His office smells of old shoes and grass clippings. Locker rooms, gymnasiums, coach’s offices the world over—they all smell exactly the same. This office smells just like all of the offices of his own coaches: high school, Coach Page; college, Coach McMann. Then that all-too-brief stint in the League. He made it as far as practice squad, further than he’d really believed he could. That triggered the dreams of being a backup; maybe starter someday.
Then, during practice: the god damn knee. No starting, no second string, no practice squad. Just back to school to find a way to keep doing what he loved. And what he loved was this game. Coach Page had made an impact on him back in high school. While coaching a Pop Warner team, he discovered that he wanted to do what Coach Page had done for him: help other high school kids. Seemed like a good fit.
In hindsight, he wouldn’t change a thing. Yes, even an NFL practice squad would have paid better, but here he can actually mentor. NFL stars can be role models, but they can’t be in the day-to-day grind that is high school life.
He drops into his ancient swivel chair for the eighth year of his tenure as head coach. The chair is older than his children, a relic from the 1970s that creaks and whines and clunks. People say football programs get all the money. Where’s the money for a new chair?
He rocks back and forth, easy, toes of his Nikes resting lightly on the thin, industrial carpet. This is going to be a good year. Brady Culliver’s in pretty good shape, despite all the odds against him. Donte Walker came back from summer camp with a ferocity he can’t wait to unleash, and a Sparq score of almost 94. The other boys look good this year, too. A good crop of JV coming in, and the varsity must’ve put on an extra two hundred pounds between them over summer.
Except for Culliver. That boy’s got to get fed more.
A bell rings. Second period is about to start. He doesn’t have a first this year. Gets to hit the gym first before coming to work. He doesn’t use the school gym. He loves his fellas, but doesn’t need to get into a pissing contest about bench presses. Better to let them wonder just what he’s pressing these days.
Two-ten, it turns out. Not bad at all.
Coach picks up his class rosters, flipping through them. Time enough to worry about football this afternoon. First, get through the rest of his classes. Maybe start with some laps to get everyone warmed up.
He winces as he recognizes a name on the attendance sheet. There’s one every year. One class, and at least one kid, that’s a problem.
Well, that’s just fine. He’ll sweat this little snot until he can’t run his mouth anymore. And maybe, just maybe, turn him into a bit of a man by the end of this year. That’s what Coach Page would’ve done.
Coach rubs his thumb across the roster, smearing a little of the ink that spells out JENNINGS, DANIEL.
Just after the bell rings, ending first period, he shoots a text message to Steve Butler over in English Ed. Steve is his best friend at work, and biggest NFL rival. The vast majority of their conversations are heated debates about Monday Night Football.
Culliver show up? he writes.
His phone buzzes right back: Yes. Seems fine. Tired maybe. State!
Steve wants the Spartans to take State almost as bad as Coach does. Another reason they get along so well.
Coach puts his phone in his desk and rises at the sound of people shuffling hesitantly into the gymnasium. Freshman and sophomore PE. If he were a traditionalist, he’d start the morning with dodgeball. But that strikes even him as cliché. Laps will have to do. Laps are simple, but they tend to reveal character—or lack thereof.
The bell rings, starting second period. He steps out of the football office and follows the hall to the gym entrance, where dozens of boys are standing in loose clumps or sitting on the floor. One, he sees right away, has elected not to dress out and is seated on the top, furthest bleacher, like he hopes the windows up there will open and he can slip away.
He looks like a god damn vampire, Coach thinks.
He blows his whistle, making most of the boys jump. They’re nervous. Sweat will help. Sweat heals a number of things. Including nerves and attitudes.
“Hello, boys,” Coach says with his biggest smile. “I’m your coach for the period. I say it, you do it, we get along fine. You hear the whistle, you put your eyes on me. Those’re the only rules. Got it?”
Some nod. Most look terrified.
“Good,” Coach says. “Start running. Around the sideline. If you don’t know what that is, you can start doing push-ups instead. I see you cut any corners, you’ll do ’em anyway. Go.”
He tweets the whistle, and the boys drag themselves in a circle around the court.
Coach eyes the lone deviant at the top of the bleachers. “Mr. Jennings,” he calls, “how about you get yourself into your PE uniform and join us?”
“No, thank you,” Danny Jennings calls.
“All right. Then you can head on over to Dr. Flores’s office. Let’s go. Now. Hustle.”
“I could take health instead,” Jennings offers.
“That class is closed. So you either get to work in here, or you go talk to the principal, your choice.”
Jennings stands, shoulders his bag—which looks more like a god damn purse—and clomps down the stairs in boots that reduce his already skinny legs to the width of hockey sticks. He heads for the staircase that will take him up to the doors out of the gym.
As he passes Coach, he says, “But it’s not my choice, is it? Not really.”
Coach inhales, about to give the little snot a piece of his mind, but Jennings is already past him, raising a hand.
“Never mind,” he says. “You don’t have to answer that. Peace.”
He disappears through the double doors.
