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Not That Complicated
People always said that Yale was the best of the best, with its pearly streets and god-sent fountains. The rooms were plush with rich red fabric and glossy wooden floors, and the windows were wide and clear. As Hayden Ridley stood surveying her student quarters, the light of the sun shown through just so, reflecting off the sleek floors in a measure of elegance.
It reminded Hayden of Olympus, home of the Greek gods. She’d always been fond of Greeks.
Hayden set her luggage down on one of the maroon, leather chairs in the common room of her student quarters; her roommate hadn’t arrived yet, but that was fine with Hayden. She needed time to settle in. Two freshmen trying to get a grip on their new lives was too much to handle at once.
She’d been far from home before, but being away alone as a freshman was an entirely different experience. She hated being the rookie, but that was something she knew she’d eventually overcome. Being a journalist meant meeting new people and doing new things all the time—and, ultimately, that was why she had decided to come to Yale in the first place. Not just to become a journalist, but to become one of the best.
For a Ridley, there was no other option.
Looking out the wide window from the common room, Hayden’s stomach flopped over again in anticipation, but then she thought of her father, quickly steeling herself in his resolve. Long ago, he had taught her to take her problems head-on, and, unfortunately, it was a method that Hayden had taken to heart…too literally.
Like the time in the third grade, when she’d run into Jerry Harding head-first, because he’d spilled orange juice all over her homework.
Perhaps she had taken all of her father’s advice to heart too faithfully than he had intended, but it was the only way she knew how to keep him alive now, lest he vanish into the expanse of nothingness forever. Hayden closed her eyes, thinking of his voice: she had clung to it even as a little girl when her older brother was stuck in his nerdy sci-fi books and his Kurt Vonnegut novels. Even now his voice called to her, ringing clearly in her mind—
Hayden jumped at the sound of the unexpected voice behind her: deep, masculine, confident. At first she thought it was her father, back from the dead, but a quick glance behind her told her differently—and surprised her as well. The man who spoke she had never met before, but he leaned against her doorjamb as if he stood in that exact spot talking with her every day.
He was tall and wiry with short black hair and a long khaki jacket, and in the early morning light,
Hayden never suspected that any scholar could look so—well—handsome. Certainly not the boys at her preparatory school in Washington D.C. Those boys had been tall, too, but lanky, with reddened faces and thick glasses, but the young man before her wore no glasses, and his face was more pale—and clear—than it was red.
Hayden blushed hard at her thoughts, trying to force them out of her mind. She didn’t think those things. Since she could remember, Hayden had prided herself on being an independent young woman—and that was not something she was about let anyone disrupt, not like the last time she’d fancied someone. What was it her aunt always said? That man only distracted a woman from what she really needed to be doing.
Then again, her aunt had never been known to hold down a steady relationship.
Much to Hayden’s relief, instead of waiting to hear her reply, the young man grinned sheepishly, and he offered his apology.
“Sorry.” He pushed off the doorjamb, straightening up, and stood up past a good six feet. “Your door was open.”
Hayden gripped the window paneling, feeling embarrassed for feeling embarrassed. Had she really left it open? She never left doors open. And if she hadn’t, what had possessed him to come in and say that she had?
Hayden shook her head. Maybe she was still anxious about being a freshman. That could be it. “It’s fine. You surprised me.”
He rolled his eyes. “I have a knack for that.”
What was that supposed to mean?
The student offered his hand. “Rich Daniels. I live across the hall.”
“I figured that,” Hayden said, feeling a dead weight in her stomach. He didn’t look like one of the student ambassadors; by his stature and dress, Hayden guessed he was her age, a freshman at Yale as well. She reluctantly shook his proffered hand. Whatever the case, it was never good to get close with someone in her same living vicinity, even only platonically.
If that was even what he was doing over here. He could have just thought that it would be nice to welcome a fellow freshman to the dorms.
“I’m Hayden Ridley,” Hayden said, after serious reservation.
“Where are you from?” Rich asked when Hayden resumed her unpacking.
“D.C.,” she told him. Still, it was good to have another freshman to face the school with, even if she had wanted to do it herself. With independence often came loneliness, but Hayden wasn’t prepared to start isolating herself just yet.
After all, a journalist needed contacts, socializing skills. “And you?”
“This little town in Indiana you’ve probably never heard of.”
She almost laughed.
Rich looked at his watch. “Do you want to grab something? They’ve got this Barnes and Noble café here, and my roommate hasn’t arrived yet.”
