One Star (A Short Story)

June 24, 2018

 

 

I should probably clarify now—this was Owen’s idea, okay? It might sound insane, but he had this way of putting things to me in such foolproof packaging I’d eventually tear into any of his proposed schemes without hesitation. Hell, he could justify burning the school down and I’d set fire to the fricken place myself.

I looked across at him, his pudgy belly wedged under the steering wheel. I wondered if it’d get so stuck we’d hurtle into a tree or into oncoming traffic or something. And then the police would come onto the scene and the ambulance sirens would wail and they’d find us there, all beaten up and shit. And then some officer would say—“What happened here kids?” And I would have to reply—“It was his belly. His belly got stuck.” And it would be super awkward.

Owen was wearing this familiar hard expression that somehow made all his round edges look sharp. His eyes were always narrow, but there in the car I might’ve thought he were sleeping if he didn’t keep muttering under his breath.

“Justice,” he was saying, amongst other things. “We’ll get him real good, Sunny.”

I kept flipping the knife between my fingers. My palms were sweaty as hell and I had to wipe them on my jeans. Owen noticed. He noticed everything I did. Especially when I was nervous. He wasn’t keen on me or anything like that, although a few losers in our class would constantly joke about it. He just knew how to read me.

“Stop freaking out,” he said, his slanted eyes slanting my way. “You’re so anxious all the time. Bloody hell Sunny. We can’t do this if you’re all—argh.” He crinkled his face in what I guessed was meant to be me being all argh.

“I’m allowed to be anxious,” I told him. “It’s my right of passage.” It’s true, you know. Being a writer is a free pass to angst without validation.

Owen released a huff of breath and his round cheeks tightened with the force of a dubious grimace. “What’s the dude’s name again? Pull out the list.”

It’s a long story, and you’ll probably think we were crazy, but we really weren’t. There was a reason for it. A real good reason. If you were a writer, you’d get it.

I pulled the list out from the glove box—it was a whole fricken page long. Bastards.

“Smith underscore Slytherin,” I said.

“A Slytherin,” Owen mumbled. “I could’ve guessed.”

I’d already given him the address. We were following the route now into the western suburbs. This guy only lived half an hour away. We decided we’d only go after the ones that fell within a two-hour radius.

Owen was a freak with computers, so he managed to hack his way to their addresses—without telling me exactly how of course—and found each house on Google street view. There was some method to his madness, at least.

But the further we drove the more slippery my palms got. I mean I was holding a bloody weapon. Not bloody in a literal sense. Really the knife was Owen’s idea, I swear. I just wanted to talk to these people. Find out what they really thought and why they thought it.

Dad always said if you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t bloody well say anything at all. Well, clearly they didn’t get the memo, so all we were doing was personally delivering it.

I fixed my eyes on the road ahead. The silence was torturous so I went to turn the radio on, but almost just as fast Owen’s hand struck mine.

“No music,” he snapped, and I burst out laughing. But he just turned to me with that serious face that always made me laugh harder.

“Watch the fricken road!” I squawked.

Owen was my friend from his very first day at Triton College. He came in Year 9 and was known as the new weirdly silent Asian kid. I didn’t have many friends myself, but that was a choice. I spent lunches writing pieces of science fiction and imagining faraway worlds, because reality is boring, you know. Owen was sitting next to me in chemistry one day and he obviously read what I was writing, because then he started sketching, and I could see it was the spacecraft I was writing about. So I looked up at him kind of instinctively, because I was so shocked and frankly impressed, and he just gave me this deadpan look. I laughed, and from that moment we were inseparable.

He also started talking, so he was no longer the new weirdly silent Asian kid, he was just the weird Asian kid.

We pulled up outside a plain, brick unit. The curtains were drawn across the windows and the mailbox was crooked, like someone had driven into it. I was losing fire fast. But Owen was damn good at fuelling it.

“You’ve got that look Sunny,” he said. “Don’t chicken out now. Don’t you chicken out.” He unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to face me. “These people are scum, you know it. The scum of the earth. Give me that list.”

