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Keep It Steady Episode 7

MORNING ANNOUNCEMENTS

Good morning, Columbus High students. Today is Monday, May 15th, 2006 and these are your morning announcements. Be advised this episode contains sounds of vomiting and descriptions of bullying. Columbus High’s first book group meeting takes place this Wednesday in the library; please see Christi Dawson for more information.


ZACH

I can get to the nurse’s office by myself. My balance is fine.


GABE

Is it?


ZACH

Look how great I am at walking.


ZACH NARRATION

But when I risk a glance back, Gabe’s lips are pressed together and his eyes are wide. It doesn't look like anger at all, and I stumble a half step. Gabe wraps an arm around my shoulders, very mindful of my eye.


GABE

(GENTLY) Whoa.


ZACH NARRATION

This is just way over the top as far as our act goes. No subtlety. Zero stars, Gabe.


ZACH

I really am okay.


GABE

Zach, for the love of God—fight me on anything else, anything at all, but please don’t fight me on this one thing, okay?


ZACH

...okay.


FX: THE HALLWAY DIN IS DYING DOWN


ZACH NARRATION

The more the hallway empties out, the more it’s obvious we’re not talking to each other. That’s the problem with two and a half months of pretending to date, I think. Silence feels wrong now. We should be commiserating about our shitty classes or making fun of each other. I don't remember the walk to the nurse’s office taking about twenty years. Then again, it’s been a while.


ZACH

Um, about the other day—


GABE

(COMPLETELY WORN OUT) Can we please just—not right now?


ZACH

Sure.


ZACH NARRATION

If it wasn’t awkward before, it is now. The quiet is like some big creature loping alongside us, sucking all of the air out of the hallway. I can’t take it.


ZACH

Hey, at least it’s Monday. The Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday nurse is way nicer than the Thursday-Friday nurse.


GABE

Tell me about it. She refused to tell us if you were in the back, something about patient confidentiality, but Krista said— (HE CUTS HIMSELF OFF)


ZACH

(BLURTING) Sorry. I really didn’t—


GABE

(GRITTED TEETH) Please, can we not—


ZACH NARRATION

I consider another whole day of staring into the abyss, and I just can’t do it. I’d rather know for a fact Gabe never wants to see me again than spend another hour hovering helplessly in limbo.


I’m pretty sure, anyway. I still haven't read Dante.


ZACH

No, sorry. I think we need to talk.


GABE

(HEAVILY) You're right. But do you really want to have this fight when—


ZACH

So you are still mad at me.


GABE

(CONTRITE) Zach…


ZACH

Because honestly, you should be.


GABE

Okay, honestly? Yes, I am pretty mad at you.


ZACH NARRATION

I let it sink in, Gabe's arm stiff and uncomfortable across my shoulders. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Maybe I thought it would feel better, picking the brave thing.


ZACH

(ABRUPTLY) We’re here.


FX: FOOTSTEPS STOP


GABE

Do, uh. Do you—want someone to wait with you?


ZACH

(BEYOND TIRED) There’s nobody here. You don’t have to pretend.


GABE

Okay, yeah. (FX: A FEW FOOTSTEPS AWAY, THEN PAUSE) The guy who did that to you, we’re gonna get him.

ZACH

I guess. (TO HIMSELF) “Reason admitted.” (FX: WRITING) “One helluva shiner”


MARIE

(CALLING FROM THE NEXT ROOM) Zach, is that you?


FX: MARIE’S FOOTSTEPS INTO THE ROOM


ZACH

Hey, Marie. How’s my favorite nurse?


MARIE

Oh honey.


ZACH NARRATION

Marie has always called me that, from the start, and I have always jealously hoarded that word spoken in that voice. She's just doing her job, but every time she says it, it's like she's handing me a fuzzy baby duckling.


MARIE

Really hoped I wasn’t gonna have to see you like this again.


ZACH

You know me, couldn’t stay away.


MARIE

And you’re Gabe. His boyfriend, right?


GABE

Uh, yeah. Shouldn't he get some ice or something? His eye's pretty bad.


ZACH NARRATION

Marie pulls me more directly under a light, inspecting the damages through the weak fluorescent wash. The pads of her fingers are so gentle on my chin, I could cry.


