyfriend's fetish?" Asia snickers.
"It is not!" Nala shouts as her face turns red.
"Maybe I should ask him." Asia points to the hall where Madison and Sean are passing by on their way to the roof as usual.
"You're too scared of Maddie to go talk to them," Nala accuses her.
"What about you? Shouldn't you try to fix things with your boyfriend?"
"There's nothing to fix." Nala shrugs. "He doesn't want me, plain and simple."
"It's never that simple," Asia disagrees. "Just try and work things out. You were so much more lively with him."
"I really don't want to." Nala lowers her head to her desk to sulk.
"So in the end we're both cowards," Asia sighs.
"Misery loves company," Nala agrees.
"I wish at least one of us had her guts." Asia's eyes are on Trina who has already left the classroom to approach Sean and Madison. "What do you suppose she wants with them?"
"From the look on her face, she's going to ask Sean out," Nala surmises.
"Is that okay with you?" Asia is worried.
"I said I didn't care," Nala grumbles. "He can do what he wants."
"So you aren't curious if he'll turn her down?" Asia asks slyly. Nala lifts her head enough to see Trina's face as she reenters the class. She does not seem to be too upset. "What do you suppose he said?" Asia whispers.
"It doesn't seem like he turned her down but I doubt she'd be containing herself this well if he'd agreed to go out with her," Nala calculates the situation in a calm voice. "I'm pretty sure he said he'll think about it."
"Does that bother you?" Asia is still concerned.
"Of course it bothers me," Nala admits. "We've only just broken up and he's already on the rebound."
"So what are you going to do about it? Are you going to confront him?"
"Why should I?" Nala's short moment of interest seems to have passed. "He can do what he wants. It's none of my business."
"You really are an expert in being pitiful." Asia rolls her eyes. She would be trying harder to cheer her friend up if it would do any good. As it stands Nala seems to want to be depressed and she is not going to let anyone take that away from her. Maybe she will be easier to talk to after she's had some time to get over Sean completely.
When Nala arrives at track practice, her captain is already waiting for her. He is tapping his foot impatiently with a mean look on his face. "Hell-hello, sir," she greets him nervously.
"Peters, where do I begin?" He shakes his head disappointedly.
"How about letting me change for practice?" she suggests in a half joking manner.
"Peters, we've been over this time and time again. I'm at the end of my wits here."
"I'll get my hair cut tonight," she assures him. "I've just been too busy…"
"Walking home with your boyfriend. I know. You need to get rid of him if you plan to stay on the team."
"There's nothing for you to worry about," she sighs. "We've already broken up."
"Good," he has no sympathy. "Now, go to the salon and get your hair cut right now. I'm sending Polanski with you to make sure you get it done."
"What? Why Trevor?" she groans.
"That's not very nice." Trevor appears behind her.
"And he's already here." Nala winces in annoyance.
"You two need to resolve whatever problems you have," the captain orders them. "I expect to see you back here by the end of practice either bald or close to it, understood?"
"Yes, sir." Nala rolls her eyes.
"Is it true? Have you broken up with that tall guy?" Trevor starts in as soon as they are alone.
"I don't want to talk about him," Nala whines.
"Of course you wouldn't. Ha, silly me. He was a real pain, wasn't he? Aren't you glad to be rid of him?"
"What can I do to make you shut up?" she begs.
"You could kiss me," he jokes. His eyes widen in shock as she plants a kiss on the side of his mouth. "Wh-what are you doing?" He stumbles backwards.
"You're still talking," she grumbles. "You lied."
"How can I remain silent after that?"
"Isn't that what you wanted?" She tilts her head in mock confusion.
"I don't want some half hearted kiss. I want us to be a proper couple. I really like you, Nala."
"You have a funny way of showing it." She glares at him. "You've been nothing but mean to me for that past month."
"I was just jealous." He rubs the back of his neck shyly, reminding her of Sean.
She looks away while pushing the thought out of her head. "That makes sense. Lots of guys are jealous of Sean," she finally responds to his statement. "He's tall and handsome and…"
"I'm not jealous of his looks. I was jealous because he had you and I didn't," Trevor cuts her off.
"Me?" she scoffs. "There's nothing good about me. You should set your sights higher."
"I know what you're doing," he interrupts her again. "You always put yourself down in hopes of earning sympathy. You don't have to do that with me; I already like you."
Nala is genuinely surprised by this statement and it shows on her face. When Mr. Thalmus was hitting on her he pretty much told her she was pathetic and would never find a boyfriend, putting her down so she would accept his advances. This is different though. Trevor actually believes she is worth perusing. Why has she been avoiding him all this time? Was it because she had Sean? Now that he's gone, shouldn't she take a second look at Trevor? It can't hurt, can it?
"You've gotten quiet all of a sudden," Trevor tries to keep their conversation going as they leave the school campus together.
"To be honest, Trevor, I don't really know anything about you. We met at track tryouts in the summer but we don't have any classes together. I don't even know why you talk to me."
