“What are we really looking at? Perception or reality?”
The foyer wasn’t the place she usually sat. The only time she was there was when her stomach roared louder than a dinosaur, unable to control its constant hunger and the ultimate goal of wearing a size Extra extra large t-shirt, courtesy of all the french fries she ate. But today, she tucked her tummy in and sat on the bench alone. Well, she did have a book opened in front of her, hardly denying the fact that Amelia Stine was some sort of a loner. She glanced about, scores of eating, sweating, laughing bodies entering her vision. A pink tee floated across and grabbed her attention. Okay, it wasn’t that much pink as it was peach, but who’s judging?
Zeke Matthews was a hottie, nevertheless, pink, purple or yellow. She stared even though she was supposed to be on the look out for Yohaan. “Staring at that creep again, are we?” Chi bump-sat next to her, indicating Zeke. He looked lost in that moment, hardly aware of where or who he was. But then again, who knew what he really is?
I was thinking tire patterns. You can never really decide which ones were the best. I mean, my heart always goes out to the zig-zags cause they’re that cool. But plain tire marks are awesome too. I wish they had a tire pattern competition. Now that’s something I’d like to judge, they never fail to fascinate me. Ah, heavens!
As I smile to myself, wishing once again my father didn’t own some stupid business company but was a retailer of cars, because I could freely admire the car tires – I see this cute FYJC chick staring at me. I check her out, real quick, then smile like a gentleman. There’s no room for swag in this college. Entering the foyer, I’m clueless, the crowds always overwhelm me, but then come on, I’m Zeke Matthews.
Kat runs into my arms from nowhere and I can’t say I’m not glad. I swing her around and when I finally put her down, I see Jennifer and Jai emerging from the sandwich counter. Lately, I’ve been seeing them together a lot, especially after Jai broke up with his long term girlfriend. All thanks to his devious twin brother Luke. That’s the thing about them – they both look so similar, it’s their voices that set them apart. Jai’s voice is gay and Luke’s … well, no matter, I wouldn’t want to talk about Luke, you never know which hospital he’ll land you into.
“Sup, man,” Jai says, in a half hug. Jennifer greets me by fluttering her eyes. I say “Sup,” back, knowing not how to answer, because days have been going bad lately.
I drop my hand around Kat because I need the support. I wish I could say I’m fine but as much as I dodge it, there’s that question, nagging me all the time. It’s just one word and it goes like this – Neal?
Till two days back, I’d openly abuse Neal and call him a pain in the arse, cause come on, with the effing attitude he threw around and making me all insecure about myself, controlling my language was the least of my worries. Even though, he was, indeed, the best among us three.
Jai has been keeping his distance since that day. I don’t even want to ask why.
Someone pokes me in the stomach. Someone? – Kat. “Huh?” I say.
“Your phone’s vibrating. I can hear it,” she says, rolling her eyes. Oh right. Somehow I find myself in class. I hop to the window for better signal and answer the call.
“Hey sweetheart,” I say.
“Hi Zeke. Having a good day?”
“Now that you’ve called.”
I can sense her blushing on the other end and I can’t help as a smile creeps onto my face.
I miss Beaula every single day of my life. The smell of vanilla in her hair haunts me, with her madly endorsing a wreath around her head. Describing her beauty could take hours and before I lose my train of sanity, I say, “How about you?”
She sighs, “Mom’s been asking about Neal. It’s difficult for me.”
Neal was a motivation to me, if not something more personal like an older brother. I got up early, swam, went to the gym, practiced football harder, all because he had already been there, done that. And I couldn’t just sit around doing nothing. Getting selected into the college football team was also because he spent evening after evening training my skills into perfection
But he couldn’t get his eyes off Beaula. And for a moment, I didn’t care about him being dead, but for Beaula’s concern with the entire affair rather than just me.
That’s the deal with her. Ever since she’s left college to pursue law, I have no clue of what she’s been doing or who she’s going out with. I could tell her that I love her and she’d tell me she loves me back, but we both know that it’s not going further than that. But what do I do with this feeling I have for her. It does not simply stagnate but kills me with its purity.
I see Nadia crossing my class, and I turn, backing her. Annoying little twit, that one. I know her since we were kids. We did too many diaper ads together not to know each other.
Why, Lord, why.
“Nadia,” I acknowledge her.
Without further ado, she says, “See let’s go pastel on the palette, I really think the spring look would win this show!”
I sigh. Nadia and I belong to the same modeling agency which gives us timely gigs now and then. It’s a concrete fact that she’s the star of tomorrow with the offers she’s getting. Right now, we’ve entered one of biggest pageants, and as usual Nadia is having more than just a little say in it.
“I wanted it to be a little more vibrant… you know.. Spring’s over, summer has faded. It’s time for the fall. And while most contestants-” I was saying, when she cuts me.
“ZEKE, listen to me once in a while, will you? I’m finalizing the shades, come to the studio asap.” And she leaves
It’s not that she’s horrible. Sometimes you really think she’s an actual human being. When does that time come? NEVER.
Autumn is followed by winter, and it’s white all over. Everything feels muted. That’s why I wanted our theme to be loud and vibrant and alive.
If we don’t win this, I will never forgive her.
