The dull thunder of rubber balls bouncing off the hardwood floor in the gym might as well have been torture. The familiar scent of old sports equipment intermingled with the feet of pubescent teenagers permeated the air. This was Mack’s personal version of hell.
Mack jumped away as a bright red ball whizzed past her head. She wasn’t quite sure why dodgeball was even legal. It was basically a form of child abuse, giving a bunch of hormonal, angst-ridden teenagers dodgeballs and permission to hurl them at each other. They were basically pitting students against students in a fight to the death. It was primitive.
Mack risked a glance at the clock. Forty-nine minutes of PE remained. Time seemed to roll backward in this horrific universe.
She plucked at the baggy T-shirt hanging around her lanky frame. Mack avoided looking at herself in the mirror as much as possible. How many times did she have to see boring short brown hair, pale, almost fluorescent skin and awkwardly long limbs looking back at her? She hadn’t even inherited her mom and dad’s tanned skin. Puberty, in her opinion, had not been kind, though she thought at seventeen she was supposed to be growing out of her awkward phase already.
Looking down at the too-big basketball shorts, which shapelessly graced her lower half, she turned to Lila beside her. Somehow she had managed to avoid being hit with any of the dodgeballs, despite the fact that she was occupied with picking polish off her nails. Mack considered her with a resigned sigh. Lila seemed to avoid the awkward teenage phase altogether. In the summer between sophomore and junior year, she got the boobs and curves most girls dreamed about.
If she hadn’t been her best friend for years, Mack might have resented her.
“I just don’t get why these uniforms are so small,” Mack complained, tightening her ponytail. “How do they expect us to do any sort of physical activity if we’re worried about flashing everyone?”
Lila brushed her raven-colored hair across her shoulder and rolled her neck to look at Mack, giving her a onceover with her eyes.
“You realize you bought yours two sizes too big, right?”
Mack turned to Lila whose uniform was significantly tighter, her tanned skin completely on display. Mack scoffed in offense, “This is the appropriate size, Lila.”
Lila just shrugged and went back to disinterestedly picking at her cuticles, not even flinching as another ball flew past her.
“Are we going to the football game tonight?” Mack asked, trying to appear casual.
“Why? So you can stare at the cheerleaders? I don’t see you complaining about their uniforms being too tight.”
“Mackenzie! Lila! Participate!” the balding gym teacher yelled from his spot on the bleachers.
Mack picked up a ball and threw it halfheartedly. It arched high in the air and fell nowhere near anyone on the other team.
“Why don’t you just stare at them now so we don’t have to go to the stupid game,” Lila said, gesturing to the cheerleaders in the opposite corner of the gym.
“I don’t stare. I just appreciate the art of their sport,” Mack insisted. She aimed to kick a ball as it rolled toward her, but it hit the side of her foot and spun away from her pathetically.
Lila chuckled. “Sure. Perv.”
Mack snuck a look over her shoulder at the cheerleaders just as Veronica took her place at the top of the pyramid. It was very much like a cheesy romance film in Mack’s mind. Time seemed to slow as Veronica swung her long, blond ponytail over her shoulder, pompoms high in the air. All the noise in the gym faded away and she was sure there were harps playing somewhere in the distance. Mack swore that Veronica looked right at her and winked as she was being tossed into the air, the dingy gym fluorescent lights somehow making a halo around her airborne form. She went from the cute girl on the playground in preschool to the quintessential pretty blond cheerleader. But she was so much more.
Mack knew she got good grades; she was in all the AP classes and on the Honors List. Sure, she came off as bitchy and self-centered, but someone that pretty and smart couldn’t be all that bad. Mack was convinced she was the softest, sweetest girl in school and no one could tell Mack otherwise. Lila wasn’t sold on the idea, but Mack pointed out that Veronica had a different puppy calendar in her locker every year. If that didn’t say soft, Mack didn’t know what did.
Lila sighed. “I miss when you had a crush on that girl at the animal shelter.”
“In fifth grade?”
“Yeah. At least she was a good person.”
“Coming from the person who hasn’t had a boyfriend since kindergarten.”
Lila gasped, a dramatic hand to her chest. “I told you. I’m choosing to be single.”
“For twelve years?”
“I need to focus more on myself, whereas you’re just focusing on your weirdo crush for Veronica.”
“It’s not weird.”
The last time Mack had spoken to Veronica was the year before. She was in math class and somehow had forgotten to pack a single pencil in her backpack. Veronica sat in front of her, so Mack tapped her shoulder and asked to borrow a pencil. When Veronica leaned back to loan her the pencil, Mack could smell her shampoo from her seat. Plumerias.
When Mack tried to give Veronica the pencil back, she told her to keep it. Mack had the pencil until a few months later when Lila threw it in a sewer. She had been complaining about Mack treasuring the thing. So what if she kept it in a separate pocket of her backpack and carefully sharpened it only just enough? Mack told Lila she was jealous and they didn’t talk for a whole period.
