Miles left his last class of the day, and he and the rest of his schoolmates resembled prisoners sentenced to a year in the slammer as they piled out the doors, their shackles the book bags loaded with twenty-plus-pounds of academic material strapped to their backs. They trudged from their classrooms in mobs, trying to escape for the day with the knowledge that they'd be back to the grind by the time the sun rose tomorrow.
He was going a different route than usual, having to dodge a teacher with a projector on a cart and whole lines of students as he cut through the hallways towards the library. It was on the second floor of his school and took up the west side. When he was first attending, it had occupied the whole area, but was downsized when they made room for the computer lab. Its old, musty wooden shelves had been replaced by towering metal death traps and were overstuffed with references that were outdated by fifteen years.
Near the back were two rows made up of several large tables, with equally huge and uncomfortable chairs. Miles was heading that way, intending to meet with a classmate in need of tutoring.
The deal was rather last minute. His English teacher had approached him a week ago, begging him to help. None of the top students were willing to do the job senior year, and to be honest, he hadn't planned on doing it ever, but he was promised extra credit for his services and a stellar recommendation towards college if he participated. Miles wasn't sure he was good enough for the job – he was more of a math guy (sometimes) – but when he was told that he just had to help the other get a passing grade of a "C," he shook his instructor's hand and told him he was in.
Thinking back on it, he was never told who he'd be tutoring. Finding them wasn't a concern – no one ever went to the school library after hours. If they really wanted hard copies for research or notes, they hit up the public library down the street. The two of them would be the only ones there besides the new librarian who'd been hired in last year. Whoever it was, they must be desperate if they were signing up for aid this early on.
Whoever it was also wasn't there yet, as it turned out. Arriving at the assigned meeting spot turned up no one, all the tables bare of anyone's belongings. Shrugging, he decided that having first pick was fine and chose a seat closest to the entrance, wanting to make it easier to be found.
And he waited. When his watch read fifteen minutes in, he wondered if maybe he'd been duped, or stood up. He'd had to miss his bus thanks to this, and the session was intended to go on for half an hour, three times a week, so his dad wasn't scheduled to pick him up until the half hour was up. Even with no one around to see him, he felt pretty stupid for sitting there with nobody to talk to and nothing to do. Miles decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and wait five more minutes; if they still weren't there, he'd get up and wait out front.
With two minutes to spare, he picked up the sounds of fast approaching footsteps. He straightened in his seat, butt protesting at being woken up, and leaned over slightly to try and see who it was.
Trent DeMarco, head football star of their high school, popped out of one of the aisles, cell phone in one hand, a mangled textbook in the other, and his backpack slung lazily over one shoulder. Managing to keep stride and not break from his conversation, he glanced around rapidly and spotted Miles – who was contemplating ducking under the table and missed his chance – and headed right for him.
"Hey, you the guy who's supposed to tutor me?" he asked, still listening to his cell phone.
Wordlessly, Miles looked around him. No one sitting behind him, and no one sitting in front of him. He was the only one there apparently with the intention of tutoring, and since Trent was apparently there to be tutored…intelligent deduction dictated that, unfortunately, he was the poor sucker assigned to the job.
At his nod, Trent hung up his phone without saying goodbye to whoever was on the line and shoved it into one of his baggy jeans pockets, tossing his book on the table and dropping his bag at his feet.
"Fucking finally. I've been looking around for this place. I didn't know we even had a library in this dump; can you believe that? I thought it was some joke, like how upperclassmen tell freshman about the pool above the gym and there's no pool; there's not even a second floor to the gym. But it was a teacher telling me, right? So it can't be a joke, but for a while I thought it was because I've been going in circles."
Miles decided to stare, wondering if maybe this situation was a joke. While he was talking, Trent pulled out one of the chairs, promptly turned it around backwards, and sat down. He rested his arms on the back of it.
"So let's make this quick, okay? I'm missing football practice for this and my coach is already pissed at me for letting my grades slip. I got a quarterback position hanging on the line here, not to mention a scholarship."
When Miles didn't say anything, Trent sneered and snapped his fingers, garnering his full attention.
"Dude, you in there? Come on; we've only got ten more minutes and this stupid essay isn't going to fix itself."
"Oh, uh, right."
