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Six

My head was swimming in mud by the time I got home. I instantly was aware that both my parents were home from work.

“She’s wasting three days a week at some stupid gym, when she could be doing some academic work.”

“Would she like to?”

“Gymnasts don’t have much of a life unless you’re a world champion. That’s not going to happen to Noel in this lifetime.”

“But she’s old enough to choose her own future. You worry too much.”

“Isn’t that what a mother is suppose to do? How do I protect her when she’s risking her life just by doing flips high above the ground?”

“How would you know what she does? I’ve never seen you support her when she competes.”

Every bit of anger inside me was boiling up inside me. That was it. I couldn’t take it anymore. I burst into the kitchen, my face beet red. “Just quit it, would you! I’m sick and tired of listening to the both of you fighting. I thought parents are supposed to be role-models, but I don’t see any of that from anyone in this room.”

I turned and ran out of the room without looking back. My parents stood still, shocked. When is all this agony going to end? At my funeral?

At around seven in the afternoon, I found a note from my dad which said he was going to his office to finish up his extra work. Another one was posted on the refrigerator door saying that my mom had an important meeting at school, and there was some pasta sauce in the refrigerator. I wasn’t hungry, so I opened a cup of canned fruits and took them to the living room.

Knock, knock!

I took my eyes off the television screen to answer the door. My parents had gone out to who knows where and when they were coming back, no one knows. I was flabbergasted by the person at the door. “Eva?”

“Noel, I’m so sorry about this past two weeks!”

“Is that really you, Eva?”

“Yeah, it’s really me. I totally got caught up with Leah.”

“Oh, Eva! I’m so glad you understand. And I’m sorry I wrote bad stuff about you.” I hugged her, spoon still in my hand.

“Hey! It’s me who is at fault.”

“I’m just glad you’re not with Leah.”

“I am, too. Now that I think about it, I’ve actually wrote down some bad things about you, even worse than what you wrote about me. Please forgive me?” “I don’t think I can stand not forgiving you.”

“I just realized what pain you’re going through. It must have been horrible!”

“Oh, someone who finally understands!” I collapsed on the couch in sudden tears. She put her arm around me and handed me a tissue.

“I’m actually the second person to understand.”

“What do you mean?”

“Josh does, too. He knows what Leah really is.”

“No, he can’t. He likes her!”

“Not anymore. I feel so guilty that I believed Leah instead of you. She can be such a snob!”

“How did you notice? The last time I saw you, you were laughing with her. And what does Josh have to do with you?”

“Josh? He’s the one who explained everything to me.”

My voice was caught in my stomach. “Josh?”

“Yes. He’s been trying to tell you that all along, but he said that everything he tried didn’t work.”

“That’s because I made up lame excuses not to talk to him.” I covered my face with my hands.

“I think you should give him a chance, Noel.”

“He probably won’t listen since I told him to get away from me.”

“He’s not a quitter, you know. I’ll talk to him if he’s still home.”

“Thanks a lot, Eva. It’s times like these when true friends are needed the most.”

“Hopefully, you’ll trust me from now on.”

“Of course I will. Now, for Leah.”

“She needs some major punishment after what she’s done to your life. You haven’t been out lately, have you?”

“No, not really. Why?”

“Your hair has streaks of grey and your skin is pale, which isn’t normal for you.”

“Oh, thanks for the compliment,” I said sarcastically.

“No, what I mean is that you need some fresh air.”

“I think you’re right,” I agreed, tugging at a strand of hair which was so pale blond it did look like it was grey.

“Why don’t we go for a jog tomorrow. I heard the weather’s not going to be too bad.”

“I can’t after school.”

“No, I mean in the morning. Just like the old times before any of us knew about Leah. We could walk down to the pond near Ridgemont at around five thirty.”

“Great! Hopefully, it will be more relaxing that this house.”

“Your parents are at it again, aren’t they?”

“Yeah. Worse than ever.”

