I was scribbling in my notebook while everybody else in class was chatting away and doing their thing, waiting for our religion teacher to come in when a ball of paper landed on my desk and made me look away from the supposedly Greek goddess I was drawing. I looked to the direction of where the paper might’ve been from and I found myself looking at the smirking face of Cindy, my best friend who had been with me for seven years now, and beside her was our other best friend of five years, Kurt.
“You’re lost in yourself again.” Cindy said as Kurt leaned forward to play with a strand of her hair. They were a thing and they’ve been together for four happy years now with me as the ever present third wheel attached to them.
“Wrong.” I said, waiving my pencil in the air. “I was lost in my artistic endeavor.” I flashed them both a smile, which was all I ever did after every time I spaced out on them.
“I was asking about Paul.” Cindy said.
To the whole school and to everybody else who knew or heard, Paul was my long distance boyfriend. To me, however, Paul didn’t exist.
Because, well, I made him up.
“I miss him.” I sighed. I should be an actress when I get out of high school. I was getting really good at all this lying and missing Paul stuff.
“Well, duh.” Cindy said, swatting Kurt’s hand away to face me. “When was the last time you guys even talked?”
“Almost a week ago.” I think. That was probably the last time I said anything about “Paul” to anybody. It was easy to not say anything about your boyfriend if he didn’t exist.
“Why did you have to fall in love with someone so far away? I mean, I know it’s love and all that but you’ve made things harder for yourself. What if he has this thing going on with another girl there?” Kurt was silent as Cindy said all this. This was always her dialogue about me having to choose a guy who lived across the sea.
“Not possible.” I said, smiling. Because, really, it wasn’t possible.
“Wow. I can’t believe you trust him that much.”
“You should trust me that much too.” Kurt told her. And just like that, they were back to ensuring each other about how in love they were.
Just as I was about to return to my drawing, a body passed beside me and heavy pat landed on my back making my glasses slip down my nose almost making it fall of my face.
“She chose a guy who lived that far, because no one who had the possibility of seeing her face every day would date her.” said my assaulter who was no other than our school’s star football player, Red Hansen. It wasn’t “American Football” football, it was “soccer” football like “World Cup” football. I didn’t really know much about it, just that you had to kick the ball into the goal.
I fixed my glasses and gave him a dead cold stare. I never talked to this guy.
Well, I did. But only extremely occasionally when I really had to.
We’d been enemies since pre-school for some childish reason and I guess he never grew up enough to get over it while I managed to grow up enough to ignore his presence which was often challenging considering he lived right next to me and our mothers adored each other. Tough luck.
He stared back at me, the intimidatingly handsome smile plastered on his face mocking my existence, before he took his seat behind me. I hated him and I hated him even more because what he just said was probably true. Sometimes I think that ruining my life was the sole purpose of his creation because it was all he ever did to me.
“Tell me, Pen, is your boyfriend as unsightly as you are? Or worse?” Red asked loud enough to catch the attention of everyone in the room.
This was one of those times when I had to talk to him. He was asking me a direct question and not answering would be rude, wouldn’t it?
“Better actually. Even better than you.” I calmly said without even turning to face him and that must’ve pissed him off because he slammed his hand on his desk, making me jump. He hit it hard enough that I could feel the force from his desk to the back of my chair.
I gripped my pencil tighter in my hand and in the corner of my eye I could see Kurt mouthing some words to me that I couldn’t quite make out. Red’s chair made a squeaking sound against the floor and the next thing I knew, he was leaning over his desk with his face right next to mine.
“I don’t think that’s possible.” He slowly whispered, saying each word with intent.
“Place your buttocks where they should be, Mr. Hansen.” Mr. Garrett, our religion teacher, said as he entered the room probably noticing that everyone’s attention was on us, which also happened occasionally and as much as I dreaded it every time it happened, not much harm was ever done except, of course, another hit at my reputation for being Red Hansen’s favorite subject. More like only subject, actually. I don’t recall him antagonizing anyone else.
