Thursday afternoon, I walked into the dining hall to see Walter's friend Melinda grabbing food in the servery. I smiled at her, but she didn't seem to see me. I quickly grabbed a sandwich and followed her to Walter's table in time to hear Walter talking with food in his mouth.
I shook my head as I walked up behind him. "Walter, Walter, Walter. Will you ever learn to stop talking with food in your mouth?"
I placed my tray at the empty seat between Walter and Melinda and sat down. I noticed the couple across the way stopped talking to look at me, but I instead turned to Melinda. Judging by her smile, she didn't seem to mind my presence and I smiled in return.
Walter seemed comfortable as well, as he simply replied "Nope" and took another large bite of his sandwich.
Melinda's chocolate eyes looked directly into mine. "How's your first week back going?"
"Not bad. The time change is killing me. It's been nearly a week and the jet lag just won't completely go away. When I was on set, I was literally up at six every morning. I'm struggling to get out of bed by eight. And, I'm lucky I don't have a first period class. Well, most mornings. I have a stupid biology lab tomorrow. Tell me, who scheduled a biology lab for eight am? Who wants to be dissecting a frog right after breakfast?"
What was it with this girl? For some reason, I was babbling again. But, she seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.
"Is that what you're doing? Dissecting a frog?"
"No idea. Probably not. We've been studying the cell, so I think the lab has more to do with looking under a microscope. I was just trying to make a point."
"Point made." Walter at least had the decency to swallow before speaking.
The girl across the table pointed to me. "Y…You…You're Patrick McGregor!"
This is the type of reaction I expected from girls. I winked at Melinda, who giggled as I reached across the table. "Pat Evans. Nice to meetcha."
The guy was looking between Walter and me as the girl shook my hand. She gave me a quizzical look. "So, you're not Patrick McGregor?"
Walter sighed. "You want the long version or the short version?"
The guy pointed at me. "Whichever one explains why he's sitting here."
I knew he wasn't trying to be mean, but that one kind of stung. I winced, placing a hand on my chest. "Ouch. See? This is all your fault." I poked my brother for emphasis. "You go around pretending to be this famous actor, then we –"
Walter punched my shoulder. It stung enough that I had to rub it while Walter made the introductions. He pointed to each of us in turn. "This is my brother, Pat. That's Larry. He lives across the hall from me and is usually really nice, although right now you'll have to excuse him for forgetting his manners. Sarah is Larry's girlfriend and Melinda's roommate. Pat has been in Hawaii filming a movie."
The girl across the table spoke in a quiet, starstruck tone. "Wait. You're brothers?" When Walter nodded, the girl turned to Melinda. "How come you're not fazed by this?"
I put my arm around Melinda, drawing her in slightly. "Oh, we go way back."
When Melinda picked up my hand and gently removed it from her shoulder, I felt something radiate through me. I was in too much shock to hear her response and the conversation that followed. I took a bite of my sandwich. I must have low blood sugar or something. I tuned back in as Larry was addressing Walter.
"Does Ava know about your family tree, bro?" the guy asked Walter. "Cuz, I could see her going absolutely crazy excited knowing she's with a celebrity. Well, once removed."
I laughed uproariously. "Oh, I love that. Once removed. I'm going to have to use that one! Hi! I'm Pat, and I'm a rock star, once removed."
Walter looked absolutely panic-stricken. "No. No, Ava does not know and no, I'm not ready for her to know." He turned to me and I could see he was growing agitated. "So, no popping in at the table when I'm with Ava. Actually, no popping in in general. I mean—" Walter growled, obviously frustrated, and buried his head in his hands.
I watched his friends exchange looks and bus their trays. Larry spoke first as he stood to leave. His tone was not unkind, which in my mind was more than Walter deserved. "You know you can't keep this a secret forever. But, you also know we won't say anything."
Sarah came around and squeezed Walter into a shoulder hug before following her boyfriend to the dishroom. Melinda came around to crouch beside Walter. She put an arm around his shoulders and peered under his hands. Her words were soft and comforting and I knew how blessed Walter was to have a friend like her.
"We're your friends and we love you. We were your friends before we knew who you were. We don't care that your parents are rich and famous. I know you love your family. I don't understand why you want to hide them. No one who matters is going to treat you any differently. Frankly, I'd be more concerned about people finding out you watch NeoGenesis than that you have famous relatives."
Walter returned Melinda's hug and she even got him to smile before she began bussing her tray. I turned to Walter.
"It's not so much that you watch NeoGenesis. It's the fact that you guys started a club for it. I can't be seen with a third-form weirdo. What'll that do to my image?"
Walter punched me half-heartedly as his friend left. "So, what should I do?"
I sighed. "I don't know. I was never in your position. Everyone already knew who I was before I ever stepped on campus."
"I just don't want to be treated differently."
"Yeah, I get that. I do know how that feels. Can we go running together tomorrow? Maybe we can figure something out there."
Walter nodded. "Yeah. I miss our runs."