MARIE

Oh honey. Okay. Ice pack for you. Hall pass for you. In the meantime, you guys can come back and have a seat for a sec.


ZACH NARRATION

We follow her past the counter to a row of small, cubby-like rooms. The smell of rubbing alcohol hangs in the air.


Ah, memories.


FX: THREE SETS OF FOOTSTEPS THROUGH THE NURSE’S OFFICE.


MARIE

They're mostly free right now, so you've got your pick.


ZACH

Four.


MARIE

Room three’s got that window.


ZACH

Four’s got the poster, and sunlight’s overrated.


MARIE

Alright then. Here, enjoy its cave-like charms. I'll be right back.


FX: FOOTSTEPS TO THE DOOR. THE DOOR SHUTS. ZACH DROPS ONTO THE COT.


ZACH NARRATION

I peer at the old Van Gogh print from the cot, mostly out of habit. It's a good thing that I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent staring at those swirls, wishing I could climb through the cheap plastic frame and into that valley, stand in the peaceful blue-toned village and look up at the stars.

The poster’s smaller than I remember, blurrier. Gabe is leaning against the opposite wall, scrutinizing it with an intensity that almost makes me uncomfortable on its behalf, that fills me with a sudden fierce need not to let Gabe pass judgment on Starry Night based on some low-budget copy.


ZACH

The real one’s better. I mean, I haven’t seen it, but. The colors are brighter, and when the resolution’s cleaner, you can see, like, the texture. With the brush strokes.


GABE

You spent a lot of time here. Were you sick or something?


ZACH

Nah. Usually, I was just trying to miss class.


GABE

“Usually?”


FX: A LIGHT KNOCK AT THE DOOR. MARIE SLIPS IN.


MARIE

Here you go, Zach. Hold, don’t press.


FX: ICE PACK CRINKLE


ZACH NARRATION

She peers into my eyes and goes through the whole list of symptoms again. It’s boring; my answers haven’t changed since Ponni did it, and Marie doesn’t laugh at my jokes, either. When she’s done, she tells me it doesn’t look like a concussion but that I still need to go visit an actual doctor to know for sure that I’m in the clear, blah blah blah. I scrunch my nose, but she ruffles my hair and calls me honey again. I can’t stay annoyed in the face of that.


MARIE

I’m so sorry, Zach, I was going to bring you Tylenol, and, um—


GABE

My hall pass.


MARIE

Of course. Sorry, I had to check someone in—


FX: FROM THE NEXT ROOM, SOMEONE WRETCHES VIOLENTLY ALL OVER THE TILE FLOOR.


MARIE

That’d be her. One sec.


FX: MARIE CROSSES TO THE DOOR. DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES.


GABE

If we’re gonna be here a while, can I sit on the cot?


ZACH

Yeah. Sorry. (HE MEANS “SORRY YOU’RE STUCK HERE WITH ME”)


GABE

For what?


ZACH

You’re missing your first hour.


GABE

Con Econ. And I am mad at you. But. I don’t know. You were under a lot of pressure. And if I’m honest, it was unfair to—


ZACH

No. No, no, come on, man. Don’t pull that shit.


GABE

What?


ZACH

That whole—that whole thing, like ‘Yeah Zach, you screwed up, but don’t worry, nobody really expected better, after all, it’s you—


GABE

That isn’t what I meant, at all. I’m sorry. (RAGGED) You’ve got a black eye that is almost entirely my fault, and—


ZACH

Uh. What the hell are you—


MARIE

(THROUGH DOOR) Can one of you get the door?


FX: GABE HOPS DOWN AND LETS MARIE IN. DOOR OPEN, DOOR CLOSE.


MARIE

Tylenol. And water. Our other guest threw up all over her clothes. And the floor, and the wall, and me. I need to see if someone at the office will lend us some spirit wear or something—


ZACH

(DEADPAN) Go Comets.


MARIE

—are you boys alright here for a moment?


ZACH

His hall pass?


STUDENT

(FROM THE OTHER ROOM) Nurse? I feel sick again…


GABE

I can wait.


MARIE

Thank you.