“They’re still in my pants the last time I checked, Sir.” Red replied, earning a few snickers from our class.
“Enough. Lead the prayer.” Said Mr. Garrett. Without hesitation, Red confidently walked to the front of the room to lead the class in prayer.
It was a custom in St. Placid Academy to pray before and after every class and we were used to hearing each other pray out loud, even Red. He thanked God for the “wonderful day” asked forgiveness for the sins he had done that have upset God and asked that this day be filled with fun and that God may “shower” us all with blessings.
Cindy intentionally coughed as Red passed between us to get back to his seat and I finally got the chance to shift my gaze to Kurt.
“I was telling you to not say a thing.” He said.
“You weren’t saying anything. You were mouthing something which was impossible for me to understand without turning my head and dragging you into our friendly conversation.” I replied as I sat down in time with everybody else in the room.
“It’s like you never learn. You know what happens every time you answer back.”
“What? What exactly happens?” I asked. I was far over the embarrassed zone. Years of being at the receiving end of Red’s hatred has me used to the mocking, pity, and unwanted attention of quite a number of irrelevant people. It was attempted social murder in itself and every time I answered it just turned things up a notch, converting things into social suicide for me. But it was all there was to it – social, never physical and I couldn’t care less because my relevant social life consisted of Cindy, Kurt, my family, and the staff at the local ice cream shop.
“Nothing really happens, Kurt, so Pen can answer back and stand up for herself if she wanted to. Even if her boyfriend can’t be here to stand up for her, she’s strong like that.” Cindy said, shutting Kurt up. What a way for my best friend to make me sound like a hero. I wonder what she’ll make me sound like if she knew the truth about Paul – which she would know when I tell her, if ever I tell her.
That weekend, I woke up feeling light, because everything felt normal. It was normal that instead of heading out to meet a boyfriend or a group of friends like any other girl of my age would, I was sprawled out on my bedroom floor with my hands covered in different shades of lead. This sketch of Paul, or what Paul would have looked like if he existed, should have been finished last week but I was too lazy to pick up a pencil and left it half done until I got that sketchy feel inside me like I just wanted to scribble something and make something come to life by sneaking in scribbles and lines here and there in places I thought appropriate.
I was almost done. In this portrait, he was laughing and lines were forming at the corner of his eyes, his head thrown back a little. His strawberry blonde hair, just the right amount of messy to say he was having a lot of fun and if it were in real life, he would be laughing with me.
I’m not crazy obsessed or in love with a fragment of my imagination. I swear. Paul was something – someone, I created to save myself from the brutal claws of teenage peer pressure. It wasn’t that anybody told me to get a boyfriend, just that almost everybody was starting to ask me why I was still single or why I wasn’t gushing over some guy. For one, none of the guys I know have ever sparked anything inside me and no one ever tried to. If it’s not crazy, gut-wrenching, heart-congesting love, I’m not falling for it.
I added a few final strokes just because I felt like it and sat back to admire my work. I was no professional – far from it. I learned from online courses, forums and experience. I went to every open gallery exhibits, joined every art symposium I found and skipped meals just to buy tickets to art conventions.
The portrait was far from perfect, I was sure. But I was content with knowing that I could start from an empty canvas and really finish with something that’s really something.
Paul. When I imagine myself falling in love, from then until now, it would have been with someone like him which is why I’ll probably end up growing old alone or taking care of Cindy and Kurt’s children.
“EEpeeeeeee!”, screamed my little brother, Wes, as he barged into my room, his hands and chin smeared with flour.
I tucked my sketch pad in the box under my bed right before he landed on me with arms outstretched, knocking us both to the floor.
“EEpee.”, he said again. He couldn’t even say my name right but despite that, I smiled.
“Mmhmm?” I mumbled, struggling to lift my head off the floor to look at him. He held my arms to my sides in a hug making it impossible to put my weight on my elbows. A little work out never killed nobody, I told myself.
“Momth caaawllin yoouu.” He said.