Friday night, first study hours was cancelled so we could have a form meeting in the main theater to discuss Saturday's mandatory service day. Unlike our third and fourth form years, we would not be raking leaves at the park, but at the homes of various senior citizens around town. We were given our assigned teams and instructions on how to behave. We then had to meet with our team leader, who would be dropping us off and checking in with us. Overall, the meeting was very boring and I found myself not paying much attention. I knew everyone in my team, of course, but was not really friends with any of them. I had a feeling I was not going to enjoy myself very much.
After the meeting, Frank invited me to a game of pool at the MAC. I was about to decline when my phone started playing the theme song to NeoGenesis. Frank raised his eyebrows at me.
I glanced at the screen. "Walter's texting me. I was going to join his little club tonight, but his girlfriend is going. He doesn't want me there. I guess we're playing pool."
Frank just shook his head as we headed towards the MAC. "You should go anyway. Just to annoy him."
I laughed. "Yeah, probably. But, I'll give him this tonight. He'll just owe me big time later."
"Hey. Isn't there a dance tomorrow night? There's usually one after Service Day."
I wiggled my eyebrows. "I see where you're going. Okay. I'll bug him there. With all his little friends, not just the girlfriend."
"Sick." Frank and I exchanged fist bumps as we headed to commandeer a pool table.
There are three mandatory service days each year. The one during fall term always involves raking leaves. My first year we walked to a local park in drizzly weather. It was cold and wet enough to be miserable, but not enough for them to cancel service day. I hated it. Last year we were bussed to a park on the other side of town. The day was a little better, since Frank and Zach and I were on the same team and the weather was a little better. But it was still pretty boring.
This year, about a dozen of us boarded a van. One of the art teachers drove us to a three-story Victorian about the size of the senior houses on campus. It was bright pink with purple trim and looked like it belonged in some sort of fairy tale. The yard was overrun with leaves.
The teacher turned to look at us. "Okay. Team one. You're up. Patrick, Jayden, Madison, Hayley."
We climbed out of the van and walked around to the back, where we each pulled a rake from the trunk. The teacher handed us a stack of leaf bags and reminded us to behave ourselves before driving off.
The deans had explained the situation to us the night before. We were to rake and bag all the leaves in the yard without disturbing whomever lived there. As our ride drove away, we wordlessly, began our task.
Madison was a decent worker, but Jayden and Hayley both seemed to have trouble with their rakes. Every time I looked at either of them, they were engrossed in some conversation and their piles were not growing any larger. It was extremely frustrating.
It took us about an hour to clear the front yard. When moved around to the back, my heart sank. There were easily twice as many leaves back here, despite its small size. Madison and I had just started making one giant leaf pile in the center of the yard when the back door opened.
"I thought you children could use a snack." The woman looked to be nearly as old as my grandmother, but just as sharp. In her hands was a wooden tray with a pitcher of lemonade, four plastic cups, and a plate of chocolate chip cookies that looked homemade. My classmates descended on the tray, only Madison having the good manners to thank the woman for the treats. I, however, kept working until every leaf in the yard had made its way into my pile.
Madison managed to drag Hayley away from the food. While the girls bagged, I took a quick break. The old woman, who was sitting at a table on the porch, poured me a glass of lemonade.
"Thank you." I didn't realize how thirsty I was until I had downed nearly half the glass in one gulp.
"Cookie?" The woman passed me the plate. It was nearly empty. I took only one, not wanting to be rude. I could always get more when we got back on campus.
"Thank you. These are very good."
"You're a hard worker."
I shrugged, finishing the cookie in three bites. I gulped down the rest of the lemonade and returned the cup to the table. I wanted more, but I wanted to finish this task before nightfall.
The van returned to the house as we were carting the final leaf bags to the curb. We waved goodbye to the old lady, put our rakes in the back of the van, and piled in. The teacher drove to two more houses to pick up the rest of my classmates before returning to campus. After all that raking, I was exhausted. All I wanted was a hot shower and to just relax. I texted my friends, only to learn that Frank had disappeared to the robotics lab and Chloe had holed up in the library to work on college applications.
I was, however, able to convice Walter to join me in the MAC to watch football. He agreed on the condition that he could sit on another couch, although there were so many guys crowded around the television screen that no one noticed when I sat beside him.
"How was your first Service Day?"
He laughed and told me about his friend pushing their dean into the leaves.
I swore. "Are you guys in trouble?"
He shook his head. "Nah, she just laughed it off, thankfully."
While we were watching the game, people began setting up the stage for the dance that evening. I turned to Walter, nodding towards the sound equipment. "Are you going tonight?"
He nodded. "Ava wants to. Are you?"
"Probably. Look, I won't bother you if you don't want me to. Just shake your head if you want me to go away, deal?"
Walter and I bumped fists to seal the deal, then shouted as a quarterback was tackled.
I had a hard time convincing Frank and Chloe, but eventually I was able to persuade them to join me at the MAC that night. By the time we arrived, people were just starting to find the dance floor. Mostly third formers, judging by the large groups. I saw Walter enter with a cute girl, who saw me almost immediately. Walter shook his head at me, but he needn't have bothered. As soon as that girl started jumping up and down, I moved in the opposite direction. We went upstairs to watch the crowd and I received a text from Walter. Run away! Now! I laughed and showed my friends.
