There’s something beautifully honest about the game of dodgeball. First of all, the rules are relatively simple: throw the ball; dodge the ball. And if you fail to follow those simple rules, you’re out. Second: anyone is fair game.
In this game it doesn’t matter who you are as long as you can throw, catch, and dodge a ball. It doesn’t matter if you have a date to the homecoming dance. It doesn’t matter who your father is or what brand of clothing you wear. It doesn’t matter if the entire student body deems you greater, cooler, better looking than anyone—or everyone—else. Because the dodgeball hurtling through the air in your direction doesn’t care who you are.
It’s absolutely fair, I think, ducking just in time as a ball whips past me. The distinct sound of rubber meeting flesh sounds behind me, but I know better than to check who took the hit. No, I am laser-focused. I’m on a mission. Another ball speeds toward me and this time, I catch it. Now is my chance. I lock eyes with my target. Cai Xian. His tall figure makes him easy prey. His black hair clings lightly to his forehead, with only a few artful sweat drops beading on his face. He looks like a damn Nike advertisement, and I hate it. Why can’t he just look disgusting like the rest of us?
Normally when Coach K announced it was a dodgeball day, I would take the first conveniently placed “out” that I could. Not this time.
This time I’m the team’s last hope. Everything goes in slow motion; it’s like one of those sports movies that Dad always chooses on movie night. I’m the leading hero, the last one standing, and my team is bruised and beaten. There would have to be a miracle to pull through this one. I knead the ball in my hands, studying the superimposed smirk on Cai’s lips. I visualize it, the ball meeting his perfect, angular face. Maybe if I throw it hard enough, his stupid cheekbones will puncture the thick rubber…even though I know full well faces are off limits.
“Fair is fair,” I say under my breath as I release the ball and it flies through the air. If this were a comic, there would be flames trailing behind it. This one’s gonna hurt—now it’s my turn to smirk.
But instead of the familiar smacking echo of rubber meeting flesh, and the groan that should follow…there is only a thump. My smile drops. He caught the ball; of course, he did. He’s freakin’ Cai Xian. I see a flash of red. I instinctively turn my head, and my hands fly up but not nearly quickly enough. The rubber connects with my cheek. I swear it would have hurled my nose up into my brain if I hadn’t turned. Maybe I should have let it.
It doesn’t even hurt. The force knocks me on my back, and I just lie there in a daze. Maybe I’ll just lie here forever. There are a few snickers and whispers from the sidelines as I neglect to make an effort to sit up. What’s the point, anyway? Cai Xian won. Again.
A hand appears in front of me, and I stare at it for a second before looking at its owner. I want to just close my eyes and sink into the floor.
“Sorry, Rowan, I guess I got carried away… we can rest and take the shot again if you want. Fair is fair.” His deep voice cuts through my ever-growing sense of indignation. Why does he have to be so reasonable about everything?
There’s a degree of acid in my tone. I take his hand, it grips mine tightly as he effortlessly hoists me up onto my feet. “No big deal, totally fair.” What’s the point of a reset when he’s just going to pummel me into oblivion a second time? Both on the field and in the student council elections.
It’s not fair.
It isn’t fair that an election that should have been based on merit and principle was dwindled down to nothing more than a shallow popularity contest. It’s not fair that I, Rowan Knox, with my perfect SAT scores, my 4.0 across the board, my extracurriculars and volunteer work, everything I’ve worked so hard for, planned to perfection from the moment I felt that first zing of excitement when I was appointed room leader in the first grade, did not win. It’s not fair that Cai Xian, Westview Academy’s golden boy, and as of two days ago, student council president—ruined everything.
“You okay?” Cai asks, interrupting my internal rant. I finally meet his sincere, soft, green eyes, and I have to tighten my jaw so as not to let it go slack.
“Y-yeah,” I stammer, heat growing in my cheeks, almost certainly making my already flushed face grow even redder as I yank my hand out of his. The brave hero has fizzled away. The bell rings and I clear my throat. “I have to get to my next class,” I manage to call behind me as I take off toward the locker rooms.
I slam my locker shut. What did I expect to happen? Not even a radioactive spider bite could have made it possible for me to beat Cai Xian. I shake my head. One day it won’t matter. Soon I won’t have to see, talk to, or even think about any of these shiny, yacht-owning, private-school types ever again. I close my eyes and envision the University of Michigan pamphlet taped to the mirror in my bathroom at home—Mom’s idea, she said it would encourage me to try my hardest every day. Mom has never been a religious person, but the closest thing I’ve got to a devout upbringing is her complete and total devotion to U of M, the dream she never got to fulfill. The dream she’s determined I will transform into a reality. Just a few more months and Westview Academy will be in my rearview. Just a few.