“I knew something other than Leah was bothering you.”

“Well, it’s not exactly bothering me, but it’s building up. I even yelled at them when I came home today.”

“Since your mom wants you to do more school activities, why don’t you come after school to the newspaper office. You can be my special helper.”

“That sounds like some kiddy thing.”

“No, I need some help putting together next month’s horoscope for the newspaper. I have too much to fit on one page.”

“I’m an expert at cutting.”

“Yup, and if you can, can you help me do one of those quiz things. I’m so short of time.”

“Sure. If you have time now, why don’t we start?”

“I want to do one on friends. To see how much of a true friends you are.”

“Good idea!”

“Hey! Through all this talk, I forgot to give you this.” She held out a plastic container. I opened it, and instantly noticed Josh had cooked it.

“We had some extra, so I thought I would give it to you.”

I opened the lid of the plastic container and smelled its contents. “It smells delicious!”

“I know for a fact that it is delicious!”

Eva has been my best friend ever since we found out we live on the same street. We’ve done tons of things together, but Eva has done even more. She’s the eleventh grade Student Counsel Vice President. She gets involved in every school event, and always drags me into them with her. Maybe she can give me some of that energy. I certainly need it.

“Noel!”

“Hi Josh!”

“Hi.” There was an awkward pause.

“Oh, Josh Thank you for explaining everything to Eva!” I finally said, remember what Eva had said last night.

He took a deep breath. “For a second, I thought you would tell me to leave.” “No. And I’m sorry I did that to you. I guess I took out all my anger on you.” Suddenly, I felt shy, not the shy like when you’re about to go on stage in front of the whole school, but the kind of shy when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. My gaze fell to my shoes.

“That’s what I’m here for. I’m just glad you and Eva got back together. I couldn’t stand Eva laughing at you with Leah.”

“Well, thanks.” All at once, I wanted to get out of the halls, away from Josh.

“Now, I just need to know why I got an ‘F’ on my finals,” I said, remembering I had to go see Mrs. Carson.

“Your teacher must have made an mistake.”

“Maybe. Well, catch you later. Bye!” I quickly said. I couldn’t wait to find out why Mrs. Carson marked me down. I didn’t notice Josh still wanted to say something until I was out of sight. I blew it again with Josh!

“Mrs. Carson!”

“Oh, Noel. What did you need?”

“My test score.”

“Oh, that. Did you understand why you got it?” she said, scrambling through her stacks of loose papers piled mile-high above her desk. (Well, not exactly.)

“No. All of the answers were right except for one.”

“Did you happen to cheat?” she said as if I already knew.

“I didn’t! I studied everyday and night, at least five hours a day.”

“But you had exactly the same answers as Leah. Even on the ones you answer in your own words.”

“Leah cheated, so I get an ‘F’?”

“I don’t think it was Leah. She has that style of essay writing. I didn’t think it was you.”

“I swear I didn’t look at her paper. I was the one who help her understand the question. I was the one who taught her how to write essays in the first place. And, she sit’s behind me. How can I look at her paper without you knowing?”

“You’re right. I didn’t think of that.”

“Can you change my grade?”

“Of course, Noel. Just for that, I’ll give you an ‘A+’ because it was my fault. Is it true that you were grounded?”

“Yes. You’ve met my mom before.”

“I’ll explain everything to her tonight when I call her.”

“Thanks a bunch.”

“Now, if I can get my hands on Leah. She’s going to get a zero just for lying to me.” I smiled to myself. I could picture the look on Leah’s face when she hears that Mrs. Carson had found out the real truth. I couldn’t wait till I tell Eva.

So far, everything’s looking brighter. Only if my parents would stop fighting.

Why can’t my mom understand that I do get good grades. It’s like she wants me to, but I already do. Other than that, I really want to see Josh. That is, if he still wants to listen to me after the latest chance he gave me.

