The Hero's Problem

A romantic short story I wrote for class after being assigned a title to work with.

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1. Part One

The sword was heavier than expected, but Sam’s fingers curled tightly around it. He raised it, tilting it from side to side, watching light be reflected off the silver. It had taken him a long time to make, but it was finally complete.

Sam. Get the sword out here, We can’t do the scene without it.”

Sighing, Sam exited the right wing and stepped out onto the stage. The woman who had spoken stood high above him in heels. Her hair was pulled back in a bun as tight as her expression, glasses perched too close to the end of her nose. Between those details and the skirt suit, Mrs. Haversham was the poster child for an educational martinet. The perfect correspondence between her appearance and actual personality was frustrating. He couldn’t help thinking it was entirely uncreative, as if she was merely a character in the production of his life and the playwright had disappointed him. He reluctantly held out the sword to her.

“Not to me,” Mrs. Haversham snapped, as if she hadn’t been the one to request the sword. Still, there was only one other person on the stage, so he got the message and turned. The boy he now faced was a year his senior, so a high school senior. There wasn’t normally such a difference between the heights of juniors and seniors, but the older boy was a head taller. The senior, Marcus, was on the taller end compared to those of his age and sex; Sam, on the other hand, was not. The significant physical disparity made it feel like there was more than a year between them and made Sam feel like a child. Sam was well aware that the two would likely have never talked if it wasn’t for the mutual drama club participation and their assigned partnership in chemistry.

Failing to meet Marcus’s eyes, Sam held out the sword. He’d spent a surprisingly long time crafting it. The basic structure was wood that he had cut and sanded himself, and he had applied tinfoil around the blade to make it appear silver and shine. It alone had totaled a couple hours of work. And here he was, about to hand it over to someone else. He wished he was the one wielding it. But for the third year running, he found himself chickening out of auditioning for the school play. He was backstage again. At least he still got to spend a reasonable amount of time with the cast, even if there was really only one person he was particularly interested in being around.

As Marcus took the sword, his mouth opened to say something. But whatever it was was interrupted as both he and Sam turned toward the new arrival as she announced her presence.

“I’m sorry I’m late!” She sounded out of breath, and it was obvious that she’d rushed to get there. Her face was red from running, her ponytail was askew, and her jacket wasn’t even zipped despite the cold weather. She dropped her messenger bag by the left wing where it would surely be a tripping hazard.

Marcus grinned when he saw her. “Hey, Vee.”

He spoke affectionately, but she rolled her eyes, although the gesture appeared more playful than annoyed. “I told you to quit calling me that. Say it with me: Ve-ron-i-ca. Got it? Good.” Veronica grinned, then threw her arms around Sam, pulling him in for a quick hug. “Sorry, I know that I promised to help you with the sword, but—”

Marcus and Sam cut her off in unison. “But the spirit of Shakespeare was calling you and you just had to read—”

“Okay, okay!” She rolled her eyes again, still smiling. “I deserve that.”

“It’s all right, Vee,” Sam said. “I got it done on my own.”

“My hero,” she teased.

“Hey, why does he get to call you Vee?”

“Because he’s my best friend,” she said matter-of-factly. “Shall we get started?” Without waiting for a response, she knelt beside her bag and began digging through it, black ponytail swinging.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Marcus asked from a few feet away. When Veronica looked back at him but didn’t answer, he sighed, then continued. “You were supposed to have your script memorized by today. We’re here to begin blocking alone, since it’s just us in most of the scenes.”

“Hello?” When Mrs. Haversham spoke, the three of them seemed to simultaneously remember that she was there. They expected her to follow with a haughty, Yes, I’m still here. She was known to like attention and they weren’t giving her any. But she was speaking into her cell phone.

What?” she continued sharply. “But you said—” She paused. “Fine, fine,” she relented with annoyance into the phone. “I’m coming.” Mrs. Haversham ended the call and slipped the cell back into her pocket, then glanced around at the three of them. “I have to go. You guys know what you’re doing, right?” She didn’t wait for a response but gathered her jacket and purse.