FX: DOOR CLOSES.


ZACH

Can I have the water?


GABE

Yeah. Does—uh, does your face hurt?


ZACH

The ice helps. More importantly, in what possible way is this your fault?


GABE

Come on. Would you be in this situation if it wasn’t for me? This whole prom thing was my idea, you never would’ve—


ZACH

Hey, it was my decision. Jesus, dude, it was one of like, two brave things I’ve done this whole year, can you not take that from me? I did it for Leslie and Krista. So if you want to blame anyone, you’d have to blame them. Or, if we really wanna get crazy here, the actual douchebag who slammed my head against—


GABE

I made it worse. I provoked a lot of people, what if it was one of them who—


ZACH

Dude. If I hadn’t asked you out, or if I’d picked a different way to class today. Hell, if I hadn’t been listening to music, maybe I could’ve—


GABE

(HORRIFIED) You’re still wearing headphones in the hallway? We need to be on guard—


ZACH

Oh god, this is actually a war to you.


GABE

Well, yeah. If they’re attacking us.


ZACH NARRATION

I nod thoughtfully and it sends a corner of the ice pack right into the worst part of my bruise.


ZACH

(WINCE)


GABE

(TENTATIVE) Do you, uh, want another Tylenol?


ZACH

(COMING TO A REALIZATION) Holy shit. On, uh, on Friday, when nobody could find me. You were checking ditches. You thought I was dead.


GABE

It—occurred to me.


ZACH

And everyone’s freaking out, and you’ve got to keep the lie going, and they’re all looking to you to take charge—and then—and then I like, roll up, stoned and cracking jokes—


GABE

Did you really not put this together until now?


ZACH NARRATION

In November—hell, in March—it would’ve raised every hackle I’ve got, but now I’m so tired.


ZACH

Well, I was pretty high.


GABE

Yeah. It was like you were trying to smell my shirt?


ZACH

(AWKWARD LAUGHTER)


GABE

I just. You saw how we reacted when they wrecked Leslie’s hair. This was your face. You’re a human being.


ZACH

Yeah, but like, she’s—you know.


GABE

(GENUINELY CURIOUS) She’s what?


ZACH

You know. Leslie’s part of the group, of course it’s a problem when—


GABE

Wait, what are you talking about?


ZACH

I contribute nothing. I sit in the back of meetings and screw around—


GABE

For the love of god, they all think of you as their friend.


ZACH

Yeah, because I’m pretending.


GABE

(WITH TREMENDOUS PATIENCE) Zach, they don’t know that.


ZACH

But you do. You could’ve, like—calmed them down.


GABE

How? What was I supposed to say? ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’re not really dating so his life doesn’t count’? There wasn’t time to talk anyway, we were all running around. Nobody was thinking clearly—


ZACH

I mean, in retrospect, of course you’d be angry—


GABE

I wasn’t. I wasn’t angry, looking for you. I was scared. (SWALLOWS) I was very, very scared. I thought you might be dead. And I know you don’t see yourself as one of us, but you’re still—you’re—


ZACH

A human being. I get it, I put you guys through hell. I’m actually not sure why you haven’t punched me in the face yet, so—


GABE

Don’t. Please don’t even joke about that, I really, really can’t—


ZACH NARRATION

Okay, it was in poor taste, I can see that. I try to shift my wrist. It barely disturbs the ice pack, but it still sends a shiver of pain right down my brain stem.


ZACH

(PAINED SOUND)


GABE

I’m getting you another Tylenol.


ZACH

I’m being a baby. Scale of one to ten, it’s like, a five, tops.


GABE

Yeah, but what’s your ten?


ZACH NARRATION

I grit my teeth and don’t say, ‘The thought of making you afraid.’


ZACH

You keep forgetting that I’ve been flown crotch-first into a wall.


GABE

Do you miss acting?


ZACH

(HALF-LAUGHS) Oh my god, that segue. Are you kidding? After two and a half months, I miss not-acting.


GABE

It gets stressful.


ZACH

Lying to all your friends.


GABE

Good lord, I feel so guilty. My parents, too. They’re so happy for me.


ZACH

On the bright side, in five days, we can, like, forget each other’s names.


