by Hamen Cheese

Chapter 14: The Choices We Make

Our Basic Law and Governance teacher Mrs. Corpus was getting flustered at the agitated questions being thrown at her. Being the brilliant Harvard law school graduate that she was, you'd think she'd be used to being under pressure and being bombarded with questions. As a lawyer, you'd think she would be used to defending something she didn't really believe in.

Apparently, that did not apply to silly things like school dances or perhaps it was the fact that it was a bunch of teenagers haranguing her.

"No," she said exasperatedly for the nth time. "The school will not reschedule the games nor the dance scheduled on Valentine's Day. I know it's rather unfortunate that there were no other available days but the bands and the events company have been scheduled and down payments have been made. Neither group is free on any other day other than when your midyear exams start. The administrators will simply not sacrifice academics for a dance."

"But Valentine's is a huge deal for us," Mikee, my co-basketball player, said. Given his size, he looked like a whiny little kid while still retaining some of the cuteness of his size. "I'll be dead tired after our games in the afternoon. How are we supposed to have any energy to dance?"

Mrs. Corpus smirked probably because she had heard the argument before. Though I had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn't so much the too tired to dance argument that came to her mind but rather something along the line of too tired to do anything else with your date after the dance. Come on! Seniors plus Valentine's plus after party equals a lot of wild…

"Six," Mrs. Corpus said. "The dance doesn't start until six. In fact, I expect there wouldn't really be any dancing at least until seven or seven-thirty. You have almost three hours to rest after your game."

"But that's barely enough time to get ready!" Margaret Elizabeth C. O'Connor squealed in horror. "My parlor requires three hours preparation. At least!" She was no longer the girlfriend of Clark Kent. He had to move to another city with his parents who worked in a newspaper company. Last I heard, he found a nice, sweet girl who treated him better. I think her name was Lana or Louis. Something like that anyway.

Margaret was currently dating Brian, who was my Assistant Captain in basketball. Brian didn't seem particularly glad to be her boyfriend probably after having seen years of how she treated Clark. I figured he was just in it so that he could say he had a girlfriend while she was in it so that she didn't lose her spot in our table. It was after all still exclusive to basketball varsity players and their girls.

"Well," Mrs. Corpus said. "If the whole ordeal is too stressful for you, perhaps we should just cancel the dance completely."

This was met with a chorus of angry and disgruntled protests.

"Then perhaps," she continued dramatically. "You should just throw away the game against Westfield."

This too was met with a chorus of angry and disgruntled protests. It was even louder because our ongoing rivalry with the other school was so built into our systems that the mere mention of its name would incite a riot.

"Then what choice do you have?" she said as she leaned back into her chair with a satisfied smile, a smile I imagined she developed after successfully swaying a full jury to her client's side.

"I guess," Mikee muttered and that was all it took for everyone else to accept their fates. The school knew that its students wouldn't let a dance get in the way of their competition against Westfield. And since we really didn't have any choice in the matter, we just had to make the best of things and hope we wouldn't be dead tired by the time night came.

"Oh no, oh no," Margaret muttered to herself as she whipped out her mirror and started powdering her cheeks as though preparing for the dance despite the fact that it was weeks away.

"Derek," Mrs. Corpus said after giving a disapproving glance to Margaret.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"As student body president, I expect that you have all the arrangements done by now," her inflection made it sound like a question.

"Of course ma'am," I replied easily because it was true. "The sophomore, junior, and senior committees have their tasks distributed. I monitor their progress through their heads every day after school. The freshies have also been told of their roles in the dance in assisting the other year levels. I've spoken to the school staff regarding the preparation the night before and I have approved passes for all the outside companies coming in to bring their gear. Everything's taken care of." I finished it off with a perfect smile.

She nodded approvingly. "I'm glad to hear that. Well, if there's nothing else..." As if on cue, the bell rang indicating it was time for lunch.

We filed out of the classroom with the rest of the student body. "So, who are you taking to the dance, Charlie?" He didn't reply which made me realize he didn't even follow me. Instead he was still standing by the door of our classroom with a familiar, guilty expression. "Oh, no! Not today. Today is my day. You're having lunch at our table."

"But Derek…" he began pleadingly.