He’d never say it out loud, not during regular school hours; but in his head, Coach says, God damn that kid.
Then he tells the other students to pick it up. Hustle. Put some effort into it.
It takes only seconds for the phone’s built-in flash to pop—
For him to shriek in surprise—
For a fast, athletic thumb to strike the right icons—
It takes only seconds for a full-frontal, naked shot of The Fat Kid to land online.
It’s an instant crime; legally, it’s child pornography, and the guy responsible should be brought up on charges. Big ones. Bad ones.
Except the phone doesn’t belong to the guy who took the pic. It belongs to a skinny sophomore piece of shit, and this guy got the requisite passwords from the sophomore’s sister.
And The Fat Kid won’t say anything. Because there are worse things than naked pictures of you on the web. And those things happen to people who go to The Authorities. The whole point in taking weight room this year was to work off some of the girth. Sitting at a drafting table or easel doesn’t make for a great weight-loss regimen. If he keeps losing weight, maybe they’ll leave finally him alone.
But they won’t, will they. They’ll make it impossible. They won’t let him change.
He rushes from the shower, red-faced and burning furiously on the inside while the laughs of zoo animals follow him to the lockers—elephant linebackers, panther receivers, rhinoceros forwards, cheetah pitchers. He tries to get dressed quickly, never mind trying to dry off … except his clothes are already wet, why are they wet?
And why do they smell like—
When the laughing gets louder, including hoots and jeers now, that’s all he needs to know.
He’ll be throwing away his favorite Da Vinci T-shirt, forced to wear someone’s leftover PE jersey from the coach’s office. The coach who will do nothing, even if he were to say, Someone pissed on my clothes, and by the way, there’s a naked pic of me floating around today, I can tell you exactly who did it, but I won’t because you love the prick and you love to win and I’m just—
The Fat Kid.
I don’t know the exact temperature, but it’s over a hundred. That’s without all my pads and helmet. Or running full gassers on the field.
“You can stop anytime,” Coach says to us as we line up after the first round of running from sideline to sideline. “Be my guest. Take your gear off, go home, and don’t look back. Fine with me. Or you stay here, and you want it. You want it?”
I want it. I make eye contact with Brady—quick, though, because the standard is we watch Coach when he’s talking. Brady meets my gaze fiercely. He’s dialed in. He wants it, too.
Most of the varsity team wrangles up a “Yeah!” in unison. It’s only been one gasser so far, fifty-three yards and back, twice in a row. Our hearts are pumping, our sweat is flowing, the sun’s heat pierces our helmets like a laser beam. And it’s gonna get worse. But we are the boys who are going to State this year. A few gassers can’t take us down.
“One more,” Coach orders, and blows his whistle.
The team races for the opposite sideline. We lose a second or two from the last time, I’m pretty sure. Damn.
“You think this is for time?” Coach shouts as we re-form the line. Lots of the team have their hands on their hips as we watch him pace. Somebody on the line dry heaves. I don’t look to see who. “You think I got stopwatches on all you boys? ’Cause I don’t. This is not for time! This is for heart!”
The whistle blasts and we go again.
Some workouts are for time. Some are for strength, some for agility, some for cardio. That doesn’t include practice, which is all about sharpening skill. Today’s the first full day back at school and a Long Day practice. This one is about guts—and man, I got more of those than ever before. I cross the final sideline first in that round, and it feels great.
“You want to win?” Coach says.
“That’s a word! I want proof.” The whistle blows, and we go again.
On this return trip, one of the linemen stumbles past the sideline and pukes through his face mask. Coach blows the whistle and calls for a knee. The team surrounds him. Me and my teammates breathe hard, panting, as we take off our helmets and gaze up at Coach.
“Now, I can run you till you die,” Coach says, as if resuming a conversation we started earlier. “I can run you till you puke, Monty. Right?”
Monty, the lineman, nods once, looking both embarrassed and determined.
“But that’s not what I’m here for. That’s not what you’re here for. Anyone can play a game. We can come out here and play Candy Land if you want, it doesn’t matter to me. That what you wanna play?”
Me and the others know not to answer.
“You came to play football. You came to play hard and train hard and win hard games. This Friday, that’s what we’re going to do against the Titans. This is a man’s game now. Suck up the tired, suck up the doubts, and man up. You do not have to win, but you CAN. NOT. STOP, ever. Because if you do not stop, ever, if you do not stop pushing yourself and your team, then you will win. That’s just what happens. Don’t be afraid, of anything, ever. Just keep pushing. Hoo?”
The team, having barely caught our breath from the gassers, bursts into our favorite chant of hoo hoo hoo hoo, great guttural vocal punches that announce the season is now in full swing.
“All right,” Coach says. “Get some water.”
The team hops up and heads for the white plastic tables where the water is waiting. Also waiting? The water girls. The best part of practice.
I chug cool water, grateful for the relief. I am pumped, ready for Friday. Three more practices before then; two Shorts and a Long, with a break on Wednesday to recover. I turn my face up to the sun, eyes closed, daring the star to beat me down. Then a cold splash against my face makes me shake.
