Chapter 16: What If...
The girls were getting restless as the early morning practice wrapped up. Melanie even shot me a dirty look for continuing to hold them back from grabbing a latte before first period. "Alright, alright!" I shouted, drawing everyone's attention back to the front. "Couple of changes for the pep rally this afternoon and then you can all go..." A collective sigh of relief went up around the squad. "Mel, you'll be subbing in for Candi, since she's out with mono."
"But she's back row!" Melanie protested, throwing her arms across her chest. Typically seniors were put out in the front while the lower classes filled in the back but between Candi's mono and an injury to another junior, I had a gaping hole in the back.
"Yes and we need one more in the back than we do in front, so you'll be filling the spot," I said sternly. For a few seconds, we stared at each other, each willing the other to back down. Eventually, Melanie looked away, grumbling under her breath about fairness. "Great!" I said with a broad smile. "And we'll be doing the Geronimo routine last this time. It riles up the crowd so I think it would be a great one to end on."
"Like it matters, the team will lose anyway," Trina said, rolling her eyes. Other girls mumbled in agreement but looked at their feet in order to avoid the glare I turned her direction.
"While that may be, our job as cheerleaders is to rally support for our teams. So put a little pep into it girls! And if I hear any more comments from any of you like that, you'll be off the squad for the rest of the season – including State!" A fearful hush fell after my announcement. The two smallest girls, both sophomores, seemed to shrink even smaller. The senior girls did not want to lose their final chance at a state championship and shut up quickly. Only the juniors, who were months away from their senior year, were brazen enough to look me in the eye. But even they backed down and nodded mutely. "I'll see you all this afternoon then. Ciao!"
The squad shuffled out of the gym, looking nothing like the graceful, talented squad I'd assembled at the beginning of the year. I knew they'd bring their A-game when the time came though so I pushed their lackluster attitudes from my mind.
Chrissy, who had wanted to be on the squad as long as I'd known her, was waiting outside the doors with a latte in hand. "Hey G!" she chirped, holding out the beverage.
"Chrissy," I took the drink and savored the scent for a moment before indulging myself. The five a.m practice was already taking it's toll on me and the caffeine would be a welcome boost before school actually started. "Thanks," I said, after realizing she was still standing next to me.
"So, I heard Candi was sick...." she prompted. "Ya know...with mono?"
"Yes I'm aware of what she has," I said, trying not to roll my eyes at the not so subtle hint. 'And it's not mono,' I thought to myself. Truthfully, Candi had morning sickness and no longer fit in her uniform but we'd all agreed to stick to the mono story so she could finish her junior year in baggy shirts and relative peace.
"So, as an alternate...do you need me to fill in...for her?" Chrissy asked, her eyes hopeful.
"You're only second alternate Chrissy, you know that," I said, trying to be kind while crushing her dreams. "Besides, there isn't enough time for today's rally or the game – even for Angela."
"But Angela is a sophomore. I know she's first alternate but I just thought...maybe...I'm a senior is all," Chrissy looked at me as if I'd just killed her puppy and I fought hard not to crumble. Despite the tough act, I was a real sucker for the pitiful act. It was the only reason Chrissy was even an alternate!
"I'm sorry Chrissy," I said, focusing on my latte. "Thanks for this, but I should probably go."
I practically ran from her, taking the steps into the main building two at a time. I tossed the remnants of the caffeinated bribery in the trash on my way to my locker.
I was still fighting with the lock and cursing it when I felt a pair of strong arms wrap around my waist. "Hey babe," he whispered, before laying sweet kisses on my neck. "Where were you this morning?"
I twisted around in his arms, returning the morning greeting with a long kiss. "Good morning," I said, as the lip lock finally broke. "Morning practice." Though he was reluctant to release me, I wiggled out of Todd's grip to return to the task of my locker. "I can never get this thing open..."
