Chapter 9 – Growth
Hapy belated newyear, guys! Here’s to a great 2017, with lots of apple pie for me. =3
After my run-in with the wolf, I stopped wandering about the outskirts on my own. Permanently. Jamie would have called it cowardice, but the beast had given me a good fright. I was one hundred percent sure that it would have eaten me alive, had I run any slower. I did not enjoy the idea of being chewed to bits. Not one bit. Especially not since I still very much planned to seek out my parents after my next birthday. Being chewed to bits would put a little bit of a dent in that plan.
So I stayed around people. Spent time with Liu, mostly in order to avoid having to deal with Luke and Tristan. They still hadn’t made up, and most of the time being around either one of them meant being the target of nasty looks from the other. We were approaching our senior year, too. Bobby predicted that their icy silences would probably last throughout University. Not that Appaloosa Plains actually had a University.
Early afternoon. I was in my room, working on my final history project for the year. I usually bluffed my way through my tests, but this year my overall grades would not allow any slip-ups. I’d actually have to do some work in order to graduate.
And I hated it. Every minute spent on this was a minute that I could have spent doing something more important. It was the beginning of Autumn. That was my favourite season to be outside in, and instead, I was stuck behind a desk in my bedroom. That made it even harder to stay focused, which resulted in more time that was lost. And that, of course, made me hate it even more.
“…In 1986, Will Wright entered the Industry, paving the way for his greatest successes in his career, the creation of…”
I stopped typing and rested my head on my desk. Ten more pages. Just ten more pages on National History. Could I squeeze out ten more pages? Probably not. Just finishing this one paragraph was already proving to be beyond my capabilities. I needed a break. Could I take a break already? Just for a few minutes. Or an hour or two.
At that exact moment, I could hear my mother’s voice calling me from downstairs.
‘Chase? Bobby’s here to see you!’
Perfect! He couldn’t have had a better timing. With a smile on my face, I pushed myself away from the stuffy desk and stood up, turning towards the door.
‘I’ll be right down!’
I was outta here. Within three steps, I reached the stairway. I skipped a couple of steps on my way down, eager to leave. Bobby’s head was poking out from around the corner. He was still standing in the doorway. Great. That meant that he had rejected an offer from my mother for coffee, which meant that I could take him outside without being interrupted.
‘Hey, man,’ Bobby said, as soon as his gaze crossed mine. ‘You got a minute?’
‘Of course,’ I grinned. ‘We’ll talk outside- I’m fed up with staying inside anyway. Let’s go.’
Quickly, I led my friend outside. We walked down the porch, past the horse’s meadow and stopped at the end of the property, near my mom’s vegetable garden. I took a deep breath, enjoying the outside air before turning around to face Bobby.
‘Okay, man. Spill it. What’s wrong?’
I already knew something was up. He’d been fidgeting with his shirt since the minute our eyes met, and the whole time we were walking over to the garden, as well. Something was definitely going on. Was he getting picked on again? Was that it? He’d gotten fairly good at standing up for himself over the years, but maybe he’d had a drawback?
‘Who’s messing with you? We’ll beat him up no problem. Just say the word.’
‘No, no!’ Bobbly quickly replied. ‘No one’s messing with me.’
‘What, then? I’m not helping you study- maker, I can barely take care of myself in that area.’
‘No, my grades are fine. And I wouldn’t know how to teach you the exam stuff, either. It was always Jamie that-‘
Bobby suddenly realized where the conversation was going and abruptly ended his sentence. A painful silence fell. For a second, neither of us dared to look the other in the eye. Jamie’s death was something that we still hadn’t made our peace with, and it still stung to mention his name. I took another deep breath, for different reasons this time.
‘Okay. Then… what is it?’
‘I, uh… I need some feedback,’ Bobby said, awkwardly fidgeting with his shirt again. The last time I’d seen him like this was when he wanted to talk about his parents on memorial day, so I knew this was a serious subject.
