The LORD arises to contend,
And stands to judge the people.
“Yes, right in front of everybody.” Drawing herself up, Kim patted her hair – still smooth – and shook her shoulders to straighten her pull-over. “Just watch me.”
They did, gazing in awe and disbelief as Kim strode over to the jocks’ table. Serena half-stood as if to stop Kim, but sat back down as Kim strode purposefully across the cafeteria.
Austin sat at the head of a long table, holding court like a king over the lesser football, basketball, and soccer players. Most of the boys wore their purple-and-white letterman jackets, proudly displaying their athletic prowess and not so subtly competing with one another for badges. As she drew near, Kim could make out Austin’s loud, deep voice saying, “…and next season I expect to be playing for Harvard or Yale. Of course that’s just a stepping stone to the NFL…”
Eventually Austin noticed that his audience had lost interest in his boasting as Kim approached. She felt their adolescent eyes undressing her, stripping away her tight black T-shirt with its pink sequined angel wing logo across the breasts, felt them mentally removing the little button-down pullover she’d paired it with. The athletes assessed the sway of her hips in their sheath-like jeans, the tick of her steps as the heels of her calf-high leather boots hit the floor. She dressed the part of the Queen cheerleader, and today had chosen an even more stunning ensemble than usual, following an adage her mother had told her: “When you feel the worst, dress your best so nobody will know.” Mother lived by that advice and it worked: Nobody outside the family knew Mother’s alcohol problem or the depth of her despondency.
“Hey, sweetie pie,” Austin said, reaching out a proprietary hand in her direction. “What’s up? You don’t usually come over at lunch.” As she drew near, he slipped his hand around her narrow waist, glancing aggressively around the table as if to say, “Back off. She’s mine.”
Emotionlessly, Kim stepped back out of his reach. “I’m dumping you. We’re done. That’s all.” For a moment, a deeply satisfying look of complete disapproval and shock spread across Austin’s beefy face. Then the look darkened, his face suffusing with a deep, furious flush that spread up his neck to his hairline like a red tide.
“WHAT?!” Now she’d done it. Kim had humiliated Austin in front of all his friends – in front of the entire school, for Austin’s bellow had drawn all 546 pairs of student eyes to their little drama – and he was angry. “What the fuck?! You don’t dump me! I’m the one in charge in this relationship, and I say we’re still together!”
Continue reading.“No, you aren’t, and no, we aren’t,” Kim replied calmly. This was nothing compared to calling 911 last night. No lives at stake. She half turned to walk back to her table. “I’m sick of you. We’re through. Find some other girl to feel up and slobber all over and bore to death with talk about sports. I won’t be her anymore.”
“You BITCH!” Austin surged to his feet so fast his chair tipped over. He took a menacing step towards her, hand lifted high as if to strike her. Now his face was white, bloodless with fury. “How dare you humiliate me like this?” he hissed, venom in every word. “I hate you! I’m going to make sure nobody ever talks to you again!” He reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her violently. “I’ll make you pay for this, you whore! I don’t want you anyway. Get away from me.” With a sharp shove, Austin pushed her away into a table of goggling freshmen. “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!” He bellowed at them, righting his chair and sitting heavily, dismissing Kim entirely. The freshmen squeaked and hunched over their lunches, not looking at Kim as she picked herself up off the floor.
Immediately, the entire cafeteria erupted in a babble of adolescent voices, assessing the damage and evaluating the implications of the breakup. It would cause a ripple effect through the entire school, shaking up dating relationships for weeks as students jockeyed for better a better catches now that the King of the school was single again.
In her peripheral vision, Kim saw teachers converging on them. She just wanted to get away, but this kind of ruckus would require some explanation. Well, what had she done wrong? Austin was a lump, dumber than a rock, and she had every right to dump him.
“Miss Benson?” an adult baritone called as she wove her way through the tables back to her table of girls. She paused and looked over. It was Mr. Jones, the assistant principal, in his usual faded tweed jacket with its patched sleeves, his wrinkled polyester pants, and his bad comb over. “Could I have a word with you for a moment, please?”
“Sure,” Kim said. “Can I grab my bag?”
