Chapter 3: Play the Game
Cyrus knew what was coming before it came. The record had long since played out and still he sat in his room, furiously sketching whatever he could to take his mind off of things. He drew the lake near the college at which he’d spent the summer. He drew the car on Hayden’s poster. And he drew the girl who had broken his heart.
Her charcoal face looked up at him from the paper, lip quirked into a hint of a smile, long hair flowing over her shoulders. Her eyes danced with a certain playfulness, but something sinister about them seemed to hint that she knew what was coming for him. She knew he’d be humiliated tonight, and the worst part was that Cyrus knew she would enjoy it.
Swiping an angry arm across the page, her once beautiful face was reduced to a mangled mess. Those taunting eyes were now nothing but a couple of smudges. Cyrus had just slammed his sketchbook closed and slipped it under his bed when someone banged on the outer door.
Cyrus closed his eyes, his heart pounding in time with the quick steps he heard outside his room as Hayden headed for the door. There was a creak of hinges and then, “What do you want?”
A voice that was unmistakably Mike’s replied gruffly, “Tell the new kid that he’s got thirty seconds to get out here, or we’ll come in there and drag him out.”
There was a moment of silence as both Cyrus and Mike waited for Hayden’s reply. Some part of Cyrus hoped Hayden would fire off some retort to defend him, but he had no reason to expect that after the rude comments he’d made earlier. “Will do,” Hayden said. There was a click of the door shutting, then silence. “I assume you heard all that,” Hayden said, his voice loud enough to carry through the door to the bedroom.
“Yeah,” Cyrus replied, leaning against the hard wood of the door.
“Okay,” Hayden said casually, and then his steps moved off.
That was all? Cyrus wondered. He was forced to remind himself that he was responsible for Hayden’s cold reaction. With a sigh, Cyrus pushed himself off the door and opened it. Might as well get this over with.
Stepping out of the bedroom, Cyrus glanced towards the couch where Hayden sat watching a movie on the projector. He hardly spared Cyrus a glance. This night was going terribly, and it was still young. Resigning himself to whatever torture lay in wait, Cyrus turned towards the door and opened it to find Mike’s ugly face. It slowly stretched into a grin before a canvas bag was thrown over Cyrus’s head and cinched tight around the neck. “What are you-“ he began, but someone clamped a hand over his mouth, further muffling his voice.
Two hands gripped Cyrus’s biceps so tightly that it hurt, and he was shoved forward. He struggled, kicked, and writhed, but to no avail. It was three against one, or maybe more. Cyrus hadn’t gotten a good look before he was blinded.
Half dragging, half pushing him down the stairs, the boys led Cyrus outside. They walked a little ways before slamming him up against a brick wall and ripping the bag off his head. It didn’t take long before Cyrus’s eyes adjusted to the slightly lighter darkness and allowed him to make out the six guys standing around him in a half circle.
Mike spread his arms and said with mock sincerity, “Welcome to orientation.”
Cyrus gulped, casting around in his mind to find something on which he could focus to keep himself calm. He latched onto the same song that he’d been listening to earlier, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” He was big and dumb as a man can come, and he was stronger than a country hoss…
“So,” Mike continued, looking proud of himself, “we have a job for you. You do it, and we’ll leave you alone. You do it well, and we might even like you.” He paused, considering. “Well, only if you tone down that sass you had earlier.”
“And if I don’t do it?” Cyrus had the nerve to ask. And when the bad folks all get together at night, you know they all call big Jim “Boss,” just because…
The group laughed, and Mike just smiled wider. “Then we make your life a living hell.”
Well, that would be nothing new. Cyrus tried to look confident, casual, as he asked, “Fair enough. What’s the job?”
Mike glanced at one of the other boys, and they shared a quiet moment of amusement. “You met McMillan, didn’t you? That charming, easy going lady?”
Cyrus hoped he was being sarcastic. “Sure.”
“Yeah, well, the job’s tough on her,” he said. “You might say she has a bit of an alcohol problem. Never goes anywhere without her silver flask.” In the harsh shadows, Mike’s eyes seemed to shine. “Bring me it. You have forty eight hours.”
It was a good thing that Cyrus wasn’t actually planning on completing their task, for he was certain it was impossible. He’d known a few alcoholics in his life, and their flasks were practically a part of them. They were always on their person, and the chances of them leaving it laying around somewhere vulnerable were slim to none.
Furthermore, Cyrus wasn’t exactly what could be called “sneaky.” He could hardly copy someone’s homework without a debilitating paranoia causing him to break out in cold sweat. There would be no way he’d be able to pull of something like stealing McMillan’s flask. Most likely, the whole thing was probably a set up for him to get caught and punished. Mike and his friends would just love to see that happen.
As two hands closed over his already sore arms, Cyrus protested, “I can walk myself back up to the dorm.”
“We can’t have you running to squeal the moment we turn our backs,” Mike said. “Besides, it’s cute that you try to struggle.”
