Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones

I never really paid much attention to the people around me. I’ve always preferred to keep to myself, and focus on the things that make me happy. It’s not like I’ve never had friends or anything, just that I’ve never really gotten much out of those relationships.

Even in high school, when I should have been making friends and building relationships, I hardly noticed my classmates. I didn’t know half of their names, and I didn’t care to learn them. To me, they were irrelevant.

What I wanted was to graduate with the best possible grades and get into the best possibly university. There was no way that having friends would help me achieve that, so there was no point to having them. That was just how I saw things.

Unfortunately for me, my classmates didn’t all agree. I earned a reputation as an antisocial book nerd who was only out for herself. I didn’t mind, because it was true, but in high school, reputation is everything. I might have been happy to stay out of other people’s business, but that didn’t mean they would offer me the same courtesy.

I tried to tell myself I didn’t care about the constant bullying and harassment, and most of the time it was true. Little by little, though, it was starting to wear me down, but it wasn’t until I cried that anything began to change. Not because of the tears themselves, but because that’s the day that I really met her.

* * *

It was after school, and I was in the same place I always went to when school was over: the library. I never had any particular desire to rush home, and I worked better at school anyway.

I was attempting to translate a passage from my German textbook when the sound of giggling drew my attention. What an irritating sound.

A trio of girls I recognised as being from my class but that I didn’t know the names of had gathered not far from my table, whispering to one another and sporadically laughing about it. More than once, their collective gaze lingered on me, for longer than I was really comfortable with.

Doing my best to ignore them, I put my head down and tried to focus on working. So long as they stayed where they were, they weren’t actually doing anything I needed to worry about.

They must have read my mind, because the next thing I knew, they were right in front of me. Even then, I kept my focus fixed on my textbook, hoping they would just go away if I ignored them.

One of them bumped into my table, knocking my textbook and schoolbag onto the floor. I heard myself cry out as I tried to grab it all and fail pathetically. The three of them laughed cruelly.

“Sorry,” one of them said, as she reached down to pick up my bag. “It must have been hanging off the edge of the table. You should be more careful about that, I could have been hurt.”

I grabbed my bag silently, unwilling to make eye contact. That wasn’t my fault and she knew it, but arguing about it wouldn’t have made a difference. All I wanted was for them to leave me alone.

To my surprise, they did leave. Maybe it was an accident after all? It was possible that I was being overly sensitive.

“Give it back,” I heard somebody behind me say. I twisted around in my seat.

The three girls had been held up by another girl in my year level. I actually did know her name; Charlie was possibly the only person with a worse reputation than me.

Charlie was holding the arm of the girl who’d picked up my bag, a serious expression on her face. None of the other girls seemed to know what to do about her.

“Ow! Let go of me, you freak!”

“Hand it over, and I will,” Charlie said. Even though it had nothing to do with me, I couldn’t help but to watch and even enjoy it a little.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about… ngh, why are you so strong?

“I’m not strong, I just understand how pressure points and joints work,” Charlie told her, her voice completely monotone. “And I’m not going to ask you again. Give. It. Back.”

“Ugh, why do you even care? It has nothing to do with you!”

Charlie stepped in closer to her, until their faces were just inches apart. I saw her whisper something in the girl’s ear, then she let go and pulled away. The girl just stood there, staring at Charlie.

Rolling her eyes, Charlie stepped around her, walking towards me. She had something in her hand… wait, was that my wallet? How did she get that?

She dropped the wallet on the table in front of me, then hesitated, like she was going to say something, but wasn’t sure if she should. I felt my lip tremble a little.

Charlie wasn’t pretty, at least not conventionally. She was a little chubby, her short hair was messy and never styled, and she never smiled. I found her features somewhat cute, but there was nothing about her appearance that really stood out.

I only knew her by reputation, but from everything I’d heard she was even colder than I was, and a lot more biting. She supposedly spent most of her time minding her own business, but when provoked, had a habit of responding with vitriol, with an uncanny ability to hone in on people’s insecurities. It didn’t make her a lot of friends.

“Th-thank you,” I said, not sure what else to do. My face felt warm and a little wet… were those tears? I was crying?

