The story of how a boy learned to look beyond outer appearances.
|But Words Will...|
(a.k.a. If I Could Take It All Back)
People like me don’t tell stories. People like me jump straight onto the bandwagon of life without a backward glance and (almost) never encounter a single bump on the road.
I’m not like Jade, my best friend since kindergarten, who is editor of the school newsletter and probably has a zillion stories of her own and others to tell. I’m different from Zack, the geek kid in school who is always teased mercilessly by me and my crew, and who will probably meet a really cool chick and pen down the Nightmare Of His Life a.k.a. high school when he is a successful Wallstreet executive. I’m not Heidi, the Goth loner, skulking in a corner. I’m not Marty, valedictorian shoo-in and already a published author in his own right.
I was just a normal, regular guy… Not. I’m one of those kids you despise because of how damn lucky and having-it-all we were.
I was Evan Bright, captain of the football team at Chester High. On and off the field, I led my boys like the flashy and stuck-up leader I was. I didn’t think, I didn’t stop, and I didn’t care.
Why would I?
My life was moving like one of those really efficient bullet trains they have in Japan. I was perched on the highest point of my life, having bagged a football scholarship to one of the Ivy League Unis. With just a few more months of high school left, my friends and I were just living it up… But then, we had been living it up our whole lives.
I never thought I would ever be one of those people with a story to tell.
Oh no, Evan is just too busy living his life…
Then, one day, the jock stereotype started crashing down on me, and I wasn’t going to continue living the high school fantasy anymore.
That day was just like any other day.
My buddy Duncan had decided to crash the cheerleading tryouts on a lark and had dragged a couple of us along. We weren’t exactly unwilling to follow, but you know, with just a couple more games till the end of the football season, we just wanted to have some time off the field. As opposed to being on the field 24/7. Anyway, it wasn’t very cool to be seen gawking at a bunch of junior girls when you have got a calm and dignified senior persona to maintain.
So, I was just sitting on the bleachers, waving to Jade, who was doing her usual photographing and reporting work (yes, I don’t understand why she still does that when she’s already the editor!), and Duncan was yelling something in my ear.
I turned around to ask him to shut up, but then Tom gave out a big guffaw of laughter. I wanted to remark they had turned into a couple of hyenas, and that was when I saw her.
My jaw dropped.
I couldn’t stop myself from blinking my eyes repeatedly to ensure that it wasn’t a freaking mirage (or whatever) I was seeing then.
But then, Duncan and Tom’s laughter cut through my momentary trance and I snapped out of it.
“She’s big!” One of them was saying.
Tom flicked a glance over to me. “The golden boy can’t believe his eyes!” He continued chortling.
I was barely aware that I was shaking my blond head in a slow arc of disbelief.
They were right—that girl who had just walked onto the field, decked out in the school colours of green and black, was probably heavier than our heaviest player. And Leo was oh, about two-fifty pounds of lean muscle. But that girl—that girl… God, even my thoughts were sputtering now.
I couldn’t help it.
I let out a bark of laughter that rivaled both Tom and Duncan’s.
The peppy, pony-tailed, skinny girls on the field turned around to stare at us curiously. I wanted to hide my face behind my hands. Instead, I turned to my friends. “God, she’s big,” I emphasized and pulled my face into a funny expression.
“No kidding, bro!” Duncan was saying happily. Tom continued laughing.
I knew how loud we were being.
That was the whole point, wasn’t it? To broadcast to the whole world how we, the kings of the school, were gracing the junior cheerleaders’ tryouts, and making our coveted presence known. That fat girl squeezed into the skimpy cheerleader’s uniform was just begging to be made fun of. Anyway, where had she gotten one in her size?
I said this out loud to the air, and was answered by fresh peals of laughter.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kingston and Larry bounding down the bleachers to join us. I waved at them and jerked a thumb towards the field to get them to join in the freak show of laughs.
I didn’t look back on the field to see how the girl was taking it.
I sat with my back to the field, swinging my legs hard onto the slab of concrete running along the back of the seats and laughed with my friends.
