Title: The Tragedy Of Us
Release Date: 17/02/2019
Charlie has it all figured out that is, until life sends her a curveball in the form of a seemingly self-sufficient star athlete, which forces her to re-evaluate everything, even herself.
Sixteen-year-old Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Miller—activist, smartass and carb lover—is sure she has everything figured out. She has a plan: finish high school with her best friend, then go to college to become a Pulitzer prize winning journalist. Clear and simple, right?
Things start to change when, due to her mother’s pressure to shape her curriculum and many burned bridges caused by her smart mouth, she is forced into tutoring one of the school’s star athletes, Gabriel Johnson.
As they get to know each other, Charlie realizes there might be something more to the boy than what meets the eye and that there is another side of him which he hides from the world.
After she finds herself involved in a situation which is more than she bargained for, she learns that even our own selves can cheat us, let us down and somehow surprise us. When the time comes to make hard choices, she has to decide if she steps up, runs away or hides to everyone even herself?
I looked at my phone and groaned. Today was the first day of junior year, a day just like all the other seven hundred and twenty odd days that high school typically lasted.
Up late, I jumped into a pair of faded blue jeans and grabbed one of my homemade “cause of the day” T-shirts. Glancing in the mirror, I shook my head. I didn’t have the time to sort the bird’s nest on my head. Throwing my hair up into a messy bun, I ran downstairs. I’d barely managed to put my flip-flops on when I heard rap music blaring, followed by a couple of quick horn blasts.
I grabbed my backpack and ran to the black Chevrolet parked in my driveway. Chago sat in the driver’s seat, a grin on his face.
“Chula! Estas bien?”
I chuckled. “Si Guapo.” I patted Chago’s knee. “I still can’t believe your brother gave you his car. And why on earth are you listening to this? You don’t even like rap.”
“I decided to give it a try.” He twisted his mouth, pretending to listen intently. “No?”
I shook my head, trying my best not to laugh.
He shrugged dismissively, backing out of my driveway. “Okay, well, tomorrow we should try Celine Dion,” he decided before looking at me with crossed eyes.
I couldn’t contain my laughter anymore. Chago Valdez was my best friend, my brother in all aspects of my life other than blood. His name was Santiago, but nobody called him that unless they wanted to get beaten up. I did use the “Santiago” card when I was mad at him though.
Chago and I met right after I’d moved to Montgomery back in second grade. My mother had been a young lawyer then. After my father passed away, my mother had started working at the East Side Legal Aid and put me in Elementary school there. That was where I’d met Chago. He’d defended me after a girl had threatened to beat me up. The connection between us had been instantaneous, and we have been friends ever since.
My mother never fully approved of the friendship. She had been a widow with a stubborn child. She wanted me out of the Eastside, acting as if Chago was a bad influence because of the color of his skin or his slight accent. I had proved her wrong over the years. I was the one getting Chago in trouble, not the other way around.
My mom started to work for a big corporate law firm. The more she worked, the more responsibilities she was given, and the less I saw her. Now, it had reached the point I was not even sure we lived in the same house anymore.
Despite what she thought of Chago, my mother had still helped him join Montgomery High School to be with me. As he lived on the other side of the freeway, he’d been meant to go to Eastside Preparatory College – a bad school with one of the lowest success rates in California, and deemed dangerous because of the high gang activity. Originally, she had been rather pleased we wouldn’t be together in school anymore. It made her cringe when I used more Spanish than English at home and in our many arguments. I’d even told her that Mama Valdez had been more of a mother to me than she had ever been. It was pretty harsh, I knew that, but sometimes, I couldn’t help myself.
When I was twelve, my mother had organized a work cocktail party and, as an act of rebellion, I’d invited Chago. My mother had been mortified, but unknowingly, I’d actually helped her. A potential big client, worth billions of dollars, was also from the Eastside. He’d thought that my mother, my obtuse mother, was a very open-minded woman to let her only daughter befriend a boy from the Eastside. He had been so impressed that he had signed with her, making my mom an associate of the firm.
Now, Chago was studying with me at Montgomery High School, which counted only a meager number of students from the Eastside. These students were usually invited to join based on their unique talents or exceptional results.
Despite the stereotypical view of the Eastside, not everybody was in a gang. Both Chago and his older brother Mateo, were gang-free. Their father Paco had died protecting some gang boss. As a form of gratitude, Mateo and Chago were free to not join the gang, and they were smart enough to enjoy that freedom.
