It’s enough to make me want to shout. I force my legs to lift me up and keep moving.
Hobbling home, stomach aching, pain spreading, I don’t think of anything other than putting one foot in front of the other.
The house is quiet when I let myself in. It’s always quiet. But now the silence scrapes along my skin. I just might hate silence now.
My hand shakes as I help myself to a bottle of sports drink. It tastes foul to me, bitter and off, but I gulp it down. Rivulets of sticky drink run down my chin.
Then I spy it, sitting on my counter like a f**king mockery. The brand new, shiny chrome espresso machine. My vision goes red as something hot surges up through my body. The bottle in my hand flies through the air, smashing in an explosion of bright orange on my cabinets. And then I’m reaching for the machine, ripping the cord from the socket with enough force to crack the socket cover.
Sharp steel pokes my arms as I kick my door open and hunt down the garbage can. With a shout, I slam the stupid machine into the bin. I want to stomp on the thing, f**king punch the hell out of something, but I catch sight of my elderly neighbor Mrs. Hutchinson gaping at me. The tiny woman appears ready to keel over. Shit.
Clamping my mouth shut, I turn and slam back into the house. I stand in the empty hall, clutching the back of my neck and struggling for deep breaths as rage runs rampant through me. My chest lifts and falls, my teeth aching where I grind them together. And then the rage simply flees. Only it leaves me with something worse, an insidious pain that nearly brings me to my knees.
I stagger to the shower and stay there a long time. By the time I can stand again, my throat is swollen and my body is weak. I don’t want to think about anything.
When Gray arrives, I’m sitting on the couch, playing Dead Rising in the dark.
As usual, he barges into my house and flicks on the lamp next to the couch. “I’m going to assume you meant to cram that thousand dollar espresso machine into your garbage.”
I grunt and continue to annihilate zombies with my virtual baseball bat.
“I took it,” he adds, as if I’ll care.
“Knock yourself out.” It hurts to speak, so I decide to refrain from doing any more of it.
Gray sighs and comes further into the living room. I catch the scent of some smoked meat product but don’t bother to look. I don’t want anything to eat anyway. But my attention shifts when he sets a six-pack on the coffee table with a plunk. The bright green bottles seem to glow against the dark wood. A lump gathers in my throat. Green River soda pop. I loved that shit as a kid. My dad used to let me have them during summer barbecues.
“Where…” I clear my throat. “Where’d you get that?” You can only really find them in Chicago.
“Special order. I meant to give it to you on your birthday,” Gray admits, settling on the couch beside me after he puts down the other bag, the one containing food by the smell of it. “But I figured you’d appreciated it more now.”
No need to ask how Gray knows; this f**king campus spews gossip with the power and efficiency of a fire hose.
“They’ve been sitting in my fridge,” he continues, “because if we’re going to drink what looks like toxic waste, it ought to be cold.”
The lump in my throat grows to epic proportions. The controller hangs heavy in my hand as I blink down at it. Gray is silent for a moment then hands me a pop and pulls a hot dog from the other bag. “Now, I realize these aren’t as good as a Chicago dog, but we’ll have to make do. Because none of those bitches deliver.”
I hold the ice cold drink in my hand. “Thanks.” Shit, if I say anymore, I’ll be bawling, embarrassing us both.
Thankfully, he doesn’t say anymore. And we sit together, drinking lime soda, eating subpar hot dogs, and playing video games until it’s dark out.
THE NEXT FEW weeks are an exercise in perpetual misery. My state of comfortable numbness thaws. In its place an aching chasm opens up. It is so big that I’m surprised when I look down at myself and don’t find a gaping hole. All my effort goes into not curling over into myself, to remain upright each time I enter our shared class and see him. Not that my false front of calm matters. Drew won’t even look at me.
Worse? He’s changed seats. He selects a desk as far from me as possible, all the way at the opposite end of the room where I’d have to crane my neck to see him. Everyone notices, of course. He’s their sun. Any time he shifts position, their worlds go out of orbit. Mine most of all. I feel off center, as if I might topple over in between the desks.
