Disclaimer: Do I have to say it? It's bad enough being poor and working in retail. Anyway, I promise this is the last chapter of a technically already completed story, so I hope you just sit down, read, and enjoy it. And remember reviews are like tips – and I have to live off something.
The standard 8.5x11 inch paper crumpled in his hand as his grip tightened. Sure, he nearly tore it in half when he ripped it from the locker in surprise, but hey, come on, he was surprised. Death to Strangers was throwing another concert? But they just had one a week and a half ago. Well, maybe that last one didn't count as an actual concert because it was a school function also known as the dreaded-now-beloved Talent Show. And even then they had an accompaniment. Therefore this showing was accepted without being seen as pushy and egomaniacal. So Death to Strangers was having another concert, great – would he be going?
Well that was a stupid question.
That drawn out thought process out of the way, Gerald could now begin Phase Two:
Who would he go with?
He could ask Connie, but she wouldn't go without Maria on her other arm, and Gerald can barely afford one date, let alone two. Besides, they were seniors this year, and it didn't matter if he knew the band intimately or not. Which he does.
They were just too cool for him this time around.
Nadine might say yes, but he didn't feel up to sitting through a long car ride with The Bug Girl, nice as she is. He knew she wouldn't bring anything intentionally, but there was no doubt in his mind he would end up bringing home fleas for Timberly's stupid cat Butterball. And Gerald really couldn't afford to fork up another pet bill. Stupid cat.
There was Rhonda, but the last time they went out they came to a mutual understanding to never do that again. At least not with romantic intentions. She was just too rich for his empty wallet, and he had a sneaky suspicion that there was someone else who held her eye. Just who it was, he didn't know.
Lila. He could ask Lila.
Decision made, Gerald readjusted the backpack on his shoulder, rounding the corner in search of Lila, who would no doubt be on her way to Choir. A spring in his step, he had just made it past the first hallway of lockers on the way to the Performing Arts room when he was stopped dead in his tracks.
There was Lila.
There was Wolfgang.
And there was the smirk/smile combo he knew all too well.
So where was he on that list again? Should he even go?
"What's shakin Tall Hair Boy?"
Jumping at the hand that clapped onto his free shoulder, Gerald spun on his heel only to come face to face with one Helga Geraldine Pataki. She flashed him her own recognizable smirk before letting her eyes flit over to the scene before them, then the paper he held in his dark hands.
"So are you going or what?" was her casual question as she grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him along the hall, opposite the direction of the petite redhead. He noticed this vaguely, but since it was Helga who led him, he let it go. Helga works in mysterious ways, after all.
She stopped, if only to look at him, and the look she sent his way made him feel ten times smarter as she pulled the flier from his grasp.
"The concert, genius. Are you going to the concert?" she spoke her words slowly, articulating, and taking great care in attacking the fricatives. In the back of his mind he knew Mr. Johnson would be proud of his rising star. He thought this even as he blushed.
"Still on the fence; I'm thinking stag if I do go." He prattled good naturedly, and she smiled with a nod as they reached the doors to the gym, pausing as if to think about her next choice of words.
"You should go. Death to Strangers always guarantees a good time, as I'm sure you're well aware." He looked down with a smirk as Helga faced him dead on – she knew she was winning when an expression of remembrance crossed his features.
Oh yeah, did he remember the last time he was involved in a Death to Strangers event . . .
Meeting her eyes with his own smirk, Gerald laughed and nodded his enthusiasm.
"Alright, alright. Man, you sure know how to twist a brother's arm." Rubbing his left arm in mock pain as an emphasis while his companion's smirk morphed into the conniving smile he both respected and feared. Why did he sudden feel this was all a trap?
"I knew you'd see it my way. Besides, Phoebe needs a ride." The blonde laughed as she pushed open the doors, sauntering through the gym on her way to the locker rooms, the black sophomore hot on her heels.
"Wait, what about Phoebe?" he would only admit it to the blonde he was tailing, but Phoebe was always a soft spot for him.
"She loves Death to Strangers, never misses a show, you know that. But her Subaru is in the shop, and while I have my license I have no car; hence she has no way to get there. My sidekick needs a ride."
With that said, she shoved her way into the girls' locker room, smothering her laughter as she left him with his thoughts. His shoulders slumped only slightly, before lifting in hope.
He suddenly couldn't wait for lunch.
His palms were sweaty and clammy, a testament to his nervousness as he waited by the locker the Kent-Asian and her blonde best friend shared. Heaving a sigh, he leaned against one of the metal doors, trying to reign in his anxiety in the face of Phoebe. He had always had his eye on her, since that infamous night at the Cheese Fair when they were fourth graders. He had watched her blossom from sweet wallflower into lovely daylily through their years as classmates and friends. So why had he never made a move on her?
