I never did figure out how Perry knew me, but after I was seen around with him a few times, life in the Big Apple became much easier. So much easier, in fact, that nothing actually happened to me worth noting. I just assumed that Perry was one of those instinctive guys who just knew everything about everyone. I knew a few of those people back in Thompson.
I was mediochre. I could have done better, but I chose to remain mediochre. (Wondering how I was smart enough to get the hell outta Thompson? Same here.) The less I stuck out, the less likely it would be that somebody would notice me. I did, though, excell at all of my English studies and every chance I had, I took all three English courses offered. Actually, I was graduating with Honours in English Lit, Comp, and Tech, and Honours With Distinction in Music Theory. (Just to keep myself well-rounded.)
“And now, to give the Salutorian speech,” the Principal announced, “Private Second-Class Lexa Riddle!”
I smoothed down my brand new military uniform and walked to the podium. I’d typed out everything I wanted to say. Everything. But when I got up there, all eyes were on me. The cool, calculated little speech I’d created on the friendship and education at the Borough Hills Military Academy seemed so … drab, so boring!
“I had this speech prepared,” I said as I crumpled the paper up and held it in my palm. “And really, I don’t think that any of you want to sit here and listen to me lecture you on what you already know. Borough Hills is an amazing school and what we’ve learned here, we will use to help make the world a better place. The friendships that we’ve made in our years here are the foundations of partnerships and marriage and the kind of things that hold our world together. We trust each other. That is something that very few schools can stake a claim to because trust is so hard to come by nowadays. This is what we will take away from here, ladies and gentlemen. Trust in each other and trust in ourselves. Good luck to all of you, Class of 2005, as you go out into the world and change things for the better. Thank you.”
They cheered wildly for me when I sat down again. All in all, I was content. The money Kelly had given me was finally running out, leaving me pretty much on my own for college, but that was okay with me. Kelly had done quite enough for me. She didn’t have to do anything more.
I didn’t stay for the BBQ after I got my diploma. I just hopped on Scarlet and returned to my apartment. Perry and a few of his friends were waiting for me with chinese food and horror movies. (The Nightmare On Elmstreet saga, of course.)
“Congratulations, kitten,” Perry said fondly as he kissed me on the cheek and poured me a glass of champagne. “From the small-town stray, to the here and now, a graduate of the toughest military academy in the world. Here’s to you, Lexa.”
I clinked glasses with him and took a sip of the bubbly liquid. Tara Makyal, Perry’s foster sister, walked up and pressed a sweet kiss to my cheek, making me blush. I still wasn’t exactly comfortable expressing affection in public, but at least I wasn’t stammering and running away anymore. I clinked glasses with her and shyly slipped my arm around her waist, pulling her loosely to my side.
“I’m going to say it again,” she all but purred as she kissed my cheek again. “You’re delectable when you blush, m’dear.”
Tara had dyed red hair, freckles and soft brown eyes that were always filled with mirth. Perry smiled fondly at us and nodded his approval; my entire face went scarlet and I delicately stepped away from Tara so that I could lift my hand to cool my heated cheeks.
“Alright,” Matthew, another of Perry’s friends, said quickly. “Lets sit down and start feasting on the food! The sweet-and-sour pork is all for you, kitten, so dig in!”
I was thankful for the distraction. At fifteen, I was still the blushing virgin even though I knew all too well what sort of thing went on between two women. (Don’t ask, please. It involved a birthday gift and a XXX theatre trip that I’d rather not mention further.) It bothered me slightly to be affectionate with another woman, even in a strictly platonic sense, and it was rare when I initiated it. Even after the first three Freddy flicks there was a blush painting my cheeks due to what I’d done to Tara.