“Don’t let them walk over you like that,” she said coldly. “It’s pathetic.”

She was looking down on me? Well, it wasn’t like she was the only one. It was a surprise though, coming from her.

“Yeah,” I said, looking down at the table. Charlie sighed, and pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket.

“Here,” she said, handing it to me. “They won’t bother you again. Try not to think about them, okay? Oh, and you can keep that.”

“Ah, wait!” I called out as she started to walk away.

“Hmm?”

“Why did you do that? Why make trouble for yourself?”

For a second, I thought I saw a soft, gentle smile appear on her face. Then it was gone, replaced by her impenetrable poker face.

“Because I can’t stand to see girls cry,” she said.

With that, she turned and walked away again, and I didn’t say anything to stop her. I almost did, until I saw another girl approach her. She looked a little younger, and she was incredibly pretty. Slender frame, fair skin, beautiful brown eyes that seemed to take up half her face.

The two of them walked off together, side by side. I couldn’t help but wonder who she was, and more importantly, why I cared.

I tried to focus on my work after that, but my brain just refused to cooperate. After half an hour of staring impotently at a blank page, I gave up and decided to go home. For some reason, I couldn’t get the picture of Charlie whispering in that girl’s ear, or walking off with that pretty younger girl, out of my head.

* * *

I got to school early the next day, just like I always did. I liked to walk around the school grounds before there were many other people around, and pretend I was the only person in the world.

My first stop was the lockers, so I could drop off my bag and get my books ready for the day. When I got there, I remembered why I didn’t stand up to bullies.

Charlie’s locker had been smeared with honey, and ants were swarming it en masse. The smell of rotten eggs told me that wasn’t all that had been done, either. Was it because she stood up for me?

This time, there were no tears. I only felt angry, pissed off that Charlie was being punished for my sake, that those girls wouldn’t even get in trouble, that high school was such a petty and vicious social system.

I still had close to half an hour before most other students would begin arriving. There was a supermarket less than ten minutes walk from the school. I could fix this before Charlie ever knew what had happened.

I threw my bag in my locker and sprinted back towards the school’s side entrance. Eight minutes later, I was stepping out of the supermarket with two bags full of supplies, and considerably less money. I felt surprisingly good about that.

Another seven minutes and I was crouching in front of Charlie’s locker, wearing a breathing mask and cleaning gloves. I coated the entire area in bug spray, relishing the sight of each ant slowly crawling to a standstill before giving up and dying.

I sprayed the trail of ants all the way back to the hole they’d crawled out off, then dumped a pile of salt onto it. Phase one, complete.

Phase two involved spraying the locker with some pretty strong cleaning fluids, then wiping the honey and dead ants off with paper towels. I was very glad to be wearing gloves.

The honey was stubborn, but it only took me a few minutes to scrub the whole front of the locker completely clean. That was all the easy part. The inside was going to be a lot harder.

I used a pair of bolt cutters to break off her combination lock. As I’d suspected, all of her books were covered in now-dead ants, and the back of the locker door was dripping with egg. Did they really need to go this far?

I wiped the door clean and began taking out the books, brushing the ants off them. When the whole locker was empty, I gave it a good spray and wipe, then pulled out air freshener and spray it again until the only thing it smelt like was lavender.

“What are you doing to my locker?” Charlie asked, scaring me half out of my skin. When and she arrived?

She was leaning against the lockers beside me, staring down at me, and I didn’t have the faintest idea what to say. I didn’t want her to know that her locker had been sabotaged, but I couldn’t think of a lie that would sound any better, either.

“Um, I…”

“No good deed,” Charlie said, her eyes scanning the cleaning supplies that still surrounded me. “I figured something like this would happen, but why on earth are you cleaning it up?”

I could feel myself turning red. Why was I cleaning it up? She’d done me a favour by standing up to bullies, but breaking into her locker to clean it… that was something else entirely. I hadn’t even thought about it until just then.

“I felt responsible,” I told her. “You got punished for helping me out, and I just… I wanted to…”

Dammit, why was I so awkward around her? I couldn’t even string a proper sentence together.