Mack couldn’t even smell plumerias anymore without blushing.
Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in the side of her head and she snapped back into reality, falling sideways, her body crumpled to the ground. There was a ringing in her ears and she clutched the side of her head, tears of pain pooling at the corners of her eyes. Lila stood over her, hands on her knees as she leaned down.
She shook her head, smug smirk on her face as she repeated. “Total. Perv.”
Luckily the teacher blew his whistle, signaling for them to go back to the locker room. Mack changed quickly and got an ice pack for her head that she made a dramatic show of holding as she and Lila walked in the halls.
“You could have warned me!” Mack said as she held the ice pack to her head.
“It’s not my fault you were too busy scamming on the bitchiest girl in school to see a ball flying at your face.” Lila paused and added, “Oh, the irony.”
Mack rolled her eyes. “You’re not funny.”
In the thirteen years Mack had known Lila, she was always finding a new way to embarrass her. Maybe that’s just what happened when you’ve known someone since you were five years old.
That was pretty much how their entire relationship had worked since then. Lila was everything that Mack needed, even if she denied it most of the time. She was always trying to get Mack to come out of her shell and experience new things. Sometimes it worked, while other times Mack wondered why they were still friends.
Then she remembered there was no one else she’d rather navigate the choppy waters of high school with. They made it through middle school, so they could make it through this. And they had for the most part. It was the home stretch. Only a few more months until graduation and then Mack didn’t have to see any of the people she called her classmates ever again, except when she went to the grocery store or the mall…
“I’m pretty funny,” Lila said as they turned the hall corner toward their lockers, interrupting Mack’s thoughts. “Or else you wouldn’t have stuck around with me for so long.”
Chad, the typical beefy jock who looked as dumb as he was handsome, hit Mack in the shoulder with his arm as he passed her.
“Watch where you’re going, loser.” Just the perfect amount of blond hair fell into his eyes. It made Mack want to roll hers.
“Eat a spicy dick!” Lila said, walking backward so she could flip him off with both hands. Chad just flipped her off right back and kept walking to his own locker. Mack actually did roll her eyes this time as she spun the dial on her locker.
“He is such a tool,” she muttered.
Lila nodded. “Him and his girlfriend.”
Mack blushed and chanced a look back over at Chad who was looking back for some reason, even though Veronica was standing next to him and clearly talking about whatever hot cheerleaders talked about.
“I’m telling you, Lila, there’s more to Ronnie than you know,” Mack said dreamily.
“Then just tell her if you love her so much.”
Mack gasped dramatically and frowned at her friend. “You know I can’t do that. I’m not ready for the school to have an opinion on my sex life.”
“Or lack thereof,” Lila muttered.
Mack smirked. “Does daydreaming about Ronnie count as a sex life?”
Lila pretended to gag and opened her own locker. “You need to get over it. It’s pathetic. I just don’t even get what you see in her.”
“It’s hard to explain,” Mack said, closing her locker. They began the short walk across the hall toward the classroom and she shrugged. “I’ll write you a note. You’ll practically be in love with her by the end of it.”
“Okay,” Lila said skeptically.
They took their seats at the back of the classroom and Mack immediately pulled out a piece of paper. She wrote furiously as she let all her feelings for Veronica come out on paper. She thought about how her nose sloped ever so gently into a little button, her lips…Mack sighed. She was sure that an entire book could be written just about Veronica’s lips, or how her blond hair looked like it was spun from gold. She remembered how she smelled like flowers and sunshine. It made Mack’s palms sweat just thinking about it.
There was the vague sound of a teacher talking in the background but she couldn’t be bothered with it at the moment. She had just put the finishing touches on her letter when the paper was snatched right from under her hands.
Mack looked up quickly, blindly reaching for the paper. Chad looked back at her, paper held high over his head where she couldn’t reach it.
“I’m collecting homework, dweeb,” he said putting it on top of a pile of papers in his hands.
“You have to give that back,” Mack said, her heart in her throat. The last thing she needed was for anyone to get ahold of that note. Especially if that anyone was Chad, the boyfriend of the letter’s subject. She felt stupid. Really stupid. She should have known better than to write it down!
“Whatever,” he said, walking away as she watched his back helplessly.
She let her forehead fall on the desk with a thud.
Lila leaned over, trying to get a better look at her friend. “Bro. What’s up?”
“I’m dead,” Mack groaned. “Chad took the note with the homework.” She watched as he handed the pile of papers to the teacher. At least he would never see it.
“Just go ask the teacher for it,” Lila said, kicking the leg of Mack’s chair. “You need to turn in your real homework anyway. Stop being dramatic.”