Pretty soon, some of the senior cheerleaders who were judging the tryouts came up to join in our fun.
Mandy, this really pretty blonde with a diamond piercing in her nose, ran up to me. “Evan, come on down! We wanna introduce you to the new girl!”
We all burst out into laughter.
After the girls had joined us, they had clued us in on the “freak of nature,” otherwise known as Avery Larson, who had mistakenly believed she was meant for the glitzy, glamorous world of cheerleading. She was a junior who had just transferred to our school that very day—and how dare she have the gumption, as a very agitated Shania put it, to think she was cheerleading material.
I shook my head and laughed. Then, I tilted my head to the side and swiveled it around. There, standing very still, facing off a line of three solemn-looking senior girls in pom-poms and identical short black skirts, was Avery Larson. She was the exact width of the three of them.
Shania placed her small palm on my forearm and with surprising strength for someone so petite, she yanked me off my perch.
“Hey!” I yelped at her in surprise.
“C’mon, Evan!” My friends joined in the goading now.
I stood there, staring calmly at them, and a slow, evil grin spread across my face. “You guys wanna watch a show? I’ll give you one.”
When we got down to the field, I was feeling hot and bothered and wondering why the hell had I just agreed to do that.
Sometimes, with my friends, I’d act a little out of character. Okay, a lot out of character. It’s like, in order to feel that I deserved my popularity and their respect for me, I gotta give them what they wanted. And that day, what they wanted was for me to make atrocious fun of a girl who unfortunately looked like she just put on a fat suit to play Godzilla—permanently.
My jaw was clenching and unclenching, and I could feel the burning sun beating down on my back.
Mandy was leading us towards the small group of girls knotted together on the field.
“Hey, Avery,” she went in that high, pitch-perfect voice that every cheerleader seemed to have gotten down pat. That was one of the reasons I don’t (and won’t ever) date cheerleaders, but please don’t tell them that.
The fat girl—Avery—turned around slowly.
I squinted against the bright sunlight. Somehow, I couldn’t see her face very clearly. Suddenly, I felt incredibly uncomfortable.
Jade wandered over at that moment and beamed at Avery. “Hey, I didn’t know you wanted to try out!” Then she lifted her chunky, professional’s camera and snapped a picture of a smiling (I presumed) Avery.
Mandy waved her away. “Avery, there’s someone I want you to meet.” With a dramatic flourish, she said my name and position, “Evan Bright, captain of the boys’ football team.”
I could feel everyone looking at me expectantly.
I gazed ahead calmly, at the bright, hopeful face of the girl whose heart I was about to stomp on. I took in her sweaty, chubby face with her pale yellow hair piled up in a haphazard bun, the layers of wobbly flesh that were threatening to spill out of the skintight cheerleading uniform and the piercing blue-eyed gaze she returned me.
Somehow, that irritated me.
The mild discomfort faded away. My cocky grin returned.
I could feel the bubbles of laughter rising up in my friends even before I opened my mouth. Whatever I said, would be witty. Whatever I did, would be right.
“Pleased to meet you, Avery. You are pretty… ugly.”
“P-ugly!” Kingston suddenly had a brilliant flash of literary inspiration.
“Pugly! Pugly!” The rest of the football guys soon took up.
I was shaking with laughter. I didn’t catch the look Avery was giving me right at that moment. I’d turned away the moment “pretty” was out of my mouth, because her face had lighted up then, and I knew it would fall with the next word out of my mouth.
So I was laughing at my friends’ wits more than anything else.
I’d forgotten Jade was still standing there. Jade, who had told me again and again, not to lose myself to those morons in a few heady moments.
Jade came up to me then and spat, “That’s too much, Evan.”
While I was still reeling from the shock, Avery herself, stopped Jade from pulling her off, and spoke her first words to me. “The pleasure is not returned, Evan… Dim.” Then, she let herself be pulled away.
And my jaw hit the hard, dry field.
Jade had been my best friend since we were five and her family moved in next door.
