Ethan Harrington is running for student council because his mother, Angela, wants him to.
He hails from a long line of politicians, she likes to point out, all on her side of the family. She herself worked as an aide in Washington before getting married. Her father was nearly elected to congress. Ethan's great-grandfather had something to do with unions, though those details are murky. Ethan doesn't have to run, since academics come first, though it never hurts to add a little padding to your resume to prove an interest in politics.
“Basically, it's either this or a summer internship in Chicago,” he explained yesterday to the assistant principal, who organizes the election every year. “My mom's brother works in the mayor's office.”
“Oh yeah?” Lemaire had not sounded sufficiently impressed.
“But I hate driving to Chicago. I get road rage.” Perhaps Ethan was justifying the easy route, like he does when people ask him why he still attends public school. Because of football, he always replies, though at least that's a masculine and patriotic excuse.
“Any competition this year?” Mr. Lemaire asked as he shoved the form across his desk.
“Some girl. Don't worry, she's just a junior.” Ethan signed with a scribble tight as the knot forming in his stomach. “I love competition. It keeps me on my toes. Need anything else?”
“Nope, that's everything.”
There is one more thing, which is that Ethan hasn't told anybody how angry Mae's whimsical announcement made him feel, because the intensity of the anger surprised even himself. As soon as he saw it—the impish smirk, the brazen gesture—a tingle formed deep inside his chest and it pulsates still, as he endures the sun-drenched shuffle from Literature class to Senior Study. Ethan chugs soda to stave off a growing headache. His polo hangs damp with sweat. He curses the architect who decided to add so many windows to Pearville High.
Entering class, Ethan spots Jasper O'Toole's tall frame already slouched in a chair toward the back. His friend aggressively swipes at his phone. Legs spread wide like this, Jasper seems to command at least twice the amount of space allotted to him. “You hungover?” Jasper asks by way of greeting.
Bashing a thick pile of books against an over-glossed desk sends a jolt of satisfaction through Ethan. “I wish.” He collapses into a flimsy plastic chair, casually massaging his triceps, and wishes his mother were around to feel his forehead.
Instead Abby Giles spins to face him. “You don't look so good, baby.” Her new hair color, red this time, feels unfamiliar. He doesn't understand why she keeps changing it, or why she insists on calling him baby. “Hope it's not strep.” Strep throat is ubiquitous, even invoked that one time a cheerleader spread throat herpes by going down on half the baseball team in the back of a school bus. Ethan concedes that his throat does hurt a little.
A bell rings. The monitor calls for silence.
Ethan opens his SAT prep book to an arbitrary page. Lifting the tome to a proper angle, one that hides his phone inside, he can't resist. Tap, scroll, and Mae smiles back at him, posing next to her election poster on the wall.
Instinctively slipping his phone between muscular thighs, Ethan grasps his prep book.
“Which section are you studying for?”
“Lemme see...” Words jumble together, somehow all upside down. The old man monitor, as unyielding as his nose hair, simply opens one wrinkled palm. “C'mon,” Ethan pleads. “You don't have to do this.” Twenty pairs of eyes fall on him. The room grows hot. Ethan hands the gadget over. “Don't have too much fun with that.”
Beyond the withdrawal symptoms, having one's phone confiscated results in a specific type of public shaming since, in order to retrieve it, students have to stand in a single file line in the first floor hallway and wait for Lemaire to personally cede it back to them, a queue that regularly stretches the length of the entire wall to be seen and gently mocked by those heading toward lingering buses. So here Ethan stands dejectedly, surrounded on either side by mortified students unable to pass the time on their phones. “This sucks,” a pink-haired sophomore behind him says, as an ocean of students streams past toward the double doors.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“Who got you?”
“It doesn't fucking matter.”
Abby appears, predictably, heading toward him with a slight swagger, exclaiming through a flirty smile how crazy it is that she managed to just run into him like this. She's just walking to her car, this is such a crazy coincidence, but she does have something to tell him. “I was going to text you this but,” she leans to whisper in his ear. “If you give me strep, it's okay. It'll still be worth it.” Her chandelier earrings scrape his jawline. “Text me whenever you get your phone back.” She turns to leave and Ethan dully wonders when they'll next have sex, though there has been a lot of serious chatting and texting and the like, despite his clear aversion to a relationship.
The assistant principal, perpetually trapped behind a desk much too long for his small office, looks surlier than yesterday. “Mr. Harrington.” Lemaire rummages through a shoe box next to a collection of box cutters and plastic knives. “I didn't expect to see you back so soon.”
“You and me both.” Ethan wonders how men end up like this: resigned smile; deeply embedded laugh lines; neat comb-over, wasting their lives in a middling high school's administrative wing. He tries to imagine his father at this desk. Impossible.
“What do you kids see in these things, anyway?” Lemaire scribbles on his clipboard. Always scribbling, filing, pushing papers.
“Just used to 'em, I guess.” Ethan's phone still rests next to the shoe box. He feels giddy with anticipation at the thought of checking it. Perhaps Mae has posted another post-exercise selfie. “What can you not live without?”
The older man's face perks up; this is probably the first time all day somebody has taken an interest in his thoughts. “Great question! Money, I suppose, unfortunately. Guess I should say my wife, huh? Coffee for sure.” He sips from a massive mug painted purple and gold, Pearville's garish school colors. As if he's forgotten: “Ah right, your phone. Here you go. Stay out of trouble with this thing.”