“Move you feet, you lazy fuck!” I screamed at myself, ignoring the fact that I was surrounded by tens of thousands of people or that millions were watching on television around the world.
I couldn’t afford to be this sloppy right now. It was too early in the match to let him get the upperhand. I needed to show him that I could hang with him, especially in these early stages of the match. Where was my focus?
“30-40,” the deep French voice of the chair umpire bellowed over the murmuring crowd. They were all expecting this. He was the best player in the world. Why wouldn’t he quickly break my serve the very first game of the match and get out to a big lead? I knew that’s what the TV commentators were saying.
I nodded to the ball boy in the corner. He slowly bounced a ball to me. Well, there was no way I was going to let that fucking happen now. My team and I have worked too hard for this opportunity. I needed a first serve and needed it now. I gently tossed the ball into the air and launched every bit of my weight into it. Hard and deep into his body. The reply was popped up and short. I raced up to it, my eyes never leaving its trajectory. Swinging my double-handed backhand, I went for placement instead of power, looping the ball with a wicked angle cross-court.
I must have forgotten I was playing against Rafael Nadal, one of the fastest players on the tour. Nadal raced over near the stands. I prayed that the ball would just bounce again. Please. Shit, I needed to cover the line. I scampered clumsily to the sideline. Fuck! He was going to get there. Nadal flicked the forehand cross-court back over the low part of the net. I stopped hard skidding, pivoted to my left, and started flying over to the open court. I stuck my racquet out using every inch of my wingspan. The ball hit the edge of the frame and dribbled over the net.
The crowd let out a cheer as I erupted with a fist pump to my coach and parents in the corner box. I stared straight up into the bright lights overhead. Damn, there were a lot of people here. Focus, man! Focus! I couldn’t play it safe this time. This serve needed to win the point. Taking a deep breath, I calmly tossed the ball into the air and exploded into the ball. Ace, right down the middle. I couldn’t hear the crowd anymore. It was just me on this court. One more big serve you idiot. Flat and short into the corner. Nadal’s return was limply sent into the net.
“Come on!” I shouted toward my box as I made my way to the other side of the court.
That first game was important. I was here to compete. I was here to win, and Nadal knew that now. Riding that small victory in the first game, the set continued on-serve. Somehow, I stayed with Nadal. He needed to win this game to send this first set into a tiebreak.
“Deuce,” the chair umpire firmly called.
This was my chance. I needed to end this set now. Just two more points. The lefty’s serve went spinning away from my backhand. I scooted over and jumped into the air. I had never hit a ball so cleanly and with such angle. Not even Nadal could get there. The crowd went mental. Set point! One more point!
“Out!” the chair umpire thundered over the cheering crowd.
“What the,” I started marching to the chair.
“Do you want to challenge the call?” the chair asked casually.
“You bet your fucking ass I do.” I said far too quickly.
“Pedersen is challenging the call on the right far sideline,” Collectively, Nadal, the crowd, and I turned to the giant screen above the court. As the picture zoomed in to the delight of the crowd, the mark was right on the line. I turned and clenched my fist right at the chair umpire. That fucking moron.
“The call is overturned. Advantage Pedersen.” The chair calmly announced. He continued, “Warning, code violation Pedersen.”
Fuck that. It didn’t matter now. It was set-point. This match was right there for the taking. I just needed to take it.
“Ped-er-sen! Ped-er-sen!” The crowd chanted in unison. Somehow, I thought I heard my Mom’s screaming through this craziness. This was my moment. Throwing my head to the sky, I tried to steady my nerves. Was that rain falling on my head?
“Shawn!” The screaming was louder and closer now. A loud knock hit the door.
I shook the water off of my head. “I’ll be out in a minute!” I guess the US Open would have to wait. I needed to get to school.
I made my down the stairs. My brother was already sitting in front of the television with his bowl of cereal as my mom peered over this morning’s edition of the paper. Without looking up, she said, “Should I just forward the water bill to your bedroom?”
