"He is no less than a stuffed man, but for the stuffing—well, we are all mortal."


Hannah Ato and Brittany Hawke sat on the edge of the Messina High parking lot. It was a warm, spring night, a good day to be outside, and an adequate day to be stuck waiting for a ride home from Hannah's father. Coach Ato was out with the rest of the baseball team; they had an afternoon game, and would no doubt arrive back to school at any second. Hannah waited patiently, but Brittany was no longer too keen on waiting.

Brittany fell back onto the sidewalk and sighed. "Come on, Hannah, I told you, we aren't that far away from your house. Why can't we just walk there?"

"Because," Hannah responded snootily, "we are waiting for the team to get back. They might have made it to state; this is a big deal for my dad, okay?"

"You sure it's not because of Chris?" Brittany asked, narrowing her eyes playfully. Chris was a senior outfielder, and a boy that Hannah just happened to have her eye on.

"Shut up," Hannah said. "You know that's not it!" Her blush said otherwise.

Brittany sat up quickly, emboldened by Hannah's reaction. "Don't lie to me like that; you know I see right through you. Besides, if anyone can put in a good word for you, it's me."

"He wouldn't even be interested, he doesn't even know me that well."

"He's a boy, he likes anything he can put his dick into."

"Brittany!"

"I'm just saying, you've got an in if you let him put it in," Brittany laughed. Flustering Hannah was a favorite pastime of hers, although she found it far too easy.

"Well I hope he isn't that kind of boy," Hannah muttered.

"So you are staying here for him?"

"I said, shut up!" Hannah's face was bright as a tomato, which made Brittany just laugh harder.

"Oh, calm down," Brittany chided. "I've had to listen to Peter Donovan go on and on about how wonderful of a guy Chris is, and if that dork is such good friends with Chris, then there's no way Chris is even a little sleazy. Besides, he's never tried anything on me, and look at me; he definitely would."

"Maybe he's waiting for prom."

"Don't be stupid. High school doesn't revolve around prom. This isn't a stupid movie. You've got a lot to learn about how the world works, young one."

"I'm only a year younger than you, Brittany," Hannah shot back, laughing.

"And that makes me a whole year wiser, Hannah. You little sophomores think you know everything, but you aren't much worse than the freshmen."

Hannah slapped at Brittany playfully, and the two friends laughed. Suddenly, Hannah's phone started vibrating. She looked over to see who was calling her. "Oh shit, it's my dad," she said, and grabbed the phone.

"Hello?"

"Are they back yet? Tell them I don't see the bus and I'm getting hungry."

"Not now, Brittany—hi Dad! Yeah, Brittany's here too, did you—oh my god, that's great!"

"What is it?" Brittany asked. "Put it on speaker." Hannah dropped the phone into her palm and pressed the screen.

"—got the last catch," rumbled the voice of a middle-aged man. Coach Ato was a proud and excitable man, and Brittany could tell from just the end of that sentence that the ball game must have gone well. "Chris really came together out there today; I'm proud of him."

"You don't say?!" Brittany said, eyes poring into Hannah's skull. "He seems like a real good guy. Bet he'd make a lady very happy." Hannah had gone beet red again.

"Wha…? Oh. Hey, Brittany. I…I guess, oh, hey, and Ben pitched six shut-out innings, too!"

Brittany's expression immediately turned sour at the sound of Benjamin Bullworth's name. The two had been close friends for most of their elementary and middle-school years, and even dated briefly in tenth grade, but after a rough breakup, the two couldn't stand to be in the same room together.

"Oh, that's…that's amazing," Brittany said, feigning sincerity. "But of course, it's not too hard for any batters to miss the ball when they're too afraid that looking at the pitcher will turn them to stone." Hannah raised an eyebrow at Brittany, who winked at her. Her tone was playful, but Hannah thought she heard some resentment in Brittany's voice at the mere thought of Ben succeeding at something.