* * *

“So she doesn’t like me after all,” I muttered to Aaron. I picked at the salad I brought for lunch.

“She has to. What girl wouldn’t?” He asked, looking up from a Star Wars book he was reading and placed it upside down on the table.

“All of them! I’m just getting carried away. I should listen to you.”

“If you listen to me, I’m telling you that you should ask her if she does like you.”

“She likes Chris.”

“Chris?” He paused. “Don’t know him.”

“He’s a junior.”

“But no one goes better with Noel than you.”

“So. Maybe if I think like you, it’ll be easier.”

“What?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t even bother with girls until I graduate.”

“Hey, I just happen to not like anyone here. Everyone’s too. . . I don’t know. But I know that you should try asking Noel one more time.”

“Hmm. . . you’re right. Finding out she doesn’t like me is a lot better than hanging around, waiting to see if she likes me.”

“Ask Eva. I saw them together this morning. She’s her best friend. She has to know.”

“I’ll try it. Too bad I can’t read minds.”

“Yeah, and know what everyone is thinking.”

“It would come in handy.”

“That would be one advantage, but you still have to have the nerves to ask Noel.”

“I think mine are dying out.”

“Well, all I can say is that I wish you luck.”

“Oh, that really helps.”

“It’s won you all those medals, didn’t I?”

“Luck isn’t enough this time.” I stood up just as a bunch of people headed our way. Aaron was lost in the crowd and I didn’t see him the rest of the day.

SEVEN

Well, at least Eva and Noel are back together. Does Noel really hate me? Maybe she’s just too caught up in this whole mess to even bother with me.

“Josh!”

“Hey sis! What’s up?”

“Do you like Noel?”

“Why do you ask?” I shifted my weight onto the other foot as I dialed my combination on my hall locker.

“Because I want to know. She really likes you.”

I jumped at those words. “And how do you know that?” I asked, coolly.

“Because I begged her to tell the truth. So, do you or do you not?”

“I guess I do.”

“Haven’t you asked her out yet?”

“How can I? She’s trying to avoid me every time I talked to her. Today, she listened for a bit, but said she had to go talk to Mrs. Carson.”

“That’s not an excuse at all. Noel got her score raised from and F to an A + because they found out Leah cheated off of her. I know you would have been eager to find out that Leah is the one that cheated.”

“So should I try again?”

“You have to, bro. She’ll listen this time. I promise. Just so you know, I can’t come home after sixth period, so I’ll see you when I get home.”

“Okay, bye!”

“See ya!”

I walked towards the back parking lot of the school, thinking of what Noel would do if I asked her out. But first, hopefully, she would listen to me. If she doesn’t like me, the worst that can happen is that she’ll think I’m a total dweeb.

* * *

I opened the door to a room filled with computers. The soft hum from the computers sounded harmonic to my ears and gave me comfort. I looked around the room. Loose papers hung off the bulletin boards and lots of papers were stacked on top of the desks. The constant clicking from the keyboard and the small murmurs from students animated the room. The atmosphere was perfect for concentrating.

“So this is how the newspaper room looks like.” I took one step forward.

A man in his forties stood up from the student he was helping. “You must be Noel,” the man said, his voice low pitched.

“Yes, I am.”

“Hello. I’m Mr. Coleman, the teacher supervisor. Eva has told me so much about you.”

“Then I guess I don’t have to tell you much about myself, do I?”

“I don’t think so. I’m glad to finally meet you. This is where Eva works. You can do anything you want until she gets here after the bell rings. Do you have study hall now?”

“Um, yes.

“In that case, enjoy!”

“Thank you very much.”

So this must be where all the work on the weekly newspaper is done. Maybe next year, I’ll be on it. It looks like a neat place.

Just when I thought I had gotten used to the surroundings, Eva walked in and sat down in the table beside to me.

“Finished the quiz?”

“Yes. This will test how loyal of a friend you are. I fixed it up a bit and typed it out. Want to try it?”