The dead weight in her stomach suddenly got heavier, but instead she said, “Mine’s not either.”
Why she didn’t say anything else, she wasn’t sure, but she wasn’t inclined to stay alone in her student quarters for much longer. Besides, she needed something to keep her mind occupied until it was time to write her audition piece for the school paper. Hayden followed Rich down the stairs, feeling a sense of foreboding; she didn’t want another Jerry Harding. That had been bad enough the first time.
It happened when she was sixteen, and her brother was eighteen. She and her older brother were walking home from their preparatory school, like they did every day, and Hayden felt like she wanted to smash her fist into a wall.
“Cut it out, Sean.”
“Seriously, you’ve got to lighten up, sis. This is really good. I would know. I read classic literature.”
Hayden snorted at her older brother’s comment, unbelieving. He always thought he was smarter than everybody. “Then why didn’t Jerry Harding like it?”
“Because he’s a you-know-what.”
“The only reason you’re letting his criticism get to you is because you like him.”
Hayden tried not to hit her brother as she fought the hot blush rising in her cheeks. Unlike Jerry, it was his job to be a jerk. “Or maybe it’s because he’s the editor-in-chief, and when the editor-in-chief tells you your article sucks, it means your article sucks.”
“Just admit it,” Sean said deviously. “You’ve had a crush on him ever since he spilled his orange juice on your homework in third grade.”
“If by ‘crush’ you mean I’ve wanted to crush him, then you’re right.”
Sean readjusted his backpack on his shoulder, stepping up to the porch. “You’re a great journalist.” He swung open the screen door. “You just need to—”
He stopped short, suddenly going quiet, which, in Sean’s case, was never a good sign. Hayden bounced up the steps to see what he was looking at, but his big shoulders still blocked her view.
“What’s going on?” Hayden asked.
Sean whispered something hoarsely. It sounded like, Mom. He turned to her sharply, pushing her back. “Stay here,” he said, and went into the house, leaving Hayden looking dumbfounded on the porch. She tried looking in the window and glimpsed her mother’s tear streaked face, but Sean quickly closed the blinds. Frowning, Hayden went and pulled at the front door, but Sean had locked it, and when she called his name, he wouldn’t let her in.
What was going on?
They only told her later, what happened. The news of her father’s death surprised her, but it shouldn’t have. He had been serving with the Marines for two years in Iraq, even though there were younger men who could do it with less consequence. When all was said and done, her mother went back into the house, and Sean began cooking dinner.
Hayden had never felt so alone in her life. Her father had died, and her mother and brother had gone into their shells; instead of feeling comforted, she felt as if no one understood what she needed. She loved—had loved her father.
She looked down at her article that night, deciding that she really was going to crush Jerry Harding this time.
You can’t write.
The words jolted Hayden upright in her desk, and she rubbed her eyes wearily. Her audition paper was still nearly blank, with only a couple sentences written down on the white sheet of paper before her. Even so, they were taunting her, mercilessly, and they sucked her out of her college dorm. It was like being a sophomore in preparatory school again—that was one year she never wanted to go back to.
Hayden closed her eyes, but of course that only made the images all the more clear. There was brilliant Jerry Harding, staring up at her from his desk with his bright blue eyes and her red-marked paper in hand. His mouth moved, and he said, “It needs revision,” and Hayden remembered walking away from him in hard silence. But even Jerry hadn’t been able to keep his precious throne forever. He may have been the editor-in-chief his junior year, but then as a junior she beat him out for the job his senior year.
There was Jerry Harding, with his cold eyes and his red pen. He said, “You can’t write, Hayden. You’re not a writer.”
Well, she had proven him wrong, hadn’t she? She had proven it to everyone.
Hayden opened her eyes, looking at her blank paper again. What was the problem? All she needed to do was prove her self again—something she knew she could do—but the words weren’t coming. She could force them, and that would probably work, to a point.
But would it be enough? She was up against the best and the strongest writers at Yale, people who were like Jerry and didn’t have to force their talent. They were the best, and they were the enemy. Did they really love writing like Hayden did? When they were in themselves, were they out of themselves?
Hayden dropped her head to her desk again. It was nearly hopeless: she didn’t stand a chance. Her eyelids began to droop close; she was so tired that she began hearing music in her ears—only Hayden realized it wasn’t just her imagination. It was Rich, practicing his French horn next door. His tune was high, but rich and soothing, and it was possibly the most beautiful sound Hayden had ever heard.
