I don’t know what I should do. I’m afraid I’ll mess up the hands or the heads or screw up the entire drawing so badly that I will want to just tear it right out of my sketchbook and put it in a shredder. Rory has been watching me off and on for a couple of hours, probably taking notice of how much I’m stressing myself out over a single little drawing.
I flip to a page almost entirely full of tiny swirls connected to each other that I hadn’t drawn on since earlier this year. I usually do that sort of swirly drawing thing when I need to calm myself down so I don’t physically burst into flames. Right now might be one of those times.
I don’t know why I even try to do art anymore. Even if we do win this game and I get to go to my dream college, will they even think I deserve to be there? Or will they all just see me as some kid who won a game and chose to come to a school for people who actually have talent? I don’t want that to happen. Not to me.
The tip of my pencil suddenly pokes through a few layers of paper with a subtle thump. I look at Rory with my mouth hanging open a bit in confusion. He seems just as concerned about me as I am right now.
“Are you okay?” He asks quietly.
“Never better. Why do you ask?” A blatant lie.
“Do you want to talk about it?” He takes a quick drink of his iced coffee that is more likely room temperature now.
“Not now, thanks. I’m just trying to think a few things over is all.”
“I understand.” He shuffles through his bag and then holds out a pack of cinnamon gum to me. “You want some gum?”
“Uhm… No thanks. Not a fan of cinnamon.”
“As I thought.”
I really shouldn’t be maintaining this sort of negative mindset, especially if I want to do something great with what I love, but it’s crazy hard. I’ve had tons of people tell me that I’m not good enough and that I should set my sights on some other option that’s fit for people of my caliper (AKA, talentless wannabes).
I know I actually can do great things when I put in the effort, but the negativity always ends up sneaking into my thoughts from the back of my mind. I’ve been told for my whole life by people I love and trust that I don’t deserve the things I want (and it’s not just about an art school).
The Navigation system blurts, breaking the silence, “Turn left onto interstate 90.”
“Oh, shi—” Oliver yanks the wheel around, and the car suddenly (And very jerkily) screeches onto another stretch of road. Rory, whose seat belt is unbuckled for some unknown reason, lets out a less than surprised and almost sarcastic “Oh, boy”, and then slides across the seat at the turn, bumping into me.
“Sorry about that.” Oliver apologizes from the driver’s seat. “That voice spoke at the worst time.”
“How far out are we?” Rory asks, scooting back over to his seat.
“About five and a half hours, give or take.”
Rory groans and shoves a hand into a half-eaten bag of chips sitting on the floor. “We’re just gonna be driving around forever, aren’t we?”
“The tank’s about half empty right now, so when it gets low I think we can stop for the night.”
I pull out my phone and open the map “Mitchell’s a little over two hours away from here. That’s the town with the corn palace, I’m pretty sure.”
“Any hotels?” Rory asks.
“Yeah, lots of them. The Comfort Inn looks pretty okay.”
He turns to Oliver. “Oliver, we’re going to Comfort Inn and we’re gonna see a corn castle.”
“If we have extra time when we get there.” Oliver looks over at the clock on the dashboard. “It’s 4:45 right now, so we should be there at like, seven, counting the possibility of a bathroom break at some point”
“About the bathroom break, Oliver.”
“When’s the next rest stop? Because I think now would be a pretty good time for one.”
I throw my bag onto the hotel bed, taking notice of the not entirely unexpected tautness of the comforter when my bag bounces on impact.
Rory flops back onto the neighboring bed and bounces a bit in the same manner. He yawns and stretches his purple sweatshirt covered arms above his head.
“C’mon Rory, you can't possibly be tired yet!” Oliver says as he pokes his head. Rory, faking sleepiness, turns his head towards him with his eyes closed, sighs, and smiles.
“Oh, well. I guess we'll just go to the pool by ourselves then!” Oliver says, and at the mention of a pool, Rory is up and digging through his bag for a swimsuit.
After we all get changed, we follow the gross smell of dirty pool water to a big, high ceilinged room with a pirate ship water playground and a yellow tube slide. Rory sprints and cannonballs into the deepest part of the pool.
I turn to Oliver, who is taking off his glasses and putting them on one of the hotel towels. I figure it’s about time I mess with him a bit.
“You smell that?”
“Smell what? All I can smell is chlorine,” He scratches the side of his head.
“Yeah, that. You know what that smell comes from, right?”
“No… are pools not supposed to smell— 'chlorine-ish’”
“You're in chemistry, right?”
