Weight of an Overflowing Soul
"Did you go to your afternoon classes after seeing Angela?"
Joe shoveled the rest of the vegetables into his mouth and reached for another serving of roast beef. He thanked his Maker for giving him parents that ate dinner early. If the Simon family ate dinner a minute past six o'clock for dinner, he would have started dipping into the breakfast cereal. His mother, accustomed to more tempered responses to her cooking as of late, was secretly elated; his father, on the other hand, was shaking his head.
"Christ, Joe. You're eating like a pig."
Joe swallowed a bit too fast and gulped down water before looking up with the perfect response prepared. "You know how it is. Can't expect too much from cafeteria food with all the recent cuts to school funding."
Across the table, the sturdy man's chest puffed up. "Perfect example of where austerity takes us. Tax cuts, bah! Look at the mess we're in. The voters better speak loud and clear come the next election."
"Speak they will, dear." His wife put a hand on his shoulder. "But no politics at the dinner table, please."
"Yes, honey." He sheepishly returned to picking at the cold, dry meat on his plate. Joe rewarded himself on the job well done by filling his empty stomach with beef and asparagus.
"They should be almost done with the operation," noted Mrs. Simon as her son continued to devour his meal. "A small get-well text tonight might do some wonders for her."
"Ugh. My wallet will need healing after my phone bill comes in."
Mr. Simon sighed and shook his head. "Makes no sense to me that a teenager in the twenty-first century would still be on pay-as-you-go. And with no data plan."
"Dad. Why would I pay for something I won't even use?"
"But that's the thing! Don't boys your age love using those newfangled MacPhones to talk with friends on Facechat or whatever?"
Joe's eyes twitched, itching to roll. Thankfully, his mother took up the battle.
"Please, dear. Our son is an old-fashioned romantic. Just look at how he dotes on his charming young lady! Seeing her in person and taking her on dates instead of aimlessly texting back and forth. Any parent should be proud of raising such a perfect gentleman."
"It's really not like that, Mom."
"How about buying her some flowers, my son?" Mr. Simon had an intense expression. "I'll give you some money and the name of that boutique I used last Mother's Day."
"Dad, she and I aren't like that." Joe cleaned off his plate with two pairs of eyes boring through him. HIs mother spoke first.
"But you practically ran out of the house in your underwear when I told you the news."
Joe's father grunted in agreement to his wife's remark. "Any girl who can make my son into such a fine young man is welcome into our family. Looks like you've got your old man's eye for women."
"And what a wonderful woman she is!" Mrs. Simon put a hand on her face and sighed. "A perfect little angel."
"We're just friends! Friends!" Their son stood and gathered up dishes and cutlery. "I'll do the dishes."
"Joe's already all grown up, dear!" Joe's mother kept gushing even when Joe had left the table and went to the kitchen sink. "Next thing you know, we'll be holding our little grandchildren!"
Her husband hummed. "Time marches on, love. Time marches on."
As Joe scrubbed the plates with a soapy sponge, one word echoed through his head: Friends. Friends. Friends.
— That Inconvenient Word
or, No One Expects the Dinner Inquisition
"God damn it, Peripety. Which library did you mean?"
In his room, Joe was practically ripping out his hair. How could he have made such a blunder? Though his confrontation had worked out, his efforts seemed to be all for naught because of one small problem: he had no idea which library she was talking about. The school library could be eliminated as it closed an hour after the end of class every day. That meant it had to be the local library; unfortunately, it had three branches in addition to its main location.
He fumbled across the keyboard of his nearly unused laptop in search of clues online. With no way of contacting Peripety to either ask about the location or cancel, he had no choice but to play detective.
"Open at seven, close to the school..."
Thankfully, one of the branches closed earlier than the others and another was nearly an hour away from the school by bus. That should leave either the main library or the remaining branch. But which one is it? Both were around the same distance from the school, but the main library took nearly twice as long to get to by bus. The branch, on the other hand, was a newer building in a popular new part of town. However, if someone just said "the library", wouldn't they usually mean the main location?
"Ugh, I'm stuck."
He glanced at the corner of his laptop display: 6:20pm. Any later and there might not be a bus that takes him to either library by seven o'clock. Time was of the essence. Think. Think. Think.
A lightbulb went off in his head. Wouldn't most people know to clarify which library to go to? Maybe there is a reason why she thinks of one specific library as the library? He made a desperate Google search: local library volunteer opportunities. He clicked on the second result and scrolled through. Standing right in the middle of a group picture of library volunteers was Peripety with an easygoing smile that Joe had never seen at school.
As Joe skipped down the stairs, he heard his parents speaking in hushed tones.
"Shouldn't we tell him what happened?"
