Chapter 1 of A Friend in Need
Sunday night, Nicole Grant, the first and only girl I have ever cared about, broke up with me so she could start dating my former friend, Charlie Thornton.
Monday morning, I lay in bed wondering if I should stay there forever. I mean, seriously, how could I face Nicole and Charlie, never mind all the other curious people I knew were out there? It’s hard to hide anything in a town of fewer than 2000 people.
Oh, what the heck! Might as well get it over with.
I sat up in bed. Scruffy, the little black-and-white mongrel dog I’d found injured and abandoned some weeks before, rolled over on his back and stretched, then waited for me to rub his stomach. That done, I lifted him down from the bed and he went to the door and asked me to let him out of the room. That made one of us who was eager to get going.
. . . . . . . . . .
I was trudging up the sidewalk that leads to the front of the high school when Zoey Burgess burst through the doors and hurried toward me.
Zoey is Nicole’s best friend. She’s a nice girl, smart and all that, but she doesn’t have a lot going for her where guys are concerned. She’s somewhat overweight and her plain brown hair is sort of wavy and unruly like mine, not long and sleek like Nicole’s or short and zippy like Jamie Ramsdale’s. Plus she wears glasses, and dresses kind of, well, like she doesn’t care that much about how she looks.
“Nicole called me last night, so I know what happened,” Zoey said. “How are you doing?”
“About as well as could be expected.”
“Nicole says she wants to get to know Charlie better before she actually dates him—to be good friends.”
“Yeah, we’re all such good friends.” I hoped I didn’t seem too bitter. There’s a fine line between sounding righteously injured and whining.
“Are you angry, Glen? Or hurt?”
“A little of both, I guess. But I’ll live. How about you?”
“Me?” She sounded surprised.
One of the few things I’d been annoyed with Nicole about is her encouraging Zoey to date Charlie so the four of us could double date. We all knew Charlie was faking his interest in Zoey so he could be around Nicole. Nicole told me Zoey didn’t mind, but I wasn’t so sure.
“Charlie was spending a lot of time with you,” I said.
“Not because he wanted to be with me,” she said dryly.
“Yeah, but still…”
She took a deep breath. “I’m okay. Honest. But I do wonder how this is all going to turn out.”
“I wouldn’t blame you for being angry, you know.”
She blushed. “I guess you’re right. It does feel a little funny to be used and then discarded because Charlie finally got Nicole to agree to date him.”
I hadn’t thought of it before, but now I wondered, “Is this going to affect your friendship with Nicole?”
“I hope not. We’ve been best friends ever since she moved here just before we went into grade six. That’s how many years? Almost seven? I don’t know what it would be like for us not to be friends.” She brushed an invisible speck of dust off her jacket. “But I guess in some ways this is the first test of our friendship.”
For a brief moment, I wondered what it would be like to be Zoey. Did it bother her that she didn’t have dates, or that her best friend was so much prettier? And, most important, was she really as impervious to Charlie as she said? If so, she’d be the only girl in our town who was.
A strange thought flashed into my mind. I shook my head. No way. Not me. I could never do anything that sneaky. On the other hand, it would sure be a way to give them a dose of their own medicine.
I looked at Zoey. She was looking at me.
“Glen, what if we—?”
“Sorry,” we both said at the same time.
“You go first,” she said.
“No, it’s too weird. Insane, really.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “What’s too weird?”
“I had this crazy thought. How it would be nice to sort of turn the tables. So instead of having people feeling sorry for us, we kind of—of—”
Zoey raised both hands to her face and whispered through her fingers. “Glen, believe it or not, I had exactly the same thought.”
“Seriously?” I said.
“I don’t want to have people feeling sorry for me, either. But you’re right. They’ll think Charlie dumped me. I hadn’t thought of that before now. But,” —she shook her head— “it’s crazy.”
Knowing we would have to face Nicole and Charlie any minute must have made me reckless. “No, it isn’t. It’s sensible. If we hang around together, people will think we’re fine.”
She looked up again, her eyes hopeful. “And this way we’ll both have a date for the youth group’s Valentine’s party, and the senior prom, and all those other things.”
“And we only have to keep it up until school ends,” I said. “When summer comes, it won’t matter, and then we’re off to college. So it’s only for a few months.”
“Glen, are you sure you want to do this?”
The warning bell rang and I automatically began to move toward the school. Then I glanced back at Zoey.
She was standing still, looking kind of dazed.
“What have we got to lose?” I said.
She bit her bottom lip. “I will if you will.”
When we entered our homeroom, it was easy to spot Nicole and Charlie. They were standing together near the front, deep in conversation, their fair heads leaning slightly toward each other.
With her delicate features, vivid green eyes, and long golden hair, Nicole Grant is by far the best-looking girl in Wallace, and Charlie Thornton, all six feet plus of clean-cut muscle, with his blond hair and blue eyes and chiseled jaw, is the best-looking guy.
They’re both smart and capable and perfect. Yeah, they belong together. Sure they do.
