Rule Number 21 - Always Know Which Rules Are Worth Following

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Rule 21: Always Know Which Rules are Worth Following

I took in a deep breath, untangled my fingers from Eliza's warm hand, and slowly stepped out of my car. This was it - the moment I'd been deliberately avoiding for weeks. I'd played out how this would happen a million times in my mind, and each time, I'd imagined Carter being in an outstanding mood, sitting down, with both hands occupied by a ham sandwich and some kind of sports drink. In that scenario, we could would be able to have a civilized conversation about what, exactly, I was doing with his sister, where Carter would have to sacrifice the deliciousness of his sandwich to punch me in the face.

What was happening instead, was the complete opposite of my ideal set of circumstances. Carter was surprised, he was tired, driven by emotions, and both of his hands were entirely not-occupied.

Carter's cold stare didn't leave me as I leaned against the hard door of my black Mustang. Eliza climbed out of the passenger seat and watched the scene between her brother and me unfold from the opposite side of the car.

Carter wasn't born yesterday, and intelligence definitely runs in the O'Connor family. He knew what I was doing with his sister. He saw it. He'd caught us right in the middle of everything, and there wasn't much I could say in explanation. So I didn't say anything at all. I stared back at him like I stared at the hall monitors when they caught me coming in late to school: like it wasn't really my problem, and having this conversation was highly inconvenient. All of a sudden, I didn't care about being punched in the face, which was probably a good thing, because my attitude seemed to be making Carter even more mad. I cared about Eliza. I cared about Carter too, and I wanted him to do his worst. It seemed like that was the only way any of us could really move on.

He spoke first. His tone was biting and bitter, like someone who'd just been betrayed by their best friend. Go figure. "You lied to me."

"Didn't." I shook my head, denying it.

"Cut the bullshit, Maguire. You lied to me. You went behind my back and did the one thing I asked you to never ever do." He began to raise his voice, and for a moment, I almost wanted to apologize. Then I remembered what we were fighting over, and why I wanted to defend myself. I mean, it wasn't like the girl of my dreams was at stake or anything. Not.

"So I didn't follow your directions, Carter. That's not. A. Lie. Go ahead and fucking sue me. "I took a step to the side, trying to create some more distance between him and me, but in the end it was for nothing. According to Carter, 'fucking sue me' apparently means 'punch me squarely in the jaw as hard as you possibly can,' because that's exactly what he did. I felt my back slam against the side of the car as he threw me his best right cross. And man, that thing has a lot of momentum. It was definitely going to leave a mark.

For a solid thirty seconds, all I could think was 'Ow. Holy shit. Ow..."

It took me a while to get my bearings back. When I stood up again, Eliza was already pushing her brother away from me. "Carter, stop. You're being a dick."

Carter was using that condescending tone again, "Oh, I'm being a dick?" He looked at me. "What about that guy. Yeah, does your back hurt?" He eyes stared right through me, piercing me like I was a dartboard and he'd just hit a direct bulls-eye. "Yeah, so does mine. Thanks for fucking stabbing it. Now I guess we're even." For the first time, I realized what it must be like to be in his position, discovering that the two people he loves the most didn't feel quite the same way about him.

I took my hand off throbbing jaw to respond, but Carter kept going. "Have you ever heard of the Bro Code?" He shook his head, answering his own question, "Clearly fucking not. Bros don't do this, Nick. Bro's don't ditch their friends. A real bro wouldn't pick a girl, Helen of Troy, my sister, or otherwise, over eighteen years of friendship. Fuck you, Nick Maguire."

I walked over to him, to where Eliza was shaking, begging us to stop. I cleared my throat and shook my head, opening my mouth to speak. I had never been so angry in my life. I'd just been struck by my best friend, but I'd also just been struck by a profound sense of clarity. My words were slow and heavily annunciated so he'd understand me fully and clearly. "No, Carter, fuck you. A real bro wouldn't make me choose."

Carter stared back at me with emotionless eyes, almost as if he were looking right through me. Like I no longer existed. Like I no longer mattered to him. I turned towards Eliza to see her face white with shock and it was clear that she didn't know how to react to the situation. Not that I'd blamed her. So much had happened so quickly that it was hard to keep track of what was going on. Then Carter moved away from us and beckoned for Eliza to follow.

I closed my eyes, hoping that when I opened them she would still be there, not walking with Carter, away from me. My heart pounded with the hope that I hadn't just ended my most cherished relationship with my best friend for nothing.

But if my dad had made it through cancer, which he had, then maybe - just maybe - Carter and I could make it through this.

If he wanted to. And I didn't know, for sure, that he would.

I did know, however, that one day, Carter would feel the same way about someone that I did about Eliza. Then he would understand that there is no force in the universe, not gravity, not lighting, definitely not the threat of being beaten to a pulp, that could ever come between him and the person he loves.

I, for one, was not about to let some kind of code dictate who I could fall in love with. Because love doesn't have rules. We can't choose who we have feelings for. We can, however, choose who we let into our lives. We can choose who we surround ourselves with, and who we spend our time with. Eliza was the most beautiful, amazing girl I had ever known, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Carter, on the other hand, I was becoming a lot less sure about.  But as I stood in the deserted, midnight parking lot, and I felt Eliza's soft fingertips gently intertwine with mine, there was one thing I was absolutely certain of: a real bro would not make me choose.

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