— Chapter 6 —
“HEY, KIDDO.” Frankie ruffled his sister’s curly blond hair and snagged a banana from the basket in the center of the table.
She rolled her eyes. “I just about gave you up for dead. Mom already did. She left fifteen minutes ago to help set up for youth group tonight. She said if you woke up before dinnertime to let you know.”
“Hey, I have to sleep now while I can. We’ll both be getting up at six a.m. next week.” He stopped peeling the banana. “Oh, wait. You’ll have to get up earlier, since you have to catch the bus, because that’s what freshmen do.”
Frankie dodged the napkin she threw at him and grinned as she called him a jerk. “I’m not a jerk. I’m a junior, which means I’ve done the dorky freshman thing. Now it’s your turn, and I cannot wait to make some popcorn, watch the show, and laugh.” He picked up the napkin, balled it, and pitched it into the trashcan. Nothing but net.
“You’re such a showoff.”
“Dad says that it would be a sin against God for a person not to use the skill he or she was born with. And I think we can both agree that I have skills.”
Bianca rolled her eyes, and Frankie laughed as he headed to the fridge to grab a soda.
“So which of those mad skills are you planning to use today?” Bianca asked. “Your fierce gluttony or your well-developed sloth?”
“I think sloth has already been accounted for, and gluttony is coming up next.” He shoved the banana in his mouth. His sister let out an eww and swatted at him the way he knew she would. After he’d chased down the banana with Mountain Dew, he added, “But if you need the rest of the agenda for your report to Mom, I’ve got practice.”
“Wait.” His sister’s brown eyes narrowed. “I thought today’s practice was canceled because you won some stupid bet.”
“You are correct, although not about the bet being stupid.” It had been smart and calculated. Frankie had made a bet that Coach couldn’t resist.
“As a result of my superior intellect and outstanding athletic prowess, varsity football practice was canceled for the day. JV, however, is still meeting, because they don’t have a leader with my vision and sense of purpose.”
“And you’ve decided your new purpose will be to crash their practice and show off your overrated athletic skills? Or are you going to sit in the bleachers and laugh your ass off as they trip all over themselves trying to impress you?”
“Neither.” Although both were totally viable options. “We’re going for the prize behind door number three.”
He chugged his soda and grabbed his car keys from the hook by the door. A couple of stops to pick up the rest of the things he needed, and everything would be ready to go.
“You’re going to prank the JV. You are, aren’t you?”
He turned and was struck by how tall Bianca had gotten. Not close to his six feet two, but taller than Mom. And she did a good impression of Mom, with the way her head was cocked to the side as if trying to decide whether she should finally call him on his crap. Mom never did, but Bianca wasn’t as willing to let him slide. If she kept up that no-BS mentality, his sister would survive high school without a problem.
But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try to snow her. With a smile, he said, “According to the Athletic Code of Conduct Handbook, hazing is not acceptable behavior at Hallwood High School.”
“And still somehow when you were a freshman, you ended up with shaving cream in your helmet and cayenne pepper on your jockstrap.”
Those were the days. Okay, maybe not the burning sensation that plagued him for days, but the rest. Well, everything seemed easier when he was a freshman. Now . . . well, that was then. This was now.
He turned and headed down the hall.
“Come on, Frankie. Tell me. What are you guys going to do to the JV?” She followed him into the garage. When he didn’t tell, she said, “Fine. Maybe I’ll just have to come down to the school so I can see for myself.”
“No.” His head snapped toward Bianca. “You’re not coming to school. Not today.”
“You might be the almighty captain of the football team, but you don’t own the place. I can go wherever the hell I want, and as it turns out, a lot of freshman will be getting new IDs today. So I might want to go and hang out with some of my friends who still have to get theirs.”
“You’re not interested in seeing your friends. All you’re trying to do is shove yourself into my life. Isn’t it enough that we’re already attending the same school and going to the same church group? Can’t a guy do anything without his family spying on him?”
Bianca crossed her arms in front of her chest and raised her chin the way she used to do when she was six and was about to cry. Which was just perfect. His sister needed to learn to let things go. She’d be happier if she did. Of course, he probably wasn’t one to give advice on that front. Especially not when he considered what his plans were for today.
His phone chimed, and he glanced down at the text.