While I’m thinking about this, two lectures pass of subjects I do not comprehend. Suddenly, I have this urge of urinating and since bros don’t keep secrets, I tell Jai where I’m headed. He mumbles, “Yeah, cool,” looking into his phone. I get out of the bench and both, Naya and Pari ask me, “Zeke! Where are you going?”
“To take a piss,” I put simply.
“Ew, language, Mathews,” Mira murmurs, as she reads her book. Jai shrugs, with Alisha constantly flipping her hair on his face. Without another interruption I hurry towards the guy’s washroom
The last time I was doing this, my mind was railing on a completely different set of thoughts. It was the only secret I had kept here, in college, one if known could change my life. While pretending to be dyslexic was easy, convincing my family was hard. Being the only son, I was entitled to run the family business that lets us swim in money all these years. Only if I had the will. I don’t want to run no stinking business. Like, who even studies so much? And what about me and what I wanted to do? I was only one signature away from being a Calvin Klein model and I wasn’t letting that go.
Walking down the stairway on Monday, I was contemplating not for the first time, if this pretense was dangerous. I know my father had worked his ass off to set up this business but we didn’t share dreams as we shared blood. Only now, I don’t regret my choice. Because when I was back home, shocked and almost as dead as Neal, my dad didn’t say, “Son, are you alright?” rather he was like, “This is what happens when you follow your dreams – you lose control.” I can’t say me not studying and failing my exams won’t be deliberate.
I brace myself, unlike Monday and stare at a particular spot in front of the MMR. I vaguely remember running quickly down the stairs that day, pausing only to glance at the people gathered there; one of them being my dead friend.
I wonder if things could have gone differently.
That morning, I bumped into some kid who said Hi to me and acted like she knew me. Neal prodded, as usual, when things like these happened. First, he wouldn’t approve of the girl and then when he was absolutely sure that the chick was horrible, he would tease me with her. It blew my head, that day, being the first day of college I didn’t want to be the butt of his jokes, again, after an entire year. I shoved him to the side, and he yellowed at me to grow a pair or if I needed a dosage of his steroids.
It didn’t seem unusual when he didn’t show up at class. I was actually relieved … until I saw what I had to see.
“Hey man,” someone snaps me out of my reverie.
“Uh-hey, ” I say back. It’s Samuel from the football team. Quite popular, a ladies’ man. “When’s the practice?” I say next, for I know the seniors have been practicing all summer.
“Begins next week for the juniors,” he nods. “Read the notice board sometimes.”
“I can’t,” I joke.
Then like he’s afraid to ask, he leans in slightly, and whispers, “Do you have a smoke on you?” I shake my head, he curses.
“We could go get some, if you want.”
He shakes a no, “No cash on me. Mother busted me a few night ago, I’m on the radar.” As if remembering something funny, he says, “I wish there was a girl like her everyday… Actually I think she’s from your batch!”
“Who?” What, huh, I’m confused.
“Yesterday, this girl came up to me and gave me an entire packet of cigs. AN ENTIRE PACKET. She said she was a fan of my game and in my head I was like, stalker alert. Then she goes on to ask me for a favor and I’m almost certain it’s for my number. But no, she surprises me saying, her friend has a huge crush on me and if I could go and talk to her. I agreed, I mean, it was an entire packet of cigarettes, so.”
“And what’s the name of this girl?” I ask.
“Something like Par… Pari.”
The only person I knew who has huge crush on Sam, which was public news and who was Pari’s best friend, was Mira. “And the girl she asked you to talk to?”
I expected Hallow’s name but instead he says Stine. Amelia Stine. I know her from glimpses and the fact she was there next to Neal’s body. But who is this girl, who never entered our gossip before and most importantly, how is she in it now? Does she really like Sam? But why would Pari carry such a huge favor for her and not Mira? I have to tell her.
I blink and Sam’s not there. But many from my class are. “Free lecture,” one tells me and I run to find Mira. Once I do, I grab her hand and pull her towards me. She jerks, crossing her brow, looking at that moment, very deadly. ” Mira, I need to talk to you. Alone. Now.”
Her eyes glare at me and she replies, frustrated, like she’s not been having a good day either, “Zeke, if this is about Neal, I swear I will-”
“This is not,” I cut her. “It’s about Samuel.”
He mouth is open, her unbelieving eyes staring at me. She points to an alcove and walks.
I knew she would be all ears for this.
The problem is half the time I’m zoned out that I really don’t hear what people say. I was thinking laces, right now. I know neon is in, but I’ve always like stripped. Almost nobody wears them, which would make me wearing them damn unique. Then while I was thinking I should change my laces to red, this girl runs up to me and smiles.
It takes me a while to say, “Sup?” because I’m still deciding red or blue. Her expression clearly states that she’s waiting for a reply. And I go, “Huh?”
“I have your number, is that okay with you?” she asks.
“Yeah, yeah, cool.” Then I begin to walk away.
“Hey!” She calls, making me turn.
“I’ll come home with you,” she says. “We kinda stay near each other.” I stare at her. For more than a couple of moments, being aware that my lips are parted and the intensity of my gaze, heavy. As if she’s beginning to crack under the weight, she shifts her view from me to the ground. And I recognize that.
This is Amelia Stine. Who has been popping up unusually since the day my best friend died.
And to me, that’s odd.