As summer finally turned to fall and the weather became cooler, Cyrus spent more and more of his time outdoors, ironically. His sketchbook was filled with leaves and trees and even more leaves, and he was happier than he had been in a long time. Cyrus had found a school that wasn’t horrific, a beautiful campus to draw, and the best friend he had ever had. There was a slight spring in Cyrus’s step as he returned to the dorm that day, humming a song that Hayden had shown him last week - “Hotel California” by the Eagles.
Cyrus turned his key in the lock and pushed the door open. A familiar voice drifted from inside the room, and Cyrus paused, not wanting to interrupt anything.
“-I know, I know, I miss you too,” Hayden was saying. “But I-“
A low voice cut him off, but it was too quiet for Cyrus to make out the words.
“Will. Will, listen. I told you, I only have enough saved for one plane ticket. If I came home for Christmas, how would I get home at the end of the year? I’m not making anything during the school year…”
Something twisted in Cyrus’s gut. He shouldn’t be listening to this. This wasn’t meant for him to hear. He slammed the door shut louder than necessary and Hayden fell silent. “Cyrus?” he called.
“Yeah?” Cyrus asked, walking into the living room. He tried to act casual, like he hadn’t heard anything.
Hayden just waved him over with a hand. He was sitting at his desk, laptop open in front of him. Glancing at the screen, he said, “Hey, you wanna meet my roommate?”
“Yeah!” came the enthusiastic reply from the computer.
Hayden grinned as Cyrus came over. “Cyrus, this is Will, my little bro. Will, this is Cyrus, my weirdo roommate,” he said, tone light.
“Hi,” Cyrus said, ducking so that the camera could capture his face. “Nice to meet you!”
“Hi, Cyrus!” Will said, brimming with excitement. He looked somewhat like his brother, only he was scrawny where Hayden was a little more muscular, and Will had brown hair. His face was long but young, maybe thirteen or fourteen. “Hayden’s told me so much about you.”
Cyrus glanced at Hayden in surprise. Hayden just shrugged and looked back at Will, eyes scanning the screen as if trying to memorize his brother’s face. The conversation then fell to Cyrus to continue, so he asked, “So, where do you live, Will?”
“Greensboro, North Carolina,” he replied. “It’s still eighty five degrees here,” Will bragged.
“Lucky,” Hayden commented, smiling.
Will turned his head as a muffled sound came through the other end. He nodded once, then looked back at the camera. “Sorry, guys, I have to go. Dinner’s ready. Same time next week?”
Hayden nodded. “Of course. Love you.”
“Love you too,” Will said, a smile stretching to his eyes. “Nice meeting you, Cyrus. Don’t let my brother get on your nerves too much.”
“I won’t,” Cyrus promised. “Glad to meet you, too.”
“Well, bye!” Will said.
“Bye,” Hayden replied, pressing the red button to hang up. He turned to Cyrus, eyes still twinkling. “Sorry about that. Sometimes he’s so cheerful it’s painful.”
“He seems like a happy kid,” Cyrus agreed, sitting down in the armchair behind him. “What grade is he?”
“Eighth,” Hayden responded.
“Oh, is he coming here next year?”
“No way,” came the quick reply.
Cyrus didn’t push it. The short bit of the conversation that he had heard was still rattling around his head. Sharpe’s Boarding School was old, prestigious, and very, very expensive. That was why everyone there had money; it was a requirement for attending. Cyrus had just assumed that Hayden was like the rest - completely loaded - but the way he talked, it seemed like maybe that wasn’t the case. Curious, Cyrus wondered how he could find out without tipping Hayden off to the fact that he had overheard him.
It’s none of your business, Cyrus reminded himself. It’s not like it matters anyway. Cyrus had been to so many schools in his lifetime, and there was nothing he hated more than being treated different when people learned his mother had money. All of a sudden, his grades weren’t due to his own hard work, but instead because he had paid off the teachers. The rumors spread like a disease that all Cyrus’s friends, no matter how few, were only his friends because they had been bribed. And then, of course, there were those who tried to suck up to Cyrus because of his mother’s bank account… He cut off that line of thought.
In short, Cyrus hated every minute of it.
“Woah, dude, where’d you go?” Hayden asked, waving a hand in front of Cyrus’s face.
“What?” he asked, blinking. “Oh, sorry. Uh, zoned out there for a minute.”
Hayden rolled his eyes with a small, fond smile. “Come on, let’s go get dinner.”
Cyrus followed Hayden out of the dorm, pushing all thoughts of the conversation he’d heard out of his mind for good.
Cyrus’s cursor blinked on the screen, but no words filled the blank page. He tapped his fingers idly on the edge of his keyboard for so long that Hayden eventually looked up from where he sat at his own desk.
“Dude, you’ve been staring at that screen for twenty minutes and you haven’t typed a thing,” Hayden commented.
“Yeah,” Cyrus replied., “I don’t know what to say.”
Hayden closed his laptop with a snap and leaned back on his chair. “What are you doing?”
“College application essays. I’ve only got a few days before the November first deadline,” Cyrus complained, “and these essays are killing me.”
Gesturing with his hand, Hayden said, “Read me the prompt.”
“Explain why you would make a good addition to our school in a hundred words or less.”
“Because I’m a cool, talented, awesome genius?” Hayden replied immediately. “There, only… seven words,” he said, counting on his fingers. “Which,” he continued, pointing at Cyrus, “is less than a hundred.”
