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The Best Year of Their Lives

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Annie combs down her curly hair in the mirror, hoping to calm it, but it still pops right back up. She sighs and sets down the comb in failure, her first of the school year. Instead of dwelling on this, she smiles at herself in the mirror, trying to do so without showing her hideous braces. It doesn’t work. Besides, even without the braces, her face is already acne-ridden and covered in large, red glasses.

She’ll never get Troy Barnes’ attention looking like this. Heck, she’d never get his attention even if she looked like a supermodel. Annie would still be the nerd who answers every question, reminds the teacher about homework, and tattles on cheating.

“Annie, come down for breakfast!” her mother calls.

Annie sighs, giving up on her quest for beauty. “Coming, Mother!” she calls back, walking to the kitchen.

The kitchen, with it’s yellow walls, white tiles, and blue accents, looks just as airy as always, but the addition of the fresh flowers and pancakes on the table really adds to the perfect home vibe. Annie slides into the bench against the window, next to her thirteen-year-old brother, Anthony, who’s playing on his phone and across from her mother. Her father is diagonal to her, reading the newspaper.

Annie begins digging into her pancakes, which taste as light as air. “So, Annie, excited about your first day of junior year?” her mother asks.

“I guess,” Annie says, lying through her teeth.

“I hope that you don’t have another nervous breakdown again this year, Annie. Your grades really faltered, and we can’t have that, can we?” she says, daintily eating her pancakes.

“My GPA only went down to a 4.12 from a 4.13, Mother,” Annie argues.

“Every point makes a difference to colleges, Annie. And if you want to go Ivy, you’ve got to work harder.”

“I know.”

“And how about extracurriculars? You don’t have a job, so you’ve got to have a lot of those.”

“I’m captain of the debate team and Chemistry league, Mother, not to mention a part of Model UN and the Environmental Club.”

“Yes, and that’s average, Annie. You need to join some sports. How about soccer?”

Annie looks to her father, seeing if he’ll protest. He’s engrossed in the stock market section of the newspaper, probably not even hearing this conversation. She doesn’t even look at Anthony. They used to always defend each other, laughing at Mom’s antics together. But now, he doesn’t seem to care, as deep into his video games as her father is into his newspaper.

“I’ll see, Mother,” she says.

“Good. And after breakfast, you’re going to get ready, right?”

“I am ready, Mother.”

“Oh,” she says, slowly looking over Annie’s outfit with a disgusted look on her face. “I just thought that because of the messy hair and it’s the first day, you might want to make an effort. But I guess that not caring is the style for kids these days.”

Annie shoves the last of her pancakes in her mouth, and she can feel her mother judging her for eating that much this fast, knowing she thinks that this is why she’s overweight. “I’ve got to go, Mother.”

“Okay. Have fun!” her mother says, and Annie resists a snort.

“Bye, Dad! Bye, Anthony!” she calls as she goes outside.

As a response, she hears zombie-like noises from the two of them.

She gets into her car, leaning back with a sigh of relief. Now that she’s escaped her mother’s clutches, she just has to face hundreds of kids who hate her guts. It’s going to be such a fun day.

****

Abed imagines a montage of him getting ready as he takes a shower, puts on his flannel shirt over his skinny jeans and navy shirt, does one quick comb of his hair while looking in the mirror, and walks down to breakfast. Really, his life would make a very boring movie, but if he might make a very interesting side character as the side character who is shoved into lockers and makes the main jock question his morals.

He’s content with this; one day, his spot in the limelight will come.

The montage continues as he walks to the kitchen. His father is kneeling in the kitchen on top of a prayer rug, doing his morning salat, mumbling his prayers in Arabic. Abed used to do this with him, but he gave up in his early teens. His father was not pleased, to say the least, but he’s grown to accept it, saying that with a Polish mother, what did he expect.

Abed walks around him to the fridge and pulls out milk, then he gets Cheerios out of the cabinet. It’s a tight squeeze to do so without bumping into his father since the kitchen is so tiny.