‘Sure, Bobby. I’m all ears.’
Another silence fell. Then Bobby seemed to get himself together and opened his mouth.
‘Okay. I’ll be honest with you. Don’t laugh, okay?’
‘All right, then. There’s… there’s someone that I like.’
I raised a single eyebrow. This was new. Other than the other guys in my group, who had always enjoyed talking about the attributes of this or that girl, Bobby had never been one to be interested in that subject. That was fine, of course. But it did make me wonder. Over the past years I’d had been in doubt multiple times on whether or not Bobby might be swinging for the other side, so to speak. Not that there was anything wrong about that.
But it did make me choose my next words very carefully.
‘Okay,’ I replied. ‘Do they know that you like them?’
‘No, I’m pretty sure that they don’t. They don’t seem to be very interested in me in that way, actually. I’m not sure what I should do.’
‘Well, you won’t know until you try, right?’ I smiled at Bobby. ‘Better to swing and miss than to not try at all. Who knows? They might surprise you.’
‘It’s… not that easy,’ Bobby mumbled. His eyes were fixed on the ground. ‘They seem to be into someone else, too. And I don’t want to scare them off.’
‘Then tell them subtly. Without scaring them off. Can’t be that hard.’
‘Yeah- that’s proving to be a bit difficult, too. They’re pretty dense about this kind of thing. I just really don’t want to get rejected and make things awkward, man. With our group of friends having been split up already… I don’t want to break it up even more.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
His eyes drifted up from the ground and made contact with mine. He seemed to be silently pleading with me. I knew that there was some hidden message in his words just now. I had to be missing something crucial. Something obvious. What was I missing?
And then it hit me. Shit. Bobby was talking about me. The person that he was in love with – it was me. That’s why he was so anxious about this, and why he was so scared that confessing might break up our group even more. Since when had he been feeling this way? Recently? Or had Bobby secretly been hiding feelings for me all along?
Aw, shit! Wait a second! He was in love with me! My brain finally caught up with the rest of my body, and I started feeling very, very uncomfortable. Shit. Bobby was gay. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but I definitely was not. And he was in the middle of confessing to me! Shit! What was I supposed to do now?! I couldn’t just flat-out reject him, like I did with all of those boring girls at school. Bobby was one of my best friends, damn it! What was I supposed to do?!
‘Look, man,’ Bobby mumbled. ‘You know who I mean. Do you think there’s any chance for me?’
‘I, uh, don’t know,’ I stuttered. My heartbeat was way up; I could feel it thumping in my chest.
‘Maybe not? I mean, not that there’s … or, uh, look, even if you…. fudge. Give me a second.’
I was talking gibberish. Bobby raised a single eyebrow, but did not respond. Good. He was giving me time. I took a deep breath, picked myself up and tried again. Damn it, this was harder than I’d thought it would be.
‘Okay, look. Don’t be afraid that our group will break up if you confess, okay? You might… not get the response you’re hoping for, but I don’t care who you like. That’s none of my business. You’re still my friend.’
‘Really? You don’t mind?’
‘Nah, man,’ I answered. ‘We’re cool, okay? I’ve known you since elementary. I’ll accept you for who you are.’
A large, hopeful smile spread across Bobby’s face. He took a step towards me. Damn, was he going to try and kiss me before confessing? I’d never been on the receiving end before- how did you gently refuse a kiss? How did this work?! Fudge, I might have to wait until after the kiss to reject him. This was going to be awkward. Shit. I braced myself for what was about to come and closed my eyes.
‘So you really don’t mind if I ask her out?’
I opened my eyes again. Bobby was still standing there. Perfectly still. Not even remotely close to trying to kiss me.
‘What? Ask who out?’
‘Evelyn, of course. I know she’s into you, but you don’t seem too interested anyway, and didn’t you just say it’s okay to try?’
He was in love with Evelyn.