“I just want to see what you’re doing,” his sister said quietly, making him feel like a total jerk. “It’s not like I’m spying or that I’m going to tell Mom or Dad.”
“Look,” he said, checking the text again, then the clock on his phone. He had to get going if he was going to make his plans fly. “The guys and I are just going to have a little fun. We’re not going to get caught, because we know what we’re doing.” And even if he did get caught, nothing would probably happen. Because no one would dare sideline the all-American star football and baseball player. Not if it meant there was a chance they’d lose a game. “But if you’re seen at the school, you’ll probably be asked if you saw anything. Then you’ll either have to rat us out and commit social suicide before even starting high school or you’ll end up in detention for forever. I wouldn’t recommend either. Okay?” When Bianca didn’t look as if she was going to stand down, he pushed harder. “Bianca, I’m trying to protect you. Brothers do that, even for their annoying freshman sisters.”
“Fine.” Bianca unfolded her arms and tucked her hands in her back pockets with a shrug. She tried to pretend she was unyielding, but he could see she was smiling, which made the tension in him ease. He liked when his sister thought of him as one of the good guys . . . even if he knew he’d done things that might make her question it.
“I don’t think you have to worry about that.”
People would notice, and no one would call him out. Because he had an arm that won games. What could possibly be more important than that?
Frankie slid behind the wheel of the old white Mustang his dad had given him when he’d become the varsity’s starting quarterback. It had been accompanied by the words Just don’t think you can spend all your time in the back seat with your girlfriend. You still have work to do.
Of course I do, Frankie thought now as he cranked the engine to life. Nothing was ever good enough. A winner always had to do more.
He started to back out but stopped and rolled down the window as he spotted his sister going back into the house. “Hey, Bianca. I’m not kidding. Stay away from school today. Promise me.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I promise.” And she slammed the door shut.
Good. He picked up his phone and read a new text that had just come in. He answered the second one and looked at the first one a long time before shaking his head and putting the phone down. Then he put the car in reverse and hit the gas. It was time to get this show on the road.
— Chapter 7 —
THERE WAS ALREADY a line for new student identification cards for students who had been unable to get them at the end of school last year or had lost them.
The main office door, located in the middle of the two-story-tall atrium under the purple-and-yellow painted signs that said MIGHTY TROJANS, was closed. The lights were on in the office, but whoever was in charge of processing IDs hadn’t started yet, which meant that everyone had to wait outside in the atrium or somewhere else nearby. A couple of kids were standing near the door. One girl from last year’s chemistry class smiled and nodded. Rashid nodded back but didn’t walk over to join her, instead he looked around at the others who were waiting. Some were sitting on the floor in the foyer, and he could see a bunch more camping out past the double doors that officially led to the rest of the school.
Rashid looked at his watch, then counted the students outside the office doors and the ones in the front hall stationed near the media center. There were twenty who had arrived before he had—none were from his group of friends. He’d perform Dhuhr early, as he often did when school was in session, then get in line after he was done.
He let a dark-haired girl holding a blue bag and a clarinet case walk through the doors in front of him, then headed into the main front hall. The girl turned right—toward the fine arts wing. Rashid went left, past the media-center doors. The closest bathrooms were to the right of the media center, but there were too many people hanging out in that direction. He wasn’t sure he’d have the courage to follow through with what he’d come here to do if he had to look at all of them as he passed by. Besides, it would be easier to pray in one of the classrooms upstairs, where there were fewer people.
A couple of girls hurried in his direction, their shoes squeaking against the light-gray tile. Rashid stepped to the side to avoid them and felt his bag bump into something on the other side.
“Um . . . excuse me?” a girl snapped.
“I’m sorry,” Rashid automatically said as he pulled the bag tightly to his body and looked up at Diana Sanford. Only she wasn’t looking at him but was frowning at the girls sauntering down the middle of the hall. “I didn’t see you there.”
Diana shook her head as she watched the girls go. “I wasn’t saying ‘excuse me’ to you. I was talking to them.” She turned to face him, and he watched her bright smile go tight at the corners. She clutched the backpack she had slung over her shoulder and took a small step back toward the lockers.
That step. He tried not to take it personally. Still, he couldn’t help thinking about this summer at Sitto’s when he walked with others without a single person stepping back from him. People smiled as they passed him on the street. No one thought twice about what he looked like or jumped to conclusions about what his appearance meant.