You might think it was weird—the school’s No. 1 jock and the newsletter editor being best friends. But it worked for us. Right, so we didn’t really hang out in school—I had my clique and she had hers—but out of it, we were pretty much inseparable. Jade was smart, witty and funny, and me, being a regular, typecast jock who supposedly had a brain the size of a pea (I wouldn’t demean myself so, but I know for a fact that half the guys on the team didn’t know any words with more than four syllables) could do with a clever friend.
Anyway, our friendship went deeper than that. It started from a time of innocence and purity—when everything in the world was still black and white, and boys and girls were just people, children, playmates. When we first became friends, it was more out of convenience than a deep, innate connection. But over the years, that connection grew.
I could tell Jade much more than I could ever tell any of my guy friends. And she got plenty of tips on how to woo girls from me too. Fine, so she was a lesbian—but I’m not homophobic, and frankly, I didn’t think our relationship could work so well if both of us were heterosexuals.
Thing was, Jade, hidden behind her funky cat’s eye glasses, was one really beautiful girl. Delicate heart-shaped face, startling azure eyes (that yes, made us look like brother and sister) and a head of raven black hair.
She was so stunning, yet she didn’t seem to know it.
Being the editor of the Chester Digest automatically shut her out of my crowd. And yeah, being out of my crowd was akin to that. Being out. But through the years, I got her back covered—my buddies didn’t taunt her and the cheerleaders didn’t sneer at her.
She was my best friend, for goddamnit. And I didn’t ditch her all those years. But that day, what she said to me in the field, that was like a slap to my face.
And what that Avery chick said? Yeah, it stung too.
I didn’t lay off on tormenting Avery after that day.
Oh, no. If anything else, my friends were even hungrier for her blood.
What she said to me in the field… that had shocked them too. We had laughed it off like, two seconds later, but that brief moment of silence in between… Yeah, it was like we just realized that something had gone wrong, and our victim wasn’t taking it the way she was supposed to be taking it. She was supposed to whimper. Cry. Bawl. Not stalk calmly off the field after majorly insulting the ringleader.
After that day, we were like a pack of bloodhounds waiting to tear her to pieces.
Jade stared at me coldly. “What is it? I’m busy.”
“Look, are you having the hots for her or something?” I asked hotly. Frankly, I just couldn’t understand why she was treating me like a piece of toilet paper stuck to her shoe—it’d been a week after the field incident and I’d already apologized to her (Jade) and all!
Jade’s eyes turned stormy. “Evan. Please.” She took a few, quick breaths, and I knew she was trying to calm herself down. “No,” she finally stated emphatically, after I didn’t reply.
“Then what’s the problem?”
She stared down at the ground, scrubbing the toe of her sneaker against the edge of the wall of lockers where we were standing by. “You were really mean. You weren’t… you.”
I exhaled. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” I gave her that puppy-dog look that had gotten me out of trouble since time infinity. “I won’t act like that again.”
Jade finally raised her head. Her blue eyes had softened somehow. “Okay,” she said quietly.
Duncan came along and slammed his fist into my shoulder by way of a greeting. “Yo, bro, what’s up?”
Jade’s eyes narrowed and with a quick wave to me, she moved off.
“We thought of something—”
“Shhh.” I put my finger to my lips to signify the danger of letting Jade overhear.
“What is it?” I asked once she disappeared out of view.
The plan was simple.
In fact, it was a lot like Truth or Dare—only that we stopped playing that like, five years ago. I was supposed to go up to Avery, apologize to her for the daily torments, befriend her, and let her make a big fool of herself.
Easy? I thought so too.
It was so cliché, so normal, so… harmless. Yeah, that was what I really thought then.
That day after school, I made my way to the entrance of the school. It seemed that even Heaven was favouring me—the skies were an ominous gray and heavy bunches of dark clouds had gathered overhead. I glanced at my watch. Flicking a glance to my right, I saw two of my boys leaning in the corner grinning at me. I gave a merry little wave.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…. The bell signaling the end of the day for the junior class rang.
I grinned, straightened up and got ready my umbrella. The thunder continued rumbling in the sky, and at the exact moment Avery stepped into sight, all breathless and heaving and panting from climbing down three flights of stairs, the storm broke and heavy raindrops pelted down.