“Yeah, I'm a year ahead of most of my grade.”
“Alright, cool, smart dude. Then you should know that chlorine gas doesn't have a smell.”
He furrows his brows. “But the chlorine they put in pools isn't gas, is it? The other stuff they use in pools are either solids or liquids.”
“Afraid it is.”
“If it doesn't have a smell, then why does it smell like that?”
I look at Rory, who is breaking very hard the generic rule of not spitting water, and I shudder. “Chloramines. Stuff built up in pool water when they don't treat it properly. Stuff like sweat and oils and lotion—” I bend over and whisper in his ear as he's watching Rory splash another kid, “and between you and me, there's at least six gallons of urine in that water right now.”
Oliver looks at me with a horrified expression and then over to Rory, who is once again spitting water everywhere. Panicked, he screeches louder than thirty cars burning rubber, “RORY, DON'T PUT THE WATER IN YOUR MOUTH!”
All of the kids and a few parents look over at us and then to Rory, who opens his mouth and lets the filthy water spill out like a waterfall. The lifeguard on the stand is snoring away, completely indifferent to what just happened.
I pat a visibly shaken Oliver on the shoulder as I walk toward the hot tub. “Well maintained pools smell like nothing.”
The air jets are on in the hot tub when I get in. Sharing the tub with me is a mother with a very talkative kid, an old woman in an actual flowery swim cap with tiny, oval glasses that have fogged over, and couple of college girls on their phones.
The mother is trying (and failing) to pretend to listen to her kid's discussion of the latest version of Minecraft, while the old woman repeatedly wipes off her glasses, only to have them fog over again in less than five seconds. The two college girls stop messing with their phones and sink down farther in the tub. Just as I think that is all they are gonna do, they start having a rather… not PG-13 make out session. Tongues and all. One of them is even smearing red lip gloss all over the other's face.
The mother shoots them a nasty look and practically throws her kid out of the hot tub, and the old woman just continues to wipe her lenses without paying any mind to whatever is happening across from me. I don't think to move until the girls are practically under and choking on the water as they kiss and are kicking me hard in the shins multiple times. I bolt out of the tub and get into the cursed pollution water with Rory and Oliver.
“People are terrifying.” I proclaim, sitting on the pool steps and massaging my sore, freshly-kicked shins. “That was about to turn into an R-rated movie over there.”
Rory looks up and over me at the girls and snickers, “Two girls, one tub?”
Oliver and I simultaneously let out disgusted groans.
“Rory, why?!” Oliver screeches, his hands out in front of him like he’s begging for a better joke.
Rory looks at me, a hopeful, open mouthed smile plastered to his face.
“You really need to get some new jokes, bud.” I say. I glance over at a little kid with pink swim floaties trying to climb the exit of the slide and then falling into the water with a splash.
“Aw, you guys are just a couple of fun-ruiners. You have to admit that that was clever.”
I roll my eyes and chuckle. “I guess it was pretty okay.”
I crack open another can of Shasta Cola and scroll through my old pictures on my phone. I take a sip and glance up at the little TV. Oliver and Rory are intently watching a documentary about aliens on one of the ten channels in this hotel.
My aunt’s awkwardly-named parrots Carrot and Cake. The lemon tree in my grandparents’ backyard. Some kid’s picture from my fifth grade yearbook. Me at the carnival with Dayna—
Without hesitating, I tap a couple of things, and the picture is gone. Out of existence. I don’t need her in my life. Not anymore.
“EN GARDE!” Rory leaps swiftly onto the other bed in a fighting stance, proudly wielding a can of barbecue pringles.
Oliver laughs, “Fight me if you dare, but you will surely lose. My mighty powers of dead Reddit memes and cunning will surely defeat a foe like you.”
“You’re one hundred percent sure?” Rory says. Barely half a second later, he rips the lid off the can, tears away the paper cover, and dumps the chips right on top of Oliver’s head.
Surprised, Oliver backs into my bed and falls with flailing arms right on top of my freshly bruised shins. “JESUS CHRIST!” I say, clenching my teeth at the sudden, throbbing pain. Oliver sits up and scrambles off the bed, quickly apologising before grabbing a handful of floor chips and throwing them at Rory. He grumbles and takes off his newly barbecue chip covered sweatshirt and throws it on his bag by the window.
