PART 11: PHIL DOUBT
Phil Clarke swirled the liquid in his cup before taking another sip. It was times like this that he enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate in the local cafe after school. Times when he wasn’t sure what to do about Julie LaMille.
It seemed like her plans were taking a more severe turn in their Grade 11 school year. His first hint of the shifting tides had been after learning more precisely how Julie had planned on getting Frank into trouble during chemistry class, nearly a week ago now.
Ever since that plan had failed, Julie had been obsessing over both Carrie’s connections with Frank, and Carrie’s whereabouts in general. Even going so far as to monitor Frank’s house last weekend. Clarke wasn’t entirely sure why this was happening, or what role he might find himself in as circumstances played themselves out, but he suspected not a lot of good would come of it in the long run.
“Want to talk about it?”
Clarke looked up at Theresa. The redheaded waitress had a habit of acting as a sounding board for the cafe’s customers when business was slow. And while he had spoken with the twenty-something woman on occasion, it had been about family, or school issues. “Not today, thanks.”
Theresa nodded, leaving the receipt at his table. “No rush, whenever you’re ready.” She moved off.
Clarke was left fingering the piece of paper. Luci’s words from outside Frank’s house last Sunday came to mind then: ‘Julie’s just using you. You should never feel obligated to do things for her.’
Clarke smiled and shook his head. Luci could be pretty blunt. She reminded Clarke a little of his older sister that way. Of course, Luci was a lot younger – even younger than him, being the youngest person in Grade 11 by a factor of two years. Still, there were some parallels… enough for Clarke to begin wondering whether Mary would have a similar reaction to his current “relationship” with Julie.
After all, he’d never gone into detail about him and Julie during his sister’s occasional trips back home. Mary had her own life now, off in third year University. She didn’t even know Julie, or any of the people in town. She had already graduated high school by the time their family moved here, a little over two years ago. Just in time to get Clarke into the local public high school before classes started.
Actually, Clarke realized, this was verging on the longest amount of time he’d ever spent in one place; it was nice that dad had finally found stable work.
Clarke finished off his hot chocolate. He decided Mary might not approve of how things were, but she would understand. There was something about Julie. Some part of her Clarke couldn’t turn his back on. Julie needed someone who could look beyond her actions, at who she really was. Someone who could keep her from going too far off the deep end.
Carrie Waterson, despite being Julie’s best friend, couldn’t do that. Not given the blonde girl’s more superficial way of looking at people.
Granted, Clarke knew he knew he was no deep thinker either, but he felt like the only one wondering as to Julie’s inner motivations. Something she remained very tight-lipped about – along with her past. But this too, Clarke understood… one’s childhood might not be filled with the happiest of moments.
“Where are you going?”
Mary paused before crouching down next to him. And despite the four year difference in their ages, the two blond siblings had always enough of a rapport that he didn’t try to simply push past her. “You’re carrying a lot of stuff with you,” she pointed out. “Planning on being gone for a long time?”
Phil Clarke looked away, unable to meet his sister’s gaze. “Don’t know.”
Mary moved to where she could look him in the eye again. “Well, the moving vans are coming tomorrow. You’ll be back in time for the big trip, right?”
Phil simply shrugged and shifted his gaze to the ground.
Mary let out a gentle sigh. “Phil, running away is not the answer,” she said definitively.
“Who says I’m runnin’ away?” he fired back defensively, at last turning back towards Mary’s face.
“I do. Because you’re acting very similarly to the way I did when I was your age,” his sister replied matter-of-factly.
After a moment, Phil looked down at the floor, scuffing his shoes. “Well… well, I don’t wanna leave! I was just startin’ to make friends. Just gettin’ used to livin’ here. I don’t wanna move again! It’s not fair.”
“No,” Mary admitted, rising back to her full height and adjusting the straps of her dress. “No, it’s not fair. But you’ll still be able to write letters. And just think of the new town we’re going to! There will be all new sights, you’ll make new friends…”
“You sound like Mom,” Phil interjected bitterly.
Mary blinked in surprise before making a rather annoyed face. “Oh, hell. I do, don’t I. And that claptrap never worked on me either.”
