After thirty minutes of searching, I found a parking spot a block away from the high school reunion party my friend had encouraged me to attend. It was tough going at it alone because going back to my old school was a reminder of what I had to endure for four years, but facing my fears was the only way to put it all behind me. Who had high school reunions anyway? Wasn't it bullshit television invented just to start unnecessary drama? Or maybe people really did want to see how better off they were than someone else. Boost their ego, maybe? Regardless, I was here, and there was no point in turning back. Wasting fuel for no reason was a pet peeve of mine, and I had no spare gas money, so I had to make it count for something.
With the key still in the ignition, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. At this point, my hope was for no one to recognize me. In high school I was obese. I'd fail every fitness test, and of course, I was a target for bullies. Knowing I was gay made the whole thing worse because I was already being made fun of for being different. Adding my homosexuality to that equation would've escalated the harassment. Food was always there to comfort me when I got home, however. When something tasted good, it made me feel happy. Staying inside my room all day made me feel safe, unlike school where I felt like I needed to hide. All these years later, would I still eat my feelings away? Not as much as before. When my mother's health declined, it was a pretty life changing moment. The question hit me: how was I supposed to take care of my mother when I didn't know how to take care of myself? Since college had to be put on hold because of her illness, I used the time I had to lose all the weight. Life changing choice indeed.
I looked into the rear-view mirror to make sure I was decently shaved and my hair was combed well. I also picked at my clothes with hands that shook with anxiety as I checked for lint and wrinkles. People change, right? There's no way they'd stay immature assholes, would they?
My phone rang in my pocket. I jumped, startled by the noise. The caller ID read "Val." She was the first real friend I ever made. Unfamiliar with the equipment at the gym, and feeling a bit out of place, Val noticed my discomfort and offered to help me. I didn't know where I'd be without her.
"I'm not going to die, jeez, Val," I answered.
"Well, hello to you, too. Sorry for bothering you with my friendship," she said.
"I'm sorry, but spending three hours with you shopping for a dress shirt, and a tie I'm only going to wear once, didn't sit well with me."
"Someone's on his man-rag."
"Well, you're just sitting in your car like an idiot!"
My shoulders tensed as I looked around in a panic. "How do you know that?"
"We've known each other long enough. Try to have a good time for once," she said. "You look fine, Gabe. And not just because it was me who dressed you up. You're not the same person you were in high school. Don't let your past haunt you forever."
"I know, Val," I said with a smile. "Thanks." I glanced at my phone, realizing the time. In a rush, I took the key out of the ignition and stepped out of my car. "Look, I have to go. The party started at seven and I'm already fifteen minutes late."
"Fashionably late. Good idea, Gabe," Val said.
I shook my head even though she couldn't see it. "See you later."
"Good luck," she said before hanging up.
Even though I had no friends in high school, I still had acquaintances, or more like outcasts who just flocked together since they had nowhere else to go. We added each other on social media after graduation, but never talked to each other much. One of them— Juan— sent me the invite to this reunion in the first place. I didn't know how he obtained an invitation, but there was no point in wondering since he wasn't much of a talker. He also never confirmed if he was attending. The invitation instructed the receiver to spread the word to anyone who was part of the graduating class of 2006, and I was probably the last person on that list because there was no one else for me to send it to. Was that pathetic? It probably was.
After walking down the block, the school came into view. Meridional Hedge High School; the words "Home of the dominant Blackbucks" were written at the top of the entrance of the main building. It looked exactly like it did ten years ago, which wasn't a comforting thought. It would only make the memories that much more vivid.
My heart hammered in my chest as I walked up the steps. When I gathered up the courage to open the door, there was a sign put up that instructed me to head for the gym at the south end of the campus. The halls were empty. The typical posters made from students were scattered across the walls, encouraging people to join clubs, or announcing events taking place. If I hadn't been an outcast, I would've joined the swimming team, leadership, or maybe even the LGBT club if I had been brave enough to come out in high school.
"Oh, shit…" I gasped when I spotted my old locker. It was next to the water fountain and men's bathroom. Sure, it was a great place to glance at every guy in high school going in and coming out of there, but it was also easy for bullies to drag me in there without too many people noticing. "Too late to do anything about it now," I said, putting my hand on my old locker.
"Uh, excuse me?" I turned around and saw a student with a concerned look on his face. "That's my locker. Can I help you?"
"Sorry." My face flushed with embarrassment, I backed away.
"Mr. Parker, why are you still on campus?" Down the hall, a man headed in our direction. When he was a few feet away from us, I recognized him as the same principal from ten years ago. He was still the same round, happy looking guy, except his hair and beard appeared to be airbrushed with grey. "Students are not allowed on campus this late, especially during the weekend."