I have to admit that, even though I’ve just met him, I have never seen an actual shirt on Rory. I’ve seen him with his weird purple sweatshirt on and then wearing only swim trunks in the pool earlier, but never just a regular t-shirt. The shirt he has on now is a pastel yellow and has a graphic of a childlike drawing of the sun, a rainbow, some flowers, and a butterfly with a smiley face. Under the rainbow, it reads “Everything ends in darkness and despair”, and I absolutely love it.
“Hey, Rory!” I shout over the sound of the TV rolling the credits and the two guys bouncing around and hitting each other with chip cans on the bed next to me. They stop moving for a second. “Where’d you get that shirt? It’s amazing.”
“Thanks. Oliver got it for me for my half birthday last year. God knows where from, but y’know,” He smiles and elbows Oliver jokingly in the ribs, and Oliver laughs.
“Super majestic.” I say. I reach over to the other side of the nightstand and grab the remote. I change the channel to something less boring than hearing an old, British guy talk about rare animals for two and a half hours. On one of the movie channels Mamma Mia! Is playing, and I sit back and chug the rest of my Shasta.
Oliver mentions something about popcorn as they settle in to watch the movie. I offer to run down to the breakfast to see if they might have some microwave popcorn there. “Sounds good.” Rory says. He throws me the car keys. “If not, you could maybe bring something in from the car.”
“Will do.” I say, slipping on my sandals and walking out the door.
I shut the door behind me and make my way down the long hallway to the elevator. I hear some excited chatter from behind me. I look behind me and see a group of four girls who are probably high school freshmen. I recognize one of them from the Facebook live last night, and I connect the rest of the dots from there. Team Vermillion.
“Mauve doesn’t stand a chance with Aquamarine riding their tail like they are. We’re just watching compared to their progress.” One girl says.
“Come on. Have a little Vermillion pride, Val. We only have one item, but we’ve got what they both don’t have.” Another girl insists.
“Spunk?” A third questions.
“No.” the second replies.
"Team..spirit?” the fourth sputters.
I stop and turn around. “Four team members.”
The girls, surprised, stop in front of me with puzzled looks. “You have four team members. That’s a good thing in terms of splitting up and searching, but a terrible thing considering the amount of money this game has supplied us with.”
“Are you… What team are you on?” asks the second girl, the one from the livestream.
“You really want me to tell you?” I smirk, put a hand on my hip, and shift my weight from one foot to the other.
“You must already know that we’re Vermillion thanks to this dummy’s idea to make a video of us running around finding stuff.” The first girl, Val, points to the second one with her thumb. The girl’s shoulders sink a bit and she lets out a huffy sigh.
“Fine, but you’re not gonna like it based on what I heard from your conversation a minute ago.” I eye the girls one by one. “Aquamarine.”
Their eyes grow wide and their mouths drop open slightly. They exchange glances before looking back at me. “Maybe your theory was wrong, Jess.” the third girl says, turning her shiny hat forward over her red hair. She looks at me. “Where are you headed to next?”
Her question is met by a small chorus of ‘Stop’, ‘Don’t’, and ‘That’s against the rules!’. I break it up. “What if she proves that you’re right?” I say to the third girl. “Besides, what’s it gonna do other than leave us with a sense of dread that someone will find out we broke a single litte rule?”
“You’ve got a good point— What’s your name?” Jess asks.
“Jessabelle. Just call me Jess, though. I hate my full name with an unadulterated passion.” Jess points to each of the other girls. “That one you already know as Val, which is short for Valeria. The one with the shiny snapback is Gaia, and the one with the dreadlocks and amazingly cute shirt is Yazminn.”
“Nice to meet you, I suppose. Anyway,” I continue. “To answer your question, girls, We’re headed to a gigantic rock that frankly, way too many people are attached to.”
“Montana,” Says Yazminn, who seems less than impressed.
“Fun.” I back up a little bit, wanting to cut the conversation short but also not wanting to be rude. “Anyway, it was nice to meet you all, but I was kinda in the middle of doing something.”
“We’ll leave you to it, then,” Val motions for the rest of the girls to follow her back down the hallway as I turn the corner and board the elevator.
When I get down to the breakfast, the doors to the room are locked tight. Disgruntled, I pull out the car keys and head out into the dark sky and humid air to our car. I pop the trunk and grab a new bag of chips, some of our theater candy, and another six pack of Shasta, hoping the weirdly-timed heat won’t make my hair go insane. I return to the room with the food and thankfully frizz-free hair, to see that Jaws is just starting.
(Last few sentences in the description)