Natalie was losing it. She was going to lose it. She was a calm person, a patient person, but right now she wanted to throttle someone. She should have just messed up in front of Tattletale Tiffany, then she’d have been asked to step aside and she could have carried out the rest of her day in peace.
Instead she’d been dealing with four year old crises, comforting one girl who’d burst into tears when the ladybug she’d been holding left a mysterious orange trail along her finger, breaking up a fight because one boy had found out another boy also liked the colour green, and diffusing a conversation about sex because another boy swore he knew where babies came from. On top of that there was all the crying every time one of them didn’t win something. Roger didn’t win the egg and spoon race, tears. Michaela didn’t want to be Gracie’s partner in the three-legged race, tears. Blaine didn’t win the costume competition, tears. Tears everywhere.
The only thing that really stopped the tears were the participation medals, practically tossed at the kids as if they were on fire everyone was so desperate to make the crying stop. Now it was over, almost over. She just had to wait for every student to be collected, then she could go home and scream into her pillow.
“Hi, excuse me, are you Natalie?” A female voice asked and Natalie turned to it, cringing as she took in the mom standing in front of her, cropped hair, grungy shirt, tennis shoes and that, ‘I’d like to speak to your manager’ look on her face. Whatever this woman wanted, Natalie knew it would only make her headache bigger.
“Yeah, I’m Natalie.” She said, her voice the epitome of politeness.
“I’m Kelly’s Mom, Harriet.” Harriet said. “Kelly came second in the costume competition.”
“That’s great.” Natalie replied.
“Yeah well, it was brought to my attention that one of the judges, Clarissa, is the mother to the boy who won.” Yeah, Natalie was not surprised in the least at this turn of events. “Isn’t that a conflict of interest?”
“Is what a conflict of interest?” She asked, her voice still the perfect pitch of interested and concerned.
“Well, the judge’s son won.” Harriet replied. “And I saw his costume, it didn’t measure up to Kelly’s. I’m just wondering if he won by merit or because his mother was on the judging panel.”
Seriously? Seriously? These kids were four. It was a costume competition for crying out loud. There was not some huge conspiracy with the judges and their children. And even if there was, who cared anyway? It was a four year old costume competition, between four tiny towns. What did it matter who won?
“Harriet was it?” Natalie asked.
“Go to your daughter, congratulate her on second place and maybe take her out for ice-cream. There were over 100 kids today, she came second, that’s great.”
“Natalie I think you’re missing the picture here. I just don’t think its fair for a competitor to have a mother on the judging panel. She won’t be objective.”
“You know what you’re right. Next time I’ll tell the four year old he can’t be in the competition.” Natalie snapped. Harriet looked taken aback for a moment, surprised by the jab. Natalie was a bit surprised herself, yes she was frustrated, cranky, tired and hungry but she still needed to be professional. She could not snap at the awful woman.
“Sorry, that was out of line.” She apologised.
“Yes it was.” Harriet replied. “I’m coming to you, voicing my concerns, and for you to stand there, passing glib comments, rolling your eyes, well it’s entirely unprofessional. You are what’s wrong with the education system today.”
Oh screw it, she was frustrated, cranky, tired and hungry. She didn’t have the patience for this right now.
“What does it matter who judges the stupid competition?” She exploded. “We could have had four sticks up there and it wouldn’t have made a difference. Do you want to know how they decided the winners? They stuck everyone’s name into a hat and pulled three out. It was a dress-up competition, for four year olds, they’re not even going to care about this next week. It was something that was supposed to be fun, and its mothers like you who ruin it.”
“I beg your pardon.”
Natalie should have stopped talking then. She knew she should have stopped talking. She’d made her point, she didn’t need to go on. Yet the day’s frustrations were still weighing on her, that conversation with her mother still fresh in her mind, this mother’s idiocy driving her over the edge.
“Why do you have it take it so seriously?” She asked. “Why can’t you just be there for your kid? Let her enjoy her youth. Go and celebrate with her, have fun with her, support her for crying out loud. You should be with her, not here with me, complaining about some bullshit and being a crappy moth…”
“Natalie are you out of your mind?” It was Pete, desperately yelling over the top of her in an attempt to drown out her words. He was too late though, all three of them knew where the end of that sentence was going, and being a crappy mother.
That was when it all just hit her. Everything that she’d just said. What had she been thinking? Ah, this was exactly why she hated having her mother around. No, she shouldn’t blame her mother. She’d made this mistake. She’d said these things, no one had forced her.
“Excuse me.” Harriet said, shooting Natalie a death glare before turning and stalking away. It went without saying that she’d be having a little chat with Natalie’s boss sometime soon.
“What just happened?” Pete asked.
“I can’t believe I lost it.” She said, burying her head in her hands.
“That’s an understatement.” Pete replied. “It’s Scott isn’t it?”
Oh, and with a vengeful fury her annoyance was back, stronger than it had ever been before.
“How do you get there?” Natalie asked, her voice rising a couple notches. “Why do you always blame him?”
“He does this to you.” Pete replied. “He brings out this side of you. He makes you think that it’s completely fine to act and behave however you want to, but you can’t do whatever you want Natalie. Actions have consequences.”
“This has nothing to do with Scott.”
“This isn’t you. You’re not this angry girl who lashes out and blurts out whatever she’s thinking. You’re kind, patient, calm and professional. You treat everyone with respect and dignity even if they don’t deserve it. Now Scott’s back, and you’re behaving completely irresponsibly, cancelling on Jenny and Bryce, snapping at Ryan, swearing at parents. This is what Scott does to you.”
“Scott doesn’t do anything to me.” She said, opening her mouth to defend herself, and Scott, but Pete beat her to the punch.
