If Gavin had to name his archenemy, it would be Josie Wesley. The fates had been weaving their conflict even before he and Josie had set foot in the same school on the first day of sixth grade, purposely crisscrossing the strings of their tapestries over the past five years until they became a giant knot that could not easily be untangled.
They—along with their motivations—were linked: to be the best while watching the other one lose and go down in glorious flames.
Gavin remembers the day they recognized it in each other, the threat. Their history teacher, Mrs. Meacham, quizzed them for an upcoming test on Egyptians with a rapid-fire trivia face-off game. Josie, with her shiny caramel hair laced into a braid, and Gavin, with his shoes untied, defeated each of their opponents with speedy ease.
As he waited for his turn, Gavin found himself watching her, the way answers flew out of her mouth faster than a NASCAR racer in the last lap of a race, or how confidence seemed to hold her upright, setting her shoulders with poise.
When it came to school, Gavin was pretty confident. Everywhere else, confidence was a real struggle.. He didn’t have much going for him at the time, he thought. He had no musical or athletic ability; acne peppered his face; he was the shortest kid in class; and he hadn’t learned how to manage what his brother called his Brillo pad hair. However, each time Mrs. Meachem quizzed him, he pulled the answer from his brain as if he had a crib sheet in his pocket. It was his source of pride.
Right before the final round, Gavin spotted her eyes on him, taking him in, sizing him up, identifying him as the only true competition in the room other than Mrs. Meachem. He liked to think there was a sparkle of admiration there, and definitely a little fear of meeting her match, but if those feelings were there, they were hidden behind the narrow gaze of determination. He was a challenge, and she would win.
And she did. Josie launched into Ramses II and his lineage before Gavin’s mouth could form the name. Gavin didn’t miss the tiny smirk she flashed as she turned to return to her desk, victorious, and he made sure that she didn’t miss when he took her down the next time.
That was all it took. From then on, they did their best to best each other. In the classroom, on the kickball diamond during gym, as they stepped up to the podium for the debate team. Five years later, he knew that the only competition he had was Josie—and he could say with great certainty that everyone in their class knew it, too. If they combined their powers, they could’ve ruled the world—for at least the world of the Atlanta metro area—but being adversaries fit them better than a perfectly tailored glove.
Which is why in the midst of academic decathlon prep, Gavin found himself creating a playlist titled The Destruction of Josie Wesley.
One of these fun entries: before a test or any formal competition, Josie gets into the zone by pumping herself up with music. But she can’t do it like a normal human and queue up her Spotify playlist on her phone. Oh, no, no, no she could never let something be simple. Josie would bring out her sparkly cobalt blue CD player—a bit battered with some scratches, but in otherwise good condition for something that was at least a decade old—and pop in a disc she found at a record store or mix she’d burned on her computer. There was no reaching her once her headphones are secured tightly over her ears. It rendered their typical trash talking and psych-out attempts pointless. Instead of hearing him, he heard whatever tunes she had decided to listen to—oldies, indie rock, a few pop hits. All opportunities for fun, lost.
Or so he thought. A couple weeks before, on their bus to competition, as he watched her head bop to the beat of what he guessed was a Maggie Rogers song based on the hum, it hit him. The music wasn’t a barrier. It was a tool.
If he could have laughed maniacally without looking like a complete crazy person, he would have. He kept it bottled up, and somehow, the secret of it all made it all the more satisfying.
“Who still uses Windows Music?” Shaken out of his rueful revere, Gavin looked beside him, from where his friend, Mitch, peered at the computer screen. “The Destruction of—” Mitch turned to him, wide eyed. “What the hell are you doing?”
The song selection was the hardest part to figure out. It had to have enough of the music she liked to lure her in, and make her think for a minute, wow, maybe Gavin isn’t such an asshole, while wondering, wait, why isn’t Gavin being an asshole? His first selections were a couple of her favorites, Bon Iver’s “Holocene” and Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On.” Then, he went in for the burns he hoped to rattle her with—and, let’s be honest, make her think of him— like “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon, “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift, and the song guaranteed to make everyone get into their feelings—Sarah McLachlan’s turn as a toy cowgirl with “When She Loved Me.” It wasn’t enough to get down into her veins, but was it enough to irritate her? Definitely.
Gavin couldn’t stop the smile from creeping onto his face, although this time, he was sure his friend did think he was crazy, causing him to add, “She likes CDs. It’s a joke,” to his statement.
Mitch scoffed and rested back in his chair. “A joke, sure,” he said, crossing his arms over the front of his Pink Floyd tee. “This sexual tension between you two is getting to be a little much.” Mitch’s finger flicked between Gavin and Josie, staying outstretched in her direction, and Gavin followed it. She was in the middle of a quizzing session with their other teammate, Brooklyn, lifting and lowering tortoise shell glasses from the bridge of her nose. Quickly, Gavin looked away, shaking his head.
“Wha—what? Sex—” he broke off, shaking his head again. “That’s not the kind of tension we have.”
“Right. So everyone here is wrong?” Everyone? Gavin wondered. How many conversations had his teammates had about them? Mitch gave him no time to think about it, and instead pointed to Gavin’s computer. “Say what you want, but no one takes the time to download songs, get Windows Media Player, buy CDs—because I know you just don’t have those around—and burn one for someone they don’t like. But you know who they do it for?” Mitch slid across the smooth wood of the tabletop on his elbow, propping it just a few inches away from Gavin. “People they like.”
“Mitchell, if you want to do so much talking, I think you should be using it to benefit the team,” their advisor, Ms. Hernandez, called from the front of the room. “Josie, you sit, Mitchell, you take her place.”
Huffing, Mitch pressed both his palms against the table and stood, but not before sending a parting shot. “You know it’s true.”
“No, it’s not,” Gavin wanted to reply, but again, he didn’t have the time or the certainty. This was a knot of the fates he didn’t anticipate.
Sure, was Josie attractive? Yeah, but people would have to be blind or stupid to not recognize that. Did he look forward to seeing her? Yeah, but that was because he liked to piss her off.
Once, as his mind staved off sleep by dredging up every one of his insecurities, Gavin wondered if he’d be as motivated if Josie never walked through the doors of McWilliams Middle; that maybe some of his drive came from just wanting to elicit a reaction from her—even if it was getting her eyebrow to twitch like it did when she was stressed. But that couldn’t be, because then he’d have to classify her as something more than an enemy, and how could he do that?
The chair beside him scraped against the floor, and Josie dropped into it, tucking her yellow cardigan beneath her and flipping open her notebook to a list of notes she’d been compiling over the past few weeks of practice. Not that he noticed.
Was this part of the tension that everyone else noticed?
“Gavin,” she said.
“Josie,” he said, and with a click of his mouse, sent the screen back to his music library. The motion earned his computer a quick side-eyed glance from Josie.
“Looking at music? Good luck beating me with that,” she said, that smirk from their first face off playing on her face aimed at her notebook.
“I still will,” he grumbled, although suddenly, it was the least of his concerns.