Tell Me and Tell Me True by Anthony Varallo

It is the last day of summer vacation, which means the two friends have until tomorrow morning to annotate The Odyssey. They haven’t started reading it, except for the first few pages, which are like, really boring. The Odyssey isn’t one of those books you can get into. The Odyssey is one of those books people only pretend to get into, just to say they’re into it. This is something the friends agree about. Like the way they agree that the Star Wars prequels are better than the originals because the lightsaber battles are more intense, or that LeBron James is seriously overrated, or that Christmas Eve is actually more fun than Christmas, since on Christmas Eve you still have Christmas to look forward to, whereas on Christmas it’s like what do you have now?

The friends text one another throughout the evening. How’s it going? they ask, or Page? One friend is on page 21; the other is on page 13. Don’t tell me what happens!! the page 13 friend texts, and the other friend texts back, It gets so INSANE!!! which they both know is a joke on account of the capitalization and exclamation points and on account of The Odyssey being The Odyssey. That’s an important part of the friends’ friendship: getting the joke. Another: never asking about each other’s anxieties, fears, worries, hopes, or aspirations. The friends like to keep things simple, if you know what they mean.

The friends are required to use a specific annotation system. The system involves highlighters, gel pens, and sticky tabs. A yellow highlight refers to a MAIN IDEA; a pink highlight indicates THEME; and a green highlight means VOCAB. The gel pens are for margin notes, which should be brief, to the point, and unobtrusive. The sticky tabs are to remind the friends where they’ve made annotations, which is honestly just about every page, so why have the sticky tabs at all? That’s another thing the friends joke about, the sticky tabs, which they call “sucky tabs.” Sometimes they will say “sucky tabs!” in the middle of a conversation that has nothing to do with annotation, which is totally random and therefore hilarious.

By nine-thirty, the friends are on pages 68 and 45, respectively.

Reading The Odyssey is such an f-ing odyssey! one friend texts.

LOL! the other friend responds.

The friends haven’t actually spent much time with one another outside of school, save for a few occasions when they’ve gotten together to work on projects or try out a new video game. When the friends play video games together, they talk only about the game, if at all, something neither of them find strange. What else would they talk about? One friend’s house is large, impressive, fitted out with tall windows that look out onto a landscaped yard; the other friend’s house is tiny, a duplex, where the friend shares a room with a sibling, and the mother sleeps on a pullout bed.

Around eleven, the friends exchange another round of texts. You awake?

Hate. This. Book. one friend texts, and the other responds with an emphasized HA!

In school, the friends sit next to one another in class, or not. It isn’t like sitting next to one another is a requirement of their friendship. Lunchtime, the friends sit at the breezeway tables, the least desirable seating in the café court. Sometimes they talk to one another, sometimes not. Sometimes the friends eat their entire meal without saying a word to one another, and that’s fine with them. Afterwards, they carry their lunch trays to the breezeway trash bins and silently divide recyclable from non-recyclable garbage.

At 12:17am, one friend texts Just splashed my face with water. The other friend texts back a face and water emoji, then adds a thumbs up, which they weren’t going to include at first, but figures why not.

Once, when the friends were hanging out at the duplex house, the duplex friend’s mother slept on the pullout bed the entire time they played a video game and didn’t even wake up to say goodbye when the other friend had to go home to his tall-windowed house.

Here’s what 2am would like the friends to know: it’s hard to pay attention to The Odyssey, even with annotations. That must be why their teachers make them write annotations in the first place, to try and keep them interested. But the annotations are confusing, since a MAIN IDEA sometimes seems like a THEME and a THEME sometimes seems like a MAIN IDEA. Should they highlight those yellow or pink? Both?

The friends do not talk about some of the things they’ve observed about one another. That one friend has an odd way of pacing when nervous; that the other wears two T-shirts beneath a long-sleeved shirt even on warm days; that one pronounces “especially” as “ex-specially”; that the other once cried a little in the middle of a class presentation about dolphins; that neither of them seems to have any other friends besides each other.

So, the friends read on, into the morning, long after they’ve stopped texting one another. Long after they’ve splashed their faces for the third and fourth times, fighting off sleep. Long after they’ve affixed their last sticky tab. Long after they’ve stopped wondering if the way life feels to them is the way it feels to the other.

ANTHONY VARALLO — Anthony is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections. Recent work is out or forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, Pembroke Magazine, JMWW, The Normal School, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Find him online at @TheLines1979.

Art by AUDRA KERR BROWN — Audra is a writer, photographer, and creator of The Flashtronauts! YouTube channel. Follow her on Twitter: @audrakerrbrown.