GABE

(TONELESS) Yeah. (A BEAT) How much longer do you think she’ll be?


ZACH

If you wanna get back to class—


GABE

You know what my Con Econ is like.


ZACH NARRATION

And it’s such a dumb comfort, because I have indeed witnessed Gabe’s shitty first hour, but somehow knowing that he would rather be here, that despite everything, this cheap vinyl cot is not his last choice, makes me feel warm, like the first inhale of a cigarette. Like a mouthful of cider.


ZACH

You know. Depending how bad you wanna skip.


GABE

Yeah?


ZACH

I mean, Marie’s super nice and she’s always taken my side, so I think maybe. If we, like. (DEEP BREATH) Kind of—played up the whole injury thing. Acted super couple-y. I think she’d let you stay. (PAUSE) (CHICKENING OUT) Of course, it’s cool if you’re not up for it, given all the bullshit I’ve pulled.


GABE

You were high, you didn’t know what you were—


ZACH

Uh, maybe this is information you don’t have, but it’s not like being on LSD or something. I pretty much knew what I was doing and saying.


GABE

Except you didn’t know we were worried. You couldn’t work that out.


ZACH NARRATION

He bites his lip. He’s sitting hunched forwards, almost folded up, and I want to give him a hug more than I can quantify. After the many reasons I’ve given Gabe to be mad at me, the idea of touching him is terrifying. Leaving him sitting here alone would be worse, I think, reaching out a hand that is almost not shaking and setting it on Gabe’s shoulder.

Gabe doesn’t push me away.


GABE

I still don’t get that. And honestly, I still can’t understand why you left in the first place, unless it’s an addiction or—


ZACH

It’s not an addiction. I was stressed out. The—keeping the act going for so long. I needed a break. And like, look, I owe you an apology, okay? You don’t owe me anything. You don’t have to forgive me. Just—if there was something I could do, I would do it.


GABE

Well. Get me out of Con Econ?


ZACH NARRATION

I have entered a strange and terrible dream world, where I can do things like mumble, “If you put your arm around me, maybe,” and Gabe will scoot closer and carefully drape his arm around my waist, with no witnesses, no audience to speak of, and when I startle and then try to relax, Gabe will simply say something super reasonable, like—


GABE

It’ll be more convincing if we’re already, when she walks in. Hang on, what if I turn out the lights, and you lie on your side, and I can kind of lie behind you and hold the ice pack in place? You can pretend to be sleeping.


ZACH

The second she opens the door, the light’s gonna come flooding back in.


GABE

Counting on it. If she disrupts us, that puts her on the defensive.


ZACH

Whoa, you’re like, an evil genius.


GABE

Okay?


FX: GABE GETS OFF THE COT AND TURNS OFF THE LIGHT, THEN CLIMBS BACK ONTO THE COT. SOME LIGHT JOSTLING.


ZACH

Great.


GABE

Sh, Marie, my boyfriend is sleeping.


ZACH NARRATION

My head is at an awkward angle. I twist about an inch, telegraphing it as much as I can, but Gabe is so careful about holding the ice pack steady he seems to forget that some of my hair is tangled in his fingers, which means a light tug at my scalp.


ZACH

(SUDDEN INTAKE OF BREATH)


GABE

Did that hurt?


ZACH

No, no, you’re fine.


ZACH NARRATION

There’s a silence I can’t gauge, because Gabe has gone still, and without being able to see or hear him, the only senses left are smell and taste. Gabe has his usual vaguely citrus scent and licking him is way out of the question, so. In case he is using this moment to beat himself up about things beyond his control, I find myself babbling.


ZACH

It doesn’t hurt, I swear. Pretty much the opposite, in fact.


ZACH NARRATION

God, I could kick myself. I could kick myself in the face. I would violate all laws of physics and human anatomy if only I could shut myself up.


GABE

Leslie’s big on head rubs. Do you think it’d take your mind off the eye?


ZACH NARRATION

He runs his fingernails lightly through my hair, up and back down, and I blessedly remember how to shut up.


FX: THE SOUND OF A HEAD RUB.


ZACH

What eye?