“Well, you better let me up then. You’re pretty mighty for your age.” I laughed. I meant to say that Wes was pretty heavy for his age but that might’ve caused an outburst that would take all morning to patch up. He bounced around the house in every sense.
He crawled off me and reached for the pencils that I left on the floor. I quickly grabbed them off the floor as I adjusted my glasses and put them on the top shelf on the corner of my wall that he could never reach unless he had either genius or gymnast skills – or both.
I walked through the hall and down the stairs with Wes bouncing behind me – I really couldn’t call it otherwise.
When we got to the kitchen, mom was wiping the counter, making sure that the only evidence left of her cooking were the tempting dishes she set on the kitchen island. I was tempted to pick on a chicken leg, but I knew better than to mess with her plating. She and dad fought one summer for the unbelievably hefty check dad had to write so that mom could learn and, according to mom’s words, “master the art of gourmet plating”. My dad repeatedly grumbled the same argument every time mom brought it up – we didn’t need gourmet, we needed edible food and it didn’t have to look pretty. He had a point.
But of course, dad lost that argument.
“You summoned me, your highness?” I did a curtsey beside the refrigerator.
“Hey, Penny!” Mom greeted me. “Take this fish next door.” She said, placing a heavy plate with a large gaping dead fish in my hands. “I promised Beth I would debone it for her.”
The slimy pungent smell filled my lungs but that wasn’t what made me frown at the fish.
“Problem?” mom asked.
“Nope.” I lied, pasting a smile on my face.
Walking across the lawn, I could hear the music playing from the Hansen’s house getting louder as I walked closer. I struggled a little with the door between our backyards but I managed to push it open with my backside. The friendship between our families was this ridiculously warm. Our backyards had an unlocked gate between them. If only the warmth of that friendship could creep into me and Red even just a little then maybe life would be a teeny bit better for me.
“Knock, knock!” I said instead of did when I got to their back door. My elbows were still tucked to my sides and I was struggling to keep my hands from shaking. It was one ridiculously heavy deboned fish.
“Come in, Penelope.” Mr. Hansen said as he held the door open for me. “They’re still in the kitchen.” The wives from our families have a knack for spending too much time in the kitchen, peeling things, juicing, marinating, frying, steaming, baking, whatever-ing… stuff. I don’t even know the names of some of the things they feed us.
I walked into the kitchen and put the plate on the granite kitchen island that was a lighter version of ours at home. And when I looked up to take in the scene in the kitchen, if it’s possible to choke on oxygen, that’s exactly what happened to me.
Red was right across the island standing sideways, his attention on the egg he must’ve dropped on the floor. At that moment, I felt like the egg –judged and labeled as fragile by Red Hansen but already broken in a messy heap.
He was wearing his dad’s blue apron and he was shirtless. A crease formed between his eyes as he considered the methods of cleaning up the now egg adorned floor. His toned arms lifted to scratch his head and I couldn’t help but notice his stomach, rather, his lack of one and just…. Damn.
Right there in the Hansen’s kitchen I silently cursed the dreadful circumstances of my life because I realized that among the multitude of male Homo sapiens, it had to be this one who detested me and I don’t even remember why. I wondered if he did.
How exactly do I fight someone whose only palpable flaw was hating me?
“Penny!” Mrs. Hansen – Beth, said alerting Red of my presence. I quickly diverted my gaze to the egg on the floor just as he turned to look at me.
“Good morning.” I said, my eyes still on the egg. I felt Red’s eyes on me and I felt my ears growing warm but I did my best to ignore the feeling.
“Red, goodness.” She said to his son, tossing the yellow kitchen towel to his direction. “Clean that up!”
My gaze followed the towel as it landed on his head and I noticed the corner of his lips lift a little in amusement at the antics of his mother.
“Ignore him.” she said as Red proceeded to do as his mother ordered. That would be very difficult at the moment, I thought but I kept my eyes on Mrs. Hansen.
“That’s some fish.” I pointed at the still gaping fish with a nervous laugh.