“Sure.”

“What did you get?”

“A twelve out of thirty. A true friend who is always there for other people, but has a humanly side to them. Try thinking before taking action,” she read. “Does that mean I make a few mistakes?”

“Yup. No one can be perfect! They only seem perfect.”

“I’m glad I’ve found that out before I became a poor, self-loving loner.”

“I only know one person who fits that description.”

“Me too. So, have you talked to Josh?”

“No. I think he got the wrong idea. He probably thinks I’m still trying to avoid him.”

“No he doesn’t.”

“And how do you know that?”

“He is the one who got me back into my senses, and because he is my brother.”

“Oh, how stupid of me! I totally forgot about that! He’s your brother, duh!” “I guess he doesn’t seem like it. I have brown hair, he has blond hair. He’s more athletic, and I’m not.”

“Your whole family is athletic in different ways.” Eva was a sports fanatic. She had tried all but a few of the sports I’ve heard of, but can never stick to just one. Well, she does like soccer a lot, though. “I actually forgot he was your brother. How dumb can I get?”

“As dumb as Leah.”

I laughed. “I hope Josh will talk to me.”

“He will. Just don’t make any excuses to leave. I think he’s had it up to here with you running away.” Eva gestured with her hand a foot above her head. “He said to me that you were going to kill yourself. Is that true?”

“Yeah. I felt like dying! My mom was going to keep me out of gymnastics since my dad was regretting ever marrying her.”

“Whatever you do, don’t kill yourself. Life is definitely looking up for you.”

“Yeah, it is. Where’s your horoscope?”

“Oh, here.”

“Hey Noel!”

I looked up from the page I was typing. “Hi Chris! I didn’t know you were here.”

“I write the sports section here. I didn’t think I would see you here, of all places.”

“Oh yeah. I forgot.” I looked back at the page I was typing. My hands were still typing away at the article pinned up to the clipboard next to the monitor.

“I want to do an article on you, since the football team has no updates. I want to interview you, since you are an gymnast. I’m interviewing Michael, Josh, Sheri, and Leah, too.”

“Oh, sure.”

“Okay, how do you spell your name?”

“You know how.” I said, crossing my eyes.

“Sorry. I’m just following my form. What gym do you go to?”

“Skyline Academy.”

“Tell me about yourself and gymnastics.”

“Umm, I’m tall for my age, in a level with Leah, and my coach’s name is Mary. I like gymnastics because it makes me calm and relaxed. I learned self control because of gymnastics. I might have to quit because my mom doesn’t want me to, but I try to maintain an academic side to me. You have to have both brain and brawn.” I paused. “I don’t have much else to say.”

“That’ll be enough, since I only have one column. Thanks for your time.”

“No, thank you.”

“Uhh, Noel. If you’re not busy Saturday, do you want to go to the movies with me?”

I looked to Eva. She just smiled, but didn’t give me any clues. “I don’t know if I’m free. I have a meet coming up, so I have to be at the gym.”

“Okay, well, see you later.” He pushed back his stool and went back to his desk.

As soon as Chris was out of ear-shot, Eva burst out laughing. “Noel, you had a huge crush on him, and what do you do? The same thing you’ve been doing to Josh.”

“That is, I had a crush. Now, he’s just something I lost with the diary.”

“You still haven’t gotten it back, have you?”

“No, and I don’t really want it anymore.”

“We have to get Leah back.”

“No! I know something better,” I said, scrolling up to the top of the page.

“What? Get her back for good?”

“No. Be friends with her.”

“What? Have you gone crazy?” She exclaimed.

“No. All she needs is two good friends. Or maybe even just one.”

“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I’m going with you.”

“Trust me this time, would you?”

“Okay. . . if you say so.”

“I had enough with having enemies. It’s bad enough that people hate me for nothing, but it’s worse to have Leah as an enemy.”

“What does that mean?”

