The Hero's Problem

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


2. Part Two

The promise was easier made than kept. Before play auditions, Sam had become more or less comfortable talking to Marcus in chemistry class. With Sam being who he was, it had taken awhile for the conversation to shift away from the experiment. But when it did, he found Marcus to be a better person than what he had assumed. Veronica was right; there were more similarities there than Sam wanted to admit. But there’d been a shift between them when Marcus and Veronica had started being together so much to practice their scenes outside of scheduled practices. Jealousy was not easily conquered. The ease between them had died. If Marcus had secretly been an unpleasant person, there wouldn’t have been or be a problem. But he was kind and authentic. With that being true, Sam had no one to blame but himself.

After the incident at the burger joint, Sam began actively making an effort to be better. He apologized and explained. Marcus thought Sam was an idiot for thinking they weren’t friends. Sam was both pleased and bothered and his feelings conflicted, but he ignored it. Slowly, the pieces of the former budding friendship began to come back together again. He was beginning to relax again. He was sure that Marcus and Veronica were likely to end up dating. He was just going to have to accept that and be happy for them.

Over the course of the following weeks, Veronica seemed pleased to see Sam and Marcus getting along exceptionally well. Mrs. Haversham never came to another practice after she left on her urgent business, so Sam continued to direct. He proved himself useful in aiding each cast member in conquering their most tricky parts. The rest of the cast needed more of his assistance than Veronica and Marcus, so the two were left alone a lot of the time. Envy still panged here and there, but he’d learned to work through it.

Soon the night of the performance arrived. Sam and the cast arrived hours before showtime so that Sam would have time to complete everyone’s hair and makeup. Prior to joining the drama club his freshmen year, Sam couldn’t do makeup beyond concealing a zit. By now, he had practically mastered it. It was actually kind of fun. He completed the makeup and hair of person after person. When he’d first begun years back, touching people’s faces as needed had felt awkward. Now, while he was mostly still like that, it had gotten significantly easier. Any sense of discomfort had been the worst with Marcus, and even that, surprisingly, wasn’t much. Soon, everyone was complete, and there was still nearly an hour before the performance began. Sam began packing up the makeup for the night.

As he replaced the makeup bag backstage, the cast milled about around him. The nervous energy was practically tangible. He could hear Veronica practicing alone on the other side of the curtain, going over her lines and movements one last time onstage before the audience began coming in and taking their seats.

“Hey, friend.” Marcus had taken to starting conversations with Sam that way ever since the short-lived falling out. He seemed to enjoy rubbing in how Sam had admitted that they were friends. Marcus always sounded victorious, as if he had won something in acquiring Sam’s friendship. There was something nice about that.

Sam, who was stowed away in the walk-in prop closet retrieving the necessary props, turned to the door. Marcus leaned against the doorway. Then, he straightened, taking a step inside. He smiled. “I appreciate the fact that you don’t hit me for rubbing it in even though you look like you want to.”

Sam rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “It might be wise to stop pushing your luck.”

Marcus came further in. “True, I could. But this is more fun for me.” He paused, watching Sam struggle to hold far too many props at once. “Need help there?”

Mildly embarrassed, Sam was about to object, but Marcus had already begun taking some of the props from his arms, including the sword.

“Be careful with that,” Sam warned. “That took a long time to make.” He expected Marcus to laugh at the teasing, but instead he gave Sam a sideways glance with an expression that Sam couldn’t read.

“Do you really think I’m irresponsible?” he asked lightly. “You have a tendency to act like it.”

Sam didn’t answer at first. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what his answer was; he was just taken aback by Marcus’s sudden seriousness. “No,” he said after a while. “I don’t.” He paused, just looking at him. “Why? It’s not like you care what I think.”

Marcus’s eyebrows raised. “Of course I care what you think. You’re a good judge of character.”

It was Sam’s turn to look taken aback, but he couldn’t find the words to respond. When he did, he barely got them out. “I...I didn’t think...that you thought so highly of me.”

Marcus’s surprised countenance only deepened. “Really? I thought it was obvious.”