I gave it and watched him, waiting for a more convincing motivational spiel.

One star,” he said, shaking his head. “One crumby star! Jeez Sunny, and look what he wrote.”

“I know what he wrote.”

“No—look.”

I looked. And there they were, the words that had shattered my soul into a million pieces.

Piece of shit,” Owen read aloud, and I winced. “Not since dating my ex gf have I wasted so much time trying to lyk something that didn’t deserve any attention.”

“I’ve read it,” I said irritably.

Lyk.” He lowered the page and I saw the fire ignite his dark eyes. “L-Y-K.”

Owen was my number one fan. Back when I self-published Night Tritons, my first book, he was the first to read it and the first to give a five star review. Then he made like a dozen other fake accounts online so he could add more. That was two years ago.

My readership went from nothing to one hundred during that first year, and had climbed to about three hundred. I wrote a hell of a lot of fan fiction shit, that’s probably why. All short pieces. I plastered links to my books everywhere. I even went letter boxing after the release of the first. I was a pretty damn good writer, too. My English teachers said so, and even Dad—who barely knew which way to hold a book—read Night Tritons in one sitting.

“Keyboard warriors,” Owen scoffed. “They can type it, but can they say it?”

“They might say it,” I pointed out, still anxious.

Owen laid a hand on my leg. His hands were soft and swollen, like an oversized baby’s. Sometimes I called him my China doll. But he hated that because his parents were Japanese, and he was born here, which he reminded me time and time again.

When Owen first came over for dinner, Dad ordered Chinese. We were in the lounge and Owen said the exact same thing—that his parents were Japanese and he was born here. He was like that. He just said whatever he liked, even if it might be rude or blunt or awkward. Dad was horrified, of course. Said that we ordered Chinese all the time.

That wasn’t true. He totally thought Owen was Chinese and that’s why he ordered the food.

They crack me up when they’re in the same room. Dad always gets real racist, for some reason. Without meaning to be.

We clambered out of the car and my legs went numb all of a sudden. I glanced down at the switchblade in my hand. Then I threw it onto the car seat before meeting Owen at the boot.

“You got the knife?” he asked me. He could be so melodramatic.

“Yeah.”

He gave a serious nod and took another look at the list. “Prepare for hell Smith underscore Slytherin. The reign of the dark lord is over.”

I scanned the front of the house. “What if he’s just a little kid?”

“Then we’ll straighten him out and show him how not to be a prick.”

“And what if he’s like ninety-four?”

“Easier to knock down.”

I sighed. When Owen was on a roll he was hard to stop.

He made me approach the door first—I was meant to take the lead from this point on—so I knocked twice. Owen gave me this incredulous look before shoving me aside and thwacking it hard, like he might just kick it in if it didn’t open soon enough.

Luckily, the door swung open and a man stood in the doorway. He had a scruffy, black beard, and judging by his frown he didn’t quite know what to make of us.

I pictured us as he would—a short, chubby Asian boy shooting daggers at him, beside a skinny, pale girl who looked close to fainting. “Can I help you?”

“Are you Smith underscore Slytherin?” I demanded.

The man blinked at me. Then looked again at Owen. Back to me. “What’d ya say?”

“Smith underscore Slytherin,” I repeated, slower this time.

The man looked curious then. “You might be looking for my kid. After Tommy, are ya?”

I was about to turn around and run to safety when Owen grabbed my arm. “Yes,” he said. “We’re after Tommy.”

The man led us inside and I suddenly felt the weight of our master plan crashing in on me. But we couldn’t back out now. I certainly couldn’t even if I wanted to, because Owen was standing right behind me and he was unusually fast for someone of his size. Besides, I’m at the threshold of the Slytherin common room and I’ve got a point to make. What would Neville do?

The lounge was small, with only two couches.

“Tommy!” the guy called. “Take a seat you two.”

We sat wedged together in one couch.