“You broke my lock,” she said.

“I bought you a new one,” I told her.

“When I asked what you were doing, you didn’t answer,” she said. “You didn’t want me to know this happened, right?”

Not knowing what else to say, I just nodded, feeling more and more like an idiot. Why did I even care?

“So, how were you going to explain the new lock? Even if you got one that looked the same, the combination would be different.”

My face was burning. I hadn’t even thought of that. Good grief, what was wrong with me?

Charlie laughed, a surprisingly warm and pleasant sound. She knelt down beside me, and started to help me put her stuff back in her locker. For both of us to be able to get our arms in, we had to basically press up against each other, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“Thanks,” she said when we finished getting everything back in. “It’s nice to know that not everyone at this school is a giant arsehole.”

By this time, more students had begun to arrive. None of them paid much attention to us, thankfully. Well, none of them except for one; the girl I’d seen her walk off with in the library yesterday. She was standing a little ways back, staring at me.

Charlie seemed to notice her too, and picked up on her body language just as quickly. She shut the locker, glanced at the combination for the new lock, then clamped it shut and ripped up the paper with the combination on it, putting half in her pocket and the other half in the bin.

“Looks like I’m needed,” she said. “Thanks again. I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, she slipped through the small crowd of people and over to the girl who was watching me. The two of them walked away towards an empty classroom, and for some reason, I followed them.

Charlie slid open one of the windows and climbed inside, opening the door from the inside to let the other girl in. Once they were inside, I crouched underneath the open window so I could hear what they were saying, without really knowing why.

“You seem upset,” Charlie said, in her usual detached way.

“Who’s that girl?” the other girl demanded. “What was she doing in your locker?”

“What’s the matter, Sadie? Are you jealous?”

So her name was Sadie. Why would she have been jealous, though?

“N-no!” Sadie protested. “I just don’t like her, that’s all.”

“You don’t, huh? Now what possible reason could you have for that?” Charlie asked, her tone almost mocking.

“She’s too pretty,” Sadie said. “And I know what you’re like.”

“So you are jealous,” Charlie said. “What’s the matter? You think I’m going to leave you just because I talked to a pretty girl?”

“A-are you gonna ask her out?” Sadie asked.

“You are so insecure,” Charlie teased. “Sadie, I love you, but you worry too much. Now come on, we have classes to get to.”

They were coming out? I needed to get away. Before either of them could see me, I crouch-ran around the corner, then took off at a full sprint as soon as I was out of sight.

So that girl, Sadie, was Charlie’s girlfriend? It explained why Charlie was so close to a girl from a younger year level. It wasn’t like she had much in the way of friends. A romantic partner made a lot more sense.

Wait, did that mean Charlie was… one of those girls? A lesbian? Did that really happen in high school?

I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like Sadie felt threatened by me. Did it seem like Charlie was coming on to me? I wouldn’t even know what that would look like, coming from another girl.

What did it mean if she was coming on to me? Did I give off those vibes too? Had I given her the impression that I was a lesbian too?

I needed to focus. It didn’t matter what Charlie thought I was, or what anyone else thought for that matter. I wasn’t interested in her, and I didn’t care if we became friends or not. So what was there to worry about? Besides, she already had a girlfriend.

My classes for the first half of the day went by in a blur. Despite my conviction that I didn’t care, I couldn’t get Charlie out of my head, and I couldn’t focus on schoolwork. The worse it got, the more frustrated I became.

Then, at lunch time, we bumped into each other in the courtyard. She smiled when she saw me.

“There you are,” she said. “I was looking for you. I need to pay you back for those cleaning supplies, not to mention your time.”

“It’s fine,” I said, not making eye contact.

“Maybe for you, but I have my pride to maintain. At least let me buy you lunch.”

“I already have lunch,” I told her.

“Tomorrow, then.”

“Tomorrow is Saturday,” I pointed out.

“The offer still stands,” she said.

“You want to take me out to lunch on a weekend?”

“Why not?” she asked. “Is it really that strange?”