“I don’t think that you show as much emotion as you think you do.”

“That’s probably a good thing.” Marcus laughed, but it was awkward, uncomfortable. He paused, eyes wandering over the wall behind Sam for a bit. He looked like he might say something more, but instead of doing so, he exited, and Sam watched him go. He was gradually realizing that Marcus, whom he’d viewed as so much more confident and smooth, wasn’t as self-assured as he seemed. In fact, it felt like the more confidence Sam gained, the less Marcus had. It was odd. He shrugged it off, taking the rest of the props to their proper places and people.

Now that there was only about half an hour left before the performance, the energy backstage was at an all-time high. Veronica, despite her experience, was so nervous that she swore in nearly every other sentence out of her mouth. Marcus was nowhere to be found. Suddenly, Sam found himself launched into the task of finding him. Marcus wasn’t mingling with the other cast members nor still in the locker room getting changed. But the stage, even the auditorium, wasn’t that big, and there were only so many places to go. It didn’t take long to find him hiding in the prop closet as if a rubber chicken or plastic skull would save him from having to perform. He was muttering to himself. Veronica was right: they both gave verbal self pep talks.

Even with the past weeks that Sam had spent learning more about Marcus and who he was, he’d never seen him like this. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor, nails digging into his knees, seemingly frozen in panic.Without thinking twice, Sam entered, closed the door behind him, and joined his friend on the floor, sitting beside him.

“I’m going to die,” were the first words out of Marcus’s mouth intended for Sam.

“You’re going to be fine,” Sam said with unprecedented confidence.

“Nope. Nope nope nope. Did you see that crowd? All those people? I’m going to die.”

Sam stared at him, wide-eyed and dumbfounded. “Crowds four times as large come to your football games, and you’re scared of this crowd?”

“It’s not the same,” Marcus insisted. “I know I’m good at football. I’ve won dozens of games already. But this...It’s like being on the field for the first time back in freshman year. I was terrified. And I’m pretty sure that I really can’t do this. Besides, it’s not just that...This is something that a lot of people have put a lot of hard work into. If I fail, it’s not just me. I’ll be ruining it for a lot of people. The rest of the club has expectations of me. I don’t want to let anybody down.”

Sam tried to hold it in, but he couldn’t help himself. He blurted, “Anyone in particular you’re worried about disappointing?”

Marcus looked at him, surprised. “Uh, yeah,” he mumbled as his gaze shifted away from him. “Speaking of which...I was, um, wondering if...Could I get your advice on it? Since we’re friends and all?” A spark of hope was in his eyes.

Suddenly, Sam felt the same nausea he imagined Marcus was experiencing over having to go out onstage and perform. Accepting that someone he liked romantically and someone he liked platonically were probably going to date was one thing. Actively helping it happen was another thing entirely. But at the same time, Marcus looked like he painfully needed a friend. Sam didn’t know why Marcus was choosing him, but he supposed that it didn’t matter.

“Yeah,” Sam said finally. “You can rely on me.”

Marcus’s face had begun to fall, but when Sam answered, he beamed. He looked grateful. Then, some of the former awkwardness came over him again. “So, um…” He trailed off, fiddling his thumbs.

“What’s she like?” Sam asked, trying to give him an opening, a place to start.

Marcus looked conflicted. “That’s...That’s the problem. I...I’m not sure that we’re anything alike. And there’s a year difference between us, junior and senior. And...I think...It’s likely that there’s a fundamental flaw keeping us from happening.”

Sam just stared at him.

“What?” Marcus asked, suddenly sounding panicked.

Sam gave a short laugh. “A year is nothing,” he said. “Not really. I mean, it can be, but it probably isn’t.” He shrugged his shoulders. “And you’re definitely alike.”

Marcus frowned. “How can you be so sure of that?”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Am I supposed to play dumb?”

“What are you talking about?”

“You have feelings for Veronica, right?”

Marcus opened his mouth to respond, but before he could get a word out, the door slammed open. Veronica stood there, looking as panicked as she had for awhile already.

