Brendan Carlisle opened his locker and checked his hair in the magnetic mirror. The black dye he had applied the night before looked super dark in his eyes. Pushing back his bangs, he examined his widow’s peak. The black made it stand out even more than it had before. He still couldn’t believe he had done it. He wasn’t sure he liked it, but it did complement the cyberpunk look he aspired to achieve. Brushing his bangs back over his forehead, he switched out his calculus books for physics and headed to the science building.
As he entered the cool interior, he took a deep breath. The combination of the aged architecture from the fifties, the purified and sometimes ionized air, and whiffs of sulfur and bleach were home to him. In Brendan’s most humble opinion, the science building was the center of campus. None of the other buildings contained the potential for discovery and disaster like the chemistry and physics labs. His best friend Kristy insisted the same to be true of the library and arts department, but that was too philosophical for him. They had agreed to disagree on this matter.
The physics lab was about half full upon his arrival. Each person had an assigned seat and lab partner. His partner was already in her seat, so he made straight for her.
“Dude!” Brendan slammed his books down on the black stone countertop. “This weekend is going to be mind-blowing.”
He settled onto his stool next to Kristy. He always sat on the left and she on the right, to accommodate for the space each of them needed for their dominant hands. Kristy quietly sketched in her notebook. The battered book went wherever she did—something about “an artist’s muse is not confined by school schedules.” She had to be ready to doodle at any moment. Brendan leaned over the edge of the pages to see her latest creation.
“Him again?” He sat back; his eyes flicked for just a second to one of their classmates on the other side of the room, the object of her affection, Will Williams. Yes, his parents did that to him. Kristy’s crush on Will Williams had persisted since day one of high school, and he had yet to give her a single minute of his time. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” she would say wistfully with a far-off look in her eyes whenever Brendan tried to get her to move on. Girls were weird.
“Did you hear me, Kristy?”
She blew on the page and brushed away the excess graphite with the back of her hand. “I did.” She looked up at him. “To answer your question, yes, him. And to your statement, you mean the camping trip and meteor shower.”
“Slash paintball slaughter.” He mimicked firing an imaginary gun at the blackboard. “Those two won’t know what hit them.”
“We’re not supposed to be teams.”
“Yes, obviously. But we are a team. Always,” he said with a conviction beyond doubt. Just as sure as hydrogen had one proton and one electron in perpetual orbit around each other, it followed that Brendan Carlisle and Kristy Holloway would be best friends forever.
But not a couple. Ew. Never that.
The background noise of the room faded as Mr. Scott came into the front of the room. As he did every day, he opened his briefcase and started unpacking lecture materials. Even though Mr. Scott did not have any sense of humor to be found, to the point that it was a little disturbing, he was still Brendan’s favorite teacher. Mr. Scott trusted him enough to give him free rein over the chemistry and physics labs, a trust Brendan made sure not to lose.
“Quiet down, everyone.” Mr. Scott spread out his notes as everyone settled into their spots. “Before we begin, congratulations are in order. Mr. Carlisle has been awarded the Dr. Lee Smith Fellows Grant for Young Scientists.”
Kristy gasped as applause and cheers bubbled around the room. Mr. Scott looked at Brendan, just the slightest smile at the corner of his mouth. “Well done, young man.”
His classmates whooped and whistled their sentiments. Kristy attacked him with a hug. He had labored for hours over his submission for the grant. Confidence in his own knowledge and ability was not the problem; it was the competition with other applicants. Brendan was all too aware that in this school he was a big fish in a small pond, but university would be the inverse of that.
“That’s awesome,” she said into his shoulder, then sat back. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know.” He looked around the room at the smiling faces and back to Mr. Scott. “Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Scott nodded and turned his attention to his notes. “Alright class, open your books to chapter thirteen.”
The grant was a significant sum and would cover a good chunk of his tuition costs. It was also a great honor, awarded to only one student in the Western United States. The money could be applied to any university as long as the winner was studying physics. Receiving the grant would cinch his acceptance to UC Berkeley. Kristy squeezed his forearm. She knew it meant that too.
Both of them had taken the risk of applying to only one university each—Brendan to Berkeley, Kristy to the Academy of Arts College in San Francisco. They would be living in different cities but still close enough to spend their weekends together studying in cool cafes or any number of parks. Plus, staying in California meant they were close enough to visit family for the obligatory holidays—but not too close.
