I manage to calm myself down enough to talk somewhat normally. The scene replays in my head as I continue to explain.
Now, I want you to imagine a cafeteria full to the brim with rowdy, angst-filled high schoolers anxious to leave the shackles of school for the freedom of Summer. In that cafeteria, at one of the big, round tables, talking to one of her friends, is a younger me. Not younger by too much, almost a year now. Her hair, that younger me, is actually an ugly shade of reddish-brown. It isn't dyed, but the ends are still a yellow-blonde from prior bleaching.
Younger me is laughing at dumb jokes with her friend, and in between bursts, discussing her plans for the summer. She wants to mow some lawns and maybe get a job at the art museum in the town over. She wants to have a good time, and so does her friend.
Enter Dayna. Average height, dirty blonde hair, brilliant green eyes with a certain fire to them. Beautiful. Younger me greets her like she usually does. An excited wave and mouthing the word ‘hi’, eager to talk for as long as possible before the next class. She walks over to the table, casually, sits down next to younger me's friend, casually, and kisses her on the cheek. Not casually.
“I… didn't know you two were dating.” Younger me says with an uneasy chuckle. While it wasn't a huge, life-changing deal to her, she would have liked to know. She maybe would have gotten them a gift card to some fancy restaurant so they could go on a nice date.
“Of course we are.” Dayna says. “And that's all thanks to you.”
She laughs, “Oh, Avril. You're just so dang dense, aren't you? You're telling me that after all these years you haven't figured out that I've been using you this whole time?”
Younger me's heart sinks. “Wh-what?”
Dayna sneers and raises her voice a bit, which draws the attention of a few tables around us. “What a pushover.” She says quietly to herself, and then turns to me, “The only reason I became friends with you is so I could get to your other friends. Just face it, sweetheart, you know they're all better than you.”
Younger me's mind is racing. She doesn't know what to think. Dayna is her friend, and she knows that she would never hurt her. What does she mean she’s “using” her?
Dayna stands up quickly, and her chair screeches on the linoleum floor as it slides backwards. Everyone in the room stares in our direction, frozen to their cheap, plastic seats, as Dayna raises her voice. “They’re all smarter than you, funnier than you, more attractive, more caring, more talented.”
This hits younger me right where it hurts. After spending her entire life thus far thinking she was terrible at everything, to hear it from someone else, and someone who she was so close to, someone she thought was her friend, is a whole new level of painful she knew she wouldn't be able to endure for long. The tears are sitting impatiently behind her eyes, just waiting to explode from her face. “What about moving to Hawai’i? What about being famous and selling my art to museums like we talked about? What about… what about us?” she says quietly, knowing that those childhood fantasies were just that.
“There is no us, stupid! Only you. You and your pointless dream of going to an art school you know deep down won't think you're good enough.”
Younger me is sitting there at that table, her reactions and her every move being watched by hundreds of eyes connected to hundreds of people that have all gone completely silent, save for some quiet whispering. Younger me is scared. She is confused, she is hurt, she is angry. She mutters defeatedly, “I thought you loved me…”
“Loved you?” Dayna scoffs, and turns to the rest of the people in the cafeteria, sporting a ridiculous smile and teetering on the edge of laughter, looking like she wants to say ‘Are you guys hearing this kid? She's crazy!’
She turns back to younger me, and glares right at her. “Avril, I loathe you! You are literally the most idiotic, worthless piece of trash I've ever met. Don't you realize that nobody actually cares about you? You try so hard to get people to give a crap, but you know that you're no good. You know that nobody will ever love you.”
She presses the heels of her hands into the table and leans closer to younger me's face. “I don't, your “friends” don't, your parents don't, heck, everyone in this room right now couldn't care less if you lived or died. You know that too, right? Or are you just that stupid?”
Younger me is caving. She has to get out of there. She can't stand it anymore. She gets up out of her seat, her eyes filled with tears, her lip trembling the way it always does. She looks to the exit, and she runs. She runs fast. She is so determined to pass through those doors and run far, far away from everyone, that she doesn't notice a chair that hadn't been pushed into a table until she trips, falls, and smacks her face on the linoleum tiles.
She manages to lift herself off the cold, hard floor, her head spinning and ears ringing. In her mouth she tastes metallic blood mingling with salty tears. When the ringing subsides, she can hear the ever unmistakable sound of three hundred people laughing. Laughing loudly. Laughing at her. But one laugh she hears above all of them. It's furious, breathy, and laced with betrayal. She doesn't need to look to know who it's coming from.
Younger me wipes the red, bloody mess off of her face with her jacket sleeve. The blood keeps coming from her nose without faltering, so she holds her arm to her face, feeling the stuff soaking into the thick, jersey fabric, darkening it and making the skin underneath sticky. Shaking with embarrassment, she walks as fast as she dares out of the room without looking back.
“That traitor had the guts to humiliate me like she did in front of a fourth of the school.” I say, stray tears still sitting on my face. “That day was horrible. She was horrible.”
