It’s largely the same, the fanfare. The shouts of the crowd, their jeers or cheers swirling together to form positivity of the toxic variety. The band’s horns section blares the chorus of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” somehow eclipsing the ever-loud percussion members. Referees huff all the air of their body into their whistle. The final buzzer is met with the sounds of celebration or groans depending which side of the bleachers you’re on.
Evie prefers to be neither. Most of her high school career, she has stood on the sidelines一or more specifically, the doorway furthest away from the action on the gymnasium’s north side. While people tell her each game is different, a clean slate for all involved, the only things she sees are the similarities, the patterns, the routine so monotonous she’s been able to time her movements to the appearance of one marker and the absence of another. This year, she barely has to rely on her eyes anymore, but just waits for the loud creak of the bleachers to mosey to the janitor’s closet and pull out the push broom, mop, and bucket.
She finds it beside a bottle of Clorox, a ladder that’s too short to actually reach anywhere of importance, and a bucket that looks like it was used to catch projectile vomit, but never properly scoured out after. Not that the latter is a surprise. If they had the budget for an adequate janitorial staff, she wouldn’t be among the students the Hammersmith Academy “hired” in exchange for a discount on tuition, or a deposit in their school lunch account, or an inconspicuous envelope of cash. All on the down low of course to avoid taxes and work codes.
Ah, the fineries of a supposed high-class education.
From the hallway, Evie watches people mill out of the gym, first as a collective mob, bouncing and brimming with the energy of high schoolers hopped up on caffeine and whatever more illicit drugs they’ve imbibed on, before the deluge slows to a trickle. She heaves the broom over one shoulder, and uses the other to guide the mop in a caution yellow bucket past the smattering of people shooting the shit in the hall and on the bleachers. She gives them slight smiles on her way past, and lets their eyes linger longer on her than hers do on them. Is that Evie? What’s she doing here? Is she cleaning? Yes, none of your business, and, again, yes.
Climbing the bleachers, she sweeps out the remnants of the basketball fandom. Here’s another commonality from game to game: at least half the people leave a mess, treating the gym like it’s their own home—actually, worse than that, because they would never their leave own space in such disarray, unless they knew someone was going to come and clean up the mess for them. Which most of them do. And here, where their parents are paying thousands of dollars for them to be, why would they think any differently? Based on the number of crushed nacho chips and discarded candy bar wrappers, they don’t. She ends up with heaps of it, enough to fill not one but two giant garbage bags.
“Evie?” Someone says calls as Evie scoops up her tenth load of trash, the voice cutting through her music. In earlier times, it would make Evie’s feet leap a few inches off the ground, but now used to the random interruptions and sneak ups, she barely flinches as she stands, craning her head over her shoulder. It’s one of her classmates, Aimee, still in her green and white cheerleading skirt, a sweatshirt covering the top. Her cheeks have been scrubbed clean of the face paint that had taken the form of an “H” on her cheek.
“Oh, hey, Aimee,” Evie says, as she shakes her dustpan out over the can. “What’s up?”
“Not much. Just on my way out. Going over to Meg’s with some other people.” By other people, Evie is sure she means half the school, considering Meg is known for her wild and well-attended parties.
“Sounds like fun,” Evie comments, although she doubts she’d rate it as such if she was actually there.
“It should be.” Aimee nods, and hikes her cheer bag higher on her shoulder, the sound of pom- pom ribbon rustling against one another in the bag audible. “Can I just ask? Why do you do this?” Evie stops mid-squat. No, you cannot just ask, thank you very much. “Your mom’s a brain surgeon. You have the money, don’t you?”
Evie does. Plenty of it, but not without strings and questions. Besides, the envelope of cash is not all she takes from this. It’s not even the most valuable asset she receives. “I just don’t like having to ask my mom for everything, you know?”
Aimee’s eyes widen in reply that she doesn’t know, but they quickly return to normal and they flick away. “Oh yeah, I get that,” she nods. Liar. “Anyways, I should get going. If you get done early, you could always stop by Meg’s.”
“Yeah, it will probably be late by the time I’m done, so I don’t think I’ll make it, but thanks,” Evie says. Plus, she’s pretty sure Meg would rather burst into flames than have Evie in her house, not that Evie can say that’s a deterrent.