“Did you have a good summer?” he asked quietly.
“Sure.” She nodded and shifted her weight. “It was good to have time away from school. How was your summer? Did you do something fun?”
“I visited family.”
Her smile vanished. “Family is always interesting.” She looked down at her own bag then off toward the media center. “Speaking of family, mine is going to be mad if I don’t get my yearbook stuff done in time to get home and change. I should go.”
“I need to get going too,” he said as she hurried down the hallway. She glanced to the side once, and he saw her smile return. Not the tense one she’d worn for him, but one that seemed to be as bright as the sun. Diana stopped and waved to whomever she was smiling at, then disappeared inside the media center.
When she was gone, he turned and headed down the hallway with his head up, hoping to see a friend who would ask him if he’d read the latest Superman comic to chase away the voices of his cousins from this summer. When they’d asked him about how people treated him back home and whether he felt his friends really accepted him, he’d automatically said yes. But with each day that passed and the more questions that were asked and comments made, he realized how different he was from everyone at home. He remembered the little slights and the snide looks, as well as the insults some of the biggest jerks in the school spat at him. If he was honest with himself, it was his cousins as much as anyone or anything else that made him come here today. They made him realize he needed to make choices about who he wanted to be.
He walked by a bunch of girls holding tape and posters and standing around their lockers not far from the stairwell. They all stopped talking as he walked by. As he headed into the stairwell, he could almost hear his cousins’ voices telling him how he could never really be an American as a Muslim. It was only when he was halfway to the second floor that he realized he had been holding his breath.
“Welcome back, Rashid,” Mrs. Skatavaritis said as she came down the stairs. She stopped and smiled. A large floral purse dangled from her arm. She must be done with her back-to-school meetings and was heading out to enjoy the rest of the day, but she still took the time to stop and ask, “Did you have a good summer?”
“I did,” he said. “How about you, Mrs. S.?”
“Well, it wasn’t long enough. It’s never long enough, right? But it was a nice break, and I’m ready to talk calculus. How about you?”
When he just nodded, she laughed. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be a good year. I promise.” With that, she continued on down the stairs.
Rashid watched her go, went up to the second floor, and then headed to the bathroom near the science classrooms, at other end of the school.
He spotted Mr. Rizzo in his biology room, but as Rashid had suspected, most of the math and science rooms were clean, perfectly organized, and completely empty at the moment.
He hoped the bathroom would be empty too.
Quickly, Rashid slipped off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants in order to wash and get ready for prayers. When he finished, he picked up his bag and shoes and hurried to Mr. Lott’s classroom down the hall. The adviser of the robotics team had always been cool about allowing Rashid to use his room when a class wasn’t in session. Once in a while, one of the other boys from his mosque would join him, but mostly he prayed alone. He liked the guys who went to his mosque, but they were more interested in playing soccer than in building robots or in the new comics being released. And their parents let them do all their prayers at home after school was over. Maybe if he liked soccer more, he’d get along with them better. But as much as he tried to be a part of their group, he never could. They were all Muslim, and while that made them friendly to him, it wasn’t enough to make them real friends no matter how much he wished it was.
During his fifteen minutes of prayers, he spotted Diana walking by, as well as two teachers clearly on their way out of the building. But none of them seemed to notice him, which made focusing easier than normal.
Rashid rolled down his pants, put his shoes back on, and picked up his bag. Then he went back to the bathroom. For several long moments, he studied his face in the mirror, trying to see what Diana saw today that had made her step back from him. What made so many of them do the same?
Dark skin. Curly hair. A long, scraggly beard. Just one more thing that made him different. This summer all the men in Palestine had beards, and his cousins, who didn’t, were jealous of his because it made the older girls look twice at Rashid.
People stared at him here, too, but as his cousins pointed out, it wasn’t because of his appearance. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that even after he had been living here for five years, most people couldn’t get past what they saw on the outside. Fewer still wanted to learn. Not even his friends seemed comfortable enough to ask questions. His cousins said it was because people were scared of what they would learn if they asked. His father told him that time would bring understanding.
Rashid wished he could believe his father was right and that if he just waited long enough, people would act normal around him again. That they wouldn’t look at him and see Muslim first and Rashid second.
