Chapter 17: The Balance of Power

The cafeteria is the great high school chess board. Everyone knows their place. Where you sit is directly related to how much power you have. Ash and Brooke used to sit together with their friends in the middle of the first row of tables. The kings and queens holding court. Penelope, Sullie and Rowena were floaters, sitting wherever there was a free table. Since their confrontation with Brooke a month ago, the six of them have become an unexpectedly tight group of friends, sitting together every lunch hour. They’ve made a power move from the centre of the room to the far side under the windows. Emmette and Frasier’s status on the rugby team has attracted the attention of the school to this new group, causing a ripple in the social dynamic. Sitting down at what is now their regular table, Penelope crinkles her nose at the pile of food on Frasier’s tray.

“What’s the face for?” Frasier waves a french fry dripping with chilli.

“How can you eat that stuff?” She pokes at the congealing pile of chilli cheese fries on his plate.

He jams a forkful into his mouth, chews, and grins, “Just like that.”

“Gross. Gross Gross.” She shakes her head and bites into her sandwich.

“Cause that’s not gross, right?” Frasier pokes the pile of sprouts between two pieces of grainy bread.

“This is delicious.”

“No, this is delicious.” Picking up his hot dog, he takes a giant bite. His eyes bulging as he realizes he’s bitten off more than he can comfortably chew.

“I believe this is what is called instant karma.” Penelope rolls her eyes as Ash and Sullivan plop their trays down on the table.

“What’s up?”

“Frasier’s being gross.”

Ash looks towards his friend, his eyes curious.

“Hang on,” Frasier mumbles around a mouth of food. It takes a good minute of chewing before he’s finally able to swallow. “I’m not being gross. She thinks my food is gross.”

“Oh P, you are not allowed to tell anyone their food is gross. You eat that…” Ash pokes at her sandwich with his fork.

“Will you guys stop violating my food!” She covers her lunch protectively.

“Sorry Penelope, you’re not getting any support from this table.” Sullivan laughs as she bites into an overloaded piece of pizza.

“None of you have taste buds.” She shakes her head before taking another bite of her sandwich. “I really mean that.”

“Yummy, yummy pizza. You’re so delicious. I want to eat you with all of my dishes.” Rowena sings to herself as she slides into her chair beside Penelope. “Man, they have the best food today. Respect to the cafeteria staff.” She salutes towards the food line before taking a giant bite. Ash, Sullie and Frasier all burst out laughing. “What?” Rowena mumbles around her mouthful of food.

“Timing. Perfect timing.” Sullivan chokes out through her laughter.

“Weirdo.” Rowena shakes her head.

“I am not a weirdo!” Emmette interjects as he slides into the chair across from her.

“You sure?” Rowena shoots a look at the giant plate of instant mashed potatoes on his plate. “”You’re lunch is a pile of reconstituted cardboard.”

“Oooo big words.”

“There’s a dictionary in my bag if you need to look it up.”

Emmette flips his middle finger in her direction, “I’m the one in the advanced classes. I’m surprised a menial like you could pull out a word like that.”

“Whatever…” She rolls her eyes at him. “AP classes are over rated. I’ll get into a good college and that’s where the work starts.” She turns to Penelope, “What’s the plan for this weekend?”

“Well, remember, we’re going to watch that movie tonight.” Penelope shoots her a look. Rowena knows she has plans with Gil tonight.

“Maybe we should have a movie night?” Frasier suggests, stabbing at more French fries.

“We’re watching a documentary on running.” Rowena twirls her finger in the air. “I’m super excited. Woo-hoo. Two hours of watching a guy run. Can you handle it?” Her voice completely deadpan.

“Oh god, why!”  Frasier chokes on his milk. Rowena jerks her thumb in Penelope’s direction.

“Hey! I’ve been waiting for this movie to be released for like a year.” Penelope looks at them indignantly.

“Yeah, so I think I’ll have to revoke that movie night idea, I forgot that I have… plans… yeah… that’s it.”

“Well, these two can nerd out for the night, and the rest of us will head over to the Orpheus for a little bowling.”

“Ah, dude! I love bowling.” Rowena shoots a look in Penelope’s direction.

Penelope hides her face as she takes a long drink from her water bottle. She feels a pit in her stomach. Asking Rowena to lie for her is one thing. Asking her to miss out on something she really likes to stay at home alone is another thing.

“Row, if you want to go bowling, I can watch the movie by myself. It’s not a big deal.”

“You sure?” Rowena pushes gently. “Totally sure?”

“Absolutely.” Penelope squeezes her friends arm. “I don’t mind spending the evening alone.”

“Sweet.”

“Excellent. I look forward to kicking your ass.” Rubbing his hands together, Emmette grins devilishly.

“Don’t get your hopes up dude. I plan to beat you all, but most especially you. This will be a beating you will never forget.” She points directly at Emmette.

“Promise?” He raises an eyebrow.

