The Strength of Story

Saturday, August 02, 2014


The Strength of Story

A fictional story of strength


What makes people unique? My name is Story Evans and perhaps I’m biased by the love of my name, but my answer to that question would be that our uniqueness comes entirely from the stories we have to tell. It’s true, I believe, that we are not what we’ve been through, but we all lean a little bit closer, all listen a little more intently, to those who have experienced something interesting and lived to tell it. Whether it be a trip to a foreign country or a battle of survival, we live for the experiences that turn into stories we’ll never tire of telling. And if they have a happy ending? Even better.

But not all stories have a happy ending, and not all stories are held in awe and rapt attention. Sometimes, all that’s left when a story ends is confusion, pity, and the broken pieces of a puzzle that can never be solved. What do we do with such stories? 


Well, we have two options: we can either keep them locked in the dark spots of our minds, trying in vain to forget, or we can tell them, and hope that someone, somewhere understands what we do not. 


I’m choosing the latter with the hope that by the end of my story I’ll be able to answer the only question I have left:


Why do bad things happen to good people?


***

My story starts the last day of Spring Break, just two short months away from graduation. And like most girls who were overprivileged in high school, I was hosting the last wild party of the break.

“Great party!” Chelsea, my best friend, yelled. “Like, it’s really the best party ever.”


“Thanks, Chels.” I said.


She grabbed my wrist and stared intently at my green eyes with her icy blue. Her dark, glittery makeup was smudged around her eyes, and her cherry-colored lipstick was bleeding around the edges of her lips, making her look like she’d just spent the past hour getting beat up. In reality, though, she was just tipsy and had probably spent the past hour hooking up with whatever guy on the basketball team had been willing to take her to bed. Which narrowed the list down to, well, all of them except one: my boyfriend, Ty, who was late to my party, as usual. Parties weren’t his thing. Not that I minded. His quiet and peaceful nature was the perfect complement to my wild and slightly neurotic need to make everyone happy all the time, an impossible task as he so thoughtfully reminded me. Sometimes, Ty was the only one to keep me sane.


“I mean it, Story. This party is epic, like it’s life-changing.” Chelsea said.


“I’m sure it is, Chels.”


She squeezed my wrist and smiled at me, before her eyes widened at something behind my shoulder.


“It’s him!” She said.


“Who?” I asked, turning around to see what she was looking at.


It was Trey, one of Ty’s best friends and teammates who was surrounded by a flock of girls across the room. 


“I’ll be right back.” Chelsea said. “Love you!”


She kissed my cheek before skipping away toward Trey, leaving only the smell of tequila, Clinique happy and the sloppy red smear of lipstick on my cheek.


“Hey,” Ty said, coming in just as I was wiping the lipstick off my cheek, “sorry I’m late.”


“It’s okay. I know this isn’t really your thing.” I said. “But I’m glad you came.”


I wrapped my arms around him, and pressed my face against his chest. He smelled like cigarette smoke and Abercrombie & Fitch cologne.


“How’s your mom?” I asked him. 


“Still dying.”


“Still smoking?”


“She doesn’t see the point in quitting now. She already has lung cancer. Quitting isn’t going to cure her. Or so she believes.”


“Stubborn.”


“Very.” He kissed the top of my head. “Hey, did you invite Zeke Rutgers?”


Zeke was the class outcast, and also Trey’s step-brother. Though they had both gone to school with me since pre-k, Zeke had been practically invisible until freshman year of high school when Trey’s wealthy Wall Street investor dad married Zeke’s young, supermodel-gorgeous mom. If life was a Hollywood movie, Zeke might have been propelled into the cool status of his step-brother, experiencing some kind of transformation. But it wasn’t, and instead Zeke was treated as he always had been: invisible. Nobody even really knew that Trey and Zeke were related.


“I don’t think so. Why?” I asked.


“I saw him walking down your street when I was driving over here.”


“You think Trey might have left him sitting in the car again?”


When Trey got busted for drinking and driving underage, his punishment was to have Zeke drive and accompany him everywhere. In my opinion, it seemed like Zeke was the one being punished as Trey would often leave Zeke waiting in the car for hours, but Trey was the only one I ever heard complain about the arrangement.


“No, he was walking this way. He looked like he was coming to the party.”


“How so?”


“I don’t know. I guess he looked..happy. Or happier than usual.”


“Hmm.”


I probably should have been concerned, but I wasn’t. Instead, I buried myself in an embrace with Ty, and forgot all about Zeke. We all forgot that night.


We never would again.