She was out the school before I could waylay her. But she didn’t have an umbrella—and no ride either, as my friends whom had faithfully observed her for the last couple days, said she walked home everyday. And home was about a mile away.
I lengthened my stride to catch up to her, and held my now-open umbrella over her head.
There was the briefest of a heartbeat skip as she slowed down and glanced to the side, but in the next moment, she was hurrying on her way again.
I was momentarily thrown.
She didn’t appear to have heard me.
“You don’t have to shout.” She still wasn’t looking at me.
“Oh. Okay. Sorry.” I was suddenly embarrassed.
After that day in the field, I had finally seen her face, and it wasn’t hideous or anything. She could almost be pretty. Almost. But still. I felt really bad for my ill remark to her that day.
“I’m sorry for that day in the field.” Suddenly, I felt glad that my friends had thought up of this plan, however warped their reasons might have been. At least, I’d a chance to apologize to her face-to-face—and not risk being ostracized by the whole school should anyone finds out.
Did she hear the sincerity in my voice? Or was it because I hadn’t been one of the main perpetrators hell-bent on making her life miserable this past week? Or could it be, dare I hope, that she saw something in me? Something I wished I had, but knew I did not. Something, very much like courage.
In any case, on that stormy day in mid-March, Avery stopped.
She held her schoolbooks very tightly to her chest, and she stared up at me.
I looked back at her, frowning slightly. What was her reaction going to be?
“Okay,” she finally said. “I accept your apology.”
I walked her home that day.
And try as I might, to detach myself from her, this girl who was heavier and probably stronger than I was—I couldn’t. I listened to her start off tentatively, and then I gave her my honest replies. I even told her a few things about me. Things that no one (except for Jade) ever knew and which would ruin me if they were known. Things like how I’d once peed my pants when I was ten and my parents left me home alone. How I actually had a crush on Heidi, Goth chick a.k.a. social outcast when I was a sophomore. How truly sorry I was to have hurt her feelings on the field that day.
I tried to be cold to her, but I couldn’t.
Because in all honest aspects, this girl who was new to our town, new to our school, and new to our social mores, was much more than any of us could ever be. She was stronger, braver and made of harder stuff than any of us.
She didn’t back down when challenged.
She didn’t give a damn about what other people thought of her.
She didn’t live within constraints like I did.
And when she loved, she loved without fear, which I could never do.
The day I walked Avery home, I slowly got to know this girl who would, in one line, change the course of the rest of my life.
That night, I lay on my bed and stared up blankly at the dark ceiling.
As I lay there thinking, I made a sort of quiet resolution to myself—I was going to stop joining in my friends’ cruel treatment of Avery. She didn’t deserve it—she had done nothing to us—and okay, none of them had deserved it. But it was too late to do anything about the others now, and Avery was the only one who could still matter.
My hands entwined together nervously where I’d placed them at the back of my head.
The next morning. I could still make everything okay.
The next day, I got dressed in my usual gear—formfitting T-shirt and purposely ripped, faded jeans—and made my way out the door in double-quick time.
It had turned out that Avery lived just one street down from me, and she would pass by any moment on her way to school.
I stood on the corner and scuffed the toe of my shoe against the other one. She was going to appear any moment…
I waved to her just as she came into my view.
Her chubby cheeks glowed with pleasure when she saw me. “Hey,” she slightly panted at me.
I grinned down at her. “Yeah, I just wanna—”
“Yo, Evan!” This was followed by the most horrendous screeching of tires and car honking as Tom’s flashy red BMW careened into view and Duncan’s head popped out from the front passenger seat. My friends hooted and grinned maniacally at me as the car zoomed around the next corner and disappeared from sight.
I groaned inwardly to myself. Oh great, they probably thought that that was part of our ploy.
I looked back at Avery. She didn’t seem to have taken it too badly. Instead, she was still smiling at me. “Oh, I guess the jock brigade is not going to take our friendship too kindly, yeah?”