It may be weird to some people一actually probably a lot of people一but mopping is Evie’s favorite part of the night. It comes down to the motion of it, the rocking to and fro, like she’s a dancing pendulum. It also accomplishes something that few things can: slowing her constantly moving mind, letting it settle, and turn over things that she doesn’t have time for during the day, and most importantly, pick up things that others may not in the moment.
As she mops the three-point line, washing away scuff marks from shoes and droplets of things she’d rather not think, Evie’s ears prick up. It’s whispers, or what the people talking constitute as whispers, as they’re loud enough for her to pick up from at least 50 feet away. She clicks the volume down on her phone and tiptoes across the floor, sidestepping the planks that always groan under her weight, and stopping just shy of the doors that are thankfully propped open.
“… you have them?”
“Right here. As promised.”
One voice lower, the other higher, both their voices familiar. Based on their youthfulness, they’re classmates for sure. But who?
“You’re amazing,” the low voice breathes. “How did you get them?”
“I have my ways,” the high voice says, with a laugh. “The less you know the better.”
“I owe you so much.” The voice achieves another level of low: lust.
“You can pay me back later. Just make sure to ace it.”
She frequently hears it, bright in the morning as she sits in Trig, midway through the day in the lunch line, late in the afternoon during American History. Phoebe Langley. Hand shooting up in class, loved by all teachers and somehow loved by everyone else too— almost—Phoebe Langley. Doing some covert deal by the sounds of it. But with whom? She’s dating Sean McLane. It could be him, but now that they’ve both gone quiet, she can’t be sure.
Blonde bob, square glasses, definitely Phoebe. But the boy she’s locking lips with, definitely not Sean. In place of inky hair and a polo shirt, are ember red locks and an Under Armor sweatshirt. Taytum Wilcox.
The pair are friends, Taytum and Phoebe, although in recent weeks a gossip had said something had been going on between them一tension that must’ve been rooted in a fight. They had identified the tension correctly, but, of which brand, they were clearly wrong.
People always think they’re being careful with their secrets, forming them in what they believe are clandestine meetings, shrouded in darkness, when they are never truly so. They never consider it from every angle, the doors they’ve left open, the locations that aren’t fully secure, the ways that people could use them. Evie knows it well, having heard secret after secret made and shared in this very hallway, beneath the bleachers, between cars in the parking lot. She’s seen just how easily other people can manipulate others with them. How? Because she’s done it herself.
“Hey, guys,” she says, swallowing her smile until all that remains is the amused smirk. The two spring apart as if she’s thrown a grenade between them.
“Oh, Evie, hey,” Taytum says, throwing up his hand in hello and dropping it to scratch the back of his head as he turns away, uncomfortable. His other hand grips a piece of paper. A series of Trigonometry problems with multiple answers listed below it, only one in bold under each. Her hunch is proven right, although it catches her somewhat off- guard.
Taytum isn’t stupid. She’s graded his tests in other classes, and he does well, so he shouldn’t need any answers. But then again, how does she know how many of those tests he took without any aid?
For Phoebe’s part, Evie has to admit she’s impressed at how bright of a smile she’s able to smack on. “You’re here late. How much more do you have left to do?” she says.
“Most of it, but that’s okay,” Evie shrugs, before waving a finger between the two of them. “So, what’s going on here?”
Phoebe’s smile doesn’t flinch. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, why are you here making out with Taytum when you’re dating Sean?. And giving him the answers to the trig test. Cheating in two ways, it looks like,” Evie says. Taytum mumbles shit under his breath. Phoebe’s smile slips into a flatline. Her thick eyebrows furrow, confused, and more than a bit pissed. Satisfaction flares in Evie’s chest.
They look at the mousy brown hair, collection of historical pun t-shirts and her generally quiet nature, toss in the fact that she’s cleaning the school for extra money, and they deem her as non-threatening. Enough so that they feel comfortable airing their dirty laundry while she’s within earshot. They don’t suspect that the girl who is mopping the floor is literally here to mop the floor with them.