Their whole house is tiny, really, with one bedroom and an office that’s been transformed into Abed’s bedroom and a living room and kitchen. It doesn’t help that the house feels extra dark with purple carpeting and dark wood covering the walls.

He pours his Cheerios into the bowl, then the milk, the same as every morning, and begins to eat, his father’s prayers a soothing background to his chewing.

His father finishes up and rolls up his prayer rug, placing it in the corner before pouring himself a cup of black coffee and sitting down across from Abed.

Even though his father is done with his prayers, they are still silent. Abed thinks that this is part of why his life would make a boring movie. Maybe with the right editing and soundtrack, though, it could be interesting.

His father breaks the silence. “First day of school, huh?”

“Yep,” Abed says, taking another spoonful of his Cheerios.

“You’re sure you don’t want to just join the falafel business? You don’t need to graduate to cook.”

Even though Abed hates high school, he wants to finish. Besides, he really wants to delay joining the falafel business.

“I’m sure,” Abed says.

“Okay,” his father replies.

And that’s the end of their morning conversation. Abed finishes his breakfast and leaves without another word.

He walks down the street to his bus stop. Most of the seniors drive or have their friends drive, but Abed can’t afford a car and he doesn’t have any friends to drive him. So, he rides with the loud freshmen and sophomores.

The bus arrives two minutes late, which is three minutes earlier than the usual, and Abed boards. He moves to the middle and sits in the first one-person seat he can find. He takes out his earbuds and phone, and he begins re-watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off on Netflix, looking for any parallels between movie high school and his life high school.

The bus jerks to a stop every few minutes, but Abed does not look up from his phone. He’s completely engrossed when he vaguely hears loud laughing and feels someone tapping on his shoulder. He pauses the movie with great regret, pulls out his earbuds, and looks up.

Sophomores are staring at him from all angles. Abed isn’t great with facial expressions, but he has learned throughout the years that they are laughing at him. He doesn’t care about them laughing, it doesn’t bother him, he likes who he is, but he doesn’t want to be hit.

“Hey, retard,” one boy laughs. “Are you deaf? We’ve been yelling at you for a full minute.”

“I’m not deaf,” Abed responds, hoping this will keep him from being hit.

“Then I guess you’re just stupid,” the kid says. He looks a bit like a young Danny Zuko from Grease. “The middle of the bus is for sophomores. The back is for seniors.”

Abed stares at him, not understanding what he wants.

Zuko looks to his friends, and they burst out laughing. The boy next to him says, “What’s wrong with his face?” He mimics it, widening his eyes in confusion and cocking his head.

It is quite accurate, Abed has to admit. But he still doesn’t understand what they want.

The girl in the seat in front of him is leaning over. Ironically, she’s the spitting image of Sandy. She says, “We want you to move, freak.”

Abed nods, grateful to her for telling him what they want despite her derogatory language. Abed knows he could stay; technically, the middle is reserved for sophomores, but no one cares. The back is packed with freshmen. But he doesn’t want to be hit, and he doesn’t care where he sits.

So, he gets up as the bus is moving to sit in the back. He can hear them laughing behind him, saying stuff about his big eyes and how he didn’t speak.

Abed looks for an empty seat as he walks but they are all taken. He vaguely hears the bus driver talking and only notices what he is saying when the bus driver raises his voice.

“Young man, please sit down. The bus is moving. I repeat, sit down.”

The whole bus has collapsed into giggles, although Abed doesn’t really see what is so funny. He guesses it is like in Glee when Puck threw Kurt into the dumpster. It’s not really funny, just the loser is being taken down some social pegs.

Abed sits down at the next two-to-three-seat, next to some girl who’s collapsed into a giggling fit over him sitting next to her.

“Are you the loser who was sent to a psychiatrist for telling everyone in class that they were in an animatronic movie?” she asks, laughing.

“I am,” Abed says, unashamed.