This may have been another reason why we were so close. We were part of a very exclusive club; we had learned only too early what it was like to grieve a parent.
However, Chago being from the Eastside had an undeniable advantage. My smart mouth got me into loads of trouble with the pretty and popular, and it was only the fear of facing Chago that made them keep their distance from me.
“Man, I just lost five bucks,” he whined, detailing my clothes while we waited at the traffic light.
“Mateo and I bet on your shirt. He said you would wear something about animal protection and I thought it would be something related to the environment.”
“Stop betting on me! It’s degrading!” I exclaimed in mock hurt.
Chago winked. “So, Chula, do we need to go pick up Gaygan?”
“You know he wants to kick you when you call him that!”
“Nah, he doesn’t. He loves it.”
I chuckled. “Yes, he does.”
Gaygan was the nickname Chago had given to Logan Brier, the only other student that Chago and I were fond of. He was a year older and the Chief Editor of the school paper. We’d met Logan in Junior High when a band of seniors had wanted to beat him up and Chago had defended him. That was a recurring theme with Chago; he was always there to defend the weak and defenseless. He never judged anyone. He had been judged way too many times himself to ever do the same to others.
We gave Logan a place in our usual duo at school because misfits were stronger together. None of us really fitted in with the rest, but we loved it that way. Most people couldn’t wait to leave high school, and others, the popular ones, dreaded leaving it one day. Us? We just went along for the ride. We were El Bandito, the Anarchist and the Eccentric.
“He is probably already there. He is a senior now. He has to prepare the freshman-whatever-stuff.”
“Very eloquent,” he teased.
“I know, it’s a gift,” I sighed. “I hope we’ll have more classes together. Last year was painful.”
“I don’t know, Charlie. I sure as hell didn’t try to get into Advance Literature.”
“Well, except that,” I admitted, adjusting my bag as he parked the car.
“Baboso!” I stuck my tongue out.
“Very mature.” He wrapped an arm around my neck after joining me on the pathway.
“You’re the one talking.” I nudged him with my hip as we walked through the school’s main doors to check our schedules.
Everybody in school presumed that Chago and I were dating. We never cared enough to deny it. Truthfully, we could never date; we knew way too many embarrassing things about each other. We’d gone through the awkward phases of puberty together, confiding in one another since we didn’t have anyone else. I could never see Chago as a potential boyfriend after that and I knew he felt the same.
“Charlotte Miller,” I heard a commanding voice say as soon as we crossed the threshold to the main hall.
I did my best not to roll my eyes. “Principal Webber, I missed you this summer!” I exclaimed with an angelic smile.
“Of course, you did,” he replied before locking eyes with Chago. “Mr. Valdez, why don’t you go check your schedule?”
Chago nodded, understanding it was a dismissal and not a suggestion.
“I’ll see you later, Guapo.” I winked at him. “Worst case scenario, meet me for lunch at our usual table.”
I knew the principal didn’t like me much and it had all started when my mother had convinced the school board to let Chago join the school. He was living at the limit of the district, and she’d scared them with parity and other legal gibberish. To be fair, the principal had had no problem with Hispanics or even people from the Eastside, but he didn’t like being overruled and he particularly despised the rules being bent.
To be fair, I also gave him a lot of reasons to be exasperated over the past two years. I was an activist and regarded as a “troublemaker,” which I thought was unfair. I was only speaking my mind loud and clear, trying to think outside the box they were forcing us into.
“You are a junior now. It’s time to think about your future, college, and career.” He walked beside me down the corridor toward the administrative office.
“I’m thinking, sir, thinking hard.” In truth, whilst I wanted to be a journalist, I was still unsure about all the steps I would follow to get there.
“You finished last year with very good grades in almost every subject,” he continued.
I nodded. I knew science was my weakness and I was dreading Physics class this year.
“You know, tutoring would look good on your college applications.”
I looked up, my eyes slanted with incredulity. “Have you met me?”
He furrowed his eyebrows, giving his face a disapproving scowl.
“I’m not what you can call sociable. I’m not very patient and I don’t like people that much. I would be the worst tutor Montgomery High has ever seen.” I chuckled. “Hell! I think Mau Tse Tung would even be a better tutor in Human Rights than I would be.”