“Sorry, history notes for Mr. Morris kept me up late last night.”
“Hmm hmm,” my mom suspiciously muttered. “Make sure you grab some breakfast. You need to head off to school.”
I wandered over to the kitchen and poured a quick bowl of cereal. Shoveling the morsels into my mouth, I pulled out my planner. I was one of the few who didn’t run their life onto a google calendar, phone, or other gadget. There was just something about writing things down that made them so much easier to remember and organize. Today was another action packed day: academic decathlon meeting before classes, a full complement of classes including a statistics exams, yearbook meeting, tennis practice, honors society volunteering, and then finding some time to squeeze in homework. And crap, I needed to stop by the guidance office and finalize college applications. Mom was right. I was going to need this breakfast. And probably some form of caffeine.
Joey walked into the kitchen. “Come on captain. We should probably get going.” I nodded back and snuck a thermos of coffee into my bag. Words were way too hard this early in the morning.
The two of us gave a faux enthusiastic wave to mom who gave the equally sarcastic response, “Have a lovely day gentlemen.” It was an odd little morning routine, but it always made the mornings just a bit brighter.
It wasn’t a long drive to the mundane brick Southwood High School. Joey and I weren’t too used to going to the same school, as he was just starting his freshman year as I began my senior year. That age difference made things a bit better for both of us. Once I parked, our lives were almost completely separate until we got back home. No animosity. We just needed to live our independent lives for a chunk of time, or we would probably kill each other.
The academic decathlon before school meeting and first half of classes were fairly uneventful. I didn’t even mind taking the statistics exam. Ms. Doyle had basically told us everything that was going to be covered. All I had to do with regurgitate it in the right way. I never understood how people didn’t just follow what they were told. It took all of my patience to listen to my girlfriend and our friends complain about the exam as we meandered toward the cafeteria for lunch.
“Hey, Pedersen!” a voice echoed from the other end of the hall. Great, the guidance counselor Mr. Frazier. I guess this college talk wasn’t going to be delayed any longer, but at least it would free me from this constant complaining.
“Hi, Mr. Frazer. I was planning on dropping by your office.”
“Why don’t we take care of that now? We don’t want to keep Yale waiting, do we?”
“I suppose not,” I replied contorting my face to my girlfriend and friends. I gave Shelley a quick peck on the cheek as I followed Mr. Frazier to his office. The four guidance counselors shared a cramped office oddly divided into four temporary cubicles. There had been rumors for years of moving them into a bigger office, but they stayed rumors. I picked up the stack of files on the one flimsy folding chairs and placed them on the faded blue-carpeted floor.
“Today is the big day, eh?” Mr. Pedersen asked as he tried to sort through the various stack of papers on his desk and surrounding floor.
“I guess it is. The college applications will finally be finished and submitted.” My parents, teachers, friends, and I had all spent countless hours pouring over admission essays, recommendation letters, and resumes trying to present my case as perfectly as possibly.
“Just want to confirm with you, you have ten applications going in. Right?”
“Yep, ten whole application packages.”
“Yale still the top choice.”
Almost instantly, I replied, “Yep, of course. Nothing’s changed.” Yale had been the goal ever since I started high school. Their academic opportunities and people I’d meet there went without saying. Plus, their tennis coach seemed interested in bringing me onto the team. It was an easy, logical choice.
“Right, looks like all of the materials are here. You have a good selection of safety and reach schools. Though honestly, I think your chances at getting into Yale are as good as anyone’s I’ve ever seen. You have amazing grades and so many extra-curriculars. Then, throw in the tennis coach’s interest. There’s no reason for you not to get in.” Mr. Frazier looked up and let out a muffled laugh. “I honestly don’t know how you get so much accomplished each day. Do you sleep?”
I had gotten used to this. I didn’t even know how I got everything done in my life. I had a checklist and liked to mark everything off. And usually, that’s what I did. “Sleep is for the weak. I’ll catch up on it eventually.” I flashed a smile to show I was joking, just a little bit at least.