She laughs harder, gasping for air. She looks a bit like Gretchen from Mean Girls, and Abed momentarily wonders where the rest of her posse is before putting in his headphones and getting back to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

At least high school makes sense there.

****

Is it pathetic to go to high school for six years? Trick question. It’s pathetic that fracking is still legal in some states, and if Britta had to travel to protest it, so be it. So what if it delayed her graduating? High school is all about brainwashing young minds with patriotism for a capitalistic country that doesn’t care whether they go homeless and imposing a hierarchy in which females are oppressed. Graduating is not important. And it shouldn't be to anyone who gives a damn about the world.

Britta nods to herself in the mirror, inspired by her imaginary rant. She finishes applying her makeup that her mother would call slutty (hell knows what she would call her fishnet stockings under shorts that definitely go against the sexist dress code, the knee-high black boots, and the faux-leather jacket she’s wearing) and begins ever-so-slightly curling her short pink bob.

Britta has to remind herself, as she does every day, that she’s not a terrible person and buying into the patriarchy’s demands that women look beautiful at all times for caring a bit about her appearance. She has to. All women have to. And her nose-ring and shirt that says “angry feminist” screams fuck you to men enough, anyways.

She still feels like shit, though.

Before Britta is done curling, there is a knocking - no, that doesn’t describe it - an earthquake-inducing pounding at the door. “What is it?” Britta growls, not fit for human interaction since she has not yet had her two large coffees.

“I need to take a shower, Britta!” Jordan, her roommate, calls through the door.

Britta resists the urge to open the door and stab her with the curling iron. Instead, Britta takes a deep breath and reminds herself that killing is a no-no before calmly unplugging the iron, plastering on a smile, and opening the door.

Jordan is standing there, one earbud still in her ear, her red hair pulled up into a high ponytail, and in a sports bra and leggings combo that is totally selling out their gender. She has an identical smile plastered on her own freckled-covered face as she says, “So sorry to rush you, Britta! I was just jogging, and I’m so sweaty. I’ve got to take shower or the gym might fire me for my stench.”

Britta laughs, her chittering almost as fake as Jordan. She knows Jordan hates her like most girls do, but that doesn’t stop the smiles and offers to go running with her “because it will really help her figure!”

Britta steps out of the bathroom to Jordan’s ultra-cheerful and vomit-inducing thank-yous and into their studio apartment, littered with week-old clothes, Chinese food cartons, and old protest signs. The couch is still pulled out into bed-form, as it has been since the first week Jordan bought it, and the bunk beds across from it are just as disturbingly gross as the rest of the apartment. The top bunk, Britta’s, has two lumps underneath the covers, either from her cats or from old clothes. Next to the sole window, Kylie, Britta and Jordan’s third roommate, is smoking a joint.

Unlike Jordan, who Britta is sure got up extra early just to - barf - jog, Kylie has been up all night partying. Her now electric blue hair is in a super short pixie cut and perfectly matches the rest of her eccentrically colored 80’s outfit. Britta was so excited to get a transgender and racially ambiguous roommate, but she turned out to be just as annoying as Jordan.

Britta tries to sneak out without Kylie noticing, but of course, she’s not that lucky. “Hey, Britta!” Kylie chirps, way too cheerful for someone who has not slept in twenty-six hours. She notices Britta’s backpack and asks, “Is it your first day of school?”

Also unlike Jordan, Kylie is genuinely asking and is genuinely curious about Britta and her well-being. Britta doesn’t know which is worse: the fake smiles and backhanded compliments or the constant encouragement and care. With all these differences, it’s a wonder Jordan and Kylie can stand each other, let alone be best friends.

“Yep,” Britta says, shifting her backpack from one shoulder to the other and hoping that’ll end the conversation.

Kylie blows a stream of smoke straight into their bedroom/living area/dining room/kitchen instead of out the already-open-window. Britta feels a sudden and strong longing to just stay here and smoke with Kylie until Kylie’s shift at the library started, no matter how irritating she is.