Every time he speaks up in class, my skin twitches and my heart does a little leap like it’s trying to return to its owner. And I hate my traitorous heart.
I might have tried to apologize, but he leaves me no opening. He’s out the door as soon as the professor gives the okay. Short of chasing him down, I’m not getting near him with any ease. I could do it, but my feet won’t propel me forward. I just want it all to end.
What could I say to him, anyway?
I’m sorry, Drew, but I can’t let go of my stupid old self. You remember high school? And that chubby, awkward girl? There is one in every school. The one that everyone knows, but no one really sees? My school? Well she had frizzy red hair and braces. She was too pale, too quiet. She never got asked to a dance. Never went to prom or made out in some guy’s car. She never even experienced a kiss until she got to college.
And no matter what she tells herself now, that stupid f**king shame, those icy cold years of isolation, don’t seem to leave her. It doesn’t matter that she knows she attracts guys now. It doesn’t matter that she knows she’s smart, or that she has friends. Deep down, she’s still that girl. Even when she fights to cut the line.
And she can’t f**king breathe with the spotlight turned on her. Because they’ll see. They’ll all see that she’s still that chubby girl who didn’t fit in. And you’re a spotlight, Drew. You blind her.
Yeah. Pathetic. Because I ought to be over it. I hate that I’m not. I hate my weakness. And I’d rather Drew hate me for the wrong reasons than feel sorry for me for the right ones.
Which only makes me hate myself more.
And so the pain continues as I follow him out of class the next week, only to stop dead when he meets up with another girl. She has cheerleader-sorority girl written all over her, from her size four jeans to her bone straight hair, falling like a shining sheet to her tiny ass. And maybe she carries a wealth of insecurities deep within her skin, but I hate her on sight anyway.
He gives her his bright smile, the one that used to make my knees give way, and she tucks her arm in his. And they look so good together that I stop. Maybe it’s for the best. He deserves to be happy. Deserves someone who isn’t a mess.
On the heels of that charitable thought comes a stronger one: Fuck. That.
I’m about to go tell him the truth. That I do care. I care too much. Then he turns his head, as if he feels me watching. Our eyes meet, and he cocks a brow as if to say, what the f**k are you looking at? As if to say, your chance is gone.
I turn around and leave without another glance.
THE LOCKER ROOM reeks of mud, sweat, and defeat. I sit alone on the bench in front of my locker and stare down at my hands. Hands that managed to perform the three fumbles, four incompletions, and the interception that lost the game. Worst f**king game of my life.
Each breath I take sends shards of agony along my bruised back and hips. My head pounds so hard I fear my eyes will pop out. Low murmurs bump about on the air, but no one talks to me. I don’t blame them. I am their leader, and I’ve let them down.
It’s worse when Rolondo gives me a quick pat on the shoulder. “Happens, man,” he says low and just to me. “Ain’t nothing but a thang.”
I want to shrink down inside myself then. I’m the one who threw him the shitty passes, making him look bad on that field. That he knows why I’ve f**ked up and isn’t killing me over it has my throat closing.
Sweat trickles along my temples and burns in my eyes. But I don’t move to wipe it away. I wait, quiet until the guys shower and change. Until they leave me.
I shower alone, standing under the hot water as a lump fills my throat, and then I turn off the taps. I’m dressed and zipping up my bag when Gray comes back in.
He looks at me for a long moment, his brows bunched together in a scowl. Yeah, I’ve f**ked him over too. “Sorry” seems too trite.
His voice cuts through the silence. “Look, man, you’ve got to know I love you like a brother.”
“Your brothers are all dicks.” It’s an old joke, said many times before, but my voice sounds like gravel and feels like glass against my throat. Humiliation crawls over me. Everyone loses now and then. But not like this, not by being a f**king bonehead and throwing away a game.
A small smile cracks his face. “Total dicks.” He ambles in further. “More than a brother, then.”