"Sorry. I forgot to take my science book home yesterday," Parker said while he opened his locker. "I'm already leaving." He grabbed his book and scowled at me. "Fucking pedophile."
Parker rushed out of the halls.
I stood in the middle of the hallway until the principal approached me.
"Should I be worried?" Principal Ramirez asked.
"No, no! Definitely not," I said. "I'm here for the high school reunion."
Principal Ramirez looked relieved. "I'm making my way there right now." He gestured for me to follow him after he shook my hand. "I'm afraid I don't recognize you. You either had no trouble at all here, or my age is starting to catch up with me."
"It's me, Principal Ramirez… Gabriel Solos."
He paused to give me the once-over with wide eyes. "Wait. You mean… No you can't be… Gabriel? The same chubby, young man whose mother came in and threatened to sue the school?"
"She can be… a little irrational sometimes…" I muttered. "Sorry about that. She was just concerned about—"
"It's good to see you again!" He shook my hand again, clapping me on the shoulder as he did. "You've changed so much I didn't even recognize you. How are you? What did you do after you graduated?" He left his hand on the center of my back as he continued to walk with me.
"I'm fine, thanks. And my mom became ill a little after graduation, so I had to put college on hold for a while. She's fine now, which is good. Still haven't attended college though, but everything has been going well so far at least. Not as bad as it was here."
"Well, that's good to hear," Principal Ramirez said. "I'm sorry Meridional Hedge wasn't very welcoming to you. I'm not going to walk beside you and say it was all to build character. You came to my office almost every day to hide from your peers, so I know how much you've suffered." He paused right outside of the gym where music and people could be heard from inside. "Even now, I wish I could've done more to help you. I carry that burden with me every day, but I use what I learned from our friendship to help other students who go through the same thing."
My eyebrows raised in surprise and I couldn't help but grin. "Thanks, Principal Ramirez. I never thought I'd hear that from you."
"Please, just call me Raymond. I'm not your principal anymore," he said while he held the door open for me. "Welcome back to Meridional Hedge, class of 2006."
Upon entrance, my ID was matched with my name on the 2006 graduating class list as a safety precaution. As expected, the room was filled with people that I recognized. They looked the same except they had a more sophisticated look to them. It was hard to explain, but it was like going through a second puberty that was dedicated to losing one's adolescence. There was generic music playing in the background, tables and chairs spread out throughout the gym, arches made of grey and red balloons— our school colors— were spread throughout the room as well. People were laughing, talking, catching up with one another while they grabbed food and drinks from a table in the back of the room.
I made myself scarce and hurried off to see what kind of food the reunion had to offer. With the stress of possibly facing the people who were responsible for my emotional turmoil, the cravings were out of my control. I wasn't even going to fight them back. A few minutes into the party, I already wanted to leave before someone asked me who I was. At least the food was all right: salad, chicken, turkey, ham, gravy, and mash potatoes. It was like celebrating Christmas or Thanksgiving.
When I had my plate ready, I wondered where I was going to find a seat. All the tables had been filled with exclusive groups of people. It was the same as trying to find a place to sit alone during lunch.
I flinched at the sound of my name, turning to face a woman whose face I didn't recognize.
When she realized my confusion, she put a reassuring hand on my arm. "It's me, Layla," she said. "I was that skinny girl with acne and horrible hair. I was part of the, you know, group that was made fun of."
I took a step back in surprise. "Layla Capello? Wow, you look…"
"I know, I know. Laser skin surgery, shampoo, protein, and a nose job," she said.
"How did you recognize me?"
"We spent a lot of time together in high school, Gabriel. You have that same frightened look you had ten years ago when you couldn't find a place to hide. If it weren't for that, I wouldn't have recognized you," Layla said with a smirk. "Why don't you come sit with me? You came alone, right?" She held me by the arm and guided me to her table.
I looked across the table when I set down my plate. I recognized the other people sitting with us. They were all part of the outcasts that I used to pass the time with. I held back a groan when I sat in my chair. This was like high school all over again. However, no one's appearance was close to how they were ten years ago. Since both of Juan's sleeves were folded up to his elbows, the tattoos covering his whole arms were visible, Audrey no longer wore glasses, Renee wasn't a creepy goth anymore, and Rylen had built a lot of muscle.
"Remember Gabriel?" Layla reintroduced me with a smile on her face.
Rylen nodded. "Of course. You were picked on the most."
"And the worst," Juan added.
"Right…" I muttered, taking a big bite of my food.
"You lost a lot of weight, dude! I wouldn't have recognized you at all. How did you do it?" Renee asked.