I gaped at her, but quickly recovered. “Y-yeah,” I stammered. I couldn’t believe how uncannily she could read my mind. The next moment, that thought was followed on by the brightest, most genuine smile I’d ever worn on my face since… never. I beamed that megawatt smile at her. “Yeah, friends. We’re friends.”
I loved Avery.
I’m not afraid to admit it.
That last few months of school, when I’d known her, all the false pretenses and multiple faces that I’d put on all those years seemed to fade away. I could finally grow into my own being. Be a real person with real thoughts and real feelings. Not a pretty boy with a powerful side tackle whom was Prom King and Mr. Congeniality three years running. Not a mannequin. Not a puppet.
A real person.
I could be me.
Can you imagine how amazing it is to grasp something so deceptively simple?
I ditched my friends. I got out of football. I lived my life.
Duncan came up to me just before lunch break a week later. It was time for our big “unveiling”. The moment of truth had come.
Avery was soon to realize that whatever friendship she and I had forged was a farce, simple as that. Whatever kindness I had shown her, whatever fun we had had; it was all part of a ploy by the popular kids. Us. The popular kids.
I mouthed the words silently a couple times. I had been one of them—once upon a time, I had been popular. I was trying to get myself into the idea that I’d no longer be part of that esteemed elite.
Duncan was nudging me and gesturing excitedly.
I barely heard him.
I stared at him, my mouth getting drier by the minute, and was uncharacteristically at a loss for words for once.
He noticed and grinned at me. “Are you getting really excited about this?”
I resisted the desire to push him away as he playfully punched me. I really, really wanted to get away from him then—away from them. How had I gotten myself into this life? How had I surrounded myself with friends who didn’t know a single thing about me and misinterpreted every single expression I showed?
Tom appeared and dragged the both of us towards the cafeteria. “You gotta do it there,” he was saying excitedly. “There in front of everyone. It’s gonna be such a show!”
Show. A show.
I was just a part of the show to them. Sure, the main, glamorous part—but still just that—a part in a show.
When we went in through the wide, swinging doors to the cafeteria, my eyes immediately zoomed in on Avery’s unmistakable wide frame. She was standing at the far end of the room and was facing off with a couple of the junior cheerleaders.
Avery had gotten on the cheerleading squad—but it was due to tremendous effort on her part. She could dance, she could leap, and she sure as hell could cheer—but social rules had already dictated the exact dress size for a girl decked out in green-and-black and waving pom-poms around. Avery had gone to the head teacher in charge to get direct approval and then had to endure countless rounds of “means testing” from the senior girls before she could even step out onto the field for a practice session.
That was one of the initial things that gave me a glimpse into the intensity and depth of Avery Larson.
I was standing at the door to the cafeteria and just basically stalling for time then.
Jade went by me at that moment and flashed me her usual impish grin. She mouthed, “Gotta go back for meeting”, and disappeared out the door. The newsletter was practically her whole life since she had been made chief editor that was her responsibility.
As I slowly moved closer to where Avery was standing, I could hear snatches of her conversation with the Twin Bimbos—Colette and Carrie.
“Why wasn’t I informed of the Everton game?” Avery’s cheeks were dotted with splotches of pink.
Colette raised one long purple nail and pointed it at Avery—“Because,” she slurred, “you are… not really on the team.”
“What are you talking about?!” Avery was yelling now.
“Hey, girls.” Tom gave his perfectly tousled brown hair an imperceptible shake. “What’s up?”
Avery didn’t even glance at him, but she saw me then. “Evan, they said—”
“Uh huh,” Duncan put in at that moment.
My throat literally constricted and I felt my breathing growing more swallow by the second. Did they really have to do that now?
“Evan has got something to tell you,” he finished.
Avery looked up at me expectantly.
“Yeah,” I began.
Avery hated me.
She made it clear to me that from the very start, when she had glimpsed my friends and I laughing and goofing off high up in the stands that hot, bright day of the cheerleading tryouts, she had me pegged as a “brainless jock”.
She had seen us, with our perfect faces, perfect bodies and perfect nastiness, and seen us for who we were.