The Koran, too, instructed him to wait in patience. It told him to celebrate Allah while waiting and that patience is what brought strength and prosperity. But Rashid wasn’t in the world that his father grew up in. The more he looked around, the more he saw the world as his cousins and some of the men at the mosque saw it. A world that looked at him with fear simply because he was alive.
Rashid had tried patience, but waiting wasn’t going to fix his problems. If he wanted things to be different, he would have to try something else.
One by one, Rashid checked to make sure nobody was in the bathroom stalls. Then he carefully set his bag on one of the sinks and unzipped it. Ignoring the hammering of his heart and the shaking of his hands, he pulled out his tools and hoped his father would be able to understand that this was what Rashid had to do.
— Chapter 8 —
PIECE BY PIECE, Cas assembled her clarinet. When the instrument was together, she took a seat on the piano bench and began to play.
Mozart. Her favorite.
Not for the first time, Cas wished she played the piece better. It was one she’d started learning before she’d had to leave her last school. She’d been determined to get it as perfect as she could. Only her schedule last year didn’t give her as much time to practice as she needed. And at home . . . well, everyone else needed quiet when they were doing homework or when her mother was on the phone. When her father was around, he always said she should go for a run.
So to avoid conflicts at home, she’d practiced here fifteen minutes before and after school and eventually during her half-hour lunch period. Music was the one thing that made her happy. And when she played something beautiful, she almost could convince herself that she was beautiful too.
Sound filled the room. Cas closed her eyes so she could tune out everything else. So that nothing around her existed but the music and the need to create a resonant and pure sound.
The fingering still tripped her up. The tone got breathy, and here and there, she went off pitch. But it was better. And when she finished the piece, she started again to make it better still. Steady breathing. Leaning into each line. Feeling the flow of notes through her. Control of every moment. Maybe if she . . .
“Why aren’t you in marching band?”
She jumped. The instrument honked. Embarrassment flooded her at the realization that someone had heard her make that sound and of how stupid she probably looked through the practice-room window while she played. Slowly, she turned toward the voice and almost fell off her seat.
Football captain. Big man on campus. The guy everyone in the school recognized but she’d never talked to—not once. She doubted he had ever noticed her at school, but now he was standing in the doorway, staring at her.
“What do you want?” she asked, glancing down at the bag near her feet. She let out a sigh of relief. The bag was zipped shut.
“I was on my way to the gym and heard the music. I wanted to see who was making it.” He leaned against the doorjamb and hooked his fingers through the belt loops on his shorts. “You sound good. Way better than anything they’re playing out on the field right now.”
She waited for him to follow up with a joke. But he just looked at her as if he was curious why she wasn’t saying a damn thing.
“Thanks,” she finally said.
“You’re Cas, right? I think we had advanced bio together last year.”
“Yeah. We did,” she said quietly. He was a year older than Cas, but she was a year ahead in science, so they’d been in the same class. He’d taken his frog off the tray and made it dance while Mr. Rizzo was passing out the rest of the specimens.
“I don’t know about you, but I escaped having any classes in the dungeon room this year. I’m like a plant,” he said with a smile. “I need sunlight.”
Everyone called Mr. Rizzo’s room the dungeon because it had only two skinny windows, which didn’t let in any sunlight. Mr. Rizzo tried to keep things interesting, but there were at least one or two kids every semester who fell asleep in that room.
Frankie stared at her again—waiting for her to speak.
Cas’s stomach twisted as she tried to come up with a funny or interesting response that wouldn’t make her sound like an idiot.
Thankfully, Frankie filled the silence. “I meant what I said, you know. You’re good. Is that why you decided not to be part of marching band? Too talented for the hacks?”
“What’s with you and marching band?” she asked. “Do you have a thing for polyester uniforms?”
“Not especially,” he admitted with an easy grin. “But there is something funny about watching people try to look dignified while wearing purple-and-gold polyester. It’s just not possible. I go to a lot of football games and have become quite the connoisseur of marching bands and their uniforms. Ours is the worst of the lot. Thankfully, we’re in the locker room when they play at halftime, so we’re spared what they’re trying to pass off as music. It’s pretty clear no one in that band practices the way you do. Talent means nothing unless you take the time to hone it.”
Before Cas could decide whether Frankie was serious about the compliment he’d just paid her, he looked down at his watch and pushed away from the doorjamb. “Speaking of locker rooms, I have to head down to practice.” Frankie took a step back. His expression turned serious as he added, “You really are good, you know. I’m glad I got to hear you play.” With that, he disappeared down the hall.
