“Ignore them,” Cyrus whispered, studying Hayden’s face as he bent over a textbook. They were in the library for class that day to research for a paper, but it seemed no one in the class could focus.
“I can’t,” Hayden replied through gritted teeth. He looked paler than usual, and more drawn.
Didn’t you hear? He hasn’t got two pennies to rub together.
Cyrus clenched his own fists. He longed to turn around and give those gossipers a piece of his mind, but that would be hypocritical. “Yes, you can. Come on, they don’t matter.”
Hayden clearly thought they did.
Hayden? Dammit, I thought he was cool. Oh well.
Hayden closed his eyes. Cyrus stared at him in concern. “Maybe we should just go back to the dorm. Say you’re sick or something. You’re certainly pale enough.”
“And you don’t think hiding will make it worse?” Hayden murmured, low and defeated.
Cyrus was silent. He didn’t know what to do in this situation. Any time rumors had been started about him, Cyrus would usually just wait them out. The types of people he dealt with then had short attention spans; they forgot even the rumors that they themselves had started. Here, he wasn’t sure if that was an option. It didn’t look like anybody would be letting this go anytime soon.
The school just lets him go here because they feel bad for him.
Hayden’s posture somehow managed to be defeated and tense at the same time. His head was bent down, and his shoulders raised to deflect the stares coming in from every side. Cyrus itched to reach out and take his hand, to squeeze it and give him the comfort he deserved. It didn’t have to mean anything; it would just be a gesture of support. But Cyrus resisted; after all, guys didn't comfort other guys that way, and Hayden didn’t need one more rumor going around.
After all, he’s just a poor orphan.
Snapping, Hayden stood up without warning, his chair scraping on the hardwood floor. He gathered his books into a quick stack and strode from the library, right past the teacher. Mrs. Sedgwick watched him go, but didn’t say anything. From behind her thin, wire-rimmed glasses, Cyrus caught sympathy in her gaze. She glanced over at him and nodded once. Cyrus took that as permission to leave, and didn't hesitate to shove his books in his bag and follow Hayden out, ignoring the stares and whispers from those around him.
Outside, Cyrus shivered as he glanced around for Hayden. The other boy was nowhere to be found, but a fresh set of footprints led down the path, curving around the edge of the library. Cyrus trudged along in the thick snow, following the trail that Hayden had left.
Ending up at the Art building, Cyrus knew just what room Hayden would be in. He headed for the music floor, coming to a stop in the doorway of the piano room. Hayden sat on the bench, knees pulled up to his chest, staring at the floor. He didn’t acknowledge Cyrus’s presence until he knocked on the doorframe.
“Hey,” Cyrus said.
“Hey,” Hayden replied, his voice flat. Cyrus came into the room and leaned against the piano. He waited without a word for Hayden to speak, for it seemed like he was having an internal struggle. “Maybe I should go," Hayden blurted after a long minute.
Cyrus’s heart might have stopped. “What do you mean ‘go?’”
“Maybe I should leave. The school. Sharpe’s. Everything.” Hayden’s eyes didn’t leave the floor.
“What?” Cyrus blurted.
“You heard them. They just feel bad for me. I’ve got, like, three friends left. Everyone hates me. I…” He took a deep breath, his gaze downcast.“I don’t belong here, Cyrus.”
Cyrus shook his head violently. “No. No, you can’t leave. You’re so close to graduation, just stick it out. Then you’ll get your diploma, and go to college-“
“Don’t you see?” Hayden asked, finally looking up. “I’m not going to college. If I left now, I could go get a job near Will. I could flip hamburgers or something. It’d be better than here.”
“It’ll get better, trust me,” Cyrus said, his voice taking on a pleading edge. Hayden looked unconvinced. “Look, you’ve always been popular, haven’t you?” He got a brief nod in response. “Well, I wasn’t. I’ve had plenty of rumors go around about me. If you just don’t let them get to you, then eventually they die away. People forget.”
“That’s the thing, though,” Hayden moaned. “They aren’t rumors. It’s the truth.” He swung his legs off of the piano bench with a huff, then stared at the keys as if they had disappointed him.
Cyrus moved forward and sat next to him, twisting his body so he was still facing Hayden. “Well, there’s option number two.”
“We go kick the shit out of whoever let it out,” Cyrus said. Even though he wasn’t usually one for violence, it sounded like a fine plan to him. Hayden, on the other hand, looked away. “Who was it? Why won’t you tell me?”
“Cy…” His tone was one of warning.
Cyrus couldn’t help it. “Why are you trying to protect whoever did this? Why aren’t you angry?”
“I am angry!” Hayden exclaimed, eyes wild for a split second. He took a deep breath. “It’s just… I’m allowed to have a secret, okay? You have secrets,” he pointed out. “Newsflash - I do, too.”
“No, I don’t,” Cyrus said, aware of how defensive that sounded only after he said it.
Hayden gave him a flat stare. “Well, you claimed that you didn’t randomly stop talking to me because you got tired of me, but you never did say why. Why is it, then? What did I do?”
Cyrus was silent. He obviously couldn’t tell Hayden the real reason. He supposed he was trapped, so he let it drop. “Okay, fine. Still, it’s not fair that he can ruin your life like this and get away with it.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It obviously does.”
Hayden sighed. Cyrus felt his stomach sink. He had come here to comfort his friend, not make it worse. This wasn’t going well at all. Cyrus straightened at the piano bench. “Hey, how ‘bout we work on that song? Take your mind off things.”
Hayden agreed, but Cyrus got the impression that it was only so their conversation could be over. “Which one?”
