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Introduction:

"And ye shall seek and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart" Jerimiah 29:13
Nothing feels worse than waking up after crying yourself to sleep. I’d feel humiliated but after everything that happened yesterday, maybe you can forgive me.

I pulled myself out of sleep, my eyes crusted with dried tears and with a heavy weight in my heart. My limbs felt numb, like they’d been drained of blood and then stuck with hundreds of needles. I may have not wanted to get up yesterday but I really didn’t want to get up today. I didn’t want to go to school, to have to see Craig’s smug face as he flaunted his new relationship in front of me. I quote Eric Cartman, Patron Saint of the Fucking Douchebags… “God, I fucking hate Craig!” I smiled a little at that.

My phone chirruped and I pulled it over to see I had three new text messages. One from Joe, one from Tara, and the most recent one…from Kayla.

I read the other two first.

Joe: Hey, man, sorry about Craig and his bullshit. Say the word and me and Brad will pound his skull in. Coz we love you.

Tara: Date went great last night. Let me know if you need anything. I have some insight into the female mind ;)

I sucked in my breath and opened the text from Kayla. It was a long one.

Kayla: Hey Jack! I am soooooooooooooo sorry! I wanted to text you back as soon as I got your number but I was hanging with Craig and I thought it would be rude to keep pulling out my phone. I know, that sounds terrible, but I really did want to talk to you. Oh, idk if you saw on fb but we are a couple now :) he’s a really good guy. Not as refined or sweet as you, though, so you still beat him there ;) anyway we got home so late last night I didn’t even have time to do my homework. Could you maybe find a way to come over after school to help me with it? It would mean a lot to me.

I stared at the text for a long time. On the one hand, this new relationship she was in seemed like a good thing to her, even though she already figured out some of Craig’s worst traits. On the other hand, she was as sweet as ever and I knew she wasn’t just buttering me up. And I did promise to help her with stuff.

I shot her a text back.

Me: Hey Kayla. It’s all right. I did get a little worried but I’m glad you’re okay. I’d be happy to help you with your homework tonight.

I was just pulling myself out of bed, scraping away the crust from my eyes, when her response came.

Kayla: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! And awwww, you were worried about me :)

Me: Of course! It wouldn’t be polite of you as one of my new best friends to disappear on me after one day.

Kayla: Awwwww *^_^* You’re so sweet.

Me: Only to certain people.

Kayla: Careful, mister. Flirt with me too much and you might make Craig jealous.

Just the mention of his name was enough to pull me out of my increasing cheerful mood. Yeah, he would be jealous. I was jealous already. It was clawing at my heart, desperately urging me to tell her the truth about Craig. I wanted to, so bad. It would be easy enough to tell her about the previous girls, give her their names, have her talk with them. But then I’d be the jealous prick, breaking up her relationship because I wanted her. Then I’d be just like Craig.

Me: Okay, sorry. Can’t help it though. You’re the sweet one.

Kayla: No, you!

Me: Lol let’s just call it a draw.

Kayla: Lol fine by me.

Me: Hey, do you want a ride to school today? We’re going to be heading out in about half an hour.

Kayla: Craig is coming to pick me up. I’m sorry :(

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn and shit.

Me: It’s okay. Just let me know if you ever need one.

Kayla: I will. Thanks, hun. See you at school.

I dropped my phone on the bedside table and rubbed my face. Yeah, I was looking forward to seeing her, in spite of everything. I was still her friend. I would still be there for her.

I needed a shower. But that meant I would have to walk by Alan and Amanda’s room. Just remembering what I saw last night made my mouth dry up, as if I wanted to puke. No, I didn’t care that they were brother and sister, but they were my brother and sister. Jesus Christ, how did they even do it? It must be like looking into a weirdly tinted mirror.

I crept past their room and into the bathroom. Two minutes later I was standing under the hot water, losing myself in the drumming of water bullets against my skin. It wasn’t enough to make me fully relax but I could feel the stress leaving my body. The steam opened up my pores and I almost shivered in pleasure. I wish I could have stayed in here all day.