She pursed her lips. “All right, here’s the honest truth then. Phil, life sucks. With no one hiring Dad on a permanent basis, he has to keep moving around to wherever he can get work. But – and this is important, so listen up – through all of the changes, you’ve got a family who loves you. We all care about you very much and would be very sad if we lost you. So you have to be strong. You can be strong, right?”
“Dunno,” Phil said sullenly, still looking at the floor.
Mary reached out to tilt her brother’s chin back up. “I think you can be. And Mom, Dad, me – we’re all going to be around to help each other through this.” She smiled. “Besides, if you run off, who am I going to have around to torment?”
Phil hmphed. “‘S your problem,” he retorted, albeit in a more mollified tone.
“True. How about this, if you put your things away and help me pack up the rest of the boxes, I won’t bug you all next week, okay?”
Phil paused to consider that. “Two weeks,” he insisted.
Mary laughed. “You drive a hard bargain. All right, two weeks. But no running off anymore, okay?”
“‘K,” Phil agreed.
“Now, hurry up and get your things back to where they’re supposed to be before mom finds out,” Mary said, aiming a kick in his direction. Phil hurried back up to his bedroom.
“Oh, Philip? You had a phone call.”
Clarke paused in the process of hanging his jacket up in the closet. Maybe he shouldn’t have spent quite so much time at the cafe. “Who from?”
“Julie,” his mother answered, emerging from the kitchen. “She said she had something to show you, if you were available.”
If she’d only called the house, she probably didn’t think it was important. All the more reason he should know. Clarke quickly shrugged his jacket back on. “Gotcha. I’ll be at her place.”
“You shouldn’t be at her beck and call,” Mrs. Clarke protested. “That’s not how a relationship works.”
“Mom, we’re not dating. And I’m going of my own free will,” Clarke insisted. “Nothing wrong with helping people out, is there?”
His mother held up her hands. “No, no, I was just saying, that’s all. But remember, it’s Thursday, a school night. And dinner will be in about an hour, around when your father gets home. Will you be back by then?”
“I’ll call if not,” Clarke assured.
“Please do,” his mother said with a smile. “Sometimes I worry.”
Clarke turned and headed back out of the house, reflecting briefly on what his mother had said. He wasn’t really at anyone’s beck and call, was he? I mean, it’s not like he jumped whenever someone snapped their fingers. He made sure to still take care of himself.
It was simply that doing something nice for someone beat out the alternatives. He knew that from experience too.
“Phil?” The voice was accompanied by a gentle knock at the door. “Are you busy?”
“Yes,” Phil shouted back. “Go away.”
“Too bad, I’m coming in.” The door opened gradually, then Mary’s head peered around the corner. She was immediately pinged between the eyes by a nerf ball.
“You spoiled my shot,” Phil accused.
Mary spared a brief glance in the direction of the basketball hoop set up on the back of Phil’s bedroom door. More than a couple inches away from her. “Oh, I think you knew exactly where that shot was headed,” she accused. “Why are you still playing with that thing anyway?”
“It’s something to do,” Phil stated, throwing himself back on his bed. “You barge in here for a reason?”
“Yes. Mom said you got into trouble at your middle school today.”
Phil turned so that he was facing away from the door. “So what if I did?”
He heard Mary lean against the doorframe. “We’ve been living in the area for less than a month now and this is the third time that’s happened. It’s not like you, Phil. You’re usually a pretty outgoing person. When we get to a new place, you tend to make new friends pretty easily. But recently you’ve been spending a lot of time alone. What’s wrong?”
“Why does it matter to you?”
The two words were spoken so suddenly and with such intensity that Phil felt momentarily taken aback. As he turned to face his sister again he wondered again where she had obtained her authoritative attitude from; certainly a quality their parents didn’t have in abundance.
After a pause, Phil finally shrugged, grabbing a pillow to hold onto. “Ah, this school I’ve ended up in has this ‘alliance’ is all,” he grumbled, sitting up. “A group of kids who don’t like me and keep causing me problems.”
“Really,” Mary replied slowly.