We were so simple—so easily seen through—that she wasn’t afraid of us.
She wasn’t afraid of anyone who put her down because according to her, “people everywhere were all the same”. And in a way, she was right, for hadn’t I spent my whole life cultivating a perfectly nondescript persona just so I could fit in with the crowd and ultimately rise above them all as one of them?
Avery had seen me in the stands that day, tossing my stupid comments and flashing my trademark smirk. She had seen me sitting with my back to her and calling her all sorts of callous names. She had watched me bound down the steps with my dumb friends and move towards her with the easy and confident saunter I’d mastered in the past eighteen years of my life.
And I had stood there and hurt her.
But she wasn’t hurt. She was not afraid of us, you see, and she wasn’t hurt because we meant nothing to her.
That day in the cafeteria though, I meant something to her.
I had not joined in my friends’ crass jokes about her, their mindless games and senseless banter. I had stopped being a part of it all. And I was her friend. Her friend who walked home daily with her without fail, who listened to her funny anecdotes about her family and her cat (she never talked about how the other kids at school were treating her and I assumed that it was because they meant nothing to her), and who never made fun of her about her size.
One day, Avery had stood in front of my house with me before she carried on her way home. Framed in the golden sunrays that was fast becoming a regular pattern as the weather turned warmer, she had told me, “Do not be afraid of them, Evan. Do not be afraid to be who you are.”
And again, I wondered why. Why she had chosen to forgive me despite how despicably I had acted. Why she had stopped on that stormy afternoon and accepted my apology. Did she really see something different in me?
Did she believe that I was different?
I stopped and stared at Avery.
Her bright blue eyes were starting to look worried. “Evan?”
Tom nudged me. Someone at our regular table suddenly yelled over to me, “Just tell her, Bright!” Loud whooping and jeering simultaneously followed this.
My eyes swept across the place before I could stop myself. Surrounding me were the faces of my schoolmates, teammates and friends. Familiar faces. Friendly faces. Ugly faces.
I blinked. The grotesque images disappeared.
I looked back at Avery. There was a little squiggle line of worry between her brows right then. I shifted my gaze away from her open and confused face down her body—and suddenly felt a wave of disgust.
I just hated her right then.
Why was it even a choice between her and my friends?
What did I even have to choose between them?
Wasn’t it plainly obvious?
I cocked my head at her. Spat on the ground. “You absolutely revolt me, do you know?”
Was that my voice? Was I the one saying that? Oh, yes.
Duncan violently thumped my back in immense approval. “We agree completely!”
Someone yelled across the lunchroom, “Do ya really think the golden boy likes you?”
Carrie and Colette were pointing identical painted fingernails at Avery and collapsing in fits of laughter. The whole room seemed to explode with a wave of jeers and mocking laugher.
My friends were pulling me to join our crew at the lunch table, but it was as if I could only stand stock-still there, staring at Avery’s face and witnessing the devastating damage I’d just single-handedly caused.
Her face had registered a nanosecond of shock and disbelief before realization had lit up in her eyes and her calm, unwavering façade had crumbled like a house of cards. The anger, hurt, betrayal that flashed through her eyes were enough to jerk me out of my trance and I fumbled for something to salvage this horrific situation.
“Avery,” I could only whisper her name.
She took one step forward, but I was in her way, and she moved to sidestep me. I swiftly intercepted her. “Avery,” I said again, louder this time.
I was aware that the roaring in my ears was slowly drowning out, and a strange hush was falling over the cafeteria. My friends, if I’d looked at them at that moment, I believed, were staring at me in horror and slowly backing away from me.
When Avery shoved me away with both her hands and I took after her, I knew everything in my old life had fallen away.
Jade called me that night.
“I just want you to know how disappointed I am with you,” were her first words.
I stared blindly ahead at the blank wall in my room. “Yeah,” I intoned tonelessly.
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. Then, she put the phone down on me.
I listened to the dull dial tone for a minute, then put the phone down. What did she want me to say?
I stood up from my bed. I paced my room. I thought about things.