He was good; after spending the last three weeks with him, all the while stressing over her audition paper, Hayden knew that Rich was absolutely passionate about music—as much as she was about writing—even though he had been expected to follow the family business: farming.
Hayden listened to Rich’s music with a pang of jealousy. Why couldn’t her writing come like that? Maybe Jerry was right: maybe she was a terrible writer. Sometimes she couldn’t even put a sentence together. Still, there were other times when the words flowed from her fingertips, when she crafted a beautiful story, when she knew that she could be nothing else but a writer. Ultimately, that conviction had been what brought her to Yale to pursue journalism. It was more than being good at journalism—she loved writing, and that was what she knew would put her above everyone else in the field: her endless passion. More than that, she needed writing more than anyone else did. When her father died, it had been the only way to look inside herself and honestly express her feelings. And in her chosen isolation, it was the only company she could afford.
She picked up her pen again, as Rich continued to play across the hall, and thought of his French horn as she began to write again.
The paper sent position applications out again Hayden’s junior year in preparatory school, and Hayden immediately set to work. Jerry might have been above her the year before, but this year Hayden promised herself she was going to beat him out of the job. His crown would be hers; this year, she was going to make editor-in-chief.
Hayden was telling herself this as she was leaving school, and headed for the sidewalk. Home wasn’t very far away, and even though Sean had a car, the Ridley siblings had always walked home. Now, with Sean away at Stanford, Hayden saw no reason to stop the tradition.
Jerry called her name, and Hayden pretended to ignore him. He ran up behind her and grabbed her arm, and Hayden feigned surprise.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Hayden said back.
Jerry flashed her a sheepish grin. “Do you want a ride home?”
Hayden narrowed her eyes, but she consented anyway. He was probably going to try to talk her out of applying for editor-in-chief. After all, this was his senior year, and he didn’t want to be beat out by a junior. At least, not the way he beat out the seniors his sophomore year.
Jerry waited for her to buckle her seat belt before he started the engine, and he pulled out of the parking lot.
“You take a right—”
“I know where you live,” Jerry interrupted.
Hayden fell silent, not sure what to say to that. She was surprised when Jerry didn’t say anything else, but she supposed he was waiting for the perfect moment to strike her helpless. Then he would be king of the paper again, just the way he liked it.
“I was wondering,” Jerry said at last when they were pulling into Hayden’s driveway, and Hayden braced herself. “There’s this band playing at the café tonight. Do you want to go?”
Hayden blinked. What was he thinking? “I don’t think so, Jerry.” She reached for her door handle. “I know what you’re doing, and I’m not going to let you trick me out of my spot—”
“I’m not trying to,” Jerry said, looking hurt, but Hayden guessed he was faking it. “I just wanted to know if you’d like to come with me.”
“I’ve got an application to write.”
“So do I.”
Hayden scowled at him. “Nice try, but that spot is mine.”
“I’m sure it is,” Jerry said. “Are you saying you don’t want to go?”
He was mocking her. Hayden couldn’t believe it. Where did he get the nerve to mock her?
“No, I don’t want to go.” She opened the door and burst out the car.
Jerry leaned forward, as if reach for her. “Hayden—”
She slammed the door and stomped up the steps to her house, not daring to look back. People like Jerry, people who had power they were desperate to keep—they preyed on the weak, and they pushed down the underdogs. They were England, and she was the American colony.
When Hayden finally finished her audition paper, Rich finished practicing. She heard him set his French horn down, open his door, click it shut, and walk across the hall. Knock. Knock. Knock. Hayden clutched the side of her desk as she called for him to enter, and Rich poked his head past her door.
“How’s it going?”
Hayden looked down at her paper, then back at Rich. “Good, I think.”
He cocked his head at her. “You think?”
Hayden didn’t have anything to say to that, and she looked down at her paper again.
Rich closed the door behind him, stepping inside. There was a red ring around his mouth—the indentation of practicing for two hours straight. He stopped by her desk. “Do you want me to read it?”
Hayden’s first impulse was to say no, but she stopped herself. Rich wasn’t Jerry Harding, so she had a pretty good idea he wasn’t going to knock her down. And really, Jerry hadn’t even intended to knock her down; he had just told her the truth about her article. It was true—his position had made him very arrogant, and that may have been the cause of his descent from power—but he hadn’t been out to get her. In her grief and anger she had pushed him away, blinded by ambition, knowing that he had liked her, wanted to be more than her friend. But she had managed to convince herself that he was the enemy and he needed to be defeated. Maybe that was what her father would have said, or maybe not.