Except I was afraid all Charlie cared about was how Nicole looked. I wasn’t sure he’d even noticed that besides being the most gorgeous girl in our town, she’s also the nicest, kindest, most sensitive, sweetest, most intelligent…
Okay, maybe I’m a little biased. But I’ve gotten to know her pretty well, and even though she has a few faults like everybody else, if I had to be stuck on a desert island for the next seventy or eighty years, there is no one I’d rather be stuck there with.
Back to reality. I decided that where Zoey and I were concerned, showing would be more effective than telling. Especially since I wasn’t sure I trusted my voice. I put my arm around Zoey’s shoulders and sort of propelled her forward. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”
We walked to Zoey’s desk and stood there talking, my arm still around her shoulders. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nicole and Charlie turn and look our way.
The smile on Nicole’s face slowly disappeared.
Charlie’s grin faded, then reappeared. He walked over to stand next to us. “What’s with you two?” he asked.
Zoey smiled at me. “I guess they don’t know yet.”
“Don’t know what?” Nicole had followed Charlie. Now she looked from Zoey to me and back to Zoey.
The final bell rang.
Saved by the old bell, I thought as we all took our seats, Zoey and Nicole in desks next to each other at the front of the room, Charlie behind me in the middle.
Mr. Reynolds, the red-haired substitute teacher who was looking after Mr. Jackman’s classes while he was with his dying son, started taking roll.
Charlie whispered, “I need to talk to you later.”
I ignored him. Not only because Mr. Reynolds was looking my way and my first rule of going to school has always been to avoid creating problems with teachers, but mostly because I had no intention of talking to Charlie ever again.
I looked at Nicole. While I knew I’d survive this—my heart might be damaged but it still seemed to be beating as per usual—I felt sick about the whole thing.
In her desk next to Nicole’s, Zoey looked the same as she usually does, calm and relaxed.
“Glen, when can we talk?” Charlie said as Mr. Reynolds switched from attendance to history.
I continued to ignore Charlie even when he punched me lightly in the back and said, “Glen,” almost loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.
For the remainder of the class, I sat there with my heart pounding, not even hearing what Mr. Reynolds was talking about, conscious of Zoey sitting at the front of the room, and wondering if Nicole’s breaking up with me had totally unhinged my mind.
As class ended, Charlie punched me in the back again. I turned around and he said, “Glen, I don’t know what—”
Before he could finish his sentence, Nicole appeared with Zoey right behind her.
“Okay, you guys, what’s going on?” Nicole asked.
When I didn’t respond, Zoey took a deep breath and said, “No big deal, Nicole. Glen and I just decided that since we’re both at loose ends, we might as well start dating each other.”
“You and Glen?” Nicole sounded dazed—almost as dazed as I was feeling.
“Anything wrong with that?” Zoey asked innocently.
“No. No, of course not. I just—”
Charlie began to laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Charlie,” Nicole said in a warning tone.
“Glen and Zoey? Now I’ve heard everything!”
“Charlie,” Nicole said more forcefully.
He looked at her. “Oh, well— That’s just great!” His face lit up. “Hey, we can double date, huh? Just like old times!”
“Yeah, Charlie,” I said. “Just like old times.”
I grabbed Zoey’s arm and we left them standing in the room watching our backs.
“How are you doing?” Zoey said as soon as we reached the hallway.
I stopped and looked at her. “I’m okay.”
“You seem a little out of it. Are you sure—?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Nope. It beats having everyone feel sorry for us.”
. . . . . . . . . .
Chemistry class dragged on. My mind wandered all over the place.
I remembered the first time I met Charlie, just after his family moved to Wallace last fall. And how he started dragging me with him to church. It had nothing to do with God—he only went to impress the pastor’s daughter, Nicole Grant. But the result had been that I discovered God loved me and wanted to have a friendship with me. And also that I, not Charlie, started dating Nicole.
So my life had changed in a number of ways, mostly thanks to Charlie. But I didn’t feel very thankful this morning.
I also thought about Luke Trent, my best friend since kindergarten, who had been taken by ambulance early this morning to a rehab center a good three hour’s drive away. He’d gone there to get used to being a paraplegic.
Since Luke rolled his car on ice during a race with Charlie, his legs have been about as much use to him as a couple of vacuum hoses would be—no feeling, no support, nothing.
He’d have to live at the rehab center until he learned how to dress himself, how to go to the bathroom, how to exercise, and how to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He’d be able to keep up with school because there’d be a tutor to help him.
His mom had gone with him, but she couldn’t stay long. She had her job at the grocery store and her husband and daughter to look after.
In light of Luke’s status, it was hard to feel sorry for myself. All I’d done was get dumped by one girl and get myself into a tangle with another girl—Luke had lost the use of both his legs.
That put things in perspective, I guess. But it didn’t make me feel any better.
. . . . . . . . . .
At lunch time, I hurried out of the classroom without talking to anyone.
Brandon Lovansky and Matt Robertson caught up with me at my locker. Brandon and Matt live next door to each other and have been kind of inseparable ever since they were born. Well, nearly that long. The four of us—Brandon, Matt, Luke, and me—have been friends since kindergarten.
Luke is the good-looking one. He has dark, curly hair and olive skin, and he’s tall and muscular. He works out a lot and plays a lot of sports. Well, he used to play sports.