As I soaped up my body, I thought again about Kayla. More specifically, how to help her. If Craig was being a gentleman while they were dating, fine, but it wouldn’t last. I’ve seen the girls he’s ditched try to talk to him again and if you thought Chris Brown could be an asshole to women, you’ve seen nothing. But I can’t just step in between her and Craig right now. Do it now and it would just make him seem all the more innocent. Maybe if I could make it so she saw the asshole side of him? Maybe trick him into insulting her or demanding that she…

I slammed my head against the shower wall. What a stupid thought. That made me no better than him. Actually, it made me worse. For a moment, I had actually considered letting him hurt her so I could get my way. Suddenly the shower didn’t seem like it was helping anymore. It was just hot water.

I got out, the steam not even feeling refreshing. I toweled off and put on my boxers and pants but, shit, I had forgotten a shirt. I pulled open the door and was headed to my room when the door to the twins’ room opened and Amanda stepped out, wearing a bathrobe. She blinked when she saw me shirtless but was otherwise unaffected.

“Good morning, Jack,” she said with a smile. That was weird. She didn’t usually smile at me.

“Morning,” I said, “I’m done in the bathroom.”

“Good,” she replied, “Sleep well?”

“I…guess?” I didn’t mean it as a question but that’s how it came out. “What about you?”

“Wonderfully.” She walked past me and into the bathroom, holding my gaze as she went.

Shit, had she seen me last night? They were already weird enough as it was; the last thing I needed was them dropping hints about their secret relationship. And they knew I wasn’t going to tell mom or dad. Last thing I need on top of everything else is to tear my family apart.

I grabbed a shirt and, remembering that I had gym today, stuffed my uniform from last year into my backpack. It was your standard washed-out gray color with the school name printed above the left breast. I think this summer was the first time I had actually washed it and it felt unfamiliar without its usual sweat stench and stiffness.

Mom and dad, as expected, were waiting at the breakfast table. I may not have been feeling as bad as I had the night before, or when I woke up for that matter, but even dad realized this wasn’t a morning to make jokes. “How you doing, big guy?” he asked, putting down his paper and giving me a concerned look.

“I’m all right.” I sat down and grabbed some bacon. My appetite still wasn’t back. “Oh, by the way, I didn’t have any money in my account yesterday.”

Mom put a hand to her mouth. “Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot! I’ll put some in right after you leave.”

“Thanks, mom.” I started eating. I had never been a huge fan of breakfast but this morning sucked away any joy I might have gotten out of the meal. I’m serious when I say my greatest wish at that moment was just to crawl in bed and stare at the ceiling for the rest of the day.

“Jack, your mom mentioned you might be having some…concerns about a girl?” I looked at my dad, surprised. He was always there for us but rarely did he bring up one of our problems, preferring to let us decide if they were important enough to take up with him.

“Yeah?”

“Is this Kayla from next door?”

That was just fucking spooky. “How did you…?” I started.

“Lucky guess,” he grinned, “Besides, you didn’t go gaga for any girls last year and she’s the only one I could think of that A) is brand new and B) is pretty enough to make you the Glum Gremlin.”

My mouth twitched. “Doesn’t matter what I think now. She has a boyfriend.”

“She’s already with Craig?” my mom said, astonished. I nodded. “He works fast.”

“More like he works bullshit. I could have done the same thing he did if I were more of an asshole,” I growled.

They ignored my swearing, thankfully. “Jack, do you want to date this girl?” dad asked bluntly

I gaped at him before finally stammering, “Uh…y…yeah…yeah, I do.”

“Why?”

It was a question for which the answer seemed so obvious and yet so hard to put into words. “Because…she’s sweet and funny and not a bitch like—”

“Language, Jack,” my mom snapped.

“Sorry, mom. She’s a good person.”

“That’s wonderful, son,” dad said, patting my arm, “What’s her favorite color?”

“I…I don’t know.”

“Does she like sports?”

“I don’t know.”

“What does she like?”

I thought hard. She could trade sarcasm with me as good as dad or mom could, but that wasn’t necessarily something she liked. She liked…hair-bows. And she liked…that I was nice to her. Holy crap, I didn’t know anything she liked.