“Leah has a reason to hate me. All I have to do is find out why, and clear it all up.”

“Why do you always make things sound so easy?”

“Really? Well, by what I know, everything I say is a lot harder than I think. I think I’ve gone crazy.”

“We’ll see about that when you talk to Leah.”

“You have to come along, too.”

“Oh, why didn’t I know?” She rolled her eyes.

Ring, ring. Click.

“Hello?”

“Umm, is Noel home?”

“This is Noel.”

“Hi, it’s me, Josh.”

“Hi Josh!”

I felt myself shaking, like there was an earthquake going on. There was dead silence on the line. Maybe the line got disconnected.

“Noel,” a different voice called.

“Yes?” My voice was soft but high pitched.

“Is that you, Noel?”

“Yeah. Is that you, Eva?”

“Yeah, it is. Please forgive Josh. I should have listened to him when he said he can’t talk on the phone. See how different we are.”

“For a minute, I thought it was his idea to call.”

“No way! I begged him to call. He just ran outside, away from the phone. I should have known he hates talking on the phone.”

“I don’t like it either. I talk on the phone only to you, because you call me so much.”

“I guess I blew it for him. He’ll never want to talk to you, ever.”

“No, you didn’t. I’ll talk to him if I ever get up the nerve. For now, just tell him I love him, okay? Bye!”

I quickly hung up the phone with a bang. The sound rang in my head over an over again. I leaned against the kitchen wall, feeling sick to my head all of the sudden.

I guess he’s the kind of guy who never wanted the telephone to be invented. Same as my mom. I don’t usually talk on the phone unless it’s Eva. But most of the time, we go over to each other’s house, which is only across the street.

* * *

“I’m so stupid!” I mumbled to myself.

“Hey, you can’t be that bad, Josh.” Eva said.

“Tell me why not.”

Eva had closed the glass sliding door leading to the deck. She leaned against the rail next to me, slinging one arm over my shoulders. “Because of what Noel just said to me.” She smiled brightly. Maybe too brightly.

“And what might that be? That I’m a total jerk?”

“No. Actually, Josh, it’s the exact opposite.”

“What do you mean? What girl would like a boy who doesn’t like talking on the phone?” I looked away to the bed of flowers, feeling tears swell to my eyes but just staying there like a clear film of plastic blinding my sight.

“There’s one girl you particularly like who wouldn’t mind not talking on the phone.”

My heart jumped at those words, but I didn’t let it take over me yet. “Don’t try to cheer me up, okay? It just makes me feel even worse.”

“If I can’t cheer you up, maybe you’ll listen to what Noel just said to me.”

“What?” I asked, getting ready to hear the worst, but hoping for the best.

“She said to me to say to you that she likes you.”

“She likes me?” I was completely baffled.

“No.” She giggled, a smile hovering around her lips.

“I knew it. She thinks I’m a weirdo.” I bit my lower lip to keep from punching the railing.

“No! She doesn’t like you. She loves you.”

“What?” I almost choked at my breath, if that’s possible.

“You heard me right. She really likes you, Josh. But she didn’t say anything else. She hung up right away.”

“Oh.” I felt weird. Did Noel really mean it when she said she liked me? Scratch that. Did she mean it when she said she loved me?

“She doesn’t like talking on the phone either. I had that in mind when I made you call her. I didn’t notice it was her when I talked to her because she sounded totally different.”

My heart was now beating ten times faster. “But you always talk to her.”

“And you always talk to Aaron.” She coughed at that name. “That makes the two of you.”

I looked up into the starry night. Eva went inside, leaving me alone. I secretly made a wish as I saw an arched path a shooting star had made. T he North Star made me think of Noel the most. Though not as bright as the sun, it still stood out from all the rest. It guides the lost.

Then I spotted the moon. It was like Noel, too. A glowing piece of rock at night, it is faintly visible in broad daylight, but always seeming to be there.

