Chapter 6: My Favorite People
|Sam is absent from school today and English isn’t the same without her. I can’t send her my infamous eye rolls, nor can I receive her unimpressed glances. It’s a tragedy. But not as tragic as our class...
For the second week in a row, Mrs. Boyle insists on torturing us with her loud reading of “Wuthering Heights.” Her high-pitched voice is over-dramatic, much like the tragic story of Heathcliff and Catherine. She demands attention with her passionate pauses and reflective questions, using her thick glasses as an exaggerated prop.
I can’t deny it—all the love, lust and possession that runs throughout the novel is pressuring me to depict my own stirring reality. Maybe it’s a good thing that the emotional and unstable portrayal of Emily Bronte’s characters are forcing me to see the bigger picture of my life and current habits...
Because it’s clear to me now—my coping mechanisms have been destructive when it comes to dealing with Ryan.
That has to change.
Our bushy-haired English teacher passes out our next literary assignment, as I reflect on my individual happiness. I think about how I want to be loved. My conclusion is pretty simple: I want to be a priority. Not an obligation. I want devotion. But without pity and sympathy. And I want endless, hair-raising passion and affection.
But do I really need those things to be happy? And more importantly, how does Ryan want to be loved? That’s the real question. One I can’t answer on my own.
The bell rings and slowly brings me out of my inward focus. As I walk to my next class, I notice a thick fog has rolled in. The air is damp and close against my face, evoking an isolated sensation. I feel lonely in my clouded space, especially without Sam by my side.
Lexi and Jordan suddenly appear in front of me, surprising me with their curiosity.
“Hey, where’s Sam?” Lexi asks, brushing a strand of red hair from her brow.
“Yeah, I haven’t seen her today,” Jordan adds, towering over me.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “She has a counseling session with her parents this afternoon so maybe she needs some time to prepare.”
“It’s so sad about her parents,” Jordan says. “And Ayden too.”
I nod and scratch the bridge of my nose. “Yeah, it really is. I worry about her.”
“We do too. And we miss you,” Lexi admits. “We haven’t hung out since your birthday party.”
She’s right. I can’t believe it’s been that long. Ever since I got kicked off the volleyball team, I haven’t spent much time with my teammates, besides Sam. I miss the team bonding experiences. The silly, unimportant conversations. Even the mutual griping. At one point those friendships were important to me. Volleyball was important to me. It wasn’t until I became infatuated with Ryan that I had a sudden change in priorities.
“I miss hanging out with both of you,” I say. “Let’s plan something for this weekend.”
“We’ll text you,” Lexis says, smiling.
A spark of joy rises to my cheeks as I speed walk to class. I’m smiling at my sudden decision to be just a teenage girl, in need of spending time with her high school friends. It’s about time I focus on what’s right in front of me. Friendships. Beautiful, encouraging friendships.
At lunch, I eat in the counselors office. The place Ryan used to remain and sometimes share a sandwich with me. Britt Fallon is the new counselor and doesn’t seem to mind the company. Her overly bronzed and highlighted face barely looks older than mine. She’s got that fresh out of college appearance, with her professional black pant-suit and over zealous enthusiasm.
“I need more coffee,” Britt says, pushing back her chair. She stands with haste, her chestnut-curled hair fluttering as she moves to the door. “Do you need anything?”
“No, thanks,” I reply, kindly.
I dig through my book bag for my phone with the intent of sending a text to Sam. Then it occurs to me. I still haven’t heard from Ryan. I send him a quick message in the hopes of encouraging him, rather than making him feel guilty.
I hope you’re having a great day! I love you!
Britt returns, and sets her coffee on the desk with a loud clunk, sighing as her fingers begin to indignantly type on her cell phone.
“Everything OK? I ask, crossing one leg over the other.
“Yeah, I’m just frustrated. My boyfriend is determined to be a workaholic. He keeps putting off dinner with my parents.”
“That sucks...If it makes you feel any better, mine moved away over the weekend and hasn’t responded in almost two days.”
Her brown eyes grow wide in surprise. “I’m sorry. That’s rough.”
“Yeah, if he doesn’t respond soon, I’m going to be deeply troubled and hurt.”
“I feel you.” With a wistful gaze, she continues to share. “Our biggest problem is I always make time for him, but he doesn’t return the favor. For example...I like to volunteer at various events around town and they usually fall on the weekend, typically in the evenings. I always invite him and he tags along most of the time, but when I offer to help him with his extra work load he refuses.”