"Here, let me," Todd said, puffing his chest out like a cartoon hero. I stepped aside with a giggle and watched as he first tried the lock and then resorted to kicking the locker. Neither worked and his efforts were cut short by the warning bell. "Sorry babe, gotta go!" He was off like a shot and the crowd of students split like the Red Sea for the captain of the football team (and every other sports team pretty much).
I gave the locker another long look and then sighed before heading off to class. The same students split for me, as usual, so it was short trip to my first period class but I didn't look forward to struggling all period without my text book, or explaining to Mr. Callahan why I didn't have it.
Todd reached across my arm, snagging a french fry from tray. When I turned to protest the theft, he grinned and then repaid my 'generosity' with a kiss. "Sorry babe...the game and all..."
I rolled my eyes but smiled and pushed the plate towards him. "Enjoy, I was done anyway," I lied.
The table, which consisted mostly of cheerleaders, grew silent all at once as she approached and then stopped beside me. "Hey Ginny..." Veronica gnawed on her lower lip as she always did when she was nervous. Across from me I saw Mel roll her eyes but she, wisely, kept her mouth shut.
"Hey Ronnie!" Todd said, grinning broadly as he picked on her once more. I kicked him under the table but he didn't even flinch.
"Hey Veronica," I said, mustering up a smile for her benefit.
Veronica grimaced as the childhood nicknamed surfaced but said nothing about it. She focused her whole attention on me, trying to ignore the rest of the table. "So, my parents are taking me out for my birthday... and I- they wanted to know if you'd...ya know...if you wanna come. Like when..." she trailed off and hazarded a glance at the others. All of them were staring at her as if she'd grown three heads or blatantly mocking her.
"I wish I could Ver," I said, shooting a glare down my side of the table before turning back to her. "But between the rally and the game, I just can't ya know? Happy birthday though!"
"Right, yeah of course. I understand...." she looked at her hands now, fidgeting with a familiar looking ring. "I just thought....I mean it was just an idea...a stupid idea obviously..." Before anyone could say anything more, she darted away.
As soon as the double doors closed behind her, the entire table burst into laughter and the mockery and cheap imitations began. "I can't believe you're still friends with her," Todd said in the midst of the laughter. To my dismay, he was quick to join in their antics.
I snatched my tray from in front of him and dumped it in the nearby trash before grabbing my backpack. "I'll see you all later," I said, though I couldn't be sure any of them heard me.
"Gin! Wait!" Todd called out for me. I didn't turn back and he didn't come after me.
Veronica had already disappeared by the time I got out of the cafeteria. Still, years of friendship gave me some insider knowledge which led me to the nearest girl's bathroom. At first glance, the place appeared deserted but the sniffling and cough from the last stall gave her away. "Ver?"
"Just go away."
"Ver, come on out of there..." I said, knocking lightly on the door. "Or I'll come in," I added with a chuckle.
"We're not ten anymore Ginny!" she snapped back. I shrank back against the sink, rethinking my tactics. She came out a moment later and shot me a pathetic glare.
"I really can't go out tonight Ver...you know that. If you go tomorrow night though...I'm totally there!"
"Yeah right, and miss out on a Saturday night with Todd? I find that unlikely," Veronica scoffed.
Ouch! I grimaced at the truth behind her words though. I wouldn't give up a date night for dinner with MY parents, let alone hers. "Really Ver, I'm all yours...tomorrow night," I said, though it pained me.
"I don't want your pity friendship Ginny....just forget about it," she retrieved her backpack from the door peg and left before I could muster up a response.
By sixth period, I was still fretting over Veronica to the point of chewing on my nails. If it weren't for the taste of delicately applied nail polish, I probably would have chewed them all to bits.
"I need to go give a presentation...you'll be okay here Ginny?" The nurse had to waved her hand in front of my face to get my attention. "Ginny?"
"Oh yeah, I'll be fine," I said with a fake smile. I'd taken on the office aide elective to fill a single empty spot in my schedule and actually really looked forward to it. Most days I was able to finish all my homework during the period, leaving me free in the evenings to spend time with Todd or friends.