My silence was enough answer for dad. “I thought so. Jack, if you’re going to date this girl, learn something about her first. I doubt that Craig Carter could tell you what color her eyes are. If you’re able to tell her something about her that even she didn’t realize then you’re going to be A-Number One.”

I chewed my bacon and didn’t say anything. He was right. He was more than right, he was a genius. I mean, yeah, pointing out that Craig was so self-centered he would probably forget her name in a couple days was a nice jab, but what he said about learning stuff about her…even better, telling her something about herself even she didn’t know. That sounded good to me.

“Thanks, Dad,” I said, noticeably cheerier than when I sat down.

And then, because apparently karma hates me, Alan and Amanda came bouncing into the room, both in unsettlingly high spirits. Maybe they had another…God, kill me…romp before coming downstairs. “Morning, everyone,” they said together.

Mom and dad greeted them cheerfully. I didn’t want to look at them. Looking at them might remind me of last night and I did not want to clue them in that I had been watching them.

“Good morning, Jack,” Amanda said to me.

I looked up at her in shock. What was this new attitude she had going on towards me? She had been taking a much larger interest in me since yesterday. Since catching me staring at Kayla. Was she trying to tease me? Pretend to be interested in me so I knew just how uninteresting I was to other females?

“I already said good morning to you,” I said.

“Not to Alan,” she said, rubbing her twin’s back.

I swallowed hard. “Good morning, Alan.” He just grunted in response.

That breakfast was one of the most uncomfortable meals for me, even including the time I had been caught looking at porn by mom when she came up to get me for dinner. Everyone else was getting along just fine but all I was seeing were two couples who were happily having sex and clearly loving every minute of it. It wasn’t the sex that got to me. It was…well…

Confession time: I wasn’t all that interested in sex. Okay, that’s kind of a lie. I was interested in sex, but I wasn’t going out of my way to get it. Honestly, what I was looking for was a relationship more than anything. I wanted…okay, I wanted love. There, you happy? I was a romantic at heart, in the sense that I wanted to have romance in my life. I wanted a girl I could talk for hours to, could go on long rides that were way too short with, could hang out with and not have to look at my watch. Yeah, sex would be the cherry on top, but that’s not what I was pining for most. I wanted my first time to mean something.

Let me put it this way: if I lost my virginity after a drunken night of partying to some random girl I would probably never see again, I’d consider getting my man downstairs removed.

“Time for school,” mom said, clapping her hands, “Chop chop!”

“New day, new ways to learn to love school,” my dad said with a goofy grin. Apparently this would not be a joke-free morning. Mom flicked his ear and he tossed her over his shoulder and spun her around, both of them roaring with laughter.

Ten minutes later, it was déjà vu time as we piled into the car and I started backing down the driveway. I was forcing my eyes to not look in the rearview mirror to make sure the Terrible Twosome was keeping their hands to themselves. What was I going to do about this? Just ignore it forever? Pretend I didn’t see anything? Should I confront them? No matter what, I wasn’t seeing a good end to this.

I saw Kayla standing at the end of her driveway, looking both ways, an unhappy look on her face. As I passed by, I slowed down and rolled down my window. “Hey, Kayla,” I said.

Her mood brightened. “Hey, Jack,” she said, leaning against the car door. “Is this your brother and sister?”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to keep that uncomfortable shiver in my spine down, “This is Alan and Amanda.”

“Hey, guys,” she said brightly, “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you.” Alan clearly had no problem getting enthusiastic about meeting her. Amanda, on the other hand, just nodded and stared at her.

“I thought you said Craig was going to pick you up,” I said.

“He’s supposed to.” She had mouth twisted in what can only be described as a disappointed smile. “Maybe he’s stuck in traffic.”

There was no traffic this time in the morning and I knew she knew it. “Hey, offer still stands,” I said, “Just hop in and you can meet him at school.”

She sighed, looked around, and said, “That sounds like a good idea.”

But no sooner had she walked around to the passenger-side door than Craig’s Chevy came barreling down the road, screeching to a halt right next to my car. “Sorry I’m late,” Craig said, smiling at Kayla after giving me a death glare, “Would you rather go with him?”