***

I was restocking the coolers when Zeke arrived. It only took five minutes for the commotion to start. Apparently, Trey had started a collective dump of beers and whatever else was sticky, wet, and gross onto Zeke the instant he stepped inside and made himself known.

“Stop!” I yelled. “You’re going to ruin the rug!”


The crowd began to disperse, but the damage had already been done. Zeke was shaking (whether from fear or anger I couldn’t tell), dripping wet, and reeking of beer. I immediately fetched him a towel from the linen closet nearby, and handed it to him.


“I’m sorry.” I said.


He looked at me, his black hair stuck to his face and his jaw clenched tightly. He wasn’t bad looking. He was tall, and though he was the twig-like kind of skinny, he had strong facial features that kept him from looking too weak.


“For what?” He asked.


The question caught me off guard. I had been expecting a thank you.


“Forget it.” He said, shaking his head. “I don’t want your pity.”


He threw the towel at me, and ran off.


I didn’t see him the rest of the night.


***

The encounter with Zeke bothered me in ways I didn’t expect. After Zeke took off, Trey bragged about how he had invited Zeke tonight for the sole purpose of completely humiliating him.

“That’s what he gets for being such a loser!” Trey shouted, to the encouragement of his peers.


I realized they were my peers too, and I couldn’t stand it. That night was the first time I was glad when the party ended. The mess seemed endless, but cleaning gave me something to take my fury out on.


“Hey, what’s bugging you?” Ty asked as he helped me clean, noticing my agitation. “Did Chelsea do something stupid again?”


“No.” I said, stomping on a red Solo cup before picking it up and stuffing it into the trashbag I was carrying. “It’s Trey.” I sighed. “I know he’s your best friend and teammate or whatever, but I don’t like the way he treats his brother. It’s really shitty.”


Ty blinked at me in shock. I didn’t normally cuss. Nor did I typically involve myself in Trey’s business. This wouldn’t be the first time Trey did something terrible to Zeke right in front of me. I never cared before. But this bothered me.


“Technically,” Ty said, “it’s his step-brother. And did you just cuss?”


I sighed, and threw up my hands in agitation before furiously beginning to pick up trash, heaving the trashbag around almost violently with every step. Ty immediately rushed over to me, and pulled me into his arms.


“Hey, I’m sorry.” Ty said.


“For what?”


“For not being more sensitive to how you’re feeling right now.” He said. “You’re right. Trey is really shitty to Zeke, and it’s not right. It bothers me too. But what can we do?”


“We should try to do something.”


“Like what?”


“I don’t know. Something.”


That night I came up with a plan. A plan that would forever change my story.


***

Before the plan, I imagined my story would be simple. I would graduate high school, and attend an Ivy League college, earning a degree in Business or Marketing or something both typical and productive. I’d probably marry Ty and settle into a simple life with him. My story would be quite typical.

But then I thought of the plan.


The plan was that I was going to pretend to date Zeke. Trey couldn’t very well make Zeke an outcast if he became a part of our social circle. I wouldn’t have to fake-date him very long. It would only last until Zeke was able to infiltrate our group. I was just the starting point. I was confident Zeke could win over the hearts, approval, and trust of the rest of our group on his own.


I talked about it with Ty first, of course, since I would still technically be dating him and not Zeke (not that Zeke would ever know that, though). Though Ty was skeptical about the plan’s morality, I was convincing enough for him to agree.


“Just, don’t get physical with him, okay?” Ty said. "No serious touching."


“Of course.” I said, wrapping myself in Ty’s arms. “You’re the only one who gets to seriously touch me.”


That Monday, the very next day, I enacted my plan. I was very convincing. I pretended to be very upset over a breakup with Ty that didn’t happen. Even Chelsea was sympathetic, and Chelsea is rarely sympathetic to breakups, especially when she has a hangover. 


“It’s okay, hon.” Chelsea said, rubbing my back as I cried into a tissue. “All relationships end. Cry it out and then get back on the horse. A different horse. A bigger and better horse. If you know what I mean.”


At lunch, I asked Zeke if I could sit with him. He always sat by himself at the table closest to the cafeteria doors and farthest away from the rest of the school.


“Why?” Zeke asked, looking at me skeptically. “What’s wrong with your table?”


I burst into an Oscar-worthy performance of tears, and sat down before Zeke could protest.


“We broke up!” I cried.


“You and Ty?” Zeke asked, and I nodded. “Oh.”


There was silence for a moment as I dried my tears. I was always very good at faking sadness. Tears are the best weapon of manipulation, and I was never beyond crying to get what I wanted.


“Why my table? Why me?” Zeke asked after a while.


“Well, I don’t really talk to anyone else.” I said, looking at him as if I was shocked he would ask such a question.