“You’re right,” she said, ripping her homework out of her notebook and walking toward the front of the classroom. Mrs. Martinez just stared at her and Mack smiled back nervously. The best way she could describe her was slug-like.
“Heeeeeeeeey,” she said in her most casual voice, handing Mrs. Martinez the homework. “Chad accidently picked up a note I had so—”
“You were writing notes in my class?” Mrs. Martinez asked, eyebrows shooting over her glasses.
“No, of course not.” Mack offered Mrs. Martinez her best ‘obedient student’ smile. “I was just…it was a note about how much I loved English.”
The teacher blinked at her for a moment and gestured to the pile. “Yeah, fine.”
Mack breathed a sigh of relief and began sorting through the pile. “Thank you.”
She flipped through each paper, her panic mounting when she couldn’t find the note. Her heart stopped as she went through it frantically for the third time.
“It’s not here.”
“Okay, then sit down please,” Mrs. Martinez said, shooing Mack away as she got up for the lecture.
Mack walked back to her desk in a daze, wondering where it would have gone. She leaned over to Lila and whispered, “It wasn’t there.”
“Where else would it be?” Lila asked just as confused as Mack felt. “You looked all through the homework?”
“Yes,” Mack said, looking around the room for even a hint. Everyone seemed invested in their own work and conversations.
“Check the trash cans,” Lila whispered.
Mack frowned. “I’m not going to dig through a trash can in the middle of class. Plus they were just emptied.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Where would it have gone?” Mack whispered back. She looked around the classroom for any sort of clue but only saw Chad looking back at her with a scowl. She rolled her eyes at him and slouched in her seat as she scanned the classroom. Leaning her neck back so she was looking up at the ceiling, Mack felt a sick feeling sinking into her stomach.
“I don’t think you quite understand the gravity of the situation,” Mack said as she followed Lila through the crowded cafeteria to their usual spot in the back corner.
“I perfectly understand the gravity of the situation,” Lila said, dropping her tray on the table. “There is no gravity to the situation at all.”
Mack shot her friend a look. “If anything from that note comes out, I’m ruined.”
Lila sat down at the table, Mack across from her, and offered her an amused look. “Here’s the thing, Mack,” she said, leaning her elbows on the table. “You give yourself a lot of credit. You don’t exactly have much to ruin.”
Mack barked a humorless laugh. “Of course I do! My perfect disguise of an indifferent heterosexual high schooler who does nothing but drool over prepubescent pop stars could be done for.”
“You do that anyhow,” Lila said, gesturing wildly with her plastic fork. “Except instead of One Direction, it’s Demi Lovato.”
Mack pointed her fork at Lila. “Hush! You never know who’s listening!”
Lila rolled her eyes. “Listen, you’re going to be fine. The note probably ended up in the trash. And if by chance it’s still in the homework pile, Mrs. Martinez is just going to toss it.”
With a sigh, Mack dropped her fork back on her tray. “You’re right,” she mumbled. “You’re right!”
She leaned back in her chair and looked around the cafeteria. Everyone was minding their own business and entrenched in their own drama. They didn’t care about Mack’s struggles in the corner. She took a deep breath and tried to let herself be lulled into security. Lila was right. She usually was, a fact the other girl never let Mack forget.
Mack felt eyes on her and looked over her shoulder to see Chad staring at her. Something about the way he was looking at her made Mack shiver. She quickly whipped around back to Lila who was giving her a bored look.
“Chad was staring at me.”
Lila raised a skeptical eyebrow and looked over her shoulder. She shrugged and looked back at Mack. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“That’s all you have to say? Do you see how he’s looking at me?”
Taking a big bite of her sandwich, Lila looked back toward the football player and cheerleader table.
“Yeah, I guess he always kinda looks at you,” Lila said. “Like he’s a little bit in love with you.”
Mack frowned and shook her head. “What? Okay, no. I can’t even touch on that right now,” she said, holding a hand up to stop her from talking. “But he looks like he knows or something.”
“I don’t know. Maybe he has my note.” She gasped in realization. “Oh my god what if he does have my note?”
Lila laughed. “Good one.”
She glanced back over her shoulder and Chad was still staring, but her eyes caught Veronica next to him. She tossed blond hair over her shoulder, and it caught the light in a way that made Mack feel like she was going to choke. Veronica was talking to Beth, another cheerleader on the squad. Beth had long dark hair that fell in waves over her shoulder, and she was also very pretty, but she never could hold a candle to Veronica. No one could. Beth looked over and caught Mack’s eye, waving with a small smile. Veronica caught on and glanced toward Mack, but Mack didn’t give herself a chance to see if she’d wave too. She spun back quickly in her seat, eyes wide and on Lila.
“We already decided that Mrs. Martinez has your note,” Lila said through another big bite of her sandwich.