“Oops! Sorry,” says Amy, not sorry at all.
I smile, happy with both the cold splash and her attention. When I catch Coach’s glare, I stop smiling and turn for the field instead.
Damn. I hope Amy understands. She probably does.
After some parting instructions from Coach, the team jogs to the locker room to clean up. We run through some locker-room talk, literally—comparing the various water girls at practice—but no one talks that way about Amy. Not me, not anybody.
Me and Brady finish cleaning up at the same time and head out of the locker room together. Brady looks pale to me. And, damn, way too skinny.
“Hey man,” I say to B as we walk. “I’m gonna get some pizza, want to hang with me?”
Brady hesitates for only a second. “Yeah, sure, that’s cool.”
We take my new-old car to this hole-in-the-wall place called Chizona’s. It’s a few blocks from Brady’s. The pizza’s damn tasty. I order an extra large with sausage, pepperoni, green peppers, olives, and onions. We grab a table near the windows and talk strategy and shit about the Titans.
“Mercy rule,” I say.
“Mercy rule,” Brady says, thumping my fist with his own.
When the pizza arrives, I shake my head and say, “Damn, that is way bigger than I thought. I won’t finish this. Jump in, man.”
So Brady grabs a slice, and together we take out the entire pie, barely speaking through it, watching ESPN on Chizona’s old boxy television hung up high in one corner.
After a series of belches that take about ten pounds off me, I say, “I got to head out. You want a ride?”
Brady gets up from his chair with a wave. “Nah, I’m gonna get another run in before I get home.”
No way is he running anywhere. But I don’t say it.
“Cool,” I say instead. “Tomorrow, pick you up at that Starbucks down there? Seven?”
“Seven’s good. Hey.”
Brady squints at me. “You and Amy. That a thing?”
“Man,” I say, “Amy and nobody a thing.”
“Yeah, but if you could?”
I consider how to answer. In the time it takes me to make a decision, I realize the pause was answer enough.
“Yeah,” I admit, “if I could. You?”
Brady shrugs, but doesn’t look pissed. “If I could. But Brianna’s been hanging around. I might go that way.”
I whistle, screwing my face into a mask of make-believe pain. Brianna’s damn hot. Not my type, but hot. “Montaro? Damn, son. You could do worse. You could do worse.”
That gets B to grin. “Yeah. I guess. Later.”
After he leaves Chizona’s, I watch B walk down the sidewalk, not even pretending to start running. Suddenly depressed, I climb into the new-old car and drive home. I’ve lost twenty or thirty minutes with Mom by going out for the pizza, but that’s what Mom would have told me to do. Now I’ll only have fifteen, maybe twenty minutes with her.
I park on the street in front of the house, because there’s only room in the driveway for my mom’s even older car—one that’s kept running by a guy down the block in exchange for meals from Pei Wei. I find Mom at the same place she always is between shifts: on the couch watching Judge Judy.
“Hey, you,” Mom says.
I crash down beside her and throw my big old feet up on the coffee table. I do this every day. And every day, Mom slaps my knee and I move them down. We both smile.
“How was practice?”
“Good. We got this.”
“How’s Brady doing?”
“Mmm,” Mom says, her smile gone. “I’ll bring some extra home tonight. You make sure and take it tomorrow. How’s he playing?”
“Good. But I think he lost some weight this summer.” I shake my head. “Why doesn’t she take care of him?”
“Oh, I don’t know. She thinks she’s got a good thing going with these guys and their presents, I guess.”
“I don’t like how he looks.”
“How’s he look?”
Actually, I’ve spoken before really completing my own thought. I have to struggle to find the right words. “Like he’s being chased.”
“Mmm,” Mom says again. “I know that feeling, Donte. And he can’t be a quarterback on an empty stomach.”
She’s right about that. And if I’m going to have more than one school to pick from, I need our quarterback’s head in the game. Me and B both need those opportunities.
“How about you, you hungry?” Mom says. “Can I make you something before work?”
I’m full to bursting from the pizza, and even if I wasn’t, I know by now how to make just about anything from nothing. Since she’s usually working two jobs, sometimes even a third, Mom isn’t around much to cook. My little brother Ramon won’t be home till late; it’s his day with his dad. This is the only time me and Mom get. These quick times together, specifically scheduled by her, mean everything. To both of us, I know.
Though the thought of more food makes me queasy, and I hate to make Mom get up, knowing she’ll be on her feet for another six hours tonight, I also know this is what she wants more than anything. “Sure, yeah,” I say. “I could use a bite.”
The way her brown eyes dance, I know I chose the right thing.
Pizza was great. But I feel sick.
Donte knows. ’Course he knows. That’s what’s making me sick.
Least he’s cool about it. And at least I ate. Don’t know when that might happen again.
I walk home from the pizza place. No way am I running. That was just a scam for Donte. Prolly didn’t need to bother. Still. Makes me feel better to have an excuse.