The night wore on, we all – I mean most of us – got drunk on the champagne and coolers that Perry bought for us, and eventually, I forced all of my friends to give me their car keys. I deadbolted the door and put on the chain so that they couldn’t drunken-fumble it open, for their own safety, and made up some beds for them. Tara, Matthew and John, yet another friend, got the guest room while Perry and his girlfriend Penny got my room. I took the couch. It was safer that way, because I was able to stay away from the drunken horny people populating my apartment.
Not that I would have minded terribly if Tara had started pawing at me, but she was drunk and I would have had moral problems in the morning.
I was always the sober friend, I noted as I made coffee the next morning and prepared the hangover remedies of Advil and copious amounts of steaming tea/coffee (tea for Tara, coffee for everyone else.) I rarely drank anything other than soda during our Friday Movie Marathons, unless it was a really special occasion and I was required to imbibe a little bit of alcohol.
Tara stumbled out of the bedrooms first. I could hear her retching in the bathroom so I added a healthy dose of Cherry Pepto to the remedies prepared. About twenty minutes later, after she’d regressed into dry heaves and then into an aching lull, she dragged herself out into the kitchen. I pushed a cup of peppermint tea into her hands.
“Morning,” I said dryly as she drained the mug. When it was safely in her stomach and made no move to reappear, I handed her a little plastic measure cup of Cherry Pepto and coaxed it down her throat. She moaned her appreciation as I gave her two extra-strength Advil and another mug of tea.
I repeated the steps when Perry, Matthew, John and Penny wombled out, replacing the peppermint tea with double-brewed coffee.
(Womble: to walk or stumble aimlessly; the drunken version of Ambling. Definition courtesy of the Webster Dictionary of Musical Terms and Titles)
Did you think I could make that stuff up? Silly people.
Once everybody was sober enough to glare at me for giving them the patened Lexa Look (© 2004) I unbolted the door and allowed them to wander home aimlessly. (Aw, too bad they were sober. Wombling is totally one of my favorite words and I love to use it, despite how much it makes them hate me.)
I started cleaning up. It was habitual now, keeping my own apartment clean. A clean home was a happy home. It was also habitual every morning, while I sipped my first cuppa of the day, to sit down at my laptop and enter the online writing community Spark The Flame. I was posting regular chapters of an eBook there under the alias Eliza Strorm and I was having a blast with it, too. It was pretty fun.
The mail came as I was updating my eBook. I’d finally come to the major conflict in my book and poor Sammy, my main character, was being torn between her family and her lover, Rebecca. It was as achingly painful to write as I am sure it is going to be to read. I was sort of grateful for the distraction, to be totally honest. I was nearly in tears with what I was doing to poor Sammy.
I had two letters, one from each of the colleges/universities I’d applied to, and a third letter from a college I know I never applied to. I started with the most prominent and worked my way backwards.
Dear Miss Riddle,
We are sorry to inform you that you have not been accepted at this time to our Harvard English Majors program . . .
I tossed the letter onto my junk mail pile and reached for the next one.
Dear Miss Riddle,
We regret to inform you that your application to our Yale English Literature Majors program was mailed too late in the last semester and that all of our places are filled . . .
Junk. I picked up the letter bearing the Oxford seal and tore it open, wondering what Oxford, the most prestigious secondary school in England, had to say about me.
Dear Miss Lexa Riddle
You have been chosen this year out of thousands of students to participate in the Writers Abroad program. If you choose to accept this honour (If not, it shall be passed to the next person on the list) then you shall spend your first year of university at Oxford to study in one of our many excellent English programs. You will be invited to seminars on writing put forth by our most prominent Oxford graduates and it shall be on your perogative that you write an essay, short story or other literary device on your time here.
I stared at the letter for a few moments. The Writers Abroad program . . . It was rare for it to even be mentioned to a girl like me with mediochre grades. Someone I know from the English Lit class from my first year at Borough Hills had been accepted to the Writers Abroad program, but she’d had to give it up because her parents were forcing her to go into the service or some silly, stupid, totally parent-like thing like that. But for me to be invited into the program? As if I was going to fucking say no!