Still, her presence was like the sun. Shining down on me, disappearing in the night. Her presence is natural and unthoughtful, but like an eclipse, it stands out sometimes. I hope it would stand out a lot more. Not once in a century. That night, I went to sleep, imagining Noel saying that she loves me, over and over again.

* * *

I heard the door to my room creak open. My dad peeked into my room after dinner. My mom had another teacher’s meeting, so she wasn’t home.

“Noel?”

“Yes Dad?”

“Noel, honey. I’m sorry that I made you upset.”

“It’s okay. I was just over-reacting. I don’t like to see you guys fighting over me.” “I know. It’s just that I don’t like it when your mother makes you stay home just because you didn’t do so well in school. It’s like I’m hurting you.”

“It’s okay, really. We’re having a re-match this Saturday, anyways. Also, I found out why I got an ‘F’ on my test.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t. I got an A + on it. Mrs. Carson thought I cheated off of Leah, but really Leah is the one who cheated off of me.”

“I’m glad you got that straightened out.”

“But don’t tell mom that. She’s supposed to get a phone call tonight, or some time when Mrs. Carson has time.”

“I’ll be sure to zip my lips shut.”

“I think mom will like gymnastics once she really takes the time to watch it.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, you have to wait and see for yourself.”

“Hey, Eva!”

“Hi Noel! Ready for our run!”

“As ready as can be.” I had been stretching for five minutes.

We took off down the road, jogging on a trail leading to a small, hidden lake, not accessible by car. I was beautiful outside. The hot spring temperature hadn’t shown up yet along with the blazing sun. Only sunlight peeking over the mountains separated inland from the shore.

“Fresh air!” I deep breathed slowly, savoring the clean, fresh scent.

“Yup. So, what are we going to do with Leah? How do we get her to like us?”

“First, I want to know why she doesn’t like me?”

“I’ve been thinking, Noel, that she’s jealous of you.”

“How can she?”

“Just like when you were jealous of her.”

I contemplated for a moment in silence. Only the tweeting of the stellar jays searching for food for its young could be heard. “You know. Now that I really see, you are just like Josh. You both think she’s jealous of me.”

“It’s not just me. Jane and Maggie wants to apologize to you, but they feel too bad to come up to you.”

“We’ll just have to see about that when I ask Leah why she doesn’t like me. I’ve seen Jane and Maggie look at me, not in a mean way, but they were interrupted by Leah.”

“They’ll probably talk to you today. I told them that you didn’t mean any harm.” I sat down on a bench about twenty minutes later, out of breath. Eva wanted to run some more, so she kept on going until it was six thirty in the morning. Eva is on the cross country team at school. I never liked running for a long time. About fifteen minutes later, when the sun had finally shown it’s true colors, we headed back. It was still a little bit foggy and cold when we arrived at school.

I took a shower and changed into a relax fitting pair of khaki shorts and a white, short sleeved, button-front shirt. I tied a plaid, long sleeved shirt around my waist, just in case it was still cold outside. On the other hand, Eva had put on a purple shirt with a pink flower that and a pair of jeans. I still had on a pair of brown hiking boots. “Hey, you and Josh look like a perfect pair.” She spotted Josh when he was going in between the rows of tables.

“Why do you say that?”

“You and Josh dress alike.” Actually, he did. “This morning, he said he went up to Hiker’s Point with that idiot, Aaron.” Did I tell you she hates him? “He said it looked like he was looking down into a giant bowl of whip cream.” “He doesn’t look like he went hiking.”

“You don’t either.”

“Because I didn’t.”

“Close enough.”

He looked like the type of guy who was one-on-one with nature. I hoped he was because I was. He was wearing a pair of jean shorts under a flannel shirt and an off-white polo shirt. I love nature. Living where I lived, it was possible to get up close to natural wildlife.

“Earth to Noel! Don’t forget about Operation Leah.”

“Uh, yeah. I haven’t forgotten.”

“Oh, really?”

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