Some bum in an alley down the block offers to blow me. Not even if I had the money, I want to say. But I don’t. Doesn’t matter.
Door is locked when I get to our unit. Son of a bitch. I climb the back wall into the porch. Back door’s locked, too.
My eyes shut. I grind my teeth. Make a pair of fists. Should just break a window. Hell with her.
But I won’t. I know I won’t.
Pull out my phone and rub my eyes because men don’t cry. Pussy.
“Hello,” Coach says.
“Hey,” I say. “I, um … she’s not …”
“No worries,” Coach says. “You head on over any time.”
I try to say Thanks. I know he can’t hear it.
“You know where she is?” Coach asks.
“With that new asshole, or maybe jail again. I don’t know. Man, I got to turn in my permission slip still …”
“Don’t worry about that right now, you just head over whenever. Monica will fix you up something.”
“Thanks.” Say it louder this time.
“You’re gonna get through this, chief.”
I don’t answer because men don’t cry. They don’t. After a minute I manage a grunt back.
“See ya,” Coach says, like he knows.
“’Kay.” Hit the end key. Stare at the locked back door and the window. Could still just break it.
But what’s in there? Fridge is empty except for diabetes meds and old Ritz crackers. Maybe some mustard. Rotten eggs or something.
I’ll come back in the morning to shower and change. If she’s home. Or maybe I’ll just stay at the park again.
Climb back over the wall. Walk a few blocks to catch a free trolley. They’re not like the ones in San Francisco. Just buses painted to look like it. Take a roundabout path to Coach’s house. On the way, I check my phone. Laugh when I see the Fat Kid’s pic has made the rounds.
That makes me feel better. In a sick sort of way. Prolly shouldn’t have done it.
But hey. Life’s not fair. Gotta laugh when you can.
Jennings is back in his spot at the top of the bleachers on Friday. Where he’s been every day the entire week.
“Gonna join us today?” Coach says, chewing on the rubber tip of his whistle like a cigar, giving his words a mobster lisp.
“No thanks, Coach,” Jennings calls. He’s reading a book, does not look up. Coach can’t see the title.
“You want to go sit in the principal’s office again?”
“I’d love nothing more, Coach.”
“Well then go ahead march your smart ass right down there.”
“I’ll need a pass, Coach.”
“Deal with it. Get out of my gym.”
“Whatever you say, Coach.”
Jennings shoves the paperback into his bag and marches down the bleacher steps. The rest of the class pays no attention. They’ve adjusted to him.
Jennings walks past, saying, “By the way, you know I can take health, right? How about you just give me the old transfer over there? Whaddya say, chum? It’d make life a lot easier for both of us.”
“That class is full. How about you dress out and take a lap? I’ll even give you a full week’s credit if you put in even that much effort.”
“You’re seriously going to fail me at PE?”
“You’re going to fail yourself. You don’t have to be some athlete. You just have to show some effort. Look at those other boys. They strike you as athletes? They’re trying to do what I asked. That’s it.” Coach rubs his forehead as if it pains him. “My god, son, it’s an easy A if you’d—”
“You don’t call me that!” Jennings’s face twists as he screams. Both the volume and the pitch are enough to make the runners stop, crashing into each other. Even Coach is momentarily stunned.
“You don’t ever, ever, call me that,” Jennings seethes. Quiet now, but scary quiet; the quiet of the moment before a firing pin pricks the primer of a bullet.
But Coach doesn’t sway easily. He recovers in an instant. “March your ass to the principal’s office. Now. Or I’ll happily march it there for you.”
Jennings’s rage is gone as quickly as it manifested. A calm look spreads over his face as he heads for the stairs. “Whatever you say, Coach.”
Coach blows his whistle and reams out the freshmen and sophomores who’ve stopped running to watch the scene. They scurry back to the laps. He walks the interior of the sidelines, twirling his whistle lanyard and trying to get his heart rate back to normal.
God damn that kid, he thinks.
The cafeteria is like a soundstage in Hollywood where a million dramas happen every day. This cafeteria’s food is way better than my junior high’s, though, and there’s lots of big windows to let in the sun. And the ceiling is high, which lets all the nose-clogging, steamy-food smell rise. Will it form clouds up there and condense, raining mashed potato moisture upon us all? And if so—yum? I’m not sure.
I buy a Dr Pepper to go with my pizza, happy that Friday is always Pizza Day, and stand off to one side, trying to decide where to try to sit this time. The week hasn’t gone real well in terms of meeting people. High school’s not turning out to be as rock and roll as expected. The other day, this guy told me to screw my sunny disposition. Jeez, relax, right? So I’ve been eating on the go since then, wandering around with my food and watching people, looking for anyone fascinating. I haven’t seen Zach again. Sad face! Maybe he has a car and can drive off campus for lunch.
It’s hard to get to know someone when they’re never around. I listened to music and texted with Gloria the last couple days during lunch, but she’s at a doctor’s appointment today.
