“Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, all’s good, Mom.”
My son was going through something, that much I could tell, but he was loathe to tell me. And I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing him in some way.
The fact of the matter was, for weeks now, Phoenix was withdrawn and upset. While he was normally always with someone, talking and making plans (something David and I marveled at), now he was constantly staying alone in his room. And it was summer vacation – normally, he would’ve been out of the house all of the time. This was unlike him and we were worried.
After asking Millie if she knew anything, I still had no results. And with a small child on my hands, I didn’t have the ability to start snooping around properly.
This was how I found myself at Gerald’s house. He was a father of two teenagers himself and he was usually level-headed enough to figure his way through such problems.
“So, how have you been, sis? Is Felicity letting you and David sleep through the night?” Gerald smiled.
“Felicity is fine. At least I think she is, even though sometimes she is really fussy. So far, her biggest concerns are sleeping, eating, and having a clean diaper on. I wish it were that easy with Phoenix,” I sighed.
“Ah, the terrible teenage years! It wasn’t so long ago that we were thinking about prom, dates and bringing down Collier Enterprises. Funny how things turned out, isn’t it?” Gerald chuckled. “But I do know what you mean. Our kind of drama was much different from that of our children. Who knew good old Phoenix was going to be the cause of such passions, huh?”
“His breakup was messy, I admit. He always seemed so mature as a kid– I never thought he’d screw up like this in a relationship!”
“From what I gather, his girlfriend caught him red-handed with someone of a questionable reputation,” Gerald informed me.
“That Morgan girl?” I frowned upon remembering her. I’ve only seen her a couple of times, but she did not make a stellar impression on me. Something was just off – I couldn’t really explain it. But Phoenix seemed smitten, so there must’ve been something good about her.
“The very same. According to Tiff, Rashida was absolutely heart-broken to find them making out at that nightclub.”
“Tell me about it! I was there. David and I arrived at the nightclub just as she was leaving. I was rather shocked to hear some of those expletives coming out of her mouth. Rashida has always seemed like a very pleasant person. Although, I must admit, I do wonder …” I was still going over the situation, wondering where my son went wrong.
“If Phoenix was not as much in the wrong as she made it sound?” Gerald finished my sentence. “I agree. From what I gathered from overhearing my daughters, it seems like both of them were at fault. Phoenix absolutely should not have gone out with someone else the day they decided to take a break-“
“Wait, they were on a break? Then how is it cheating!” I didn’t know that part.
“You didn’t know, did you? Figures. But of course that girl spun everything to make the boyfriend the bad guy. She’s one of those girls,” Gerald declared.
“She isn’t…. I had my doubts about her when my son started dating my ex’s daughter, but she’s a good kid,” I defended the girl. I’ve been in her shoes, sort of.
“I’m not saying she isn’t. But I’ve seen her and Phoenix together a few times and she seemed to me to be a little clingy. You know, Katie and I had a similar problem at one point. It was before we even decided to marry. She was constantly messaging me, concerned about me… mind you, it was still in the days we were chasing after Lionel, so I was busy a lot of the time.”
“Really? You’ve never told me.” I couldn’t believe my brother’s relationship has ever been anything less than perfect.
“There was nothing to tell! We’ve worked things out. Katie and I actually dedicated an entire date night to this. We stayed up super late talking about everything, I promised I’d try to keep in touch more, she admitted she was pushing things a bit too far with her overprotectiveness, we’ve set some boundaries – things went much smoother after that and we’ve never fought about this again. Perhaps Phoenix and Rashida could’ve benefited from the same kind of a conversation,” Gerald offered, wise as usual.
“I can’t believe he didn’t try to,” I frowned. My son wasn’t the kind of person to have communication problems.
“Are you talking about Phoenix?” Tiffani huffed, coming back home with Jeanne. “He screwed up, end of the story.”
“I don’t know, Tiff,” Jeanne shook her head. “Maybe we’ve been too quick to take Rashida’s side. After all, he is our cousin. I kind of feel bad about yelling at him.”
“But he still cheated,” Tiffani tried to argue, but Jeanne quickly shook her head.
“No he didn’t. He may have moved on super-fast, but he didn’t cheat. Rashida even admitted they were on break. She did make the situation seem worse than it was.”
“So, you’re saying we should start talking to him again?” Tiffani made a face.
“Probably. I mean, we were kind of harsh on him. I know I was,” Jeanne shrugged. “Besides, the last few times I’ve seen him, he wasn’t with Morgan. I think she’s with some other guy now, so it’s not like we have to be in her company.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like Phoenix’s social situation has been messed up for a while now. Did he and Morgan break up too? That would explain why I didn’t see her with him at all these days…
All of this made me even sadder. I was his mother – didn’t he feel comfortable enough to share things with me?
