“Hey, Valedictorian, you ready to roll?”
I grinned, looking up from the tightly tied laces of my bowling shoes to CharChar’s face. As of a few hours ago, we were classmates. Now we were just friends. We were all crowned with the title “Class of 2017” then kicked off our high school’s campus for good. The teachers were probably relieved that we were gone – most of the kids in my year were a bunch of troublemakers anyway, as our PE teacher had constantly reminded us.
“Sure,” I told her, getting to my feet.
“By the way, Justin, congrats on that.” Lucas, seated in the chair next to me, stretched his lanky arms over his head. “Always knew you’d get it.”
My smile was a little lopsided, but I hoped they weren’t looking to hard. “Thanks, but it’s nothing special.”
Almost unconsciously, I glanced over at Bruce, who maintained his patented mask of bored indifference. He caught me looking and sighed. “Yes. Congratulations. It is such an accomplishment to have proven yourself to be nerdier than the other twenty students in our grade and demonstrated your complete lack of social life. I applaud you.” He slowly clapped his hands together, but the crashing of the bowling pins and the chatter from the other lanes drowned out the sarcastic praise.
A few of the others in our group of former classmates snickered. On the other side of Lucas, Taylor rolled her eyes and examined her perfectly manicured nails. “You’re just jealous cause you slacked off last year and were a few points behind him, Salutatorian.”
Bruce stared at her and shrugged. “…Okay? I don’t really care. I got into UCSB just fine without it. I didn’t have to resort to a community college because of my grades like some people.”
She glared at him while Lynn raised a hand to her mouth, her tiny frame shaking from silent laughter. “He got you there, TayTay.”
The taller girl huffed and stood up. “Whatever. I’m first.” She strutted over to the ball rack and picked up a shiny pink one.
Lynn shook her head. “She’s crazy confident about herself after that near expulsion, huh?”
I looked over at Lucas. During high school, nearly everyone talked crap about everyone else. I tried to stay away from that, but it was a small school and our class was particularly tiny. Word circled fast, especially when people brought up sensitive stuff like this in front close friends of the person, like Lucas – Taylor’s boyfriend.
To my surprise, he didn’t jump to her defense. Lucas just leaned back and smirked, glancing over at Taylor as she threw a perfect gutter ball. “Honestly, she’s a train wreck. Remember her brother? He got expelled from Arcardina Academy freshman year, then got caught with weed in his room last year. Looked like he was dealing.”
“But dear old mommy and daddy moneybags helped him out, didn’t they? Of course they did.” Bruce’s monotone had a cold edge to it.
I tried to ignore him as Taylor walked back over. Bruce glanced over at her. “Nice round,” he commented, looking up at the scoreboard. “That gutter needed to be cleaned out.”
She glared at him and sat back down in her seat, leaning her head on Lucas’s shoulder and choosing not to rise to Bruce’s bait.
I was next in the bowling order, so I just quietly stood up, grabbed a ball from rack, and walked over to the front of the lane.
This night wasn’t going the way I thought it would. It was supposed to be memorable – a final hurrah to the life I’d lived for the last four years in Arcadina Academy. I’d never spent much time with these guys outside of class or group projects, and after the principal handed out all the diplomas and everyone shooed us all out of there, I figured this was probably the last time I’d get to see the group all in one place. We hung out in school, but after the last bell rang, they all went to the local hang out spots around the town, and I had to head straight home to finish my homework and study. My parents had a strict curfew that didn’t allow for much else. I was honestly shocked that they let me go out with everyone tonight – though I didn’t tell them anything about the girls being here.
I glanced over my shoulder at the group. They were talking, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying over the noise around the rest of the bowling alley. Were they talking about me? They weren’t looking at me, but I had no way of knowing I wasn’t the topic of conversation. I didn’t know why I expected it to be any different here than it was during school, but I could stick it out for the night, go out with a bang. When they invited me out after the ceremony, I wanted to hold onto that bit of familiarity for just a little longer.
This was one of those situations that made me glad that I was leaving Arcadina Academy and heading to the University of Chicago. Most of my school’s graduates stayed in Indiana, or went to strict Christian colleges. Bruce was going the farthest, but Chicago felt pretty far for me. I would go there for college, get a degree in chemistry, and go on to become a doctor.
My parents were all for it – new experiences and networking opportunities and everything. I thought it would be a cool place to study, but I’d never really left my town much, let alone moved across state lines all alone. Up to this point, my life had been simple. Same routines, same people – I knew what to expect. It was weird thinking that way of life ended today.
I lined up my shot and was so distracted by my stream of thoughts that the ball almost went the same way as Taylor’s. It managed to clip a few pins on the right side before hitting the back wall. I glanced back at the group, but they weren’t paying any attention to me.