"Wow. I thought you said he was getting better about having you around," Chloe commented.
"Hey. Weren't we supposed to be bugging him tonight?" Frank reminded me.
"Yeah. I don't think I want to anymore." I looked over the rail and pointed to my brother. "I saw his girlfriend. As soon as she saw me, she went into crazy fan mode. That's why we're up here."
Frank laughed. "I think you like it."
"Not here. I'm supposed to be Pat Evans here, not Patrick McGregor."
Frank looked over the rail at Walter. "So, I'm counting…like a dozen people in that little group. How many of them have you met?"
"The three he has lunch with. Melinda, Sarah, and Larry."
Frank examined the group another moment. "Wait. That's Walter's girlfriend? I thought he was with that other girl. The one you like."
"What?" I could feel my jaw hit the floor.
Chloe rolled her eyes. Why do girls do that? "You're always talking about her. Hey, Frank. Which one is she?" Chloe leaned over the rail to spy on Walter.
"I don't see her." Frank turned to face me again. "You're not denying it."
I sighed. "I like her as Walter's friend. Nothing more."
I could tell Frank and Chloe were not convinced, but I was done with this conversation. "Let's go dance." I headed down the stairs and, luckily, they followed.
I saw Melinda enter the room holding hands with some guy I assumed was her townie boyfriend. They went to dance with Walter, and it was not long before Walter and his girlfriend left the room. I turned back around and my friends were gone.
I found them at the top of the stairs. "Three minutes," Frank announced. "That's how long it took for you to realize we were gone."
"You like her," Chloe sang.
I narrowed my eyes at my friends. "I'm leaving."
"Hi!" squeaked a voice beside me. "I'm Ava. I'm in the third form and I just wanted to tell you, I am SUCH a huge fan."
I glanced at Walter, who was turning red beside his girlfriend. "It's nice to meet you. I've gotta get going." I turned and quickly headed back down the stairs.
"What just happened?" Chloe asked.
"I had to get away."
"I think you like it." Frank shook his head at me as he took Chloe's hand and led her back onto the dance floor. I followed them, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw Melinda and her boyfriend leave the room. All of a sudden, my dinner wasn't settling very well. Frank started dancing with a couple of fourth form girls and Chloe went off with some senior. I went over to where the couches usually are to stand with James from my Latin class. We talked colleges while I watched for my brother, who never returned. Melinda did, and after a few moments, her boyfriend leaned in to kiss her. My stomach again began to protest the fries I had at dinner.
Melinda turned and I couldn't help myself. I smiled and waved. She looked a little mortified as she gave me a feeble wave and leaned into her boyfriend. They left the room again and my stomach grew extremely uneasy.
The longer I talked to James, the more uncomfortable my stomach became. Eventually, I had to excuse myself to see if the vending machine had any ginger ale. I was inserting my ID card into the slot when Melinda rushed in, bumping smack into me.
I smiled as I caught her, again feeling an electric charge. I released her quickly. "Oh, hey. Where's Townie?"
Melinda waved vaguely near her shoulder. "Gone. Going." She was obviously flustered. "I don't wanna talk about it."
She ran up the stairs and I texted Walter a quick message that Melinda could probably use her roommate at that moment.
"So, what happened last night?" I asked Walter when we went running Sunday morning. "You and Ava disappeared."
Walter shrugged. "We broke up. Turns out, her main goal in life is to marry someone rich. The more famous, the better. She's pretty much the opposite of who I want to be with."
Walter nodded. "Yeah. I visited with Melinda 'til curfew. She broke up with her boyfriend, too, but she's not too upset about it. I asked her to the Victory Ball."
"You did?" I didn't bother to hide my surprise. Last night's fries started bothering my stomach again.
"Yeah. We're gonna go as friends. Unless one of us gets a real date."
"Just friends? Cuz, you seem awfully chipper about it."
"I want to go to the Victory Ball, but I really don't want to go alone and now I don't have to ask some random girl I hardly know. All the rest of my friends have dates."
My stomach seemed to settle as we continued our run, but I vowed to stay away from the fried foods in the dining hall for the rest of the week. When I got back to the dorm, Frank was just getting up.
"Hey," he greeted me. "Question for you. How would you feel if I asked Bianca to the dance?"
"Connors?" I called her a rather unflattering name as I leafed through my wardrobe to find clothes to change into.
Frank smiled. "Yeah. Would that be okay with you?"
"We were together for like a month, what? Two years ago? I really don't care."
"Okay. Good. Just checking. Who you taking?"
"I haven't thought about it."
I threw my physics book at him and left to take a shower.
Franks question had gotten me to thinking. So did my conversation with Walter. I knew there was a long line of girls who would love to go to the dance with me. I also knew I didn't want to go with some girl I hardly knew.
I decided to take a page from Walter's book. I texted Chloe after lunch, asking her if she wanted to go to the ball with me as friends. When she didn't answer right away, I worried she would say no. But, just before dinner, my phone chirped. Yes.