Well that easy: fear.
Not of Phoebe, oh no, but of her fierce and deadly protector. The strong-willed girl who would do everything in her power (plus that of Ol' Betsy and the Five Avengers) to guard the girl that had, for a time, been her only friend. The sharp point of her tongue that could rip and tear a grown man to shreds, coupled with her vicious fists of fury –
Helga G. Pataki could be one scary mamacita when push came to shove.
But sometime over the years, he and his group of fourth grade cohorts had bonded together, and suddenly by the time High School hit they were all traveling together like a wacked out circus. Especially with Curly, but that was beside the point. The point being, that sometime over the years he lost the majority of the fear in Helga's Wrath morphed into something else.
His respect for Phoebe grew, in the waning shadow of terror, which became the next obstacle he had yet to overcome. He cared for Phoebe far too much to let her become one of those girls – not to say that he didn't care for Rhonda, Nadine, Lila, Connie, Maria, Katrinka, Gloria . . .
But Phoebe was special. Phoebe is special. In the back of his mind the mature voice that attempts to dictate his every move was trying to help him it had always been Phoebe, as it always would be.
He was just a block head, then and now.
"I'm just asking why it is that every time someone brings up intelligent life on other planets and extraterrestrials, most people are divided on whether they would arrive to wage war on our pathetically primitive race, or warn of impending doom due to our own self-serving societies. Why can't E.T. just beam his ass down to say 'Hey, how's it going-' hang out, order some pizza and play video games with us for four hours straight?" Helga's voice came around the corner before her body did, and Gerald's head shot up in anticipation of seeing Phoebe. She followed closely behind her blonde friend, and the vibrantly-redhead Lucy, who had been laughing her agreement to the question.
When the three of them spotted him standing at the locker, two smirked and one couldn't hide her blush. By now there was no doubt in his mind that at least some of this had been a setup.
"Hey Phoebe, can I talk to you for a second?" his voice was smooth, and to his credit it only cracked once with nervousness, right at the end. Up until that point, he didn't think Helga's smirk could get either more devious, or any larger.
He was wrong.
"Of course Gerald. Helga, Lucy -"
"We'll be in the cafeteria when you're done." Was Helga's swift reply, and with that the pair disappeared around the corner.
"So, uh, I heard that Death to Strangers is having another concert this weekend." Nice segue there Gerald. And the stutter? Good, that was good.
"Yes, Lucy told me. I want to go but unfortunately my Subaru is getting a new transmission." He could see her deflate, no matter how small it was, and felt something squeeze his insides.
"You know, I'm going to go, and if you want I can give you a lift."
Her eyes lit up with her thousand watt smile, and he couldn't resist the urge to scratch the back of his neck.
"Really? Gerald that would be wonderful! Thank you." She was trying to keep her excitement in check, but her control only went to her shins. Phoebe couldn't stop herself from bouncing on her heels. With a swallow, Gerald was glad no one else was in the hallways as he prepared to say his next bit of peace.
"Yeah, no problem. And I was thinking we could do something after, like, I don't know, grab a bite to eat?" Don't say go out, don't say go out, geez Gerald, where'd Mr. Smooth Lady Killer go?
Away from here smart-ass.
"Are you asking me on a date?" there was a magic in her eyes as she grinned at him, and he couldn't help but grin back. His hand fell from the back of his neck.
"Well, yeah. So what do you say?"
"I want you to ask me."
Gerald looked at her, confused.
"I just did."
She shook her head, a smile still dancing across her lips.
"No you didn't, you implied it, leaving me to deduce if you were in fact asking me out or not. And then you had me ask you if you were asking me. I want to hear you say it." Her logic had his head spinning – and there was the hand at the back of the neck again.
"Are you saying yes? Because your asking me to ask you implies that you want to go out with me. In which case I wouldn't have to ask since you already said yes."
Two could play at that game, Missy.
"I won't say yes until I have a question to answer."
"So you will say yes if the question is asked, so the answer is yes either way."
"I'll say no if the question isn't asked."
"How can you say no to the implied question, but yes to the asked one? I swear, women can be so -"
"Gerald Martin Johanssen! Ask the damn question!"
"Will you go out with me?" She had barely gotten the demand out of her mouth before he was answering.
They both stood there, in the empty hallway, silent as they stared each other down. And then, her angry flush was replaced a pleased one as she smiled the prettiest smile Gerald was certain he had ever seen. She didn't answer him. Rather, she bounced two or three times before launching herself into his arms, kissing his cheeks and giggling like a mad woman. Once again to his credit, Gerald blushed only enough to darken his whole face and most of his neck by one shade.