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Fiction Fantastic 2019 Winning Story: “Life is a Drag” by Cedar Bader

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2019 Winners Anthology, Portals here.

“Life is a Drag” by Cedar Bader, Ridgeline Montessori

First Place, Middle School Level, 2019


Life Is a Drag

Cedar Bader

Ridgeline Montessori

1.

I noticed him on the first day of school. He stood out like a pink raincoat on a dreary London morning. Compared to me, a typical middle school boy with brown hair, brown eyes, dirty fingernails, acne, and a figure cut from the generic mold for “awkward teenager,” he is an alien. His flowy, midnight-blue dress swept him from class to class, swishing around corners and through doorways. He brushed away the stares with a sarcastic, pink-lip-glossed smile. His leaf-green eyes were framed with thick, dark lashes. Delicate eyeliner exaggerated them, ending in a sharp point. 

At lunch, he sits alone on a bench, re-applying his signature pink lip-gloss. I want to go over to him and ask him his name. Or-or something. 

“What a freak, right?!”

“Huh? Oh, um, yeah.”

I smell his lip-gloss before he reaches us. The scent of maraschino cherries assaults my nose.

“If I am a freak, then you are a rotten dinosaur egg,” he says coolly as he whisks away his lunch tray and heads towards the door. 

I stumble after him, wanting to apologize, but get caught in the torrent of people. 

I am drowning. 

2. 

“Freak coming through, make way!” I whirl around to see who the words come from, but then realize it was him who said it. People turn their heads and smoosh towards the lockers, not wanting to risk touching him. 

He is dressed in skinny jeans, a pink crop top, and stiletto heels. Ouch, I think and wince, those shoes must be torture, but he doesn’t seem to mind. 

I glance at him, and he winks back at me. I blush. Wait, why am I blushing!? I decide things are getting strange, so I make my way towards my girlfriend, Melyssa. 

She stands on her tiptoes and kisses me on the cheek. 

“Gotta go,” 

“Huh? Oh, um, okay,”

When she walks away, I slap my forehead. Huh? Oh, um, okay. How romantic. 

***

In science, he and I get partnered together. What fantastic luck. 

“Henry, by the way.”

“Huh? Oh, um, Maximilian. But my dad calls me Maxim. But if you want, you can call me Max. Or whatever. Call me whatever you want. Like, well, except Ma. That sounds weird. No offense if you know anyone named that! I mean . . . um . . .”

I groan. What is it with me today? 

He smirks and says, “Okay then, Ma.” 

I grumble something inaudible and put my face in my hands.

“Sheesh, I’m just kidding.” He nudges me and smiles. 

I turn towards the teacher and ignore my burning face. 

3.

By the third week, he’s crying. The teasing started as soon as he got here, but it just keeps getting worse and worse. I hadn’t ever really thought of myself as his friend until now, let alone his only friend. I feel a lump of guilt form in my throat. Maybe I’m not his friend. I don’t really want to be his friend. Do I? Maybe I don’t have any responsibility. But I just feel like I need to do something.

“If you say you’re a boy, why do you dress like a five-year-old girl?”

My breath catches in my throat. It’s Melyssa saying it. I can’t—She’s my girlfriend! I can’t just, well, you know! 

I hesitate for a second, weighing my options. Maybe Melyssa won’t care. Yes, she will. Maybe . . . maybe he’s fine. Maybe he won’t care what they think of him.

I peek through the crowd of people and see him crumpled on the floor, sobs barely audible escaping from his mouth. His shoulder length hair, usually brown, looks like he has bleached it. It’s stylishly dark at the roots, and curled softly at the ends. It falls in front of his face, only revealing the tip of his freckled nose and some watery mascara trails. 

I run away. I can’t do this. I have lots of friends, who needs stupid freak Henry anyways!

4.

Knock knock. Henry opens the door and stares at me. Then suddenly, he turns away and shuts it, but I wedge my elbow in the way. 

“Look, I’m sorry—” 

He walks away and sits on the couch, arms crossed in front of his chest. I trail behind and wedge myself next to him.

“Why are you here,” Henry intones.

He says it like a statement, not a question, as if really trying to say: Go away. I don’t really know how to respond. I guess I don’t even know why I’m here. 