Phil nodded. “Can’t go to teachers or anyone cuz then the kids’ll just try to give it to me worse,” Phil explained. “And other kids are starting to shun me cuz they don’t want to get on the bad side of the alliance. I can’t even seem to get on the GOOD side of these alliance guys cuz they won’t tell me what their problem is with me. This is just a real screwed up school, Mary. I hope dad moves again soon.”
“You know, you’re probably not helping your own case,” his sister pointed out. “This habit you’ve picked up of telling everyone to call you by your last name isn’t the best way to form lasting friendships.”
Phil shrugged. “We always leave towns before any ‘lasting friendships’ form anyway,” he groused. “Besides, it’s more than that here. If you ask me, everyone at this school is just a jerk.”
“Stop that,” Mary demanded, striding into the room and leaning against Phil’s bed.
“Stop what?” Phil asked, blinking up at her in surprise.
“Putting people down,” Mary stated. “The Phil I grew up with didn’t do that. He was someone who always managed to discover a little good in everything and everybody, and while he didn’t have the chance to make many lifelong friends, he never made enemies. In fact, the way he could consistently leave a favourable impression on people was a very enviable quality. So I don’t want to see that Phil get replaced by someone who constantly whines and bitches about how terrible things are. News flash, bro… you keep that up and it’s going to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy!”
“You don’t understand,” Phil objected. “These alliance guys won’t accept me! There’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Never say never,” Mary countered. She pushed herself back up. “Come on now, I’m sure there’s something we can come up with if we put our heads together. For example, one person in this alliance is probably the ringleader. Any idea who?”
“Nope,” said Phil sullenly. “What, should I find out who it is and beat ’em up sometime?”
“No,” Mary replied. “Because that’s not your style. But I’ll tell you one thing you could try doing with this person.”
“No,” Clarke refuted. “Passing by on my way to Julie’s.”
“Ah. I see,” Frank replied uncertainly.
Clarke had bumped into his classmate while passing in front of one of the local minimarkets, prompting Frank’s inquiry. “Er, speaking of Julie,” Frank continued, “I’ve noticed that she’s been looking quite preoccupied with something this past week.”
“She’s not acting so different now from how she usually does,” Clarke countered.
“Yeeeeees, perhaps,” Frank admitted hesitantly, confirming for Clarke that Frank was among the people who never thought too much about Julie until things got personal.
“Except, well… Clarke, you probably know Julie better than anyone else,” Frank continued. “So it occurred to me the other day that, should I run into you, I should take the opportunity to inquire about her. Okay, no, I mean about whether there’s anything in particular that is going on right now with her. In the form of, say, unexpected interests. That is, things interesting her more than normal, which could be anything in general, or even more specifically something that could somehow relate to a person, such as someone who is, er, say, me.”
Clarke stared at Frank for a long moment. Despite being a school genius, the guy wasn’t so good at casual inquiries. Clarke got the gist of what he was saying though.
“Whatever Julie’s activities are, they’re not for me to say right now,” Clarke insisted. Deflection was usually his best bet. Julie couldn’t get upset with him that way.
“Ah. Yes, well… maybe I wasn’t being very clear there,” Frank apologized. “Basically, I meant that there’s no reason for Julie to concern herself with me. Okay?”
“If you say so,” Clarke remarked impassively. In fact, he really didn’t see the need for any concern when it came to Frank himself. It was more his ties with Carrie that Julie was obsessing over.
“Right,” Frank said a bit uncomfortably. “Well then. I guess I’ll see you around.”
“Probably,” Clarke concluded. Frank moved off in the direction of his place, while Clarke continued on to Julie’s.
At this point, Clarke hoped that whatever Julie was planning, whether it related to Frank or not, it wouldn’t cloud her judgment too much. It was never good when Julie – or anyone, for that matter – stopped listening to reason.
“Word has it you’ve been asking for a little one-on-one chat.”
Phil turned. Lance was standing there now, an unpleasant expression on his face. He had to be the one. Phil nervously cleared his throat. “Maybe I have,” he admitted.
“‘Maybe I have’,” Lance mimicked mockingly. “Don’t play dumb with me, Clarke. You told Harry you wanted to talk to the guy behind our little alliance, so here I am. Now, surely you don’t have any complaints with how I’m running things, do you?”