My stomach felt like it had a deep hole inside it. It was really starting to hit me – these people I’d said hi to in the hallways and took for granted, after tonight, we’d say goodbye, go our separate ways, and probably never see each other again. The other students weren’t the type to come back around for class reunions – they wanted to get out of that school as soon as they marched out of the auditorium.
The ball came back up onto the rack, and I lifted it up, sticking my fingers in the holes and walking back to the front of the lane. After the ceremony, everyone had darted out so quick. Jeanie and Rob headed back to her house early to finish some last-minute packing before their trip to France, when Rob told us guys that he was thinking of proposing. Crystal was on a plane back to South Korea with her mother who flew out for the ceremony. From the way my phone was going off, I assumed that Jennifer had gone straight home and started updating her social media.
Darrell… he was a friend that had transferred in the middle of freshman year. I’d tried to stay in contact, sending him an occasional email and such. I hadn’t seen him since then, but during the ceremony, I thought I saw him sitting in the crowd. I looked for him afterwards, but I couldn’t find him.
I was afraid that everyone would seem to disappear after this.
I rolled the ball straight down the middle of the lane and watched as it cut straight through the middle of the bowling pins. They crashed into each other, pin after pin, until only two were still standing – a split, but still better than Taylor.
I walked back to the group and sat down.
CharChar smiled. “Nice job!”
Once again, my grin felt weird on my face. Her smile seemed to fade a little, but she stood up to take her turn. I watched her walk up to the ball rack before turning my attention to the rest of the group. Their conversation had shifted to gossip on some other people in school I didn’t really know – it wasn’t that surprising, I didn’t socialize as much as the rest of them – but I tried to follow, feeling the gap between us growing wider than thought it could.
A few minutes later, I watched that ball roll right through the middle of a split.
“Tough luck,” Lucas observed as I sat down next to him, stealing Taylor’s seat while she grabbing snacks at the counter.
“Eh, I’m just not that good at this.”
CharChar smiled, and it struck me that I could probably count the number of times I’ve seen her not smiling on my fingers. “It’s okay,” she assured me as she stood up to take her turn. “You’re plenty good at other things.”
“Oh, God forbid that Justin should do something he’s not amazingly skilled at.”
Lynn threw Bruce a glare as Taylor walked back. “And you wonder why you don’t have a girlfriend.”
The chorus of “Oh!’s” coincided with a perfect strike from another lane nearby, followed by a chorus of snickering from the rest of us.
Bruce stared at us, shaking his head. “You think you’re funny, don’t you?” he asked in his condescending monotone. “You think you’re so clever?”
I couldn’t help but laugh harder. Moments like this were what I was really going to miss.
Taylor smirked as she took what had been my seat. “You know who was even more hopeless than Bruce? Darrell. Remember that guy?”
Everything seemed to slow down. CharChar rejoined the group just in time to hear Taylor’s comment. “Wait, what’re you guys talking about?” Her smile faltered almost imperceptibly as Bruce got up to take his turn.
“You know – Darrell? He was only here for a couple months back freshman year, but oh my gosh, he was a wreck.”
CharChar didn’t respond, so Lucas chimed in. “Dude, he was on the soccer team. Everyone got that vibe from him. I remember this one time, he actually scored a goal.” He leaned in a little. “At first, everyone was cheering, but when they realized he was the one who did it…” He shook his head. “I’ve never heard it so quiet during a game. Like, no one in the stands was even talking. Dead silence.” He leaned back, smirking.
I wanted to get out of the conversation. I didn’t want to listen. I didn’t want to say anything; I hated confrontation. I glanced over at CharChar. Her lips were pursed, a shadow falling over her normally cheerful features. We were the only two who had spent any real time him. I didn’t know much about him except for his family situation and the reason why he left Arcadina Academy. I vaguely remember the day he stopped coming to classes. I don’t think CharChar was there that day either, but she knew him better than me. It made sense that she found out first…
For all their self-proclaimed knowledge of the student body, they didn’t know what they were talking about, or what happened during freshman year with Darrell. He and his family moved away after the incident, but it was never the same thinking of him – the imaginary image of him downing all those pills when his mom walked into their bathroom, it haunted me, even years later.
Now that Lucas showed that he was on Taylor’s side, she was on a roll. “He tried too hard to get people to like him with his weird voices and stupid military knowledge. He actually asked Mrs. Shermann about combat boots in biology – remember that? He’s ridiculous!” She laughed, the noise grating on my ears. “I thought I saw him in the crowd during graduation too. Why would he come back? It’s not like we were friendly to him or anything. Maybe everything with his dad just hit him too hard.”