“Shut up.” She laughs, tossing a potato chip across the table at him.

*****     *****     *****

Penelope parks her car a block away from Gil’s house, not wanting to chance her brother seeing it if he comes by Frasier’s. As she approaches the little yellow house, she notices the windows are dark. Around the side of the house, she locates the spare key and lets herself in. Her bag lands with a soft thump as she tosses it into Gil’s room on her way to the kitchen. Deciding it’s time to take advantage of being alone in Gil’s house, she grabs a bottle of water from the fridge and heads down the hall towards the study.

This is the one room she hasn’t been allowed to enter since she and Gil started dating. With a low click, soft light from a desk lamp fills the room. Gil’s laptop sits open on top of the desk. Penelope taps her fingers against the wood. Before she can talk herself out of it, she jams her finger onto the power button and wanders over to the bookcase while the machine loads. Running her finger along the spines of the books, she stares blankly at titles of books she knows she’ll never read.

A shelf full of yearbooks occupies the bottom of the bookcase. The books span several years. Pulling one out from the previous year, she fingers the embossed gold of the school’s emblem. It must be one of the schools he subbed at. She flips through the pages. Unlike all of her books, there are no signatures in this one. She wonders why he would have wanted these. The only writing in the book are a few tiny stars randomly spread throughout the book. She skims a few more books. The further back she goes, the more signatures start to pop us. She pulls out the one from the year Gil graduated. And there he is, in the pages of graduates. Gilbert Staal with long hair brushing the shoulders of his gown. Under his name is a list: Nickname: GS2; Most likely to: lose his temper; Stranded on a Desert Island with: GS1.

She skims the other pictures on the page. Two pictures down, she sees a girl with long black curls and a sarcastic smile. It’s her list that catches Penelope’s eye. Nickname: GS1; Most likely to: Defuse the bomb; Stranded on a Desert island with: GS2. Beside her picture is a swirly signature, a little star followed by “Since the Blythe pulled my braids. Kisses forever. Gina”.

She traces her finger over the letters before snapping the book shut. Not wanting to see a life where Gil was with anyone but her. Sliding the book back onto the shelf, she makes her way back over to the desk. The screen asks for a password. The phone in her pocket buzzes, distracting her from the computer. A message from Rowena: “Hope the movie is worth it. We’re having a blast.” Penelope smiles and sets the phone on the desk beside the laptop.

Once again looking at the screen, she frowns. In the centre drawer, she looks for something that might give away Gil’s password. Pens roll against the wood bottom. A pile of Post-It notes sit in one corner. A flash drive sits in the other. That won’t do her any good until she’s able to log on. Frowning, she crosses her arms over her chest. The blinking cursor taunts her.

“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” A voice husky with sleep, sounds from behind her.

“Jesus!” Penelope jumps in the chair. “Gil! You scared the crap out of me. When did you get home?”

“Hours ago. I was sleeping.”  His arms over his chest, he leans against the door jam. “Now back to what you’re doing with my computer.”

“I thought you were out. Please don’t be mad, I just wanted to play around on the internet.” She waves a hand dismissively towards the computer, “but you’re one of those weird people who password protects their home computer and you live alone.”

“I’m also one of those weird people that has open access to the school’s secure server from his home computer and is required to have a password. A long and complicated password you will never figure out and I would never leave in a desk drawer.” He steps into the room, leans over her to close the laptop, kissing her hello. She flinches a little, expecting him to be angry. “And I have this girlfriend who likes to hang out at my house all the freaking time. And she could actually use that server.” He teases.

“Shut up,” She smacks his arm playfully before pushing herself out of the chair. “I haven’t seen you all week.”

“Trust me,” His hands on her hips, he pulls her into him. “I’ve noticed.”

She grins, wrapping her arms around his neck. “How about we do something to make you forget being all lonely and stuff?”

“And what would you suggest we do?”

“Hmmm, I’m not sure.” She jumps up, wrapping her legs around his waist. “Maybe we could play some go fish or crazy eights…” She settles her face into the most innocent look she can manage.

“You know, I think I have a deck of cards in my nightstand.” He carries her out the door.  Penelope lowers her face to his, grabbing his lips between her own. Gil strides across his room confidently, until he reaches the bed and realizes he’s miscalculated his steps. Stumbling, he drops Penelope unexpectedly and falls onto of her, unable to catch himself. Their foreheads slam together with a hard thunk.  Tears spring to Penelope’s eyes instantly.

“Holy mother.” She gingerly touches her forehead.

“Yeah,” He checks his own head and then reaches for hers. “You alright?”

“Distract me from the pain.” She leans over and opens the drawer of the nightstand, rummaging around for a few seconds. “Look, I found the cards.” She pulls her hand back with a little foil packet between her fingers.

“That doesn’t look like cards?” Gil chuckles, grabbing her by the waist and pulling her into his lap. “Guess we’ll just have to do something else.”

Chapter 18

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