“That would frustrate me too, but at least he comes to your events.”
“Yeah, I know.” Britt leans back in her chair, cupping her mug with both hands. “Saturday’s event was sort of a bust....” Her thin lips press to her mug. “The artist never showed for his ceremony.”
“Wait—are you talking about The Gallery?” I ask, leaning forward in my chair.
“Yes, have you been there?”
“Yeah, I was there Saturday night. Well not during the actual event, but after. Christian was helping my boyfriend move. That’s why he missed the ceremony. We managed to get in later that night with his set of keys.”
“I’m impressed,” she says, leaning forward. “You must be really close for him to go out of his way like that.”
In fear of hurting Christian’s reputation, I refrain from mentioning that we briefly dated and agree with her.
“Yeah, he’s one of my closest friends.”
She nods and sets her pink mug on the desk. “His work is absolutely breathtaking. I could stare at it for hours.”
“Yeah, I feel the same way.” I smile in a longing sort of way. Talking about him in a different light is getting harder. For whatever reason I expected it to get easier.
The buzzing of my phone startles me, alerting me that I have a new message. But it’s only Kelly. She says she’s bringing dinner home. I send her a plethora of happy emojis.
Sam’s next on my list. She rarely misses school so there has to be a good reason for her absence. That’s when I realize she’s with Bryce. It makes sense she’d be with him. Her counseling session is scheduled for this afternoon. That means no time allotted for her boyfriend. I can almost guarantee she’s making time.
I ploy her with a question, hoping to get an honest answer:
Enjoying your time with tall, dark and handsome?
You know me so well... Sorry I ditched you today.
I understand... But tell your boyfriend he’s a bad influence and isn’t allowed to steal my best friend again.
Her next response makes me blush:
He laughed and said he’ll make it up to you... We’re having lunch downtown. Check out this spread...
Sam sends me a picture of her gorgeous plate of sushi. The bright reds and oranges really pop, along with the aesthetic placement of sauces and sides. The presentation is a beautiful work of art.
Nice! Did your mom let you drive?
No. He picked me up after she left for work.
Oh, OK. Have fun!
Thanks, I’ll call you later. Bryce says he has a surprise for you.
Tell him I hate surprises.
He said too bad.
Seconds later a text comes through from an unknown number. It reads:
What’s wrong with you? Everyone likes surprises.
I debate on how to respond to the obvious message from Bryce. Do I continue to give him a hard time or do I play it cool? The disturbing comments I read online have not matched up with the guy dating my best friend. Despite what I found, I’d like our playful, straightforward banter to continue. So I respond in honesty:
Not me. I despise them.
Don’t worry. You’ll like this one.
Wow... So little faith in me. I’m hurt.
Ha! Tell me the surprise and then I’ll decide.
It doesn’t work that way, kid. See you soon.
I leave campus an hour earlier than normal so I can change at home before heading to work. My first matter of business is choosing an outfit. After many try on’s, I finally decide to go with gray, high-waist slacks and a black long-sleeve blouse. I pull my hair back into a low, messy bun, positioning two loose tendrils of hair to frame my face. A pair of black flats and the silver cross necklace Christian gave me for Christmas completes the look. Then I freshen my makeup and spritz some floral body spray in a circle around me.
As the upbeat music blasts in my car, I realize I’ve been lacking something. Something that defines me. And in various ways, my new job is giving me that something—a purpose. It’s helping me learn and grow as a person. I roll my shoulders back, feeling a sense of pride as I drive to my highly anticipated afternoon at Probe Research.
On my way up the elevator, I’m bombarded with a major case of butterflies. It takes every ounce of dignity in me to not flee once I reach the sixth floor. Everything about this prestigious place is forcing me out of my comfort zone. From the elegant marble sculptures, to the immaculate marble floors. Even the scent of vanilla as you walk in smells expensive. But it’s the atmosphere of sophistication and ‘executive type’ only people that are disagreeing with me. Even more than yesterday.
The front desk—where perky, blonde Dana still remains—is surrounded by four middle aged men in high-end looking suits. A few of them look me up and down with lustrous eyes as I wait for them to finish their business and leave. It’s uncomfortable but not surprising.
Unsure of where I should go, I ask Dana for assistance. In her bubbly voice, she replies, “Bryce just finished up a meeting. I’m sure he’ll be out of his office soon to find you. For now you can see if Jenna needs any help.”