Before I leave the cafeteria with my pizza, I spot the spikes-and-buckles kid from the first day. He’s sitting on the floor, his back against the west wall, legs out in front of him and crossed at the ankle. He’s got earbuds in.
So he survived his first week! That’s good. I wonder what kind of music he likes.
I walk over and sit down next to him, crisscross applesauce. He looks up with an expression of surprise that immediately turns to crankiness.
“What’s up?” I say, setting my soda beside me and resting my plate in my lap.
He darts his eyes to one side and the other, then back to me. “Have we met?”
“Nope. I’m Cadence.”
“Like the chant that army guys do when they march?”
“Actually, yes, but my dad was in the navy, not the army. I don’t know if the navy does cadences or not. Probably they do. I’ll ask!”
He pulls one earbud out. “The navy, huh?”
“He have, like, a bunch of guns and stuff? My dad’s a gun guy.”
“I don’t think so. He worked on a submarine.”
He must honestly be interested, because he takes the other earbud out, too.
“What’re you listening to?”
He passes one of the buds over. “MacDougall Clan.”
“Is that like German death metal?”
“No, but why do you ask?”
“Because you dress like it.”
“You’re very forward.”
“And you’re very dry. I mean, like, chill. You don’t make very many expressions, did you know that?”
“It’s a skill.”
“Your face might freeze like that if you’re not careful!”
“Trust me. It already has.”
That’s funny. Maybe he didn’t mean it to be, but it is. “What’ll you give me if I make you smile?”
Well, that gets his attention. I can tell he’s struggling not to show it though. Except—oh, crap. He probably took it in like a sexual way.
So I say, “I didn’t mean that in a sexual way.”
“Of course not,” he says, and twists one of the earbuds back in.
I figure I am dismissed, but he holds up the other bud toward me, but without looking, like he doesn’t care if I take it or not.
I take it. MacDougall Clan sings something I can’t quite make out. It’s got a decent beat, anyway.
“Do you like Rancid?” I ask, tapping out the beat on one leg.
“Sweet!” I say. “How about the Ramones?”
He shrugs. His eyes are only half-open. Or is it half-closed?
“You have to like them. I’ll teach you. What’s your name, anyway?”
“Cool. Hi, Danny.”
“Hello, Cadence. Why are you talking to me?”
“I’m trying to save your life. My friend Colin wore clothes like yours last year, and everyone made fun of him, even when he stopped.”
“So now you don’t like how I dress, either,” he says, like he’s pretending to say it to himself, but I can obviously hear him. “What a fine, fine place this is.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like it, I just said—”
“Everyone made fun of your little buddy. I get it.”
“Are you mad at me now? Because the thing is, it’s been a week and I’ve met some people in class and stuff but honestly, there haven’t been a lot of people to talk to. It’s really hard to make friends here for some reason.”
Danny glances at me. “Yeah. I’ve maybe noticed that. I’m not mad.”
“Cool. What other bands do you like?”
Danny shows me. Or is it hears me … ?
Lets me listen to his music. That’s better. Lunch goes by pretty fast after that.
Mrs. Garcia hands our writing assignments back—our first grade in her class. In red pen, she has circled an A on my paper. She smiles at me when she puts it on my desk, and touches my shoulder for a moment.
I wonder if she’s allowed to do that. To make physical contact, I mean.
“Nice work, Vivian,” Mrs. Garcia says before moving on to the next student.
The girl next to me leans over and demands, “What did you get?”
I turn my paper over, so only a blank white page shows.
“Hey!” the girl snaps.
I’ve already learned her name is Brianna. I’ve learned she is ridiculously smart, or at least knows to only raise her hand when she has the right answer. She does this several times a day. I know this because we have far too many classes together. Honors and AP classes. I’ve heard people in the hallway snickering and calling her “THE Brianna Montaro.” And it always makes me smile inside.
Only inside. Never outside. Never smile on the outside here. And never when THE Brianna Montaro can see it.
Of course we are in all the same classes. Of course.
“What did you get?” Brianna Montaro says again. She wears black tights and a brilliant blue shirt, artfully tattered, punctured, and knotted. It says DANCE on the front. And at this school, there are no ugly dancers, flagettes, or cheerleaders.
I am not a dancer, flagette, or cheerleader.
I say nothing. Stare at the blank side of my assignment.
THE Brianna Montaro rolls her eyes and says, “Ugh!” then rips the essay off my desk and flips it over.
I gasp, but do not reach out to stop her. THE Brianna Montaro stares at the A.
“Bitch,” she says, and flips the paper back at me.
Mrs. Garcia doesn’t notice any of this because an extraordinarily tall boy sitting up front is asking her questions about the grading rubric.
I stay motionless, but can’t resist a peek at Brianna Montaro’s paper. She got an A-minus.
Maybe I’m not the bitch. Maybe Mrs. Garcia is. Maybe THE Brianna Montaro is, and she’s just mad at herself.
Better to assume it’s me, though.