“Look, I . . . um, well, uh . . . sorry . . . ”

“Poetic.” He half smiles at me, but I can tell I’m not really forgiven. 

“Henry, I-I just wanted to be accepted. I guess I didn’t help you because . . . because I was afraid. I guess I hoped you didn’t care. I just want to fit in, and I want to keep my friends, not have them think I’m weird.”

“And you think I don’t want the same things!? That a freak like me thinks so differently from you!? Well, I don’t! And I do care what they say! Maybe I didn’t physically ask you to be my friend, but it seemed like you were. You hung out with me at recess. You gave me your milk. You picked up my bag. Was that just to see if the freak was contagious or something stupid? Was it like a community service? Was it to try to convert me to be like your jerk friends?”

“But m—”

“Oh, don’t you deny it! You know it’s true!”

I push down my anger, taking deep breaths to keep myself from exploding, or worse, crying.

“I—I don’t really know what to say, Henry. Just that I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Henry . . . Here?” 

I hand him a new eyeliner in the shade “Ghosts Breath,” which doesn’t even make sense because 1) ghosts don’t breathe, and 2) it was neon pink.

For a second he just stares at it, and then he moves closer to my face. So close, I think, Is he going to kiss me? Also, why am I not disgusted by that idea? I mean—. My train of thought is interrupted by a sudden cold and wet feeling on my forehead, swishing back and forth in some unidentifiable pattern. It’s the eyeliner. Henry is writing on me with it. And I know the words will be nothing nice. Then he flings it across the room. I guess that is my cue to leave.

5.

I am in the bathroom, trying to scrub off the eyeliner. Finally, I give up and push a baseball cap over my eyes. 

“Maximillian Lawrence Garcia! Eat your toast! Have some milk! Maximillian!”

“Shut up, Mom,” I mutter. 

“What did you say!?”

“Nothing! Nothing, I’m just tired. Bye.”

As I walk through the hallways, I look for him, but just in order to avoid him. I think.

I don’t ever see him that day. Or the next. Or the day after. It has been a whole week. 

After school, I grab an apple and take my bike to Henry’s house. Soccer could live without me for a day.

“What.” 

Standing before me is a girl who looks maybe fifteen or sixteen, with long, dark hair, almost reaching her butt. Her blue eyes are sarcastic and hidden by bangs. Freckles are splayed across her nose and her lips are colored black. About a month ago, I would have found her really distracting, and I wonder why I don’t now. 

“I said what.”

“Is Henry here?”

“Bye.”

“Hey wait. Can I please come in? I want to—”

“I know who you are. I’m Henry’s sister, BTW. Chloe.”

She walks into the kitchen, absentmindedly braiding her Rapunzel hair. She turns around and stares. 

“Are you coming, or what?”

I follow, feeling like a dummy, even though she isn’t exactly sending very clear signals. 

“Sooo . . . is he home?”,

“No. But even if he was I wouldn’t take you to him.”

She hands me a soda and boosts herself up to sit on the counter. I sip it, eyeing her awkwardly over the can. 

“He’s at the library. It’s a safe place for him. Unlike school.”

“Oh, um, look, I . . . I am really, really, sorry.”

“Sometimes sorry isn’t good enough.”

She slams her can into the garbage and storms off, presumably going to her room.

I set my can down and head towards the door, but out of the corner of my eye, I see the glint of something shiny. I walk towards it. It is just a crumpled gum wrapper, but in front of it stands a doorway, and beyond that a bedroom. I step in and look around. Elegant dresses are stuffed into the closet, along with a bunch of wigs and costume jewelry. There is has one of those vanity things with lights around the mirror, like you those plastic pink things you would see in a little girl’s room. Lined up on it are fancy makeup brushes and, well, makeup. The bed has one of those ultra-fuzzy blankets on it, and I walk over and feel it. 

“No, you cannot come into my room, thanks for asking.”

I flinch and jump away from the bed, stuffing my hands into my pockets.

“Oh! Henry! I was just . . . um . . . ”

“That’s your answer to a lot of things, isn’t it?”

His eyes are red and puffy, and he hasn’t bothered to put on any makeup. His hair is clipped to the top of his head and he is wearing some ripped jeans and a dirty orange T-shirt. This seems extremely out of character.

“I don’t, um . . . ”

I stop, realizing that I’m just proving his point.

