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PG-13, at worst
People weren’t just characters on a TV show.
He took to the concrete stairs as if they were the first steps toward a death sentence. Kids crowded around him, knocking him about like a pinball. Different faces. New faces. The same faces. Oliver hunched his shoulders and raised the volume on his Walkman. The adolescent din subsided. It wouldn’t stay gone.
The bitch about being a foster kid, though he’d never admit it out loud, was the constant feeling of separation. The sometimes mind-numbing solitude, even when you were caught in the crowd. Filing into this new school, this damnedable new school, Oliver tried desperately to remember a time when he last connected with another human. Foster families shuffled in and out of your life so fast they were like businessmen streaming through revolving doors; their faces hardly indelible, their impressions shallow and fleeting. Brothers and sisters who either tried to be his friend or sought to be his enemy, mothers and fathers who either coddled or treated with indifference. At all events, nothing stuck, nothing stayed. It got so that you couldn’t even be nervous about meeting new families or going to new schools anymore. It was all so ... so desolate that your only reaction could be a kind of weary determination. Keep your head down, make your grades, don’t cause trouble. Soon enough, you’ll be out of this shit.
For now, though, he was in the thick of it. Deep in.
The pale, somehow ghastly fluorescents beat down on him as he found his way to the front office. His hand found the Off button and he cut the sounds of Meat Loaf with a flick of his finger. “Okay,” he muttered. “Here I go again.”
When the kid stepped through the door with his long hair and glasses, Dennis smiled along with the rest of them, a slew of jokes rising in his mind. That’s what they all expected, wasn’t it? All part of the welcome package whenever a new kid – or a new teacher – joined their nerdy little group. Eric puts everyone down for being a nerd, Arvid opens his mouth and demonstrates why, Janice overreaches in her irritating grade-school way, and Dennis? Dennis rises and stalks around, yapping his flap as sarcastically as possible. Mr. Moore endured it, every time ... but didn’t it get stale after awhile? Everyone wearing their personality on their sleeve?
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet Oliver Roberts,” Mr. Moore said. Dr. Samuels, standing behind him, was eyeing the kid’s shoulder-length hair with disdain. Dennis hid a smile, and raised his hand in greeting.
“Welcome to Nerd Central,” Eric intoned. Right on schedule.
“Eric,” Dr. Samuels chastised. Also right on schedule.
Mr. Moore just smiled. “Don’t mind Eric, Oliver,” he said comfortingly, showing the new kid to his seat beside Alan.
“Yeah,” Arvid said, standing up and pointing into the air. Dennis grinned sadly. Now Arvid was going to make a point. He knew all his old buddy’s tricks. “We’re not nerds. We’re just...”
“Perceptive,” offered Simone shyly from the back of the class.
“Smart,” Jawarhalal added.
“And dateless,” Eric grumbled from his desk at the front.
“All true,” Arvid said, chuckling. “I guess we are nerds.” Everyone laughed. Everyone but Dennis, though he put on a game face. It just didn’t seem funny anymore. Every day it seemed more and more that each of them in this class were fulfilling roles. The role of the Uptight Conservative will be played by Alan. The sexy black genius will be played by Darlene. The neurotic wild child will be played by Maria. And on and on until you got to the chubby comedian, whose role was aptly filled by Dennis Blunden.
But that can’t be all, can it? Roles? That can’t be all of it. It’s like we’re stuck on some dumb TV show where the writers say, “Okay, this little caricature is all you are. Don’t stray from it too much, or you’ll be written off.” The problem was, people strayed. People moved. People weren’t just characters on a TV show.
He glanced over at Arvid, his best friend, laughing away in that ridiculous way of his. The sad smile touched his lips again and he turned back to his computer. Over the past few months, he’d felt ... distanced from Arvid. That role thing. Arvid seemed content to remain there. Dennis was beginning to have doubts. There was something changing in him, something he couldn’t quite place his finger on. Something that kept the jokes in more, even though he laughed along with the crowd.
“...don’t look at me,” Janice was saying to the new kid. “Dennis is the biggest nerd here.”