Trent snapped open his book and slid out a mangled sheet of notebook paper covered in pencil streak marks and smudges. That wasn't even the worst of it – that was only what Miles picked up from seeing it upside down. Tentatively, he took it and flipped it around, taking in the atrocious handwriting. He couldn't even tell if it was print or cursive.
"Um…what was the assignment?" he mumbled, keeping his head down.
"Write three paragraphs about what I did last summer or some bullshit."
Nervously, he glanced between the paper and Trent. The other wasn't paying attention to him anymore, head resting on his arms and glancing out the window, probably watching the practice field from here. It was past the track ring, which was stationed back a ways from where they were now, but still visible enough that the majority of the action could be seen. He was tapping his foot, obviously impatient to get out there. That made two of them.
Grabbing a red pen, he made some corrections, though he was sure he missed a couple. He was having a hard time concentrating. His friend, Sam, and Trent weren't exactly on the best of terms. At least, that's how he remembered it – a while back there was this thing about cars and girls, and the fighting about made world history. It died off at some point, and he didn't know why. He just knew that, on the grounds of association, the possibility of being beaten up was high. Thankfully, Trent didn't seem to recognize him.
"Here, all done," Miles said, pushing the paper away at arm's length. "Just, uh, fix those things and type it all up or something and you should be okay."
"Right; see you in a couple days."
Trent gathered all his stuff and stood up in one fluid motion, forgetting to return his chair to how he'd found it and walked out of there as fast he'd appeared. Miles didn't remember how to breathe correctly until he heard the library doors close, deciding that the rest of this year, provided he survived it, was going to be long.
Miles had found a shortcut to get to the library that bypassed a lot of the traffic that appeared when the bell rang. There was a stairway at the end of the same hallway as his final class. It was in the rear of the school and allowed him access to the second floor faster, coming out near one of two sets of library doors. Tutoring had become enough of an occurrence that he'd learned little tricks like that.
Once inside, he spotted Trent already sitting in their usual spot. Now that he was aware of where they were actually supposed to meet, Trent ended up being the punctual one, sometimes arriving as soon as he did or waiting for him. He didn't want to be there any more than Miles did, it turned out. He was a very busy individual – he had to get home for dinner, he had football practice, he had to get to the gym, he needed to wash his truck. There was always something to be done in the world of DeMarco.
He slowed his steps as he approached, noting the other's slumped position. The quarterback was usually in either one of two possible moods: bored or impatient. Both were very distinct. When he was bored, pencils were sticking out of the ceiling or he was leaning back in his seat, and when he was impatient, his body was active in some way. Fingers drumming on the tabletop, listening to his iPod, foot tapping, texting on his cell, stuff like that.
Today he looked…moody. Maybe that was an understatement – Trent looked kind of like he wanted to beat someone's head in. He was frowning at nothing and his hands were clenched into fists.
If Miles was smart, he would turn around and call the school stating he went home sick, that someone in his family was dying, that the sky was falling and he wanted to tell his mother one last time that he loved her. If he was smart, one look at Trent should have sent him running and making every excuse he had to ensure his survival.
Instead, he walked up alongside him and said, "Hi."
Trent snarled at him, like a Pit Bull or Doberman Pinscher would if its name was "Attacker" and it had been trained to rip human beings apart for sport. He shoved a packet at him, nearly taking his nose off, and Miles had to pull it back a little to get a good look at it. It was an English test that was drowned in red ink and a big, huge "F" in the top left corner.
"I failed the test. How could I fail the test? We studied this book forwards, backwards and sideways and I still bombed it like the United States of America nuked the Empire of Japan in 1945."
He doubled-taked, and apparently so had Trent, because he suddenly looked nervous at what he'd said.
"That's a lot of detail, dude."
"History test tomorrow," Trent stated quickly. "But this-" he started again, waving the test around like it was a notice of the plague, "this test is unacceptable!"
"It's alright; it's just one test. Your parents shouldn't be too upset if you show them your other grades," Miles tried to console him, setting his things down. Before he could say more, Trent was back up in arms, rather literally, seeing as he was waving them around in tandem and grabbing Miles by the front of his shirt.
"I don't care about what my parents have to say; it's my coach! He'll be having me do squats and pushups until my limbs fall off. I'm already practicing overtime for the finals! Seriously, what does this grammar crap have to do with what we're reading? We've got Microsoft Word now; we don't need to know this!"