I couldn’t tell if she was trying to ask me out, or really did just want to pay me back. No, that was too conceited. She had a girlfriend, I reminded myself. So it was harmless.

“I guess it’s okay,” I said. “As long as…” I trailed off, realising I couldn’t actually say what I was thinking. As long as Sadie is okay with it.

“As long as…?”

“Never mind,” I said. “So where were you thinking?”

“Oh, I know a place. Just wait for me at the school gates at twelve, and I’ll take care of the rest. Oh, and I’ll give you my number, just in case.”

The two of us exchanged phone numbers, and I agreed to her plans without even thinking about it. Meet at the school gate at twelve on a Saturday? What was I signing myself up for?

She wandered off before I could muster any objections to the plans we’d made, leaving me alone to eat my lunch in a state of confusion. It wasn’t like me to make plans with someone outside of school hours. It wasn’t like there was any point to it, so why had I said yes? Why had I involved myself in the first place?

* * *

Saturday came and I found myself waiting in front of the school gate, just like I’d said I would. I was a little early, and Charlie was nowhere to be seen. I decided to sit down against the brick wall beside the gate and read while I waited for her.

“You’re here early,” she said, her voice coming from above me. I looked up to see her sitting on top of the brick wall, her legs hanging over the edge. “That’s a good sign.”

She dropped down beside me, landing like a cat. When she straightened herself out, I got a decent look at her outfit, which was surprisingly cute. Dark stockings, a short skirt, a grey coat that was longer than the skirt was, a nerdy t-shirt. She was wearing make-up, and her hair was styled in an unexpectedly feminine fashion. It was like looking at a different person.

“Wow,” I said, taking it all in. “You look… different.”

“You can thank my sister for that,” she muttered. “She’s the one that’s into, you know, girly stuff.”

“I think you look cute,” I said, before I could stop myself. I only meant it as a compliment, but I had no way of knowing how she would take it, being a lesbian.

“She’ll be thrilled to hear it,” Charlie said, brushing it aside. Did she do that to make me feel better? Was I that obvious about what I was thinking?

“So where are we going?” I said quickly, trying to change the subject.

“We’re catching the next bus,” she told me, smiling enigmatically. “That’s all you need to know.”

The bus arrived pretty much just as she said that, which was good for me because I really didn’t know what to say. There were hardly any people on bus, but she sat right beside me, our thighs and knees touching. Would her girlfriend really be okay with this?

A few stops later, she sprung to her feet, grabbing my hand and pulling me off the bus. I couldn’t help but notice how soft her skin was, and how even a rough action like pulling me out of my seat felt gentle.

As the bus drove away from us, she led me by the hand into a small bakery café that was also mostly empty. The only person seemed to be a youngish guy in his early twenties. He smiled as we entered, and brought us over a couple of menus.

“So why here?” I asked when he’d walked away again.

“I like it here,” she said. “Plus, hardly anyone comes here, so it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll be seen together.”

Why was that important? Because it actually was a date? She didn’t want her girlfriend to find out?

“What’s with that face?” she asked. “I’m not gonna do anything weird. I just don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

“R-right. Um, so…”

“Oh wow, are you nervous? That is adorable. Relax, Jess. This is supposed to be fun.”

Nervous? Why would I be nervous? She was right though, I did feel nervous. Maybe it was just because I was overthinking things too much. I needed to stop thinking about the subtext and just enjoy a free meal.

“Sorry,” I said, a little embarrassed. “Truth be told, I don’t really spend a lot of time with other people. I don’t think I’m very good at it.”

For some reason, Charlie laughed. I didn’t see what was so funny about what I’d said, so I just buried myself in the menu.

“Can I take your order, ladies?”

“Eggs Benedict, and a chocolate milkshake,” Charlie said. She hadn’t even looked at the menu.

“Uh, the salmon sandwich and an Earl Grey,” I said, picking the last two things I’d looked at. As soon as I ordered, I glanced over at Charlie, as if expecting some kind of reaction from her. Why would I care what she thought about my order, though? It wasn’t like I’d picked the most expensive items on the menu.

“Right away.”