“I don’t know what you think you saw, especially with whatever test you’re talking about, but if it’s true or if it’s not, either way, it’s not really your business,” Phoebe says.
“Mmmm.” Evie tilts her head back and forth, lips pursed, and begins to strut along the crease in the floor tile. “I think it is. Or at least it is now, because we both know that what I saw is the real story and that’s a story I don’t think you’d like getting out. Number one, cheating or helping someone cheat on a test is at least suspension. If you stole the answers, I’m guessing that’s expulsion. And then there’s the whole Sean of it all, and I doubt he or most of your friends are going to be thrilled to hear that you’ve been going behind his back.”
Another emotion adds to Phoebe’s expression: worry, in the smallest of doses. Taytum pivots back towards them, paper crumpling in his hand, until it takes the shape of his fist.
“So, what, you’re going to blackmail us?” He asks. “Get something from us to keep your silence? That’s bullshit. You realize that right? What you’re doing is bullshit.”
“Hi kettle, I’m pot,” she says and extends her hand to him, but all she gets is a glare of disgust. “No one here is morally perfect, but I guess what it comes down to is how questionable you’d prefer people know that you are: they can know that I’m blackmailing you, but then you’ll have to explain why, and the game’s up then anyways. Or, we make a deal, and no one finds out anything. It stays in this small little triangle,” she says, outlining the shape on the floor with the tip of her tennis shoe.
They always choose the latter. She’s caught her classmates一and some teachers一doing drug deals, point- shaving, stealing, and committing many, many infidelities, and each time, when she presents them their options, they always choose to give her what she wants—money, access, ultimately power—but deep down, that’s actually what they want.
Taytum goes silent, and spins back towards the cinderblock wall. Phoebe folds one of her hands inside the other, staring at the gold nail polish that fittingly is starting to chip.
Just like all those who have come before them, Evie knows what way Phoebe and Taytum will choose.
“Is that what you say to everyone?” Phoebe asks, and for once, Evie startles.
“Excuse me?” sShe asks, forcing all her power into the duo of words.
Phoebe lifts her head, and the smirk that was once on Evie’s face is now on hers. “The others that you’ve done this to? I’m guessing you’ve said the same thing to them, right?” She pauses, but only for a fraction of a second, not long enough for Evie to make a reply if she could even think of one. “Well, actually, we know you do. Our friend, Meg, told us.”
“Bullshit,” Evie says, but the only words rotating through her mind are shit, shit, shit. “I didn’t do anything to Meg.”
“Really?” Taytum presses his back into the wall, all concern gone from his features, his arms crossed over his chest, relaxed. “She told us that you caught her and Arlene in the locker room last month, that she was getting Adderall from her and rather than being a nice person, a decent person and trying to ask why she was doing it, or trying to get her out of that situation, you told Meg that she needed to give $500 or you’d tell everyone that she was a drug addict.”
“And we were shocked when she told us that. We couldn’t believe you—, kind, shy Evie—, would do that to someone. But other people weren’t shocked. Like Aiden and Mikey, when you found them together in the parking lot. Or Halley, when you found her sneaking beers into the games. Turns out that this is the real you, and we think it’s about time people know,” Phoebe says.
Evie can feel the heat radiating from her body, a volcano building just before it blows, or more aptly, a fire raging through a building, weakening its joints until it collapses. “So, what? This was all a setup so you can blackmail me now?”
“Mostly,” Phoebe says, and with the hint of a smile shared between she and Taytum and her, Evie can guess which part isn’t. Their relationship, or whatever it is, is real. But, it’s of no use to her. In comparison to what they have against her, it’s a pittance of a betrayal. And they know it. “So, I guess it depends. Do you want people to tell everyone what’s going on so they know about the psycho you are, and like you said, the game’s up, or do you want to hear our list of demands?” Each word Phoebe says is dripping in gloat, the excess making Evie feel sick.
How, so quickly, did this slip away from her? Did the tables turn? Did she go from the one mopping to the one being mopped? This, she realizes, is how everyone she’s confronted must feel. Like every precaution they’ve taken wasn’t enough. Like they had accounted for so many things, but never this. Her mind stops, the quiet allowing room for the one cycling thought to emerge. “Shit.”