“OK, great. Thank you.”
My memory is drawing a blank as I walk away. I can’t recall where Jenna’s office is. Instead of asking, I set off in search of it, hoping I remember along the way.
The patter of footsteps can be easily heard on the shiny marble floor even before Garret comes into my view. He walks merrily with his hands in his gray slacks, sporting a black dress shirt and gray blazer. I’m surprised to see him dressed up.
“Hey, how’s it going?” He asks, halting his steps.
“Good, thanks.” I smile and take in his new stylish appearance. “You look really nice today.”
His blush is paired with a genuine grin. “Thank you. Bryce insists we dress a little snazzier on the days we have client meetings.”
“I heard you’re joining us for our team meeting later.”
I smile and sway my hips a little.“Yeah, I guess I have you to thank for that.”
“Me? How so?” Garret asks.
“Bryce said you put in a good word for me yesterday.”
“Hmm...I’m not sure what he meant exactly. You didn’t come up in any of our discussions yesterday.”
I’m taken aback by his omission. Why would Bryce lie to me about Garret? Why make up all those nice things about me?
Another red flag goes up.
And now I’m wondering if I actually have potential like he so generously suggested. Maybe that was a lie too.
“I guess I miss understood him,” I suggest, unwilling to call his brother out. “Can you point me to Jenna’s office?”
“Yeah, it’s just around the corner. Second door on the right. But I’m pretty sure she’s finishing up her lunch in the lounge.”
“No problem...see you in a bit.”
I set off down the hallway, a little less confident than before. The fact that Bryce lied to me is hard to swallow.
“Ally,” Garret says, causing me to turn around and hide my frown. “You look really nice today too. Very classy and sophisticated.”
“Aw, thanks, Garret.”
I love that I can always count on him to make me smile.
The lounge is empty. I must’ve just missed Jenna. But what I don’t miss, is the new sleek copy machine. It’s smaller than the old one and far more superior in design. As I examine it closer, I notice the high tech functions and trace my fingers along the touchscreen. Then I lift the lid to see the large scanner. Inside I find a small note:
The Clunker has been replaced. You’re welcome.
With flushed cheeks, I close the lid and turn around. I’m startled by my attractive boss, standing in front of me, appearing sharp as ever in a charcoal tailored-fit suit and shiny brown dress shoes.
“So what do you think?” Bryce asks, aiming a curious grin.
I can’t conceal my embarrassed smile. He was right about the surprise. And I hate that he was right. Because now I’m afraid his charm and considerate gesture is going to convince me to dismiss his dishonesty.
“It’s great.” I confess. “I’m glad everyone will benefit from it.”
The amused expression on his face creates a blush on mine. “Thought you might say that.”
“Well it definitely needed to be replaced,” I reiterate.
My arm is met with a slight tap of his fist. “Guess I needed a little push from the right person.”
“Anytime,” I say, desperate to keep a straight face. “I’m really impressed at how fast it got here. Where did it even come from?” I ask.
“Oh, I have my ways.” He winks.
I shake my head in disapproval. “You should know I despise secrets even more than surprises.”
“I’ll be sure to remember that,” he says, on his way towards the door. “If you need to grab some coffee or what not, do it now. Our meeting starts in ten minutes. We’ll be in the smaller meeting room.”
I slip my hands into my pockets, nervously. “Ok, I’ll be there.”
Bryce stops and rests an arm above the door frame, revealing his prominent brown belt and slim waistline. “Relax kid. It’ll be fun.”
I nod to assure him I’m good, even though my insides resemble a toddlers jumbled play room.
He chuckles and directs another pleasing grin my way before leaving.
Already jittery, I pass on the suggested coffee, but use the restroom before ambling to the meeting room. It’s full of people I’ve already met from yesterday’s tour: Jenna, Garret, Amy, Bonnie and Lana. All of them specialize in different areas, where I specialize in absolutely nothing.
Looking through the clear glass at all of them mingling and laughing together is quite appealing, but also terrifying. There’s this battle going on in my mind: Fun/new and exciting versus anxiety/fear of failing. Which one will win me over?
I’m ready to bolt, but then Bryce appears and graciously opens the glass door for me. “After you,” he insists.
“Thank you, kind Sir.” I tease out of nervousness.
He smirks as I enter into the room of bustling chatter.
I take a seat in the purple chair empty handed. Everyone else seems to have a notebook and pen. I feel like I’m in school, unprepared for a test.
