Erin found it to be the best sort of irony that Brad Johnson, star quarterback, could pass a football forty yards with pinpoint accuracy, but couldn't manage to pass a note to someone two desks over.
Erin bent down on the pretext of scratching her ankle and palmed the yellow square of paper easily. Brad's note recipient, who was busy plumbing the depths of his ear canal with a pencil, saw nothing.
Unfolding the note, Erin read it quickly, then re-folded it and maintained a carefully bland expression while she contemplated what to do with this windfall. Blackmail was always an option, but Erin felt that the potential for chaos here far exceeded a little lunch money.
Letting her eye roam the classroom, it came to rest on a cluster of girls by the windows, desks pushed just a hair too close together, looking just a smidge too bored for it to be genuine. June Harris, Tina Irving, and Edie Swanson were the triumvirate that held sway over almost every person in their high school, and a substantial number from the next district over. Today they were holding sway over the window seats, so that the spring sunshine could emphasize the highlights in their hair and illuminate the copious amount of bare shoulder that was showing on each of them.
June Harris was tall and athletic, long arms and legs tanned by afternoons of track practice. The swirl of freckles across her nose mentioned a tomboy phase, but that became a long-forgotten footnote in June's history the moment she traded in her training bra. June was handsome rather than beautiful and tended to look down her nose at groups of students who crossed her path as though she were about to issue a royal decree at any moment.
Edie Swanson, summed up in a single word, was pretty. She had it all, the heart-shaped face, the ample bosom, the blond ponytail, the whole business from head to red-nail-polished toe. As Head Cheerleader, she regarded it as her solemn duty to date the football team's captain at all times, although her inaugural oath said nothing about monogamy. The fact that her tenure as Head Cheerleader had outlasted three captains wasn't something that had put any worry lines on her smooth forehead.
Tina Irving should have seemed out of place in the group for several reasons. For one thing, she wasn't pretty in the traditional sense, or even cute; Tina was striking, thin lips and heavy-lidded eyes holding just a hint of the exotic. Tina's biggest appeal was not her body, but her brain, which leaned heavily towards the mathematic and scientific side of school. Calculus equations crossing her lips sounded like foreplay, and the President of the Computer Club swore that he had seen her make a microchip sit up and beg.
None of this impressed Erin, who thought that so much power should never be gathered into one place, and moreover who had been the only girl in the senior class not invited to Edie's last party.
As Erin watched, June, gave a tiny yawn and stretched, just barely brushing the calf of the boy next to her with several perfectly-manicured toes.
The boy jerked upright so fast that all the books on his desk crashed to the floor. He tried to scoop them up, face burning, while the teacher snapped at him for interrupting her lesson.
"Sorry," Erin saw June mouth innocently, while Tina smirked and Edie tittered.
Erin couldn't quite keep the mental grin from manifesting as a plan unfolded right in front of her. Balancing the note on one corner under her forefinger, Erin sent it across the room with a practiced flick, watching with satisfaction as it hit Edie in the ankle.
They should make me quarterback, Erin thought before slouching back down in her chair.
* * * * * *
"Read it again," June commanded during lunch. Edie took a small sip of bottled water before smoothing the note on the table and adopting a theatric tilt of the head, as though she were about to give a Shakespeare reading.
" 'Prom's coming up'," she read. " 'I'll be taking the most beautiful girl in school, and we all know who that is... Brad'."
"Too bad we don't know who he means," Tina commented, crunching a bite of her salad.
"Me, obviously," Edie preened, running a hand over her blond waves to make sure every one was in its proper place. "It hit me in the ankle after all."
"Brad can't pass notes for beans and you know it." June snatched the note off the table and laid it in front of herself, running a French-manicured fingertip over the curves of Brad's name. "It was probably meant for me. I told you I caught him staring at me in Chemistry."
"It could be any of us," Tina cut off the squabble before it could really get going. "We were sitting too close together."
There was a moment of silence as the horror of this sunk in.
"But I'll bet it's me," Tina added.
"It is not," Edie snapped, making a grab for the note, but June closed her hand over it.
"It says here," she said, "that Brad is taking the most beautiful girl in the school."