He smiled. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.


The plan had officially begun.


***

I sat with Zeke all week long in the cafeteria. I even sat next to him in the classes we shared, changing my seat just to sit next to him. By the time Friday came, he had finally mustered up the courage to ask me out. With my encouragement, of course.

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do this weekend. I always had plans with Ty, but now…” I trailed off, and gave Zeke a deliberate look of encouragement, mentally pleading for him to ask me out.


“Well, we could hang out together. If you’d like. I mean, you don’t have to…”


“I’d love to. What time?”


We went to see a movie. He paid. And the next day, we went for a picnic in the park. By Monday, we were practically a couple. By Friday, we were holding hands during school, and he was walking me to all my classes.


A part of me felt a little guilty when I would go to Ty’s house in the evenings, after Zeke dropped me off at home. I was technically lying to Zeke, and if he ever found out, I didn’t think he would appreciate it. But I told myself it was for his own good.


Even though it wasn’t.


The group had more trouble accepting him than I thought. Chelsea laughed when I told her I was dating Zeke. Trey refused to hang out with the group if I was going to be there, and Ty couldn’t accept us without blowing his cover. All Trey’s cronies went along with Trey’s opinion. It was just Zeke and I, stuck in an outcast world of our own. A world I didn’t belong in. A world I wasn’t used to.


The plan was not working as I expected.


***

A month away from graduation, I knew I needed to abort my plan. The fake relationship with Zeke had gone on for too long, and no progress had been made. Except in Zeke’s eyes. He told me he loved me, that I was the best thing that ever happened to him, and gave me a ring to celebrate our “three-month anniversary.” I knew I couldn’t let this go any further. 

“I’m going to break up with Zeke.” I told Ty as we lay in his bed together during another secret rendez-vous. “The plan isn’t working.”


“Be gentle.” Ty said, kissing my neck. “I think you’re his first love, and those are never easy to lose.”


I broke up with Zeke the next day. I told him that I needed to focus on school, that graduation was almost here, and I had let my relationship with Zeke become too much of a priority.


“But I love you!” Zeke cried. “Don’t you love me?”


“I’m sorry.” I said, shaking my head. 


The plan was my biggest mistake.


***

Despite my gentlest efforts, Zeke didn’t take the end to our fake relationship very well. He kept begging me to change my mind, promising to help me with my schoolwork, promising to give me space if that’s what I needed. I started limiting my contact with him. I stopped sitting with him at lunch and during class. The guilt was too much to bear.

Eventually, Zeke and I ceased to speak at all. Whenever we would pass each other in the hall, he would act like I didn’t exist. I would wave, and he wouldn’t acknowledge my presence at all. It was disappointing, but it was also a relief. Things were back the way they were supposed to be. It was as if the past few months I spent working on my failed plan had never happened.


Except, of course, they had.


And at the graduation ceremony, I paid the price.


***

Zeke wasn’t a violent person. He was kind. He was tortured, but he remained cordial. He had plenty of reason to hate, plenty of reason to be angry, plenty of reason to be resentful, but he never expressed any of those things.

Until graduation.


He waited until after the ceremony when Ty and I were standing with our circle taking pictures of our happy smiles in our newly-graduated outfits. Though Ty and I had never stopped dating, we waited until a week before graduation day to announce our coupledom. We agreed it would be the appropriate thing to do. We never expected Zeke’s rage, the twist in my simple story.


The gun belonged to Trey’s father. Zeke had access because Trey’s father trusted him. But on graduation day, he forever broke that trust.


He shot Trey first, and when Chelsea screamed, he shot her too. Ty jumped in front of me, and took the bullet that was meant for me. Then, as the authorities on scene rushed to disarm him, Zeke turned the gun on himself. 


Just like that my story changed, and his story ended.


***

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Perhaps it’s because we separate people into the labels of good and bad. And sometimes, the labels don’t fit. The people we label good, the people who we spoil, worship, admire, are not really good people. And the people we label as bad, the people we ostracize, torture, and humiliate, are not inherently bad people. Good and bad are just a label.


I tried to change the label, but I was wrong. By trying to change the label, I was only reinstating it because I was acknowledging the label existed at all. I thought I was a good person, and I thought Zeke could be a good person too, but the truth is that people can neither be good nor bad.


People are just people.


People have stories, and feelings, and plans. And all of it can change in an instant. But in the end, they are still people, neither good nor bad.


***

My name is Story Evans and this was my story. But it’s not my whole story. My story has changed, but it’s still going. I’m just a person, and I’m very much alive.


This isn’t where my story ends. It’s where my strength begins.

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