“A couple of announcements before we get started,” Bryce states, taking a seat across from me in the red chair. “Andi is out sick and Megan is dealing with a death in the family. So I expect everyone to pitch in where needed. Also, I don’t know if everyone is aware of our new addition, but it can be found wandering—“
“He,” I interrupt automatically. “The kitten is a he.”
“Right,” Bryce nods. “If you see him, don’t be alarmed and please don’t hurt him. My girlfriend will be undeniably pissed.”
I chuckle under my breath.
Some of the others are inclined to defend themselves. “Why would any of us hurt him?” Lana asks, adjusting her black stylish glasses.
“Yeah, we’re not monsters,” Amy points out. “At least not during the day.”
Garret laughs and fists bumps Amy. Her dark purple curls bounce as she leans back in her metal onyx chair.
“Does he have a name?” Bonnie asks, moving her blonde Balayage hair to one side.
“Unofficially, it’s Probester,” I explain. “But we can all decide together.”
And suddenly a bunch of names are blurted out and a chaotic discussion commences:
“What?” Jenna intercedes in confusion. “You mean black beauty?”
“No, you heard me right,” Garret corrects. “Black Betty. You never know...he could be partial to a female title. Besides, it’s also a great rock song.”
I giggle as the list continues to grow. It’s comical and entertaining to listen to everyone become so enthusiastic and fiery over the name of one little black kitten. Everyone except Bryce that is.
“Can we please table the name campaign for another time?” He interrupts, fiddling with his fancy looking pen. “We have more important matters to debate.”
Everyone grows quiet and proceeds to give Bryce their full attention. Then I hear a whisper from Garret—tossing out one last name suggestion. I can’t make it out, but I see Bonnie give a quick thumbs up in approval. I hunch over in an attempt to hide my amusement.
“Are you finished?” Bryce asks.
My eyes dart to our quickly growing impatient boss. His silver blue eyes are narrowed at his brother. Garret nods his head, allowing Bryce to finally relax his tight jaw and stiff shoulders.
I’m wishing Sam where here. She could help loosen Bryce up and rid him of his frown line. After all, he did say the meeting would be fun. But I get the sense he would like it to be more professional and serious from here on out. I straighten my spine and gaze him head on, heeding and awaiting his next words.
Bryce gives us all a quick rundown on the current client, Mr. Hobart. His small business is in the beginning stages of marketing a Bluetooth speaker for a much younger demographic. The specialized speakers sit inside a stuffed animal, allowing young children to boost sound from their electronic devices.
Mr. Hobart has hired Probe Research to analyze the competition and to help develop an advertising strategy, while creating brand awareness.
I do my best to understand all the updates presented by each individual on the team. Thankfully, I’m able to take notes with the pen and paper Amy sweetly offers me. I write down as much as I can, and in the process, I learn that they all have their strengths and places they shine bright. The sarcasm, articulation, and inspiration all intertwine and make the sweetest group of people.
“That was an awesome presentation,” I say, awed.
There’s a quick pause in the meeting as Bryce answers an important phone call. When he returns it’s back to business. Clearing his throat, he proceeds to read the notes in front of him.
“Mr. Hobart is really impressed with our visual designs. He likes the idea of the three different animal prototypes, but would like more data collected and interpreted before the final decision. We also need to generate more potential sale leads.”
Bonnie lifts a petite finger to suggest a thought. “I also think we need to help him communicate a unified message about who and what they are.”
“I agree,” Bryce says. “In order for us to build relationships with his audience, he needs to be more clear on his company values...We have a little room in his budget to maneuver. Does anyone have any ideas on how we can make this product more appealing and personal to kids? Remember our target ages are three to nine.”
I carefully listen to every idea made known and gaze in wonder at all the creative notions. Every single one gets written down, but none of them seem to impress Bryce. I’m starting to think he’s really hard to please.
“Come on guys, keep tossing out ideas,” Bryce advises. “We can do this.”
“I think we’ve all hit a stumbling block,” Lana predicts, lifting her reddish-brown curls from the back of her neck. “I vote we all have a stiff concoction to boost our frame of minds.”
“I know I could use a drink,” Amy says.
“I offered to build us a margarita bar,” Garret informs.
Bryce shakes his head in dismay.
“Ally, what about you,” he proposes.
I stare across at the hard-clenched knuckle resting under Bryce’s chiseled jaw and tense up.