I let out a relieved laugh. ‘Yeah- of course it’s- of course it’s alright,’ I chucked. All the tension in my body disappeared. He was in love with Evelyn. Damn it, Bobby. You almost gave me a heart attack. Over Evelyn, of all people. That girl was going to be the death of me one day.
I finally composed myself and smiled at Bobby, who was still looking a little suspicious.
‘So you think I have a chance?’
‘Of course, man. She’s only into me because I saved her from those wolves back then. I’ve already rejected her once, actually. Plus she doesn’t really like Luke or Tristan. You should have a good chance with her.’
Bobby’s face lit up. and a wide smile spread across his lips. He seemed to come to a conclusion, right then and there. With a determined nod, Bobby opened his mouth again.
‘Okay! I’m going to do it! I’ll ask her out!’
‘Good on you, man,’ I smiled back. ‘With your charm, I’m sure you’ll do just-‘
‘Right now!’ Bobby repeated, determination radiating off of him. It almost looked funny, in a way.
‘Shouldn’t you wait and make a plan for a date or something first?’ I suggested. Bobby forcefully shook his head.
‘If I wait until later today or tomorrow, I’ll just chicken out again. So it has to be now! Do you think she’s home?’
‘I have no idea, man,’ I chucked. ‘Try her cell phone. I’ve never seen her not carrying that thing around.’
‘Yeah, you’re right! I’ll do it!’
Amused, I watched from the sidelines as Bobby fished around in his pocket and pulled his phone out. This was going to be good. I’d never seen Bobby try to ask someone out. Or anything romance-related, actually. I’d always just assumed that he’d be, in his own words, too much of a chicken to take the initiative. But I suppose my assumptions were wrong, because he had already dialed her number and put the device to his ear.
‘H-hello? Evelyn? It’s Bobby.’
‘I’m doing fine. Listen, there’s something important I have to talk to you about. Can you come to the park in front of Town Hall in an hour? It will only take a few minutes.’
Right to the point. I had to give credit to Bobby -he did not beat around the subject at all.
‘Great! All right. I’ll see you there, then. Bye.’
He hung up. Bobby lowered his hand and put his phone back in his pocket. For a second or two, he stood completely still.
Then his expression changed from blank to panic.
‘Aw, shit! Why didn’t I think this through?! I only have an hour now! What should I say to her? What should I do?! I have no experience with this! Do I have to change clothes, or something? Chase, why didn’t you stop me?!’
‘You seemed to be doing quite well on your own,’ I smirked in response to Bobby’s ranting. ‘Just meet up with her and say what comes naturally, man. I’m sure that Evelyn can appreciate that.’
But Bobby forcefully shook his head again.
‘I can’t do “natural”, man! How are you even supposed to be natural at a moment like that?!’
He suddenly took a step towards me and forcefully grabbed my shoulders, placing his face mere inches from my own. It was such an uncharacteristic thing for Bobby to do that it made me flinch.
‘You gotta come with me, Chase. Be my wingman from afar, or something.’
‘Your what now?’
‘Just be there, okay? Oh, but you can’t let her see you. Just hide behind a bush or a building or something!’
‘Let me get this straight,’ I answered, slowly removing his arms from my shoulders. ‘You want me to go with you and spy on your love confession?’
Bobby’s cheeks turned a deep shade of red.
‘Not to spy. Just to keep me from running away until she gets there. You know, just like that janitor at school. The one who keeps an eye on the kids in detention. No-one ever sneaks away from him.’
‘You want me to be the janitor?’ I asked, sarcastically.
‘No! Damn it, you know what I mean. ‘
I did know what he meant. But that had just been too tempting to ignore.
‘Just be there, okay? For- I don’t know. Moral support, or something.’
‘All right, all right,’ I said, throwing my hands in the air. ‘I’ll freakin’ be all creepy and hide in the bushes for you. Happy now?’
‘Thanks, Chase,’ Bobby smiled. ‘I really owe you one.’
‘It’s fine,’ I shrugged. ‘Plus, this is your first love confession. It’ll be hilariously awkward- no way am I missing that.’