“Since the sword’s done, I’ll go t—” Sam began before being interrupted.

“No,” the replacement club advisor shot over her shoulder. “You get to keep those two in line.” She gave a suspicious, suggestive look, then took her leave from the auditorium.

Marcus and Veronica had both turned slightly red from the implication. Sam turned from them as his expression changed to one that was much more somber. His chest felt tight. Even the temporary advisor thought they looked good together. And it was true—they looked good together. They made sense together. They were the two leads of the school play. Marcus lead the football team to victory while Veronica dominated the basketball court. They both radiated charisma and had genetics on their side. Meanwhile, Sam handled props backstage, tutored a fourth of their respective teams, and wasn’t exactly suave. The short factor didn’t help, either. He slipped backstage as naturally as possible to evade his jealousy being noticed.

The backstage area was something of an office for Sam. He could wander around it safely with his eyes closed if he wanted to, and he sometimes did. Many of the props that occupied the prop closet were made by him. He even sewed some of the costumes himself. It wasn’t a vast space, but it had become home to him.

“Sam?” Veronica poked her head backstage. “You okay back here?”

Sam hastily pulled on a new expression. It was easier to do with some prep than in the heat of the moment. He turned, forced a smile, and said that he was. She didn’t believe him. Of course she didn’t. She could see right through him. But she also had a knack for knowing when he didn’t want to talk. She nodded in recognition, then disappeared to the other side of the curtain. The false expression would have worked on Marcus, or anyone else for that matter. Not that he really wanted to fool anyone.

Sam returned to the stage with the script he had accidentally left in the prop closet. He did actually need it to instruct them, and it made a good excuse for having gone backstage. He dropped down from the edge of the stage to direct them from the front.

“Let’s get this show on the road!” he announced enthusiastically, as if he hadn’t been the one causing the delay. His eyes flicked between them and his voice dropped. “We’ve only got a few weeks left.”

 Over the next two hours, Sam was the director. He verbally guided the two through their actions and offered them the beginnings of their lines when they forgot. When necessary, he demonstrated a movement that they were repeatedly screwing up. It wasn’t often necessary.

By the time the rehearsal was up, the original tightened feeling in Sam’s chest seemed to have blossomed into a permanent feature. Marcus and Veronica had chemistry on stage that was undeniable. They worked well together. Veronica was on her third year of practice, having always had a passion for drama and being a junior like Sam. But this was Marcus’s first year. His stage presence for someone so new to theater was astounding. Maybe it was true what they said; it did seem like he was good at everything. Sam couldn’t fathom why Marcus had never thought to join drama club before Sam had happened to bring up his backstage duties during an experiment.

When they’d finished, Sam stowed away behind the curtains. He only actually had to put away a few props at the moment, but he took much longer than necessary. He could hear the two stars talking and joking on the other side of the curtain. Their interactions came with an ease that Sam just didn’t possess. Not with anyone outside Veronica, at least. But that was different. They’d been friends for years. Being near their enjoyment of each other’s company, being able to listen in if he chose, felt almost intrusive. He actively refused to listen.

After awhile, he could hear one set of footsteps walking away. They were too heavy to be Veronica’s. He peeked out, and sure enough, Marcus was walking away, and Veronica was alone on the stage, staring right at Sam. His eyes widened, face warming a bit at his own irrational cowardice before he stepped out. Without a word between them, they settled onto their usual spot at the edge of the stage, legs hanging over.

“You going to tell me what’s bugging you?” Veronica twirled a piece of hair on her finger. Sam could see that the ends were still dyed green. Veronica almost always had dye in her hair. The only reason she hadn’t recolored it this time was that it contrasted her character in the play. She stared at him with dark brown eyes and a concerned expression. He looked away.

Sam,” she started, and he knew what was coming.