“What’s that Led Zeppelin one you like? I think I remember the first few verses you made me learn,” Cyrus said. It was an upbeat tune, and Cyrus knew for a fact that it was one of Hayden’s favorites. He hoped it would help.
“Fool in the Rain.”
“Yeah, that one.”
Hayden nodded, though his heart didn’t seem into the idea, and set his hands on two lower octaves. Cyrus’s job was easier, only one hand, which was fine seeing as he was the less experienced player. He had never actually heard the song before, but Hayden had taught him the right rhythm. Hayden started out hesitant, but gained confidence a few bars in. When Cyrus came in with his part, he wasn’t expecting a voice to come along with it, and he looked over at Hayden in surprise.
He sang in a near whisper, “Well, there’s a light in your eye that keeps shining, like a star that can’t wait for the night. I hate to think I’ve been blinded, baby; why can’t I see you tonight?”
Cyrus wished he was good enough to not have to look at the keys while he played. Hayden’s eyes were closed, and Cyrus just wanted to drink in the peaceful look on his face as he poured his tension into the music. Unfortunately, he was forced to keep his eyes on where he was playing.
“And the warmth of your smile starts a burning, and the thrills of your touch give me fright. And I’m shaking so much, really yearning; why don’t you show up and make it alright?”
Cyrus’s fingers faltered against the ivory. He would give anything, anything, to make it alright. He just wished he knew how.
Cyrus stared at the letter clenched between his shaking fingers. If you had asked him a month ago, Cyrus would have said that this year was the best he had had in a long time. He had a best friend, good grades, and had even been close to popular. Things had been looking up. It was funny how in just the span of a few weeks, everything could turn around. It was just cruel how the one letter on which his entire future rested had been the next thing to be swept out from under him.
It was the letter from Princeton.
“You were deferred?” Cyrus’s mother hissed in his ear. Her voice was grating, and Cyrus shifted the phone away a little bit.
“Yes, mother,” he admitted.
“Why do you not sound concerned about this?” she demanded. “Now that they’ve pushed you to the regular admission pool from early decision, you’re with every other average Joe and his brother! You were supposed to stand out, Cyrus. Do you realize how much your chances of getting in have dropped?” Cyrus’s mother was on a roll, and he figured it was best not to interrupt her tirade. “You’ve been prepping for this since the first grade! I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you would let me down like this.”
As if it was his fault that the Princeton admissions didn’t see him as someone essential to their school. Cyrus was silent.
“Well? Say something!”
“Uh… sorry?” Cyrus tried, not even bothering to make it sound sincere.
There was a pregnant pause on the other end of the line. “I dislike your attitude, Cyrus. If I didn’t know better, I might think you don’t actually care about going to Princeton.”
“Maybe you don’t know me better.”
Cyrus sighed. “Look, Mother. Maybe I don’t want to go to Princeton. Maybe I want to go somewhere else.” Like North Carolina, Cyrus thought.
It was almost if his mother’s outrage was audible. “Cyrus, this has been your goal forever.”
“It’s been your goal, Mother.” His voice was clipped and cold.
“I’m not letting you give up on this,” she snapped. “I’m going to call Princeton in the morning and see if you can come down for an interview. Maybe if you see the campus, show them what you’re worth in person, you’ll have a better shot. And you will go to the interview, you understand me?”
There was no arguing with her. Cyrus knew that. “I understand. Goodnight, Mother.”
She had already hung up. Cyrus leaned back against his the headboard of his bed and groaned. He heard the door to the dorm click open, and then closed. A few minutes later came, “Hey.” A pause followed. “You okay?”
Cyrus didn’t move other than to offer the letter. Hayden crossed the room without a word and took it from him. He scanned it, then frowned. “Oh. Oh. I’m sorry, man. But there’s still a chance, right?”
“I guess,” he replied. “My mother doesn’t see it that way.”
“Ouch. That’s rough.” Hayden gave him a sympathetic look.
“I guess,” Cyrus said again. “I don’t even know if I want to go there anymore, though. You know?”
“Then don’t,” Hayden said, as if it were so simple. “It’s your life.”
“Again, my mother doesn’t see it that way.”
Hayden tossed the letter on the bed and bumped Cyrus in the arm. “Well, cheer up. Who knows, you could always be rejected,” he said with a grin.
Cyrus cracked a smile, then changed the subject. “So, how are things? With you, I mean?”
Hayden’s face darkened, the change almost imperceptible. “Fine.”
Skeptical, Cyrus replied, “Really?”
“Yeah, well… As good as can be expected. At least the whispers have all stopped. Now it’s just, like, people avoid me and whatever. But that’s okay, I guess. I’ve still got you and Lee and Tim.”
Cyrus’s heart went out to him. Going from having a steady circle of friends to only three would be tough for anyone, but for an extrovert like Hayden, it was even worse. Cyrus wanted to sit Parker and the others down and force them to see reason, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. Still, he had expected more from them. “And no trouble from Mike?” It had been a week since the news broke, and they figured it was only a matter of time before the guy decided to pick a fight.
“Not yet, no,” Hayden said, sitting down.
“Well, that’s good.”
Hayden slid on a record and settled onto his own bed, his position matching Cyrus’s. Cyrus closed his eyes as the music began to play and let it wash over him. It was good. For the first time that day, Cyrus felt alright. He was where he was supposed to be, listening to music with Hayden, neither saying a word but just enjoying the silent companionship. Cyrus could almost forget what was happening outside of that little room; he could almost ignore all the other people trying to shift his life in one direction or another. Instead, he focused only on what he could see - the record spinning, the posters on the wall, the sun coming in through the window and bathing Hayden in golden light…
And everything, for the moment, was good.