Kayla gave him a smile. “Well, you promised to give me a ride…”

“Go ahead,” I said resignedly, “I wouldn’t want him to break a promise.”

She smiled at me as she walked around his car. As she was getting in, Craig gave me a look that would have wilted fresh flowers. They peeled away, Craig’s arm hanging out the window so he could flip me off as they drove away.

“She’s dating that asshole?” Alan said in disgust.

“Yep,” I said shortly, the matter closed as far as I was concerned.

“If she’s dumb enough to date him, she isn’t worth your time,” Amanda said with a small smile.

I turned around. “You don’t know her, Amanda, so just keep your mouth shut.”

She looked hurt and I immediately regretted saying it. I heaved a heavy sigh and drove off. Fuck me, this was going to be a long day.

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“She’s what?!” Brad snarled. Joe just looked disgusted.

“She’s dating him now,” I said. We were leaning against the outside wall of the school, taking our last breaths of freedom before the day began.

“So you’re right there, in front of her face, and she goes for Craig Cuntface? Is she retarded?”

“Knock it off,” I snapped, “She made the decision. If that’s what she wants, it’s what she wants. Just fucking bad luck, all right?”

“We’ll talk to her, man,” Joe said, “I know you don’t wanna ruin her relationship so don’t. We’ll just tell her about him. We don’t wanna date her. If she gets mad at us, so what? You don’t have to do anything.”

“Guys…Just let it go.”

“But you know what he’s going to do!”

“Of course I know what he’s going to do!” I shouted. Several passing students jumped and looked at me in shock. “I know! Don’t treat me like I’m stupid! That’s why I have to be her friend, so maybe, maybe, I can protect her from it! But right now, Craig’s turning on the charm so he’s the good guy to her right now. If I go ruining that, how’s that going to make me look?”

“But that’s why we’d do it,” Brad said.

“And I’d know the whole time. Look, trust me on this, okay? Can you do that?”

They didn’t like it, that was obvious, and I wasn’t sure how true they would hold to their word but they nodded and, shoulders heavy with dread, we walked into the building.

Kayla had beaten both Joe and me to homeroom. “Hey, Jack,” she said brightly, “I don’t think I got to meet your friend yesterday.”

“Joe,” he said, shaking her hand, “And you’re Kayla. He couldn’t stop talking about you yesterday.”

I reddened instantly. So did Kayla and she lowered her head, hiding a smile. “Why couldn’t you stop talking about me, Jack?”

Oh, Jesus. Joe gave me a sly grin. “Because…you’re awesome.”

“Oh, please, one day and you’re already calling me awesome?” She sounded pleased, despite her words.

“What else would I call you?”

She shrugged. “Whatever you want.”

There had been something different about her today that I had noticed back at home and now I put my finger on it. “Where’s your hair-bow?” Her hair was still tied up but the hair-bow was gone.

She actually looked a little sad. “I didn’t want to wear it. It was a little silly.”

“No way!” I said, “It was cute!”

She blushed again. “You think so?”

“I know so! Who told you it was silly?”

“…No one.”

Craig. It had to be Craig. “Well, I think it looked great. If you want to wear it, wear it.” She didn’t say anything. “What color hair-bow do you like wearing best?”

She thought about it. “Green,” she replied, “It’s my favorite.”

And now I knew her favorite color. Something I’m sure Craig didn’t. “Awesome.”

“You don’t strike me as being a green type of guy, though,” she said, narrowing her eyes at me, “You seem more like a…purple type.”

Joe sniggered behind me. I just gaped at her. She guessed my favorite color right off the bat. Why do people keep saying it’s a girl’s color? Purple is for everyone. “You got it.”

“Really? Wow, I just guessed!”

“Good guess,” I said with a grin.

The bell rang and, once again, we went through the regimen: roll call, Pledge of Allegiance, announcements. I was tuned out for most of the announcements until they suddenly announced, “…and finally, auditions for the school play, The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare will be held next Friday after school in the auditorium. Anyone interested in signing up should post their name on the audition form by the Black Box.”