The crease between his eyebrows deepened, showing that my attempt at a joke had fallen flat.
“Maybe it’s time to change,” he stressed, his tone reproachful.
Maybe it’s time to butt out! I sighed, knowing that this discussion would only cause me an hour-long speech of painful boredom. “I’ll consider it.”
“Good, good.” He smiled, pleased with himself. “Here’s your schedule. You’re lucky to have been accepted into the Advanced Literature class. The selection process was very competitive.”
I bet! “Thank you,” I replied with fake cheerfulness, then left before I said something I would regret. Payaso!
As soon as I exited the office, Logan dropped his group of freshmen and trotted toward me. It always amazed me to see that despite his gangly 6’4’’ frame, he could be as graceful as a ballerina.
“And here we have our little Miss NGO,” he leered with his usual cheeky grin. “She is a member of PETA, Amnesty International, Red Cross, Greenpeace, and I don’t know what else.”
I turned around and looked into his eyes. His contacts were violet today to match his Converse shoes.
“I’m also a member of ‘Leave me alone, or I’ll kick your ass’.” I added deadpanned, nudging him. “How are you doing, bud? Ready for the fresh blood?”
“Yes. I want to know if ‘The Cure’ has some new comics ready for the paper or even a small, acidic chronicle.”
I shrugged, looking down at my schedule, taking the direction of the lockers, knowing full well that Logan would follow me until I gave him an answer.
“I don’t know, but I can ask him if you want,” I replied playfully.
“You do that. Where to?” he asked, glancing at my schedule over my shoulders.
“Locker first, then Calculus.”
The Cure was a sort of pirate writer for the paper. He also drew funny, engaged comics that were both loved and hated by the students. No matter how entertaining The Cure was, the students all feared to be the target of his cold abrasiveness. Everybody thought it was a guy, probably a senior, as you had to be, and I quote, “gutsy” to write those things. The principal would have loved nothing more than to forbid his publications, but it was satirical, and he knew Logan was a fervent defender of the freedom of speech. The “pretty and popular” would have probably paid good money to find out The Cure’s identity, but only two people in school knew the real identity of The Cure: Logan and Chago. I was him. Yes, Charlotte “Charlie” Miller was The Cure! The underground chief of an inexistent rebellion. I was saying “out loud” what everybody thought. I wondered how that would look on my college applications.
“Very well then.” Logan rested his back on the locker beside mine, legs crossed at the ankles while scanning the corridor up and down. “Oh, by the way, we’ve got a new teacher in charge of the newspaper, thank God!” he exclaimed dramatically. “Old creepy Miss Jane is no more.”
“Uh huh…” I replied absentmindedly, organizing my locker. I knew better than to listen to him when he was in “Gossip Queen” mode.
“Yeah, it’s the new lit teacher, Mulligan. In his forties, but he’s damn hot.”
I looked at him with my best “dude-what-the-freak” face, making him chuckle.
“First of all, eww, and second, who don’t you find hot?” I shook my head.
“I don’t know,” he said and shrugged. “Him.” He pointed at a random guy in the corridor.
“You know what, let’s stop the crazy talk. It’s only day one, but who knows, I might get inspired by the end of the day,” I trailed off.
He nodded. “Where is Chago? You guys are usually joined at the hip.”
“Yes, we are, but Principal Webber wanted to have a talk with me.”
“It was speech number 2316, AKA the classic ‘It’s time to think about your future’ talk.” I shoved a book in my bag with a sigh of irritation.
“Also known as the ‘it’s time to fit the mold and stop questioning everything or you’ll fail in life’ speech.” Logan jested, but I could hear the cold edge in his voice. He was the president of the teen LGBT association, and that was why he had a certain status and power within these walls. The principal couldn’t be too hard on him without risking a discrimination accusation. But everybody wanted to make him change, and I knew it was taking a toll on him even if he was doing his best to hide it. It seemed that Chago and I were the only ones accepting him without restriction.
I reached for his hand and squeezed it tight. “We’re still on for tonight?”
“Tonight?” Logan cocked his head.
“Yes. Chago, you and I. Pizza at my house? You know the first day back ritual I-” I stopped, staring at him. “You forgot?!”
Logan grimaced, his neck reddening with embarrassment. “Sorry, the new boss wants to see the whole team tonight and I still have to finish preparing the senior-freshman gathering. Do you mind if we do that tomorrow?”