GABE

(HUFFS AN ALMOST-LAUGH) Were you a cat in a past life?


ZACH

Maybe. Always thought I’d be good at hiding under furniture and shitting in a box.


GABE

I mean, when someone scratches your head, you go boneless.


ZACH

Granted, I'm not, like, amazing at science but I'm 90% sure cats have bones. And why can't I be a dog? Dogs are fun. Cats just kill things and hate you.


GABE

Dogs are simple.


ZACH

Cats are simple. A cat brain has the same number of neurons as the human stomach. The stomach, Gabe.


GABE

Ten seconds ago, you said you couldn’t do science.


ZACH

Party trivia isn't the same as knowing stuff.


GABE

Party trivia. Will you be breaking this out at Krista’s party?


ZACH

Laser tag? Well, no, because it’s happening after Prom, so.


GABE

Right.


FX: THE HEAD RUB STOPS.


ZACH

Hey, don’t stop, what if she walks in?


GABE

I'm starting to think she won't. (FX: HEAD RUB SOUNDS RESUME) Maybe she forgot, she seems pretty scattered.


ZACH

Hey. Marie’s a great nurse. She does like, three people's worth of work all the time. And they only give her half the week, so they don't have to pay her benefits. She's, like. A contractor. They can fire her whenever.


GABE

That should be illegal.


FX: FOOTSTEPS APPROACH THE DOOR. THE DOOR OPENS.


MARIE

Finally got that hall pass, so you can—oh. (WHISPERS) Sorry. Is he asleep?


GABE

(WHISPERS) Yeah. I wanted him to get some rest if he could.


MARIE

(WHISPER) Don’t worry. He’s a sound sleeper. Poor little guy. (A BEAT) I have been so worried about that boy.


ZACH NARRATION

My eyes prickle. I could pretend to suddenly wake up but I’m frozen in place, pinned down by humiliation. Karma punishing me for trying to use Marie’s feelings for something I wanted.


GABE

You’re not the only one. We’ve all been trying to watch out for each other, but—


MARIE

Oh no, kiddo, it’s okay. At least he’s got people in his corner this time.


GABE

“This time.”


MARIE

I’m sure he’s told you all about his first year here.


GABE

(LYING) Yeah. Awful.


MARIE

Kids can be so cruel. My daughter was bullied when she was younger. And it broke my heart, but I’ll be honest, I don’t know what I would’ve done if someone had hit her. But Zach would never tell on anyone. I’d ask, and he’d just shrug and change the subject, make bad jokes.


ZACH NARRATION

I’d thought at least some of those jokes were funny, come on.


GABE

That, uh, sounds like him.


MARIE

You’ve just got to wait it out. Make sure he feels safe, you know? And lollipops. He likes lollipops. Rootbeer, that’s his favorite. Hey, what class should I write your pass for?


GABE

Consumer Economics. But—he’s finally asleep. I just—I don’t want him to wake up and I’m not there.


MARIE

You don’t have any tests or quizzes this hour, do you?


GABE

We’re watching an informational video about malls.


MARIE

I can see why you’d rather be here. And I know he’d rather you were, too.


GABE

Please. It’s been such an awful month. If I can help at all, I need to, because I just don’t know what else to do.


MARIE

(SIGHS) I’ll send a note to the office and tell your teacher what happened, it’s fine. But when the bell rings, you do have to go to second hour. Both of you.


GABE

Yes ma’am. And thank you. Really.


MARIE

You seem like a good kid. Don’t get on my bad side.


FX: FOOTSTEPS TO THE DOOR, DOOR GINGERLY OPENS AND GINGERLY CLOSES.


GABE

...you were bullied.


ZACH

Yeah.


GABE

They hit you.


ZACH

Not—I could probably count on one hand the number of times anything actually needed ice or drew blood.


GABE

Why would that sound comforting to you?


ZACH

Kids have it way worse than I did, all the time—


GABE

Yeah, but usually they don’t stop doing everything they love, and lose interest in school until—


ZACH

That’s not what happened. I didn’t flunk because of bullying.


GABE

Well, if it wasn’t that—


ZACH

(SLOWLY) Gabe, the reason I failed ninth grade was because it was too hard. (A BEAT) You don’t believe me.


