Part of my series of (hopefully) unexpected crossovers. The image for this story is of Lucas Grabeel in a non-High School Musical photoshoot, and I never noticed it before, but I think he and David Gallagher (Simon) look a little alike.
Ryan met Simon on his first day at college. He was struggling to navigate his luggage through the crowded, narrow hallway of the freshman dorm, realizing too late that he'd packed too much and feeling further from home than ever. The entire dorm was a loud, chaotic mess of other students all trying to move in, too, and Ryan missed the familiar halls of East High School and how when he used to walk through them with his sister, everyone would spring out of her way.
Then Simon showed up – an older student with a round, friendly face and small eyes beneath dirty-blonde bangs. "Hey, man, let me give you a hand," he said, and he picked up one of Ryan's suitcases without even being asked. Then he asked him for his room number, and when Ryan told him, he led the way right to it.
He introduced himself in Ryan's tiny dorm room – Simon Camden, from Glenoak, California, which meant that he was even further from home at this school than Ryan was. He was a graduate student who'd taken a job for this semester as a residential advisor in the freshman dorm. "So basically, I'm a glorified baby-sitter," he said, which made Ryan smile for the first time since he'd arrived at college.
He wished that Simon could've talked longer – Ryan had lots of questions about life on campus – but he had to go assist other helpless new freshmen. At dinner that night, Ryan overheard that Simon's dad was a minister, and that was why he was such a do-gooder.
Simon dropped by his dorm room again one evening a few days later. Ryan was impressed that he remembered his name, given how many new freshman he must've met recently. The two of them chatted for a while about classes and teachers, getting around campus, and the best places to hang out, but Ryan held back from mentioning that he was a theater major. There were more than a few gay men in the school's theater department – students and instructors both – and Simon seemed all right, but if he was a minister's son, maybe he didn't like gay people.
Simon was leaning in the doorway of Ryan's room as they talked, and his eyes fell on the photo of him and Sharpay that he'd taped to the wall above his desk, along with an East High School wildcats penet, a program for the senior year musical, and a group photo of the drama club.
"She's my sister," Ryan said quickly, as soon as he saw Simon looking at it. Another student from down the hall had already seen the photo and complimented him on his "hot girlfriend," and Ryan didn't want that to happen again.
In the photo, he and Sharpay were standing side by side in matching costumes with their arms around each other's shoulders, grinning. It had been taken right after they'd won the school talent show in their sophomore year – the last year before Gabriella had transferred to East High and everything there had begun to change. Sometimes, it was still hard to know how to feel about that. Ryan didn't miss that time, not exactly. He didn't miss being stuck in Sharpay's shadow. But he did miss his sister.
Simon stepped into the room to get a closer look at the photo. "You must be twins," he said, and Ryan nodded. "What's your sister's name?"
"Sharpay. She's going to the University of Albuquerque." Ryan smiled as he said this. It was a refreshing change to have to actually tell someone that Sharpay was his sister. Back home, she'd been so popular that for most of his life, he was known only as Sharpay Evans's brother. "It's kinda weird being so far away from her," he added. "We did everything together in high school."
Simon's expression grew thoughtful as he studied the photo for a moment longer. Ryan was surprised when he added softly, almost wistfully, "You guys remind me of me and my sister."
"You have a twin sister, too?"
"Yeah, well, I mean, no," Simon fumbled, then he paused and started over. "No, she's three years younger than me. Ruthie. But... I don't know. A lot of times it felt like we were twins." Simon took another step into the room and sat down in Ryan's desk chair as he went on, speaking slowly in a distant tone. "She was always pretty mature, so she didn't really feel younger than me. We shared a room when we were little. And we used to do everything together. Like, this one time, we tried smoking cigarettes in the bathroom, but our mom caught us. And once we performed a big show for our family in the living room. Well, actually, the show was just Ruthie singing the national anthem while I waved sparklers, but you know, it felt big to us."
"Yeah, living room routines," Ryan nodded, laughing. "Sharpay and I did those all the time when we were little." But unlike with Simon and Ruthie, Ryan and Sharpay actually had put on big shows. When other kids their age were still performing "I'm a Little Teapot," they were perfecting their first major song-and-dance routine, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen." That was the first time their feet ached from dancing, the first time Ryan started doing push-ups so he'd be strong enough to pick his sister up and twirl her around.
Simon looked up in some surprise when Ryan spoke, as if he'd forgotten that the other boy was even there, and Ryan searched for something to say to make the moment feel less awkward. "Uh... so, is Ruthie in college now?"
Simon grimaced. "No, she decided she didn't want to go to college. You should've seen how our parents blew up over that. Right now she's traveling around with her boyfriend – this guy who calls himself T Bone. I haven't talked to her since... man, I can't even remember when."
A cold fear crept over Ryan's skin. He hadn't called Sharpay since he arrived at college. He'd meant to, but it had been such a blur of orientations, classes, and learning his way around campus. Besides, he hadn't even been here for a full week yet. You will never go a long time without talking to her, he promised himself fiercely in his head. You will never let that happen.
"It wasn't Ruthie's fault," Simon went on, his voice so low that Ryan almost couldn't hear him, "but somewhere along the way, we just sorta grew apart. And I think she was bummed 'cause I went to college so far away."
The look of regret on his face made Ryan even more nervous. He was far from home at this college, too – was Sharpay hurt by that? She had only ever acted happy for him, but then, he knew better than anyone that Sharpay was a very good actress.
Simon glanced at the photo of Ryan and Sharpay again. Then he pulled his cell phone from his pocket and flipped through it. "Last time I was at my parents' house, I found this old photo of us, and I uploaded it to my phone. See?"
He held the phone out to Ryan, who leaned forward to see the photo, old and slightly blurry. Simon looked about ten in it, his hair a brighter blonde. He and Ruthie obviously weren't twins from the height difference, and they looked so unalike that Ryan wouldn't even have guessed they were siblings. Simon was blonde and fair, but the little girl beside him had curly dark hair and such a dark complexion that Ryan wondered if she was adopted. But just like him and Sharpay, they were standing side by side with their arms around each other, grinning. Ryan swallowed down a lump in his throat. How could you lose a close relationship like that? And could you ever get it back, after it was lost?
"Sometimes, I look back now, and I try to figure out when it happened – like, when things changed, you know? But – "
But Simon didn't get to finish his thought because just then, two students in the hallway outside started fighting, and he hustled from Ryan's room to go break it up. As soon as the door closed behind him, Ryan grabbed his cell phone and hit Sharpay's number.
She answered after the first ring with a bright, "Hey, bro, what's up?" and relief immediately washed through him at the sound of her voice. They talked for almost an hour about classes and theater, books and movies, their family and friends back in Albuquerque. Ryan didn't say one word about Simon or what he'd just told him about his sister, even though that was the reason he'd called. Before they hung up, they made plans to call each other once a week.
Later that evening, as Ryan was doing his homework, he caught himself humming a familiar tune. It was "Always There Beside Me," the song-and-dance number that he and Sharpay had used for their school musical audition in junior year. It was an original song that Kelsi had composed for them, and they'd chosen it over "You're the One That I Want." It's hard to believe that I couldn't see that you were always there beside me.
Ryan knew that going to college so far from home was going to change a lot of things, but he hoped that it wouldn't change things between him and his sister too much. He hoped too that Simon and Ruthie would someday be able to get back what they'd lost.