“So what’s your story?” he asked. We mustn’t have looked as intimidating as I hoped, because the guy looked totally relaxed. Maybe I should’ve brought the knife.

I opened my mouth to respond but Owen answered instead. “We’re friends of Tommy’s.”

“School?” the man asked.

“Yeah,” Owen said. At that point a boy appeared at the base of the stairs. He was wearing this baggy Minecraft t-shirt and staring blankly at us. No older than fifteen, I guessed.

“Hello …” he said. The kid’s Dad didn’t even seem to detect his confusion—just said he’d leave us to it before disappearing into the kitchen.

“You got the knife?” Owen hissed in my ear. I ignored him and rose to my feet.

“I’m Sunny Watson.”

The Tommy kid frowned at me, then seemed to ponder the name for a moment. Finally, his eyes went wide.

“Sunny Watson? Did you …” he hesitated. “You wrote the Night Tritons! Right? About the girl who’s taken out to sea and marries that king?”

I ground my teeth and refrained from correcting him by clarifying that they didn’t get married in the first book, it was only alluded to and then shit happened in book two. But he at least was on the right track, so I nodded, and Tommy’s expression of surprise transformed into one of mega confusion.

After a stunned silence, he asked, “What are you doing here?”

“Already forgotten that review you left on Sunny’s page, huh Draco?” Owen piped up, rising beside me. “Slipped your teeny tiny serpentine memory?”

I suddenly felt sorry for the kid. When I saw his review I raged like a bull set loose in a field of red poppies, that’s for sure. I spent entire nights lying wide-awake, wondering who he was, and why he was driven to leave that grisly little star, and what I could’ve done to earn a couple more.

But now he looked so taken aback by this turn in the conversation that I kind of wanted to just leave him alone. He had big, green eyes and a mousey face. Like if Stuart Little were a person. But cuter.

“Here’s the thing Tommy,” I began, sitting again and dragging Owen down too. “You said some pretty nasty things about my book, so I’m here to find out why.”

Owen pulled out the reviews we’d printed, as Tommy slumped down onto the armrest of the opposite chair, his mouth sagging open.

“You said Sunny’s book was a—piece of shit,” Owen read aloud. “And you also mention an ex gf here too, but you look fresh from kindergarten, so help us understand what you were trying to achieve by all this, Tommy, and how you managed to organise dates between the hand-painting and sandcastle construction.”

The kid blinked at Owen. Then his eyes went to me. “It just wasn’t my thing,” he said. I caught a tremor in his right hand, which he then gripped fiercely with his left. “I thought there’d be more … action. It was a bit—” He faltered, glancing nervously at Owen, who was practically radiating heat. His big cheeks went all red and blotchy whenever he was mad. “Slow,” the kid finished, more of a choke than a word. “It was a bit slow for me.”

“And yet you wrote here that it was a piece of shit,” Owen repeats. “So tell me, was it a bit slow, or was it a piece of shit?”

“Ease up,” I hissed. Owen’s lips went all tight and he didn’t take his eyes off the kid. “Look, I just want to know what I did to deserve that one star. Or, to miss out on the other four. Can you tell me, Tommy?”

The kid shrugged. “Less romance, maybe. And the girl, she’s really annoying sometimes, the way she always delivers the king’s secrets to that merman. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get why.”

“Because she’s in love, you idiot,” Owen snapped. “The king is secondary to Tropan. Her allegiance is with him.”

Tommy looked unconvinced, and I only sighed. “It’s not really my kind of story,” he said. “That’s all I meant.”

“Then that’s what you should’ve said,” Owen half-spat. “Or, you could say nothing at all!” I decided to abort before he launched himself at the poor kid.

“I appreciate your honesty,” I told Tommy, honestly.

We got up from the couch, and I began to make for the door. “Just—” I turned back, and Tommy’s eyes were so wide and frightened I kind of wanted to go hug him. “Just, next time, pretend we’re face-to-face, okay? I don’t care if you’re a Slytherin. Tell me what you think without the snaky sass.”