Interesting choice for a play. I mean, The Winter’s Tale is dark. Like, seriously dark. As in, there’s stuff in that play, not exactly overt, that most high schools would run and hide from. But, hey, it’s a great play. And I’ve always enjoyed doing theater stuff so it might be worth a look.

A few minutes later, the bell rang again and I was off to Shop class. “Where you headed?” I asked Kayla.

“Philosophy,” she replied.

I blinked. “No kidding. You a deep thinker?”

She stuck her tongue out at me. “Well, someone’s got to do the thinking while you do the heavy lifting.”

“Stereotype much?”

“I’ll have to pay for it later,” she said, walking out the door, “See you back here next period!”

Joe and I were both headed to the same class and the whole way there I had to listen to him go on and on about how into me she was, how I was a better guy than Craig, how I was being irresponsible letting her stay with him when I knew what would happen.

“Joe, if you don’t shut up, I’m going to make you hump the table saw.”

“And I’m going to drill into your skull and see what they replaced your brain with.”

“Just…let me be friends with her right now, okay? Just give me that? You will be the first to know if I plan to move beyond that.”

He put up his hands. “Whatever you say, Jack Attack, but the less you flirt with her, the less interested in her she’s going to think you are.”

The sentence was horrendously constructed but he had a point. Not necessarily flirting with her but just being there to talk to her, to make her feel good about herself. And she’s smart. Eventually she’ll realize that all Craig can do is tell her how beautiful and interesting she is.

For Joe, the woodshop was a dream come true. His father did home-improvements for a living so he had grown up around power tools and construction equipment. Me, I just liked working on stuff with my hands. The sight of power drills, saws, hammers, and all manner of other construction devices was impressive, but didn’t exactly get my heart racing. Joe, on the other hand, was dealing with some wood of his own.

No, what got me was the smell. I don’t know, but somehow the smell of something always hit me harder than any other sense. In this case, it was the sharp tangy smell of woodchips, the cloying smell of the metal bits, the wormy scent of gasoline that always seems to hang around power tools even though they don’t use gas. As soon as we started working, the burnt wood smell would be like cordite and, if you weren’t careful, it could make you dizzy.

But there would be no work today. After all, first day of class was all about pointing out the blatantly obvious and promising that, yes, eventually stuff would get interesting. Honestly, if they just mailed us the textbooks and a letter saying what the class was going to be about, the first couple days of school would be pointless.

Safety goggles are for safety, don’t put your hands where they might get owies, don’t do something especially stupid, have a good day, see ya! There, ten seconds I summed up what took an hour and a half for the teacher to say. Seeing my point?

The bell broke the tedium and it was back to homeroom. “So what are you going to say to Kayla?” Joe asked, tugging my backpack so we were walking side-by-side.

“Didn’t really have anything in mind,” I said, “Whatever she wants to talk about, I guess.’

“Suit yourself. You’re still taking the long way round.”

“If taking the long way round means I don’t go flying off a cliff, I’m perfectly fine with that. Is this going to be our thing now? You poke and poke and poke until I do what you want?”

In retrospect, I should have kept my big mouth shut. Joe was poking me in the side of the head the rest of the way to class, giggling like a cretin.

Homeroom was basically just study period, time when we clammed up and got something productive done. Since I had already done all my homework last night, it was my nap period. Unless Kayla needed some help. Despite what she said, I doubt Craig would be thoughtful enough to let her go home so we could study together. At least in homeroom, we didn’t have him breathing down our necks.

My suspicions were confirmed when she came in and immediately gave me a look of despair and regret. She sat down at her desk and turned around. “Jack…I’m really sorry but…” She chewed on her lip, trying to get out the words.

“You can’t study with me tonight,” I finished for her. Fan-fucking-tastic.

“I’m so so so sorry,” she said despairingly, “I told Craig I had plans to study with you tonight but he said that he wanted to do something special with me tonight and I felt so bad just…I hope you can forgive me.”

“Of course,” I said, “Kayla, he’s your boyfriend.” She smiled at that but not as widely as she could have. “Look, I’ll help you this period, okay?”

“But what about your work?”

“Got it done,” I said, pointing at my head, “All in my noodle.”

She giggled. “Why do you call it your noodle?”

