Behind the Times: Sophomore Year
Part One: Fall
Buster was flipping through a magazine when his mom came home from work. Bitzi didn’t say a word as she popped into the kitchen and shoved a frozen meal into the microwave, doing what the directions said without even reading them. She instinctively moved to the counter between the freezer and microwave where Buster’s trash sat untouched from his dinner several hours ago. The tired editor threw them in the trash without thinking.
Buster and his mom weren’t exactly close anymore. Buster had become more childish over the years and stopped being so helpful. After an eventful summer with his step-mother and her three kids, he was asked not to return by his father. Since they were estranged, Buster’s home life got even more quiet. He didn’t try to end the silence with friends, only video games and old comics from his childhood. Bitzi ignored him, hoping it was just a phase, but she was worried about her son.
When the microwave’s timer went off, Bitzi moved her meal to the small coffee table in the living room. She turned it from Buster’s cartoon that he was listening to, putting the television on an evening news show. Buster knew this was her ritual and said nothing.
“How was school?” she asked, again instinctively. She looked up, knowing he usually just shrugged about everything.
“Fine,” he replied. Bitzi dropped her fork, sending it across the floor. Buster put down his magazine and moved to the kitchen to get her another one. Bitzi watched with her mouth half-open.
When Buster delivered the fork, Bitzi looked him over, “So, who are you and what have you done with my son?”
“It’s me, Buster, Mom. Can’t I be helpful every once and a while, maybe say something to you? It’s not that hard.”
“For you it is,” she said, trying again to begin her dinner. “Ever since you met your step-mother, you’ve been wicked to everyone. And I know your grades are bad. They send me emails. I don’t pry because I know you need your space, but this really is out of character for you at this time. Did something happen at school?” she asked.
“No,” he replied flatly, still slipping through the magazine, still shocking his mother by using real words.
“Did you improve your grades?”
“I’m working on it but nothing new today.”
“Then what is it, Buster? I know it’s something. Come on, you really can tell me anything,” Bitzi pleading. She could tell Buster was trying too hard to keep looking at his magazine, but still the teen remained quiet. And because the commercials were over, Bitzi was focusing on the screen instead. She needed to know what was going on in the world, but she wanted even more to know what was going on with her son.
Honestly, Buster was also surprised. Why the sudden need to talk? Why the urge to call Arthur for a chat or to go play basketball in the park until dark? Normally flipping through magazines, watching cartoons, and playing video games was all he needed. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough.
To make matters worse, every time he closed his eyes, he saw Lily. He wondered what her home life was like. Did she have any siblings or step-siblings? Were her parents still married? Buster had so many questions, but he felt they were too personal. They had a class together, which judging by the bus ride home was more than most guys had with her. He couldn’t mess things up by asking stupid things.
Buster needed to remain his quiet self. He had no choice if he wanted to please Lily—
To please Lily. Buster’s heart pounded. That’s exactly what he wanted to do, but how could a guy like him go about such a thing? He wasn’t made for wooing girls, especially someone as beautiful and smart and talented as Lily…or at least he assumed those last two things. In his mind, she was an angel sent to him from heaven. She was his everything, a something to take care of—
‘Snap out of it, Baxter!’ he flinched, his thoughts telling him to stop before he got carried away. But his heart was pounding. His heart was doing all the work here. He liked Lily, a lot, and enough to try to have her.
Lily was sitting in her room reading when her mother asked to come inside. Lily’s room was another finished room, and aside from some painting that needed to be done, it looked as immaculate as her mother’s office. They looked at home as her mother moved to the bed and sat beside her. After marking her place with a bookmark, she turned to see what her mother wanted.
“You know, I feel like you’re going to have a fine time finding friends here in Elwood City. Everyone seems so open, and there are far more kids than I thought there were. I was wondering if I could help you though, so I found a mom group online for people with kids at Elwood City High—“
“Mom, I know where this is going and I’m not interested,” Lily said firmly. Her mother smiled to her, but Lily’s face remained blank. This happened once before when she was in middle school. For months, Lily was forced to be friends with two girls who couldn’t stand her. They were nice about it—their moms were forcing them too, of course. It was still a horrible experience, and Lily couldn’t believe her mom was trying to repeat things all over again.
“Look, Lily, I know moves can be a hard thing. That’s why I want to make it easier for you if I can. These moms seem really nice, and they were beaming about their daughters. I’m sure they can offer you at least a tour of the place to help you get adjusted,” Lillian offered.
Lily shook her head, “Mom, I’ll be fine. I’m sixteen now. I know how to read signs and find my way around a city. I’m comfortable asking others for help. And most of all, I can make my own friends. Believe me, everyone here wants to be my friend. I just have decide who I want.”
Lillian was beaming, “Oh, they could all be your friends!” she exclaimed. Lily shook her head, “One or two, maybe more if it’s an existing circle. I don’t want the life you had in high school, okay? Can we drop this? I really want to finish this book before bed.”