Phil cleared his throat again. “Actually, I… I just wanted to ask… would you like me to give you some basketball pointers?” he said, all in a rush.
Lance blinked. “Huh?” he replied, caught off guard.
“Basketball. Both of us are on the team and you’re a really great player,” Phil continued, slowly gaining confidence. “But sometimes you telegraph when you’re going to–”
“Are you trying to be FUNNY?” Lance cut in, reaching out to shove Phil by the shoulders.
Phil stumbled. “F-Funny?” he repeated in confusion.
Lance shoved again and Phil went down onto the pavement. “I’m not laughing!” Lance said.
Phil blinked up at his aggressor. “I only wanted to see if there was some agreement we could reach… some way we could help each other out,” he stated, forcing down any urge to retaliate. As Mary had advised him, physical violence would solve nothing here. It wasn’t his area of strength.
“Yeah? You’ve helped enough already,” Lance fired back. He bent down next to Phil’s prone form, jabbing out a finger. “Now listen up, wise guy. Everyone at this school knows that I was the star of the basketball team until you showed up. Waltzing in here, signing up for the team tryouts on the last day, constantly upstaging me in practice… just who the hell do you think you are?”
Phil blinked up quietly at Lance. “Someone who wants to be your friend?”
Lance stared in amazement. “Are you freakin’ nuts?”
“No, listen,” Phil pressed on. “I’m sure we can come to some kind of understanding. I meant what I said about giving you basketball tips. To keep you from telegraphing your shots. I bet we could even become an unbeatable pair if we tried. Plus, should my dad move again, as he probably will, I’m gone and you end up better off from the deal because of the stuff you’ve learned. I mean, if you’d prefer, I could try to help you in science… but it’s not my strongest subject.”
Lance stood, sizing Phil up. “You truly believe everything you’re saying, don’t you,” he marvelled at last.
“Yes,” Phil answered simply.
There was another brief pause. “Saying that took guts, Clarke,” Lance conceded. “I like guts. Perhaps you even make a bit of sense.” Lance rubbed his chin. “Okay. I’m not about to get buddy-buddy with you, but how about this. You seriously help me out on the court and STOP showing me up… and maybe I’ll see about cutting you a bit more slack around here.”
“Sounds good,” Phil agreed with a smile. “I never meant to show you up anyway.” He scrambled to his feet again, then offered his hand to Lance. Lance eyed it warily, before finally reaching out to grasp it and shake. He then shook his head.
“Again, no saying we’re friends,” Lance cautioned. “In fact, let me offer up some words of free advice. Pay more attention. Be careful who you cross in the future. Not everyone with the power to pull strings around you is likely to be as… forgiving as me.”
“Gotcha,” Phil assured, admittedly a bit confused as to what Lance was getting at.
‘After all, using Mary’s advice, I can’t go wrong!’ Phil thought to himself. ‘I just need to be myself and work at helping people out. If I do that, who in the future could possibly create trouble for me?’
“Miss LaMille requests you join her downstairs,” Jeeves stated archly. “She is currently in her… ‘play room’.”
Clarke nodded to the LaMille family butler and left the waiting area to go and find Julie. The mansion she lived in was actually not quite as large as it appeared from outside; some of the size was illusionary owing to its location and the comparison made with nearby houses. It had originally been designed and built by an eccentric inventor who’d lived in the town some years ago, though he’d disappeared shortly after the LaMilles had bought the property.
Of course, the place was still large enough to get turned around in if you weren’t careful, or you didn’t know your route. Fortunately, Clarke was quite familiar with the route to Julie’s favourite room by now.
“Ah, Phil,” Julie said as Clarke joined her.
The brunette shut the drawer of the filing cabinet next to her. One of three in the room. She walked past the maps of both the school and the town which she had pinned up on the wall, then leaned onto the table housing numerous little trinkets and electronic gadgets, firing a grin in Clarke’s direction.
“Glad you could make it after all,” she said. “You’ll never guess what I’ve managed to get my hands on to help me deal with Carrie!”