Cas stared at the closed door—heart pounding, palms sweating. Finally, she lifted the clarinet to her mouth to once again focus on the music, but instead she kept thinking about the boy who had just been in the doorway.
Frankie was popular. Always had a girlfriend and a crowd of people around him and could do no wrong—kind of like a modern-day prince. Which was fitting, since he’d been on the homecoming court last year—something several kids had said was unfair, since everyone was certain he was the one behind the chickens found in the cafeteria the week before. But no one ever said anything too loudly, because everyone knew he needed to be on the field if their team had a chance of going to state. She hadn’t thought he’d known she existed.
The star of the football team knew her name. Cas wasn’t sure how she felt about that, or if she wanted to feel anything. To keep herself from thinking too much, she took a deep breath and picked up playing where she had left off—before Frankie had interrupted.
Low notes as open and full as she could make them. High notes that floated on the air. All the while, she watched the window in the door of the practice room in case someone appeared—telling herself she didn’t want to be interrupted, but deep down wishing that someone else would come. When she got to the end of the piece, she played it again. Waiting . . .
It was stupid. There was no reason to think someone else would stop by and care that she was in here. But Frankie’s visit had made her think maybe, just maybe, there was hope.
Every time she’d believed that things would get better, she’d been proven wrong. She’d found reasons to hope and always ended up feeling worse when the disappointment crashed down on her. But maybe if there was one more sign that she should reconsider what she came here to do today, she would. She would walk away from her decision. She’d try to change things another way.
She played the piece again. Louder. The notes cracked under the pressure. Or maybe it was her soul that cracked each time the tone broke.
She played louder still, no longer caring what the music sounded like. Only caring about the volume. She wanted someone else to hear. To know that she was in this room. To care that she was . . . that she just was.
After the fourth time through, Cas lowered the instrument onto her lap. No one had heard. There was no other sign.
Cas wiped the tears from her cheeks and sat there for several heartbeats as the hope she’d felt faded, leaving the familiar hollowness of disappointment behind. Carefully she took the clarinet apart, removed the reed from the mouthpiece, and put everything back in the blue-lined case. Cas unzipped the side pocket of her bag and pulled out the note she’d written dozens of times over the last few months before tearing each of those earlier versions into little shreds. She placed the envelope on top of the clarinet before closing the lid and running her hand over the outside of the sleek black case. The clarinet was one of the only things she truly loved. It was always there. It never judged.
Taking a deep breath, Cas picked up her bag with one hand and the clarinet case with the other, then headed out of the practice room.
The band room was empty. Open instrument cases sat on chairs and were strewn across the floor, along with dozens of backpacks. The music-office windows were dark. Everyone must still be at marching-band practice. Would Frankie laugh when he saw them stumbling around in the heat and think of her?
Frankie had asked if she thought she was too good to be a part of marching band. He’d said those words without sarcasm or a snide tone, and she wished he’d been right.
She waited for several minutes, thinking that if the band finished practice and came back in—if someone said hello—she’d change her mind. Last year, when she’d first stepped into this room, she’d been certain her family was correct. That everything from before wouldn’t matter. That things would be different here, because this place was different.
Nothing was different. And at some point, it would get worse, just as it had before. She wanted to blame her mom for saying it would be okay if she dressed differently and her father for saying she just had to act as if she belonged and she would. They didn’t understand, and they refused to listen when she tried to tell them. They didn’t get that she didn’t fit in.
She wasn’t skinny like the popular girls. She used to always say the wrong thing, so now she just said nothing. Frizzy hair. Stupid laugh. Pimples on her forehead that no cream could make go away.
This summer she finally realized it wasn’t the other kids that were the problem or her father or mother or her annoying shrink. There was only one constant in all of it.
— Chapter 9 —
FRANKIE WATCHED VINCE CARTER throw an unsteady spiral to a talented running back who didn’t have a chance in hell of catching the crappy toss. Vince still had a hell of a lot to learn.