I shook my head, starting to walk to my first class as I was now running late. “Tomorrow’s fine; it’s not like I have any obligations at home.”
Logan grabbed my hand and pulled me into a hug before I could escape.
“Chula, Gaygan,” Chago greeted, wrapping an arm around my neck as soon as Logan let me go. “’Sup, dude?”
“Busy, busy.” Logan fist-bumped Chago. “I’ll tell you at lunch. See you guys later.”
Chago reached for my schedule. “Calculus too, chica? They really like to torture us as soon as we wake up.”
We sat at the back, side by side. Chago gave me his own schedule. We had three classes together. First-period Calculus, third period PE, and fifth-period History.
“French?” I gasped. “That’s hard shit, Chago.”
“Yeah, well, I wanted Spanish, you know.” He rolled his eyes. “An easy way out, but they outsmarted me. They gave me French, my second option. I never thought they would.”
I smiled encouragingly, giving him my schedule. “Worst case scenario, I’ll find you help. Logan aced it last year.”
He pointed an accusing finger at my schedule. “How come you managed to get Spanish?” he asked, offended. “You speak it almost as well as I do!”
“I know, but I’m a gringa.” I rubbed my pale arm, a striking contrast to the warm bronze glow of his skin. “And my name is Miller. I’m a winner.” I winked.
“Humph…” He pouted, looking forward as the teacher entered the classroom. “Now I’ll finish thirty minutes after you three times a week.”
I snorted. “I think I can survive thirty minutes without mi hombre,” I whispered to him.
“If you keep your mouth shut, you might,” he muttered, and I knew he was only half-joking.
The rest of the morning went fast and I knew I would be paired with Chago in PE. It was not a surprise because nobody else wanted to pair up with him. If only they could see past appearances and area codes, they would meet such an amazing guy.
By lunch, Logan had all the first-day gossip ready for us. Truth be told, neither of us cared, but he enjoyed it so much, so we played along.
“You really sound like Perez Hilton; do you know that?” I asked, biting into my cheese sandwich.
“Don’t go around complimenting the guy,” Chago said, elbowing me teasingly. “He might dye his hair pink.”
Logan snorted. “And let go of my magnificent blond hair which took me months to achieve? I think not!”
I looked at Chago, and we shared a smile at Logan’s offense as we let him go on. Logan often listened to Chago talk about cars or sports, and he listened to me rant about political crises, human rights, or animal rights issues, so we did owe him this much.
We had our table just by the emergency exit. It was funny, but I couldn’t remember sitting anywhere else. It was our table, a silent lease, as most of the tables were tacitly assigned. The center of the room, or rather the center of the high school world, was occupied by the jocks and cheerleaders. The further you were from this inner circle, the more of a social outcast you were. We were even beyond that invisible limit; the only difference was that, for us, it was a choice, not an obligation.
The afternoon classes went smoothly. My classmates and I had a mutual understanding to ignore each other. I did well until History class came around.
I sat in the back, resting my bag on the table beside mine, waiting for Chago to arrive.
“That’s my seat.” The high-pitched voice made me cringe.
I looked up to meet the brown eyes of Brittany, whatever her surname was, the co-captain of the cheerleading team.
“That’s your seat?” I asked, touching the chair.
“Uhm, yeah.” She played with a strand of her blond hair, chewing her gum loudly. I couldn’t believe it; she was trying to kick me out of my seat and was giving me attitude about it.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see your name on it.” I pretended to stand up and turned around. “Oh wait… no.” I frowned. “No, your name is not on it.” I let out an overplayed sigh. “Well, tough job, doll, you’ll have to pick another seat.”
“Douuuug, she doesn’t want to move!” she whined, resting her hands on her hips.
The big guy sitting on the other side of me stood up, glaring down at me.
I returned his glare even if I had to crane my neck up to look at him. Maybe Chago was right. I wouldn’t survive half an hour without him if I kept the attitude, but I just couldn’t help it. I hated bullies.
“Maybe she didn’t hear you clearly.” He stood closer to me, all tall and menacing. “She told you it’s her seat,” he hissed, tightening his hands into fists.
I did my best to hide my smile. If he was trying to scare me, he was in for a treat. “And maybe you didn’t hear me with your steroid damaged brain. I. AM. NOT. MOVING.” I enunciated each word slowly.