“I miss high school,” Kylie reminisces. “All those parties and people. God. I remember this one time, my boyfriend convinced me to go to this one party that these girls we HATED were throwing. So, by the end of it, we had thrown so much beer at each other that their whole house was covered in it and their parents grounded them for MONTHS about the cost to recarpet.” Kylie laughs a little. “High school’s the best.”

“Yeah, it’s just wonderful,” Britta says, her urge to stay already weakened. “I’ve got to go. Don’t want to miss the wonderfulness!”

Kylie waves as Britta leaves the apartment. “Have a beautiful day!” she calls.

Britta breathes a sigh of relief as the door closes, thanking the non-existent God for giving her the strength to not mouth off at either of her idiot roommates all morning. She walks down the stairwell to the Starbucks underneath their apartment. Technically, she thinks renting their studio apartment is less than legal, but really, she can’t be picky with her minimum wage salary.

Britta, more than anything, wants to order a large mocha, but she refuses to help this Hydra monster that’s sucking the life out of small coffee shops and cafes across the world. Instead, she straightens her back and stomps across the coffee and cinnamon heaven swarmed with middle-aged businessmen talking on Bluetooths and high school students who are going to be extraordinarily late to their first day.

She’ll get her coffee at the school cafeteria. Who cares if it tastes like mud?

Britta hops on the motorcycle she found at a garage sale for only $200 bucks and only takes five tries to start and takes off to her first day of 1984-style brainwashing.

****

Troy raises his eyebrow at himself in the mirror, admiring the perfection that is Greendale High’s first junior quarterback and most popular student of the year, clad in his purple and white letterman’s jacket.

His room is the typical teenage boys’, with dirty clothes lining the floor, football trophies on the dresser, and posters of his favorite football players. He leaves it with one more glance in the mirror and with the intention of picking up his friends, Keith and Mark, on the way to school.

But then he passes his Alyssa’s room. Her light is on, despite her not having to get to school for another half an hour. Troy bites his lip. He can either be late for his first day or see what’s bothering his little sister.

It’s an easy choice.

He quietly knocks on her door before entering. Unlike Troy’s room, her’s is covered in pink and fairy lights with pictures of her and him and lacy curtains. Alyssa is sitting on her bed, her hands crossed over her plaid jumper. Behind her thick, rhinestone glasses, her eyes are staring blankly at the wall in front of her.

Troy closes the door behind him and sits down on the bed next to her. She must have felt the bed indent with his weight, but she doesn’t take her eyes off the wall.

“Alyssa?” Troy says softly. “You okay?”

Alyssa nods once, still staring at the wall. “Fine,” she says.

“Really?” Troy asks, their code for “spill”.

Alyssa turns towards Troy, her eyes wider than usual. Troy realizes she was staring at the wall to keep herself from crying. “I’m going to have nowhere to sit at lunch,” Alyssa says, her voice cracking a bit.

It’s Alyssa’s first day of sixth grade, middle school, and she’s been freaking out all summer.

“You had somewhere to sit in elementary school,” Troy reminds her.

Alyssa shakes her head, a fat tear falling, magnified by her huge glasses. “That’s different. There were only a few tables and everyone there didn’t speak to me. Here, there are thousands of tables and new kids, and they’re all going to hate me, and I’m going to have to sit in the bathroom. And then I have to take the bus! I’ve never taken one, and there might not be any open seats and I might have to ask someone to share and they’re going to laugh and say, “no” because I’m a complete freak with no friends.”

Troy pushes one of her duel braids behind her ear, his hand gentle against her ear. He keeps his hand resting on her shoulder. “You’re not a freak, Alys. You’re best friends with the most popular guy in high school, which makes you-” he points at her with his other hand “-the most popular girl in middle school.”

Alyssa laughs a little, tears still falling. “That’s not how it works, Troy.”

“Of course it is!” Troy insists. “And if it makes you feel better, I can drop you off today so you don’t have to take the bus. You’ll be a little early, though.”