“You don’t see it, but he has a negative effect on you. He makes you a bad person.”
Natalie wanted to slap him. Right then she wanted to slap Pete and keep slapping him until some sense was knocked into him. Instead she walked away. She couldn’t stand there any longer. She wished she could leave, go home and take one long, angry shower. But there were still four year olds who needed to be watched until their parents came. Natalie couldn’t go anywhere yet, but the moment that last kid was gone she would be out of there faster than the chaperones had handed out those participation medals.
Scott was ready to leave. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t the kids who’d driven him to this point. It had been the adults, all the people he’d known back in the day, all eager to know how his life had turned out. He’d had the same conversation about a hundred times today, all of them going the same way.
“Well I don’t believe it, Scott Garrison back in our small town.”
At first he’d reply politely, smile and greet the person warmly. After a while he just grunted. There was a limit to the amount of times one could say, yep, I’m back.
“How are things?” They’d ask.
He’d tell them they were fine, he was fine, city living was treating him fine, everything was just fine.
“What do you do now?” Would be the next question.
The answer to this he would try to mix up a little. Initially he’d tell the truth, offering different variations on the phrase, I’m between jobs right now. Eventually he started lying, he was a lion tamer for a zoo, he’d become a stunt double, made his living busking at a train station, posed nude for still-life drawings. Each lie grew more and more ridiculous, but he said it with such a deadpan expression no one ever questioned him on it.
“You married?” They’d want to know next, their eyes often flicking over to wherever Natalie was standing at the time, everyone curious to know just what had happened between them. He found it odd that no one knew, that they weren’t calling him a bastard or scolding him for hurting her. Then he realised they didn’t know, Natalie hadn’t told anyone. He didn’t know whether or not it was a good thing.
Then the conversation would trail off, and awkward silence would follow as they racked their brain for more questions. Eventually they’d give in, offer him an awkward smile, say it was good catching up and slither away. Each person leaving with that same look in their eyes, a look of pity, all feeling sorry for how pathetic his life had turned out.
“Scott.” Said a voice that instantly made his blood run cold, an emotionless, disapproving voice belonging to none other than Natalie’s mother.
“Elena.” He replied, reluctantly turning to face her. “It’s been too long.”
“I see you still have your wit.”
“I wouldn’t call it that.”
“Why are you back?” She asked bluntly, cutting right to the chase.
“You know, you’re actually the first person who’s asked me that.”
“Natalie’s happy, she’s moved on.” Elena said.
“So I’ve been told.”
“Stay away from her.”
“I’ve been told that too.”
“You’re not good for her.”
“Yet another thing I’ve already been told.” Scott said with a fake smile. “Admit it, you and Pete planned this.”
Elena just shook her head at him, as if she should have expected as much. She had that same look everyone had when they spoke to him, disappointment in him, but also in themselves for expecting more. Scott hated that look, hated it with every fibre of his being. He’d never asked for this. He’d never pretended to be anyone else. He’d never promised anything else. He wasn’t building up these false expectations, they did that all on their own. No one had any right to be disappointed by him, least of all the woman standing in front of him now.
Yet out of all the people that had looked at him this way since he’d been back, this one stung the most. This look of absolute loathing from the mother of the woman Scott had been madly in love with.
“This was fun.” He said with a sense of indifference. “Let’s not do it again sometime.”
He walked away with his head held high and a little kick in his step. To anyone watching he’d look content, happy even. It was a performance he had down to a tee, completely hiding the feeling of inadequacy currently plaguing his body.
He rounded a corner and once he was out of Elena’s sight he leant against the wall and slid down until he was sitting on the ground. He needed to keep it together. Not now, these thoughts could not take over now. He felt a tightening in his chest and he wanted to scream, or punch something, or maybe even fucking cry.
Why? Why did everyone see him as this huge failure? Even before he really was a failure they treated him like this, even back when he was in high school, when he was the football star leading the team to four state championships. His grades had been good, his friends okay, his girlfriend fucking fantastic, and he’d gotten a full ride football scholarship to the college of his choosing.
For one whole year after graduating he was on top, leading his college team to victory just like he’d done Spring Fields High. He was on the cover of sports magazines, had numerous sponsorship deals, countless other teams trying to poach him. He was a star, more successful in that one year than Pete would ever be.
Then he’d hurt his knee, something completely out of his control, and yet everyone had acted as if he’d done it on purpose. Yes, he’d taken performance enhancing pills to speed up the heeling process, pain killers to numb the pain, partied to forget how close he was to losing it all. He’d just wanted to be someone, because the one shot he’d had of maybe being good enough had just blown up in his face.
All he’d wanted was support. For someone, anyone, to tell him none of that material stuff was important, to tell him they were proud of him, that he mattered for crying out loud. Natalie had been there, she’d always been there, but when everyone’s telling you you’re holding her back, that you’ll destroy the person you care about more than life itself, you end up listening to them. He didn’t want Natalie to become what he had. He couldn’t do that to her. He couldn’t be responsible for making her miserable.
He had to get out of here.
He needed to get his head on straight. Rising to his feet he headed to the woods, knowing they’d eventually lead to the orchard. Three teenage boys caught his eye and he watched as one of the boy’s handed money to an older guy. With precise and practised movements the older boy slipped the money into his pocket and produced a clear bag filled with a green, grassy looking substance.
Relief coursed through Scott’s body as he watched the trade go down. Instinct took over, and he waited for the boys to leave before approaching the dealer and buying some weed of his own.
With some of the weight lifted from his shoulders he entered the woods, walking until he reached the orchard. He walked until he found the spot he’d always come to as a teenager. There he settled at the base of the familiar, oddly shaped apple tree, rolled his joint and took a drag. Within seconds he felt better, lighter, maybe for a moment okay.