The Fill-in Boyfriend

Chapter 22

“I don’t believe it took you guys three hours to ask sixteen questions. Three hours.”

“It was Gia’s fault. She took the longest with hers,” Bec said.

I laughed. “If you didn’t analyze every one of my questions, Hayden, it wouldn’t have taken me so long. And we still get four more.”

He pulled into the parking lot of the university. “I feel like I need to change my answer to something more exciting after this buildup, like last time.”

“Wait. Are you saying your name isn’t Hayden?”

He gave me a playful tap on my arm with his fist. “No, I meant that there was a huge buildup last time and I felt like I needed to change my name.”

“You can’t change your answer. That’s cheating. But we will pause the game since we’re here.”

“Oh, good, more buildup.” He parked at a metered parking stall and turned off the car.

I looked out the window at the large buildings looming in front of us. We got out of the car and Hayden locked it.

“I’m excited to surprise him. I’ve never done anything like this.”

He added some quarters to the meter. “I’m sure he’ll be very flattered.”

“Or irritated. Either way,” Bec said with a teasing smile.

Hayden put her into a headlock and she squealed in a way I didn’t think her capable of doing. “What’s that, Bec? Irritated? What siblings ever irritate each other?” He released her and she punched him on the chest. He stood in between us as we walked, Nate on Bec’s other side. After a minute Hayden draped one arm around Bec’s shoulder and the other around mine. Oh, good, I’d fallen into the sister category.

I pulled the tickets out to find the name of the building the ceremony was taking place in: Macgowan Hall. I’d been to this campus a few times, a couple of times for Drew and another couple when visiting Bradley, but I didn’t remember where everything was. So we paused in front of a campus map.

My gaze immediately settled on the café where I’d met Bradley. I thought I’d feel something, a tug of loss, a longing, but there was nothing.

“It’s probably in the theater and film department, right?” Hayden’s finger landed right next to the building I had been looking at.

“You’ve been here before?”

“No, I haven’t, but I’m thinking of transferring here eventually. They have an amazing theater program.”

Is that why he wanted to come? To check out the campus, give himself some motivation? “You should just start here, then,” I said. It would be so fun to have Hayden at UCLA with me.

“I need to get my generals out of the way somewhere cheaper.”

“Yeah, not everyone has a scholarship,” Bec said.

How did she know that? Had she researched me or something?

“You have a scholarship to UCLA?” Hayden asked. “I’m learning more about you every minute.”

“I need a picture,” I announced, partly to change the subject and partly because I had an idea. “The three of you stand there by the campus map.”

Hayden started to object but I gave him a little push. “Just do it.”

I backed up several steps and held up my phone. “Okay, hmm, Nate step a little closer to Bec. That’s better. Actually a little closer. Good, now put your arm around her like Hayden is doing. It will look better.” Bec’s cheeks went a little pink and Hayden’s annoyed look at having to take a picture turned into a smile.

“Say, ‘UCLA.’”

After getting something to eat, we arrived at the theater about ten minutes early, but I didn’t see my brother anywhere. “Should I call him?”

“It would be fun for him to see you in the audience,” Bec said. “Then we can talk to him afterward.”

“Okay. Sounds good.” It mostly sounded good because I was nervous. He’d asked me not to come and I was worried I was about to ruin his special night by being here. I shook off the feeling. He’d be happy. I knew I would’ve been if our places were reversed, if I’d seen him in the audience the day I’d given my campaign speech or the many times since that I’ve had to make presentations in front of the school.

A couple of minutes before six, the lights dimmed and a big screen lit up onstage. I was still trying to locate my brother, who I now thought was sitting in the front row. The back of his head looked an awful lot like the backs of several other people’s heads, though: mid-collar-length dark hair. Right as the clock on my phone reached six, a tall man walked out to the podium on the stage and tapped the microphone a few times.