“I’m fine, Vee, okay?” He nudged her with his shoulder as if to emphasize his point, but her countenance didn’t change. The hint of a smile that had been playing at Sam’s lips dropped when he realized that his best friend was not about to let this go. He sighed, intentionally making it dramatic to mimic Veronica’s sighs.

“It’s...nothing,” he murmured, staring at his lap.

“Oh God you are so full of shit,” she retorted.

He gave her a half serious glare. “Language.”

“Oh bite me.” She crossed her arms, then sighed in that over-dramatic way of hers, uncrossing them again. “You know, I don’t know why you bother lying to me. I’m the queen of playing pretend, remember? Even if I wasn’t your best friend, I’d still be able to see through you.”

Sam made an exasperated noise. “I’m handling it, okay?”

Veronica didn’t look convinced. “I think you need to get out of the house more.”

He laughed, but there was no humor. “You always say that.”

“It’s always true! Your existence is contained almost entirely by the school and your house.” She paused, fiddling with the zipper on her sweatshirt. “Would you at least come with me and Marcus? We’re going to go get something to eat.”

Suddenly, Sam’s head whipped up to stare at her, looking horrified. “You’ve been leaving him waiting this whole time?”

Veronica’s face was riddled with confusion. “Uh, yeah, I told him I wanted to talk to you before we left.”

The warmth returned to Sam’s face. “Now he probably thinks that I’m emotionally unstable or something.”

“Look who’s being overdramatic now?” she quipped before returning his nudge from before. “C’mon. Don’t want to keep him waiting. Unless you’ve suddenly decided to share?” She raised her eyebrows.

For a moment, Sam looked conflicted. He wanted to say something. He knew Veronica could tell; she looked hopeful. But he shook his head and leaped down from the stage. From behind him came another signature sigh, followed by her jumping down as well. Her hand wrapped around his wrist, and she dragged him to the door as if he wouldn’t have followed otherwise. Well, maybe he wouldn’t have. He wasn’t entirely sure.

Marcus was waiting out in the lobby and perked up when he saw the two of them.

“I convinced him to come,” Veronica announced triumphantly, as if she hadn’t also failed to get him to open up.

The oldest of the three smiled. “The more, the merrier.” He held the door open as Veronica half skipped and Sam hesitantly ambled through.

Once all of them were outside, Veronica linked her arms through those of the two boys. “Where do you guys want to eat?”

The question was directed at both of them, but only Marcus answered. Sam, meanwhile, was looking to the other side of Veronica. There hadn’t been any sarcasm in Marcus’s reaction to Sam tagging along, and Sam hadn’t found any sign that Marcus wasn’t being genuine with his sentiment. But normally, people around Sam’s own age, particularly the guys, didn’t really want him around. He mentally shrugged it off. Marcus was proving himself to be a natural actor, after all. He was probably being agreeable for Veronica’s sake. The thought made Sam’s stomach twist, so he pushed it away.

“Sam?” Marcus was looking at him. “Any input? Anybody in there?” He reached around Veronica to gently knock on Sam’s forehead.

“Uh, wherever is fine,” Sam mumbled, not meeting his eyes. When he forced himself to look up, Marcus looked mildly disappointed, but the expression was almost immediately shaken off and replaced with his usual effortless grin.

They ended up in a burger joint munching in on bacon cheeseburgers and fries. At Sam’s side, Marcus sloppily put away food like nobody was watching. Veronica scolded him for lack of manners—then scolded Sam for laughing and encouraging the behavior. “Well you’re not a saint either,” Sam retorted. “Little Miss swear-like-a-sailor-when-I’m-annoyed-or-stressed.”

Veronica opened her mouth, then closed it before she proved his point. She huffed. “I never should have let you two become friends.”