"No!" I said adamantly. "No, not again. Charlie, you hardly even eat lunch with me anymore. You used to eat everyday at our table. Now, it's down to twice a week. And you're even going to miss today!"

"Derek, we see each other in class the whole day," he said saying the familiar argument. The hallway was now only trickling with people as most were on their way to enjoy their lunches. "Not to mention we ride together to school and even hang out afterwards. We even hang out at my work when you don't have practice." He seemed determined to point out every single moment we were together.

"But lunch is a high school ritual Charlie. We don't get to talk in class the same way we can at lunch. And you're giving that up for what? Chess?!"

"They're demanding," Charlie said softly without looking at me. It just about broke my resolve.

I sighed. This whole lunch thing was getting on my nerve. In the back of my head, I knew it shouldn't have but somehow it just did. Charlie had always been a constant in my life, the best bud that always stood at my side. His absence even for the lunch hour felt… disturbing. A part of me was worried for him, as though something would happen to him if I wasn't around.

Charlie had been different the past few weeks. Even during Christmas, he was acting strange – almost distant. It was the first Christmas we hadn't spend every single moment together. He always had something to do that I could not, despite my greatest efforts, wiggle my way to joining. It was like ever since we went out with Rebecca and Travis, he'd suddenly gotten involved in so many other activities that didn't involve me. For instance, he had a chess team or club that kept meeting at lunch. I didn't even know we had a chess team since we never competed with another school in that area. I suppose every school had to have one. He also had to do things outside school for various smaller organizations.

Don't get me wrong. I was glad that he was active in so many things. It's just that sometimes I wish we were active in the same things. It's not like I didn't offer to accompany him, except there always seemed to be something that would get in the way. Sometimes his meetings were scheduled the same time as my practices or when I had to meet the various school committees for the dance. And whenever I was free to join him, he'd say it was a closed meeting (for chess?!) or that he was meeting very shy people who might get intimidated by my presence.

Intimidated by my presence? REALLY? Why the hell would they be intimidated by my presence? I JUST RADIATE FRIENDLY…

I sighed having been down this road one too many times in the past few weeks but knowing I had to be understanding. It was what a good best friend was supposed to do right? "Okay," I said. "Okay, I guess I don't really have a choice. Good luck then." I offered him a smile. He smiled at me but it was almost half-hearted like he was feeling guilty about something.

"Don't worry about it, okay?" I said giving him a gentle pat on the arm. "I'll see you in class."

"Okay," he said a little more lively. "Thanks, Derek. You're the best."

"You remember that," I said half-joking. We looked at each other a few more moments before we each headed our separate ways – him to wherever the chess team met and me to the lunch room.

Something I've come to realize was that it was oddly lonely walking anywhere by myself even to a place as close as the cafeteria. I mean sure, there were plenty of people around me but I had always been going to lunch with Charlie for fourteen years. Whether it was in the carefree kiddy playground or the rigidly structured high school cafeteria, I always walked to and from lunch with Charlie. Now, after over a decade of doing that, I found myself… alone.

I looked around the cafeteria as I entered. There really weren't that many students since there were so few sections throughout the years. You could see clearly where each school started and ended. High school students had their own area while middle school students had another. The two schools "met" during lunch but hardly every interact. Even across the tables you could see different students latch onto their own cliques, cliques that mostly survived through the years.

The middle school basketball team still had their table with the cheerleaders where I once sat in my younger years. Now, I sat at the head of the most prestigious tables in the school. The senior basketball varsity team of the high school division had tables slightly elevated from the rest of the group. Whether on purpose or not, those tables became the exclusive playground of the reigning seniors.

The center seat was always reserved for the captain of the basketball varsity team. To his right was always his girlfriend or the girl he was dating. That had always been the tradition of those elevated chairs. When my time came though, a new tradition was introduced. To my left, always sat my best friend which meant that chair was always reserved for Charlie. Typically, the captain's best friend was usually in the basketball varsity too so it wasn't necessary to save him a seat since he was guaranteed to have his own. However, Charlie broke that trend by being the first non-basketball varsity best friend in the history of Southmore. The whole team pretty much accepted him since they've had years to get used to the set-up.