As of reading my mind, Gerald hurried to reassure me, “It’s not you, Irene. Boys, especially at that age, wouldn’t share these things with their mothers. He wouldn’t want you to judge him.”
“I wouldn’t judge. But it sounds like he’s had another breakup and I couldn’t even comfort him. I just wish I could help him somehow.”
“You know, maybe we can. What helped you when you and Micah broke up?”
“I pushed myself into work and finding more intel on Collier Enterprises,” I remembered.
“In other words, you got busy. Which is exactly what he needs to do. I have the perfect idea. Didn’t you say Phoenix is a really good writer?” Gerald asked, an excited gleam in his eyes.
“His English teacher did. And from what I’ve read of his essays, it’s true.”
Gerald leaned back with a smile. “Good. You see, our newspaper is starting a rubric for young writers. Perhaps, we can get Phoenix interested? I know for a fact that having published work will look good on his college application. You know what? I will talk to him after your birthday.”
“Will you? Thanks. I will really appreciate it.” If I couldn’t help my son at the moment, then perhaps, his uncle could.
After my parent’s birthdays passed, I got a call from Uncle Gerald, inviting me over to his place after school. Much as I liked Uncle Gerald, I had to admit, I was a bit scared to show up at his place. Who knew what my cousins would do? They weren’t my biggest fans these days…
Nevertheless, here I was. Luckily, Uncle Gerald was home and I didn’t have to wait for him.
“Phoenix! Come in, come in. How’s life? How’s school? Have you been working on university applications yet?” he barraged me with questions.
“Uh, not really. I tried researching schools and majors but nothing seems quite right, you know,” I shrugged. I knew my parents wanted me to go to a university, but I didn’t want to go and just waste tuition money.
“Well, you’ve still got time, don’t worry about it. Come upstairs, I have a business proposition for you,” he urged.
Confused, I followed. As soon as he changed into comfortable clothes, Uncle Gerald started up his computer.
“Our newspaper is starting up a rubric for young writers. Now, it’s going to take some time to find enough people to really get it going, but all of us at the office are looking for people who can write well. And I instantly thought about you.”
“Me? I’m not that good, really,” I protested. I wrote when I had an assignment, sure. My English teachers always gave me praise, but I strongly believed anyone could write those essays well, provided they didn’t half-ass the assignment. Most people just didn’t care enough about the grade to put much effort into their writing.
“Phoenix, I appreciate your modesty, but I’ve read your essays. Hidden Springs Daily could really benefit from someone like you writing for us. And you can write about any topic of your choice. We want to keep things interesting.”
“Alright… When would I have to start?” I was willing to give it a try. It wasn’t like I had anything better to do.
“No better time than now! Seriously, that’s why I’m having you use my computer. You can take as long as you want. Write down even a few paragraphs – I want to send them to the head editor when you’re done. If they like what they read, you can consider yourself writer for the Hidden Springs Daily.”
“Uh, it sounds a little like nepotism, Uncle Gerald. Wouldn’t they certainly publish whatever I write because I’m your nephew?” I voiced my concern.
“Is this what worries you? In that case, I can keep your name off the writing until it is approved for publishing and just tell them it’s from an anonymous source. Would you like that?” he proposed.
That did sound like a plan. After all, I was sure Hidden Springs daily wouldn’t really want my writing.
“Just a few paragraphs,” he reminded me before leaving the room.
“Alright, here we go. Just a few paragraphs…” What could I write about?
An hour later I found myself looking at nearly five pages examining the culture and traditions of Egypt from an outsider’s perspective. It was way more than a few paragraphs, but what could I say? Foreign traditions always fascinated me.
Saving the document to my uncle’s desktop, I headed downstairs to look for him. Instead I found Tiffani, who was busy making hot dogs.
I haven’t seen her since she graduated high school, but before, whenever we saw each other at school, things were icy between us.
My attempt to quietly leave failed.
“Phoenix? You’re here? Hey…” she didn’t look pleased to see me.
“I was just leaving. Is Uncle Gerald not here anymore?”
“He left to buy some groceries; he’ll be back soon enough.” She paused before adding, “You should stay and eat, you’re probably hungry now.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea-“
“I insist. Seriously, I’m not going to poison you or something. You are my younger cousin, after all.”
Dinner with Tiffani was awkward, to say the least. Until she finally asked:
“What was the fight about?”