“Hello, friends, family, and, of course, film students. I’m so pleased you could all make it. I’m Dr. Hammond, head of the film department. Welcome to our end-of-the-year awards ceremony highlighting our best pieces of the year. I know your time is valuable so we’re going to get straight to it.”

My brother was right: this was a fairly slow-moving ceremony. A clip from each film that won an award was shown after the honor it won was announced. The short clips were too short to get into and yet long enough to drag on. I pulled out my phone and texted Hayden.

Can it be used in a sporting competition? It was my turn to ask and I was pretty sure I had narrowed down his answer to Twenty Questions to a few different options. It wasn’t a person, it wasn’t a place, it didn’t breathe, it could be carried.

It took his phone a second to vibrate, and when he pulled it out and read my question, he smiled.

His fingers moved over his screen typing for way longer than it took to write a simple yes or no. I squeezed his knee and he chuckled. Sure enough, when his answer came back, it was an analysis of my question.

Sporting competition is such a general term. Do you mean only a sporting competition? Or do you mean that one of its uses can be in a sporting competition?

Do people like to play games with you? Or is it pretty much a one-time occurrence and then they learn their lesson?

Is that one of your questions? Because that would make eighteen. Also, seeing as how this is the second time you’ve played this game with me, you tell me.

Bec elbowed me in the side and I looked up to see my brother’s name on the big screen with the title of his piece: Reprogramming a Generation.

“This next piece,” Dr. Hammond said, “is one of my very favorites. The insight and perspective that Drew shows us is raw, honest, and real. And because of those things, along with the documentation process itself, Drew has won the ultimate award this year: overall best piece. Congratulations, Drew. I wish we could see the whole film today because there is so much there, but that’s impossible. So let us take a short look at your video and then please come up and accept your award.”

On the screen, my brother’s name and the title of the piece faded, replaced by the UCLA campus. Students were walking to class, the halls were full, and the camera kept zooming in on people on their phones. Then the scene changed to one I recognized immediately, our house. Drew’s voice came on.

“How is selfworth measured today? By the amount of likes a post gets, by how many friends we collect, by how many retweets we accumulate? Do we even know what we really think until we post our thoughts online and let others tell us if they are worthy?” While he was speaking, the camera moved slowly down the hall. My face had gone numb because I knew where he was going. I remembered that camera glued to his face over his last year of visits home.

“G, what are you doing?” he asked.

I was sitting on the couch, my phone out. He asked again. The part he wasn’t showing on film was the four times he’d asked me that same question and I answered him. Now he was showing the time where I was ignoring him because he had officially gone past the annoying stage.

“G, what are you doing?”

Finally my on-screen face looked up. “I’m checking our pic that I posted to Instagram.”

“How many likes has it gotten?”

My on-screen version smiled then and my real-life self looked down. “Only fifteen. If it doesn’t get more, I’m deleting it.”

Drew laughed. “Hey, I’m going to make a video of this for my class, okay?”

“Like a Vine or something?”

“No, just for a project.”

“This would be the most boring video ever.”

The audience laughed.

Bec growled next to me. “I’m having an immature brain again.”

“Me too,” Hayden said, and squeezed my arm.

“I’m fine,” I whispered, trying to make that declaration true.

The film kept going, though, and I wanted it to stop so badly. Now it was just Drew, which was better, walking down the hall again a little later in the day. “If I posted a picture of a tree I’d seen fall in the woods and nobody ‘liked’ it, would I start to question if it really happened?”

“Real original,” Bec muttered.

Now Drew was in the kitchen, where my mom was on the computer probably checking out real estate and my dad was on his phone probably playing a game to relax. Next Drew held his phone in front of the camera, where it showed a text from my mom that said, Come down for dinner.

“Did you text me about dinner, Mom?”

She looked up and smiled uncomfortably at his camera. “Yes, it’s ready. Go get your sister.”

I didn’t want him to get me because I knew what happened next. I was hoping this was a time, like in all the other films we’d seen tonight, that it stopped in the middle of a scene. But I wasn’t so lucky. My on-screen self was now in my room.

