Authors: Lisa Aldin
Tags: #One of the Guys
“I need to identify three different species of tree. I found two, but I still need a photo of the yellow birch.” I kick at a pile of dead leaves and shift my book bag to the other shoulder. “I sure picked a fun elective.
“This campus is pretty cool.” Loch glances around. “Better than Burlington anyway.”
I snort. “The hallways smell of stress, pretension, and nail polish.”
Loch shrugs. “Better than the smell of White Castle burgers in the morning.”
“Gross.” I laugh. “Ollie still eats that stuff for breakfast?”
“The man loves those little burgers,” Loch says, laughing.
I picture the excited look on Ollie's face as he walks the hallways each morning, the grease-stained bag in hand, the stench of onion strong. I miss that look. I miss that disgusting onion-y smell.
I stop to pull my camera from my bag, snapping photos of a few sugar maples, ignoring my wave of sadness. Such a silly thing to miss, Ollie's terrible taste in breakfast food. This is why I have to stay busy and concentrate on what's laid out in front of me. If I allow it, I will become a mourner, lost in a pit of grief over my former existence.
Loch takes out his flip camera and films the scenery.
“Bigfoot could be watching us right now,” he says, scanning the area.
“Isn't he more of a Pacific Northwest monster?” I ask.
“He's seen around these parts.” Loch lowers the camera. “A few years ago, two kids saw a big hairy monster on a camping trip.”
“Too bad they forgot their camera,” I say.
“These creatures can appear out of nowhere.” Loch brightens. “It's the unexpected. The unknown. Not everyone is filming things all the time. No one can live like that.” He sighs. “I wish I'd filmed what we saw. It was Champ. I know it. We could be millionaires or something.”
“Doubt it,” I reply. “Some people don't believe something even when it's right in front of their face. Just look at Ollie. He saw Champ. Yetâ
Loch stops walking. “You're cynical today.”
I shrug. He's right. Lately, I just haven't been in the mood to believe in legends. I hate to admit it, but Ollie and Cowboy painted some doubt in my mind. What if we didn't see Champ that summer? What if our friendship is based on a floating twig or something? Not exactly a strong foundation. Maybe it's best not to know. Maybe we shouldn't be hunting for legends. What if we discover none of it's real?
I sigh. “Maybe these creatures shouldn't be found, Loch. Maybe Champ should remain a mystery. I don't know. Sometimes mystery is good. Take these group sessions I have to go to every week. They want us to share our feelings, expose ourselves, but maybe it's best to just keep things inside and locked away.”
Loch starts filming again. “Best for who?”
“For everyone,” I say. “Knowing every little thing could upset the balance of things.” I look away, shivering. This time next year, what will we all be doing? Who will our friends be? Am I even capable of making a new friend? I've had the same ones since forever.
“Toni, look.” Loch points to something in the dirt. I move in next to him, leaning forward, trying to see what he sees. My arm brushes his arm.
“What?” I'm staring at a pile of leaves.
“Don't you see that?” Loch points his camera at the ground like it's the most interesting piece of earth on, well, Earth. All I see are the leaves and dirt. “There.” Loch points again.
Beneath the leaves, what looks to be a footprint is stamped into the mud. I nod. “Looks like someone's footprint.”
Loch straightens and grins. His teeth are super-white. I don't think he's gone a day without flossing. “Not just anyone's footprint.
I laugh and punch him in the arm. He punches me back, grinning again. I start walking, and Loch follows, shortening his long strides to keep pace with mine.
“I just want to know everything I can about this world,” Loch says after several moments of silence. His eyes are cast downward. “I want to discover the stuff thought to be unreal.”
“You want to recapture something from fifth grade,” I say.
“Maybe.” Loch fidgets with his camera. He doesn't look at me. “Don't you?”
A twig snaps behind us. We both turn, on high alert. I search the trees for the culprit but find nothing. When my pulse quickens, I feel stupid. Not like an axe murderer would attempt to kill us in broad daylight, but the sense of isolation out here, tucked away amongst the sugar maples, is sort of creepy. Maybe it's best I lay off the horror movies.
“BOO!” Someone drops from the tree above us. I scream and wrap my arms around Loch's waist, burying my face in his chest. He curls his arms around me, squeezing tight.
“I got you guys so good!” a voice says, laughing.
I look up to see Emma Elizabeth Swanson grinning back at me, her sequined pink sweater reflecting the sunlight, her honey-blonde hair pulled back into a neat ponytail. Her jeans are light blue and shredded at the knees.
“What are you doing?” I try to catch my breath, embarrassed I screamed so loud.
“Same thing you are.” Emma's eyes twinkle. “These woods are a great make-out spot.”
I look up at Loch. He looks back, his cheeks red. We're still holding each other. Quickly, we take a huge step back, peeling ourselves apart.
“Sorry if I interrupted. I'm Emma, by the way.” She extends her hand to me, then Loch. We each shake it. Her nails are painted a pale purple and specked with glitter. She points to me and says, “You're in my business class, right?”
I nod. “Toni Valentine.”
“Right. The new girl with the romantic name.” Her eyes shift to Loch. “Now I
you don't go to Winston.”
“This is Loch,” I say. “My buddy. My pal. My platonic friendâ”
“In other words, not her make-out partner,” Loch interrupts. “My name's Micah.”
“Oh. My mistake. Nice to meet you both.” Emma looks around. “You haven't seen anyone else roaming the woods, have you? Perhaps a short guy with messy hair and adorable eyes?”
“Nope. Sorry,” I say, exchanging a look with Loch. He just shrugs.
“Sometimes I think Kevin avoids me on purpose.” Emma chews on her lower lip. “Am I being paranoid?”
