In Love and War

Truths were bitter. Truth. Sophie was dead. Truth. I was not going to be happy for a long time.
Truth. I was going to be sent far far away.

After losing her best friend, Charlotte moves away to forget her, to forget that the drama and the tension. Of course, she could never expect that the things waiting for her at the place she ran away to, would be far more painful.

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9. Fail

Fail

 

            Charlotte loved New York. Finally things were going her way. Her photography club was scheduled for a trip to Vermont to see the foliage that weekend. She was a teacher’s pet for most of her teachers, even Mr. Stroebel whose classes she slept through and especially Mr. Unwin. He was just glad they hadn’t pressed any charges against the school.

            “Charlie!” Anna greeted her at the door like every morning. In the course of a month of school they had become inseparable. Ever since the fainting incident, Margo loved her. She was Evie’s best friend.

            “Bella!” Charlotte yelled back, knowing she hated being called Bella. She said it brought back traumatic memories of reading Twilight. As expected, Anna grimaced at the name and punched her in the shoulder.

            The basketball team and Lucas had left her alone. She never spoke to Lucas again. Even if she saw him in the hallway she passed him by without a word. Sometimes he would look back at her, but she ignored the curious stares. She settled into her routine of being a happy little nerd and didn’t notice him.

            Mr. Unwin hadn’t stopped searching for a tutor. His pursuit was relentless, but everyone he asked immediately turned him down. The news of her hospitalization had spread and everyone but his friends avoided Luke like the plague. She knew all this courtesy of Anna, who had cultivated a giant grudge against the guy.

            They headed off to English class where A Midsummer Night’s Dream was coming to a close. Paige was waiting for her at the door. She was a dark haired with her bangs covering her eyes half of the time, who talked much more than she listened. Paige Gonzalez was a girl with a child’s innocence. That was Charlotte’s first thought whenever she saw her. Half-Mexican, but born and brought up entirely in New York by doting parents that sheltered her from everything. She was the only one out of their group that felt pity for Lucas Shepherd.

            Chloe walked up behind her and laid an arm lazily over Anna’s shoulder. She was the semi-popular one that shunned the shallow people she had to spend a few hours of her day with. She was also the one with the most spine out of all of them.

            “So… ready to get your beauty sleep?” she asked, taking out her earplugs out of her pocket and walking through the door. Paige only smiled and followed her.

            Charlotte and Anna stayed behind. Students slept during Mr. Stroebel’s class, and the teacher slept before and after the bell. That only meant that the class was chaos until he woke up. Charlotte saw Lucas pass by them. His head was down, his face was disappointed. Brett was by his side as always, talking to him in quiet tones.

            The expression on his face made Charlotte want to ask him what was wrong. She’d never seen him miserable. He was insanely angry when he lost at anything, unbelievably happy when he won. Seeing him that way, it wasn’t a good feeling. She shrugged it off, and left to Mr. Stroebel’s lullaby.

***

            Another failed test. His mom would explode on him. Physics was a subject that he would never use in real life. And it was the one thing between him and the thing that was his life. Basketball. The coach had kicked off the team, telling him he was welcome back when the principal said he could.

            The school’s winning streak would end. He was the captain, and he knew that even the coach didn’t understand how to position the team like he did. Brett tried to calm him down, to tell him that the coach made a bad decision and that he would be back on the team by the end of the day.

            Luke knew better. The coach had threatened him before, but never right before a big game. It meant that the principal had finally got to him. He knew the team secretly hated him for failing in Physics. It was his one weakness. He wasn’t a genius, but he got decent grades in all the other subjects. It was just physics that he couldn’t understand.

            The tutor thing was a joke. Since the beginning of high school he had gone through forty tutors and eighteen girlfriends. The last girl ended up at the hospital. He didn’t know why they didn’t just give up and let him play anyway.

            “Look man, let it go,” Brett suggested. “The coach’s gonna put you back on the team. It’s not your fault you suck at Physics.”

            Luke wanted to convince himself that it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know if it was. But he had to get his grades up. He would play by their rules, and he wouldn’t fail another test. He had no clue how he was going to do that, but his mind was made up. Since he wasn’t on the basketball team anymore, he would have nothing but free time.

            He shot hoops in the evening and studied after that. His mother didn’t ground him, considering it was bad enough that he’d been kicked off the team. After a week, he took the weekly quiz that Mr. Unwin always conducted.

            And he failed again.

***

            Charlotte busied herself the entire week helping in the preparations for their photography club to go to Vermont. She didn’t notice the buzz about the big basketball game. Their photography club had a grand total of six people.

            She did the impossible and completely filled Piper’s memory card. They started early and spent the entire Saturday there, coming back just after sunset. Anna and Paige were staying over for the night. It was her first sleep-over without Sophie.

            They settled onto her bed in the attic bedroom and ordered pizza. Evie and Mia were with them. Paige automatically became Evie’s best friend. After the twins fell asleep they carried them downstairs and tucked them in.

            “They’re adorable,” Paige cooed as Evie clutched her teddy bear.

            “And now they’re asleep,” Anna chirped, dragging them back upstairs. She sat down on the bed and smiled deviously. Charlotte groaned. It was time for their daily dose of gossip. Anna wouldn’t leave them alone until they heard her out, and she would never be done.

            It was the reason that she had forbidden Anna from sharing her news since Thursday until the end of the trip. She knew she’d been harsh, but it was the only way she could keep her trip completely positive without having to hear about the lives of people that she saw but didn’t know, shallow people whose golden years were high school. Now she was going to face three days of gossip all at once. She considered pretending to have a panic attack, but thought better. She was a horrible actress.