Lillian felt defeated, but she left the room without mentioning the social outing she’d planned for the next afternoon. She would just ask Lily there and see what happened. It’s not that she didn’t believe in her daughter. She just wanted to make everything easy for her, whether she wanted that simplicity or not.
It was late in Elwood City, yet the Crosswire house was still lit as if it were noon. Lights poured out of the windows, and inside, Millicent and Ed were going about their nightly work as if it were many hours earlier. Upstairs, Muffy was in her room at her computer video chatting with her friends. Amanda was working on her nightly beauty regimen, a fine green paste covering her face. Leila was struggling to finish her math homework. Another friend of theirs, Ariella, was painting her nails to perfection, her toes up on her computer desk as she painted her toe nails a hot pink. Muffy was simply sitting in her pajamas talking about the day’s events.
“Ariella, you missed it at lunch,” Muffy said deviously. Ariella looked up carefully to the screen. Muffy sneered, “We decided to do something to get everyone’s mind off that new girl, but of course no one listened. You really should’ve been there to help us pick a better rumor. The bad announcing one sucked.”
“You put it on George Lundgren,” Ariella scoffed. “What did you expect would happen? You pick the right rumor for the job, or you just let things be. I don’t know what it is about this new bitch, but the school loves her. You can’t erase that with some petty lies, Muffy. You should know that more than anyone here,” Ariella grinned.
Amanda sighed, “Then what’s your big idea then? We thought we had something going earlier—“
“Well, you didn’t,” Ariella said flatly, “and while that’s okay, if you really want to stick it to this girl and make her not front-page news, you’ll have to do better. I honestly don’t know what’s so good about her anyway. I saw her in the hall this afternoon. She’s your standard well-to-do smart bitch that’ll be on nobody’s mind in like a day. She’s too quiet. Leave her be is my suggestion.”
“I don’t think it’ll be that easy,” Muffy replied. “The boys are crazy for her. It’ll take a while to make something old news when boys are involved. They take too long to get over things.”
Ariella sighed as she swung her legs back to the floor, “Look, Elwood City High has what, two thousand students? This Lily chick will be old news in like a week whether guys like her or not. The school is too big! No one cares about anyone but themselves.”
“Well I don’t think she’s going away any time soon,” Amanda said. Leila nodded in agreement. Muffy shook her head. She believed Ariella, but she also believed Amanda. She just couldn’t decide exactly who was the most correct, but she didn’t think it would take much to knock Lily off her pedestal.
While the girls sat to think for a moment, Muffy heard a knock behind her. She turned to see her mother entering, still in her business attire. Muffy nodded to her as she muted her side of the video call.
“I see you and the girls are having a good time. I hope I’m not interrupting,” Millicent smiled. Muffy shook her head, a falsely angelic smile on her lips. Millicent saw it as a truth and continued on, “I’ve been talking to someone online from the moms group. She has a daughter that she wants to get out there and make some friends. I figured you and the girls would meet with her tomorrow for coffee. We’ll be there—the mom’s—but you girls can have your own table.”
“All of them too?” Muffy asked. Millicent peeked at the screen and nodded. Muffy sighed, “Well whatever, but whoever it is, they can’t just barge into our group. We have standards, you know.”
“I know you girls are close, but you should give her a chance. I’ll text you tomorrow to remind you all, but I think Bailey is willing to pick you up,” Millicent said, waving to her daughter and leaving the room.
Muffy unmuted her connection mid-groan. She then realized her friends knew, and none of them were happy about this diversion to their plans, not that they had any. But now the talk was over which idiot of a mother would contact them as good kids to show their little brat around. No one knew, but trying to figure out the mystery was enough to entertain them well into the night. The video call may’ve ended at ten, but the texting continued for hours into the morning.
Buster made it to his first class before Lily. He took his normal seat, almost forgetting about her. As she stepped into the room and took the seat he had the day before, he remembered, and he almost stood up to give the seat back to her, but he was too distracted to get up. The teacher was handing back tests as they entered the room, and as he expected, his grade was pretty low. Really low, actually. The teacher demanded a conference after school, this time with Bitzi.
Buster was letting his grades lapse, and as class began, he realized the beautiful Lily wasn’t exactly helping. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, sitting there taking her own notes. She was gorgeous, and his heart stammered at every glance. His mind was jumbled, and when he looked to his notes to refind his place, he discovered none of the words made sense. In fact, most of them were out of order, misspelled, and spilling off the page. He didn’t know why some girl was causing that much trouble, but he didn’t have time to think about it. He had to continue taking notes.
But he was soon daydreaming. He wondered if Lily ever had trouble with her grades, and if she hadn’t, he wondered if she could tutor him. I mean, Arthur, Jenna, Binky, and the gang had a pretty good study group, but he always felt like Arthur was judging him for not having better grades, for choosing to play video games or watch old sci-fi movies instead of studying. He wondered if Lily would judge him for such normal behavior.
He eyed her carefully. She was focused on the notes. Even though she came in halfway through the unit, you could tell by her eyes that she really understood what was going on, that she knew exactly what the teacher was talking about.