"So?" Edie asked, working the note out from underneath June's fingers.
"So what we need is a way to find out which of us is the most beautiful once and for all."
"Empirical data," Tina agreed, nodding. "An experiment with an impartial observer."
"What are you talking about?" Edie asked, finally slipping the note free and caressing it.
"She means we should ask somebody who's the prettiest," June explained.
"Someone neutral," Tina clarified. "Somebody that none of us influence."
Edie opened her mouth.
"That means no ex-boyfriends, Edie," June said. Edie closed her mouth and pouted. June continued, "But where are we going to find someone who hasn't ever been affected by any of us? We might have to go two districts over for that kind of neutrality."
"An underclassman might do just as well," Tina mused. "We've dealt with them as a faceless horde, but rarely as individuals."
"No freshmen," Edie wrinkled her nose.
"She's right," June nodded, "freshmen don't have the proper understanding of how things are done yet. It'll have to be a sophomore. We just need to find someone who is oblivious to the delicate system of power balances."
"Someone who lives in a fantasy world then," Edie rolled her eyes.
"Someone who seeks art in everything. Someone superficial." Tina drummed her fingers on the table, then snapped them. "A thespian."
"No, they creep me out, pick a boy," Edie waved a hand.
"No, a thespian," June snapped. "A theater person, Edie. An actor?"
"It's perfect," Tina said. "None of us are directly involved with the plays or with the actors, if you don't count that momentary seizure of bad taste June had with Dean Meade."
"He was essential to my plans for being the first junior ever elected Prom Queen," June sniffed. "Nothing more."
"All we need is a way to observe all the theater geeks and pick out a candidate," Tina said.
"What about this?" Edie poked the glossy table tent that been a silent witness to their entire exchange. Tina picked it up the and June leaned closer to read over her shoulder. The table tent proclaimed in loud colors that auditions for Waiting for Godot would be that afternoon in the auditorium and all interested in theater were welcome.
"Excellent work, Edie," June said briskly. "You cancel cheerleading, Tina, get someone to cover physics tutoring, and I will skip track practice. Ladies, we are going to the theater."
* * * * * *
Alex Troy was looping microphone cords around his elbow when he noticed the three girls staring and pointing at everyone who came across the stage. They kept it up the entire time while he finished with the cords, made sure the curtain ties were secure, and reset the controls for lowering the scrims.
Alex didn't know them, which was interesting, given that he knew most of the students who were involved with theater. He vaguely recognized them as girls he had seen around, seniors, he thought. All three were pretty, certainly, but also the type of girl that would no sooner talk to him than apologize to an insect they had ground to dust with their fashionable open-toed sandals.
The girls didn't seem like they were there to audition; in fact they seemed to be having their own auditions, taking notes and whispering about everyone who got up on stage. By the time the brunette in the middle had dismissed the fifth candidate in a row with a headshake, Alex was openly staring, completely perplexed as to their purpose.
"London, get over here!" the Stage Manager yelled from the other side of the stage. Alex shook his head to clear it and promptly forgot about the girls as he returned to his duties as Props Master for the upcoming show.
When tryouts ended an hour later, Alex exited the auditorium to find the same three girls cornering one of the kids from the audition against the bricks of the school building. The kid looked terrified, glancing back and forth between the girls like a frightened rodent. Alex scrounged for the kid's name and came up with Zach as a possibility.
"Hullo, what's up, Zach?" Alex asked with false cheer as he approached.
"London!" Zach exclaimed, looking as though he might drop to his knees in thanks. "Like I said, ladies, I think London here's your man, he'd be a much better judge than me!"
Alex felt the back of his neck flush as the three girls turned to scrutinize him openly. The blond made him feel naked, the brunette like he was a lab specimen, and the one with dark curls like a mouse that was about to become owl pellets.
"What's your name?" Brunette asked, and Alex gathered she was the leader from the way the other two girls flanked her.
"Alex, Alex Troy," Alex answered, glancing at each girl, suddenly wishing he'd simply walked by and left Zach to his fate. "Er, but most people call me London. I used to live there, with my mum, but now I'm here with my father and…uh..."