"Did your teacher say you can fix it and turn it back in?"
"Then let's do that, okay? Just breathe," Miles instructed, adding, "And set me down? Er, please?"
Trent was still holding him by his shirt, holding him a couple inches off the ground. While a drop wouldn't hurt him or anything, his armpits were getting a bit numb from having his sleeves dig into them.
Trent released him immediately at his request, scratching the back of his head. He didn't apologize, but Miles expected that. It wasn't that he forgot about his own strength – Trent was very aware of his strong he was and how hard he could push himself (or someone, depending on the situation) – but because he was so used to throwing it around, he tended to resort to it all the time.
They each took a seat side-by-side, Miles grabbing his extra copy of the novel Trent was going over in class just in case, and leafed through the test. There was a mixture of fill-in-the-blank and essay questions, being a class about writing and literature after all.
"You're still having trouble with concepts and run-on sentences," Miles remarked, noticing a pattern in the other's mistakes.
"Don't you think I know that already? If I wasn't having a problem with them, I'd be passing and wouldn't need you as a tutor," he snorted, still radiating indignation at failing the test. "Names, dates, places – that shit is easy to remember. They mention all that enough I can memorize it no problem, but it's this…uh…"
"Symbolism?" he supplied, and Trent nodded quickly.
"Yeah! Who the hell came up with symbolism, anyway? If they've got something to say, they should come out and say it, not cover it up. I mean, a jacket is a jacket, not…you know."
"A device that signifies the character's desire to hide from society?"
"Jesus. If you weren't my ticket to passing this class, I'd punch you."
Quickly, Miles decided to move on. Instead, he went about instructing him on the proper usage of commas and the intricacies of the period.
Miles stepped into the library, familiar with all the pathways and displays situated close to its entrance. Miss Tulip, who was soon to be Mrs. Ring come the end of this year, looked up from her work and offered him a genuine smile. He returned the gesture and gave her a small wave.
"Good to see you again. How are things?"
"Okay, I guess."
Everybody was panicking of course, due to the end of the year coming up, but he figured she already knew that detail. There were actually some people besides the usual present, probably trying to do last-minute studying before finals. Seniors like him didn't have to concern themselves with that kind of thing. Their school, like many others he was sure, had figured out that people graduating really couldn't be motivated by this time, and provided their grades were good, they could leave early enough by a week.
Unfortunately, some teachers liked to make it up by doing final projects. They were still handed out early enough that they could be turned in ahead of time, but that was assuming the students in question were willing to put in the work.
"Trent's already in the back."
He trudged into the area with windows and tables, and within five seconds, he knew exactly which one was theirs. It was covered in sizable towers of books that were covered in those tacky hard covers that smelled funny. If that wasn't enough, Trent was sitting amongst them.
"What is all this?" he asked, eyeing them as he got closer to see if there were any titles he'd know on them, but like most ancient tomes, they were blank.
"I don't know," Trent answered, looking a little glassy-eyed and lost. None of the books were open or appeared touched beyond being taken off their shelves. "I just grabbed anything that looked, you know, smart. I have a huge paper due before the end of the year and we can pick our own topic, but what the hell can be written about in five pages?"
"Well, what about-"
"I already asked if it could be about me, and she said no."
"Oh. How about-"
"She threatened to fail me if I talked about football. She said it had to be a different topic this time."
Miles picked up one of the books, flipped through it, and promptly set it aside. No way was Trent going to be able to talk about analytical chemistry. He thought about it a bit, still browsing what else Trent had nabbed, and got an idea.
"Hey, why don't you talk about World War II?"
Trent practically croaked, slamming his hands down a little too hard on the stack of books and incredulously looked over them to him.
"Oh come on; don't think I haven't noticed. You love learning about that time period, don't you? And you've told me yourself, you're good at remembering names and dates."
"History is bogus. It's just about dead guys and inventions no one gives a shit about."
"Then explain that war novel in your back pocket."
"It's not in my back pocket, it's in my-"
Trent paused. Miles smiled.
"You're such a shithead," he sneered, lip curling back as he flopped back into his seat.
Miles had stopped being offended by that sort of talk a long time ago. By this point, he was used to it. He shrugged it off and continued with his point.