Of course, the trick there was that Vince had to be willing to learn. Frankie’s father had suggested Frankie work with Vince, since their families went to the same church. Okay, it was less of a suggestion and more of an order, but Frankie had gone along with it because Vince did have talent, and Frankie liked the idea of training the guy who would eventually replace him once he graduated. It was just too bad Vince was a pain in the ass and believed that he was better than everyone else—including Frankie—and had no problems telling people so. The kid didn’t think he had to put in the work to reap success. Not like that girl, Cassandra. Even if she had a stick up her butt about talking to him, Frankie admired her sitting alone in that claustrophobically small room, practicing her ass off to be better than everyone else at the one thing she was passionate about.
Vince didn’t think he had to earn jack. He just wanted Frankie to get out of the way so he could have his position.
Yeah—not if Frankie had anything to say about it.
Frankie stepped away from the building and waved at Ian Morgan, then slipped back into the shadows as Ian grabbed a ball and trotted over to one of the receivers watching the first-string squad run plays. The second-string receiver ran down the sidelines as Ian cocked his arm back and let the football fly.
The spiral was tight. Just the way the two of them had practiced this summer. Frankie had been surprised the day the sophomore rang Frankie’s doorbell to ask for help with his form. But Frankie had been impressed on that first practice session. Ian never once said the words “I can’t,” no matter how hard the challenge Frankie gave him.
That’s what Frankie’s father always told him that winners did. They kept their eye on the prize and did whatever it took to reach it.
Ian’s throw was a perfect bull’s-eye—hit the receiver chest-level.
And Coach Anderson noticed.
Frankie leaned back against the wall and watched as Coach blew his whistle and started screaming about teamwork and keeping focused on the drills. He shook his finger at Ian and stalked around in a way that was probably supposed to be menacing but, in Frankie’s opinion, made the coach look as if he needed to pee.
Finally, Ian jogged back to the sidelines, his eyes firmly on the ground in front of him. The kid must have really gotten his ass well and thoroughly chewed. He’d have to get used to it, because winners never just got patted on the back. Once they cleared the bar set for them, the bar was always raised and people screamed until you got over that one too. Once you were a winner, you had to stay the winner they expected you to be.
Frankie waited for Coach to blow the whistle. When it came, he wasn’t surprised to hear Coach yell for Vince to get some water and for Ian to run the next play.
Frankie watched Ian take the field. Ian struggled to get his helmet on. It wasn’t easy to act cool when you knew every eye was on you . . . counting on you . . . waiting for you alone to give them something to cheer about. Frankie had had to learn to be calm under pressure—even when he felt like he was about to blow.
Ian called for the snap. Despite how nervous he was, their hours of practice this summer paid off. Ian backpedaled and waited before launching the ball downfield.
Touchdown city, baby.
Everything inside him tensed as he spotted Tad coming toward him. The eyes that Frankie had found mysterious and intriguing were narrowed as Tad zeroed in on him.
Frankie glanced behind him toward the JV practice. Coach was still barking out plays. Ian and the rest of the guys were sweating in the sun, but Vince seemed to be looking this way. Damn it.
“You’re not supposed to be here, Tad,” Frankie said. “Didn’t you get the text telling you not to come to school?”
Tad stopped walking. He folded his arms over his deep blue T-shirt and studied Frankie. “As captain, you get to tell the team what to do to get ready for the game and you can push us on the field. But if you want to tell me how you think I should live my life, you’ll have to do it yourself. Not through Jimmy.”
“It’s the same text everyone got,” Frankie said, taking another look over his shoulder. “We shouldn’t talk about this here.”
Frankie started to move toward the door, but Tad stepped into his path. There was a reason the guy was one of the best receivers around. He was fast and could usually shake the guy defending him. Great on the field. Not so great when Frankie was the one trying to do the shaking.
“Then where?” Tad asked. “You’ve been avoiding me.”
“I’ve been busy. And I’m sorry if you’re upset, but I don’t want to have this conversation here. If Coach sees—”
“I don’t care what Coach sees. I—”
“You should.” Frankie grabbed Tad’s arm. “If you don’t want Coach benching you, you should go to the lake with the others. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Because you’re here?” Tad yanked his arm out of Frankie’s grip. “And you don’t want people to see us together.”
“No.” Maybe. Hell. “This isn’t me talking as your friend. My dad says a good captain has to have his teammates’ back. Well, this is me, your captain, watching your back. I’m paying a visit to the JV’s locker room, and I don’t want you here, or people will think you’re involved.” When Tad cocked his head to the side, Frankie added, “Meet the team at Jimmy’s. Go to the lake and get the hell away from here before you ruin everything.”