"Where's Charlie?" Mikee asked. I supposed it was his size or something that gave him some sense of similarity with Charlie but he was perhaps always the most interested among everyone on Charlie's whereabouts. Most would notice my best friend's absence but usually just shrugged it off. Mikee always had to ask though even if sometimes the answer was the same week after week.

"Chess," I said with a sigh as I took my seat.

"On a Tuesday?" he asked casually.

"I know, but you know Charlie. He's into all kinds of things nowadays." I looked at the empty seat to my left. And then I looked to the empty seat in my right. Yep, both empty. I sighed and was surprised when Mikee started talking again. He was telling me a bunch of stuff which somehow just managed to enter one ear and then exit the other. Normally, we didn't talk much other than whatever everyone else was talking about. Yet that day, it was like he was giving me his undivided attention. It was almost like he felt sorry for me being alone. I didn't know if I should have been flattered or sad over that.

Whatever he ended up saying, I didn't really hear it. My mind kinda wandered over to the events that led to the rather odd arrangements of the last few weeks.

Charlie started going to those lunch meetings the week after my date with Rebecca. Before that he always joined me for lunch to take the seat to my left.

The seat to my right was always occupied by whoever was my current girlfriend. The last occupant of that chair was this girl named Jenna. She was pretty but there wasn't really any chemistry there. She was the one I broke up with the week before my birthday (I kinda felt bad about it afterwards because I found out she prepared this big party for me which she cancelled because of our separation… I mean it might have been an awesome party and it never happened!). Since then, that seat has been left unoccupied.

So a few days after my date with Rebecca, Charlie and I got into a heated argument about him joining the chess team and not telling me. I stomped away from him in fury and sat by myself with empty seats on either side. Even friendly Mikee couldn't find the courage to ask me what happened that day. I fumed the rest of the day and didn't bother talking to Charlie at all. We didn't say a word to each other even if he rode home with me. The following day, when I picked him up in my car, he came out but walked past my car and headed for the bus stop.

I drove alongside him asking him to hop in the car but he adamantly ignored me. It wasn't until I almost drove over one of our neighbors gnomes that he finally spoke to me.

"Are you insane?" he asked wide-eyed looking at the quarter of the car that was elevated on the sidewalk. As much as I loved my car, I loved… my friendship with Charlie more.

"Please," I said surprised that my voice cracked. "Just get in the car."

It took about fifteen seconds but finally he relented and entered the vehicle. I removed my car from the gutter but rather than driving to school, I drove to The Spot. Neither of us was in the mood to cry but I knew we needed to talk.

And talk we did. Long story short, we realized how we were being silly about such little things and finally agreed to some compromises. He would join me for lunch for Tuesdays and Thursdays while he would attend lunch meetings on the other days.

I agreed not really wanting to fight with Charlie. Besides, I guess he was kinda right. We did tend to spend a lot of time with each other and maybe, just maybe, I was being a little selfish by demanding so much of his time. But that's what best friends did right?

It was almost worth the lecture I received from my mom and later Mrs. C about skipping school. It was unfair because I got lectures from two mothers while I knew my mom didn't lecture Charlie. I guess they knew that if it was something bad, I was usually the mastermind behind it.

That made for an awkward few days on the table being seated by myself with no one on either side. Charlie had some kind of chess meeting or practice scheduled every Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for lunch. He would join me for Tuesdays and Thursdays which left just one empty seat at the table. No one dared question me about not having a girlfriend. But sometimes it felt like they were whispering about me. I could see them talking in hushed voices and glancing carefully towards my direction. They would quickly look away and pretend to do something else when they would notice me looking. It was like they were discussing some deep dark secret about me.

I had no deep dark secrets so I really didn't know what they were on about.

Rebecca and I hadn't spoken since our first, disastrous date, which was more my fault as I made the effort of avoiding her. The things she said to me unsettled me and thinking about them made me uncomfortable. I tried forgetting about them but it was a like they had permanently fixed themselves at the forefront of my memory as though she was there my head going hey crazy boy, think about how crazy you are.