"Seriously though, I think your paper would be awesome if you wrote about World War II. There's enough material to cover the required page length, and you would know what you're talking about. It'd be easy, right?"
The quarterback adjusted his shoulders, like he had a bad itch. He didn't understand why the other was acting so anxious.
"Not a lot people know about that interest. It's kind of…lame, I guess. If I do, say, write it about that…you won't tell anyone, right? I have a serious reputation to keep, and I don't want anyone knowing I'm into something boring like history."
"Sure, I pinky promise," Miles assured, holding up his right hand with his pinky extended. "Cross my heart and hope to die, too. Nobody will hear about it from me, I swear."
Trent eyed him suspiciously for a second longer before nodding, gathering his stuff up.
"Good, because I'd hate to have to rearrange your face and finding a new tutor would be a bitch. The stuff I need to use on this paper is at home, though. We'll have to write this paper at my house."
"We? At your house?"
It was Miles' turn to croak, the color feeling like it was draining from his face. Despite this tutoring gig, not once had they stepped outside those library doors and acted like they were familiar with one another. They shared no classes together, and they never hung out in the same places or so much as talked to each other in the halls. The school was big enough that it was easy to avoid someone, intentionally or not, so they didn't cross paths. This kind of step was new.
"Yeah, I've got my truck. I can drive us both there," he said, ushering Miles towards the doors once he was done. "It's no big deal. I can even cart you back to your place when we're done if that's what you're worried about."
"No, but – my dad, he-"
"Call him on the way; I'm tired of looking at this place. A year's worth and I'm ready to never step foot in a library again."
His protests were ignored, and despite being taller than average, he had to jog a little to keep up with the other's quicker strides as he left a notice on his father's voicemail. He'd never gotten to sit in a vehicle as big as Trent's before, and he kept his in immaculate condition. He could see his face in the leather seats. It made him nervous about touching anything with his sweaty hands, so he kept them in his lap.
On the drive there, he didn't say much, half because the music was one decibel away from setting off car alarms and alerting dogs hundreds of miles away that the other was driving, and half because he was too busy wondering what the other's house looked like. If it had ever been discussed in his presence by anybody, he didn't remember the details. Was it two stories? Three? A mansion next to a golf course? Maybe a huge apartment near the busy end of town?
As it turned out, it was a one story home in a middle-class neighborhood. It was surrounded by a white picket fence and had a driveway that wasn't enough to fit all his family's cars. A woman in a bikini was sitting out front in a lawn chair and waved at them both as they got out, introducing herself as his mom and my, what a cute friend he was. Two normal cats were perched in the window, looking calm and content.
Just when he thought things couldn't get any weirder.
Miles was glad when the graduation ceremony was over. The high school had booked it inside an indoor gym from a university that was nearby, and the air conditioning had cut out of it the day before. There wasn't enough time to rebook it anywhere else and no way would the decorations hold up outside, so they'd been stuck in a window-happy building that resembled a warehouse and got stuffy within the first ten minutes of everyone sitting there.
His actual graduating class was small, thankfully, so once things got underway it only took half an hour to go through all the speeches and read off the names, and now he had his empty diploma case to show for it until next weekend, when they'd be handing out the actual degrees by last name. It blew that he had to wait and go get his diploma on top of things considering he never wanted to step back into his now ex-school for as long as he lived, but it was a worthy cause to be able to give his parents something to hang on the fridge or something.
Stepping outside the doors, he squinted and lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the afternoon sun. His cap had gotten lost in one of the rafters inside when he threw it too hard, so there wasn't any hope of that blocking out the light.
He didn't spot his parents right away – most likely back inside fighting the crowds – but he did find Sam near the curb leading out to the parking lot. Mikaela was standing nearby, her hair admittedly done up really nicely, and Sam's parents. Mrs. Witwicky was clutching her dog in one arm and her husband was taking pictures of everything. His friend spotted him and motioned him over. Smiling, Miles jogged up beside them.
"Oh Miles," Judy was first to say anything, giving him a loving hug and two lipstick-riddled kisses to the forehead. From the looks of the one on Mikaela's cheek and the several littering all of Sam's face, they had obviously fallen to a similar fate.
