When I came back into the auditorium, Troy Brewster was sitting on the edge of the stage, looking like someone had just clipped him on the back of the head with a lacrosse stick.
It wasn’t that remarkable. In truth, Troy always looked kind of like someone had crowned him with something heavy and now all his thoughts and feelings and vague, unarticulated suspicions were spilling out of his cranium. It was kind of his default expression.
“On your feet, tiger,” I said, clapping my hands like I was Coach Klein, calling the C Team players in from the practice field.
Troy raised his head, but didn’t change expression. “You said that they liked me. You said they’d be fighting over themselves to elect me. That I’d be an automatic.”
The way he looked at me was plaintive and the truth is, I did say that, but the other truth is that I lied. I invented this impossible, shining reality from purely imaginary cloth, and I take full responsibility for that. But honestly? It wasn’t even my story.
The real lie had started—oh, years ago—back when Troy was just a mean, ungainly eighth-grader with a growth-spurt, whose main hobbies were breaking people’s glasses and pinching girls in the halls. But he was good at sports and at knocking people down, and so everyone smiled because no one wanted to invite his wrath by not smiling. If fear is love, then yes, they loved him. Because the truth is, love under duress is complicated, and sometimes a lie is not a lie.
Sometimes, with enough attention and enough cultivation, a lie is just another name for that thing you always wished was true.
Three weeks ago, when I came around the corner of the auxiliary gym and found Troy methodically keying cars in the teachers’ parking lot, I would have told you that there was no hope for him.
That maybe there was a place in the Villain Hall of Fame for those crafty brutes who exhibit an exceptionally creative sadistic streak or a particular genius for psychological torture, but Troy would always be totally and unequivocally a flunky—one of those slow-moving goons who are only there to make the hero look good by comparison. The ones who never even get a name tag.
I stood by the double doors to the gym and watched him. His graffiti was mostly two-word imperatives and childish-but-obscene drawings, but the way he scratched out the shapes and letters was thoughtful and kind of meticulous.
He labored over each line, and it was his very dullness that made me stop and watch. His commitment to mindless destruction spoke of untold possibilities. Call it inspiration.
“Hey,” I said, as he moved along the nearest row of cars, toward Principal Leonard’s Honda.
When he glanced around and saw me standing against the side of the gym, his eyes narrowed to angry slits. “You want to keep your mouth shut about this.”
It was a remarkably inelegant statement, and only made me more determined to try my hand.
“Oh, I’m not going to say anything,” I told him. When I stepped away from the wall and crossed the blacktop to him, his gaze was wary, but not truly concerned. He moved forward to meet me when he should have backed away.
“Why are you doing this, Troy? I mean, what’s the point of vandalizing cars?”
Troy studied the key in his hand, like it might have the answer, then turned, gesturing at the long row of sedans. “They’re all a bunch of tools anyway.”
I could only assume that he meant the teachers, not the cars.
“But what’s the point? So, you defaced some property—so what? It’s not power when no one knows it’s you.”
Which is pretty much the biggest lie of all.
I smiled confidentially and moved closer. “Look, if you really want to stick it to the administration, you need to be a little more sophisticated. I mean, you already have all the necessary resources and you’re not even taking full advantage of them. How come you’re not already in charge of student council? You practically run the school anyway, and everybody loves you.”
Troy’s expression was dully hopeful, and I understood that on some unconscious level, even he could see the falseness in what I was telling him, but sometimes the wish is enough to float you over every obstacle and complication. It can be so much stronger than the lie. “They love me?”
“Of course they do,” I said, and smiled my biggest, brightest smile. “What’s not to love?”
The Brewster presidential campaign was about what you’d expect—short and loud.
If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that Troy Brewster would become deeply obsessed with student government to the point that a school election would dominate his every waking moment—that it would break his heart—I would have denied the very possibility. (Then, quite naturally, I would have dedicated myself to finding a way to make it happen.)
By the time the final assembly rolled around, Troy was in top form, shouting over the other candidates, demanding that people stand up and perform the school football cheer in the middle of the dress-code debate. He was amazing, and I said as much after it was over.
“Troy,” I said with an elation that was wholly unfeigned, “you were incredible! You were magnificent.”
The presidential defeat of Troy Brewster was a strategic masterpiece. An early birthday present to myself. When the votes were tallied and the results were announced, the winners declared, I could almost see the disillusionment rise up inside him and shine bleakly out his eyes.
He watched Ainsely Hammond prance up to the podium with her ponytail swinging and her cheeks radiating pinkness, ready to give her acceptance speech.
The election was a landslide, of course. They always are.
When I came back into the auditorium, Troy was sitting on the edge of the stage, looking like someone had just clipped him with a lacrosse stick.
“On your feet, tiger,” I said, clapping my hands like a washed-up football coach.
“You said they liked me.”
And I nodded, smiling placidly, so reassuring. In his eyes, geometric shards of rage were beginning to crystalize. Longstanding aimlessness made suddenly vengeful. And it was beautiful.
“This is just a speed bump,” I said, smoothing the air with my hands. “A minor setback. It’s just what you need. But now, it’s time to go out there and make it very clear to them who owns this school. And Troy? You’re going to be amazing.”
The lie came out like a silk ribbon, the way I always tell them, bright and good, shimmering with possibility. So real and soft you can almost touch it.
Because sometimes, a lie is not a lie.
Sometimes it’s just the hidden door to what happens next.
Our common prompt for February is the short story The Emperor’s New Clothes .
Photo by laura.bell