“Guys!” she borderline squeaked. “The play is about to start! Get your asses in gear!”

Sam looked sideways to share a look with Marcus, but the first-timer was already getting up. He didn’t say anything or look back before walking off while Sam was left wondering if he’d said the wrong thing.

Marcus, Veronica, and the rest of the cast hurried to their spots. Meanwhile, Sam rushed to the sound and light booth on the opposite side of the room. The last few people trickled into the room, and the show began. Most of Sam’s responsibilities came before the actual performance: making props, sewing costumes, aiding the cast with practice, hair and makeup, odds and ends. With this play in particular, he didn’t even have to work the lights. All he had to do was insert sound effects at a few key moments. He had it pretty easy on performance day this year. For the majority of the play, he could just sit back, relax, and watch the audience fall in love with Veronica and Marcus as an onstage couple. So far, he’d managed to avoid watching their kiss in the final scene while he was directing. Every time, he looked away, and when asked about how convincing they were, he gave a positive but generic answer and rushed them on to whichever scene they were going to go through next.

For the next hour and a half, Sam intently watched the play, operating switches and buttons almost as if his body was on autopilot mode. As much as he dreaded the end, he had to admit, they’d done incredibly well this year. There were a few missed or misspoken lines—including a couple by Marcus—but the audience didn’t notice, the cast didn’t get tripped up, and the show went on. Sam was actually impressed by Marcus’s recovery when he screwed up; if Sam had screwed up during his first performance, he likely would have frozen up and berated himself for a week. Despite the stage fright that had plagued most of the cast, they performed nearly flawlessly.

The play passed by faster than expected. By now, most of the cast had made their final exit from the stage. Only Veronica and Marcus remained onstage, left to carry out their heartfelt final scene. Part of Sam itched to pull down the switch on the house lights and plunge the entire auditorium into darkness, easily evading what he didn’t want to see. But so many people—including the two most important people to Sam—had looked forward to this. It’d be selfish to sabotage it. One hand gripped the opposite wrist, as if he was afraid his subconscious would carry out the deed.

Onstage, Veronica and Marcus were standing close and talking. The audience looked moved, and despite his bias, so did Sam. It was an emotional scene, and they played their parts well. And then Marcus had his back to the audience, they kissed, and a knife plunged through Sam’s heart. One of the cast members closed the curtains, and Sam rushed back to the stage. As the sole stagehand, he was the only person available to operate the curtains when the full cast bowed. He got there in the nick of time and pulled the rope, opening up the curtain on a stage where the cast stood lined up. The most important people stood closest to the middle while minor parts stood at the ends. Now was when they’d walk to the front in pairs and bow with varying levels of dramatics. Sure enough, the two end cast members walked to the front of the stage, then bowed. The next two went, then the next. Everyone went until it was the two leads walking to the front center stage. But they didn’t bow.

Instead, Marcus, who was closer to Sam’s spot at one wing than Veronica, spoke. The nervousness that had been in the prop closet but not onstage was back immediately. “Um,” he began like a true professional. “I’m probably better known as a football player than an actor.” A cheer went up in one corner of the auditorium, and Marcus smiled at his team come to cheer him on. “As many of you may know, this is my first time doing this. But I’ve always come to see the plays and was always impressed.” He paused, visually trying to get his bearing. “And...I’ve noticed something. We the cast”- he gestured to the cast-“get to top off the performance with the bows and the clapping and feeling like the kings—”

“And queens,” Veronica interjected.

“And queens,” Marcus added, “of the world.” He stopped, licked his lips. “We get all of the credit without doing all of the work. So I’m going to ask Sam, our loyal stagehand, to come on out here, and hope he doesn’t kill me for doing this to him.” Marcus’s head turned toward Sam. “Sam?”

Sam’s legs felt like they were made of lead. All he could hear was his heart pounding in his ears. His body seemed to move on its own, and he slowly walked out onstage. He stood there awkwardly beside Marcus, not sure what to do with himself.