‘Come on, Baxter, you’ve been here for years and still don’t know what’s going on. Focus!’ he told himself, shifting in his seat to get into a more comfortable note-taking position.
As soon as he did, the bell chimed overhead. The class darted from the room at lightning speed, leaving Buster alone with the teacher as he slowly fumbled to get his things together. Like a vulture, the teacher saw his mark and moved to the back of the room.
“I’m sorry to request another conference, Buster, but you’re simply not improving. I want you to do better, and I feel like if your parents know, they might be able to help your study habits improve,” the teacher smiled. Buster dropped his pencil and it rolled to the teacher’s feet. He immediately handed it back to him, “I was like you one day. I thought that having fun was better than studying, that I would never have to give up doing what I loved in order to make good grades. Then I got to high school and everything changed. The same thing is happening to you, though I doubt you sit around reading comic books like I did,” he laughed.
Buster’s face lit up with a wide smile, “Actually—“
“We should discuss our favorites some other time then. You need to get to your next class, and…when we meet, I’ll tell you what I did to improve,” he nodded, looking back as students from the next class began to enter the room.
Buster left the room feeling better than he did before, but his thoughts were still jumbled. His mind was on movies and video games and comic books, but now there was a new threat to his attention span: Lily Graham. He saw her in the distance talking to Fern. He moved past, trying to get her out of his mind, but he couldn’t. How would his teachers feel about that? Or his mom? He wondered if he’d just always be a poor student as he moved to his next class, another one with an abysmal average that he doubted he could fix.
Fern moved into her second class with confidence. She’d just met the most talked about new girl of the year, Lily, in the hallway. She’d taken down some information for a new student spotlight, something they did whenever a new student entered the high school.
Or at least they tried to. Fern was well aware they missed a lot of kids at the beginning of the school year simply because the school paper didn’t have the space for all of those profiles. Most of the ones with uninteresting back stories were left off intentionally. So you moved from Crown City? Bo-ring. Oh, you’re an exchange student who speaks ten languages? Front page material.
Fern didn’t like the biased nature of that, but she understood the business, and with a story about Lily Graham in their next issue, business would be booming. She’d first heard about Lily in a swarm of social media posts that interrupted and important writing session. Then she heard all the talk in the halls. After meeting Lily, she immediately knew why the girl was so talked about: She was beautiful, smart, funny, and, most of all, she was actually nice.
For years, Fern and others had to watch out for Muffy and her middle school friends. While the girl was almost an ally in elementary school, leaving Lakewood Elementary behind turned her into a different person. She was able to meet other girls like herself, girls that came from money, and all of them seemed to have some sort of terrible personality flaw that made them all monsters. Fern, like so many others, was a victim of their lies and gossip, their cruel tricks, and their foul words. She’d persevered, but as she wrote up Lily’s spotlight, she wondered how they would treat her.
Fern looked up as a classmate came into the room. It was George, and Fern immediately shifted uncomfortably in her seat. He was the latest victim of their gossip, but he was well-liked by the sports community. When coaches from opposing teams commend your honesty, you’re going to overcome your obstacles much easier. But the damage was done. George looked down as he took to the computer next to Fern’s.
“Are you okay?” Fern asked. George nodded softly as he logged in, checking his watch as the slow system took its sweet, sweet time loading up the desktop. Fern thought of something to talk about. Since Lily was so popular…., “I’m working on the spotlight article for Lily Graham. Would you like to read it before I give it to Mr. Elridge?” she questioned.
George nodded as his computer finally buzzed to life. He looked to Fern, “I have the story about the scandal too. Mr. Elridge wanted me to look into the rumor. Principal Kiel is talking to the technology people to see what they can do. All they know right now is that the school’s internet was accessed for the posts.”
“I’m sorry about that, but at least it was resolved quickly,” Fern noted. George nodded. He was well aware that most of the rumors stuck around for a while, a long while, but this time was much easier.
George shifted as he tried to decide where to start. He looked up to Fern, “I was thinking of quitting broadcasting after this season was over, but I think I want to expand now. What do you think?”
“Well you’d definitely have the support. I know you’re good with baseball and soccer, but what other sports do you know?” Fern questioned. George was actually a fan of all sports, and he gave Fern a list that included every available school sport and then some. He’d be the perfect school announcer rather than just the baseball team’s leading man. She told him so, and George’s usual soft smile began to return.
The two worked in silence for the rest of the period. They had until that afternoon to get stories into the weekly edition of the school’s paper, Grebes Weekly. Fern was eager to get in her spotlight. Though Fern enjoyed the quiet, she wanted to do a good job on this story, maybe enough to get some attention for once. She was hoping Lily could do that for her, that maybe they could become friends. Seeing that most of Fern’s contacts were either on the paper or in her classes right now, Fern needed more friends. She was just too shy to pursue them herself, so she stayed alone. She honestly didn’t mind, but when someone like Lily came along, everyone wanted to be near her. Guys wanted to date her and girls wanted to be her friend. And like always, Lily kept to herself, holding in her decisions as the rest of the school squirmed with anticipation.