“Between you and Rashida. I know you had a fight before you broke up. I’m just curious about what brought it on,” she explained.
“A bit of everything, really. She got jealous over me helping Quiang’s sister with her essay and I got angry over her constant need to keep tabs on me. We both kind of said some explosive things and she said we should take a break. I wanted to talk to her, but you know how things went….” I found myself spilling everything.
“Is that so…” Tiffani drifted off, a peculiar expression on her face. At that time Jeanne and a classmate of ours, Julia, came in.
“Well, look at you two, getting along! Told you, he wasn’t completely at fault,” Jeanne stated.
“Yeah, it seems good old Rashi really did blow some things out of proportion,” Tiffani admitted. “I still don’t like what you did, Phoenix, but I think I see what happened, sort of.”
“I should’ve listened to your side of the story as well before making assumptions about this whole situation,” Jeanne added. “But there was just a lot of weirdness with everything.”
“Yeah, like Sergio and Rashida getting together?” Julia mentioned, joining the conversation.
“Yeah, that.” My cousins both nodded in agreement.
“They did get together?” I asked incredulously.
“Oh, you don’t know yet?” Tiff chuckled. “They’ve been sucking face all over the school. It’s kind of over the top, really. But then again, you’ve been busy too, huh? Morgan?”
“Yeah, that’s no longer a thing,” I admitted.
“Wanna talk about it?” Tiffani offered.
“Honestly, not really. Perhaps, another time. I should go now.”
“Take care, cuz. We’ll see you around.”
I left their house feeling lighter than I had in the last two months. Perhaps, breaking up with Rashida was the best decision I’ve made. I probably should’ve made it sooner – maybe both of us could’ve ended things on better terms. As for Morgan, she was a good lesson: just because someone sweet-talks you, they don’t necessarily mean well.
When fall came, I was officially one of Hidden Springs Daily’s new youth correspondents. Uncle Gerald submitted my work anonymously at first (I believed him, he wasn’t the type to lie) and the editors loved it. In fact, they wanted more, much more. So, on top of my already impressive schoolwork, I now had to do extra research for newspaper topics.
But that was completely fine with me – the thrill of seeing my articles in the daily paper was well worth the extra work!
As a result, I now spent much more time at the city library, looking up facts, combing through archives, finding new information to write about. After the first article, I enjoyed the positive outpour of views and comments on the paper’s website. It was really something – I was educating others about something! I wanted to make sure all of my subsequent articles were just as good or better.
Leaving the library one evening, I spotted a familiar face out in the square – Jeanine. Trust her to study outdoors when it is already almost too dark to see.
“Hey, long time no see!” I called.
“Phoenix? Hey!!!” She closed up her book and placed it in the pile behind her, rubbing her eyes. “What’s up?”
“Just researching stuff at the library,” I explained.
“Of course! You’re the big correspondent now! Congrats, I’ve always thought you’d make a good writer. How do you even know all that international stuff?” She marveled.
“It’s a hobby, I guess. What about you? All these books?” I gestured to the piles.
She sighed. “Stupid schools with their stupid regulations. Like, it’s not enough that I’m on the soccer team, no, I also need to have a high GPA. And my GPA is already high, but they want to make sure I’m not just getting in due to athletics… They’re idiots is what I’m saying. So, now I’m studying like crazy to make sure I don’t mess up on any of the upcoming class tests, which could potentially lower my scores…”
That sounded like Jeanine, alright. Although, she was already smart, she didn’t need to prove anything. I wondered if there was something else going on.
“So, how have you been? I’m sorry I kind of fell of the face of the earth again. It’s just been like this,” she pointed to the books again. “I’ve been an awful friend to many, lately.”
“Hey, you’re not a bad friend! I haven’t really been around much either, to be honest. Sorry about that…” I admitted.
“It’s alright, between your girlfriend and the new job, you’ve had your hands full. I don’t know how you manage it, really. I don’t even have work but I already feel swamped,” she lamented.
“Well, just work, now. Morgan and I have been over for a couple of months now,” I let her know. It was kind of strange – with how information traveled around our school, I thought she already knew.
“Oh, no! What happened?” she looked legitimately surprised.
I found myself spilling everything that happened, how I ended up dating Morgan, how the guys exposed her, how my cousins were still kind of cool with me for some reason, even though they knew I wasn’t really at fault.
She smiled sadly. “Sorry about Morgan. I had no idea she was like that. And wow, she was stringing my brother along too? Yikes. As for your cousins…” she bit her lip.
“What is it?” Were they angry at her too for some reason? Why? What could Jeanine have done?