“This will only take a minute, I’m sure.” He motioned her towards the hallway, where the lunch room monitor, Mrs. Snacks (the students couldn’t get over her name), waited with Austin glowering next to her. When Kim and her escort reached the hallway, Mr. Jones nodded and Mrs. Snacks discreetly whisked herself away to restore calm to the cafeteria, which buzzed with even more excited chatter than usual.
“Now, you two,” Mr. Jones said, looking from Austin’s stony, furious face to Kim’s calm, impassive gaze, “You’ve stirred up the entire school. What’s all this about?”
Nearly incoherent with fury and humiliation, Austin sputtered, “This – this bitch –”
“Now, now,” Mr. Jones interrupted, “No swearing or calling names.”
Austin’s lips clamped shut and it was all Kim could do to keep from smirking. Mr. Jones had just effectively silenced her ex-boyfriend with that one stricture, since probably all Austin could think of right now was swear words and filthy names.
Turning to Kim, Mr. Jones asked, “Why don’t you tell me what you did to get this all started?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Kim replied, maintaining her cool demeanor. Staying calm could only add to her credibility, especially compared to Austin’s profane fuming. “All I did was break up with him. I just went and told him we were through, I didn’t want to date him anymore. That’s it.”
“In front of everybody!” Austin nearly howled, managing to speak four words free of insults or vulgarity.
“I see,” Mr. Jones said. “So Austin, you’re angry at Kim for breaking up with you publicly.”
“Of course! She made me look stupid—” Eyes blazing, Austin looked like he wished he could vaporize Kim right then and there.
“—You don’t need any help from me,” Kim muttered under her breath.
Turning to Kim, Mr. Jones asked, “Did you intentionally try to humiliate Austin?”
“Of course not,” Kim replied, as honestly as possible. “My friends were talking about who to invite to the dance, and I decided I’d had enough of Austin. So I just walked over and did it. No hard feelings.” She smiled winningly at Austin, and was rewarded by seeing his face almost purple. Smoke coming out of his ears wouldn’t have been totally unexpected at this point.
Mr. Jones thought for a moment. Finally he said, “I’m going to let both of you go. Class is about to start. Austin, leave Kim alone. Kim, give Austin some space. Let’s just move on, all right?”
“Sounds good to me,” Kim chirruped, feeling pretty good despite her mother’s uncertain condition. This had worked out as well as it could, considering she had dumped the most popular boy in the school
in the most humiliating way possible.
“Fine,” Austin growled, shooting Kim a look that clearly said he would come after her as soon as he got the opportunity.
“Good, good,” Mr. Jones rubbed his hands together. “Now go get your bags and head to class. The bell’s going to ring any minute.” The bell rang.
Without a word, Austin stalked away down the hall, trusting one of his peons would bring him his backpack. Kim knew he was going to Advanced Algebra, although he was a senior and should have been in pre-calculus or calculus. Academics were not his strong suit.
“Thanks, Mr. Jones,” Kim called as she scampered back down to her now-deserted table. All her friends had vanished. That was OK; Kim almost wanted to break up with them, too. The strain of being popular had started to wear her down and she was ready for something new.
Like everybody in the cafeteria that day, Tristan had witnessed Kim’s dramatic breakup with Austin. His friends had gasped with all the students. Tristan wondered if their collective indrawn breath could induce a vacuum. Probably not; the room was too big.
Tristan walked thoughtfully down the hall, using one hand to shove his unruly red hair back out of his eyes. What would dating a girl like that be like? She was strong-willed and brave enough to face down the most popular guy in the school. That took guts. Tristan had caught a glimpse of her face as she walked away with Mr. Jones, and she looked so beautiful, calm, almost radiant.
“Dude, did you see that?” Jared asked, jostling against Tristan’s shoulder in the pre-class hallway crush. “You think she’s available now? Should I see if I can get her to ask me out?” Jared snuffled and wiped his nose with his sleeve, then pushed his black-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“Um… I doubt that would work, honestly,” Tristan said. “She’ll probably end up with one of those other football players.” Of course, Tristan, like every other boy in the school, secretly hoped that Kim would choose him as her date for the dance. But unlike Jared and his ilk, Tristan had no illusions about the likelihood of his actually ending up in a relationship with a Madonna like Kim. In fact, Tristan expected to stay single possibly for the remainder of his natural life. Given his affliction, that would be the most altruistic thing to do.
