This story is by LeAnn McRae and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Her betrayed expression, sad and condemning, like a child receiving a vaccination at the direction of a trusted parent, remained etched in his mind. Kyle picked up a smooth, round rock and held it between his thumb and index finger. He pulled his arm back and, with a snap of the wrist, released. The rock skipped twice, creating ripples disrupting the reflection of leafless oak trees mirrored on the quiet surface of the lake before it fell under. Kyle wished he could disrupt the image in his mind as easily.
He could still see Jena’s eyes, wide and aching, like she had been hit. And indeed, she had, though his weapon had been words, words that hit their mark with accuracy and force. A friend, even a former friend, knows what ammunition will cause the most damage.
Again, Kyle let a rock float across the lake. He counted the skips, one, two, three, before it sunk into the water. What had he become? He and Jena had been childhood friends. Their families were friends. But as they grew older, different social circles claimed them. His position on the varsity basketball team made him part of the popular crowd. Jena was not.
While Kyle enjoyed the status associating with the athletes gave him, he didn’t like their latest game – ‘lunch raps’. Each day, during lunch, they wrote and performed a rap about a student. These raps mocked students about their looks, demeanor, clothes, friends, anything. Kyle watched kids lower their heads and pick up their pace as they walked past the athlete table to avoid becoming the lunch-rap student of the day. Their reactions to the songs ranged from amusement to despair, with most coming in at ‘hurt’. It made his stomach turn when he saw the pain the songs caused. But he couldn’t upset his friends. So he laughed when they laughed and kept his misgivings to himself.
Today Jena walked into the lunchroom at the wrong time. She became the lunch-rap student of the day.
“That girl, right there. Does anyone know anything about her we could rap about?” Thomas, the shooting guard, said while gesturing toward Jena.
“No. She’s probably a freshman. I’ve never seen her before.” Billy, small forward, answered. “But she’d be a great candidate. She’s wearing a cat shirt.”
The boys laughed while Kyle stared at his plate of mashed potatoes.
“Kyle might know. He’s a freshman. Hey, Kyle, what can you tell us about her?” asked Joe, point guard and captain of the team.
Kyle forced a smile. He looked at Jena, who, unlike most students, stopped to hear Kyle’s response.
“I don’t know her well,” Kyle muttered.
“Come on, don’t let us down. It’s your turn to come up with lyrics.”
“I’m not a songwriter.”
“Just tell us about her. Jacob can make it rhyme.”
Jacob, their center, looked imposing at six foot five inches.
Kyle looked away from Jena and stared at his fellow basketball players. His team, his people, his group. He didn’t want to lose their influence.
“She has too many freckles.”
Billy starting making rap sounds while Jacob chanted, “freckles, freckles all over your face.” The rest of the team laughed.
“She gets food caught in her braces,” Kyle continued.
“Food in your braces, you’re such a disgrace,” became the next line. More laughter.
“She has a pet zebra she sleeps with at night.” Their laughter fueled his comments.
“And she has dyslexia and struggles to read.”
Jacob paused, looking for a rhyme, while Billy continued his rap beat.
The boys roared and Kyle swelled with their approval, until he saw Jena. She glared at him, frozen in shock. He understood the reality of what he had announced as her eyes grew glassy. Without saying a word, she turned and left. Kyle watched as she found a table in the far corner of the room and sat next to a blonde girl, her back to him.
Kyle’s teammates patted him on the back and laughed, but he didn’t hear them. The look on Jena’s face consumed him.
Kyle’s next rock was too jagged. It brushed the top of the water without a skip before sinking under. He wished he could stay there, skipping rocks for the rest of his life. Finagling a ride home from school with his sister’s friend, he managed to avoid seeing Jena on the bus; he didn’t think he could face her or his teammates again. But the already cold air grew colder and Kyle knew if he didn’t go home soon his family would start asking questions.
Kyle stepped out of his house and saw Jena several paces in front of him.
“Jena,” he called. Maybe she had forgotten about yesterday. Maybe he had misread her look. Maybe she didn’t mind he had revealed one of her secrets.
No reply. She pulled out her phone, studying it like it held the answers to their English test.
“Jena,” he ran to catch up, touching her arm.
She jerked away and pulled out an earbud.
“Sorry. I can’t hear you over the music.” Jena said as she replaced the earbud preventing him from doing anything except stand in silence until the bus came. He had not misread her look and she had not forgotten. When the bus came Jena climbed on and sat in the third row next to the same blonde he saw with her yesterday. Kyle walked toward the rear and sat down, his back leaning against the bus window and he legs stretched along the seat and into the aisle, ensuring no one could sit with him.
Kyle saw Jena again during English class. At the bell, he waited by the door.
“Sorry about yesterday.”
She walked past as though she hadn’t heard him.
During lunch, Kyle went to the library to study. He didn’t want any part of the lunch raps.
The rest of the week became a game of avoidance. Kyle avoided his teammates and Jena avoided him.
Kyle and Jena hadn’t been close for years. Yet, right now, nothing mattered more to Kyle than regaining her friendship. Seeing her turn her back on him every day reminded him he had betrayed her. And for what? The approval of a bunch of mean kids. Kyle felt shallow and disappointed in himself. Why was their acceptance important to him?
Finally he found Jena at her lunch table alone, no blonde friend yet. This might be his opportunity.
“Hey, Kyle, where have you been?” Thomas called.
Kyle glanced at Jena. At the mention of his name she raised her head. He felt pulled in opposite directions. His next step determined a lot more than which chair he occupied for the next hour. It determined his social standing the rest of his high school career and his image of himself. He took a step toward his teammates, seeing Jena roll her eyes as he did. Without thinking he changed direction, ignoring the surprised calls of his friends.
“Can I sit here?” he asked Jena.
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
That was unforeseen. Now what? He could return to the athletes and continue their rap games. But he had made his choice. He would not make fun of people. He wouldn’t be that guy, even for social standing and popularity. He found an empty table in the corner of the room and ate lunch alone.
Every day for two weeks Kyle approached Jena’s table and asked if he could sit down. Every day she responded the same, “I’d rather you didn’t”. And Kyle ate friendless. Eating alone he noticed anew how the raps caused kids to look down, slump in their chair, hurt and embarrassed. The songs had power, power to tear down. What if… could they also build up?
The next day Kyle approached the athlete table. His teammates scooted their chairs away from him.
“You’re not welcome here anymore.” Thomas said.
Kyle didn’t move.
“If you want back in you have to choose the rap student today, and give us the dirt on them.”
“Ok.” Kyle agreed. He chose Alice, his sister’s friend. “She gives me rides. She’s good at math and she tutors other kids.”
His teammates looked from Kyle to Joe, locked in a stare. In stillness they waited Joe’s approval. Kyle could feel his heart racing. No one crossed Joe, a senior, team captain, and the second tallest kid in school. He wanted to retreat to the safety of his loner table but he held Joe’s gaze. Joe gave a slight nod. Billy began his rap beat.
“I guess whoever chooses the kid can choose what goes into the song.” Joe said.
With a quiet sigh, Kyle fell back into his chair. He watched Alice as he sang the rap. She ducked her head, embarrassed, but he could see a smile on her face. Looking at Jena he noticed she was smiling, too. And in her smile Kyle found hope of forgiveness.