The kid nodded. And I let myself smile at him before leaving the house, Owen in tow. When we got back to the car Owen went off at me for leaving the knife behind, but I was silent.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that kid’s face. I’m not sure who I expected to find at that address, but some little Minecraft bugger wasn’t it.

“He was shaking like a leaf.” Owen snorted, turning his key in the ignition. “Did you see it? Serves him right. Bloody Slytherins always get what they deserve.”

“I don’t know … I feel kind of bad.”

Owen responded only with an incredulous look.

“I guess …” I trailed away in search of an adequate example. “Snape said shitty things to Harry, remember? But it wasn’t because he hated him or anything.” I spoke fast, the analogy coming together better than I anticipated. “It was complicated. And nothing Harry said could’ve made Snape respond differently. It was about Lily. You end up feeling sorry for him, you know?”

“I didn’t.”

I glowered at him. “Don’t be stupid, everyone did.”

“Nope.” Owen returned my stare. “Snape treated Harry like crap, but you know it never made sense. Like, sure he was hung up on Lily, but is that justification? The world is full of Snapes, Sunny, and we can’t excuse their pissy actions just because they claim to be in love.”

His sincerity set a grin on my face. He could get so serious, so wound up, over entirely fictional scenarios. That’s why we had such intense discussions about my stories. He didn’t just read them—he lived them. And his reactions to my imaginings were as real as any other.

“And what he said about Morgan and Tropan …” Owen huffed. “He completely missed the point. And not to mention—why are you smiling?”

Because I didn’t care about Tommy anymore. I didn’t even care about the list in my hands.

I was watching my wonderfully weird friend as he glanced from the road to my face, back and forth, eyes wary.

“Well?” he demanded.

But I was hardly in the car. I was realising a vital truth—one I still tell myself, years later. That is; the world is full of Slytherins. Snakes. Bitterness and power play. Underhand agendas and poisonous tongues.

We’ll never be rid of the bastards. Hell, it wouldn’t be Hogwarts without them. The point is—there are other houses too. Places for people like Owen to curl by the fireside with their noses deep in Night Tritons by Sunny Watson, more invested in the story than Sunny Watson herself.

We can’t spend all our lives hunting down the dark lords. It’s a real waste of time and effort, time we could’ve spent writing another chapter and effort we could’ve made to speak with a decent human being we give two shits about.

I screwed the list into a ball. Owen gasped and swerved the car enough that I screamed.

Someone honked their horn and gave us the finger as they drove by. I looked to Owen, his face so lined with genuine horror—that I exploded into laughter. “Take me home, numb nut.”

“But there’s eight more on the list!”

“I don’t care.”

“One star, Sunny, one. Remember how upset you were the other night?”

I grinned into the face of his dismay. It was true that I’d called him at my lowest of lows after reading Tommy’s piece of shit review. That’s where this whole hunt began. But seeing that kid in person left me feeling differently. He suddenly didn’t seem to matter so much.

I would never be five stars to everyone. But to some, I was. And to Owen, I was five hundred.

“At least we could pick up some eggs, and maybe—”

“No eggs,” I snorted.

“Knock and run?”

“Meh.” I shrugged. “Waste of our time.”

“Fine,” he said through a sigh. “What now, then?”

I pressed a finger to my chin and tapped it once. “Help me plot book five.”

Owen’s brow lifted, and his mouth opened as if to make some smart alec retort. Then shut.

I turned on the radio and he let it play this time. A smooth classics station crooned a vaguely familiar eighties tune, and I danced along to it until Owen cracked a thin smile.

We stopped at a park nearby my place and drew lines in the dirt with Owen’s switchblade, mapping the entire Night Tritons world. He marched from one point to the next with his huge, defiant feet, suggesting all these wacky plot twists and character revelations as he went. He almost knew the fricken story better than I did.

The next day I sat at my desk and opened a blank document. I thought of that one star. Of all the one stars. And then I thought of two. And three, and four and five. And Owen.

And I wrote.

 

 

 

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