            “So, guess who failed another Physics quiz?” Anna asked.

            “Poor guy,” Paige commented. Charlotte had to agree with her. She still remembered Luke’s expression from Monday, like it had been printed into her mind. That kind of misery didn’t suit him, and she wondered how much worse he would look after the weekend when she would see him again.

            “Apparently he’s been studying all week, and he still failed,” Anna continued. “His girlfriend was ranting on and on about how he worked so hard… and then she totally went crazy about how unfair Mr. Unwin was.”

            “That must have been awful for him,” Charlotte said.

            “Stop going soft!” Anna yelled, chucking a pillow at her. “He deserves it Charlie! You went to the hospital, remember?”

            “But he didn’t know about that…”

            “You believe his lame-ass apology? Suggestion here. DON’T! If I told you half of the stuff I heard about him, I’d feel like washing my mouth out with disinfectant. You’d probably clean your ears out with bleach.”

            “Don’t tell me then,” Charlotte answered. “I’m convinced. He’s the Antichrist. Happy?”

            “Very,” came the smug reply. They talked another hour, and fell asleep without knowing when. Charlotte spend the Sunday catching up on her homework and playing with the twins. She didn’t think about Luke at all. Whenever thoughts of him seeped into her mind she pushed them away, occupying herself with something or another.

            Monday morning there were no distractions. She came to school earlier than usual. Margo was sick and Jenny dropped her off on her way to work. Charlotte realized that she hated the school without the students. It felt empty and wrong, until she heard the sound of someone playing basketball. It was a distance away, but in the stillness of the morning the sound carried.

            She slowly walked around the school building to the abandoned playground that she and Anna sometimes hung around. Most other students avoided it. There was a basketball court in one corner, but no one used it anymore. The newer indoor courts were much better.

            A guy in a black hoodie was playing in the court, roughly and aggressively. He moved quickly to all sides, an imaginary opponent in front of him. Finally he jumped up and made the shot. Charlotte envied the fluidity in his moments, the sureness of his steps, and the way he played like it was life. It seemed like he belonged on that court and nowhere else.

            “Nice shot,” she called out to him. He turned around and pushed back the hood of his sweatshirt. She paled on seeing who it was. Luke. He looked just as surprised to see her. Charlotte turned around and headed for the front entrance of the school. She could only imagine what the guy thought. He could think she was a stalker, a crazy fangirl (he had plenty of those), and a dozen other things that were just the same.

            Before she could get to the door he was standing in front of her.

            “I told you this before, but when someone’s talking to you, you don’t walk away,” he said with a small smile.

            “You weren’t talking to me.”

            His lopsided smile was replaced by a blank look as he realized she was right.

            “I meant, you don’t leave in the middle of a conversation,” he replied.

            “‘Nice shot’ is two words, not a conversation,” she commented. “Anyway, I’m sorry about the whole basketball thing.”

            He gawked at the girl. There was genuine care in her voice, as opposed to the words that the people around him used so lightly. None of them were sorry for him, just that the team was losing. Some were even happy that he was miserable.

            “Yeah, it sucks. Worst thing is, I studied for the quiz last week. All week, I studied. And I still flunked it. I don’t know if I’m an idiot, or Unwin just secretly hates my guts or…”

            “He doesn’t hate your guts,” she told him. Seeing his incredulous look, “Maybe he does. But the last thing he would do about it is fail you on purpose. It would just make things worse for him.”

            “I guess,” he agreed. “But I studied for hours. And what did I get, a fifty instead of the usual forty-five on my quiz.”

            “Maybe you studied the wrong way,” she suggested.

            “I had a book in front of me, I read it. What other way is there to study?”

            Charlotte smiled. Sophie had once said the same thing. Years of being a geek taught her that bluntly studying didn’t solve anything.

            “You should be studying in a smart way,” she said.

            “Are you calling me an idiot?”

            “No, no, I’m calling you inexperienced. Don’t think that reading for hours on end is going to get you there. I bet that half the time the books are in front of you and you’re thinking about basketball.”

            Charlotte stopped talking. He was angry. She had bruised his ego. Before he could huff and stalk back to the basketball court she stopped him.

            “Look, Rome wasn’t built in a day, just keep studying,” she said.

            Luke snickered at the way she spoke. No one he knew spoke like she did.

            “‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’?” he scoffed. “That’s the first time I’ve heard someone under forty say that.”

            She ran her hand through her hair. She really had to stop using language that she found in books. But considering she spent more time with Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett, and Juliet than she did with real people, it was not going to happen.

            “I bet, but my point is, one week is not going to magically reverse a year of sucking at Physics,” she said. “Just keep trying. It’ll get easier.”

            “Try until I cry?” he asked mockingly.

            “I think a lot of ex-girlfriends would pay to see that,” she commented.

            “And you?”

            “Honestly, I couldn’t care less,” she answered with a shrug. “I don’t know you, and I don’t follow basketball. But I think you love the game too much to let something like this get in the way.”

            “Thanks,” he said. “It’s funny, I’ve talked to you twice, took you to the hospital once, and I don’t even know your name.”

            “Charlotte Grey.”

            “Chuck?”

            “Charlotte, Charlie maybe, definitely not Chuck.”

            “Cherry?”

            “What? Just call me Charlotte.”

            She didn’t understand the nickname. There was a vague suspicion that it was an inappropriate joke, but she brushed it aside.

            “Cherry it is then,” he said.

            “Charlotte,” she repeated. “Charlotte, not Cherry. Bye now.”

            “‘Bye now’?” he asked. “Who says that anymore?”

            She left behind his soft laughing and went to the front door where Anna would be waiting for her like always. 

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