Though Cyrus shot him a look, he tried not to glow at the offhand compliment. Hayden rolled his eyes and said, “Okay, fine. Uh… ‘I’d make a wonderful asset to your school because I wouldn’t complain about your dorms not having air conditioning since I like it at a comfy ninety five degrees anyway.’"
“I told you to open a window,” Cyrus grumbled. “And it’s not that hot in here. But be serious.”
“I’m always serious,” Hayden replied with a grin.
“So this morning when you said that the Jonas Brothers were your guilty pleasure, you weren’t joking?”
Hayden backtracked. “Okay, I’m not always serious. That was entirely a joke.”
Cyrus grinned. “Sure it was.”
“It was! Who even are the Jonas Brothers?” Hayden asked, playing innocent. He wasn’t doing a very good job at it, and the blush that crept up his cheeks made Cyrus grin even wider. Hayden saw his look and sighed, exasperated. “Oh my god, it was one song! I like one song. Sue me.”
Cyrus laughed. “Yeah, whatever. But seriously, I have to write something for this.”
“I would be the ideal addition to your school because I love nothing more than seeing my goals become reality. I work incredibly hard, but never lose sight of what it is that I am working towards. It is not just my academic side that will benefit your school, but also my creative side, which helps me with problem solving and critical thinking. I have made getting into your school one of my goals, and I promise to do my utmost to make you proud,” Hayden rattled off.
Staring at him in disbelief, Cyrus had to force his mouth not to drop open. “Where the hell did that come from?”
Hayden shrugged. “What, you think I got this far in life without learning how to BS my way through stuff like that?”
“But that was, like, really good,” Cyrus admitted. “Better than anything I tried. Do you mind if I use parts of it?”
“Use all of it; I don’t care,” Hayden replied. “It’s not doing me any good rattling around my head.”
Cyrus raised a brow at him as he tried to type whatever he could remember of Hayden’s speech. “It could do you some good.”
Hayden scowled. “Not this again.”
“Come on, Hayden. What’ll it hurt for you to apply? If you get rejected, so what? You weren’t going to even try. And if you get accepted, then you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. But at least you’ll have the option.”
With a groan, Hayden replied, “Why waste the money it costs to apply if I’m not going to go?”
“Just humor me. I’ll pay for the application fees” Cyrus offered. He picked up a flyer and tossed it to Hayden. “Here, I think you’d really like Rutgers University.”
Hayden just set the brochure aside. “I’m not going to let you pay-“
Cyrus flashed a credit card and a grin. “It’s on my mother. She won’t even notice, I swear.”
After a moment of deliberation, Hayden pursed his lips and said, “Fine. Just one though, okay?”
“Sure,” Cyrus agreed, smiling. “I’ve got tons of brochures, find one that interests you.”
Hayden spent the next half hour flipping through them as Cyrus polished off his essay. Just as he was saving his application, Hayden spoke up. “This one seems nice.”
“Which one’s that?”
“University of North Carolina,” Hayden replied, handing over the brochure. “They have a campus at Greensboro; I could be close to my brother.”
Cyrus nodded. “It does seem nice,” he agreed. Handing the brochure back, he encouraged, “If you’re sure, go ahead and apply.”
It was late by the time they closed their computers that night. Cyrus had finished his essays and had only to proofread them before submitting his application; even though his teachers had only known him for a few weeks, they were more than happy to provide him with glowing letters of recommendation. Hayden, too, had completed his application, save the recommendation letters. He even wrote a rather impressive essay, ignoring the fact that most of it was grossly exaggerated from real life.
Hayden pushed his chair back from his desk and rubbed his eyes. “Ugh, that was terrible. How many colleges are you applying to again?”
“Four,” Cyrus responded. “But I can use the same form for all of them; only the essays change sometimes.”
“Thank god,” Hayden said. “If you had to fill in all that stuff every time… wow.”
“What’d you put as your major?” Cyrus asked.
“Pre-med,” Cyrus said.
Hayden looked at him, unsurprised. “You’re gonna be a doctor, then?”
Cyrus gave a shrug. “I guess.”
“You don’t sound thrilled about that.”
“I’m sure I’ll grow to like it,” said Cyrus, fully aware that he was lying as much to Hayden as he was to himself. He had always been good at math and science, but he had never felt passionate about them. The Chemistry textbook sitting next to him right now didn’t have the same pull as his illustrated copy of The Canterbury Tales. It just wasn’t captivating.
Hayden stretched, then gave him a look. “You know, you don’t always have to do what your mom wants you to do.”
“How do you know it’s her?” Cyrus replied a bit too sharply.
“It’s written all over your face, man. Seriously, though. Do what’s best for you.” Hayden stood. “What’s best for me right now is sleep, so that’s where I’m off to.”
Cyrus gave a distracted nod. “I’m headed there too. I just want to finish one thing first,” he said, re-opening his computer. Hayden rolled his eyes, but walked away, off to brush his teeth.
Cyrus opened his Common Application and looked at the list of schools to which he was applying. Princeton, Georgetown, University of Rochester, and Yale. He bit his lip, considering. You know, you don’t always have to do what your mom wants you to do. Cyrus clicked on the button to add a school and selected the University of North Carolina. Do what’s best for you. He navigated through the menus to the page where he would declare his major. It currently said Pre-Med, but Cyrus switched it to Fine Arts.
Clicking “Save,” Cyrus sat back with a smile. After all, he kept telling Hayden to keep his options open; perhaps it was time he took his own advice.