I felt the blood rush up to my cheeks. "Well, I went to the gym almost every day, had a friend help me out with my diet, how to use the equipment, and fought off my cravings whenever I could," I said, searching for a subject change. "So… how does it feel to be back on campus?"
Audrey made a sound of disgust when she leaned back in her chair. "Terrible. Almost left a few minutes ago. I went to the bathroom earlier and ran into Alisa. She gave me this look… I can't explain it, but it was like she was saying 'What are you doing here?' The only thing that made me feel better was her botched up face. Half of it looks like a dentist had just finished numbing the left side of it."
Renee almost snorted out her drink. "Karma's a bitch."
"The campus is nostalgic," Juan said. "Nothing seems any dif—"
"I'm actually enjoying myself," Rylen interrupted. "Remember that guy, Santos? One look at me and he backed away. He won't mess with me now, I bet." Rylen grinned then nodded his head towards me. "How about you, Gabe? Run into any assholes yet?"
I shook my head, afraid of where this conversation was going. "Uh, no… Just you guys."
"Wasn't there one guy in particular that picked on you the most?" Layla asked.
Frozen, I continued to look down at my plate. I was hoping I'd go the whole night without being reminded about Barrett, who was a big part of my high school trauma. I stayed quiet so they could figure it out for themselves.
"Oh, yeah. What was his name?" Audrey rubbed her chin, deep in thought.
"Something… Barrett…" Renee murmured.
"His name was—" Juan tried to say.
"Vittore!" Rylen exclaimed. "He never went by his first name for some reason though. Just 'Barrett.'" He leaned closer to me with his hand covering his mouth. "I can beat him up for you if you want." He mocked a whisper.
I forced out a laugh. "No. Just forget it. He's not worth the trouble," I said.
"That's the spirit!" Layla patted me on the back. "And speak of the devil… literally."
We followed her gaze towards the entrance of the gym, my appetite disappearing and my hands beginning to shake when I saw Barrett confirming his identification. He looked the same, just more stubble, his dark hair slicked back, and he wore a dress shirt without a tie, but the top button was undone. When he was finished, he glanced around the room with an annoyed expression on his face. His stare had eventually landed on our table. My heart leaped to my throat when we looked at each other. I wasn't sure if this was my imagination, but his ice grey eyes seemed to linger on me. It sent a chill down my spine, the room beginning to spin. Was it a mistake to come here after all?
A few seconds later, he was bombarded by his friends: the same group of bullies who also followed Barrett around. I didn't bother to see if they looked different either. Knowing that they were near me made me want to vomit. At the same time, however, my body deflated from the breath of air I hadn't realized I was holding in.
"You think he recognized us?" Renee asked, worried.
Juan opened his mouth to say something, but Rylen spoke instead. "Doubt it. But if he did, someone would have to hold me back."
"I don't think any of us would," Layla said.
I turned my head away from Barrett and forced myself to eat my food. "Why don't we ignore him and enjoy the rest of our night?" I suggested, hoping this would be the last time I'd have to see his face.
The rest of the night went well. Everyone shared what they studied in college, their future plans and careers, and they even encouraged me to go back to school despite my long hiatus. Throughout the whole event, I didn't know whether it was my paranoia because of his close proximity, but it was like I could occasionally feel Barrett's gaze on me. It left me unsettled, but I didn't let it ruin my time with my old acquaintances. By the end of the reunion, I had exchanged numbers with everyone, promising to keep more in touch with them. We even got to say goodbye to our principal one last time, which was also nice. I guess it wasn't a mistake coming here after all. I just wanted the night to end with a nice, hot shower. At least tomorrow was Sunday, so I had time to recover from all the socializing I had to do tonight before going back to work.
I dug my keys out of my pocket as I headed towards my car. I stepped inside, sitting down with a yawn before putting my key into the ignition. The headlights on my car flickered, and the engine sounded like a dying horse when I turned my key. I pursed my lips together in concern and turned my key again. This time, nothing happened. When I realized my car's battery had died, I sank my head onto the steering wheel. Earlier in the evening, I must have failed to notice that I hadn't turned off my headlights while on the phone with Val.
Of course my night wasn't going to go as smooth as I wanted it to. What did I ever do to deserve my shitty luck? I took out my phone and looked for Val's number. At least she'd be able to help me jump start my car.
There was light knocking on my window that stopped me from calling her. I couldn't see the person's face because he was standing close to my car. "Do you need some help?" the man asked, his voice muffled.
Without thinking, I opened my door and stepped outside. Before I could thank him, my throat constricted when I realized it was Barrett standing in front of me.
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