I shrugged. “Because that’s what my dad called it.”

“Your parents are super nice, by the way. I don’t know if I told you that.”

“They have their moments,” I replied, “Any idea what Craig has planned for tonight?”

“Special dinner, he said. Last night we just hung out at the mall. I told him I needed to get my homework done but…well, there were a lot of ‘just five more minutes’ involved.” She sounded unhappy about it.

“Look, just tell him that if you need to get stuff done, you need to get stuff done.”

“I know. And he understood. It just took a little while to get there.”

Mr. Spakler came in and said, “Study period. If you need to move around, fine, but any conversation I hear better be about homework. Socialize some other time.” He sat down at his desk and pulled out a hardcover novel. We were forgotten instantly.

As everyone shifted around, Kayla slid into the seat next to me and pushed our desks together. “What do you need the most help with?” I asked.

“Math,” she said, pulling out the Algebra book, “I mean, I got the stuff we were supposed to do for tomorrow okay, but I’m looking ahead and…”

“Hang on, hang on,” I said, holding up a hand, “You want help with stuff we haven’t even gotten to?”

“Yes?” she blushed.

“Wow.” She wanted to work ahead. She wanted to understand stuff that we wouldn’t even hint at for a couple weeks.

“Is that okay? Is that weird?”

“No,” I said with a smile, “I’m just impressed.”

“With what?”

“You want to work ahead. You’re the only person I’ve ever known who actually wants to do that. Seriously, that’s impressive. You’re impressive.”

The blush spread from her cheeks to the rest of her face like wildfire. “Stop it. I am not.”

“Yes you are.”

“Are we going to do this again?” she said playfully, “We already had a draw this morning.”

“Fine, fine, another draw. So what did you want to know?”

For about half an hour I gave her some pointers on the stuff she wanted to know. I convinced her not to get too worked up about it, since the teacher would explain it as well as I could. Mostly, I just showed her how everything flowed together; how chapter one led to chapter two and then to chapter three, etc.

She and I had our heads bent down together and I smelled that exotic smell I had yesterday when she passed my car. Up close, it wasn’t really exotic, just very sweet. It was like flowers mixed with fruit. Damn it, I wish I knew what it was called. Like make-up, perfume all kind of fell under two categories for me: good and bad. If you asked for specifics, I couldn’t help you. But it was sweet and inviting, not something that screamed, “Hey! Pay attention to me!” but one that complimented. At least, it complimented her perfectly.

She was a fast learned and made the connections quickly. “Thank you so much,” she said, “I think I’ve got it now.”

“No problem. Anything else?”

“Well, you can’t exactly read the books I need to read for English or the chapters I need to read for history…” She hesitated. She knew I could summarize them for her but she was clearly not planning to ask.

“Do you want me to sum them up for you?”

“Jack, that’s sweet, but I know I need to do the work myself.” She sighed. “I’m going to have to tell Craig that we may need to cut tonight short. I need to get this stuff done.”

“If you don’t want to go, don’t go.”

“I want to,” she said, “He’s got it all lain out and I don’t just want to leave him hanging.”

“Okay, but if he makes a fuss, you let me know, okay?”

“Of course.” She smiled. “Did we have anything for Biology?”

“Nothing important. Read the introduction chapter in the book. Do you know what biology is?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re all good.”

She laughed softly. “I guess I need to do my reading, then. You can still talk to me, if you want.”

“I don’t want to distract you.”

“If these books are as dull as I think they’re going to be, I could use the distraction.”

I let her read in peace for a while, just losing myself in my thoughts. When she had first said Craig had something planned for tonight, I was worried he would be trying to make his move already. It usually didn’t happen so fast but, then again, he didn’t usually have me interested in the same girl. The fact that it was a dinner lessened my apprehensions somewhat, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he would try to shorten his schedule.

With ten minutes left to go in class, Kayla dropped the book she was reading for English, Lord of the Flies, and rubbed her temples. “You know, I would probably like it a lot better if I didn’t have to pick it apart with freaking tweezers.”

“Thank God for the Internet, right?” I said.

“Thank God.”

“You ready for gym?” I asked.