“Well Pedersen, I think you’ll be enjoying the fruits of all your hard word really soon. Maybe then you can get some of that sleep.”
“Come on, you know that won’t happen. I’ll find other things to add to my planner.” I said throwing up my hands in a shrug. “Speaking of which, I better head off and eat lunch before my next class. Can’t be starving through the afternoon. There has to be some sort of law against that.”
“One last thing Pedersen.” Mr. Frazier leaned forward. “There’s a new student starting here tomorrow. Would you mind coming in early tomorrow and showing him around some? Apparently, he played tennis at his old school. May be a good recruit for the team.”
Everyone always knew to ask me for these sorts of things. I was addicted to pleasing. “Yea sure, no problem. I don’t think you can classify it as coming in early anymore. I’m always here for before school meetings now.”
“Thanks Pedersen. Now, get out of here. Let me know when you start hearing from schools.”
I was already halfway out of the office. Everyone including Mr. Frazier would know when I started getting into schools. News in this town traveled at an insane pace. It was fantastic and frightening at the same time, depending on whether you were the subject of the news or not. Thankfully, I was usually a consumer of the news rather than the news itself.
As usual, I ate my lunch in literally three minutes, just enough time to get to US History. That late night note session came in handy. Mr. Morris decided this afternoon was the perfect time to give us a surprise essay-based quiz. What happened to a good old ten question pop quiz just to make sure you did the reading? Oh well, I survived. I dashed off to yearbook and got a nice head start on my homework. If all of these extra activities weren’t expected to appear on your college applications, yearbook would definitely be the first to go. Shelley was a great cover. She would volunteer us for enough things to make it look like I had enough of an interest.
“Pedersen, did you finish drafting the descriptions for the sports teams?” The editor Jane asked.
Crap, I wasn’t paying attention. “Yea, yea. I will email them to you now.” I quickly threw together a quick email and sent it. “You should be getting them now. Guys, I’m sorry but tennis practice is starting up. Shelley will fill me in on everything else. Thanks guy.”
Not letting them react, I raced out of there. Boy was I excited to eventually stop having to go to these seemingly unimportant meetings and events. Tossing my bag into the locker room, I threw on my tennis gear and jogged over the courts by the massive parking lot.
“Let’s go Pedersen! I know Yale is calling you day and night, but you have some business to attend to.” Coach Larson barked with a smirk across his face.
“Sorry Coach. History quiz, yearbook, and life just got in the way today.”
The season was just starting, but my position as first singles on the ladder was assured. I was second singles last year, and our best player Mike had finally graduated. I hadn’t lost to anyone on the team, other than Mike, since freshman year. Practice right now was a series of match play, and there was no way I was going to lose. The court was a place where I could escape my planner and everyone, even for just a little while. Today’s match play was even easier. For some reason, Coach was having me play against one of the new freshman. He had talent, but it was way too easy to out maneuver him with my experience. It was just the break my brain needed.
“Pedersen, nice work today. Come on over.” I had just served out the practice set over the freshman. It was a nice workout, but nothing stressful. Nothing like serving out a set in Arthur Ashe Stadium over Nadal like this morning.
“What’s up Coach? I have to head off to National Honors Society in a few.”
“Don’t worry this will be quick.” Coach was looking down at the ground. “The Yale coach gave me a call this afternoon. The admissions office let him know that your application was submitted today.”
“Yep, submitted it during lunch.”
“He wanted to know if Yale was still your top choice. I told him it was. That still the case?”
“Of course, Yale all the way. Why does everyone keep on asking me that?”
“Just want to make sure it’s what you want Pedersen. It’s a big decision.”
“I think we’ve all been over-thinking this for months and months. It’s time for us to relax. If I get into Yale, then that’s the only place for me to go. There’s no need to keep stressing over it, okay?”
“Whatever you say Captain.”