“Knock it off, Brianna,” a boy says to her.
He’s sitting in the desk opposite THE Brianna Montaro. She is between us. He has dark hair, dark eyes, and is attractive even though he’s not really dressed right for school in khakis and a button-down. A nice button-down, though. It is red and sits well on him. He looks … somehow above all this. Like he’s just waiting for high school to end so he can become president.
THE Brianna Montaro turns to the guy. I brace myself, waiting for her to insult him.
She doesn’t. She only stares.
“What?” the boy says.
THE Brianna Montaro just keeps looking at him. Freezing him with ice-cold princess powers.
“What?” the boy says again, agitated.
THE Brianna Montaro says nothing.
The boy shakes his head and mutters, “Whatever.”
At last, THE Brianna Montaro speaks: “Well that was clever, Sam. Honestly, I expected more from a master debater.”
She says it fast so it sounds like one word instead. Only then does she face front again.
The boy shakes his head.
We make eye contact.
He shrugs and smiles. On the outside.
I look at my desk.
And smile. On the inside.
These three girls have another girl pinned against the bathroom wall when I walk in. One of the three is Brianna Montaro. I recognize her instantly, because everyone recognizes Brianna Montaro instantly. I think her given name, as it appears on school records, is THE Brianna Montaro, all caps. I think she’s already been picked to be valedictorian, whatever that is, and it sounds important. She doesn’t look like the boss in here, but then, all three of them might as well be clones. They’re all pretty and they’re all athletic and they’re all old. Like, put-together, I mean. They are not, for example, wearing their older brother’s old Kona board shorts, Doc sandals, and a Rancid Ruby Soho T-shirt like someone else is right now.
The girl pinned to the tile wall looks familiar, maybe, but I’m not sure. I don’t have any classes with her. A black magic marker flashes like a blade in Clone #1’s hand as they whirl toward me.
“Take a walk, freshman,” #1 says.
“What’re you doing?” I ask instead of taking a walk.
#1 uncaps the marker. I imagine I can smell its addictive fumes hovering over the smell of stale cigarettes, mascara, and pee.
“It’s not your problem,” #2 says.
THE Brianna Montaro doesn’t say anything. She’s got her arms crossed and stands a bit to the side, eyes darting between us. But she’s with them, definitely. Maybe she’s supervising, or doing research.
I make eye contact with the girl against the wall. She’s scared, but not struggling. Clones #1 and #2 hold her easily in place with their hands, not straining either. The girl has clearly accepted her fate.
I watch as #1 methodically spells out A+ SLUT on the girl’s exposed forehead. The letters are bold, sharp, perfectly shaped. I wait for laughter from Brianna, or the clones, but no one laughs. The girl against the wall shuts her eyes during the procedure, but she doesn’t shake her head or shove them away or scream. Somehow that’s the worst part, the way she just takes it without making any fuss.
I want to do something, but what? Sweet ninja moves? I don’t have any of those. I could run shouting out of the bathroom, get a teacher or call SWAT, but I don’t think they’ll actually do anything about it. These girls seem like the kind of people who get away with stuff regardless of what a wee freshman might say about them.
“Nice,” Clone #1 says when it’s over. They release the girl and drop the marker to the floor.
The three of them muscle past me, writing me off as they go. I didn’t interfere, and they don’t think I’ll tell, because no one tells, I’m pretty sure about that. It wasn’t in the student handbook, but I still know. Brianna looks back once, at the end of their procession. She meets my eyes, super, super fast, and looks away again. I can’t tell if she feels guilty, or embarrassed, or what.
The girl stays against the wall, eyes still shut, breathing shallow through her nose.
“You okay?” I ask.
The girl doesn’t move, doesn’t answer.
“I could get you some paper towels and soap. Here.” I go to the sinks and start pulling out handfuls of paper towels, as thick and crisp as colorful kindergarten butcher paper. Seriously, who buys this stuff? “We can try to wash it off,” I say. “While it’s still fresh. Do you want some help?”
Her eyes have been replaced by orbs of hard, black ice when she opens them, freezing me in place. Then she breaks her gaze to reach down into a red backpack. She takes out a black beanie and pulls it carefully over her curly brown hair so that the rim meets her eyebrows, covering the graffiti on her forehead.
“That works,” I say. “But really, we can—”
She shoulders the bag and makes her way to the door.
“I’m gonna go ahead and report them,” I say.
“Don’t,” the girl whispers. Then she’s out of the bathroom.
“Nice to meet you,” I say after the door has closed. Sad face. Why do people do that kind of thing to each other? I mean, really, who feels better about themselves after something like that?
I consider reporting them anyway. I’m pretty sure I’m right about Brianna Montaro’s name. I could bust her, if not the other two.
But it’s their three words against me and the other girl’s two. Three against one if the girl with the fresh Sharpie tattoo doesn’t speak up. And I get the impression she won’t.
So there’s nothing I can do. Man that sucks! People suck sometimes.