Still, Tristan thought as he plunked down in the back of the Spanish class he served as teacher’s assistant for, it would be pretty amazing to spend any time with a girl of Kim’s intelligence and beauty. “Ah, dream on,” Tristan muttered to himself. But he couldn’t keep his eyes off the back of Kim’s head, watching her golden hair shimmer and flow as she leaned down to extract her Spanish book and workbook.
“Buenos dias,” Señora Alvarez called. “¿Tienen sus libros?” The class came to attention and they began covering irregular verbs again. Tristan began circulating, helping his peers as they raised their hands.
About fifteen minutes into the class, Tristan glanced in Kim’s direction and saw her surreptitiously wiping her eyes. What’s this? Tristan thought to himself. She’s upset about something. Surely it’s not her breaking up with that big ox. He made his way over to Kim’s desk and touched her shoulder, trying not to show the delight he felt at even that impersonal contact.
Kim looked up, her eyes bright with unshed tears. “Yes?”
Quietly Tristan asked, “Are you all right? It looks like something’s wrong.”
“I’m – I’m fine.” Kim looked away. “I’m fine.”
Tristan knew this was his dismissal, but he couldn’t let it go. Most eligible, gorgeous girl in the school or not, she was hurting. He wanted to help, so he persisted. “You’re not fine,” he murmured. “Is it something about Austin?”
Immediately her face showed a mixture of scorn at the inaccuracy of his guess and pride at her accomplishment. “Ha,” she simply said. “It’s none of your business, OK? Unless you want to talk about this stupid Spanish, how bout if you leave me alone?”
“We can talk about the Spanish if you want,” Tristan said, unable to keep the eagerness out of his voice. “Did you get the homework last night?”
“I – ” Pain suffused her voice and tugged at Tristan’s heart. “I guess the simple answer is ‘no,’ but I didn’t really get to spend much time on it. It wasn’t a good night.”
“Well, what’re you doing right after school today?” Tristan asked. “I can go over it with you then, if you want.”
“I’ve got cheerleading practice until 5:00, and then I need to get home to watch my sisters.”
“I can help any time.” Hoping he sounded simply friendly and helpful, Tristan straightened and glanced around. Several other students had their hands up. “Just let me know and I’d be happy to help if you want.”
“Thanks. Maybe I will.” Kim turned back to her workbook, leaning down so her hair curtained her face. Tristan took that dismissal to heart and went to help Stinky Jones, who always needed help. Probably more help than Tristan or anybody at Somewheresville High School could give, really.
Tristan never expected to hear from Kim about his offer to help her with Spanish, so he was floored when he found a note shoved into the grille of his locker at the end of the day. It simply said, “I could use some help. Meet me at 5:15 at the Starbucks. Kim.” As far as the high school kids were concerned, there was only one Starbucks, situated within a few blocks of campus. Not particularly handy for Tristan, and he’d have to catch a much later bus, but that would be completely worth it.
He felt a smile creep across his face. Slamming his locker door, the smile vanished from Tristan’s face as Lottie appeared, leaning against the bank of lockers. She’d caught the tail end of his triumphant look, though, and immediately pounced.
“You look like the cat that’s caught the brains. What’s going on, big bro?”
“Sure, nothing. Like Kim Benson’s breakup at lunch was nothing.” Seeing Tristan’s guilty look, Lottie’s jaw dropped. “This has to do with Kim, doesn’t it!”
“No.” He was already doomed. Tristan knew that any more denial would simply cement his guilt in Lottie’s mind.
“OK,” he admitted, deciding fessing up was better than having his sister hound him all night. “I’m meeting Kim at the Starbucks at 5:15 tonight—”
“Shut UP!” Lottie screeched, laughing and disbelieving at the same time. Several passing kids looked their way in
“—to help her with her Spanish.” Tristan plowed on, hoping to forestall any more outbreaks. “I’m just helping her with homework. Nothing exciting.”