GABE

I—don’t think you’re lying, but it had to be more complicated than that.


ZACH

I actually flunked eighth grade algebra. My parents sat me down, we had this big talk. ‘Look, you can get away with this now, but once you’re in high school, it’s on your permanent record. Zach, this is your future at stake.’ And like. You know how when you’re little, you can kind of have one thing and that’s what you’re about? Like, there’s the kid who likes dinosaurs, space, whatever.


GABE

(AGREEING) Cowboys.


ZACH

What?


GABE

That was mine. I wanted to live out west and herd cattle.


ZACH

Like, for beef?


GABE

I wasn’t going to kill them. I thought you could just—own a lot of cows. Or, not even own them, but look after them, take them for walks. You know, in nature.


ZACH

(LAUGHING) Your life plans were to hang out with a bunch of cows, no endgame. (MORE SERIOUSLY) No, hey, that’s great. Out there, breaking the cowboy color barrier.


GABE

A lot of cowboys were Latino. And actually about a quarter of all cowboys were African American. But yeah, the words for “lasso” and “chaps” both came from Spanish. 1950’s Hollywood couldn’t deal with it, they erased us or made us the villains, but the truth will out.


ZACH

(ADMIRINGLY) Cowboy scholar over here.


GABE

Yeah. I did a lot of reports. I hadn’t fully realized yet that the open range was only open due to, to systematic genocide. So, that was that. God, sorry, you were in the middle of—what was your—what were you talking about?


ZACH

My thing was being smart. Not even knowing stuff, just being smart. Except, like, if you’re smart, you don’t actually have to try that hard, you know? And I knew I was working way, way more than everyone else in my class.


GABE

Ponni tries all the time. Krista. Leslie.


ZACH

You guys don’t count. You’re in it for the sheer love of the game. I was running a con. I really can’t tell you how not-fun it was. Like, man, Krista talks about doing Peter Pan and all that, but other than hitting the backdrop, I don’t really have memories of it. I had my math textbook hidden backstage. Any time I wasn’t on, I was studying. That’s all I remember, like, missing cues, getting yelled at. Being the lead in the school play was this distraction from algebra. Which, again, I still flunked.


GABE

But maybe if you’d had—I understand the bullying wasn’t the main cause, but if kids had been supportive—


ZACH

Oh my god, dude, it was not their fault. (HE LOWERS HIS VOICE) You know why they hassled me? Because I was an obnoxious little shit. Because the worse my grades got, the more I would not shut up about my vocabulary and my test scores and how totally special I was—


GABE

I don’t give a shit what you said to them. There is nothing, nothing you could’ve done to deserve—


ZACH

No way, man. I don’t blame them at all, okay? Like, imagine how I am at meetings, times ten. Times fifteen. Nobody was gonna come to the defense of that—


GABE

I would’ve.


ZACH

Be glad you weren’t there, then.


GABE

Why?


ZACH

(WINCING) Because you would’ve never gotten rid of me. If any kid had been nice to me then, shit, it would’ve been over for you. Your arms forever sagging under the weight of fifty pounds of friendship bracelets.


GABE

I like friendship bracelets. A bunch of threads that could snap on their own, but you braid them together—


ZACH NARRATION

Of course, I think with a fond smile that is blessedly invisible to him. Of course, Gabe can turn friendship bracelets into a metaphor about teamwork. He is ridiculous. The problem is that knowing the many ways Gabe is a loser only makes me want to hang out with him more. It’s perverse. It also stirs up something I hadn’t remembered until now, and suddenly can’t forget.


ZACH

(GOING FOR CASUAL AND MISSING THE MARK BY A LONG WAYS) So hey, what’d you wanna talk to me about? Uh, on Friday?


GABE

Nothing. It was—I had a question, but it, uh, it resolved itself. I actually—


ZACH

What.


GABE

I have a different question, but maybe you don’t want—


ZACH

Dude, obviously now I need to know.


ZACH NARRATION

And it’s not going to be about Gabe liking me, I know it’s not going to be about Gabe liking me, even if every star had aligned in my favor and Gabe did briefly like me at one time, I burned everything to the ground when I pulled that stunt on Friday.

