Excerpt from Survival of the Fittest by Theresa Cartier
Summer vacation is almost over. I’m looking forward to starting my junior year and seeing my friends again. I’m so bored, I actually say yes when T.J. asks me if I’d like to go bowling. He’s on the Chanel team and needs to practice.
At the bowling alley, I pick out a ball and half-throw, half-drop it onto the lane and watch it bounce lamely into the gutter. T.J. folds his arms over his chest and shakes his head.
“It’s too heavy,” I tell him.
“No, you just have the wrists of a fetus.” He marks a big fat zero on my score sheet and puts it on the overhead viewer for everyone to see.
I pick up another ball and try again. The holes in this one feel big and loose and when I swing my arm back, the ball catapults backwards and hits the concession booth with a loud thunk.
T.J. sighs and walks over to retrieve the ball. My hands are all sweaty so I reach into his bowling bag for a towel. My hand touches fabric; I pull it out to find I am holding a baby-sized Spock with a cloth body and a plastic head.
“Hey! Is this your doll?” I wave Spock in the air. He’s wearing a button that says, World’s Greatest Bowler.
T.J. reaches me in three strides. “He’s for luck. Give him back.” He tries to grab Spock but I pull my arm away.
“You have a doll! You have a doll!”
“You’re such a brat.” T.J. tries to give my shoulder a nerve pinch. It hurts. He snatches Spock and makes him head butt me in retaliation. He points to my seat. “Sit down and behave.” When I do, he tucks Spock back into the bowling bag so that only his head is visible. “Watch her,” he tells Spock. “She’s trouble.”
A girl with thick, coppery hair appears six lanes down. T.J. has had his eye on her for some time.
“Is that Sue?” I ask.
T.J. looks over at her and nods approvingly.
“Her sweater’s awfully tight,” I say.
“I told her to wear that,” he claims, though in truth she probably doesn’t know who he is.
I watch as T.J. stands in his lane with zen-like stillness, then glides his bowling ball across the floor. Pins crash and go flying. Strike.
He marks an X on his scorecard and flashes it on the screen above. “Look,” he says, shaking his pencil at me. “Look at your score,” he points to it, “and look at mine.” Obviously there’s supposed to be a lesson for me in this. Proof of his superiority.
“So what?” I say.
“Sue wouldn’t get a zero,” he smirks.
I roll my eyes at Spock. Can you believe this guy?
The Vulcan remains impassive. Don’t look at me.
“She’s a dog,” I mutter.
“I said, Sue is a dog.”
“No, she’s not.”
“Yeah, well…her boobs aren’t so great.”
“Yes, they are.” T.J. sits down, adds up his scorecard. When he’s done, he autographs it with a flourish and hands it to me. I throw it on the ground.
“You’re such a troublemaker,” sighs T.J. as he picks it up.
“So what?” I say for the second time.
T.J. studies me for a moment, points his pencil at me. “I should draw breasts on you,” he says.
* * *
I’m in the middle of babysitting and baking a cake one afternoon when T.J. drops by my house. My little charge, Adam, climbs all over him when he sits down at the kitchen table. With a pained expression, T.J. tries to disengage himself.
“Here, Adam, have a cookie,” I say, handing him a box of animal crackers. It’s bribery, but I don’t know what else to do. Twenty minutes ago he almost swallowed a penny. Who knows what he’ll try next.
“Mister,” says Adam, spraying a mouthful of cookie, “what’s your favorite animal?”
“A dead one,” says T.J. That pretty much ends the conversation.
After Adam’s parents come to pick him up, I return to the cake cooling on top of the stove. It’s for my father’s birthday.
I slide a butter knife around the sides of the pan, tip it over, and the cake pops out. Then I pull off the paper lining, a trick I learned from my mother. After putting the bottom cake on a plate, I take the top layer out of the pan, but when I turn it over, the entire cake cracks in half.
“Crap!” I say.
T.J. laughs so hard, he practically falls out of his chair.
“It’s not that funny,” I say crossly. I push the two top halves together and slather on a layer of frosting. No one will ever know.
I’m washing out the pans when there’s a knock at the back door. It’s John. He’s been out running errands for his parents, but that couldn’t possibly have brought him to this side of town. Besides, he knows I was stuck with Adam today.
“Where’s the problem child?” he says, walking into the kitchen.
“He went home,” I say. “Now I have a different problem child.”
“At least I didn’t break the cake,” says T.J.
John glares at T.J. “What’s he babbling about?”
“Nothing. Pay no attention to him.” I push John into the living room. I expect him to kiss me, but instead he looks perturbed.
“What’s he doing here?” he says.
The safe answer is that T.J. is returning a book I loaned him. We’ve been exchanging books since I came back from the hospital. We could just as easily use the library, I suppose, but then we wouldn’t have an excuse to hang out together.
“He just wanted to talk,” I tell John.
“About what?” John’s voice has an edge to it that I’ve never heard before.
“I don’t know,” I say defensively. I’m getting a shaky feeling in my stomach. Have I done something wrong? I think back to all the conversations T.J. and I have had. We talk about school, books, TV shows…nothing that could be considered intimate. I think I’m within my rights here.