He bared his teeth at me. “I’m warning you, you little—”
“Oye, Pendejo,” Chago greeted coldly, standing behind me, his hands tightly anchored on my shoulders. “If you’ve got something to say to her, you say it to me. Entiendes?”
Doug’s eyes widened slightly as he took a step back. Doug might have a few inches on Chago’s 5’7’’ height, but Chago’s taut frame, buzz haircut, dark eyes, and impressive tattoos were enough to make anyone with half a brain step back.
“So, what’s the problem?” Chago insisted, tightening his hold on my shoulders almost painfully. He was clearly mad at me too.
“There is no problem,” Doug conceded before taking his bag and moving row.
“That’s what I thought,” Chago confirmed, taking Doug’s seat.
“You didn’t need to defend me,” I whispered, slightly angry after Doug and Brittany left. “I can fight my own battles.”
“Come on! Have you looked at yourself lately? You’re 5’2’’! We need at least four of you to make one like him.” He pursed his lips in disapproval.
He grunted in frustration. “Yeah, well, we’ll see what Mateo thinks of you provoking a football player.”
“You wouldn’t dare!” I hissed, narrowing my eyes.
“Try me,” he challenged, returning my glare.
“I love you too, Chula,” he chuckled as the teacher called the class to order.
The last period was actually enjoyable. The new literature teacher, who I now knew was called Adam Mulligan, was rather fun. The list of books for Advanced Lit were surprising, yet interesting choices.
“Some of the books you have to read are the same one’s required by the Seniors in normal Lit class, so don’t go around showing off like you’re smarter.”
It wasn’t stupid advice as some of the geeks here seemed to have a masochistic streak. I had to admit I also had this masochistic streak more often than not.
“In this class I want you to learn to think outside the box. Don’t try to express the dictate of our society. When you write a paper on one of these books, I want your opinion, your real opinion, pressed by your own logical argumentation.” He sat on the edge of his desk, burying a hand in his pocket. It was what I called the “casual-cool,” the friendly teacher style.
I rolled my eyes, but smiled. He seemed nice enough, and even if I wouldn’t admit it, Logan had been right for once. He was attractive for an old man. Well, not
“old.” My mother would have kicked me hard if she had heard me refer to a person in his forties as old, but for me, it still seemed like an eternity away.
“I don’t want to read a general opinion I could have gotten straight from Google. You will never get a bad grade from expressing and explaining an opinion, even if it’s the opposite of what the majority think.” He smiled. “Even if it’s completely different from what I think.” He stood up and walked up and down the aisles. “Think for yourself, that’s all I’m asking for,” he added, tapping my desk as he walked by.
I frowned, deciding to ignore the gesture. Usually, teachers didn’t spend much extra time on me. I spoke my mind way too much, so they found me challenging at best. This teacher probably needed a week or two to figure that out. When the class was over, I found Chago leaning on the lockers across the hall, arms crossed on his chest, looking all dark and menacing.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re not helping with the rumors, you know,” I whispered, interlocking my arm with his.
“Nothing will, Chula, and you know that. They had me pegged as dangerous and psychotic the day I crossed the threshold. I’m just giving them what they expect to see.”
“Not that you enjoy it or anything,” I teased, throwing him a sideways glance.
“Not that I enjoy it or anything,” he confirmed with a half-smile. “So where are we going?” he asked as we headed in the direction of his car. “Since our usual ‘first-day’ ritual has been pushed back.”
I shrugged. “It’s not like my mother will be home,” I sneered, not able to conceal the bitterness in my voice. I knew she was working hard. I knew people were counting on her, but what about me? I was counting on her too! She had let me down too many times to count. I’d lost my father in a car accident years ago, and progressively I had lost my mother too.
Chago just looked at me for a couple of seconds before starting the car. He knew better than to try to make me feel better about that.
“Let’s go home. I bet mama and Mateo are dying to know about our first day,” he soothed, his face softening as it did only for me. “You’re always making them laugh with the offensive version of you. I swear sometimes Che Guevara had nothing on you.”
As we headed in the direction of the freeway, I realized that for the vast majority of students in school, it was crazy to go to the Eastside, and if you were white and rich or from the upper middle class, it was even worse. They usually did it out of stupidity, on a dare, or for the thrill of danger, but for me, it was my second home. There I was the “Gringa Valdez,” a part of the vecindad. It was somewhere where people cared for me.