“Don’t be afraid to speak up,” he continues.
With all eyes on me, I feel my throat start to close. I wasn’t prepared to be put on the spot. “Um...” I falter, worried my idea is terrible. “We should tell a story. The animals, I mean. Each one should have a little back story or book that makes the character more personable.”
“OK, go on,” he urges, sensing I have more to say.
“Well, I read recently that intense emotions in characters like love, sadness, and joy engage more of the brain. So if each animal has a personal story it could be a game changer. Kids will be able to connect to one or all of them.”
“I like it,” he admits. “Jenna make sure to write it down. I will present everything we came up with to Mr. Hobart tomorrow morning. I’m calling it unless anyone has something else to add.”
Silence falls upon the room.
“Alright. Thanks everyone.”
As the team gets up to leave, they all take the time to encourage me with sweet words and shoulder taps. It feels my heart with joy and appreciation. These people are becoming my people. My favorite people.
“Great job today,” Bryce says, angling a proud smile my way.
“Thanks. You were right. It was fun.” I stand from my chair and push it in.
“Good,” he says, opening the the door for me once more, a smirk lingering on his lips.
“Why are you so happy?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Maybe because it feels good to be right all the time.”
“Whatever.” I roll my eyes. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
“Too late,” he yells, sauntering down the hall like he just dropped a mic.
Despite the awesome time I had at my internship, my drive home is the complete opposite. The darkness surrounding me is darkening my spirit. It doesn’t help that my phone has no missed calls from Ryan. Not even one text from him. I scratch my scalp in confusion. Did I do something to upset him that I’m unaware of? Does he not miss me at all? The knots in my stomach are growing into tumors.
Once I’m home, I eat way too much pasta left in the fridge and bloat heavily because of it. I let my food settle and then change into my maroon running attire, adding a black headband at the last minute to cover my ears from the cold.
The brisk evening air is satisfying against my face, and the faster I jog, the better I feel inside. I learn quickly that I’m out of shape by the tight pain building in my chest and convince myself a run to the park is just enough to release a few endorphin’s.
The bright lights hovering over the basketball courts shine over half the park. There are a few kids swinging and climbing on jungle gyms, but most of the individuals in my sight are adults. Some are chilling under the patio covers, others are strolling the paved walkways.
I slow my jog to a fast walking pace, noticing a German Shepard in the corner of my eye, flapping its giant tongue.
“Ally.” A deep voice calls.
I turn quick, and my eyes widen. “Christian!” I exclaim, surprised and excited. “What are you doing here?”
His crooked smile makes my heart leap.
“I just finished playing some basketball,” He says, tucking his hands in the pockets of his black sweats.“They have pick-up games on Tuesday nights.”
“That’s awesome. I didn’t know you played here.”
“It’s a fairly new routine...So what are you doing here?”
“Oh,” I mumble, fixing my ponytail. “I’m here to run.”
“Really? Do you typically do it at night, in the dark...alone?” He asks, concern flowing from his voice.
“It’s not that dark,” I argue. “The park is pretty well lit.”
Christian delays his response, peering around us for a moment. “I know our neighborhood is consistently safe, but even I wouldn’t go running alone at night. I’ve seen and heard too many awful, unforgettable things.”
“I didn’t really think about it being unsafe,” I admit. “I just felt like running.”
“Do me a favor—next time you feel like running, call me and I’ll come with you if I can.”
“OK.” My cheeks suddenly feel extra warm.
“Can I give you a ride home?” He asks, wiping some sweat from his forehead.
“My house is like three blocks away. I can just sprint home.”
The disconcerting look on Christian’s face aligns with his earnest words. “I don’t feel comfortable with that. How bout I jog with you?”
“How bout we walk.” I chuckle. “I’m tired.”
“Deal.” He grins. The unzipping of his loose athletic jacket displays his sweaty T-shirt and the chiseled abs sticking to it.
“How’s everything going? Are you enjoying your internship?”
“Yeah, honestly I’ve had a great couple of days. The people there are incredible.”
“Even Bryce?” He inquires, softly tapping my shoulder with his.
I let out a cold breath.“Yes. Even Bryce is pretty incredible.”
“Interesting...I bet Ryan is happy for you. And proud.”
“Um, yeah, I guess,” I answer, hesitant. The fact that I have no idea how my boyfriend feels is embarrassing.
“He seemed really busy when he called yesterday.”
“Wait—what?” My voice rises. “He called you?”