“Earth to Ro.” The familiar twinkle of my best friend’s eyes appears beside me in the main hallway. I sigh. Tanisha is looking at me with a crinkled nose and her eyebrows drawn together in mild concern. She and I are like yin and yang. Her softness has always mitigated my sometimes painful rigidity.
“You heard what happened?” I ask. It’s been ten minutes. By now the media has almost certainly been alerted. The Westview View, our high school’s very own gossip Twitter account, is probably all over it. I can imagine the tweet: VP takes on Prez Cai Xian and flounders in his second embarrassing loss of the week. Beneath it would surely be a picture of me flat on my ass in the middle of the dodgeball court while Cai valiantly offers his hand.
Tanisha nods. “You okay?”
I sigh again, this time a little more dramatically than necessary.
“I’m fine.” My hand travels to my offended cheek. Now all the adrenaline has worn off, I’ve got to admit it hurts like hell. “My ego is more bruised than anything.”
“Why? Isn’t getting hit kind of the point of dodgeball?” She nudges me.
“Well, actually, the point of dodgeball is to dodge the ball…not use your face to block it,” I say. “I just wish it could have been anyone but Cai.”
With a roll of her eyes, T takes my shoulders in her hands and shakes me lightly. “You’ve got to stop blaming Cai for everything.”
When I don’t immediately agree with her, T raises her brow once again.
“You know if you keep doing that, your face will get stuck that way,” I say. “Anyway, you know it’s true. Cai’s life is perfect, he gets everything he wants, and he doesn’t even have to try. Meanwhile, I’m working my butt off just to begin to keep up.”
“You’re so ridiculous. You know, my mom always says you make your life what it is. And who’s to say that Cai’s life is so perfect?”
A gaggle of bro-ish laughter approaches from behind us, and my body unconsciously turns to look for the source.
“Speak of the president and he shall appear…” I grumble as Cai and his friends round the corner. Of course Cai is perfect. How could that even be a question? I study his now perfectly styled dark hair, which compliments his perfect green eyes. His clothing fits him perfectly. Each garment is crisp, expensive, and no doubt dry cleaned. He even walks with perfect posture as he glides down the hall past us.
“Onto other, more important topics... Do you want to study for the chem exam with me tonight?” Tanisha asks as she adjusts her books onto her other hip.
“I wish, but I have to work,” I say, my eyes flitting between T and the group that has now stopped at one of the lockers across the hall. As I speak, Cai looks up and meets my eyes. He smiles, a smile that is once again stunningly perfect, by the way. I look back at T and cement my gaze on hers. “I… gotta get to class.” She nods and I practically sprint away.
I take a deep breath in and out, indulging in a few final breaths of fresh air as I stare at myself in the dimly lit employee bathroom of Blazer Tag. I can barely stand to look at myself in this glittering spandex jumpsuit. Luckily, no one has to see my sickly toned face when I top off the look with a cartoonishly large, horned plexi-glass and paper-mache space helmet.
Dad always says that having a part-time job was one of the best experiences he had in high school. Mom says it’ll look great on college applications. I don’t have the heart to tell them that I will not be allowing my title of Interstellar Space Diplomat, or as the humans call them, minimum wage host and server, anywhere near my resume. There’s a reason I chose to apply somewhere it takes a twenty-minute drive to reach. Not that anyone from Westview would be caught dead within a fifty-foot radius of this place. And even if they were to come in, all they’d be able to see is one miserable-looking Interstellar Space Diplomat being tugged around by a bunch of children.
The walls of the laser tag arcade are painted a dark space blue and are splattered with luminescent paint, which glows under the black lights that we turn on just before the dinner rush each night.
I suck in another deep breath and instantly regret it, inhaling a thick cloud of what I imagine is what an old man’s unwashed socks smell like. Just get through the rest of the year, and you’ll be done with this place, and this costume, I chant as I head out of the bathroom toward the host stand.
Almost immediately a hoard of six-year-olds comes bustling through the front door, pushing and shoving one another as they go. I approach them, using my arms to try to corral them. I turn to the tallest child who only comes up to about my elbow and ask, “Where is your grown-up?” Before I can get an answer, a tiny body slams onto my back, wrapping toothpick arms around my neck in a vice-like grip. I choke out a yelp as the child rips off my helmet before releasing his grip and tumbling to the floor behind me in a fit of laughter. Annoyed, I spin around to find the culprit, my eyes skipping past the child to his companion, his broad chest sporting a devastatingly familiar Westview Academy logo.
My eyes travel up slowly. The first thing I see is the smile, that perfect smile.
Cai Xian’s straight, white teeth glow under the blacklight as my worst nightmare plays out in real time as he waves with a friendly, “Hi, Rowan.”