"Appendixes rupture all the time. What's the use in worrying him for no reason?"
"But what about her fever? Isn't that a bad sign?"
"It's too early to be sure, love. Everything could work out."
"But what if it doesn't? If anything happens to that girl—"
"Honey. The doctors are all doing their best. All we can do now is hope."
"I hope you're right, dear..."
Joe slipped out the front door and ran to the bus stop as a light drizzle picked up into an evening shower. As best as he could, he tried to forget how powerless he was.
— Run, Run
"Where is she?" Joe wondered out loud and looked back over his shoulder for the fifth time at the clock on the wall: 7:20. No, a bit past that now. After nearly killing himself trying to get there by the set meeting time, he had sat in a study area for over fifteen minutes. Still no sign of Peripety.
Could she have forgotten? Impossible. There was no way she would have forgotten about their conversation. So maybe she is flaking on purpose? Or maybe Joe got the place wrong after all?
It was the longest wait of his life. His world was spinning around him. He ran his fingers through his damp hair so many times it was now dry. After the sixth time he looked at the clock, he decided that he would wait ten more minutes before heading out — either returning home to be alone in his room, or going to the hospital to wait for any news. He half-heartedly flipped through an old Bescherelle he grabbed from the French aisle, but could not stop his mind from wandering to the conversation his parents were having.
When he looked for the seventh time, it was already past 8 o'clock. He put the Bescherelle back in its place, picked up his bag, and walked toward the entrance of the library.
Just as he moved to push the door open, someone opened it from the outside. It was a panting Peripety with her hair stuck to her forehead and her glasses almost falling off her face.
"So—sorry! Appointment—went late—"
He pushed through the other door and walked past her into the rain. But before he even made it to the sidewalk, a hand grabbed his arm from behind.
"Please don't go! We can still get a lot of work done!"
He was stayed by her forcefulness. But he hardened his heart. "I thought you didn't want me to help anyway."
Her grip loosened. He shook his arm free, but stood still. Sorry, Gigi. His heart panged from his own silent apology. I guess the deal's off.
"It was my fault for resorting to blackmail. I didn't care one bit about how you felt. I didn't care about fairness or any of that. I just wanted to fulfill a promise I made to Gigi."
Her eyes widened. "A promise?"
He took a deep breath. His tears welled behind his heavy eyelids.
"I'm dumb for getting so worked up. This was all for nothing."
For a while, they stood in silence as water fell on them from the unfeeling sky. Was there anything else to say? But after some time, she spoke.
"Did something happen to Angela?"
Joe could not answer that. If he answered that, he would surely lose control.
"I'm sorry for pulling you into all this. Take care."
Joe took a step forward. Then another. But before he could take yet another, he felt a strong tug on his backpack.
"Don't say you're sorry! Don't say that you're dumb or that any of this was for nothing. Because it's not!"
A jolt ran through his body. He turned around to face Peripety. As soon as he saw the wetness under her glasses, his own tears also overflowed. He silently listened to her unrestrained voice.
"I know you didn't really want me to do all your work. I know you wanted to help me out when Ms. Lepore almost put me into a group with those rotten boys Fraser and Hudson."
He scoffed despite being on the verge of sobbing. "Yet you still were so mean to me."
"I didn't know how to react!" She let go of his backpack and clenched her fist. "I didn't know what to do. I just knew that the last thing you wanted was for me to make a big deal of everything and thank you."
"You knew something like that?"
"I know that's just how you are. And most of all, I know that Joseph would never forgive himself for letting others down!" She sniffed loudly. "I don't know what happened with Angela. But please fulfill your promise to her! Please let me help you keep your word! And please be my partner for this English project."
She wiped her tears and extended her hand. Joe looked at it for a moment, then walked past her toward the entrance to the library.
"Let's just go back in. Better not get pneumonia."
The pair of wet teenagers turned quite a few heads as they walked through the foyer and past the front desk. Joe ignored the amused and annoyed gazes of patrons and staff and made a beeline toward the study tables furthest to the back. Peripety followed behind with her head bowed.
Once they were both seated and composed, Joe broke the ice. "So, what do we have so far? Did you already write anything?"
Peripety nodded. "I had an idea for the presentation that I really liked, so I got started last night."
"Great, is it a skit or something?"
"It's a Greek dialogue. Like in Plato's Republic."
He scratched his head. "You lost me, already."
She smiled. "Follow me."
Joe followed Peripety through the long aisles of the library to the nonfiction section. Glancing over the rows upon rows of book spines, she plucked out the one she wanted. "Skim through this and you'll get an idea."
He looked at the title on the cover: The Republic, by Plato.