Alex trailed off, unnerved by the girls' blinkless stare.
"Do you know who we are?" Dark and Curly inquired when he was through.
"Seniors?" Alex guessed. "Wasn't one of you the Prom Queen or something last year?" Zach gave a high-pitched laugh; Alex flicked him a questioning look, but the three girls didn't seem to notice.
The three girls exchanged a glance. Blondie shrugged, Dark and Curly nodded, and Brunette pursed her lips.
"Well, London," Brunette said, "we have a little wager going here, and we'd like your opinion."
"Okay?" Alex shifted his bookbag from one shoulder to the other.
"Which one of us is the most beautiful?" Blondie asked.
Alex stared at them for several heartbeats.
"Are you kidding me?" he finally said.
"We're very serious," Dark and Curly assured. "It's rather important, I'm afraid, so it'll be best if you answer honestly."
"How," Alex swallowed, "how am I supposed to answer a question like that?"
"Truthfully," Brunette answered.
"And quickly," Blondie added.
"Uhm," Alex was momentarily distracted by noticing over Blondie's shoulder that Zach was shaking his head and mouthing 'nonono!', "can I have some time to think about this?"
The girls had another wordless exchange, which Alex found to be more than a little creepy, and then Dark and Curly spoke.
"That's acceptable," she said. "We'll give you twenty-four hours. Be here tomorrow, after callbacks, with your decision."
Before Alex could reply, the three girls turned all at the same time, like a school of piranha, putting distance between them and the underclassmen as quickly as possible. Before they were out of earshot, Alex heard Blondie ask "You don't think anyone saw us with them, do you?"
"What the hell was that?" Alex demanded of Zach, who was still slumped against the wall and looked as though he considered himself lucky to have escaped with his life.
"You don't have any idea who they are, do you?" Zach asked.
"No, evidently not." Alex felt his patience stretching. "Are you going to tell me, or are you just going to snicker like an idiot?"
"That was June Harris, Tina Irving, and Edie Swanson," Zach replied, "and you are toast, my friend."
"I'm not your friend, wanker," Alex snapped. "And what's so great about them?"
"Do you live under a rock? They're the most popular girls here," Zach straightened up and dusted himself off, "and between the three of them they own every jock, geek, and red-blooded male in the place. They own this school, London, and you're about to make or break the rest of your high school career. You'd better make the right choice."
"Which is what?" Alex asked.
"Beats the hell out of me," Zach shrugged. "That's why I told them to ask you. Hopefully they've already forgotten that I exist. Good luck, London, you'll need it."
Zach jogged off as fast as his hi-tops could take him, and Alex let him go, reaching up to rub his temples. He felt the mother of all headaches coming on.
* * * * * *
Alex didn't even look up when the phone rang during dinner that night. His stepsister bounced out of her chair immediately to pick it up, while his stepmother shouted that she was not to receive calls during dinner and his father ignored the entire procedure like he did every night. Then his stepsister would come back to the table, like she was doing now, and then she would ask to be excused…
"It's for Alex," she said, and everyone at the table froze, his stepmother with her fork halfway to her mouth. "It's a girl."
Alex felt everyone's eyes on him as he calmly got out of his chair, not meeting anyone's gaze, and took the cordless phone from his stepsister.
"Hallo?" he said into the cordless, and behind him he heard his stepmother whisper "Jennifer, stop staring and sit down!"
"Hello, London," the girl on the other end said. "Do you know who this is?"
"Dark and Curly," Alex answered, wondering why he couldn't keep from babbling what he was really thinking when he was nervous. "June or maybe Tina, but probably not Edie. I think she was the blond."
"Very good," Dark and Curly purred. "It's Tina. Have you been thinking about our question?"
"Yes," Alex lied. Actually, he'd been thinking about everything else to distract himself, including a list of tropical diseases he could possibly acquire between now and school tomorrow.
"You've been to my tutoring sessions, haven't you?" Tina asked. "Geometry, am I right?"
"Er, yeah, that's me," Alex said. "I have to raise my grade to a C or I can't work the show…"
"Academic suspension is so unfair," Tina cut him off. "Math just isn't easy for some people, all those vectors and equations and graphs…"
"Right…" Alex felt dizzy just thinking about it.