Marcus had him covered. The newbie looped an arm around the more seasoned drama club participant’s shoulders and drew him in closer. “This guy,” Marcus announced, “has directed us every time we practiced, worked with the cast one-on-one, made the costumes, did hair and makeup, and provided every sound effect during tonight’s performance.” Marcus gave him a small squeeze. Sam’s face had turned bright red, and he couldn’t quit staring at Marcus in pure shock and wonder. “This whole thing couldn’t have happened without him,” Marcus continued. “So I think that it’s only proper that we have a round of applause for him, the real hero of this story.”

Without pause, the entire auditorium erupted into applause, including the cast. Marcus and Veronica both beamed at him while they joined in. Sam, meanwhile, wasn’t sure if he should feel embarrassed or pleased. He felt both, and they combined for an odd sensation in his stomach. But he gave a half grin to his friend, then bowed for the audience for the first time. Afterward, he briskly walked offstage to close the curtain on his best production yet.

The following half hour was uneventful. The audience left, and the cast changed back into their normal clothes and removed their makeup. Sam hung out by the costume wardrobe, replacing each costume to where it had been before the play began. It felt like a long time ago. Over the past month and a half, he’d successfully doubled his friend group (to two) and crawled a little further out of his comfort zone.

Veronica was the penultimate person to finish changing. She handed over her costume, and from the apologetic smile on her face he already knew what was coming.

“I know I said I’d stay and help you clean up, but—”

“It’s okay, Vee,” he said.

“It’s just that it’s late and I have to work early—”

“I said it’s okay,” Sam repeated. “I get it.” He gave her a lopsided smile. “Go get some sleep.”

Veronica smiled gratefully, then gave him a quick hug. “Thanks for understanding, Sam. I’ll see you on Monday, all right?” She turned back and waved before breaking into a jog and leaving.

Sam rolled his eyes to himself, but the gesture was without malice. Veronica was a great friend, but reliability had never really been her thing. There was only the one person left changing, so he went ahead and began cleaning up the props. When he was done, he’d have to take inventory of them, put away the backdrops and other setting pieces, and sweep the stage. He’d be here for awhile yet.

Only a few of the props had been taken to their rightful spots before the last cast member appeared. Marcus handed over his costume without a word. His enthusiasm and confidence from the stage was gone. He looked as somber as he had in the prop closet, subtle discomfort affecting his movements. Sam was equally silent as he took the costume and brought it back to its home in the wardrobe. Without either of them saying anything, they both began to gather and put away the various props. As Sam finished grabbing the ones abandoned backstage, he could hear Marcus rolling up the multiple pieces of painted paper they’d hung from above to make the background. Sam hadn’t even asked him to help. He just did.

With the two of them working together, it didn’t even take half as long as it would have taken Sam on his own. They made a good team, even when they weren’t speaking. Sam wasn’t sure if the silence was a result of not having anything to say or not knowing how to say it. Soon, with the work complete, the two of them collapsed onto the floor of the prop closet in the same position they’d been in before: legs crossed, side by side

A few solid minutes passed before either of them spoke.

“I never kissed her, you know.”

Sam turned to look at Marcus, who was in turn looking at his hands. He didn’t say anything. Marcus continued. “It just looked like it. That was the problem, right?” He paused, but the quiet became unbearable almost immediately. “That was why you didn’t like me. have feelings for her, and thought I’d stand between you two.”

Sam still didn’t say anything.

Marcus looked at him, but only for a second. “You know I’d never do that, right? I’d never make a move on someone you like. We’re friends.” He said the last part as if it entirely explained his actions, or more accurately, lack thereof.

“You’re wrong.” Sam’s voice was even, but it was difficult to keep it as such. He finally turned his head to the side.

Marcus met his eyes, but his eyebrows furrowed together. It wasn’t anger; it was hurt. “You think I’m lying about my ethics?”

Sam shook his head. “No. Not about that.”

A small amount of relief softened pain into confusion. “What, then?”

“You’re wrong,” Sam said quietly, “about Veronica.” He inhaled sharply. “You can ask her out if you want.”