“How do I know these top-secret plans aren’t just your way of getting rid of me?”
Tad smiled. “Fine. You want me to go hang out at the lake. Sure. I’ll do that.”
Frankie let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Good. Jimmy will—”
“I’ll do it, but only if you meet me in Mr. Lott’s room in ten minutes.”
Tad wanted to meet him alone in a physics teacher’s classroom? The school was mostly empty and the second floor would be even emptier, but hell, no. “I get that you’re pissed at me, but you can’t stay here. Look, I’ll—”
“Ten minutes.” Tad’s deep brown eyes met Frankie’s. “Don’t ignore me this time.”
With that, Tad turned and walked back into the building, leaving Frankie to stare after him for a second before finally following him inside. Frankie squinted when he stepped into the hallway. The lights were on, but after being in the sunlight, he found the hallway dim . . . and empty. Tad wasn’t there, and he wasn’t in the locker room, either, as Frankie discovered upon entering it. The locker room smelled of new white paint that couldn’t completely mask the odor of sweat that was so much a part of this place. Frankie checked his phone, then grabbed the bag he’d stashed there when he’d first arrived. Less than ten minutes until Tad wanted him to be upstairs. Twenty minutes until the team left for the lake. He wanted Tad to be with them. The two of them might not be on the same page right now, but he didn’t want Tad to get caught in what Frankie had planned.
He texted Jimmy to let him know Tad was running late.
WAIT FOR TAD AND WHOEVER ELSE IS RUNNING LATE. DON’T WAIT FOR ME. I GOT HUNG UP AND I’LL MEET YOU THERE.
Jimmy’s response beeped a few seconds later as Frankie was headed up to the second floor.
TELL MINDY I SAY HEY. WE’LL GET THE PARTY GOING FOR YOU.
He was glad that Jimmy thought he’d ferreted out the reason Frankie was late. By the time Frankie arrived at the lake, the rumor that he and Mindy had been hooking up would be spreading like a wildfire, because it was what people expected from Frankie. It’s what he expected from himself.
Tad needed to back off. Frankie had to make his own choices, and he had decided he didn’t want to go down Tad’s path. He shouldn’t have even set foot down it in the first place. It was a mistake that no one ever needed to know about. If they ever did . . . if his father and Coach ever found out . . .
Frankie shook his head and ignored the way everything inside him churned as he made his way down the hall that led to the main section of the school. Tad could hang out in Mr. Lott’s room. Frankie had come to the school today with a mission, and he wasn’t going to let Tad distract him from it.
The second-floor hall was empty. Most kids and teachers had gone home by now to enjoy one of the last days of summer.
Steering clear of Mr. Lott’s room, Frankie hurried around the floor, getting things organized, then went back up the back staircase to the next level. Just two more things to do, and he was out of here. If Tad wanted to hang around—Frankie shook his head as he made his way to the front of the school. He’d warned him. If the guy didn’t listen, it wasn’t his fault. Right?
Crap. The place wasn’t completely empty yet. Diana Sanford stepped out of the girls’ bathroom, and Frankie ducked back around the corner as she turned his way. He hadn’t seen her since the Fourth of July. The night he had stopped by her father’s party and spotted her in the shadows with one of her father’s younger, but still way older than her, staff members. And the way she was looking at the guy . . . Yeah, was it any wonder that he decided it was best to cut and run? She might be the kind of girl his family thought he should date, but Frankie had never really been interested. If he hadn’t ditched that party, maybe things would be easier now. But there was no changing the past.
He peered around the corner in time to see Diana step into the yearbook office in the middle of the hallway. Damn. That meant Mrs. Kennedy was lurking somewhere nearby. The yearbook adviser had a thing about no one being allowed to work in the yearbook office if she wasn’t in the building—something Frankie learned last year when he had dropped by after one of the yearbook meetings and tried to see if he could get some sparks going with Diana once all the other students on the staff had gone home.
Now he had a decision to make. Wait for them to leave, or just get on with it.
He heard two voices shouting in a classroom near the staircase—Great . . . more people were up here—as his phone buzzed.
No can do, Tad, he thought. I told you that you should just leave.