“What’s that stuff?” I say and gesture towards the closet.

“Oh, that? Just some stupid drag stuff. I’m not really into it anymore though.” He tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, and I notice a thin red line across his wrist, scar tissue barely starting to heal. Oh my God, I think, Henry . . . but all I say is, “Drag?”

“You know, like a drag queen.”

“Oh, uh, well . . . I mean, yeah. Totally. Sure,” even though I have no idea what he’s talking about.

We stand there awkwardly, staring at each other.

“I’m just gonna, you know, go.”

I walk out the door and slip my phone out of my pocket. 

Drag queen /ˈdraɡ ˌkwēn/ Noun. A man who dresses up in women’s clothes, typically for the purposes of entertainment.

Oh. I guess that makes sense.

6.

After school, I slip into the boy’s locker room. I know he will be there, waiting until after the main rush to leave. I see him in the corner stuffing some science books into his glittery backpack. He is wearing the same thing as when I last saw him a couple days ago. 

“Henry . . . ?”

He turns around like a startled deer. 

“I just wanted you to know that . . . I think you should keep doing drag. Don’t listen to what anyone says about you. You are amazing. Seriously, dude. I-I know sometimes sorry isn’t good enough. But I just hope you can forgive me. I was being a jerk and I want to punch myself for it. Just keep being who you are, please. Seeing you this way makes me feel awful.”

He blinks several times quickly. 

“Thank you, Max,” he murmurs in a quivery mouse voice and bites his lip. 

Then he walks towards the door and out of the building.

7.

As I cross the street, I hear something. I turn around and see a flash of movement and a sequined backpack. I drop my own backpack and run after the flutter of movement. Henry is curled up in fetal position, and Melyssa and my buddy Dirk are kicking him. As I step into the clearing they notice me. 

“Maxim! Come here and help us beat up the freak.” 

Henry’s eyes plead, please.

“Stop it. Quit beating him up and get a life!”

“Maxy, are you okay?” Melyssa chimes.

“Just go away!” I shove Melyssa and she stumbles, falling to her hands and knees. Tears well up in her baby-blue eyes, but I can tell they are more like mad tears than sad tears. Dirk pulls her up and hugs her, then socks me in the stomach. 

“What is with you!?” he shouts. 

“Nothing, but what’s with you?” For some reason, I’m crying, boiling tears streaming down my face.

The look I’m giving them must be pretty severe, because they run away, not bothering to glance back. I wipe my nose on my jacket and help Henry up, saying nothing.

He stands there in silence, staring at me, a bruise slowly forming around his left eye. Then suddenly, he bear-hugs me, laughing and crying at the same time. His makeup is completely ruined, he has leaves in his hair and a bloody lip and a black eye, but at that moment, he looks like the most beautiful thing in the world to me.

8.

The next day at lunch, I walk in to see him surrounded. At first, my stomach clenches with rage. Then I realize they aren’t laughing at him, they are laughing with him.

He stands at the center of a gaggle of sixth-grade girls. One sits in front of him. I walk closer to check it out. 

He is doing her makeup. Subtle navy blue mascara, spidery eyeliner, bold lipstick. She stands up and smiles at her reflection in Henry’s handheld mirror. Then she bends down and hugs him, prancing off to show her friends.

I guess the sixth graders haven’t yet been corrupted by the middle school norm. They can still appreciate people who are different than them. There is even a mousy boy standing in the circle, watching curiously.

I smile.

9.

Eight months later, Henry and I walk into the middle school dance. She is wearing a low cut bright pink women’s suit and gold heels. Her hair is pinned up on her head, a silvery tiara resting atop it, and her lips are painted velvety black. A rose is tucked behind her ear.

Suddenly, I feel underdressed. 

“Hey, Maximillian.” She slips her graceful hand into my sweaty one and saunters onto the dance floor. We sway to the cheesy 80s music blasting out of the speakers. 

Pretty much the night consists of eating cheese puffs and cupcakes and pretending we know how to dance.

The dance is over, and I have soda all over my shirt, but as usual, Henry looks flawless (seriously though, how does she do it?).

We are in the parking lot, walking to our parents. We stop at my car, noses touching. Her breath smells like a peppermint patty, crisp, fresh, sweet, slightly intoxicating. Then she leans in even closer.

That’s when she kisses me.