"I could put in a good word for you with Mr. Kemball," Tina mentioned casually. "If he knew how hard you'd been working on improving your grade, he might be just a little lenient when he was grading your next test."
Alex realized with a little shock that Tina was trying to bribe him.
"It's been nice chatting with you, London." Tina's cold smile was evident even over miles of telephone cable. "See you tomorrow after school."
"See you," Alex responded automatically, but the line was already dead.
* * * * * *
Alex was standing by his locker the next morning, staring at his math book, when Blondie, probably Edie, sauntered up and leaned gracefully on the locker next to his.
"Good morning, London," she smiled warmly, and Alex couldn't help returning the smile any more than he could stop the rush of blood to his groin. He lowered his math book in what he hoped was a surreptitious manner.
"Edie?" he greeted.
"Aren't you sweet to remember?" The strap of Edie's sundress slipped down one shoulder in what could only be a calculated maneuver. "I bet your girlfriend just adores you."
"I don't really…" Alex started.
"Really?" Edie's blue eyes widened in shock. "Such a charming boy, you'd think the girls would be all over you." She paused. "You do like girls, don't you?"
"Yes!" Alex answered, startled.
"Of course you do," Edie soothed. "London, you just keep being your darling self and I bet your luck with women will change very soon. As early as this afternoon, in fact."
The bell rang while Alex was trying to form a proper response to that.
"Oops, there's the bell, gotta run!" Edie flashed another smile and reached over to adjust Alex's collar. "Don't be late for homeroom, we don't want you to have detention. After all you've got important obligations this afternoon."
Clutching his math book tighter against him as he watched Edie swish down the hall, Alex wondered how many more of these bribes he could survive.
* * * * * *
Alex didn't even raise an eyebrow when he found June waiting in an auditorium seat right after school had ended.
"What's your offer then?" Alex asked without preamble. "You should know, I've been offered grades and sex, so if you can't top that you can save your breath."
June laughed and clapped her hands.
"You do know how things work!" she said, patting the seat beside her. "I was concerned about you, London, but I think you're going to make the right choice after all."
Alex snorted as he sat down, the ancient auditorium seat squeaking with irritation at being disturbed.
"Go on then," he said. "Let's hear it." He had to suppress a shiver when June's gaze met his; her eyes made him feel like he was about as opaque as cling wrap.
"Edie and Tina's offers?" June dismissed their bribes with a flick of her wrist. "They're peanuts compared to what I can give you."
"Oh?" Alex asked.
"I can do so much more for you." June laid her hand on Alex's knee. "I can give you anything you want. Everything you want."
"That's quite a promise just to say you're the prettiest," Alex remarked. "Just what is it that you girls have riding on this bet anyhow?"
"Don't you worry your theatric little brain about it," June said. "I want you to close your eyes…I mean it, close them." Alex rolled his eyes, but then shut them. "Now imagine yourself as one of the most popular people here. Forget about just one grade or one girl, you can get those things for yourself when you have what I'm offering. Think about it: you could be the class president. Or the Prom King."
Alex didn't look impressed, even with his eyes closed. June considered her audience.
"Or the romantic lead in the next play. Can you see it, London?"
"What I see is a lot of dark," Alex answered. He opened his eyes and stood up. "If you don't mind, I have work to do. I'll see you and your friends afterwards."
"Just don't forget who's offering what," June said.
Alex turned his back before she was even done speaking.
* * * * * *
All through rehearsal Alex debated his options. He had already realized that trying to decide which girl was actually the most beautiful was like looking at Faberge Eggs and trying to decide which is the most expensive. He thought about their bribes instead.
He thought about Tina's silky voice while he took down notes from the director on furniture placement onstage, her voice on the phone, whispering in his ear, promising to make the one class Alex couldn't grasp easy. Promising to make the academic woes standing in the way of his theater ambitions disappear, at least for a little while, long enough that Alex could finish the show and make the connections he needed to get leads his junior and senior years.