It came as a surprise then when Rebecca joined me on a random day some time after Charlie's initiation into the chess club. She just suddenly sat on the seat reserved for my girlfriend. Every single conversation in all nearby tables stopped. It was as if everyone just sensed that something important was happening. Margaret Elizabeth C. O'Connor even looked away from her mirror long enough to glare at Rebecca.

Rebecca glared right back with her patented look making Elizabeth shriek in fright before hiding behind her mirror.

"Rebecca," I said softly. When I realized how I must have sounded, I continued in a stronger yet still low volume, "what are you doing here?"

She shrugged like she really had no idea. "Just thought you could use some company."

Every person near us was pretending to be doing something else other than listening but I knew better.

"I thought…" and then lowered my voice to a whisper, "I thought you didn't want to be with me."

She shrugged again and I was worried she would start spouting off how strange, sad, or crazy I was. "I hear Charlie started chess."

"Yeah," I replied as I found my eyes looking down. By the time I looked back at her, her eyes were set on mine and she had a somewhat concerned look on her face. The corner of her lips twitched slightly to the unmistakable start of a soft smile. "Want me to sit here when he's out?"

"Sit? Here?" Those weren't exactly my most eloquent moments in life.

Then she finally smirked, "I figure I can stand your presence for lunch three times a week."

Every cheerleader in our table gasped with the exception of Margaret, who was still glancing worriedly out of the corner of her eyes as though worried the Rebecca would pounce across the tables at her.

Oddly, the first thing I did was chuckle. I could almost hear the restrained breaths from those around us being released. "My, my, you be careful Rebecca Hastings. You hang around me long enough and you might just fall in love with me."

"HA!" Rebecca squealed in a most un-lady like manner. Some girls looked scandalized but her posture made it seem like she could care less what others thought. "I wouldn't be surprised if you end up hating me by the time this year was over."

"I very much doubt that," I said without even thinking about it. She looked surprised and then (I could have sworn) flattered.

So that was our set-up. One seat was always occupied. Charlie would eat lunch with me on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Rebecca would come and eat there on the others days. I wondered what her usual tablemates had to say about it. I sometimes let my eyes wander over to her table when she would join me. Her table was one of those cliques that had survived through the years. It was still called the art frea… err, people's table despite the fact that they weren't really that into art. They had a few additions over the year but the middle school crowd was still there. Jenna Davis of the women's basketball team was still there (and yes, she was still aptly called Butch). So was Andrea Johnson (her freckles became less noticeable over the years). Jared Anderson was also there. He was the floater much like Charlie though he seemed to have developed an emo streak the last year. He had long straight hair that frequently covered one eye and reached almost to his shoulders. And Travis was…

…not there.

That was something odd. Whenever Charlie wasn't around, neither was Travis. Whenever Charlie was eating with me, Travis was eating with Rebecca. I asked Charlie about that one time. I wondered if Travis had also joined the chess team. He said no, looked away, and then quickly changed the topic. I wondered if the two had been fighting or something. It certainly didn't seem like it. Whenever Charlie would see Travis, he would suddenly become shy while Travis would just smirk at him. But then Travis was always smirking so it was hard to know what that meant.

I just knew that if Travis was doing something to Charlie, I'd kick his butt till it turned blue.

So that was our arrangement. One of the two chairs on my sides was always occupied. I didn't really know where I stood with Rebecca. I mean we weren't dating. I never bothered to ask her out again on a date because I wasn't quite sure if it would be safe for the two of us to spend more time together outside lunch. I had enough to think about without her calling me strange or sad. At least she had the courtesy to not call me weird things while others were around us. I figured I'd rein in and let her set the pace. That was what Charlie suggested after all.

But then came that day again when both seats were unoccupied. Mikee was still talking. He was saying something about a television show he watched but I was pretty sure my eyes were glazing over watching him. After awhile, I let them wander over to Rebecca's table. I was hopeful that she would notice Charlie's absence and that despite it being a Tuesday, would head over to my side. I'm sure Mikee would be great to have conversations with if I just bothered to listen to him at all. But in the end, he certainly wasn't Rebecca. I was disappointed to find her not at her table. Neither was Travis for that matter. The other occupants I mentioned were there discussing animatedly, except perhaps for Jared who was looking very sulky with his whole face nearly hidden behind his hair.