“You look worried,” Charlie said, once he’d left. “I didn’t put you out too much by asking you to come, did I?”

“No, nothing like that,” I insisted. “It’s just a little new to me, that’s all.”

Well, it was true that it was somewhat new to me. I mean, it wasn’t the first time I’d had lunch with somebody, I just didn’t do it very often. I didn’t think that was actually what was bothering me, though. I just kept picturing Sadie, and wondering what was really going on.

“You mean leaving the house on a Saturday?” she asked, teasing me. “Or going out on a date?”

“D-date?” I felt my heart leap up into my throat. Had I really heard that right?

“Wow, you really need to relax,” she said, laughing. “If I wanted a date, I’d have asked for a date. This is lunch.”

“Right,” I said, feeling stupid again. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…” I trailed off, not really knowing how to finish that sentence. She didn’t seem to care.

“What, are you disappointed now?”

“No!” I said, a little too forcefully. “No, I just don’t really understand what we’re doing here. That’s all.”

“What we’re doing here?” Charlie frowned. “You did something nice for me. I’m paying you back. That’s all there is to it.”

That’s all… huh. I would have expected that to make me feel better, but for some reason, it just made my chest feel tight and my throat close up.

“Well, you’re welcome,” I said, a little more coldly than I’d anticipated. I felt irritated, and I didn’t know why.

“You’re mad at me,” Charlie said matter-of-factly.

“I’m not mad at you,” I snapped.

“Your body language suggests otherwise,” she said, sounding almost bored. “You’re glaring at me, and you’re starting to tear up.”

“I’m fine!” I shouted, even though I knew she was right. It didn’t make any sense, but I was mad, and I could feel myself beginning to cry.

I shouldn’t have even come out. I should never have agreed to waste my time on her. I shouldn’t have bothered cleaning her locker after what those girls did to it. She probably wouldn’t have cared anyway. It didn’t seem like she cared about anything.

Everyone was staring at me, including the guy carrying our food to us. I felt my hands squeeze the edges of the table, hurting my palms.

I stood up, grabbed my bag, and stormed off. Charlie just sat there, completely unfazed. Well, fine then. Enjoy eating alone, since nothing ever bothers you anyway.

Tears streaming from my eyes, I was practically running down the street, not bothering to look where I was going. I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did, but I knew I needed space. I needed to be away from her.

Something hard materialised in front of me, and I ploughed right into it at full speed, bouncing off painfully. I staggered backwards, barely able to keep myself from falling over.

“Watch it, you dumb slut,” an aggressive male voice said. I looked up to see a large, pissed off guy standing in front of me.

“S-sorry,” I said, trying to back away from him.

“Save it, you stupid cunt,” he snapped, taking a step towards me.

“Watch your tongue,” I heard Charlie say, a second before I felt her hands on my shoulders. She was behind me?

“Eh? What’s it to you, bitch?”

Charlie stepped in front of me, completely calm. The guy looked about ready to hit her, but he wouldn’t really, would he?

“Like I said, I take issue with your language,” Charlie said, as flat as ever. “And your attitude towards an innocent girl who made a harmless mistake. Or did you not notice that she was crying as she ran? Why didn’t you move out of her way?”

“None of my business if the stupid bitch got her panties in a twist,” he said, still moving aggressively towards Charlie. “Why don’t you drop it before I give both of you something to cry about?”

There was nobody else around. Even if we screamed, nobody would be able to come help us in time.

“Go wag your tiny dick in someone else’s face,” Charlie said. It was almost as if she was trying to make him attack her, but why? So he wouldn’t focus on me? There was no way she was that chivalrous.

Whatever her intent, it seemed to work. His hand lashed out towards her, looking like he was trying to grab her coat, probably a last ditch attempt to intimidate her into subservience. Before his hand touched her, she’d moved towards him, grabbing his wrist and hooking her ankle behind his. Using his momentum, she pulled him forwards, tripping him over and sending him collapsing to the ground. She kept a grip on his wrist, twisting his arm into an uncomfortable pose.

She looked at me, a serious expression on her face.

“Run,” she said. “Run back to where we met, and if we get separated, wait for me there. It’s very important, okay?”

