Note: Thank you for the feedback! I promise, the next few chapters won't be filled with this much bickering. This part just had to be written or it wouldn't get out of my head. It's long because the effect dies if I chop it into sections ^_^.
When the silence became too comfortable, Zach shot it dead.
“I’m halfway through the book.” He announced in a very serious voice, taking his seat opposite Gentry, “At this rate, I’ll be caught up in two days.”
The serious voice didn’t impress Gentry. He had seen that smile; he was not fooled for a second.
You like me, you son of a bitch. You can’t help it.
He kept an equally serious silence and thoughtfully sunk back into his chair; taking a deep breath, then nodding slowly in approval.
He wordlessly reached into his folder, drew out a manila folder, and slid it across the table. Zach caught it apprehensively, quickly glanced it over, then asked,
“…I’m not supposed to have this.”
Gentry gave a little smile, and answered softly, “Consider it a gift.”
“I’m not taking this.” Zach declared firmly, shoving it back over the table.
Gentry leered at him in disbelief, then pushed it back with the level reminder, “Do you know the trouble I went through to get this?”
“I don’t care; I’m not taking it. I never cheated, and I’m not going to start now.”
“You cheated on your so-called boyfriend.”
“That’s different,” Zach admitted defensively, “And piling on wrongs never made a right.”
“Handson’s cheating you out of your grade.”
“Fight fire with fire.”
“Water can’t become fire--- It’s not me.” Zach exhaled angrily, and devoutly insisted, “I’m not going to cheat, because it’s wrong.”
Gentry sat up in his chair.
“You know what’s wrong?” he asked spitefully, raising himself to his feet and cirling the table, “School is wrong. Handson didn’t help you find a group. He just deducted points wherever he could.”
Beneath the logical argument simmered a note of resentment. He looked so hateful; A pile of sour intent which spoke each word as if it had happened to him, and had left a mark deep underneath his skin. Beneath the firm, weary-voiced intonation there was a latent disgust bubbling through to the surface, a long-held acidity which strained his features into a dry frown when he finished talking. He stopped pacing and glanced at Zach; his brooding gaze dared Zach to reply, so reply Zach did.
“I don’t like Handson, but that doesn’t change that I also fucked up.” he argued, “I should have been in Kylie’s group when he gave me the chance. I didn’t want to because he’d grade us harder… that was a mistake. But I still should have done the Romeo and Juliet assignment. I could have worked better---”
“You could have. And he could teach instead of torture.” Gentry replied heatedly. “He expects you to reach a standard so he can get paid, but he doesn’t want to do any of the teaching that will get you to that standard. So he grades you down if you don’t make it. You’re a crappy lit student, Zach. But you’re not an F.”
“It doesn’t matter what the hell I am or not! The percentages add up, even if the guy adding them is Handson. And I can’t cheat just because he cheated. Any way you look at it, a bunch of wrongs still don’t make a right.”
“The Right way isn’t always the Best way. Don’t you want to survive?”
“Who doesn’t! But I don’t want to survive as a cheater. It sets the wrong standard.”
Gentry moved behind him and slid his arms around his shoulders.
“Standards, hm? When I was in the office, I saw Kylie had a B+, and you had an F. We both know the grade doesn’t fit; is it really worth sacrificing your summer over? A dog could have earned the same grade with less effort.” he murmured in his ear, “You know… I went through a lot to get that Final. Try being thankful.”
Zach pulled out of his grasp, and exhaled loudly.
“I don’t want it, Gentry!”
He quietly reasoned that if any teacher could expect cheating in their class, it was Handson: That arrogant motherfucker with his 89.7%’s, an incompetent online-worksheets printing bozo who always left early, and graded you down for the color of your ink. Fucking A… Yet, on the other hand, if that logic were applied to shooting people, well… The fact was that Zach had never cheated nor shot anyone.
“That F will follow you throughout your school career.” Gentry said after a moment’s uncertain silence, in response to the wavering doubt which played over Zach’s face. Yet he didn’t look up.
“Do you want to get into a good college? Because colleges will look at it and judge your potential as a human being, only that F isn’t you. The only reason you have it is because you have too much academic integrity.”
Gentry taunted him with such conviction that Zach cynically wondered if he was trying to validate his own actions. He rested his cheek on one fist and warily peered across the table, to where Gentry has resumed his seat.
“You have to do what you have to do, otherwise people will do you.” He leaned in to stress with a slow-drawled, “Understand?”
“Then that’s your defect. If you don’t fight for yourself, no one will. Do you want to keep failing for the rest of your life? Everybody cheats. Learn it already.” Gentry exhaled in a low sigh, evidently frustrated as he continued,
“If you want to save your grade, go to Handson tomorrow and tell him that you were too involved in the GSA; that you were helpless, confused, and trying to find yourself--- and because of that, you didn’t try as much as you should have. Tell him you’ve changed.”
“--- I haven’t---”
“That doesn’t matter. It’s only words; so tell him you take full responsibility for your mistakes, but you want another chance on the Romeo and Juliet assignment. Or, a make-up assignment. Then walk away dejectedly when he turns you down. Badger him whenever you turn in an assignment. The next assignment you turn in will get a C-, so it won’t look suspicious when you get B’s on the others. Make sure to thank him for the C, and tell him you studied a lot. Ask him what else you can do. Then, for the rest of the weeks until the end of the year, wear your ugliest sweater. Don’t look too hot, and drink a lot of sugar water; Look tired and worn out so he’ll believe you when you say how much you’ve been studying.”
“You should be judged on merits and work, not sugar water. This is all bullshit---”
“Handson is bullshit.”
“But it’s not right---”
“So why should you be?”
“Because you can’t criticize someone if you aren’t better than them! I can’t just support their behavior by giving in.”
“You also can’t criticize them if you flunk high school.” Gentry raised his voice and his eyes, “High school isn’t about how smart you are, how creative you are, or how you stick to your guns. Guns are illegal here. The only thing you learn in high school is bullshitting, and if you want to make a difference in the world you shut up when you need to, otherwise you go down early. That’s what Handson’s trying to do; He wants to destroy you before you have a chance to accomplish anything. And he has the power to; unless you beat him at his own game.”
Gentry’s raving proclamation ended in dry silence. When he didn’t mumble, he had a strong voice, ripe with conviction. It was a voice which inspired understanding and above all, faith.
Faith forged from distrust, knowing that nothing could be relied on except for disappointment and domination. That teachers were only human, and it was every man for himself— and the moment you accepted that as your gospel, you knew that you could only rely on yourself to get what you wanted.
Nothing else mattered— The body and mind were only survival tools.
there was no way to justify something like this, there was no compromise here he could live with. After all, it only took one missing brick to crumble a wall. To some people cheating meant nothing, but not for him. Was a belief worth a grade? A summer? A lifetime? Were beliefs worth anything at all? He didn’t need to think twice.
Enough was enough. Zach rubbed his sweaty palms on his arms, and spoke up without wavering,
At the end of the table, his favorite rival looked up with smoldering eyes, watching with great interest as the emotions played out over his face. Probably wondering why he never felt them, and why this was such a difficult choice. The window behind his head filtered sunlight through the blinds, which lit his red hair and glinted across his eyes.
“Can you tell me one thing?” asked Zach, tense as the air.
“When does the bullshiting end?”