Frankie adjusted the bag on his arm and pushed all thoughts of Tad to the side. It was time to finish what he’d started.
— Chapter 10 —
TAD REFUSED TO LOOK OUT the door to see if Frankie was coming. If Frankie had taught him anything, it was to feign confidence, even if you didn’t feel it.
Fake it till you make it, baby.
Frankie was king at showing the world what it wanted to see. Tad had believed the all-American straight-boy persona. He would never have questioned it, had it not been for Frankie letting down his guard and allowing Tad to glimpse inside.
And then he shut him out.
Tad’s phone chimed.
TAD, WHERE ARE YOU? JASMINE IS HURT BY YOUR LACK OF RESPONSE, AND SO AM I.
Guilt kicked him in the gut. He’d forgotten to answer his mother’s text about Jasmine wanting to go to a movie.
He shook off the guilt and shoved his phone back into his pocket without answering. If Jasmine’s feelings were hurt, it had nothing to do with him. He was gay. Saying those words out loud to his parents and his brother had been the hardest thing he’d ever had to do until today. Some guys he’d talked to said their families knew they were gay before they did. Tad’s family certainly hadn’t.
“But you play football,” was his mother’s first comment. Like that had anything to do with anything.
His brother might have known. There was resignation, not surprise, on his face as he said, “It’s your life, and you have to be who you are.” But Tad, as their mother started gushing about loving him no matter what and wanting him to give everyone time to adjust to it and to really be sure how he feels before saying anything to anyone about it, heard his brother quietly ask, “Do you really want to single yourself out even more?”
No. He didn’t. But he didn’t have a choice. Just as he didn’t have a choice that their father was white and their mother was black and that because he was both, he often felt he wasn’t allowed to be either one.
Too dark for anyone to ever consider him white, and how many times did he say something to his black friends, only to hear someone quip, “Yeah, but it’s different for you.”
Yeah, it was, but not like any of his friends meant. Nothing was made easier in his life because his dad wasn’t black. It was just . . . different.
He was tired of feeling different, and he got that his mother was worried and probably was hoping that one day he’d look at Jasmine or some other girl and suddenly yell, What the hell was I thinking? But her pretending to accept his choices wasn’t making this any easier. He was tired of pretending to be what everyone else needed him to be. He was tired of having everyone else’s needs come before his.
He was done, and if someone else got hurt—too damn bad.
He spotted a guy walking past the door and stepped back so he wouldn’t be seen. The last thing he wanted was someone besides Frankie coming in here.
Tad pulled his phone out of his pocket. Where the hell was Frankie? He was through with feeling as if he was never going to be good enough. He was going to make sure people finally noticed how he felt. Frankie, his mother, Sam, and everyone else—all of them were going to see that things didn’t vanish just because you ignored them.
Although it looked as if Frankie hadn’t gotten that message quite yet. It was long past the deadline Tad had given, and still Frankie hadn’t shown up or sent a message.
Tad walked to one of the narrow windows and studied the parking lot below, looking for Frankie’s white Mustang. It was parked in the teachers’ lot closest to the school—exactly where no student was allowed to park.
But that meant he was still here, and Tad wasn’t about to let him get out of this. It was time for Frankie to face him.
Tad pulled out his phone. A message from Jimmy had arrived, telling him to hurry up. They were all waiting around for him—captain’s orders.
Sorry, Jimmy. You’re going to be waiting a long time, because today, Frankie isn’t the one giving orders.
EITHER YOU TALK TO ME NOW OR I START SENDING MESSAGES ABOUT US TO EVERYONE ON THE TEAM, he typed to Frankie, then paused.
He could just turn his back on all of this and go back to pretending that everything was fine.
No change. No worries.
He could go home and wait until Frankie was ready to talk. Jasmine and all his mother’s friends would be gone. His brother would be done playing his music, and everything could just be normal.
He was tired of who he was and what he wanted being pushed aside because it was too much trouble for other people to think about.
Tad swallowed hard and walked to the hallway. Frankie had blown him off again and expected him to take it and be grateful.
Put up or shut up. That’s what Coach always said. Put up or shut up.
It was time to blow up the status quo, and to hell with what happened next. People were going to start realizing that he could no longer be ignored, and Frankie was going to get a front-row seat for the show. Whether he wanted to or not.
Tad looked back down at his phone and hit SEND.