“Dinner, G,” Drew said. This time I was on my laptop. I had been doing homework but he didn’t show that part. “How many likes now?”

“Forty likes, five retweets.”

“So that must mean it’s good.”

“Yep.” I shut my laptop and stood, smiling at him and the camera. “Your face is likable, I guess. Who knew?”

“Good thing your friends told us that or we’d have never known.” I knew he was being sarcastic that day and I was sarcastic right back when I said, “So true.” But it only proved the point his film was trying to make. That’s when the screen went black. That’s when Drew stood up and walked to the podium. He had a confident smile on his face.

“Thank you for this great honor,” he said, holding the small plaque that his teacher had handed to him. “And I hope my friends are tweeting this, otherwise it didn’t really happen, right?” He pointed to a couple of guys in the front row and the audience laughed. “I too wish more of this film could’ve been shown tonight because toward the end I show the darker side to this addiction of the need for validation. And a lot of the times the people we crave this validation from are complete strangers. It doesn’t matter who is telling us they like something. It’s just the amount of people telling us that. So if I get a hundred likes for this later on Instagram, then I’ll know it’s special.” He held up the plaque. “If I get two, it must be worthless. What is this addiction creating? And is it too late to undo the damage?”

I had sunk lower in my chair, not a fan of being the poster child for his mocking take on society. I could feel both Hayden and Bec staring at me, but I was now focused on the red velvet of the seat in front me.

Drew’s professor came back on the stage. “Thank you, Drew. And good news—if you want to see this or any of the pieces from tonight in their entirety, please visit this website.” The address for a site appeared on the big screen. I didn’t want to see Drew’s piece in its entirety but I memorized the address anyway.

When the lights in the theater turned on, I jumped.

Hayden put his hand on my shoulder. “What do you want to do? Do you want to talk to him?”

“I want to punch him,” Bec said.

“Bec, this isn’t about you,” Hayden said.

Nate raised his hand. “I want to punch him too.”

“He edited it a lot.”

“You don’t have to explain it, Gia.”

This was why Drew didn’t want us here and I should’ve listened.

“I’m fine.” I stood up and looked down at Drew, who was surrounded by friends and his professor.

A college-aged girl behind me said, “Hey, that was you in that film. And you had your phone out all through the ceremony. So ironic.”

I flinched and Bec snapped her teeth at the girl.

I forced a smile. “I just want to go home,” I said to Hayden. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow when he’s less busy.”

“Can I talk to him now when he’s surrounded by people’s opinions that he values?”

Bec gave her brother a shove. “Yes. Do.”

“No. I just want to go home,” I said again.

After we’d made it through the crowded theater and out onto the campus, I took a deep breath. Hayden, Bec, and Nate were all eerily quiet. I just wanted them to talk and act like everything was normal. If we pretended for now it hadn’t happened, this would be a whole lot easier.

When we got to the car, I settled into my seat. My first thought was to pull out my phone and distract myself from the reality of what had just happened, but I couldn’t do that right now, not with the image of me doing that very thing still playing over and over in my mind.

Hayden started the car and drove out of the parking lot. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t think he was singling you out. He was just using you as an example to illustrate his point. He was saying it’s a generational problem, not specifically your problem.”

I nodded.

Bec punched his arm. “That’s not a consolation. That was her brother. He shouldn’t have done that. Period.”

“I know,” Hayden agreed.

“That’s not the problem anyway,” I said in a voice I wasn’t sure they could hear.

“What is?”

“The problem is that it’s true. I am that person.” I did care what other people thought about me. I did delete pictures or tweets that didn’t get enough likes. I did measure my worth in those terms. I was possibly the most shallow person on earth and I was just now discovering it.

“We’re all that person, Gia. That’s why he won the award. It was relatable.”

Maybe Hayden was right, but for whatever reason I felt like it applied to me the most. I leaned my head against the window and let my eyes drift closed.

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