"I guess that's to be expected." He nods in agreement. "You're the type that doesn't start interactions; you only speak when spoken to. I'm sure you don't remember it but when we went to the nurse's office together, you were much worse off than I was. I had to help you stay on your feet. It was then that I realized how frail and helpless you really are despite how athletic you appear to be."
"Anyone would appear helpless with heatstroke," she defends herself.
"I'm not just talking about strength," he continues. "It's your attitude. You seem to get pushed around a lot. When you first said you were dating Sean Baker, I couldn't believe it. I thought he had to have forced you into it. You're not the type who can say no to a guy like him."
"It wasn't his fault," she mutters. "He was only trying to help."
"I'm sorry but I can't believe that; not after how I saw you two acting together. You definitely weren't like a real couple. Whenever he touched you, I could tell you wanted to break away as soon as possible."
"Not always." She is staring at her feet now. Hearing him talk is reminding her more and more about Sean. It is true she was afraid of him at first but she came to enjoy the attention he gave her, even if it was a little overdone.
"I couldn't just leave you two alone," Trevor is still preaching to her.
"Why not? That's just how I am with boys," she argues. "Eventually I'll be in a relationship with another one and I'll act the same way."
"If that's true then I'd rather that boy be me." Trevor grabs her hands and stares into her eyes. "At least then I can be sure no one is taking advantage of you."
"Except for you," she accuses him before jerking her hands free. "Right now, you're the one touching me needlessly and trying to push me around. Have you even considered that?"
"I have," his answer is stern. "I can't stand the thought of anyone else with you but I'm fine if it is me."
Nala's mouth hangs open slightly as she stares at him. She is remembering when Sean said something similar. Strangely it made her happy at the time; now she realizes how selfish it is. Neither one of them cares about her opinion at all; they simply want to be the first to conquer her. Several years from now when they have all graduated it won't matter anymore and neither one will feel guilty about what they stole from her. All they want is instant self gratification.
"What's wrong?" Trevor reaches toward her again.
"Um, we're here." She points at the salon a block ahead before picking up her pace to avoid him. "I'll only be a moment." She rushes into the building.
There is a bell above the door that alerts the stylist to her presence. "My, if it isn't young Nala." She comes to greet her. "What brings you here flushed and out of breath." She glances out the window at Trevor who is pacing back and forth impatiently in front of the store. "Are you here with your boyfriend?"
"Actually, I'm supposed to get a haircut for track," she explains.
"Already?" the stylist is confused. "Your hair has barely grown back since last time. Two inches will not give you much of an edge."
"I know, but it's not optional." Nala is still panting for breath; not because of running one block to the store but because her heart is still racing from talking to Trevor and thinking about Sean.
"Everything is optional, child," the stylist disagrees. She is in her thirties at least with blonde hair highlighted pink. "Your body is one of the few things others can't control. You can pierce it, tattoo it, let yourself get fat, shave your hair, or dye it blue. You can do anything you want because it belongs to you. Sure there are exclusive places that won't let you in if you're unsightly, but they can't force you to get a haircut. Now I'll ask you one more time, what would you like me to do?"
Nala is taken aback by the stylist's monologue. Both Sean and Trevor have been telling her the same thing for weeks but she hadn't believed them. She was sure they both had ulterior motives for wanting to control her appearance. This woman has nothing to do with her outside of the salon so she has less reason to lie to her. Believing her seems so much simpler. "Well?" The woman taps her foot while flashing a bright smile.
"Is it possible to get extensions?" Nala surprises herself with her question.
"Now you're talking," the stylist laughs as she disappears into the back of the salon to fetch supplies.
Trevor is still waiting outside of the salon when Nala reemerges. It takes him a moment to recognize her with long hair. "Wh-what have you done?" He nearly falls backwards in shock.
"Do you like it?" she giggles. "It's back to the way it was during summer tryouts. Have you already forgotten what I looked like back then?"
"Of course I haven't forgotten. How could if forget. My eyes have always been on you," his voice trails off as he admits something embarrassing.
"Well for that, thank you." She kisses his cheek. It is nothing more than a show of gratitude with her new personality. "What's wrong?" she asks when she notices him blushing instead of shouting like before.
"Back during summer tryouts, I thought you were amazing for running even in that heat. I wanted so much to be like you that I almost passed out as well. It wasn't until we got to the nurse's office that I realized you weren't a spectacular person but just a normal one like me. I decided to learn more about you and I got a little bit pompous in my efforts."
"I don't understand what you mean?" Nala is confused.
"The person I respected was gone. You were completely different by the start of the semester. I couldn't believe you started dating Sean Baker of all people. I felt betrayed by the image I had of you in my head; this image."
"So you've been treating me like crap because I'm not the girl you thought I was?" She frowns.
"In a sense," he admits shyly. "Is there any way you could stay like this? I've missed this person."
"All that's changed is my hair," she scoffs. "I don't have to tune myself to your expectations. Besides, I bet you were too shy to even approach me when you thought I was someone impressive." His only response is to nod. "In that sense you've changed as well. Now you can talk to girls you admire as if they are on the same level as you. Aren't we both just amazing."