"We're so proud of you, too! You were so adorable up there in your little gown and cap. Ron got pictures of you like Sam and Mikaela here. Didn't you, Ron?"
"I'm sure they're just perfect. Where are your parents so I can tell them? We have got to exchange photos."
"They're somewhere, I'm sure. I think I see them coming out right now."
Judy spotted them by the door and quickly waved, shouting a little and trying to get their attention. Sam was blushing slightly, looking embarrassed as his mom made a slight spectacle of herself, but couldn't bring himself to stop her.
"So, what's on your agendas, dude and dudette?" Miles asked, trying to distract them.
"I've got a college lined up," Sam admitted. "I'll be going on a tour of the campus this weekend. You're both welcome to come with; we can make it into a road trip or something."
"We'll see," Mikaela said, honestly looking like she was considering the idea, but unsure at the same time.
"What about you?"
"Nah, I've got my own plans."
"Then at least let me give you a ride," Sam said, motioning with his thumb towards the shiny Camaro parked at the rear of the parking lot. Even from their distance, it stuck out like an eyesore. It was the only bright yellow car in the entire lot.
At that exact moment, a blue truck came barreling around and almost ran over both their class valedictorian and salutatorian. It braked with a smell of burnt rubber and the continuous thrum of heavy bass rap music. The window rolled down and the music came pouring out, deafening the majority of them and threatening to rattle several fillings loose. Trent popped his head out and casually rested his arm on the edge.
Sam tensed, his girlfriend gasped, Judy covered Mojo's little ears, Ron took a picture of Trent's recently waxed SUV, and Miles' parents waved in greeting.
"Yo, Lancaster, come on. Party at my place."
"Right," he acknowledged, turning back towards his friends, who were looking understandably perturbed.
"Aren't, um, your tutoring sessions over?" Sam asked meekly, starting to sweat a little.
"Yeah, but his dad makes one wicked double-stuffed hamburger. Remember to shoot me some e-mails, alright? And take good care of him, Mickey. Someone has to."
The nickname was a recent thing between him and Sam's girlfriend, though Mikaela had never protested it. Getting to know her when she was mostly attached to Sam or his car had been hard on the both of them, but they were two very mature individuals that knew how to come to an understanding. She also played one mean round of Halo.
"Pffft. I can take care of myself," Sam scoffed, and at both their doubtful looks he slouched. "Not that it hurts, I guess."
He and Sam did one of their oldest traditions, a complicated handshake they'd perfected over the years.
"Come on; people are texting me and demanding to know where I'm at. My public needs me," Trent whined, interjecting. "I didn't bust my ass to get past high school and not celebrate it."
Miles gave everyone a final goodbye and notified his parents where he was heading off to before hopping into the passenger side.
"Looking good, cupcake," Trent said in way of passing, winking at Mikaela and zooming off.
Once out of earshot, he admitted, "I've wanted to say that for a long time. She always looked damn fine when she got pissed. Did you see her face?"
"It was pretty mad looking," he agreed.
"I didn't know you and Sam were still talking to each other," Trent said suddenly, turning down his music to be heard. It wasn't much, but at least he could hear himself think between choruses.
"What do you mean?"
"For a long time I tried to place where I knew you, like when we first met and shit. You were always that one hanging out with Witgeeky back there, following him around to parties and eating with him in the lunchroom. I forgot because for awhile you two didn't hang out. You seemed really down about it a couple months ago. I guess you guys made up?"
"Yeah. We've been friends since we were little; it's hard to stay mad at him."
"Why was that, anyway? You're the most laid-back guy I know. Was he too cool for you or something all of a sudden? Maybe getting the girl and that car went to his head."
Miles glanced over his shoulder, catching one last glimpse of his friends and family as they turned out of the lot.
"Nah; he's still Sam."
"Eh, whatever. I don't want to talk about him," Trent announced, a strange expression on his face at Miles' answer. It didn't last, however, a smirk quickly replacing it.
"I hope you're buckled up, because I'm turning this twenty minute drive into five."
He had enough time to clip in and yelp as Trent pushed the speed limit, taking corners and passing other cars at an alarming rate. As they rushed through traffic, Miles clinging to his seat with white knuckles and Trent laughing at his expense, he kind of wondered when his life had changed so drastically, and where in the world it was going to take him now.