“That’s a gift from Red’s uncle. He had a good catch last week in his trip to our family’s lake house. Maybe we can visit it soon with your mom and dad.” She said as he bent down to check whatever was cooking in the oven.
“Dad’s never been good at fishing.”
“Everyone gets better at fishing when there’s so much fish to catch.” Mr. Hansen said.
“Then I guess there’s still some hope for dad.” I said.
Mrs. Hansen lifted the deboned fish into an empty tub and handed the plate I brought with me to Red who was had just stood up to wash the towel.
“I’m still cleaning the floor.” He said. His mom answered him with silence leaving him no choice but to take the plate and put it on the sink.
“You really don’t have to wash it.” I said, walking to the sink without thinking. I grabbed the plate but when I lifted it wouldn’t budge because Red’s hand was holding it in place.
“Oh, let him.” Mrs. Hansen said.
“You don’t have to.” I said to Red. He ignored me and turned on the faucet, wetting my hand and my shorts in the process. Still, he didn’t say a thing. When he reached for the sponge, I moved my hand away – very much away, from the plate and stepped two steps back to distance myself from my foe.
“I’m trying a new recipe for blueberry cupcakes.” Mrs. Hansen said, oblivious to the evil that had just taken place. “I’ll send some over when they’re done.”
Red turned away from the sink and facing me, he wiped the plate dry, our eyes both focused on the rag.
I probably looked stupid. But my existence was already stupid to him so whatever.
He handed me the plate, his eyes drifting to me while my eyes stayed on the plate as I tried to take it from his grasp but he wouldn’t let go so I pulled again. Still, he held on to the plate. I pulled again, harder this time but he didn’t even budge. I looked up to glare at him and our eyes met. I ignored the jolt of surprise that washed over me and focused instead on how irritated he made me feel as I held his gaze. I pulled at the plate again and this time, he let me take it.
I huffed out a heavy breath before thanking him and turning to walk away.
“I’ll be on my way now, Mrs. Hansen.” I said.
“Yes, yes. Tell your mom about the cupcakes. I’m looking forward to them myself.” She said.
As I headed home, walking through our connecting backyards and increasing the distance between me and Red with every step I took, I couldn’t help but feel like I was a fierce movie star walking away from the exploding car behind me, deadly weapon in hand.
Sadly, I’m far from fierce and definitely farther from the likes of a movie star. And instead of clutching some cool weapon, I was struggling with a heavy glass plate in my right hand.
That afternoon, I was sitting on the living room couch, absorbed in an episode of Merlin with Wes on my lap. My body was engulfed in the couch’s plush embrace much because of the weight of my little brother. It wasn’t exactly the kind of comfort I’d like to have on a lazy Saturday afternoon but I love my brother and I’ll love him the same even if he never shed any weight. And I guess he loved me back almost as much because he sat through all the shows I want to watch without falling asleep even if he never understood them enough.
Wes was playing with my hair and the sweet scent of lavender baby powder that reeked off him filled my nose when we heard a loud know from the kitchen.
“Ed!” Wes said, assuming that the person at our kitchen door was his favorite playmate. He adored Red and Red adored him. They were like brothers that never really were. Sometimes I wonder if Wes would choose Red over me. I didn’t amount to much compared to Red anyway.
I grimaced as I lifted Wes off me to get up. He kneeled on the couch, his butt in the air as I walked to the kitchen. If he had a tail, I was pretty sure he’d be wagging it.
I opened the door without saying a word, and true enough it was the devil who walked in.
I’m not sure if it’s an unsaid pact between us but we never do anything to really get on each other’s nerves when we’re in each other’s houses.
He walked past me ignoring my presence completely and set the tray of blueberry cupcakes on the kitchen counter and proceeded into the living room leaving me alone in the kitchen. The scent of freshly baked cupcakes filled the room but it did nothing to lighten my mood. It was like the presence of Red inside my house decreased the amount of space I could move in.
I passed Wes and Red in the living room as I made my way to my parent’s room. Wes was jumping on Red’s lap and I could imagine how painful it would have been if it was me instead of Red that my brother was jumping on but Red’s face showed no sign of discomfort. In fact, they were laughing.