Lottie just laughed hysterically, speechless. When she finally could speak, she gasped, “Oh, my brains! I can’t take it! Tristan and Kim Benson!”
Tristan grabbed her and clapped a hand across her mouth. “Be quiet! I don’t need everybody saying we’re together, ’cause we’re not.” I sure wish we were, he thought, but didn’t add. Lottie already knew he’d give his left frontal lobe for even one date with the most beautiful, popular girl at Somewheresville.
Lottie giggled behind his hand, exulting in the outrageousness of the idea of her nerd brother dating anybody. Eventually she calmed down enough that Tristan thought she might be able to not blurt inaccurate, rumor-starting claims the length of the hall and he removed his hand.
“Can you please, please keep your mouth shut for once?” Tristan pleaded with his identical twin. “I just want to see how it goes, OK?.”
A cunning look came across Lottie’s face, one Tristan knew all too wel
l. She lowered her voice and leaned in. “I won’t say a thing, but I expect your toast and brains to be on my plate in the morning.”
“Bribery?! From my own twin sister?” Tristan shook his head, pretending to be disappointed, but he’d expected as much.
“This is brainy stuff, bro,” Lottie said. “What’s it worth to you? I could tell Carissa right now—” She pulled out her cell phone, fingers poised to text the rumor to the biggest gossip in the school.
“No! You can have ’em, and I swear I’ll give you all the details when I get home.”
“Every last juicy detail?” Lottie loved secrets – knowing them and hoarding them, never sharing them. Tristan suspected she had a secret for every student in the school, and probably most of the faculty as well.
“Yes. Now I’m going to go stake out my spot at Starbucks.”
“It’s only” Kim checked her watch, “3:23. You’re two hours early.”
“Just tell Mom I’ll be home late, OK? And don’t you dare tell her I’m meeting a girl.”
“Braaaaains.” Lottie muttered, tapping her head. “I’m pretty sure you don’t have any. Nobody would want yours anyway. But I won’t tell Mom yet.”
She shoved off the locker and sauntered down the hall, glowing with pleasure at having obtained another delicious secret. Tristan shook his head as he watched her walk away. She was right. He’d be sitting there like a fool for two hours, but if Kim actually showed up, it would be more than worth it.
On his third cup of hot chocolate – coffee seemed to exacerbate Tristan’s inherent condition, and he could hardly risk going after Kim’s brains on a first date, even if it wasn’t really a date – Tristan looked up from his Advanced Algebra and there she was: Tall, almost alarmingly skinny, still a little sweaty looking from her cheer practice, wearing a form-hugging tank top and shorts that showed her long, graceful, well-muscled legs to an advantage. Tristan almost fell of his chair.
“You came,” he stuttered, and immediately felt stupid. How could he say something so idiotic? Of course she came. She had asked him to meet her, hadn’t she? “Er, I mean, uh, are you ready to do some Spanish?”
She smiled, sliding into the seat opposite him, and he felt his palms dampen. This was going to be a very difficult tutoring session, no question. He’d have to keep his mind on her brains – No, on Spanish. No brains. Spanish.
Tristan asked, “OK, uh, well, do you have your book?” and instantly wanted to kick himself again. It’s like she had eaten his brain, leaving him a barely-functioning blob.
“Yeah, and I’d like to talk more about these verbs. I just don’t understand some of this stuff…” Tristan saw that she had pulled her long hair back into a pony tail that swished every time she moved her head.
Tristan forced himself to focus on the Spanish language and its complexities. He replied, “No problem. Irregular verbs can be pretty confusing, especially when you get into past tenses.” Even when they started tutoring in earnest, though, he couldn’t keep his sweaty palms from leaving damp splotches on the highly polished table.
Tristan found that Kim caught on to the tricks very quickly once he explained them, and he wondered why she had trouble with the previous night’s homework. He patiently went over the homework questions, listened to her tell him about her evening in Spanish – she said she had done homework, eaten dinner with her family, and watched a TV show he’d never heard of – and corrected her spoken errors. She didn’t seem to find him totally abhorrent, and occasionally Tristan’s heart would leap when it struck him anew that he was in a coffee shop with the girl of his dreams, and who cares if it was for school and not personal? He’d take what he could get.