He thought about Edie's bare shoulder as he counted pieces of scenery backstage, her shoulder against the chilled metal of the locker next to his, but he'd been the one goosebumping instead of her. Girls made Alex stupid and sweaty, but Edie could make that stop mattering, could get Alex the first girlfriend he'd had since he'd sneezed in Alicia Jamison's face during his first kiss in the eighth grade.
He thought about June's fingers while he watched female lead practice her solo, her fingers brushing circles on his knee while she offered him the one thing that held real power in high school. June was right, everything important, from student offices to performance solos, was a popularity contest first and a judge of talent second. He was only a sophomore, the whole course of his high school career might be affected if he gave June what she wanted, even the sort of college he got into afterwards.
Theater, girlfriend, popularity.
Fame, love, power.
"Made your choice yet?" Zach asked, popping up as Alex was picking up his bookbag, wearing a grin that Alex wanted to slap off his face.
"Fame, love, or power," Alex said instead, "which would you pick?"
"I'd take the blond," Zach shrugged. He punched Alex in the shoulder. "Good luck with that, London."
Alex imagined scrawling his answer in marker across Zach's forehead and throwing him outside to the girls so that he could escape while they were feeding, which allowed him to muster up a return smile before walking up the aisle towards the exit of the auditorium.
June, Tina, and Edie were waiting for him outside, all gorgeous and all looking confident. Alex kept the smile on his face mainly by force of will.
"Well, London?" June asked, "made a decision?"
Time seemed to slow down for a minute, long enough for Alex to reconsider every possible outcome of this impossible choice. Long enough to realize that one test wouldn't save a whole semester of failed ones, girlfriends smelled good but were high maintenance, and any idiot could get the attention of the student body but it took someone with more charisma than Alex to keep it.
I'd take the blond, Zach had said and Alex supposed he could do worse. If it didn't have any lasting benefits, at least it wouldn't do him long-term damage either.
"Edie," he said. "Edie's the most beautiful."
Edie squealed and bounced forward to hug Alex, who was caught off-guard and wished for a math book to hide behind. The other two girls looked shocked, then angry, then both turned on their heels and marched away. Alex hoped neither one of them knew how to make a car bomb.
"I knew you'd make the right choice," Edie pulled back and smiled at him. "Your reward will be waiting for you by the flagpole when you get to school tomorrow."
Alex tried to feel excited as Edie jogged to catch up with her friends, and not as if he had just won a girlfriend like a raffle prize.
* * * * * *
Alex more than half-expected to find no one by the flagpole the next morning, or somebody whose attractive qualities were questionable at the very most.
Instead he found Elaina McKallister, whose attraction was not at all questionable, as her boyfriend of two years could have told anyone who didn't see it for himself. Alex's stomach twisted as he realized that Edie had probably meddled in Elaina's life with as much thoughtlessness as she and her friends had meddled in his.
"Are you London?" she asked. "And what kind of name is that, anyway?"
"A nickname, actually," Alex answered as Elaina looked him up and down with pursed lips. "Don't you have a boyfriend?"
"I did until yesterday," Elaina replied flatly. She held out her hand. "Come on, we'll be late to class."
"Edie's making you do this, isn't she?" Alex asked, keeping his hands at his sides. "What did she blackmail you with?"
"It's not important." Elaina reached forward and took Alex's hand, twining their fingers together forcibly. Alex let her pull him towards the school in silence for several steps.
"Did you like him a lot?" Alex asked. "Your boyfriend, I mean."
"I'll like you just fine," she replied. Alex dug his feet into the grass and they ground to a halt.
"Look, could you stop being so reasonable about this?" he snapped. "You don't have to do this!"
"Don't be stupid, you know I do," Elaina said.
"But I won you!" Alex exclaimed. "That's not fair!"
Elaina jerked him forward by the hand, making him stumble into her, and before he could move her mouth was covering his. Her lips were warm and smooth and Alex could smell her pink lemonade lip gloss and he didn't sneeze in her face. When Elaina pulled away, Alex was nearly too dazed to make sense out of her words.
"This is high school, London," she said. "Nothing's fair."
PS--Classics students, did you get the joke? Alex Troy should've been the dead giveaway...
[ETA] if you have no idea what I'm taking about, the answer is here.