Brandon and I look a bit alike. He’s about my height, which is five foot ten, but heavier than me. His hair is a darker brown than mine, and straight.
Matt, on the other hand, has light reddish-brown hair, freckles, and is several inches shorter than us and quite a few pounds lighter. Skinny, in fact.
“You going to eat with us?” Brandon asked.
“No, I have to go home and let Scruffy out.”
“See you afterwards, or are you going somewhere with Nicole?” Brandon’s eyes were alert.
“No, I’m not going anywhere with her.” I looked down. “I expect everyone will know soon. Nicole and I—we—well, we aren’t going together any more.”
“Really?” Brandon said. But he didn’t sound surprised.
“Too bad,” Matt added in what seemed like a sympathetic voice. Then he killed it by saying, “When exactly did you break up?”
Matt grinned, then tried to look serious again.
“What?” I asked.
“Yeah, right. Why did you start to smile?”
He glanced away for a second. “Well, it looks as though I win the bet.”
Brandon intervened. “Luke bet us you and Nicole wouldn’t last a week. Matt bet six weeks. And it was six weeks, right?”
I took a deep breath and shook my head. “If you say so. I wasn’t keeping track.”
“Yeah,” Matt said. “It was six weeks Friday. That makes me closest. So I win.”
“Thanks, guys. That makes me feel good.” I glanced at Matt. “So how much do you win?”
Matt looked away from me. “Everyone had to kick in ten dollars. So—”
“So you made thirty?” I said.
“Actually, there were a few more people in on it.”
“How many people?”
“Maybe ten or so.”
“Thirty-four,” Brandon corrected.
“Thanks, guys.” I looked at Matt again. “Hey, thanks for thinking I could make six weeks.”
He grinned sheepishly. “Actually, the closer days were taken by the time I got in on it. I never thought I’d win.”
This conversation was making me twice as depressed.
“See you later,” Brandon said as I turned to walk home.
“Hope you don’t mind my making money!” Matt called.
I shook my head and kept walking. Why waste time complaining? Anyway, the bet was all Luke’s idea, and he wasn’t here for me to yell at. Not that I would have. How do you yell at a guy who’s stuck in a hospital bed?
I trudged home. Maybe taking Scruffy outside would at least make him happy.
. . . . . . . . . .
Nicole was hanging around my locker when I got back.
“Glen, I talked to Zoey.”
“Oh?” I said carefully.
“You’re really going to date each other?”
“Why didn’t you mention Zoey last night? You let me think I was the one breaking up with you. I felt terrible about hurting you, and all the time, you and Zoey—! Glen Sauten, I used to think you were a really nice person, but now I think you’re just plain mean. And I’m never ever going to trust you again!”
She walked away.
A moment later Zoey came up. “Hi, Glen,” she said. “Everything okay?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.”
“Nicole is so annoyed!” she whispered. “I’ve never seen her like this before.”
“Yeah, she seems to think we had it all planned ahead of time or something.”
Zoey grinned. “And when I told her we didn’t, she wouldn’t believe me. Glen, I hate to say it, but this is kind of fun.”
I stared at her. “You’re having fun?”
“Maybe I’m just not used to getting this kind of attention, but, yes, I have to admit it is kind of fun.”
I’ll never understand the female mind. Never.
. . . . . . . . . .
After two long classes, which at least kept me busy enough to take my mind off my problems, school ended for the day.
Zoey lives on a dairy farm and normally takes the bus home, which was a good thing because nobody would expect me to walk her home or us to hang out together. If I wanted to talk to her, I could always call her later.
Hoping to get away quickly, I hurried to my locker. But I wasn’t fast enough.
“We’re going to Harry’s,” Charlie’s voice said from directly behind me.
“Have a good time.” Without looking at him, I sorted my books, got my coat, shut the door, and locked it.
As I started to walk away, Charlie grabbed my arm. “Glen, you can’t avoid me forever. This is a small town.”
Yeah, it is a small town. Too small for both of us.
I threw off his hand and kept walking.
“Glen,” he said. “You said there were no hard feelings. That it was up to Nicole to choose which of us she wants.”
I turned then. He was looking kind of—kind of hurt. Like he should be hurt!
“Charlie, what exactly do you want?”
“I want to be friends. So does Nicole. Nothing more. All of us to be friends.”
Yeah, right. I shifted to the other leg. Then I realized that, as usual, there were people watching us. Likely the thirty who had bet on when Nicole would break up with me. There was resignation in my voice as I repeated, “So what exactly do you want?”
“I’ve got my car. Come to Harry’s with us.”
On my list of things I wanted to do, going to Harry’s with Charlie and Nicole ranked right up there with washing the gym floor with a toothbrush.
“I don’t think so,” was all I said out loud. I began to walk away. And bumped into someone who had come up behind me. When I realized it was Nicole, I recoiled as though I’d almost stepped into an elevator that wasn’t there.
“Aren’t you coming with us, Glen?” asked Nicole, her voice as cold as ice. “Zoey is coming. Charlie said he’d give her a ride home later. The four of us need to talk, don’t you think?”