I nodded meekly. As I did, she twisted her body, kicking the man in the groin as hard as she could. She let go of his wrist, and the two of us ran, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to follow us for a little while.

I’m usually pretty fit, but even for me it was a struggle to get all the way back to the school without stopping. Despite her appearance, Charlie actually seemed to be in better shape than I was. She was just as breathless as I was by the time we arrived, though.

“Th-thank you,” I said, struggling to slow my breathing to a somewhat normal rate. I felt like I was going to throw up. Charlie waited until her breathing was normal to say anything.

“Yeah. Well. I can’t stand guys who pick on girls like that. I guess I’m just as bad, though. I made you cry. I’m sorry about that.”

“No, I made myself cry,” I said, slumping against the wall. “I’m just an idiot, that’s all. I know you were just teasing me.”

“Teasing you? You thought I was teasing you?”

“Okay, I don’t know what you were doing,” I admitted. “It seems like you don’t even care, but you keep going and doing stupid, risky things for me.”

“I… don’t care? Huh. Yeah, I guess I can give that impression. The truth is, I’m not very good at expressing myself, no matter what I’m feeling. Not unless I’m being blunt, but that’s usually worse, so it’s easier just to hide what I’m feeling.”

“Be blunt with me, then,” I said, heart pounding in my chest. “Tell me how you really feel about me, because I’m worse at reading people than you are at expressing yourself.”

Charlie looked surprised for a moment, but that disappeared as quickly as any other emotion that appeared on her face. She sat beside me, staring up at the sky.

“I like you,” she said. “Or rather, I’m attracted to you, and intrigued by you. I’d hoped that by spending time together, I’d be able to gauge how you felt about me, but it seems like that isn’t going to work, so I guess I should just ask. Are you interested in me?”

Once again, I didn’t know what to say. Was I interested in her? Of course not! I’m not… not like that. So why was it that I felt so upset when it seemed like she didn’t care about me? Why was it that I’d felt a pang of jealousy when she leaned in close to whisper in that girl’s ear? Why couldn’t I stop picturing her girlfriend’s face, or the two of them together, and why did that thought more than anything feel like it was crushing me?

No, wait. That’s right; she had a girlfriend. I knew she did, I’d heard them together. What did that make me, then? Someone to toy with? Someone to cheat with? Whatever it was, I didn’t want any part of it.

“I… don’t think so,” I said. “Actually, I think it would be better if we didn’t talk anymore. At all.”

Charlie didn’t say anything after that. She sat in silence for a few minutes, then stood up, and walked away. I stayed sitting there for a while longer, wondering why it was that I felt so rotten.

* * *

I arrived at school early on Monday morning, just like usual, and just like usual, there was nobody else around. Nobody’s locker had been sabotaged, and nothing looked out of the ordinary. Everything was back to normal.

“Hey.” I heard Charlie’s voice coming from behind me, and tensed up. Hadn’t I said I didn’t want to talk to her?

I turned around, ready to tell her I wasn’t interested, but it wasn’t Charlie standing behind me. Sadie was glaring at me with her arms folded, her long hair fluttering gently behind her. How had I gotten them mixed up? Just hearing what I wanted to hear, maybe.

“Leave me alone,” I said, irritated.

“What happened with Charlie on Saturday?” she demanded, surprisingly aggressive for such a petite and frail looking girl.

“Nothing,” I told her, walking away. “She’s got nothing to do with me.”

“That’s bullshit,” she snapped, putting a hand on my shoulder and spinning me around to face her. From this close, there was something about here eyes that seemed strangely familiar, but I couldn’t quite figure out what.

“Fine, believe what you want, but take it up with her. You and I have nothing to say to each other.”

I brushed her hand away, but she grabbed it and twisted it around, pinning me in some kind of painful arm lock. What, did she take lessons with Charlie or something?

“That’s not how this works,” she said. “You’re gonna tell me what happened with Charlie, and I’m not leaving you alone until you do.”

Her grip on me actually wasn’t at all painful unless I tried to resist it. Her touch was gentle, almost like she didn’t want to hurt me.