The look on Marcus’s face changed completely. “That reminds me of what you said before.” He shook his head, eyes closed, laughing a bit. When his eyes opened again, they were back on Sam. “You think I have a crush on her?”

Sam’s eyebrows raised. “Uh, yeah.”

Marcus hung his head and laughed some more, than raised it again, a small smile on his face. “I don’t.”

Before he could think of the consequences, Sam sighed with relief.

Immediately, Marcus switched the topic back again. “See? That, that. That’s why I don’t believe that you don’t have feelings for her. I say I don’t have a crush on her, which would eliminate me as a romantic rival, and you sigh in relief! You are so not discreet.” He laughed in what sounded like triumph but was tinged with something else.

Sam stared at him with an unreadable expression.

Marcus’s smile dimmed some. Sam could tell that his lack of readability was bothering Marcus in the moment.

Sam turned away, facing forward instead of looking at Marcus. Most of the time it was easier to not meet his eyes. But he finally got words to come out. Sort of. “I-I, um, uh…” He found himself mimicking what Marcus had done before, digging his nails into legs as if it might calm him. “That...that wasn’t...because of Veronica.” He paused, withdrawing his nails and nervously tapping his legs. “That was,” He was entirely confident in his last word, yet it came out like a question. Uncertain, as if to give himself leeway to take it back if need be. He was looking at his hands, not at Marcus’s face, and Marcus wasn’t saying anything, and with every second that passed without response, Sam became more sure that he should have sucked it up and lied and ‘admitted’ to a crush on his best friend. He was scared to know what Marcus was thinking, but at the same time, he was rapidly becoming desperate.

Marcus finally broke the silence. “Do you remember,” he began slowly, “when I said that there was likely a fundamental flaw keeping me from being with the person I want to be with?”

Sam raised his head and just looked at him, his countenance making it clear that he was failing to follow how the conversation had shifted. “Yes,” he said simply, not getting the connection.

Marcus smiled. It was small, but somehow it was more impactful than many of the other, bigger ones that he had displayed in the past. He chuckled lightly. “There’s not one.”

Sam’s confusion deepened. “How do you—” He got cut off.

Marcus was kissing him.

Marcus was kissing him.

And Sam was so taken aback that he didn’t even react until Marcus had pulled away. His face was much like a deer in headlights. Until, slowly, it began to break into a bashful grin that wasn’t unlike Marcus’s. In fact, he was pretty sure Marcus looked even more sheepish than him.

Both of them looked away, looking for something else to focus on. Not that was really possible, or that they were really trying that hard.

“How long have you—” Sam began.

“Chemistry,” Marcus answered before the question was done. “I started to like you sometime during chemistry.”

Sam nodded, still not looking at him. “So the fundamental flaw…”

“I thought you were…”

“Likewise.” Sam finally chanced a glance at Marcus.

Suddenly, out of the blue, Marcus was caught up in a laughing fit. Sam stared at him, almost horrified. His mind immediately began buzzing with the worst possible scenarios. It was a prank, it was totally a prank, and Marcus was about to make fun of Sam and tell everyone how gullible he was and make him the laughing stock of their school until graduation next year. He rose, ready to bolt.

Marcus’s arm shot up. He took a hold of Sam’s wrist and pulled him back down with surprising gentleness. “I’m not making fun of you,” he clarified. “I just...It’s ironic, you know?” He let go of Sam’s wrist and pulled his hand back. No one said anything for awhile.

“So…” Sam mumbled.

Sooooo,” Marcus mimicked more dramatically.

Sam shot him a glare, but as per usual, it wasn’t serious. He couldn’t even hold the attempted threatening look and a smile broke out. “So we’re—”

“Can this be a multiple choice question? I didn’t study.”



“Be my boyfriend?”




“Say something other than ‘yeah’.”

“...Can I kiss you again?”


Perhaps Sam didn’t get to be the perceived hero of the play this year, despite what Marcus had said in his impromptu speech. But in the last few minutes, he had proved that he could be pretty brave when he wanted to be. Even if it was only in a momentary burst of courage, he took charge of his own life. And what could be more heroic than that?

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