I sighed. I guess she was busy doing something. A part of me wanted to blame her for not being there. I figured she would always be there when Charlie wasn't. Her presence was always comforting despite her often strong jibes at me. Her strong personality certainly had something alluring for me there. She could talk about whatever was on her mind without worrying about criticism or being too forthcoming (unless she managed to corner you alone). I wasn't sure if I was in love with her. But I could certainly say I liked her. Conversations with her, at least, were certainly more interesting than whatever Mikee was talking about. Though, I suspected that had more to do with the fact that Rebecca in general was more interesting as a whole.

Mikee was cute and all but unfortunately he had a penis.

It surprised me to realize that weeks before, I might actually have blamed Rebecca for not being around when I was hoping she would be. A part of me was screaming saying that I deserved to get whatever I wanted, a principle I had lived by for a long time. Yet at that moment, it felt like it didn't matter so much. It was like I could just shrug my disappointment away. I figured Rebecca would probably nod approvingly since it was one of the things we often discussed whenever she sat with me.

The chair to my left got pulled back and I smiled turning to Charlie only to be greeted by the ugliest face I had ever seen.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Luke?" I told the newcomer who occupied Charlie's seat. Like before when Rebecca had done it, every conversation around us stopped and all attention shifted to us. Instead of the curiosity they shared towards Rebecca though, I could tell the atmosphere was tenser, more hostile.

"Is that how you greet your best friend?" he asked cheekily as he set down his tray.

"What?" I asked dumbfounded. "You are not my best friend. You are not even a friend."

"Not yet," Luke said almost dully. He looked at me with knowing, devilish eyes. "But I will be."

"Get out of that chair," I said vehemently. Andrew Young stood up from his chair. He still lumbered over everyone like he used to in middle school. He had a calm, almost sleepy look in his face but I knew well enough that he was analyzing the situation. He was probably trying to determine if he should pound Luke into a pancake. My heart went out to the big guy.

"Relax dude," he said with a casual glance towards the giant. "I'm not here to start trouble."

"You already are," Mikee said acidly. I knew several people shared my dislike of Luke. Mikee was probably one of those that hated him the most.

Luke chuckled, "you be careful, Mikee. I know a thing or two about you too."

"Get out of that chair, Luke," I commanded in a deadly whisper.

He looked lazily at me then smiled. "Aren't you curious as to why Charlie, Travis, and Rebecca aren't here?"

"What?" I asked feeling dumbfounded by the sudden shift. It was almost like he had been reading my mind.

"You must be considering their absence as a bit too coincidental don't you?" he said as he uncapped his low fat fruit juice and took a sip. "Perhaps the reason they are not here is because the three of them are together… without you."

"Charlie wouldn't leave me out if the three of them got together."

"Really?" Luke said almost cheerfully. "What if I told you I know exactly where they are at this moment?"

"What rubbish are you on about?" Mikee interrupted. He looked like a little kid throwing a temper tantrum. "Just get your stuff and get out of this table. In case you haven't noticed, you're not welcome here." It was true. Despite the fact that he was a basketball player (second string), he had lost his seat in our table when we moved to high school. At that moment, the eyes of every basketball player were glaring at their least liked teammate.

It seemed to have no affect on ugly though as he just chuckled. "So you must be the one they sent to keep Derek busy?"

For a moment, Mikee's eyes widened and he looked like he was about to get run over by a truck. He quickly shifted his expression to look neutral though as though he was trying to cover up a crime. However, it was there long enough for me to notice. "Mikee?"

He looked at me with a face that was too straight to have been legit. "I have no idea what he's talking about."

I looked at him intently while my mind worked furiously – their synchronized absences, the odd expressions they had when they saw each other, and the seemingly convenient arrangement with Rebecca coming over when Charlie wasn't around. That if anything made me the angriest. I thought she wanted to be my friend. I thought she wanted….

A clattering sound rent through the air of the cafeteria as I abruptly stood up. My chair had skidded backwards and bounced onto the lower level. Luke had a gleeful look in his eyes while Mikee just looked panicked. I knew I was attracting the attention of several of the teachers but at that moment, I didn't care.

I turned my eyes down to Luke who looked like he had just won the lottery. "Show me where they are."

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