Cyrus glared at him until something caught the corner of his eye. He turned his head towards the nearest floodlight out on the path, but before he could see anything, the bag was shoved down over his eyes. Maybe it had just been his imagination. They tugged at Cyrus’s arms, and this time he didn’t resist. He was no longer in the mood to be “cute,” because anything satisfying to Mike was instantly disgusting to him.
After being escorted back to his room, Cyrus was pushed through the door. He stumbled in the little hallway that led to the living room, but regained his balance. Straightening, he realized that Hayden was watching him, sitting in the same spot he had been earlier. Cyrus’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
“Well,” Hayden said stiffly. “What do they want you to do?”
“Steal McMillan’s flask.”
Hayden didn’t look surprised. He just nodded thoughtfully and then went back to his movie. Cyrus stood there awkwardly for a minute before saying, “I’m going to bed.”
The silence following that simple acknowledgement was painful. Without another word, Cyrus turned and walked to the bedroom feeling miserable. As far as first days went, this was bad, even for him.
The following morning came far too fast. Even by the time Cyrus had showered and dressed, he still wasn’t fully awake. With a yawn, he stuffed some blank notebooks in a messenger bag and slung it over his shoulder. Since they had their first class together, Cyrus figured he’d wait for Hayden to get ready, then follow him there. As he sat on the bed, hands folded patiently in his lap, Hayden seemed to catch on to what he was doing.
Hayden finally said something as he stood in the mirror tying his tie. “I figure there are only a few reasons you could be waiting for me,” he commented dryly. “One: you need help finding your way to History, two: you’re being friendly, or three: you need the mirror.”
Hayden straightened his tie, then turned to look at Cyrus. His face didn’t have the same feeling of a barely hidden smile that had been there the day before. Hayden’s hair was still spiked up in the front, but today it gave the impression of being controlled rather than spontaneous and carefree. “Now,” he continued, “you made it abundantly clear that you didn’t need my help, so that rules out the first option. As for the second, well, you also pointed out that you didn’t want to be my friend - strike two.” Hayden held Cyrus’s gaze as he said, “So I’m done with the mirror now.”
Cyrus winced internally, but he knew he deserved that. Feeling a sudden urge to explain himself, he began, “Listen, Hay-“
Hayden held up a hand to stop him. “No, no. I get it. It’s fine. Whatever.” He grabbed a single notebook, and that was it. No pencils or pens, no calculator or planner. Interesting, Cyrus thought idly. “I’m going to class. If you want to follow me, go for it. Just don’t try to talk to me, because that might be slipping into the ‘friend’ category,” he said snidely.
Hayden swept out the door, Cyrus following. He frowned at Hayden’s back, thinking what an annoyingly sarcastic guy he was. They walked all the way to the classroom in silence as uncomfortable as it was quiet. When they arrived, Hayden took a seat in the back corner of the room, one surrounded by already occupied desks. Cyrus swallowed, getting the hint. He slid into a seat at the front next to Lee.
“Hey, Cyrus,” Lee said brightly. “How’s it going?”
Freaking awful, he wanted to reply, but refrained. That would only lead to the need for explanation, which Cyrus didn’t do. “Fine, thanks,” he said shortly.
The teacher still hadn’t arrived, so the room was filled with the friendly chatter of friends still catching up after the summer off. “So, is Hayden driving you up the wall yet?” Lee asked lightly. “I can’t imagine what he’d be like as a roommate. Probably never shuts up.”
Cyrus forced himself not to scowl. “Something like that,” he replied. “What do you have next period?”
“Same,” Cyrus replied. “Mind if I follow you there?”
Lee smiled, “Not at all.”
The teacher arrived, a young man by the name of Mr. Thompson, and class began. As much as he had prepared for the start of classes, Cyrus was irritated to find that he couldn’t focus. His mind kept drifting, mostly to how he was going to admit to Mike that he hadn’t actually stolen the flask. Occasionally, Hayden’s face marred with the hurt of being rejected would sneak in, but Cyrus would banish it quickly. He had no reason to feel guilty; after all, it was better that he was straightforward with Hayden rather than string him along when he really didn’t want to be friends.
It was better this way, Cyrus told himself. Maybe this way he could escape the year without getting hurt, or without hurting anybody else. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, Cyrus realized that he’d already failed. He had already hurt Hayden.
Trying to stop that train of thought before it got rolling, Cyrus forced himself to listen to what the teacher had to say on the subject of Mesopotamian civilizations. He was relieved when at last the bell rang and they were allowed to go. Without conscious thought, Cyrus glanced back at Hayden’s seat, but it was empty. He must have left pretty quickly, he thought, wondering if his roommate had done that on purpose so he wouldn’t have to guide Cyrus to his next class.
“Coming?” Lee asked, looking at Cyrus expectantly.
“Yeah,” Cyrus replied, following with only a slight hesitation. As they walked, he scanned the faces in the hallways for Hayden, but didn’t find him. Even in the next class, which they were supposed to have together, he wasn’t there.
Cyrus didn’t see Hayden once for the rest of the day.