“She told me she liked me, and I told her I wasn’t interested. That’s all. We aren’t even friends.”

“Of course you’re not friends,” Sadie said. “Charlie doesn’t have friends. Ugh, this is why I told her to stay away from you. She always does this.”

She let go of my arm, her hands falling limply by her side. I felt a little bad; she looked genuinely upset.

“Well, like I said, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

“So you’re really not interested in her, then?” she asked, a strange look of disappointment on her face.

“Why does that matter?” I asked, not sure why I didn’t just say ‘no’. Maybe because I was a little interested, even if I didn’t want to admit it.

“Why?” Sadie sighed. “It’s… complicated. Charlie doesn’t really understand gender the way that other people do. It doesn’t mean anything to her. It’s like hair colour, you know? Visible, but ultimately meaningless, and not even static. If she likes someone, she likes them, simple as that.

“The problem is, when it comes to girls, she doesn’t realise that for most of them gender does matter. She doesn’t think about whether a girl is straight or gay, so she just ends up getting herself hurt.”

It definitely had seemed like the idea of me not being interested in another girl had never even occurred to her.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, suddenly unable to look her in the eye. “Even if I was interested in her, it wouldn’t make a difference.”

“Why not? Wait, you don’t already have someone, do you?”

“What? No, of course I don’t. I was talking about you!”

Sadie looked confused, like she hadn’t understood what I’d said. She tilted her head to one side, kind of like a dog or a cat.

“Me? You’re interested in… me?”

“No! I’m talking about you and Charlie. I know you’re… together, and I’m not really interested in playing second fiddle, so…”

Sadie made the sort of face that made it look like she’d just drunk sour milk. She was also looking at me like I was the one who’d fed it to her, but she didn’t understand why.

“Me… and Charlie? That’s what you think?”

“Am I wrong?” I asked, wondering if maybe I had gotten the wrong idea. I’d heard them, though. If they weren’t dating, the only other thing I could think of was…

“Charlie’s my sister, you idiot,” Sadie said, an incredulous expression on her face. “What on earth gave you the impression we were dating?”

“Y-you look nothing alike!” I said, but looking at her now, I could see some resemblances. They had the same eyes, the same hair colour, even their voices sounded similar. “And… I heard her teasing you, in the classroom that time. It sounded like, you know…”

“Wow,” she said, shaking her head. “Wait, so you only turned her down because you thought she was already dating me?”

The question stumped me. I had turned her down because of that assumption, but was that the only reason? If she asked me again, what would I say?

“I… I think so. I mean, I didn’t really think about it beyond that, but…”

“Then you need to fix this,” she said determinedly. “You need to explain to her exactly why you said whatever you said, because she has been miserable all weekend.”

With that, Sadie left, smiling at me as she walked away. As I watched her leave, I could feel the weight on my chest growing lighter, but the moment she was out of view, all of my nerves came rushing back.

How was I supposed to explain to Charlie what I’d thought? After telling her I didn’t even want to talk to her again, too. How she must have taken that….

I felt like the worst person in the world, not to mention the stupidest. I slumped against my locker, dreading the moment when Charlie arrived, but at the same time wishing it would hurry up and come so I could get everything I was feeling out in the open and out of my head.

When she finally did arrive, she didn’t even make eye contact with me. She just walked straight over to her locker, her face expressionless, and shoved her bag inside.

“Hey,” I said, trying to get her attention. She didn’t respond, didn’t even react. Was she ignoring me? Well, I wouldn’t have blamed her, but still…

“Hey, Charlie?” Nothing. It didn’t even look like she was trying to ignore me. It was more like I didn’t even register anymore.

“Charlie, can we talk?”

“No,” she said blankly. She stood up, and began to walk away. Not willing to give up, I got up after her, and tried to follow her.

“Charlie, I’m sorry. About what I said on Saturday, I-“ I tried to grab her shoulder, to stop her from walking away, but she twisted away from me, a deadly look in her faintly wet eyes.

“Don’t waste your breath,” she snapped. “You’ve made your feelings perfectly clear already.”