Once he moved out of his mom’s house, on his own, the future would be limitless. No more overbearing, even if well-intentioned, supervision from his half-present brother, Robert. Brendan loved his brother, but they had nothing in common other than some genetic code. Senior year was like a medieval ordeal that society required from Brendan before he could be recognized as an adult, even by his own family. Forget the fact that he had made his own meals, gotten himself to bed on time, and been an honor roll student for years while his never-present mother sent money to his much older brother who was busy with his own higher education.
None of that would matter in a year. He and Kristy would be immersed in their respective pursuits in one of the coolest places on Earth. The next seven months would be tedious, but they would make the best of it, and the time would pass faster than expected. He hoped.
Mr. Scott started writing a theorem on the blackboard. “Today, we begin the chapter on electromagnetism. Can someone give me a basic definition?”
Brendan’s hand shot up.
Mr. Scott shook his head. “Anyone other than Mr. Carlisle?”
Kristy pulled his arm down. “Let the others go first. It’s not a guess for you.”
Reluctantly, Brendan folded his arms to keep them down. She was right after all.
~ ~ ~
The most uncomfortable chairs in the whole school were right outside the principal’s office. Without a doubt, they had been designed to punish. Matt Holloway shifted again; no matter how he sat, something would go numb. As he shivered in his soaking clothes, his best friend, Derek, chatted up anyone within arm’s length as if they were having a picnic in the park.
Derek’s victims took one look at the pools of water gathering under their seats and the wet clothes clinging to them, rolled their eyes, and ignored them. Derek wasn’t fazed. Nothing ever fazed him. But all Matt could think about was the look of disappointment on his parents’ faces, again.
The office door opened. Principal Miller came up to them, the lines around his eyes etched with concern for their hopeful but undetermined futures. “Well. I just got off the phone with your mom, Matt, and your dad, Derek, and no one is available to come retrieve you. I think your punishment today is going to the rest of your classes in wet clothes.”
“Yes, Principal Miller,” Matt responded, eyes glued to the tips of his shoes. He did not need any more judgment from an authority figure today.
“Alright!” Derek nearly launched out of his seat, ready to take on the rest of the day. Nothing slowed him down; Matt was the one who had to be convinced of anything they ever did.
Principal Miller shook his head. “Derek, stop tinkering with things. No more ‘hacking’ the computers in the lab or ‘fixing’ the water fountains. Leave things alone. And Matt.”
Matt flinched but sat up anyway.
“Stop letting him talk you into this nonsense. Your sister is a model student. You should be too.”
There it was. Always living in the shadow of his favored sibling.
“Both of you will be at the beck and call of the janitorial staff during study period for one week.”
“Yes, Principal Miller,” Matt and Derek responded in unison.
With a surrendered sigh, the principal opened the door for them. “Mrs. Conlon is expecting you in English class. Try not to make a scene.”
“You got it!” Derek raced out the door.
Principal Miller shook his head. He knew, as Matt did, that they would be back.
Matt shuffled after Derek into the empty hallway, hands shoved into his pockets. There were only fifteen minutes left in the period. If they walked slowly enough, class could be avoided altogether.
Derek halted and waited for his friend to catch up, his exuberant spirit traded for contrition. Matt stopped in front of him, and Derek turned to face him. “Sorry,” he said in his usual “I know I screwed up” tone.
Matt nodded. He wanted to say “It’s fine” like he always did, but this time he kept it to himself. Derek always got them in trouble. Matt knew exactly why the other boy wanted to do these sorts of stupid pranks. School was boring. But in the end, after they inevitably got caught, Matt always felt like crap. Any thrill of victory was too short-lived to make the trouble worth it. Between the high praises heaped on his sister and the constructive feedback handed to him by every authority figure, he was beginning to wear down.
Once Kristy was off to college, maybe then his parents would see him for his own strengths and talent and not as his sister’s shadow.
Derek started walking backward. “Do you think we’ll be grounded for the weekend?”
“I hope not.” Matt started to walk again. “I really want to see that meteor shower.”
“Kristy will tell our parents it’s for a school project—it won’t be an issue.”
Derek brightened up. “Of course, duh.”
“But next year we’re gonna have to get out of these messes without Brendan and Kristy.” Matt looked him in the eye.
“Pfft.” Derek waved off the very notion and put his arm around Matt’s shoulders. “Once they’re out of here, this school will be ours.”
Derek’s cheery outlook almost made Matt forget all about the damp clothes clinging uncomfortably to his skin. “Totally.” He threw his arm around Derek’s shoulder. “Next year will be da bomb.”