But my day gets better when I come out of the bathroom a few minutes later and see Zach wandering down the hall in my direction. At last! I wave.
He smiles right away. I could find my way in the dark by that grin.
“How’s it going,” he says, “um … Katie?”
“Cadence.” I fall into step beside him. “But you could call me Cadie for short.”
“Cadence, right,” he says. “Cadie, Cadence. Got it. So what’s up?”
“Some girls just wrote slut on this other girl’s forehead in the bathroom,” I say, since he asked.
“Wow. That sucks.”
“Really does,” I say. “I would have done some sweet ninja moves on them, but I’m out of practice.”
“I’d pay a lot to see that.”
“Cool! I’ll set up a demo. What’re you doing out of class?”
“Taking a message to the office. What about you?”
I hold up my green hall pass. “Bathroom break.”
“What class are you in right now?”
“At this very moment, I’m in Walking Zach Down The Hall class.”
“Don’t take this wrong way,” he says when we reach an intersection. “But you’re kind of a doofblatt.”
“What’s a doofblatt?”
“Not sure. My mom says it all the time. I think it means, you know … a little crazy.”
“I’ll take it!”
“I’m heading this way,” Zach says.
“And I’m heading that.”
“All right. See you around, Cadie.”
“See ya, Zach! I’m glad I got to take a class with you today, finally.”
He laughs and goes off down the hall. I think he’s shaking his head a bit, probably because I’m a doofblatt. I turn and walk back to my earth science class, thinking about the girl with the black beanie and wondering if there was anything I could have done different. I decide to ask Dad and Mom and Johnny when I get home, during dinner. They’ll know.
The boy in the red button-down from Mrs. Garcia’s class is also in my seventh-period math class. Our teacher, Mr. Donelly, lets us sit anywhere. I want to sit in the back, farthest corner, but AP potheads have already staked it out. I end up in the middle of the row, closest to the door. It’ll do.
In hindsight, I realize the boy usually sits a few seats away from where I am. Today he gets there earlier and sits across from me. He could touch me from his desk.
“No hats in class,” he says to me.
He smiles, too. He has 8.4 zits. They are the small kind that probably hurt when he touches them.
“I know,” I say, then sink down in my seat.
He might be someone’s boyfriend. Dangerous.
He must be someone’s boyfriend. He knows answers in both classes. He is cute. Not hot. Brady Culliver is hot. I know his name now. So is Donte Walker, whose name I also know now.
But this boy next to me is cute. I have never seen him in jeans, not from the first day of school to now. It would be weird to see him in jeans, I think.
“I’m Sam. Well, Samuel, but only my grandmother calls me that.”
I nod. Conversation must end.
“Are you going to leave your hat on?”
My hat. I have to leave it on. Can’t take it off. Can’t let anyone see. Should have gone home. Daddy hasn’t gotten me a car yet, but he swears he will. I might drive it back to my real neighborhood if he does, where it’s less safe but at least I know the rules. Maybe I could go live with his sister instead, my Aunt Marlene.
“There’s something on your forehead,” Sam says.
I pull my hat down further. It’s slipped up a little, probably revealing the black markings. “It’s nothing.”
Sam reaches across the aisle and rests his fingers on the edge of my desk. “Are you okay?”
I nod. But I have to keep my mouth closed very, very tightly so I don’t cry. It didn’t help in the Dez; it won’t help here.
“Hey,” Sam says, quietly, like a secret. “You want to ditch? Go get coffee or something?”
The word feels like a spike. I don’t ditch. Bad kids ditch. Dad will kill me if I ditch.
Except he’d have to be able to get out of bed first.
I scan the class. Will anybody notice? Will anybody care? What about Mr. Donelly? He’ll take roll. He’ll know I’m not here. He’ll call my dad. I’ll get in trouble.
Sam stands up, pulling his backpack over one shoulder. “Come on.”
I shrink back. People look at him. He doesn’t care.
“Come on,” he urges again. “I know a place. You obviously need sugar. Probably chocolate.”
My fingers tingle. Ditch. It sounds so bad. And chocolate … it sounds so good.
My forehead itches where the black ink is sinking in like a tattoo. Will it ever come off?
I pick up my bag. “Okay.”
“Cool,” Sam says.
We rush for the door and out into the hallway. I look at him for guidance.
“This way,” he says, and holds out a hand.
I stare at it.
Then I take it.
Sam smiles, and we run. He guides me through hallways and breezeways until we reach the parking lot, and then we waltz right off campus and onto the street outside. I don’t see the security guards anywhere. It’s warm, but I don’t care. Sam lets go of my hand.
“You haven’t actually told me your name yet,” Sam says as we walk.
He’s right. Now that we are away from school, I can feel my throat loosening.
“Civvy?” Sam says. “Like, a civilian?”
“Vivi.” I try to be louder. “Vivian.”
“Oh, Vivi,” Sam says. “Okay. Cool. Vivian. That’s a pretty name.”
I tuck my chin into my neck for safety.