‘Oh, shut up.’
Fifty minutes later. Bobby had insisted we walk over to the park early, to make sure he arrived before Evelyn did. Something about needing to rehearse the lines in his head. The whole way there, Bobby had been silently mumbling to himself. It was both slightly awkward and amusing to see.
I’d done as Bobby had asked and hid behind one of the bushes, making sure I wouldn’t be anywhere near Evelyn when she arrived. The large hydrangea bush completely hid my body from view. From Bobby’s side, at least. The other side was perfectly visible for anyone that walked by.
Hopefully this did not make me look like too much of a creepy stalker. It was a good thing that the park was largely empty.
Five minutes passed… and nothing happened. It was just Bobby there, in the middle of the park, sitting on a bench. Looking nervous. Occasionally glancing my way. I’d decided against waving at him. If Evelyn came around the corner just as I did that, our gig would be up. Not the best of scenarios. So I stayed hidden behind the bush, unmoving.
Suddenly, Bobby jolted up from the bench. His gaze was fixed on the other side of the park, and I quickly looked in that direction.
There she was. Evelyn was a few minutes early, as well. I guess they both had a good sense of punctuality. As she walked over to Bobby, I could see his cheeks turning red again.
This was going to be good. A smile spread on my face and I shifted positions, ready for the delicious awkwardness of what was going to be my friend’s very first love confession.
At that very moment, something grazed past my back. Hard, too. It almost made me lose my balance, and I had to quickly bend my legs to keep myself from falling over. With an annoyed expression, I looked over my shoulder to see who had bumped into me.
It was her.
Adrenaline shot through my whole body immediately. That’s how many times I’d chased after her. But not this time. She was just standing there, not even moving, a tiny smile on her face. More expression than she had given me for the past few months.
She’d never waited for me before.
If I started running now… I might actually catch her this time.
My gaze traveled back to Bobby and Evelyn. She had reached the same spot as him by now, and the two of them had started talking. It wouldn’t be long now. Bobby had asked for my presence here… but I couldn’t help him with this. Not really. And she was right there. Within arm’s reach, even.
She took a step backwards. For a split second, my mind was torn between her and Bobby. Then I made a decision. With all the force I could muster, I pushed myself up from the ground and turned towards her. A content smile spread across her face and she spun around on her heels, taking off immediately. I dashed after her, the fallen leaves crinkling beneath my feet.
Today would be the day.
I could feel it in my chest. As she ran towards the trail into the hillside, I saw the distance between us getting shorter. The fresh, autumn air coursed through my lungs, giving me strength. It felt amazing. I sped up even more, pumping my legs like piston rods. Today was going to be the day.
We were almost in the hills now. She was within grabbing distance. As I ran, I slowly stretched out my hand. So close… I could almost touch her shoulder.
What you do after you’ve gotten old enough, though, that is up to you.
As I got closer and closer to the woman’s back, I recalled all of the letters that my real mother and father had left me. The reason that I had begun to train. I was certain of it- they were waiting for me to find them. And catching up to this woman – that was the first step. I was so close now. Her raven-black hair danced in the wind, hitting the back of my hand as I desperately reached out. I could make it. If I just sped up a little bit more, I could make it!
Something inside of me exploded. A surge of adrenaline took over my body. In that moment, I knew exactly what I had to do. I slammed my feet on the ground, recklessly launching myself into the air. For a single moment, I was flying. My fingers shot forward-
and made contact with her shoulder. I’d made it. My fingers automatically dug into the fabric of her shirt, desperate to hold on.
Then, the moment ended and gravity took over again. I fell down, my fingers slipping off of the goal that they had so vigorously tried to hold on to. Gravity took over. I hit the ground- hard. My shoulder stung painfully as I crashed down and rolled over myself, in a sprawling mess of arms and legs. I I actually kept going for a while, rolling anothet good four or five times before finally coming to a halt.
Ouch. That hurt.