“Exactly, now I better no clean up and head over to town meeting. Don’t think they want a smelly microphone passer.”
With all of these events and activities on the daily schedule, I had mastered the art of the speedy shower. Well, at least in the afternoon when my brain and body had been humming for hours. In fifteen minutes, I had made my way to town hall to help pass around the microphone at town meeting. Unfortunately, town meeting brought together seemingly everyone in Southwood. And of course, each of them had plenty to say on where I should go to college. For some reason, everyone in this small town thought they needed to have their opinions heard. They certainly had spent a lot more time and effort on this topic than I had. It did give me amble opportunity to practice tuning people out while appearing interested, a highly underrated skill.
Aside from struggling to stay awake through the discussion of zoning permits downtown, the actual town meeting was a welcomed respite from the constant questioning. I didn’t want to think about college. I felt like that was all I had been thinking and talking about for the past 3 years. Couldn’t we just ignore it until we heard about application decisions?
Town meeting ran late. I raced home to start on the mound of homework due tomorrow. My parents were already starting to get ready for bed when I finally got back home.
“Crazy day, honey?” Mom said with a yawn.
“Oh you know, just a standard day of running around like a madman.”
“Well, at least those pesky college applications are off your plate. You can forget about all that nonsense for a little bit.”
“Not if the people in this town have anything to do about it.”
“You still listen to them?” Dad shrugged.
“Good point,” At least the two of them seemed to get it. “Alright, I better crank out some of this homework so I can get to bed at some point tonight. Or early enough in the morning. Night guys.”
“Good night honey. Do try to get to bed soon. It’s already late.”
That was a nice sentiment, but sleep was going to be in short supply tonight. My calculus, statistics, and Spanish homework were waiting for me as well as the four texts I had missed from Shelley. I still had far too many things to check off of my list.
To be honest, I appreciated getting to school early even if it meant that I got a little less sleep each night. The halls were soundless and empty. No one was around to disrupt my flow of productivity. I was a little early to meet up with Mr. Frazier, so I started another lap of the school. Mr. Frazier had asked me to show around a new student many times before. He quickly had learned that I never really said no to anything here, and I usually had enough connections to clubs and sports to steer the newbie to a new group of people to join. This time it looked like I may have to guide this new guy to my tennis team. We weren’t desperate for players, but it always helped to have another guy on the bench.
My phone finally showed 7AM sharp. I knocked on the side of Mr. Frazier’s cubicle and took a peek inside. There was a tall, lanky guy with olive skin slumped in the chair opposite Mr. Frazier staring down at the bottom of the desk. I didn’t blame his glum expression. Who the hell wanted to be a new student senior year of high school?
“Oh Pedersen, right. You’re here.” I never understood why Mr. Frazier was always so flustered and unaware. Of course I was here. This was when we scheduled to meet. “Alex, this is Shawn. He’s the tennis player I told you about. He’ll be showing you around today.”
“Hey Alex,” I flashed a smile and little wave. It was way too early for enthusiasm. Alex simply nodded and looked back toward Mr. Frazier’s desk. “Are you all set here? We should probably make our way toward homeroom.”
“Of course. Alex, let me know if you have any issues acclimating here at Southwood High. Pedersen will take care of you today.”
Again, Alex simply nodded and hopped up to his feet. We left Mr. Frazier’s office to the hallways starting to fill up with tired teenagers. “So, Alex where you transferring in from?”
“Just from Natick. Not too far away.” Alex said, a bit wide-eyed as he tried to absorb all of these new faces at once.
“Let’s take a peek at your schedule.” I grabbed the folder from Alex. “Oh cool, we actually have some classes together. US History is all right. Good group of us, and Mr. Morris is real chill.”