“Well we’re not, really,” Sam blurted. He didn’t know why the words came out so easily or with such conviction. It wasn’t like he was defensive, embarrassed of the idea of being friends with Marcus. In fact, he really did want to be a part of his life. Socially, Sam was far beneath him. But Marcus was nice anyway, even when Veronica wasn’t around. In chemistry, Marcus treated Sam like he was as worthy of Marcus’s time as anyone else, even if maybe he wasn’t. But he couldn’t see Marcus viewing their relationship as more than a couple coincidences that forced them together, and he wasn’t going to make an assumption about Marcus’s thoughts on the matter. He didn’t want to overestimate their relationship.

On the other side of the table, Veronica looked shocked. Her burger was halfway to her mouth, but she had frozen, eyes wide. When she did move, it was only her gaze flicking to Marcus. Sam turned his head to look at his classmate beside him. Marcus looked even more shocked than Veronica, but it was more than that. He looked hurt.

Marcus let loose the most forced and uncomfortable laugh Sam had ever heard. This side of Marcus was one that Sam had never known existed. The senior was so cheerful and pleasant all the time that maybe it hadn’t occurred that he experienced negative feelings as well. Logically, Sam knew that wasn’t true. No one could be happy all the time. But at the same time, he hadn’t thought Sam denying a friendship would be what made Marcus’s normal high spirits disappear. Guilt strangled his heart.

Sam abruptly found himself trying to correct the mistake, “I-I mean, well, I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay.” Marcus laughed again, but the underlying tone hadn’t changed. He scratched the back of his neck. “I guess it was arrogant to think…” He trailed off, then shook his head. “Anyway, I should go. Homework to do and all.” He pressed some money to the table to cover his share of the bill, then waved behind him as he left, not saying anything else.

The next few minutes passed in silence. Sam could feel Veronica staring at him, but he kept his eyes aimed at his burger and kept eating as if he didn’t notice and nothing had happened.

“What do you have against him?” she asked after awhile.

“Nothing,” Sam said quietly. He could practically feel her lack of belief.

“Right. Right, Sam. I totally believe you. You seem exactly normal around him.” Sarcasm laced her voice.

Sam’s head shot up. “Why does it matter to you so much?”

Veronica’s face tightened. “I’ve been spending a lot of time with him since the play started. He’s become a pretty good friend of mine. Nowhere near where you are, obviously, but a good friend. But every time you’re around him, you look annoyed, or uncomfortable, or something. I’ve never been unable to read you, but I can’t now. That bothers me, and it bothers me that you don’t seem to like someone I do.” The more she talked, the faster and more impassioned her voice became. “God damn it. You weren’t like this when you first met him, but it’s like the more time you’re around him, the less you seem to want to be around him. Do you think you’re better than him or something?”

No.” Sam’s voice came out angrier and more defensive than he meant it to. He paused, giving himself a chance to calm down. When he did, the anger was gone and replaced by an all too familiar feeling that he knew his best friend just wouldn’t understand. She’d never been in his shoes. She’d never wanted someone who wanted someone else.

“Then what is it? Why are you so against him? He’s nice to you. You have things in common. What exactly is the problem here?”

“We don’t have things in common,” he countered, ignoring the the question.

“Yes, you do. You both have an interest in theater. It’s off-putting how big of science nerds you both are. Both of you have a habit of giving yourself pep talks out loud without realizing that they’re out loud.”

Sam went red. “I don’t do it that often.”

Veronica rolled her eyes. “Right.” Her face serious again, she continued. “So...What is it about his personality that bugs you so much?”

“There’s nothing wrong with his personality.” Sam’s voice had gone quiet. Seeing the shift, Veronica’s face softened. He looked away, down at the now empty wrapper from his burger. What he’d said was true. Sort of. He liked Marcus’s personality. But it was still a problem, just not in the way that Veronica thought. Sam sighed, crumpling up the wrapper. “I’ll be better, okay? Don’t worry about it,” he said, looking at her again.

She looked skeptical, but she nodded. “I’m trusting you.” Even as she said it, she sounded unsure.

Sam was willing to take it. He nodded, tossing his and Marcus’s wrappers in the trash. “Good.”

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