“Don’t you have to take your friends?” Alyssa asks, concerned about Troy even when she’s freaking out.

“They can wait,” Troy says confidently, even though he’s sure they’re going to be pissed at him. Troy stands and offers his hand. “Let’s go.”

Alyssa looks up at him shyly, still unsure. He cocks his head and pushes his hand out further until Alyssa takes his hand and hops off of her bed.

Troy and her walk downstairs and are almost immediately assaulted by Nate, their five-year-old brother with way too much energy. He is sprinting around the living room with a cape on his back, shouting “broom-broom!” at the top of his lungs. Troy is not sure whether he is pretending to be a car, plane, superhero, or some combination of the above.

On his second circle of the living room, Nate stops at Troy’s feet. “T-t!” he screams, “T-t” being his nickname for Troy since he cannot pronounce it. “Play!”

Troy chuckles and crouches down to his level. “I wish I could, buddy, but I’ve got to drive Alyssa to school. Later, okay?”

“-romise?” he asks, extending his pinky. 

Troy hooks his pinky around Nate’s tiny little one. “Promise.”

Nate smiles a toothy grin and takes off around the living, jumping on and off the couch and coffee table.

Troy stands back up and smiles at Alyssa, who still has the wide-eyed worried expression. “C’mon,” he says to her, heading towards the kitchen.

Their mother is cooking oatmeal over the stove, her frizzy hair in a bun and wearing a navy blue business suit with pumps. Troy heads to the pantry to get two pop tarts.

“Alyssa?” his mother says. “Where are you going?”

“Troy’s driving me,” she says, and Troy can tell she’s trying to sound confident by the little waver that makes the statement sound more like a question.

His mother sighs, dropping the spoon she’s holding into the pot of oatmeal and placing her hands on her hips. “You know you have to get used to the bus sometime, right, Alyssa? A girl can’t be scared in this world.”

“I know, Mom,” Alyssa says, quietly, her head down.

Troy strolls back over to Alyssa, already dragging her towards the door. “It’s fine, Mom. I’ve got it today.”

“You’ll be late, Troy,” his mother protests.

“Seriously, I’ve got it.”

His mother sighs again and begins stirring. “Fine. Just for today. You know you can’t protect your sister from everything forever, Troy.”

Troy is already halfway out the door with Alyssa by this point. “Got it, Mom!” he calls behind him. “Bye!”

He slams the door shut and hops into his red convertible. Alyssa sits next to him in the passenger's seat. Troy pulls out quickly, partly because he wants to get Alyssa as far away from his mom and partly because he’s going to be so late and his friends are going to be so pissed.

“Are you sure this is okay?” Alyssa asks a minute into the drive, her voice small. “I don’t want you to be late.”

Troy smiles at her his award-winning smile. “Of course it’s fine. I like to be fashionably late and make an appearance anyways. You know, let them know who’s on top.”

“Okay,” Alyssa whispers, not sounding convinced.

Troy looks down from the road for a second to hand her the aux cable and his phone. “Here. Pick a song.”

Alyssa nods and looks up some song on Youtube. Suddenly, Katy Perry’s Firework is blasting out of his speakers. For a moment, Troy hopes no one notices that he is driving the car, knowing his friends would never let him live that down.

Then, he looks over to Alyssa, who is smiling without the one-step-off-from-tears expression for once that morning. She’s singing along at the top of her lungs, doing a little dance to her pretend audience. And all of his fear magically vanishes. Singing is the one time she sounds confident, and she should; she honestly sounds better than Katy Perry, although that interpretation may be a little biased.

Troy joins in, quiet at first. “Cause baby, you're a firework. C'mon, show 'em what you're worth. Make 'em go, ‘Aah, aah, aah’. As you shoot across the sky-y-y.”

By this point, Troy is belting out the lyrics in a high pitched voice, remembering for the millionth time that he loves Katy Perry just as much as Alyssa.

People may be staring, but Troy couldn’t care less about his popularity. He’s got his best friend in the car and is having the time of his life.