“Good to hear.” Alex said uninterested. I couldn’t blame him. I turned to cut through the auditorium. The drama club was practicing, rehearsing, or doing some sort of art thing. Everyone wore tight black turtlenecks tucked into their pale blue jeans. Contorted in awkward positions, the drama kids were doing some sort of interpretative dance to drums and fifes. Seemingly randomly, they each took turns shouting and emoting different words like “selfish” and “confused”. Alex and I threw our gazes to the ground to avoid awkwardly staring at the display. “Man, this is one fucking weird school,” Alex mumbled as we left the auditorium.
All I could was stifle my laughter. “Well yea, pretty much. But isn’t every high school.”
“Fair point. I guess this place is just another labor camp with different guards and bunkers.”
“It’s not that bad. We’re almost out of here, even if you just arrived. Your homeroom is right over there. You’ll see me in history and Spanish before lunch. Come find me at lunch and sit with my friends. Lunch always sucks the first day at a new place. Okay?”
“Yea ok. Sounds good. Thanks Shawn. This moving crap blows, but maybe not as much now.”
“Not a problem man. See ya in class.”
The morning was a mundane blur of lectures and tedium. Teachers went on and on talking at blank faces. There was probably more activity on our phones than actual intellectual thought in those classrooms. People like Mr. Frazier always asked me how I found time to recharge my batteries. I always made up some borderline witty or quirky answer. They were never accurate though. I always relayed what they wanted to hear. The honest answer was that I rested my brain as I spaced out in these ridiculous, pointless periods of being talked at. Who needed to think here?
I was starving by lunch. Fortunately, I got a full lunch period today instead of being forced to confront my future. Instead, I had the pleasure of enjoying random inane conversation about this weekend’s party or being over-dramatic about exams, parties, and games. Shelley and a few of her friends were already at our usual table in the far right corner. I grabbed my seat as two of my tennis buddies Craig and Mike joined us.
“Busy night last night babe?” Shelley asked leadingly.
Crap, I had forgotten to text Shelley back last night. Here came the consequences. “I don’t think I had a moment to breath until around midnight. College applications submitted yesterday. Had to discuss with the parents and basically every other adult in this town.”
Shelley leaned over and gave me a lingering kiss on the cheek. “You are so lucky to have such an understanding, low-maintenance girlfriend. Congrats on the applications. Who knows, maybe we’ll both be gracing the ivy streets of Yale hand in hand next fall. Plus, I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it up to me.” I turned smiling and kissed her back. Phew, I knew the college angle would work. All of us were going through this college bullshit now. It was a get out of jail free card for everyone. “Anyway, Cassie are we good for our little get together on Friday.”
As Cassie and Shelley jumped back into planning whatever Friday night party or event I’d be attending, I caught Alex timidly surveying the cafeteria landscape. God, his hesitation and tall lanky frame only made him stand out more. I couldn’t imagine what he was feeling. I stood up on my chair and waved him over to the table. “Guys, it’s this kid’s first day here. His name is Alex. He’s totally harmless and apparently played on the varsity tennis team at his old school. It okay if he just sits with us for a couple of days?”
Cassie paused from her party planning for only a second. “Yea sure whatever. Just as long as he isn’t annoying or creepy. I don’t care.”
Alex slowly approached the table. “Hey guys, this is Alex. Just moved here from Natick. These are Mike and Craig. They’re on the tennis team with me. This is my girlfriend Shelley and Cassie.” Each of them obliged with a quick “What’s up” or wave.
The break for these simple greetings was brief. Cassie and Shelley launched straight back into the party details as Alex quietly took his seat next to me. I never understood why there was so much discussion about these events. Every weekend was basically the same with almost the entirely same group of people would go to one of our houses, the town forest, or the movies and do the same things. But, the ferocity and urgency with which everyone talked about them made the obnoxious cable news anchors look subdued and subtle.
My ear was buzzing with my producer’s voice. I immediately paused the planned story and said. “Excuse me viewers, we are receiving an urgent breaking story. Please bear with me.” Come on, just spit it out Doug. Millions are watching us live right now. “Alright, okay. We have breaking news from the nation’s capital.” Jesus, I was going to be talking about this story for weeks. Thank you for the ratings you dumb ass politicians. “The two Senators from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Republican Susan Wayne and Democrat Thad Vinson, have both been indicted in federal court. Both are charged with taking illegal funds from defense contractors in exchange for votes on the Senate floor and the awarding of government contracts. Each is reported to have taken millions of dollars of bribes for their votes and influence.”