"Now, Brittany," Coach Ato said, not catching the resentment and only hearing her joke at face-value, "It's been a while since I've studied myths, but I'm thinking that's not how the story goes."

"Nope, that's definitely how it goes. You can tell him I said that, too."

"Ah, tell him yourself, we're almost there. I just wanted to call and make sure I knew where you troublemakers were."

"Dad, I would never…" Hannah started.

"That one's mostly on Brittany," Coach Ato said.

"That's fair," Brittany agreed, shrugging. "See you soon, Uncle A."

"See you girls," he said, and with a soft click, the phone went silent. The two girls sat in silence on the curb; Brittany wore an expression of smugness, while Hannah's face was a bit shrewder. As the seconds ticked by, Brittany could no longer ignore the judgmental expression on her cousin's face.

"What?"

"It's just so like you to start your whole flirty war of wits with Ben before he's even near you."

"War of wits? Are you kidding? It is nothing like that! If we ever had a battle of wits, it was a long time ago, and I killed all of his wits except whatever dumb one he has now. I'd be completely done with that dumbass, if it weren't for the fact that—"

"—that you've still got feelings for him?"

"—that he's decided to buddy-buddy up with Chris since he asked me to Prom, and you watch that tongue, I can ruin you if I so desire," Brittany finished, shoving Hannah playfully again, although this time, Hannah noted, much more defensively. "Benjamin Bullshit wears his friends like he wears his stupid designer clothes – only to make him look good until they don't anymore."

"So I take it he's not in your good books?" Hannah said, smiling.

"If I even had just one copy of him in an entire library, I'd burn the whole library."

"Seems a bit counter-productive."

"So's trying to get with a man who already has a date to prom, but you don't see me complaining." Brittany stood up suddenly, her appetite for banter quickly diminished. Noting the change, Hannah also stood up and made to apologize, but something held her back. She hadn't known what exactly it was that broke the two up after they had dated, but seeing how Brittany and Ben to both hold such a grudge over it, she didn't even know if she wanted to wade into that pool of emotions. Instead, she noticed that there was a long yellow school bus turning onto the street and towards the front entrance of the school.

Brittany and Hannah stayed silent as the bus rumbled up to the school entrance and fall to a stop. She seemed to be hiding her sudden sullenness as the doors hissed open and the first wave of students piled out, sweaty from the game. Some had grass and dirt stains on their knees and chests, while some looked like they had just put their uniforms on for the ride there. Either way, almost all of them were smiling ear to ear. Finally, a heavyset man with short, salt and pepper hair and a lightly wrinkled smile. "Hey, girls," Mr. Ato said happily. "Thanks for waiting on—"

"Brittany Hawke and Hannah Ato themselves! Good to see you!" Roared a boy who was right behind him. Darting around Coach Ato, Peter Donovan ran up to see his two friends. He was shorter than Hannah, who herself was still only about five feet tall, and he was scrawny. Brittany wondered to herself how any noise as booming as Peter's could come from a mouth so tiny as Peter's.

"Hey, Peter," Brittany said politely. "Is Chris somewhere back there?"

"He's right here!" Chris himself said, stepping off the bus. He was much larger than Peter, topping off around six feet tall, with strawberry-blonde hair and bright green eyes. He looked like a child from a Norman Rockwell painting, only grown up. His face still looked very young and sweet. Hannah and Brittany shared a glance as Chris walked up to them.

"Chris, have I introduced you to Hannah yet?" Brittany asked. Hannah fell mute and blushed yet again.

"You…you have not," he responded as he looked her up and down, slowly. A little too slowly. Brittany cringed, and Hannah seemed to shrink a little lower in embarrassment.

"Alright, calm down, Sparky. She's the coach's daughter," Brittany said defensively, stepping between the two and smiling.

Chris stepped back and looked at the coach. "Wait, this Hannah is your daughter?"

"Of course, she is," Peter said. "She looks just like him!"