Just as I passed the telephone, it rang so instead of heading straight to my mom, I said what I had to say out loud.
“THE CUPCAKES ARE HERE!” I shouted in the direction of the bedroom before I turned and stopped in front of the phone.
The ringing immediately stopped once I picked up the phone.
“Hello, good afternoon.” I said in a small voice but I was answered with silence.
“Hello? Helloooooo?” My mom walked past me as I tried to hear a response behind me but still, no one answered. I put the receiver down and followed my mom back to the kitchen.
“Hey, Red! How are the cupcakes?”, my mom asked as we passed him on the couch. This time Wes got off his lap and raced past us as fast as he could manage, making sure he got to the cupcakes first.
“I don’t know. They taste the same to me.” He replied as he got up, his tall figure rising from the couch.
When we got to the kitchen, Wes was on his toes trying to reach a cupcake but failing miserably. Red lifted him into a stool and pulled the tray closer to him so he could grab a cupcake which he immediately dug into. They were pretty big cupcakes and Wes had to hold one with both hands.
“Is it good?” I asked Wes as I wiped away the crumbs from corners of his mouth with a paper towel.
“Itth chooooweee and soooft and sweee and goooood.” Everything tasted good to my brother.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, dear.” Mom said, talking a cupcake for herself.
“Sowee.” Wes said, his mouth still full. I laughed as I dusted of the crumbs that fell on his lap.
Red took the seat next to my brother as he ruffled his hair. I could feel him looking at me as I turned to throw the tissue away, making sure my eyes never strayed to his.
“Who was that on the phone?” mom asked as she pinched away a piece of blueberry cupcake.
“Dunno.” I replied. “No one answered when I picked up the phone.”
“That happens often when someone from another city calls. Maybe it’s you uncle. He said he’d call if he found a better grill when ours broke.” Just as she finished speaking, the phone rang again.
“I’ll go get it.” I said, happy to get away from Red, even if we were still under the same roof. Talk about keeping your enemies close. I think we took that saying to seriously because we keep each other suffocatingly close though it’s not our fault our parents are BFFs.
“Hello?” I said to the receiver.
“Penny?” said a familiar male voice, though I couldn’t name who it was.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“Ouch.” He laughed. “You don’t recognize my voice? I’d recognize yours anywhere.”
“I’m sorry but, really, who is this?”
“Babe, it’s me. Paul.” He said, softly. Wait, what?, I thought. Is someone playing a prank on me? But who else would? Red was in my kitchen and I’m pretty sure he’s the only one who would play pranks on me.
“Come on, Pen.” He said.
“Seriously?” I asked.
I shook my head, suddenly deciding that I should play along. Someone was definitely playing a prank on me and I have to sound like I’m talking to my boyfriend.
“What’s wrong, babe?” He – whoever he was, asked.
“It’s just that your voice seems weird. This doesn’t sound like you.” I said.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the phone. I don’t think we’ve ever talked on the phone before, just video chats and all that but never on the phone.” He said and he was right, which was weird because I never told anybody about that part of the story that I made up. Right when I started that lie, I immediately decided that Paul, if he existed, never called me on the phone because it would practically cost more for someone who was five cities away to call on the telephone than it would if he video called. But how the hell did he know that part of my lie?
“Yeah. Maybe that’s it…” I said, desperately trying to find words to say. “Why’d you call?” I asked.
“I’m not home and I just found out but I couldn’t wait to tell you.” He laughed. It was scary how real it all sounded.
“Tell me what?” I forced myself to laugh back.
“I can go see you next week!” He said almost shouting. He sounded so happy, but I didn’t know how to feel. What is going on?
“It’s about time you showed me that drawing of camp you told me about.” The drawing of camp??
“What camp?” I asked.
“You told me you drew how our camp looked like. You know, the camp where we met.” No. I told Cindy about that drawing. I never told Paul because technically, there was no Paul to tell.