I took a breath to let the news sink in. “With us to discuss this breaking news, we have former Democratic Senator from North Dakota Silvia Brown and Republican Congressman from Maine Charlie Barr.” We had booked these guests to discuss the upcoming midterm elections, but this breaking news was just too juicy to ignore. Plus, both Senator Brown and Congressman Barr had worked with these disgraced Senators from Virginia. Personal feelings could spice up this segment. God knows a nice viral video would boost our ratings even more.
“Senator Brown, you’ve just heard the breaking news from Washington. Your former colleagues from Virginia are facing some very serious charges. What is your reaction?”
“Well, Shawn. I think my reaction is similar to everyone else’s. I’m disgusted, upset, and honestly shocked. Senator Vinson was in my caucus, and I would have never thought he was capable of such heinous actions. We need to learn all the facts in this case and find out exactly what Senators Vinson and Wayne have done. If the charges are even close to true, I think they will go down in history as two of the most corrupt and possibly treasonous politicians in our history.”
“Those are some strong comments, especially against a former colleague and friend of yours.”
“Well, these are some serious charges Shawn.”
“Shawn, I would like to just jump in here.” Congressmen Barr said breathlessly. These politicians and pundits always needed to have their voices heard. It was like interacting with high school kids at times.
“Of course, Congressmen. What are your reactions?”
“I think Senator Brown is completely on the ball here. This is not a partisan issue. Both Democrats and Republicans have to be on the same page here. These two Senators have brought shame to the US Capitol and the Commonwealth of Virginia. The American people and Virginians deserve better. I am thoroughly disgusted by them. They need to face the harshest penalties possible if and when they are convicted.”
“Congressman Barr, don’t you think that is a bit of a rush to judgment? They have only just been indicted. What about due process? They haven’t been convicted of anything.” I said playing devil’s advocate.
“Shawn, you don’t get indicted just for the hell of it. Where there is smoke, there is likely fire. It just doesn’t sit right with me. They should be resigning from the Senate immediately. If they don’t, my colleagues in the Senate should take immediate action to censure them.”
“Senator Brown, what do you think of Congressman Barr’s direct call to action to you and your fellow Senators?”
“Well, while I can appreciate and feel the indignation from the Congressman of Maine, I think we need to let due process take its course.”
“Shawn, the American people need immediate action from its Representatives and Senators in Washington. There have to be consequences.” Congressman Barr barked.
“Shawn,” another voice emerged. What did Doug want now? Wait, the voice in my ear was too high pitched. “Shawn! Are you listening to me?”
“Huh, what? What’s up Shel?”
“You’re definitely in for driving Cassie and I on Friday, right?”
“Yea, no problem. Of course. Sorry, a bit stressed this week.”
The bell rang. “It’s alright, that’s why we have these parties on the weekends. We all gotta unwind. Talk to you tonight.”
Everyone raced from the table to the next class, leaving Alex and I at the table. As we slowly rose from the table, Alex said, “You’ve got to teach me how you do that.”
“Drift off to wherever you drift off to when people just talk and talk and talk. I must say it’s retty impressive. Where do you go?”
“What are you talking about?” I said flustered. “Just making a mental checklist of everything I need to accomplish today. Another busy day in the life of Shawn Pedersen.”
Alex grabbed his backpack and tossed his trash away. “I don’t believe that for a second. You were far too gone to be thinking about homework and the fourteen clubs you’re a part of.”
I offered a little giggle and shrug, trying to play it off. “Fine, you got me. Maybe someday I’ll teach you my ways young one. But only if you give the tennis team a try.”
“A small price to pay. Text me the details. I guess I’ll be there.”