I know this. I really, really do. I hope Gabe can’t tell how hard my heart is beating anyway.


GABE

If you don’t want to answer it, you don’t have to.


ZACH

Ask the goddamn question.


GABE

Um. All those activities you used to do—?


ZACH

(SIGHS) That wasn’t about the bullying either. I quit them to focus on school, about four months before I flunked. Comic timing, man.


ZACH NARRATION

At “flunked” Gabe flinches. Honors student reflexes. I remember it well, how the threat of someday screwing up that bad had loomed over me like some all-powerful bogey man. And when it was too late, when I finally crunched the numbers and realized I couldn’t win, that it was over, it had been like climbing into a bathtub full of warm water. Failure had been waiting for me.


I had made a shitty smart kid. I make a pretty great burnout.


Well, not so much anymore. I’m not even sure what I am now.


GABE

Sorry. If—I wasn’t trying to make this like that one time in your car.


ZACH

That one time in my car.


GABE

When you came out, and you said it felt like being naked—


ZACH

I mean, it can’t be like that time. Not like you can turn around and tell me you also failed a year of school.


GABE

Most thirteen-year-olds wouldn’t be able to handle high school.


ZACH

(SNORTS) Like anyone would’ve messed with you.


GABE

In eighth grade, I still cried in public.


Would it help if I told you something you could use against me?


ZACH

Maybe.


GABE

I use women’s deodorant.


ZACH

(LAUGHS.) Wow, sorry, I’m not laughing at you. Your sense of proportion is just—is it a political statement, or—


GABE

Not exactly? I smelled every deodorant in the aisle one day and it bugged me the least. I think it’s called Tropical Orange Breeze? Citrus Whisper? Something like that.


ZACH NARRATION

The mysterious scent that’s been clouding my judgment for two and a half months is women’s deodorant.


ZACH

Thank you. Thank you for that.


ZACH NARRATION

The thing about faking sleep while lying in a dark, quiet room with a hand carding through your hair is that it only takes a lull in conversation for the pretense to get a lot less pretend. I’m not sure how it happened. That first car ride home, Gabe's hand around my wrist was electrifying. Before that, all I’d been able to imagine was keeping those eyes on me for a few seconds, that note of annoyance or disbelief or surprise in Gabe's voice. ‘Why are you here?’


'I could ask you the same thing,' I think sleepily. There are easier ways to get out of class, ways that don't involve windowless rooms and cuddling together on cramped school cots. 'You could've just said you had a stomach ache,' I think, and then I’m gone.


FX: THE BELL RINGS


FX: THE DOOR OPENS. THE LIGHT FLICKS ON.


MARIE

You two need to get going. Morning, snoozy.


GABE

Thank you, Marie. For everything.


MARIE

No problem, kid. Literally my job.


ZACH

Hey now. You’re the best and you know it.


MARIE

I am pretty great.


GABE

You’ve got English next, right?


ZACH

Yup.


GABE

C’mon, I’ll walk you.


MARIE

Nice to meet you, Gabe. Can I talk to Zach first for a sec?


GABE

Sure. I’ll be outside.


FX: DOOR SHUTS.


MARIE

So, it’s been a while.


ZACH

Yeah.


MARIE

Good to see you again, even if it was for not-great reasons. How’ve you been?


ZACH

Alright. Y’know.


MARIE

Your boyfriend seems nice.


ZACH

(MUTTERING)...not, uh, totally sure that relationship’s gonna last.


MARIE

Zach? High school relationships usually end. But whatever happens, be good to each other, okay?


ZACH

M’trying.


MARIE

You’re doing fine. Hey, Ponni showed me a page of her space cat comic. It looks incredible. Glad you’re still drawing.


ZACH

I wasn’t for a while, and now I—am again. It’s, um, good to see you too. By the way.


MARIE

Okay, give me a hug and get outta here.


ZACH NARRATION

Marie gives me a quick, tight squeeze. She smells like soap, which makes sense, given the vomit thing.


MARIE

Stop by any time.


ZACH

But you’re so busy—


MARIE

Trust me, I don’t mind the distraction. Now go before you’re super late to class.