Still panting, I tried to get back up. The world around me was a bit woozy, and I had to blink a few times to stop the trees from swaying. After I was sure I had my balance back, I stood up. Where had she gone? I looked to my left, and immediately found what I was looking for. There she was. The dark-haired woman had stopped running, coming to a halt not three feet away from me. She was looking at me with an oddly satisfied smile. That was new. What had I done that satisfied her so much?
And then I realized. I caught up to her. I had caught up to her fair and square. I could not even remember how long ago it was since I’d set her as my goal. But I’d finally done it! I caught up to her!
With an elated laugh, I did the first thing I could think of: I pumped my first in the air as a sign of victory. The adrenaline was still in my system, and I was feeling all kinds of amazing. Still laughing, I looked up at the sky.
I’d done it. I’d taken the first step.
A pair of footsteps sounded behind me. I turned around, and was met by a familiar face.
‘It was about time. I thought you were about ready to give up,’ the woman smiled. But it was a good smile, not a mocking one.
‘I never give up,’ I responded smugly. ‘And I believe we made a deal. You owe me your name.’
‘Ah… yes. I guess we did. And I do keep my promises.’
Her voice was low, but not unpleasant to hear. It sounded a bit melodious, actually. Now that we were actually talking to each other, I could finally make that discovery.
‘My name is Nailah. I suppose you’ve earned it,’ she smiled. I returned her smile.
‘Nailah, huh? Well,’ I replied, puffing out my chest, ‘I finally beat you, Nailah.’
Her laugh sounded melodious, too.
‘Beat me? Really, Chase? You weren’t even close.’
‘Hey, I caught up to you, fair and square!’ I protested. Her smile turned into a mocking smirk again.
‘Caught up to me, yes. On a straight road, with no obstacles to jump over or other hazards to slow you down. If this were the forest, you’d never even come close to catching up, let alone outrun me.’
This. Woman! I couldn’t believe my ears. She was still mocking me! What did she think she was, a forest deer or something?! There was a limit to being unfair!
Apparently my indignation was showing on my face, because Nailah chuckled. She laid a single, surprisingly delicate-looking hand on my shoulder.
‘Don’t look so angry. Would you like me to teach you?’
‘Teach me what?’ I replied, still slightly mad.
‘I believe you call it Parkour. It’s really quite handy, you know.’
‘You mean you’ll teach me to jump over fences and all those other things?’ I asked, suddenly very interested.
‘Jumping fences, climbing buildings, vaulting over rooftops- I’ll even teach you to stop falling down like a clown, if you’d like.’
‘I do not fall down like a clown!’
‘Your shoulder will be purple by tomorrow morning,’ Nailah said flatly, pointing at it. ‘You need to learn how to fall properly before you break something.’
As much as I hated to admit it, she was probably right. My shoulder stung. And not a little bit. Maybe this wasn’t a bad idea to try. Who knew? The day might come that I’d need to be able to do this.
‘All right,’ I nodded to Nailah. ‘Teach me.’
‘Teach me, please.’
‘Teach me, or risk losing your running partner in a ditch somewhere next time I try to catch up to you.’
‘Fine. I can work with that. But this is going to be tough. No more straight roads- I’m going to drag you across buildings next. Understand?’
She sounded strict, but I could see from the gleam in her eyes that Nailah was looking forward to this, too. What a strange woman.
‘Right, then,’ she nodded, a content smile spreading across her face. She once again reached out with her hand, this time merely holding it out in front of me.
‘In that case, it’s nice to meet you, Chase.’
‘Meet me?’ I snorted. ‘We’ve been jogging together for ages now.’
I did not have to wait long for a comeback.
‘Jogging together, you say? I thought that it was just me, with a puppy waddling a mile behind,’ she smirked.
‘Fine. You can have that one. But I’ll make you eat those words when I outrun you later.’
I too put out my hand, grabbing hold of hers in a firm handshake.
‘Nice to meet you, Nailah.’