Through and through, I came to the same conclusion—I’d screwed up, big time. No doubt about it.
My hand reached for the cordless phone involuntarily. I could… call Avery. Apologize. Again. I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut tightly.
How stupid was I?
I didn’t ditch my friends.
Oh, no. It was to the contrary, in actual fact.
The next day I got to school, the first thing I saw, plastered across rows and rows of lockers and the plain beige walls, were posters of me at Homecoming. Or more accurately, blown-up pictures of me and my date, Alison Hersley. On closer look though, the figure of Alison had been pasted over by… you guessed it, Avery’s picture.
Pugly and Goldie was scrawled against the black-and-white images.
I wondered what was the point.
How pathetically stupid and childish these people were being.
I saw Duncan in the hallways just before the first bell. I automatically headed towards him. “Hey—” I hadn’t even completed my sentence before he cut me off.
“Whoa there, don’t act so chummy with me.” There was a self-satisfied smirk on his face that reminded me uncomfortably of the one I always wore on my face.
I frowned at him. “Huh?”
“Remember, buddy. You chose her over us yesterday.” His dark eyes swept surreptitiously over the posters-laden walls of my smiling face and Avery’s pained grimace.
It finally dawned on me. “Oh.” Oh, indeed. Oh, they had done this. My friends. Correction: people whom I’d thought were my friends.
I swallowed. “Right, okay.” I slowly backed away from him.
Someone had been coming down the corridor and my back slammed into the person. I reeled around in shock. “Sorry—”
It was Avery. She stared at me a moment, before scrambling down onto her knees to gather up the loose sheets that had flown out of her binders. I hurriedly joined her on the floor.
From a distance away, I heard the snickers start.
I ignored them, and continued scooping the pieces of paper into my arms.
“Here.” I finally stood up and handed Avery back her papers. She didn’t look at me, but just snatched them out of my hands and turned her back to continue on her way.
I looked up and saw my former friends standing in front of me. There was a tension in the air that made me stiffen.
“You, Bright,” Kingston jabbed a beefy finger at me, “are so dead.”
“Back off,” I snarled. There was suddenly a raw burst of anger coursing through my veins. “Take your hand off me.”
Kingston’s eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, oh, oh,” he mocked in a singsong way. “Goldie is getting upset.”
I jerked back and felt my hands clench beneath my jacket sleeve. Before I knew it, my right fist was flying through the air and making its way straight towards Kingston’s smug face.
He was hitting me back a second later.
Fists and punches were flying through the air.
The people around started cheering us on. No one was getting involved. No one was getting help. Until suddenly, one voice rang out loud and clear through the mayhem—
“Avery,” I gasped through bloody and swollen lips.
She stood there and gazed down very sadly at me. “Why are you doing this?”
Was that a question for me?
I got up to my feet shakily. “Avery,” I rasped again.
She moved away slowly, her bright blue eyes on me the whole time. Then, she turned around and ran off down the corridor.
“Avery!” I called, starting to run too.
She didn’t continue running along the corridor, but turned abruptly out the side exit of the school.
I followed after her, my sneaker-clad feet pounding loudly on the polished wooden floor.
“Avery.” I grabbed her shoulder just as we hit the soft, green grass of the school garden. “I’m so sorry.”
She turned around and I saw the tracks of tears running down her cheeks.
My heart constricted painfully. “I’m so sorry… All the horrid things I said were lies.”
She glared. “Can you stand there and tell me to my face that I don’t revolt you?” she yelled.
I winced at the harshness in her tone. “No.” I shook my head forcefully. “You don’t.”
Her face didn’t soften.
“Please, Avery. Whatever I said to you before, it was true.” My throat felt dry and I swallowed hard. “Whatever that’s happened, I was being true. And… whatever we had, it was real.”
She didn’t blink. But the door that had slammed shut in her eyes seemed not so immovable now.
“Why did you have to act that way then?” she asked now.
I flinched visibly.
She was shaking her head. Waiting for a reply from me.