ZACH NARRATION

She ruffles my hair on my way out the door. I don’t want to think about how my hair looks right now. I also don’t really care.


Gabe is waiting for me in the front room, frowning at a pamphlet titled ‘In The Know About PEER PRESSURE.’ Even the font makes me cringe. The only thing worse than a PSA trying to be cool is a PSA that was trying to be cool twenty years ago.


ZACH

Those are wildly outdated.


FX: PAPER RUSTLES AS GABE, CAUGHT OUT, PUTS THE PAMPHLET BACK IN THE DISPLAY RACK. TWO SETS OF FOOTSTEPS OUT OF THE NURSE’S OFFICE, BACK INTO THE DIN OF THE HALLWAY


GABE

I could tell.


ZACH

The jeans? The hair?


GABE

Both. And the—did everyone have braces in the eighties? Was it a law?


ZACH

(SNORTS) Maybe they were peer-pressured into it.


GABE

Hey. Two things.


ZACH

Yeah?


GABE

This was never about putting people in danger. It’s hard not to want to rattle the cage a little, but safety’s more important. Maybe we should tone down the, the public displays of affection.


ZACH

Is that what you wanna do?


GABE

Doesn’t matter. Nobody’d hold it against you, if you wanted to back off.


ZACH NARRATION

I consider this. I consider Leslie and Krista flirting at the lunch table, the thud of my head against the drinking fountain, all the hands reaching to help me back up.

Well, shit. I’ve done two brave things this year, might as well try for three.


ZACH

What if I don’t want to back off? Like, at all?


ZACH NARRATION

Gabe reaches out and wraps his arm around my shoulders, tugging me closer, and I don’t really have to act when I resume my usual hold on Gabe’s waist and crane my neck to give Gabe a gooey look.


ZACH

Hi, Cookie-bear.


GABE

(LAUGHS) I’m fifty percent sure you’ve already called me that.


ZACH

Why, are you making a chart?


GABE

Okay, the other thing. If the stress gets too much and you get the urge to leave again—


ZACH

Yeah, I get it, I can contain it for another week.


GABE

No. No, if it’s bad enough that you need to, go. Just bring someone with you and let me know. This isn’t supposed to be torture.


ZACH NARRATION

I can’t think of any way to say that it hasn’t been without also saying way too much. I settle for cuddling in close as we pass the U.S. History classroom. I wave cheerily at Mr. Walker with the hand that isn’t on Gabe’s hip. Mr. Walker glares. Gabe glares back.

We don’t step apart until we reach the door to English.


ZACH

Enjoy calculus. Somehow.


ZACH NARRATION

People are staring from inside, although it could be more for the black eye than the guy-on-guy antics. Gabe glances over at them and back at me, and something in the tilt of his head says, ‘Are you sure about not backing down?’


There’s only like a week of this left anyway. I can be tough for a week. Tough enough to go up on my tiptoes and risk a quick, light kiss on Gabe’s cheek. It lands almost at his ear, but hopefully that’s not visible from a distance.


ZACH

Thanks for walking me to class, Yogurt Blossom.


GABE

Anytime, hon.


ZACH NARRATION

It’s not until I take my seat and start hunting around for a pencil that I realize somehow, when I wasn’t paying attention in the nurse’s office, Marie managed to slip two rootbeer suckers into my backpack.


Nice people, man. Wildcards, all of them.


MORNING ANNOUNCEMENTS

This episode features—


MATTHEW

Matthew Sabido as Zach


CHRIS

Chris Rivera, as Gabe


BONNIE

Bonnie Calderwood Aspinwall as Marie


RACHEL

Directed by Rachel Mackenzie Kellum


MICHAELA

Production Coordination by Michaela Whatnall


PHOEBE

Phoebe Izzard Davey


REBECCA

Audio mixing by Rebecca Lynn


JESSICA

Written by Jessica Best. Zach’s narration music is written, performed, and produced by Chiron Star. Closing credits music is written by Jessica Best, and arranged, performed, and produced by Chiron Star


KAY

And I’ve been Kay Watson, your Morning Announcements. Thank you, and have a great day, Columbus High!


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