"Alright, well just call me if you need me," she said, waving as she ducked out of the office. Her cell phone number had been taped to the main phone all year but I'd never needed to use it.
Twenty minutes and ten calculus problems later, the bell above the door jingled to life as someone stepped inside. I glanced up from the book and grimaced. "Oh! What happened to you?" His hand was caked with dry blood and a large bruise had already blossomed around his eye. "Erik?"
The resident bad boy and thug grunted in acknowledgment before sinking into the chair across from the desk. "Can I get an ice pack?" he mumbled.
I hopped to my feet and filled a ziploc bag with some ice from the small freezer. I wrapped it in a paper towel and held it out to him. He removed his hand from his eye to take it, revealing a deep gash on his face, probably the source of the blood. "Oh that looks nasty..."
"Thanks for the critique," he muttered. He winced as he pressed the ice to his eye. After it was situated, he turned his full attention on me. After looking me over, he smirked. "This is a surprise...the head cheerleader working a nurse wannabe..."
I rolled my eyes at him. "Do you have a pass?" I asked saucily.
He rolled slightly to one side, exposing his back pocket. A blue hall pass was sticking out of the pocket and he smirked at me.
"You have hands don't you?" I asked, folding my arms across my chest.
"Spoil sport," he said. I admit, I took some pleasure in watching him wince as he adjusted himself to retrieve the pass himself. He'd been a jerk and a bully since fourth grade and had stolen my lunch money on more than one occasion.
I took the pass from him and started filling out the log with his information while he nursed his black eye. "So, what happened?"
"What do you care?"
"Can't say I do," I said with a shrug. "Just want to know who took you down so I can tell everyone."
"No one took me down," Erik growled, sinking lower in his chair. He turned away from me and readjusted the ice pack, wincing again.
"Whatever you say." I started to sit back down but popped back up when I saw the small trickle of blood escape from the under the pack. Without a word, I grabbed a handful of things and then sat down beside him. "Move the pack." Erik ignored me and pressed the ice pack down harder. "Oh move the damn ice pack, you're bleeding!" I attempted to grab it from him but he pulled away quickly. Finally, after several tries, I managed to pull it from his grasp.
"Some nurse," he muttered but he didn't make a move to retrieve it from me.
I ignored the jab and went about prepping a swab with alcohol. "Now sit still..." I warned before dabbing it on his cheek. He hissed and yanked away from me so I grabbed his arm with my free hand. "I said sit still you big baby!" After a minute of cleaning the wound, I tossed the swab out and picked up the pack of steri-strips. "You're lucky the nurse is out. She doesn't use these for most people – especially idiots who get into fights."
"How do you know it was a fight?" he challenged.
"Seriously? Erik, we've gone to school together for almost ten years. Honestly, I'm surprised you aren't in here more often. Who was it this time?" Though his face tensed while I applied the strips, he didn't let his pain show.
"Some nerd," Erik said with a casual shrug.
"'Some nerd' beat you up? Is that really what you want people to think?" I asked dubiously.
"The nerd didn't beat me up! His goons did..."
"We have a nerd with goons?" I asked, trying to make sense of his disjointed testimony. "Does the nerd have a name?"
"Tim," he said, looking at my face for the first time since he'd walked in. He seemed to be searching for a reaction but when he didn't get what he wanted, he looked away and trained his eyes on some spot across the room.
"Tim? Ya know, I think being student body president exempts one from nerd status." Having finished bandaging his face, I started cleaning up the trash and then retrieved the ice pack for him. "Oh and those are Mei-Ling's 'goons'. But I think you know that." After throwing the trash out, I returned to the desk and bent over to modify the log entry. "Why would you mess with anyone dating Mei-Ling anyway? That's just asking for trouble..."
I wasn't watching him while I spoke, so when I shut the binder and looked up I was startled to find him gone. "Erik?" I spun around to take in the whole, very small, office and nearly shrieked to come face to face with him. "What the hell!?"
"Thanks...for the treatment," he said, pointing to his face.