An hour flew by, and the next thing Tristan knew, Kim’s phone was ringing. Coming out of the blur of studying, Tristan had to shake his head to switch from Spanish to English.
He heard Kim say, “…She’s going to be OK, then?” Pause. “None at all?” Pause. “Do I need to pick her up?” Pause. “Oh, really? OK, thank you very much for your help.” She hung up and started packing her backpack. “Sorry, but I really have to go. My mother is getting back from—” She stopped awkwardly. “Never mind. I’ve got to go. How are you getting home?”
Ignoring the discrepancy between her description of her evening, which included dinner with her parents and sisters, and the implication she’d just given that her mother had been gone the previous evening, Tristan replied, “Oh, well, I was going to take the bus. Save on gas, you know.” At that point, wild horses couldn’t have dragged the truth that he didn’t own a car out of him.
“Where do you live?” She finished sliding her books into a bulging backpack and bent to retrieve her duffle bag.
“Across town, 2nd and Pleasant Street. Just past the Fresh Farms. It’s only a half-hour bus ride. No problem.” He reached for the duffel, which it looked like she hefted only with difficulty. “Here, let me get that.”
When Tristan said he lived across town, Kim found herself saying, “I have to go right by there on my way home. I drop you off if you want.” The weird thing was that it really was not on her way at all. Kim lived more south of town, in the newer housing complexes, and she’d spend an extra twenty minutes or more dropping him off and then backtracking.
And then, although Kim prided herself on her strength, she surrendered the duffel when he offered to carry it. It was heavy, after all. Being beautiful had its prices, and one was carrying an entire duffel full of everything she needed to put on her face – which she’d decided to forgo this evening.
After yesterday evening with Mother, the dénouement in the cafeteria today, and then this afternoon the way all the other cheerleaders made it clear during practice they thought she’d made a terrible mistake, well, Kim hardly felt she needed to worry about her face for a brainiac like Tristan who was just helping her with Spanish, after all.
“So, uh, where do you live?” Tristan asked. Kim supposed this was general friendliness and trying to make conversation as they walked to her car, but it was awkward. She didn’t exactly want to lie, but she didn’t want to tell the truth, either.
“Oh, in one of the new developments outside of town.” They found her Mustang parked at the curb where she had left it. She popped the trunk and let her backpack slump heavily into the compartment. “Just dump that stuff in here,” she told him, motioning to the open hatch. Then she noticed his wide eyes.
“Nice car,” was all he said, but the awe and covetousness came through clearly in his voice. Kim smiled. “Father bought it for me when I turned 16. He thought buying me a car would make me love him.”
He tenderly placed the duffel bag in the trunk, but retained his backpack. “I’ll just keep it on my lap. So, did it?”
“Did the car make you love your dad more?” He sank into the leather seats with a sigh of contentment. Kim no longer noticed the amenities.
“Ha. Ten thousand cars couldn’t make me love him. You can’t bribe somebody to love you.” If you could, surely all three of his daughters would love George Benson with true daughterly devotion. As it was, only Evie showed him affection, and only because she wasn’t old enough to understand how many times he disappointed his own family. Kim figured that within a few years, Evie would give up on trying to attract her father’s affectionate attention. He reserved that only for his work and his secretaries.
“That’s too bad,” Tristan said, looking out the window, avoiding her gaze
. “I mean about you not getting along with your dad that much.”
Kim shrugged and shifted as they zipped up a freeway onramp. “Oh well. Nobody’s family’s perfect, right?”
“Mine sure isn’t,” Tristan agreed. Mom and Dad could be worse, but Tristan was pretty sure that a perfect family didn’t periodically go crazy and want to eat human brains every month. “So, how’re classes going?”
“Pretty well, except for Spanish.” His simple question, followed by attentive listening, opened Kim up. She spoke about her aspirations, something she’d never told Austin. “I’m hoping to become a brain surgeon, so I’m taking a lot of math and science. AP Biology, AP Chemistry. You know.”
“A – brain surgeon?” Tristan gasped, an incredulous look spreading across his face. “Really?”