Rory is still sitting silently while I talk, listening, thinking, trying to understand.
“And the worst part about all of the stuff she was saying…” I choke. I don't want to admit it, and I try to stop myself, but the emotions are burning in my throat and soon enough will melt a hole through it and come out of me. Regardless of what I do, I can’t keep it locked up. “The worst part—is that she was right.”
I double over where I'm seated and hold nothing back. My brain decides to block out the sound of my distorted sobbing for a bit, leaving me with a stuffy feeling inside of my head for afew seconds. I feel Rory scoot closer to me on the log, and I see Oliver stirring in the tent.
I had been bottling up all of these emotions over the years and I was too afraid to let them out, but here I am, on an ancient log bench in a random campground in South Dakota, bawling my eyes out over everyone in my life who has hurt me in some way.
“She was right about everything. Nobody loves me!” I say. “I know nobody that genuinely cares about me or my feelings! I j-just— I just want to—” I don't finish. I can't finish. I’ve become too worn down to deal with this, and I'm practically suffocating on my own tears.
Rory wraps his arms around me and lays his head on my shoulder. He's surprisingly warm. I lift my head up and look at him. “W-what are you doing?” I sniffle.
“Givin’ you a hug.” He responds, his gaze fixated on the slowly dying fire.
“Because she was wrong.”
“She’s got it all wrong about you. I know we hardly know each other, but it's not that hard to tell that you’re a really amazing person.”
“Wouldn't’ve said it if I didn't.”
“You deserve the life you want. You deserve the world.”
I sit there silently, surprised at this kid's sentimentality.
“And since you want people who care, I'd be happy to be one of them.”
I hear another rustle from in the tent, and turn to see Oliver standing outside of it. “He's right, you know.” He says. “You are pretty great.”
“Oliver—” Rory says with the slightest sigh of relief. He lets go of me and walks over to him. Oliver shifts his weight to one leg and puts his hand on his hip.
“Oliver, I know I scared you earlier, and I'm really, really, really sorry. I didn't say anything, and that was really stupid of me, and I—” he gets cut off as he is pulled into one of the biggest bear hugs I have seen in a long time.
“Sometimes I think you forget how much you mean to me, Rory.” Oliver says. “ You're just so, so selfish sometimes.” He lets go of him. “But I am too. All of us are. Selfish, that is.
“And just to make sure you know how badly you scared the living crap out of me, I'm gonna be pretty blunt with what I'm gonna say next.
“If you had—died back there, or even just suffered permanent brain damage from a lack of oxygen… I wouldn't be able to live with myself knowing that there was something I could’ve done to prevent it. I couldn’t conquer this insane world without you. I’d try, but I would never be able to. I’d give up. Completely.”
“I— I'm so sorry.” Rory breathes.
Oliver pats him on the shoulder and smiles. “I know you are.”
They come and join me on the log, and Oliver throws some leaves into the fire, making it flicker a bit brighter. I wipe a stray tear from my eye. “I had a point with all of that stuff I said, Rory.
“My point was: you have so many people in your life who care about you. You should never take them for granted, ever. You will never know how long they will be here until they're gone.”
Rory picks up our sticks off the ground and hands them to us. “Duly noted.” He says, ripping open the bag of marshmallows. “For real this time.”
“Oh! Another one! Did you see it?” Oliver points up at the starry sky above us, asking if we see the shooting stars going by. We're laying on the ground outside the tent, the fire hardly glowing now after hours of us just sitting and talking.
“I think so.” Says Rory, whose hands are behind his head as he's looking up.
“Sorry, bud. Didn't see this one. Didn't see any of the other fifty-seven you talked about either.” I laugh. We're almost at the end of the Lyrids shower, but I don't think it's late enough for us to see anything. I check my phone: 1:45. I take that thought back, but I can't see Lyra from where we are either.
“So,” I change the subject, “If we end up winning this thing… what are you gonna ask for? Like, what is your ‘Ultimate Prize’?
“For me it's… resolution. The whole reason I wanted to play this game was to show you-know-who that I'm the better one. That I don't use people to get my way. That I deserve to go to my dream school and live the life I have always wanted, and that she didn't ruin me with what she said.
“I don't know if that counts as revenge, but if it does, that would really suck. Y'know since one of the rules says that you can't ask for revenge on any person.”
“I haven't figured it out entirely.” Rory says when I finish. “I've had stuff in mind, no lie, but I haven't been able to decide what I would really want.” He rolls over on his side till he faces me and puts his head in his hand. “What about you, Oliver?”
I look at Oliver on my right, and he turns to look at both of us. “Do you remember Clary?”
Rory must be shaking his head, because Oliver turns his head back towards the sky and says “That's fine. Hardly anyone does.”
I look back up at the ink black dome above us. I squint my eyes, and in the distance, a faraway comet makes an arc across the heavens.