With that, she stormed off. I wanted to call out to her, to tell her everything, but I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t even know if I was brave enough to say anything, and in the end, all I could do was watch her walk away, and realise just how badly I’d messed up.

* * *

I tried to focus on my homework after school, just like usual, but I couldn’t even read with my eyes watering up every few seconds. After twenty minutes of achieving nothing, I realised all I’d managed to do was write idiot over and over in my notebook. At least it was accurate.

Movement out of the corner of my eye attracted my attention, and I had a flashback to the previous week, when Charlie had stood up for me for the first time. Had it really only been that long? It felt so much longer than that.

I looked up just in time to see Charlie slump into the seat opposite me. I felt my throat close up a little. What was she doing here? What should I say?

“Sadie told me I needed to talk to you,” she said, sounding a little irritated despite her attempt to sound disinterested.

“Did she tell you anything more than that?” I asked, worried I’d frighten her away if I said too much too quickly.

“No.”

“She’s kind of incredible, isn’t she? A hell of a lot more mature than any of the girls our age, that’s for sure.”

“Spare me the comparisons,” Charlie said bitterly, and a thought suddenly occurred to me.

“You’re jealous of her, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not jealous,” she said, biting her lip a little. “It’s more that she makes me painfully aware of my own shortcomings. She’s effortlessly pretty, and she can get along with anyone, and of course everybody likes her more than me.”

“I know how you feel, a little bit,” I said.

“I didn’t think you had siblings,” she said, sounding surprised.

“I don’t. I was talking about Sadie, too.”

Charlie cocked her head, the same way that Sadie had. Was it a genetic thing? Whatever it was, I found it unbearably cute.

“I don’t follow.”

“When I saw her, I couldn’t help but compare myself to her,” I told Charlie. “I thought that she was so much prettier than me, and you seemed to get along with her so well. How was I supposed to compete with that?”

“Compete? Why would you-“

“I thought she was your girlfriend,” I admitted. “I know, I’m an idiot.”

“That… explains a lot,” Charlie said. “I must have come across as very dishonest, then. No wonder you found my behaviour so disconcerting.”

“To be honest, I didn’t really understand my feelings myself. Like I said, I’m not exactly good with people.”

The two of us sat there for a while, just kind of looking at each other without really looking. I had no idea what I should say to her. Well actually there was one thing I wanted to say, but I knew I didn’t have the nerve to do it.

“I’m sorry for what I said,” I told her, opting for an apology. The easy way out. “It must have sounded so horrible.”

“I asked you out, and you thought I already had a girlfriend. I can only imagine what sort of person that made me look like,” she said, easing my guilt.

“Technically, you didn’t ask me out. You only said you were interested in me,” I said, my heart pounding a little.

“I see… would that have made a difference?”

“Not when I thought you had a girlfriend,” I told her, hoping she would pick up on my less than subtle hint.

“I guess it’s for the best, then.”

Was she being deliberately obtuse? Was I being too subtle after all? Or did she just not want to risk getting hurt a second time?

No, I was the one who didn’t want to risk anything. I was being a coward, and she deserved better than that.

“Hey, Charlie… I know this is selfish of me, but…”

“But?”

“Would you, um, would you ask me out again?”

“I can’t do that,” Charlie said, in that monotone voice of hers.

“R-right,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment. “Then maybe, could I-“

“You said again,” Charlie said, interrupting me and rolling her eyes. “Even though there was no first time. Or did you forget that already?”

She didn’t seriously mean… I saw her smirk, and couldn’t help but to smile back at her.

“Jess, would you like to go out on a date with me?”

“Y-yes!” I said, a little too loudly for the library. Charlie laughed.

“Lucky me,” she said playfully.

“You did that on purpose,” I muttered, glaring at her. My face was burning, but I still felt really happy. “You’re horrible.”

“Maybe,” she said, still smirking. “But don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you.”

“Oh my god, you two are going to be so obnoxious, aren’t you?” Sadie complained, stepping out from behind a bookshelf.

“You encouraged this, remember?” Charlie asked, her eyes teasing her sister.

“Me and my big mouth,” Sadie grumbled.

END

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