"Yikes, I'd hope not," came a voice from behind them all. "What a terrible thing to say to a young girl, saying she looks like an old man." Another boy stepped off the bus. He was about as tall as Chris was, but rail-thin and with sharp eyes. He had medium-length brown hair that fell in front of green brown eyes. Stubble clung like dirt to his chin; he was one of the few boys in school that could actually grow any facial hair that wasn't immediately embarrassing. He had his bag swung over his shoulder confidently and effortlessly.

"Are you still talking, Ben? No one wants to hear it," Brittany said roughly and loudly. Her words were like gunshots, and most of the students and ballplayers stepped back. Ben and Brittany meeting up in public usually was treated like the two were gladiators in an arena; their sharp words jabbing at each other like spears. And at this time, it seemed that Brittany was making the first move.

Ben stepped back and coughed in mock surprise, then stepped forward with a jab of his own. "Brittany? Brittany Hawke? Is that really you? Haven't you shriveled up and died yet, you raisin?"

"A raisin at least provides something to someone, unlike you," Brittany parried. "And I'm only shriveled up because you make everything shrivel up and die just by being near them."

"Oh, believe me, the last thing I do is leave people dry," Ben said, to a chorus of shouts by some of the other players. "Especially the girls, if you remember correctly."

Brittany's eyes burned like fire. "The only thing I remember is a distinct sense of satisfaction that never came. Well, never came from me, at least." The shouts and jeers multiplied. Even Chris and Peter, who usually sided with Ben in these bouts, were snickering quietly behind him. Ben himself was caught off-guard with that one, so she went in for the kill. "Don't even talk to me right now, Ben. I'd rather eat my cat's hairballs than whatever gross thing is going to come out of your mouth next."

"I wish my car was as fast as your tongue, but at least I get better mileage out of that than anyone does with you," Ben retorted. "Anyway, I'll let you have this one, Britt. I already got eight strike-outs today, I don't need another one."

Brittany opened her mouth to fight back, but she didn't have anything she could say. Ben had a way of making it seem like he was always the smarter one in their arguments; even when he lost, he still made it seem like he won. "Come on, Hannah. Let's go."

"Well not so fast!" Chris said. "We won today! We're headed to state! We gotta party tonight. Britt, your house is still fair game, right?"

Brittany was still distracted from her battle. "What?"

"The party?"

"Oh…yeah, yeah. Everyone get here by 10, and no booze this time. Lookin' at you, John," Brittany said, fully recovered, at least on the outside. John Donovan, Peter's older brother, who had snuck off the bus during the battle that had just raged, rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he said.

"Oh, ignore him," Peter said to Brittany. "He's just grumpy because he sat on the bench and didn't make the game-winning play, like some people did." He puffed up his chest proudly.

"Peter, I caught the ball," Chris said, confused. "You didn't have anything to do with the last play."

"I gave the pitcher the signal to give the heat. He pitched the fastball. I orchestrated everything. I'm more than a catcher, I'm a puppetmaster."

"You're an idiot," Ben and Britt said at the same time. They locked eyes and immediately looked away, wondering who was the dumber one for saying the other's joke.

"Alright, kids," Coach Ato said. "You heard Brittany. She's got the party tonight. If I find out any of you are drinking at this, you won't be playing in the state tournament; I don't care how good you are. Hannah, you coming home with me or Brittany?" Hannah inched closer to Brittany, which told him all he needed to know. "Alright. Please be home by 11 or at least call me to say you're spending the night this time."

"I will. See you, Dad!"

Coach Ato ambled toward his SUV and the bus, now completely empty of student athletes, also pulled away. Once the coach was out of earshot, Peter looked at Brittany. "There is going to be booze tonight, right?"

"Obviously," Brittany said. "If I have to invite Ben over, there's no way I'll be able to make it through that party sober. I'll call my buyer." She quickly turned and walked away before he could make a single retort.