I want to smile, want to pretend it’s all-good. But I can’t even look him in the eyes. I know I’ve got whatever it is he’s going to say coming to me. God knows I heard more than an earful from my coaches.
“I don’t want to bust your balls,” Gray continues. “So I’ll just say this once. Get your head out of your ass and get over this chick.”
Easier said than done.
“We need your head on right, Drew. I appreciate you being upset for a while, but enough is enough. A piece of ass is not worth this shit.”
My head jerks up. I glare at Gray, not daring to open my mouth. But he simply shakes his head and steps closer. “She’s just some lying bitch—”
I don’t remember moving. A red haze fogs my vision as I slam him into the wall, my fists clutching his shirt. “Don’t you ever…” I grind out through my teeth before my jaw locks.
Gray’s mouth falls open. “What the f**k?”
Shit. Gray has been shoved around enough by people who are supposed to care about him. I step back, abruptly letting him go, and he sags a second before pushing upright, getting into my face.
“You’d f**king attack me over her?”
Taking a deep breath, I back away. “I didn’t mean to do that. Just don’t… Don’t talk about her that way. She’s not a bitch.”
“I cannot believe this.” Gray looks me over as if I’m a stranger. “Are you kidding me?”
I grab my bag and sling it over my shoulder. “You want someone to blame? Then blame me. I’m the one who lost the game, not…” I can’t say her name.
“She dumped all over you!” His face is red.
I run a hand over my head where it aches so bad that my vision blurs. “She never lied. I did that to myself.”
His eyes narrow as he stares at me, and then his brows lift high. “You’re in love with her.”
Fucking headache. My eyes are filling now. I blink once, hard and desperate. Gray looks away, as if he’s embarrassed for me. Heat prickles over my skin. “I’m sorry I let you down.” I head for the door. “It won’t happen again.”
IRIS HAS DISAPPEARED. She didn’t come home on Friday night. Or on Saturday. Since she’s currently without boyfriend, I worry. Iris doesn’t do hook ups. It took her six months just to have sex with Henry for the first time. So the fact that she isn’t here bothers me. As does the fact that she isn’t answering her phone or the ten texts I’ve sent her.
My worry grows, and I call George to ask if he knows where she is, which is the wrong thing to do because George goes deadly quiet on the other side of the line.
“You mean to tell me Friday is the last time you’ve seen her, and you’re just calling me now?” George replies in a voice I’ve never heard before.
I cringe, my grip on the phone tightening. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Shit.” George lets out a heavy breath.
Cold sweat breaks out along my back. “I thought she was with you. She said she was with you.”
George explodes. “Puta mierda! Pendejo, maricon...”
That he’s cussing in Spanish makes me more afraid. Like Iris, George never does that unless he’s beside himself.
He takes another audible breath before speaking again. “She f**king said she was going out with you!”
“You don’t think she’s with—”
“Yeah, I f**king do,” George snaps. “I swear to God, I want to kick that little pendejo bitch’s ass for touching my sister again.”
Because if she’s put both of us off with lies, we know she’s with Henry. And I want to kill her. Death by pillow bludgeoning. Maybe if I beat her on the head enough with one, I’ll knock some sense into her.
“I’m going over there,” George says.
“If you kill him,” I say, “make it look like an accident.” I’m only half-kidding.
George snorts before hanging up.
I’m making myself a frozen waffle and coffee when she finally answers my text-a-thon.
Iris: Chill. I’m fine. And did you have to go and freak out George?
Though relief swamps me, I want to hit her in the head. My thumbnail taps hard against the screen.
Me: Damn right I did. You scared the hell out of us, 'Ris!
Iris: Okay, okay, I’m sorry. It was shitty of me to not call.
Scowling down at the phone, I tap out another message.
Me: Where are you, anyway?
Though I know, I need written confirmation before I kill her.
Iris: With Henry.
Me: WTF, Iris? He CHEATED ON U!
I can practically feel her fuming. The silent phone is a testament to it.