As if on cue, Chad climbed on top of the table. The cafeteria hushed and all eyes focused on him.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Mack whispered.
“Don’t be so self-centered,” Lila said, waving her hand dismissively. “It probably has nothing to do with you.”
Chad cleared his throat loudly before he began. “My fellow students, germs and weiners,” he boomed. “I have some disturbing news to share with you. It would seem we have a homosexual in our midst.”
Mack’s whole body stiffened, eyes wide and focused on Lila. Her friend shrugged and tried to remain looking impassive. “Still might not be about you.”
“Mack!” Chad said, pointing a finger at her. “I have proof that you’re a gay.”
It felt like the bottom of Mack’s stomach completely fell out. Her palms began to spontaneously sweat.
Lila grimaced at her. “Maybe it is about you.”
“You think?” Chad threw a triumphant fist in the air. Clutched in his hand was a piece of paper that Mack knew was hers. With a dramatic flick of his wrist, he unfolded the paper and began to read.
“Hey dumbass, you asked me to list the reasons why I like Veronica, so here it is,” Chad said, glancing at Mack before continuing. “Veronica smells like puppies. But not that scent that smells vaguely of piss all the time. It’s that soft baby powder smell that they all have for some reason. There’s that one time she let me borrow her pencil freshman year, which only proves how sweet she is. She’s also really good at cheerleading. It’s hard for me to tell but I really do feel more school spirit after she performs…”
The cafeteria had started out suppressing small chuckles, but now they were full on cackling around her. The sound was deafening, drowning out the rest of what Chad was saying, and Mack was sure she had never heard anything worse. Surely, she thought, this was a dream and she’d wake up any moment. She didn’t even notice that she had pretty much sunk all the way down in her seat. She looked back at Lila who was frozen mid-bite with half-eaten chicken nuggets on full display in her mouth.
Veronica looked at her with an unreadable expression. As soon as their eyes met, Veronica looked away and Mack felt sick.
“I’m gonna puke,” Mack groaned. Her legs felt like lead but she forced them to move. She quickly grabbed her backpack and rushed out of the cafeteria, leaving her tray behind. Mack kept her eyes focused on the exit doors and tried not to look at the stupids who were all laughing and pointing at her. Holding her backpack in front of her like a shield, she shouldered her way through the swinging double doors and into the hallway.
Some of the laughter died as the doors closed behind her, and she breathed a small sigh of relief. But she kept walking quickly, her sneakers slapping against the cheap tiles that lined the halls. Her heart felt like it was vibrating in her chest, palms slippery with sweat. Is this what a heart attack felt like? Maybe she was finally having a heart attack.
“Hey, wait!” Lila jogged beside her. “What are you doing?” Lila looped her arm through Mack’s when she caught up with her.
“Running away from my problems,” Mack said, eyes still straight ahead as she headed toward the parking lot.
“Don’t you think actual running is required for that?”
“You know running in the halls is against school policy.”
“Okay, well, stop power walking,” Lila said, grasping Mack’s sleeve and slowing her to a stop. “You’re giving me flashbacks of when my mom joined that Oprah exercise club.”
Mack faced her. She was breathing heavily and she was sure she looked crazy. “I have to get out of here. My life is over.”
“First off, calm down the dramatics,” Lila said with an amused smile. “And secondly, your life is not over.”
“I’m not being dramatic!” Mack said, arms flailing at her sides and backpack falling to the ground. “Everyone knows I’m gay, Lila!”
Lila crossed her arms. “Are you worried about them knowing you’re gay? Or knowing you’re in love with Queen Bitch?”
“I’m not in love with her.”
“Tomato, tomahto. No one will give a rat’s ass about this tomorrow when someone else is pregnant. Then it’ll be old news that you’re a box bumper.”
“A box—” Lila stopped herself and rolled her eyes. “You need to watch something other than Ellen every once in a while.”
Mack rolled her eyes. “Just because you’re crude.”
“I’m not.” Lila clapped her on the shoulder and steered her back toward the school parking lot. “Hey, look at the bright side. Maybe you can get a girlfriend now.”
Mack groaned and bent down to pick up her backpack. “I guarantee you that’s never going to happen.”
Lila gave Mack a sympathetic look and squeezed her in a side hug. “So, ditch and go to the mall?”
It was tempting. The last thing Mack wanted to do was face any classmates for the rest of the day. Or ever. But the guilt of skipping gnawed at her stomach, almost as fiercely as the sickness and embarrassment from Chad finding her letter.
“No,” she mumbled, “but can we go after? I really want a pretzel.”
“Of course,” Lila cooed at her, resting their heads together. “A cinnamon sugar one?”
Mack nodded. She felt a little better in her friend’s embrace, not to mention the promise of a pretzel later.
“I just have to avoid everyone the rest of the day. How hard can that be?”
~ ~ ~
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