"As expected of a library volunteer, I guess."
Her face reddened. "How do you know?!"
He chuckled. "Had to do some sleuthing since I had no idea which library you were talking about."
It took a beat for her realization to reach her eyes. "I completely forgot! But you—"
Joe took a bow. "Elementary, my dear Watson."
"Sherlock never says that, by the way."
For an hour and a half, Peripety and Joe talked about the project with more than a few short asides and long tangents. But despite the frequent diversions, the format of the presentation was established: they will be writing and presenting a three-character dialogue discussing the nature of tragedy. "You'd have to be Socrates," Joe proposed. "That's the only way to do it. The great mind of Peripety, versus the minds of me and Gigi."
Her face reddened, but she smiled while looking down and nodding. She really wears her emotions on her sleeve, Joe thought.
By the time a librarian came to escort them out of the empty library, they had created a list of all the ideas they wanted to have in the dialogue. Outside the doors, in clear weather under twinkling stars, the two decided who would write which part.
"If we work together on this, I have a proposition to make," said Peripety.
"Instead of doing Angela's part all by yourself, let me take half of it."
"So then we would each be doing exactly half of the writing?"
She smiled. "Exactly. Like true partners."
"And then we hope that Gigi gets well enough to do the presentation with us."
Peripety paused. "Worst case, you might have to read her part too."
"Only way it'll work," he agreed.
After the two exchanged numbers and Peripety helped Joe search up a bus route back home ("No data in the current year? Are we even the same age?"), the two walked in the same direction for a while.
"How long have you and Angela known each other?" Peripety asked suddenly.
Joe's heart skipped a beat at the thought of Gigi. "Since back in middle school. Back then, I was a troublemaker and she was a quiet geek."
"I can't even imagine Angela like that," Peripety marveled. "You two must have changed a lot then."
He shrugged. "I guess."
"Was the whole thing earlier because you're worried about her operation?"
Joe felt a twist in his gut. But somehow, it felt better when he confided in his concerned classmate. "I actually overheard my parents saying she might be having complications."
"Oh." She nodded and smiled in what looked like an unconvincing attempt to be comforting. "Angela's strong. She'll pull through for sure."
He nodded, but quickly changed the subject. "So, how long have you had that hideout in the stairwell?"
"A bit over half a year now. To be honest, Ms. Lepore hinted me in on it when I told her I wanted more alone time during school hours."
"Huh? But it's only a month into the school year."
"She was my English teacher last year too. My class was right before lunch so we would sometimes chat after class."
"Wow. No wonder you got the highest English mark last year."
"That was back in the normal English classes. Angela's the star of the AP class." Peripety sighed. "Besides, anyone can get good grades by studying alone during lunch and after school instead of talking with friends or joining clubs."
"I don't really understand why that is," said Joe.
She raised an eyebrow. "Why studying more gets you better grades? Isn't that common sense?"
"No, no. I mean, why it is that you're alone all the time."
Her eyes rolled. "Isn't it obvious? I'm bad at getting along with others."
"You and I are getting along just fine right now."
"That's just because you're a lot nicer than most people. Despite how you look."
"I'll take that as a compliment. But I'm sure you could have plenty of friends if you showed people this side of you."
"Well..." She looked away. "It's a bit complicated."
The conversation lulled and the two continued walking. After a while, Peripety stopped.
"I'm crossing the street here. Good night, Joseph."
She crossed the street and he continued down the block. As he reached an intersection with a red light, he aimlessly pulled out his phone. The LED notification light was on. He flipped it open. Three missed calls at 8:28pm, 8:57pm, and 9:31pm, all from a number saved as Mrs. Doroshenko. Gigi's mom. Without any hesitation, he called back. As the traffic lights turned green and he stepped out onto the road, someone picked up and spoke with a slight accent.
"Hello, Joe? I'm sorry if you were in the middle of something."
"It's no problem, Mrs. Doroshenko. Anything the matter?"
"The doctors just let us into Angela's room, and... well..."
Her voice trailed off. Joe's entire being became hostage to the silence. After a few moments, the silence broke.
"Hey, loser. You happy I'm alive?"
All the tension in Joe's body was gone. "Why are you calling me on your mom's cell?"
"Mama didn't bring me my phone so I'm using hers to call you. Least she can do for her suffering daughter."
"You know we already used up all my call time last weekend, right?"
"What's a few dollars for your best friend?" Gigi giggled. "Anyway, wanna hear about a weird dream I had while put under?"
He smiled. "I'm all ears."
They talked on the phone until Joe got home, then for another hour after that. Maximum minutes and additional charges did not exist in the small but vast world of Gigi and Joe.
— All's Well That Ends Well