Kim mentally kicked herself. Why had she told a dumb boy about her future plans? He was like all other boys; all he wanted was to feel up her hot ass if he could while leaning in real close to look down her shirt. He probably thought girls should get married right out of school and start having babies immediately. Defensively she snapped, “Yeah, what’s wrong with that? You think a girl couldn’t be a brain surgeon?”
“No, no, not at all!” Tristan sounded genuinely surprised and hurt, and tore his gaze from the passing scenery to look earnestly in her direction. “Not at all. Honest. I don’t see why you shouldn’t become a brain surgeon – it’s just that’s an amazing calling and not at all what I expected.”
Not yet mollified, Kim demanded, “Well, what did you expect then?” But even through her defensiveness, she sensed that Tristan hadn’t intentionally belittled her.
“Well…” He thought a minute. “I think I imagined you as an executive. You know, ordering a bunch of minions around, running some big company like Microsoft or Ford or Procter & Gamble.”
“Oh.” Taken by surprise, Kim didn’t know what else to say. “I don’t know, ordering people around?”
A rush of words poured out of Tristan, more than he’d said about anything other than Spanish all afternoon. “Sure, it seems like you’re so good with people. Even I can see it and I don’t really know you that well. I mean, you get people to do whatever you want, and nobody even resents it. They want to do what you say. That’s why you’re the cheer squad captain, I bet. Not just ’cause they like you, but ’cause you can get them to do things right.”
Kim found a smile spreading across her face. “How’d you know that? About the cheer squad, I mean. You haven’t been gossiping with Selena, have you?”
“Selena? Who’s that?” Honest puzzlement came through his voice, and Kim had to laugh aloud.
“God, if she was here she’d die! She thinks everybody in the school knows her.” Kim laughed again. “I should tell her about this just to see her face when I say ‘Selena? Who’s that?’ She’d absolutely die.”
“Yeah, and then I’d absolutely die when she sicced some huge football player on me. Even if you don’t like me that much, at least don’t do that. Oh, here’s my exit.” They pulled off the expressway and Kim wondered: Was he fishing for reassurance that she liked him? If she gave it, would he take it as an invitation? So far he wasn’t at all what she expected. Less nerdy, but much nicer. His red hair was very distinctive, and kind of cute, and his slightly-stubbly cheeks said he had started shaving. Something about his face seemed open and friendly, and he did listen very attentively, not interrupting and making occasional reassuring noises to show he was still engaged.
“Turn left at the next light.” Now he seemed all business, just getting to his house.
On impulse, Kim decided to throw him a bone. “Don’t worry, Tristan. I like you just fine.” Glancing over, she thought he literally might float off the seat right there. “Now where?”
“Oh, right here’s fine, in the Fresh Farms parking lot. I can walk the rest of the way.” He seemed reluctant to show Kim to his actual house, which puzzled her. Why wouldn’t he want her to see his home?
“No, it’s fine, I can drop you off at your front door.”
A look of panic began spreading over his face. “Right here is good, please,” he said, sounding anxious but adamant. Kim decided he was probably embarrassed about the size of his family’s home. His reaction to her car, and all the other houses in the area, made it clear that his wasn’t a particularly well-to-do family. Suddenly, Kim felt ashamed of her family’s way of living.
She pulled in to one of the spots and turned off the engine. As Tristan stepped out she reached out and caught his arm. “Would you mind meeting to do this again? It really helped.” That brightened him up again, and it was true.
“Oh, yeah, sure any time. Call me or something. Let me know when is good for you. Any time. Have a good night!” Practically falling out of the car, he stood and waved idiotically as she pulled away. His backpack came unzipped and all his books and papers fell out on the damp concrete, but he didn’t stop waving until it was clear Kim wasn’t paying attention any longer. Poor guy. He was probably lonely, and Kim guessed that he hoped this might turn into something else. Kim shook her head as she turned back on to the road, squeezing just in front of an oncoming dump truck. Well, he wasn’t loathsome, and he did know his Spanish. She’d see about studying together again some time. If nothing else, the time with Tristan had taken her mind off her family’s troubles.
Driving south as fast as she could, dodging between slower vehicles, Kim’s smile slipped away. She had an idea of what was waiting for her at home, and she really didn’t look forward to it.