Whatever had existed between Hayden and Jerry, if anything at all, she had ruined it. Their last meeting had not been one she wanted to remember, a sour and bitter exchange. In some part of her, Hayden knew that Jerry had never meant for such a terrible outcome, but she hadn’t been able to see that then.
There was Jerry Harding: he had come to her graduation day, but when she caught his eye he shook his head, as if waving her red-marked article in her face one last time.
She closed her eyes. She didn’t want to make the same enemy out of Rich, the way she had out of Jerry. There was nothing wrong, and she didn’t want to make anything wrong—not this time.
“Okay,” she said at last, handing her paper to her neighbor.
Rich raised one brow at her. “What?” he asked, seeing her grimace.
Hayden shook her head. “I’m not sure it will get me the spot at the paper I need,” she admitted.
“But it will get you a spot, right?”
“Probably. But I need—”
Rich went to sit at another chair and looked at her seriously. “Hayden,” he said. “You’re only a freshman. You have time to move up the ranks.”
That wasn’t true. Hayden knew from her experience at her preparatory school that a journalist needed to succeed early in school in order to succeed early in the real world. The real world was merciless and unfair; the competition was tough, and few people ever made it to where they wanted to go. And what were people going to think when the youngest Ridley child flopped? Her family had been known through their friends—and even parts of the media—as a major success story. They were the Ridleys. Her mother was a CIA agent, and her father had at one time served as a general in the Marines. She couldn’t let them down now. What would her father have thought?
Hayden thinned her lips. “No, I don’t.” If talent wouldn’t get her a suitable position, then surely sheer determination would. “My rank now will decide everything.”
“Why does it matter?”
“I need to be the best.”
This time Rich actually laughed. “It’s not that complicated.”
“Of course it’s that complicated. I’m not here to slack off.” Suddenly, she was on her feet glaring darkly at him. She didn’t want to get angry with him, but she had learned not to let people push her around. “I need to be the best,” she repeated.
Rich stood to his feet also, but he didn’t match her temper. Instead, he said calmly, “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Then how did you mean it?” Hayden snapped.
Rich beetled his brows in confusion. Hayden remembered that expression on Jerry’s face—frequently—so she backed away and let him explain.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No it’s not.” She didn’t want to be so bitter, but Jerry’s criticism had made her feel so insecure for so long, and the shock of her father’s death had left her helpless to his scrutiny. Still, if it hadn’t been for the good memory of her father, she wouldn’t have had the courage to keep going and push through her success. That was what she needed to hold onto at Yale. That was her key to success, the one thing the no one else had in them.
They weren’t Hayden Ridley.
“I shouldn’t have snapped,” Hayden said.
Rich shook his head. “I know first hand how hard auditions can be, but it’s just a simple fact. Sometimes you make it and sometimes you don’t, but one little screw up won’t set you back permanently.”
Hayden opened her mouth to protest, but Rich looked steadily at her, unblinking, and said, “Trust me,” then proceeded to read the rest of her article.
She was sixteen again, and there was Jerry Harding, with his bright blue eyes and his red pen. Her pulse increased, and there was so much blood rushing to her head she thought she was going to feint. What if it was terrible—again? Could she take that?
When Rich was done he looked back up at her with a cheerful gleam in his eyes.
“This is really good.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Why, aren’t you?”
Hayden thought of Jerry, but she said, “I don’t know.”
Rich handed her article back. “You’re a funny one. Didn’t you put your heart and soul into that paper?”
“Of course I did.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I don’t know.”
Rich gave her a funny look. “Do you write because that’s what you love to do or because that it what will make your paycheck?”
“Can’t it be both?” Hayden asked.
“Sure,” Rich said. “But what you do comes from your soul, and if you don’t love what you do, that can be draining.” He paused, then added, “That’s why I’m not a farmer.”
Rich gave her and encouraging smile, moving to go back to his own quarters, but stopped at the entrance. “I’m doing my audition this afternoon. Hand that in, and we’ll go to dinner.”
“Don’t you want to ask?”
Rich rolled his eyes. “Would you like to go to dinner with me?”
Hayden smiled down at her paper, determined not to make the same mistake twice. Not everyone was competition. Now was the time to stand for herself, and that meant knowing that she was better than anyone thought she was, but that didn’t mean pushing her friends away, either.
She looked up at Rich. Yes. Friends.
She smiled. “Sure.”