I slowly wet my lips with a flick of my tongue. “I—I was scared.” There, it felt so good to finally say it out loud. As if by verbalizing my fear, I could somehow vanquish it just a little.
Avery stopped shaking her head.
I stared at her, my heart thudding a last, little desperate beat.
“Then can you be honest from now?”
My heart seemed to be resuscitated by a miraculous turn of events. “Yes,” I choked. “I promise you. I’m just so, so sorry.”
I stared at her and saw beyond her face, beyond her round figure and beyond her hurting blue eyes. I looked deep into her core and saw the beautiful human being that she was. How much better than all of us she was.
“I really like you, Avery.”
I wish I could tell you how the ending for this story is a happy one.
I wish I could lie, and fabricate a beautiful, fitting end for my story.
How being the storyteller here, I could… and I would.
But I promised Avery that I’d be honest for always.
And I am. I will be.
I didn’t go after Avery that day. I had taken two steps down the hall after my scuffle with Kingston, when Tom called me back. “Are you seriously gonna go after her?”
I turned around.
Before me was a sea of nameless, faceless people. Sneering faces, furrowed brows, furtive whispers.
I took a step back in overwhelming fatigue.
“What?” Duncan yelled at me. “Still going after her?”
The bell went off shrilly at that moment.
I turned blindly to the right and stumbled through the first door I saw.
But Avery left the school that day. She left, and she never returned again.
Jade called me a week later.
Avery had gassed herself in her dad’s car.
Avery had killed herself.
Avery had died.
So many ways of saying it, but the end is still the same. Always the same.
I didn’t go after her that day and she never knew how I felt.
She’d thought that no one in the world cared—that in the end, I was just like any one of them. Cold, cruel, callous.
At the funeral, half the school turned up.
My eyes burned with bitterness and hatred as I glared at the perky cheerleaders shedding crocodile tears onto Avery’s dark brown casket.
How dare they… I raged silently. My fists clenched and unclenched beneath the sleeves of my black formal jacket.
Avery’s mother was sobbing quietly at the side of the procession, her hefty shoulders heaving up and down. Her husband—a tall, dark, distinguished-looking man—had one arm around her shoulders. I looked away.
That could have been us, I thought with the faintest bit of irony. But it wasn’t. And it could never be.
I slowly moved out from the large birch where I’d been hiding behind. Jade’s long, black hair was swept up in an uncharacteristic bun but I could still recognize her from a mile away. I made my way towards her.
“Hey,” I started tentatively.
She turned and fixed her piercing blue eyes on me. She didn’t say a word.
I felt like someone just socked me in the gut. “Look, I’m so sorry—for all that’s happened…”
“Stop saying sorry,” she hissed at me.
I clamped my mouth shut. Tears were threatening to burst out from behind my eyelids and I was having a really hard time holding them back.
“Evan. It’s just… too little, too late.” Jade turned away from me.
“Evan, promise you won’t ever be untrue to yourself again, all right?”
I smiled down at Avery’s open, hopeful face. “I promise you.”
She returned me with the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen in my life. “You’re so beautiful,” I told her truthfully.
“You’re not lying?”
“Nope.” I looked solemn. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
She tossed her hair back and laughed. “All right. I believe you. I know you won’t lie to me.”
Did I lie?
No, I didn’t.
I’ve written our story just as how Avery would have wanted it— straightforward, simple and true. True. Real. She’d wanted me to be real to myself. She had stayed true to herself.
She was strong, brave, undaunted… and she was the most beautiful human being I’d ever meet.
Why do you think I'm a child psychologist now?
Why do you think I pulled out of the last football game of the season that fateful day years ago?
Why did I reject Stanford--and slogged my way through university on a meagre delivery boy's wage? Why did I stare out of my dorm window and shed tears in the night? Why did I walk under the sycamores in spring and let the red and brown leaves fall upon me?
They reminded me of Avery, Avery whom I'd never see again.
She'd have wanted to help other children too. Children suffering like her. God, she was just a child then. We all were--we were all stupid, senseless kids who pushed her to the edge. Over it.
I still think about her now.
Avery. Avery Larson.
She still lives on in my mind.