All I can muster up is, “Huh?”
“He's probably around here somewhere,” Loch says. “You never know what you'll find deep in the woods.” He winks at me. “Keep looking.”
Emma smiles. “Thanks!” she says. She prances off into the woods like an elegant deer, her pink sweater vanishing behind the trees. We watch her go in awe, like we'd just witnessed a legendary creature.
“She seems nice,” Loch says.
I don't know what to say. Emma Elizabeth Swanson
seem nice, but that doesn't mean I can relate to her. At all.
Leaves break beneath my sneakers as I continue to walk. Loch follows, quietly filming the woods as I try to concentrate on finding the elusive yellow birch. I sense Loch's presence behind me and briefly feel close to my past life again. A past life that doesn't seem so out of reach.
“I think I found what you're looking for,” Loch says.
I turn, following his gaze. He points to a tree with yellow leaves several feet to the right. The bark along the trunk is smooth, shiny, and separates into layers, giving it a shaggy look.
I snap a photo but, for some reason, I'm not excited about the find. “Thanks. That's just what I was looking for,” I say, hoping Loch doesn't notice the reluctance in my voice. If he does, he doesn't say anything.
rain slams against the windows of Winston Academy while my brain swims with calculus equations. The last bell rings and bodies swarm and voices rise. I've acquired a talent for ignoring the loneliness that wraps around me during these busy moments.
Today, instead of fighting the crowd, I linger in the classroom and send a text to the guys about getting together for a Champ hunt this week. I don't care if my fingers bleed from texting them so much; we've got to get together soon. Eventually, they'll run out of excuses.
Seconds later, Ollie replies:
I'm sorry. I can't. Plans
Frustrated, I tuck my phone away. I'm starting to wonder if he's really mad at me because of that stupid prank.
The weekend just seconds away, I'm heading for the door when my bag bursts open, sending my books skidding across the floor. I round them up like lost cattle, but my French book is missing from the pack and I've got an essay about the history of Paris due on Monday.
I clutch my bag to my chest and power-walk down the empty hallway, surveying the dark wooden floors, the metal lockers, and the burgundy wallpaper. Thunder rattles the building. Spooky. Sometimes I wonder if this place is haunted with the souls of girls who cracked under the pressure.
I find my French textbook in my locker and wind my way back down the stone staircase. I stop before I reach the bottom. A girl sits on the last step, hunched over, her knees pressed against her chest, her shoulders heaving. I wait for her to sense me there, but she's so lost in her own grief that a bull horn could sound and she wouldn't hear it.
I turn to go back upstairs, but something holds me in place. The girl's honey hair falls over her shoulders in thin waves. She shakes her head, as if arguing with herself in her head. There is something familiar about her small frame, her milky skin, her pressed skirt.
She turns and looks up at me with bloodshot eyes. Her sobs echo against the empty space and her lower lip trembles as she tries to speak, but all that comes out is a high-pitched
I can't describe the sound. It should be studied.
Emma buries her face in her arms and lets it all out. I mean
of it. I remain at the top of the staircase, extremely uncomfortable.
“Are you okay?” I shake my head. “Dumb question. Clearly, you aren't okay.”
Emma says nothing and continues to sob. I approach as if she's a bomb and sit beside her, keeping a safe distance. I hold my bag in my lap and yank on the bottom of my shorts peeking out from beneath my skirt.
They didn't cover this in orientation. They should have.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask, trying to channel Mrs. Kemper in group session. She should handle this. She's a professional. I look around, praying someone else appears to step in, but the school is abandoned at this hour. Everyone is off to their after-school activities.
“He told me he loved me,” Emma chokes out, wiping her nose with her sleeve.
“Oh. Cool.” I pick at my thumbnail. How do I make her stop crying? I could do a funny dance. Sing a silly song. Make a dumb face.
She's not a baby
. She's just a teenage girl. Like me. Sort of.
Emma shakes her head, her cheeks red with sadness. “But it's over. He said he loved me. Thenâ¦ he ended it.”
“Oh,” I mutter.
Please. Stop. Crying
. “Not cool then.”
“He's a jerk.” She waves her arms. “A beautiful jerk that I'm completely in love with!”
I have nothing to offer here, but I can't leave her alone, bawling in the stairwell over some guy. I wish there was a magic button I could press to make this all better.
Words. I should say more words
“I don't have a lot of personal experience with ex-boyfriends,” I admit, considering a list of my romantic entanglements with the opposite sex could fit into a matchbook. “But I know how guys operate.”
Emma sniffles. “You do?”
“I was the only girl on my neighborhood street growing up.” Good ol' Newbury Lane. “I understand the male brain.”
“What should I do?” Emma's eyes widen. She looks like a lost puppy. A puppy with dripping mascara.
Should I really be giving it?
“Guys are clueless.” I shrug. “Girls are clueless. I'm not trying to be insulting. It's a fact. A lot of things get lost in translation, I think, because no one's paying close enough attention. What's this jerk's name?”
Emma's tears have slowed. “Kevin.”
“Oh, right. The guy in the woods. I'd bet money Kevin is blissfully unaware of how much he's hurt you. Hold on one second.” I stand up, slip out of my skirt, straighten out my basketball shorts, toss my skirt into my bag, and plop back down. “Sorry. The skirt was bugging me. Where was I?”
“You said that everyone is clueless.” She blinks a few times. “Even girls like me.”
I shake my head again.
I am so, so bad at this
. “Let me try a different approach here. Okay. Remember Loch?”
“Your platonic friend?” I nod, pleased. Emma Elizabeth gets it. Loch.
My platonic friend
. Why can't Brian understand that?