“T.J. is my friend,” I say.
“I know that,” snaps John. Then he relaxes a little. “It’s just that he’s cutting into my time.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’ll tell him to go.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” says John, looking at his watch. “I have to go home and cut the grass before it gets dark.”
I’ve never had someone like me so much that they wanted me all to themselves. Now someone wants to hold on to me as fiercely as I’ve held on to others. I’m not sure I like it.
John and I walk into the kitchen where T.J. is still sitting, thumbing through my copy of 1984. T.J. looks up.
“Why are you looking at me?” says John.
“Because I’m a masochist,” T.J. replies. Calmly, he gets up and walks to the hall where both of them had taken off their shoes when they came in. Without another word, he picks up John’s shoes and tosses them out the door.
In response, John grabs one of T.J.’s shoes and hurls it onto the sidewalk with all his might. No good enough. He slams the shoe on the ground a few more times for good measure.
“He disapproves of us,” I tell T.J. after John leaves.
“I know,” says T.J. “You should dump him.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He’s too possessive.”
I tell T.J. he’s wrong. I say John is a great boyfriend and he does a lot of nice things for me.
“Still,” says T.J., “he can’t tell you what to do.”
After T.J. leaves, I think about what he said. Aside from being the smartest person I know, T.J. is not inclined to make decisions based on emotion. So if he disapproves of my relationship with John, there must be a valid reason. It doesn’t occur to me that no matter what his I.Q. may be, T.J. is still a sixteen-year-old boy, and that alone should make his advice suspect.
A few weeks later, Beth K. comes over for the afternoon. “Something came in the mail for you,” she says mysteriously. She hands me an old envelope. Her parents’ address has been scratched off the label and mine written on it instead.
Inside the envelope, I find the latest edition of Criminal’s Quarterly, a magazine Beth has invented for crooks, thugs, and hit men. It’s made from notebook paper and pictures cut out of Ladies’ Home Journal, and it runs exciting features like, “Snicker Snook’s Treasure Map Revealed!!!”
Snicker Snook may be in jail, the article says, but that didn’t stop him from revealing his secret map to us!
On the next page is an interview with a character known as the Ambidextrous Man, who’is talking about how fulfilling it is to be a hit man. Along the bottom margin, there’s an advertisement for a club that won’t crack from repeated use on victims’ skulls.
Sadly, I don’t have anything to give Beth in return. I didn’t know she was coming over, so I hadn’t finished typing the latest installment of my mystery series, “The Undercover Nun.” It’s about a nun named Sister Bertha who sneaks around in plain clothes, whipping out a rosary and holy water whenever she catches people sinning.
There must be something I can give Beth to read. Pulling my box of keepsakes out from under the bed, I dig through it until I see an official letter from Star Fleet Command. That’s right: the United Federation of Planets.
“Hey,” I say to Beth, “did I ever show you this?”
The letter is in T.J.’s almost indecipherable handwriting, and it announces the promotion of “Captain” T.J. to the rank of Commodore. Beneath the formal announcement is a personal note from Commodore T.J. himself:
Friends, it reads, I am sure that you are all greatly impressed by this monumental achievement on my part, and it is well that you should be. However, even in my highly exalted state, I will maintain my characteristic humility so that you need not prostrate yourself before me and kiss my feet upon any occasion less formal than a chance meeting in a pool hall. I must now return to my numerous responsibilities. Keeping the galaxy safe for all intelligent life forms—and for you too—is not easy.
It’s signed by T.J., commodore of—what else?—the U.S.S. Enterprise.
You can’t read a letter like that and not want to take the guy down a peg or two, so Beth comes up with the idea of writing T.J. a letter from Doctor I. M. A. Wellman, diagnosing him with “psycho-star-trekia.” The outlook is bleak, according to Dr. Wellman. Psychosis is imminent.
T.J.’s response to Beth’s letter is swift: To whom it may concern, I appreciate good humor, even when I am the object of it. For this reason, I did not enjoy your writing to even the smallest degree. As for psycho-star-trekia, you act as if it is a detriment, when in actuality it is a highly admired level of mental development in Federation circles. Psycho-star-trekia does not deteriorate the brain but improves it. This gives me a supreme intellect unmatched by any organic organism.
For the rest of the summer, Beth engages in an all-out letter war with T.J., which can only mean one thing. She likes him.
However, a guy who has spent the last ten years of his life idolizing Spock is not everyone’s idea of cool, and this is a problem for Beth. She wants people to think she’s cool and popular, which means she should be hanging out with other people who are cool and popular.
But the beautiful people would never get the genius of Criminal’s Quarterly and they certainly wouldn’t care about psycho-star-trekia. They would just think Beth was weird. Her dilemma is that she needs someone who can appreciate her weirdness as well as her cuteness. That’s why she’s friends with me, and why, against her own code of popularity, she says yes when T.J. finally asks her out.
As for me, I’ll take wit over coolness any day. But don’t tell me Spock isn’t cool. He’s always the smartest guy in the room, he never loses his head in a crisis, and he can be very compassionate when he thinks no one is looking. Sounds like a cool guy to me.
Why else do you think Nurse Chapel is so in love with him?