“Well, you know how Jeanne and I have always been super tight? Well, she’s been kind of distant with me lately. And honestly, I think Tiffani is responsible. She’s always been the ring-leader of the group, so to say. Well, she and you. But after everyone got angry at you over Rashida, it’s just been her. She’s is a bit of a queen bee. I think she was mostly calling the shots around the school, before she graduated. Her and …” she drifted off again.
“Ok, what happened between you and my cousins? You were good friends before.” None of this made sense.
“Taylor and I broke up and they took his side. There,” she let out.
“Wait, why? Why would they take his side?” this made even less sense.
“Not all of them. Just Tiffani and Rashida did. I think Jeanne and Trevor are sort of the voices of reason for them, but they’re outnumbered,” Jeanine explained patiently.
“What did he tell them?” I was becoming more and more disappointed with my family.
“More like, he didn’t correct his story. His mom couldn’t find her expensive diamond earrings and he accused me of stealing them.”
“Diamond earrings? I’m pretty sure I saw his sister wear them, the flower shaped ones, right?”
“The very same. It all came out eventually; Julia even admitted she took them. So Taylor came to apologize to me, but let’s just say, he didn’t sound sincere enough – I told him to take a hike. He was really pissed. Anyways, I guess he stuck to his original story with the rest of the school- that I stole from his family.”
“Ok, ok, your relationship fiasco definitely takes the cake,” I sympathized. Yikes. And I thought I dated the wrong people.
“It’s alright, I’m glad I know what kind of a person he is now. How could I even like him, right?” she laughed.
“Well, he has nice hair, I suppose,” I chuckled.
“That’s kind of a shitty reason to keep dating someone who doesn’t even trust you, though,” she stated. “You know, I have to admit, I owe you an apology.”
“What for?” Her words surprised me.
“I kind of thought Rashida’s behavior for the last couple of years wasn’t very good towards you, the clinginess, the possessiveness, the rest. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to make the situation worse, you know. Have you noticed we didn’t hang out much while the two of you dated?”
“I suppose. But you were with Taylor and we were all busy.”
“True. But I’ve noticed she didn’t like you hanging out with any females not related to you. That included me. I guess she thought I could try to seduce you away from her, imagine that?” she laughed. “But also, I felt bad because Jeanne and I kind of created this whole situation when we told you she had a crush on you. So, we were kind of responsible. I know Jeanne feels the same way.”
“This is ridiculous,” I chuckled. “You told me, yes, but eventually, she and I would’ve coupled up without your help too. We did like each other a lot. Besides, you’re not responsible for her behavior. We’re still friends.”
“That’s good to know,” she smiled. “So, Rashida and Sergio, huh? Who would’ve thought…?”
“Not me, that’s for sure.” Seeing them making out at a local diner the other day was weird enough.”
“Well, this year is going to go better, anyways. Tiffani is out of school now, Rashida is always with Sergio, and Jeanne and Trevor have common sense, so they’ll figure out we were never in the wrong to begin with! And there will be senior prom and we’ll all be able to relax for once.”
“Ugh, I’m not going,” I shuddered. The atmosphere at school, even without my older cousin there, was still going to be weird.
“Um, yes you are! You can’t just not go, Phoenix, you’ll regret it. Besides, if you don’t go, the assholes win,” she stated.
“I take it you’re going?”
“Of course! I already bought an expensive dress, I’m not wasting it just because some idiots decided to mess with my reputation,” she challenged.
“Alright, then. I’ll go to. At least, I know I won’t be alone in enemy territory.”
“That’s the spirit. And before we know it, senior year is done and we’re off to uni, hopefully leaving all the bullshit in the past,” Jeanine smiled.
She was right. We weren’t going to let the idiots win.
“Well, I really have to go home now, I promised I’ll help Sonja with her school work,” Jeanine got up and started gathering her books.
“Schoolwork? School hasn’t started yet.”
“She wasn’t doing too well in her previous year and she has to retake her math class in summer school. She still doesn’t really get the material though, so it’s time for her big sister to come to the rescue!” she explained.
“I guess this will be my job when Felicity is older,” I realized.
“Oh, absolutely. So, you better study up for your future job as big brother/teacher/hero!” she laughed. “Well, take care. I’ll text you soon, promise.”
After she left, I pondered the situation with our schoolmates. It was kind of sad that our classmates and friends had such a petty side. But then, who didn’t?
At least I had one friend who had her head on properly. Unfortunately, she was dealing with something she totally didn’t deserve.
And now I’ve basically promised to go to prom. I just hoped it will go off without any weirdness, although I had a feeling this was wishful thinking.