“Pound for pound,” Eric intoned. Dennis cast a sarcastic chuckle his way. It was everything he could do to rise up out of his chair and beat the living shit out of that obnoxious twit.
“He goes to Star Trek conventions,” Janice stated with glee. Oliver, the new kid, turned around in his seat.
“I like Star Trek,” he said. Something inside Dennis flipped over, making him feel oddly weak and shivery inside. It was weird, but not entirely unpleasant.
“Cool,” Dennis said, and offered his first real smile of the day.
“Cool,” Oliver agreed, and smiled back.
“Hey Arvid!” Dennis smiled as his friend approached. “They’re showing a revival of House of Wax down at the 8th Street Playhouse tonight. Wanna go?”
Arvid’s expression changed at once from that far-off glazed look to one of Weltschmertz: suddenly, every woe of the world was resting heavily on Arvid’s shoulders. His hand went to his glasses and started fidgeting. At this point, he didn’t even have to speak. Dennis had known Arvid since kindergarten, and you didn’t have to be a genius to see that he was going to say no.
“Oh, Dennis, I would,” Arvid began ... but Dennis detected a false note in Arvid’s voice. That distance he’d been feeling ever since returning back from Christmas vacation; had Arvid felt it, too? “But I promised Laurie Applebaum I’d help her with her physics homework tonight.”
“Why do you always say her full name?” Dennis asked suddenly, unaware that the words were going to be coming out of his mouth.
“Why do you always say her full name? Always Laurie Applebaum. Never just Laurie.”
“Oh,” Arvid said, looking lost. “I don’t know. I guess I like the sound of her name, I guess.”
She’s never going to give it up for you, Arvid, so why don’t you just stop while you’re behind? This is torture for you. Why can’t you just wake up and see that?
What he said instead was this: “Nice name for a nice girl, huh?”
“The best,” Arvid agreed at once, seeming comfortable again. “Sorry about the movie, old buddy.”
“No worries,” Dennis said, putting on a jovial smile. “I’ll find someone to go with.”
But that was the thing: this wasn’t about the movie. This wasn’t even really about Arvid. This was about him, and he knew it. Something about him felt different lately, and he didn’t know why. He watched Arvid saunter down the hallway, lost in a cloud of desire that no one could dream of penetrating it. Maybe Laurie Applebaum was why Arvid had been distant lately ... but that didn’t explain Dennis. All he wanted was to be left alone; all he wanted was to make a connection with someone. Both these things simultaneously, and the hell of it was, he felt each as strong as the other, each as right at the other. All of which had the consequence of Dennis feeling miserable.
“Hey man.” The strange voice startled him. Dennis looked up from his own cloud – this one more of useless introspection than Arvid’s geek love – and saw the new kid standing there. Oliver Roberts, the new kid with the glasses and the long hair and the common interest in Star Trek.
“Hi ... uh, Oliver.” That thing inside him, the one that had surged during Mr. Moore’s class earlier that day, flipped over again. All at once, that weak shivery feeling came over him again ... and he found he didn’t quite hate it. When he opened his mouth, he had no idea what would come out. “Hey, you like old movies?”
Oliver hesitated, then nodded.
“Feel like going to see House of Wax tonight? It’s playing at the 8th Street around seven.”
Oliver hesitated again, longer this time. Then, just as Dennis was about to call the whole thing off, a hint of a smile touched the corners of Oliver’s mouth. “You sure?”
“Course I’m sure,” Dennis said, a little too loudly. “I asked, didn’t I?”
“Well, okay, then. See you there.”
Dennis smiled again, and Oliver matched it. They stood like that for a long, long moment before Oliver hurried away to class. Dennis stayed a second longer, wondering how it had been so easy to talk to this guy, this new knew kid he barely knew. How inviting him had seemed so ... well, natural, as if he’d known Oliver Roberts for years.
There’s that full name thing, Dennis thought sarcastically. Why the full name? “Oliver Roberts,” he whispered aloud, then did it again: “Oliver Roberts.”
I guess I just like the sound of it.