This time he shrugs. It seems he is too nervous to talk to her anymore. Maybe he really does see her as a different person. "We, we better get back to the captain," he mutters while turning to leave. Nala's jaw drops as she remembers why she even came to the salon. She is definitely in for it when they get back to the track field.
The captain is waiting for them impatiently when they finally arrive. Practice is already long over and he has changed back into his street clothes. "That better be a wig to hide your baldness," he shouts when he sees Nala.
"And if it isn't?" she asks in a shaking voice.
"Then you can go clean out your locker right now!" His face turns red with anger. With a loud sigh she enters the girls' changing room. "Wait, where are you going? I'm not done talking to you."
"But I'm done talking to you," her voice echoes from inside the room.
Trevor's jaw is hanging open when she returns with all of her things. "Are you serious?"
"Peters, you better listen to me!" the captain is still shouting. "You're ruining everything you trained for."
"According to you, my training wasn't worth much to begin with," she reminds him.
"Well that's… but… you can't…" he can't form a proper response. Despite all of his insults, she is still the best freshman female runner.
"I wonder what the coach is gonna say when he finds out," Trevor ponders out loud. Nala's bag swings outward as she turns to leave, emphasizing her choice. She has finally made a permanent decision all on her own and she does not plan to go back on it.
Nala finds the door to her apartment ajar when she returns home. She peeks inside to make sure no one has broken in before entering to find Corbin sitting on the couch with his forehead pressed against the coffee table. "Um, brother?" She taps him on the shoulder.
"Who?" He sits up violently. "Oh, hey, Nala. What time did you get home?"
"Just now." She frowns at him. "You look awful." She pokes the red spot on his forehead.
"I'm just regretting a lot of things right now," he responds vaguely.
"Is that the normal response you should give when looking at your cute sister's face?" she tries to cheer him up.
"Oh, you changed your hair," he finally notices. "Sorry, I'm still used to the way you used to look. This is actually more normal for you than short hair. Can I put twin tails in? Can I, please?" He seems to have forgotten his moping for the moment.
"You really are a simple brother, aren't you?" She smiles at him. "Just be careful not pull it out. It's not real, you know."
"What made you go through all this trouble? And wasn't this expensive?" He runs his hands through her hair repeatedly.
"Sherry said it would be fine as long as I return the extensions in good condition," she explains. "Are we putting in twin tails or not?"
"I'll do it tomorrow before school so you can show all your friends. You better make sure these don't come out in the night."
"With how happy you look, I'm almost sad I ever cut my hair to begin with," she sighs. "I should have left it long."
"Is that what Sean said?" Corbin's mouth twists into a frown.
"That's not why we broke up if you're wondering," she assures him. "It's nothing so simple."
"Nothing ever is." Corbin's sulking demeanor returns.
"What's up with you? Did you have a fight with Celli?"
"Nothing so simple," he quotes her.
"It can't be that bad. You didn't break up, did you?" she is starting to worry. Despite her original opposition, she felt that a serious girlfriend might be good for her brother. He wouldn't have risked his career if she weren't special to him.
"Do you know a Ms. Register?" he asks.
"That's my homeroom teacher's name," she realizes. "What happened? Did she see you with Celli?"
"She caught us kissing in an empty classroom." Corbin lowers his head shamefully.
"What? How could you be so careless? Dating a student is one thing, but you should be extra careful at school."
"I know it's my own fault. I've been contemplating what I could have done differently for the past hour."
"There's nothing you can change about it now. Just prepare for the repercussions," she scolds him.
"That's my girl; always on top of things." Corbin hugs her. "Which is why I need you to talk to Ms. Register for me."
"What? Why me?" she is startled. "What do I have to do with this?"
"You're in her homeroom. Maybe you can convince her not to tell on us. Please, I don't ask for much."
"And yet I'm always helping you out of trouble," she grumbles. "Why is my brother such an idiot?"
"All boys are idiots. That's why you have to forgive them… even Sean," he adds after a moment.
She does not look pleased to hear his name. "Fine, I'll talk to her, but I make no promises. This is your mess."
"Where are we going to live if I lose my job?" he asks smugly. Even though the apartment is currently paid for by money earned renting out their farm, their parents have promised that if Corbin fails to accomplish his goal in any way, they are both to move back to the farm immediately and await their parents' return from abroad with their tails between their legs.
"Fine," Nala gives in, "I will do my best."
"With Sean as well?"
"What about Sean?" she snaps at him.
"You need to talk to him eventually," he insists.
"No I don't. Why does everyone think they know what I need?"
"Because I'm your brother and your guardian. I'm not one of your nosy classmates. I'm your best friend. You can trust me." Corbin has never had to ask for her trust before as it has always come naturally. He is fully aware that Nala is entering the age of rebellion though. It is his job to act as her parent, even if he is not setting a very good example for her at the moment.