Lynn went up to take her turn as Bruce rejoined us, but I was barely paying any attention to the game anymore. My brain felt like those pins I could hear crashing in all the other lanes all over the bowling alley – collision and pain.
Then Taylor turned to CharChar. “Hey, Charlene,” she started, addressing the girl by her full name, “You hung out with him a lot. Got any dirt?”
CharChar drew her eyebrows together worriedly, but Bruce spoke up first. “Who are we talking about?”
Taylor turned to him. “Remember Darrell?”
Bruce nodded. “Oh yeah, that loser.”
I had heard Bruce say those same words before in that same apathetic tone, but this time, something was different. Maybe it was the change in location or the finality of the night, but I was done with this stupid pettiness.
“Will you just shut up?”
All eyes turned to me. For once in his life, Bruce didn’t seem to know what to say.
Taylor did it for him. She raised her eyebrows, eyes wide. “What the hell has gotten into you?” she asked.
Now that I started, the words just kept flowing out. “What is wrong with you guys? Are you hearing yourselves? What the hell did he ever do to you guys – try to hang out? Be friendly?”
Lucas held up his hands. “Dude, just chill, all right?”
“How can you say that?” I could feel other sets of eyes settling on me from other parts of the bowling alley. “You can dish out this shit but can’t take it?”
I could barely hear Lynn’s hushed voice. “Oh my gosh – did Justin actually swear?”
“Do you know he left our school? Cause everyone pulled these kind of stunts him-“
“Justin, stop.” CharChar’s soft-spoken voice had a hard edge to it.
“He tried to-“
I immediately stopped and turned to stare at her. CharChar never yelled like that. She never yelled at all.
“Hey, CharChar…” Lynn paused when she saw the glittering wet spots in the corners of her friend’s eyes.
“I’m going to the bathroom.” With that, she brushed past us and hurried to the other side of the alley. I watched as she walked away, rubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand.
From the little experience I had with breakdowns like these, I had seen the girls flock to the bathroom together, consoling the crying one. This time, no one moved to follow her, and I watched as their attention drifted back to the game as Lucas stepped up to the ball rack.
It felt as if nothing had happened.
“Uh… I’m going to go check on her.”
They didn’t respond, so I just turned and slowly walked in the direction I had seen her go. I could feel their stares on my back as I hurried after her. I didn’t what to think about what they were probably saying about me and her. I didn’t want to know.
The bathrooms were easy enough to find. For a moment, I stood outside, and before I could raise my hand to knock, the door opened. CharChar flinched back in surprise before I saw the recognition in her eyes.
Before she could say anything, I started to ramble off an apology. “Listen, I’m really-“
“It’s okay,” she cut me off. I noticed her eyes were still a little red.
I hesitated. “Are you sure?”
“It’s fine.” She glanced over at the rest of our group still preoccupied at the bowling lane. “I think I’m to go home now,” she announced slowly. “You need a ride?”
“Well, yeah.” You drove everyone here after all. “Should I go tell them?”
She shook her head. “No. Let them Uber over to Lucas’ – or whoever’s house they got all the beer at.” She sighed. “They’ll figure it out eventually.”
I raised my eyebrows, but didn’t object. I didn’t want to have to sit with them in the van after everything that had just happened. “I’ll be right back then.”
“Hey, wait –“
I glanced back at her, already turning. “Yeah?”
CharChar looked at me, and her lip curved to the side in a half smile. “Thanks for sticking up for him. He’s doing better now, you know; he’s leaving for Boot Camp soon.”
“You’ve talked to him recently?”
“Yeah.” She glanced away from me. “His mom remarried my uncle, so we see each other a lot.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. His dad left them during elementary school, and I was glad that they both got better.
“I’ll meet you at the car, okay?”
Her words snapped me out of it. “See you there.” I nodded to her, turned again, and quickly walked back to the group to grab the shoes.
It felt weird to leave them like this, probably for the last time. I wanted my final moments to be like something out of a movie. I pictured receiving my diploma, head of the class, and heading off into the night with this group, a first and a last for me, waiting for some sort of sign that would wrap up this time in my life.
I wasn’t as screen worthy as I thought, but I realized that I could finally speak up. I didn’t have to go along with the back talk anymore.
The group continued doing what they were doing. Taylor was bowling at the front of the lane, and the rest had started talking about something else. I wasn’t listening.
Lynn glanced up at me, furrowing her eyebrows, a look of concern on her face.
I just gave her a small smile and nodded. I paused for a second, then walked away from them toward the counter, the sound of crashing pins and laughter echoing from behind.