I tried to back up to move away from him but he had me pinned between him and the desk. "Right, no problem..." Inside, my stomach was twisting in uncomfortable knots as he made no sign of moving away. "Anything else I can do...?"
He cut my words off as he closed the small gap and pulled me into a kiss that, I'm ashamed to admit, was not entirely unwelcome. It was so brief, I didn't have time to protest or get the luxury of pushing him off of me. When he pulled away, he was laughing. "I was wrong...you're a great nurse."
"Damn it Erik! What was that about?!" I swiped at my lips, trying to erase the last few moments. "I have a boyfriend! And aren't you dating that new girl?!"
"Nah, Nai'a and I are just friends....with benefits," he looked smug as he said it. Or maybe he was smug about the kiss and my discomfort. Either way I wanted to punch him myself. "Besides – figured you should have a taste of something new – you've been dating that loser for years after all."
I sputtered, trying to come up with just the right words and failing to say much more than "Ugh." Erik laughed his way out of the nurse's office, leaving me to stew over his assault and my forgotten calculus homework for twenty more minutes of the period.
As the period ended and the pep rally loomed in front of me, I tried to regain my center but the curse of the sticky locker just made me more angry. I was thrashing at the damn lock when he strolled up, his arm draped around Nai'a's shoulders. "Need some help cheerleader?" he asked, smirking.
I started to protest but he pushed his way between me and my locker and rammed it with his hip. As he stepped aside, the door swung open with ease. I looked from him to the locker in amazement. He just shrugged and returned to Nai'a, who looked annoyed that he was helping me at all.
"What was that about?" Todd asked, watching their retreating forms with irritation etched across his face. "Was he bothering you?"
"Huh? No!" I said quickly. 'Well he was earlier,' I thought. I quickly stowed what I needed and grabbed my pom poms from the top shelf. With a broad smile, I turned to my boyfriend. "Ready?"
I threw open the front door and dropped my bag on the ground in frustration. The pep rally had gone okay but the game was a complete disaster and this time I couldn't blame the mediocre basketball team. "Mooooom" I whined, stomping through the house.
"Oh hun!" My mom could read me like a book and put away her book as soon as she saw me. "Bad day?" Dad was not quite as adept and required a bit of nudging on Mom's part before he disappeared into his office.
"Yes, horrible," I moaned and sank onto the couch in dismay. She supported me back to the kitchen where I spilled the entire day to her – including the unwanted kiss – over some ice cream.
"Is this the same Erik who has been horrible to you since you were kids?"
"Well he's horrible to everyone really. He's just a loser," I said.
"Well he is! I mean he was nice once....like ten years ago but now he's just so angry." Mom didn't say anything after that but it was clear she was still disappointed with what I'd said.
Todd's rapping on the kitchen window terminated our mother-daughter ice cream time though and I was spared anymore uncomfortable sighs on her part.
My eyes flew open and I bolted upright. The kitchen had morphed into my bedroom and my mom, so clear a moment ago, was already fading from my mind.
A dream...it had been all been a dream.
Tap-tap-tap! "Ginny!" Todd was perched on the branch of the tree outside my window, desperately trying to get my attention. He pointed to lock until I slid off the bed and swung open the latch for him. "What's that about? Locking me out?"
I didn't respond, as I was still trying to grasp the final strands of the fleeting dream.
"Ginny? Hey Ginny...you okay?" Todd asked with concern in his voice.
"Um..." I rubbed my head and frowned. "Yeah, just...strange dream." Sitting on the edge of the bed, I tried to make sense of the day that had unfolded in my mind. But it was more than a day, I had a whole lifetime of memories! A different lifetime with different memories. "Todd, do you have any regrets?"
"Well yeah sure, I suppose," Todd said. "I mean there was the whole drinking and driving thing – that was pretty stupid."
"Yeah, yeah it was....what do you think your life would be like if you'd made a different choice? Or lots of different choices?"
"Heck if I know Ginny!" he said with a laugh. "Lots could be different...or tons could be the same really."
I nodded, "yeah I suppose so...."
It had all seemed so real.