“So are you new?” Sam asks as we wait to cross a street. “I don’t remember seeing you before.”
“Where are you from?”
“The Dez.” I answer automatically, not thinking of how Sam might react. The Dez, a neighborhood with the city’s most dense population but not a grocery store in sight, is mostly known for its bustling drug trade.
So I quickly add, “Desert Guadalupe.” The G comes out as an H. It’s the only trace of an accent I’ve got. My mom used to say that my Spanish words come out with “Mexican flair,” like my dad’s. All my English words sounds like I’m from the Midwest, like Mom’s.
“Desert Guadalupe,” Sam says, with the hard G. “That’s not anywhere near here. How’d you end up at this school?”
I shouldn’t even have spoken. “Where are we going?” I ask instead.
“Just over there. Jamaican Blue. Really good coffee and pastry stuff. You don’t want to tell me how you wound up here?”
I shake my head.
“Okay,” Sam says. “You’re very mysterious—anyone ever tell you that?”
I shake again.
“Well, I’m pleased to be the first. Are you in any clubs at school?”
“Oh. Well, I’m in debate. I’m really quite good.”
He glances at me. I guess to see if I smile. I think I do, because Sam looks pleased.
“So don’t ever argue with me. Also, I can talk a lot. I don’t have to, but I can. Do you want me to keep talking? Because you don’t seem to be in the habit of saying much.”
I’ll have to speak. I can’t just keep answering with a yes-nod or shake-no.
“I don’t,” I say quickly. “Say much.”
“That’s okay,” Sam says. “Because I rather like the sound of my own voice. I could go on and on and on. Here’s the shop.”
We stop in front of a single large window that reads JAMAICAN BLUE in painted letters. He holds the door open for me, the way Daddy used to do for Mom. Sam orders for me, something listed on the menu as a CHOCOLATE F*CKING EXPLOSION. It appears to be a kind of milkshake, but he orders it by saying, “She’ll have a Chocolate Explosion.” Then he wrinkles his forehead.
“Shoot. I just ordered for you, didn’t I? Sorry, I’m trying to quit doing stuff like that.”
“I’ll forgive you this time,” I say, hoping it’s funny.
Sam does in fact smile. “Okay. Thank you. Won’t happen again. Where do you want to sit?”
I wander off in search of a good spot while he places his own order. I already like this shop. It’s dark, but cool in both senses of the word. I could get used to being here instead of school. I pick a tall table in a corner and sit down. Sam joins me a minute later.
“Okay, so now I’m plying you with chocolate and I rescued you from a boring math class,” Sam says, kicking one foot up over his knee. “Now I get to cross-examine you. All right?”
I shrug. Sam starts to ask me something, but then a barista comes to the bar and holds up two cups.
“I’ve got a large Chocolate Fucking Explosion for Vivi and a large caramel latte for …” She hesitates. “He Who Shall Not Be Named!”
Sam gets up and takes the cups from her, then returns to our table. For the first time in many weeks, maybe months, I start laughing.
Sam looks pleased. “Did you like that? It’s my favorite name to use.”
I just keep laughing.
I do like that.
I might like him.
Grinning, Sam says, “So. Vivian. What brings you to our fine school?”
“My daddy. Dad! My dad.” I look for a place to hide. But Sam doesn’t seem to notice my idiocy.
“What about him?”
I drink my Explosion for strength. It works wonderfully. “He got hurt. At work. A beam fell on him. Like, one of those metal beams at a construction site.”
“Wow, sorry. I’m going to be a lawyer—you want me to sue someone?”
“No kidding. Are you rich now?”
“He bought a new house.”
“So that’s a yes.”
I drink instead of answering. It is a yes. A huge yes. A seven-figure yes.
“I’m sorry,” Sam says. “I shouldn’t be asking you stuff like that, that’s rude.”
Sam squints at me. “If it’s really okay, then I have one more question. Were you this quiet before the money?”
I sip. Savor. Then shake.
“Was it the money or the move?”
“Money, move … and Mom.” I peer into my tall glass of Chocolate F*cking Explosion, mesmerized by the swirls of chocolate sauce.
Sam urges me to keep talking with his sincere brown eyes.
“She left. Just before the accident.”
“So she got nothing? That must make her mad.”
“It does.” I finish my drink. “Can I ask you something?”
“I’d be amazed and delighted.”
“Why do you think that girl Brianna is so popular?”
“THE Brianna Montaro?” Sam says, and in that moment, I want to kiss him. “Is she?”
“Is she what?”
“Is she actually popular. I mean, by definition, that would mean a lot of people like her. What’s a lot of people? Half the campus? Three quarters? She doesn’t actually hang out with that many people. Too busy, for one thing.”
“Okay, well … maybe popular is the wrong word.”
“Sorry, I get hung up on specificity,” Sam says. “It’s a debate thing. I know what you meant. I was just thinking, popular means adored by many. I don’t think that quite fits her.”
When he smiles again, I do, too. I decide right then to be friends with Sam the rest of my life.