A shortish, sandy-haired kid with a flower in one hand came looking for her after school, clambering over the empty bleachers once he spotted her, sitting up in the sun-filled breeze.
One of his friends. Ann straightened, closing her book and watching him approach. What was his name . . . Sam? Matt? Pi –
The kid halted his approach, standing awkwardly a couple rows below her. He held the rose out. “Hey, um – Ann. Ah, this is for you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Who are you?”
He flushed. “It’s Marcus. I’m Marcus. We’re – we’re in Chemistry together.”
“Oh.” She re-opened her book.
The kid’s cheeks flushed – she could hear it in his voice. “I was supposed to leave this on your desk – I forgot – please just take it. There’s a note.”
“Yes, I can see that.” Lips tight, Ann took the rose and inspected the card.
Scraggly boy’s handwriting greeted her:
Look, I’m sorry about Friday. You shouldn’t feel like you have to make up crazy stories just to tell a guy you’re not interested. You’re a cool person, maybe we could hang out sometimes.
Ann cast the flower aside. “Okay, first of all, I did not make anything up. And second, no, we can’t be friends.”
Marcus shook his head. “Not me – it’s not from me – it’s from Josh.”
She glared at him. “I know it’s from Josh: take a message back – we can’t be friends either. It’s not safe.”
“You can’t be friends with him? At all?”
“Because it’s not safe.” She shrugged. “It’s nothing personal.”
“It sounds personal. He really is sorry about getting upset.”
Ann frowned. “Why is he sorry about getting upset? It’s natural to get upset when you’re broken up with. I’m upset.” She picked up the rose and shook it. “But this sort of thing only makes it worse. He doesn’t believe me, and now he’s pestering me with friendship. The First Love can’t be a friend. That role is also doomed.”
A confused, slightly worried expression. “Friends are doomed? Like, all friends? I’m Josh’s friend.”
“Why can’t I be Josh’s friend?”
She rolled her eyes. “I didn’t say you can’t be Josh’s friend – I’m saying you might not be safe.”
“Safe from who?”
‘The Evil Overlord.”
“What Evil Overlord?”
“I don’t know yet. He hasn’t revealed himself.”
Now Marcus frowned. “You’re still running with this? That Josh is the Chosen One? That’s really why you broke up with him?”
Ann nodded. “If you had any sense you’d break up with him too.”
“Because he’s doomed?”
“No, dummy – the Chosen One will be fine. You, on the other hand . . . ” She shrugged.
“I’m doomed? Why am I doomed?”
“I suppose it depends,” Ann said, looking him up and down. “What kind of friend are you?”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, what do I mean?” What kind of friend are you? Are you his best friend? One of several friends? A sportsing comrade?”
“Does that mean ‘teammate’?”
“No,” he said, meek.
“How long have you been friends? Are you clever and witty? Calm and logical? Are you like, funny?”
“Am I funny?”
“Yeah.” Ann caught his eyes and stared deeply. “Can you make me laugh? Make me laugh.”
He stared back, wildly uncomfortable. “Like . . . like a joke, or . . . ?”
“So it’s looking like a no, then.”
“Kid, it’s your life – you do what you want. But if it were me, and I wanted to both be Josh’s friend and stay alive, I’d work on my sense of humor. It could aid in your survival.”
“But I’m not in danger.”
“And how would being funny aid in my survival?”
She shrugged. “It just would: I don’t know why. That won’t be enough, of course. Do you know any self-defense? You might want to learn some self-defense. Or buy a sword or a shotgun or something.”
“Ann, I’ve been his friend since fifth grade – I’ve never been in danger from an Evil Overlord.”
She shook her head. “Of course you haven’t; it hasn’t happened yet. When it does, though, he’ll eliminate the support system.”
“The who. The Farm, the family, the mentor, the First Love, the best friend, unless the best friend has enough wit and charm and street smarts to survive.” She stood up, looming over him and his puzzled expression. “Should you reconsider your loyalties, Marcus? Bow out while you still can? Or do you have what it takes?”
“It’s looking like a no to that question too.”