The next day Samantha joined us at lunch. "So, not like I care, but what are you doing for Halloween, Xavier?"
"Halloween?" Oh, right. That was coming up really soon. "When was that—"
"Halloween is on Saturday," Rachel chimed in softly.
"Oh right, Saturday. Well, I didn't really make any—"
Paula, who was oddly enough sitting across the table from me for once, raised an eyebrow in my direction.
"Er. I mean, I don't have any specific plans, but I'm not available that day." Shit, Paula finagled me into a Halloween date?
"Why aren't you—" started Samantha, but Paula cut her off.
"I'll bet you just love Halloween, don't you Samantha? You'd make such a cute little monster."
"You think I'm—I mean wait a minute, what's this about a monster?! Why wouldn't I be a princess or something?"
Paula pointed at Samantha's twin-tails, which she had adopted again for the day. "Right attitude, wrong hair. Sorry, you're definitely a better monster. Maybe a sweet little goblin?"
Samantha was getting red in the face, and I could practically see little cross-shaped anger marks popping into existence around her head. "Gob—?! Well what about you? You probably only ever dress like a skanky nurse or something!"
"Hm, I've never tried a nurse, actually," Paula ruminated. "They are admittedly a classic, but I'm not really into that sort of low-brow, fetishist pandering."
I cut in before Samantha's head exploded trying to parse that sentence. "So that means you like dressing up for Halloween?"
Paula looked genuinely puzzled for once. "Doesn't everybody?"
Uh, I suppose. Between the ages of six and thirteen, at least. "So what's your costume this year?"
Paula smirked at me. "Guess."
Yeah, I didn't think it would be that easy.
Rachel evidently noticed Samantha working herself up in a tizzy thanks to Paula failing to react to her provocations, and diverted the conversation. "Are there many trick-or-treaters in your neighborhood, Xavier?"
"Yeah, we get a fair number, although fewer than when I was a kid. I think a lot of people just go to the shopping district or the mall these days rather than canvasing the neighborhood. What about you, Samantha? Get anyone begging for candy at your place?"
"I live in an apartment," grumbled Samantha. "No one does that sort of thing there." She redirected her ire back to Paula. "Aren't you a little old to be going around asking for candy?" Ah well, Rachel, I tried. She shot me a slight smile when I glanced her way.
"Whoever said I go trick-or-treating?" asked Paula. "I haven't done that in years. I guess you're a little young to be attending Halloween parties, though. Talk to me when you're out of pigtails."
Hoo boy, Paula was really shooting for Samantha to go incendiary today for some reason. We'd all learned early on that references to the hair were the best way to get Samantha to explode.
"Pig—?!" Sure enough, Samantha was fast approaching critical meltdown.
"Hey, Xavier," Jill cut in. "You ready to head to P.E.? I wanted to get there a little early today to stretch, maybe avoid getting dogpiled again."
"You bet," I said, and practically jumped from my chair.
"See you later," Paula said to me with a meaningful smile.
"Uh, right." Nice rejoinder, Xavier. Really smooth.
We left the sound of Samantha berating Paula over the exact meaning of pigtails behind.
"Thanks, Jill," I said.
She shrugged. "I don't really get why you put up with Samantha, honestly. She's super annoying."
I shrugged right back. There wasn't much I could say to that.
We walked down the hall in companionable silence for a bit.
"I thought about it a bunch last night, and I think I'm going to try a date or two with Seamus," Jill blurted out suddenly.
"Oh! Uh, good for you!"
She smiled wryly. "I know, it's not really any of your business, but since we talked about it yesterday…anyway I'll let you know if I need someone to watch me patch myself up, okay?"
"You do that, Jill. I hope things go well."
"Eh, we'll see. I don't really have time for romance at the moment, anyway, what with the cross country meets coming up. Honestly, I probably won't see much of you outside of lunch and class for a while here. Coach B is really riding us hard; thinks we have a chance to maybe make state this year."
"Really? That's awesome!"
Jill laughed. "Spoken like a guy who doesn't have to attend our practices."
"Yeah, you couldn't pay me to do that. I still don't know why you went out for cross country instead of some sane sport like soccer."
"Mm, soccer is fun. But honestly, I like cross country a little better than track, even. There's something cathartic about just…running."
"Well, no one ever claimed you were normal," I joked.
Jill grinned and slugged me in the shoulder. "You'd best hope we're not playing soccer again, or I'll have to make you eat those words."
I wasn't honestly sure how that made any sense at all, but when we were indeed playing soccer again I was lucky enough to end up on a team that wasn't facing off against Jill's.
Still failed to win, though. Good thing looking cool in front of my childhood friend wasn't high on my list of things to do.
Losing at soccer or not, I was feeling pretty great as I made my way from P.E. to pre-calculus. Samantha and Jill both appeared to be headed out of the harem, which meant I was halfway to freedom. I couldn't discount the author or genre throwing me a curveball, of course, but especially with Jill I felt like I'd actually done something right when it came to progressing our relationship away from weird romantic entanglements and back to childhood friend comradery.
Now, if only I had some idea how to deal with Pa—
"Oh, Xavier!" said someone, interrupting my reverie. A little way down the hall was a girl standing at a locker who I recognized from pre-calculus. She usually sat a few seats away to my left, and I was pretty sure her name was Debbie. I didn't really know anything about her, since she was withdrawn in class. However, there was one key detail that stood out: she wore really thick glasses, and today happened to be sporting a lab coat. If I were a science fiction spacecraft, emergency klaxons would be blaring about a proximity alert right about now.
Unaware of my internal distress, Debbie continued talking. "Would you mind—"
I turned on my heel and all but sprinted down the nearest set of stairs. Definitely not happening. I'm sure you're a wonderful person, Debbie, but extending the story by endlessly adding people to the harem is just a whole lot of nope.
I was a little late to pre-calc thanks to my unexpectedly circuitous route, but it was totally worth it.