Her eyes grew wide and a look of horror came across her face. “Shit,” she hissed, “I don’t have any gym clothes!”

It was the first time I had ever heard her swear. I never realized someone swearing could sound so cute. “It’s okay, they’ve got some for sale in the school store. It’s just down the hall.”

She looked down at her desk. “I didn’t bring any money with me. Damn it, I can’t believe I forgot to get those yesterday! I even wrote myself a note to remember!”

A uniform cost around ten dollars. They should be free but that would require that this hole have a beating heart somewhere. “I’ll help you,” I said.

She glanced at me with shock. “What?”

“It’s only ten dollars. I can help you out. I’ve got the money.”

I actually thought she might tear up. Her eyes were misty but her smile was joyful. “Really, Jack? Are you sure?”

No new videogame for me anytime soon but, honestly, that wasn’t my concern right now. “Absolutely. We’ll go as soon as the bell rings.”

She slotted her hand into mine and squeezed it. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re the best! I promise to pay you back as soon as I can. Oh my gosh, you’re the sweetest guy ever!” Again, I know it sounds like she might have been buttering me up, but I promise you, it was completely genuine.

Her hand was what I noticed more than anything. How perfect a fit it was. Not just because her smaller hand fit into mine so easily but that they just felt right together. It was as if there were tiny magnets in our hands, holding them together. It wasn’t two hands holding each other; it was one hand, perfectly molded to fit.

We let go together, both slightly embarrassed. “Sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be.”

My heart was thumping and I knew I was turning red. Very faintly I could hear Joe making smooching noises behind me and I resolved to sew his mouth shut. Thankfully, Kayla was too busy repacking her bag to notice.

The school store was barely larger than the janitor’s closet, stuff with school paraphernalia that, I guess, was supposed to instill school spirit but really only looked tacky. When the least embarrassing things you sell are the dull gray uniforms for gym class, something is wrong with your inventory.

I let her pick out her size, not trusting myself to guess and even less eager to ask her for her measurements. I handed over a ten dollar bill, Kayla beaming at me the whole time. I smiled back. I’d just have to pray mom remembered to fill my lunch account. My wallet was becoming more and more empty.

The class met in the main gymnasium, dozens of shoes squeaking irritably on the newly varnished floor. Both Joe and Brad were there, waving and winking to me as I walked in with Kayla. To my irritation, Craig was also there, leaning against the mat-covered wall and looking furious.

“Hey, babe,” he said calmly as we approached, “I waited for you outside of your homeroom.”

“Sorry, Craig,” she said, giving him a hug. No pet-name. That’s good. “I didn’t have a gym uniform and Jack was nice enough to buy me one.”

Craig’s mouth twisted for a moment before forming something like a smile. “What a nice guy,” he said, looking up at me. The smile ended beneath his nose; those weren’t the eyes of an appreciative person. “I’m sorry you had to pay for her. Here, let me pay you back.”

“That’s perfectly fine,” I said, waving away the offered bill, “No worries. I was happy to help.”

Kayla seemed shocked. “Jack, you don’t have to do that. Really, I’ll be happy to pay you back. I don’t want you to have to use your own money to help me.”

“It’s fine! It’s only ten bucks. When you need something worth a hundred dollars, then we’ll talk.”

She squealed happily and gave me a tight hug. I was too shocked to put my arms around her in return and Craig already looked outraged enough without me adding to it. She let go and said, “Thank you so much, Jack. Really, thank you. I’m sorry I can’t do much else than say that.”

“That’s more than enough,” I replied, giving her a smile.

Craig put his arm around her shoulders. “Thanks, Jack,” he said in a dry voice, “Hey, babe, about tonight…” He led her away from me and I wasn’t stupid enough to try and tag along.

Brad and Joe flanked me, staring daggers at Craig’s back. “Down, boys,” I said, putting a hand on their shoulders.

“Oh, you pissed him off good,” Brad said, “By the way, good job earning brownie points.”

“Earning what?”

“Brownie points. Buy her uniform. Not wanting to be paid back. You’re one suave fucker, Jack Attack.”

I shrugged. “I didn’t do it to get in her pants.”

Joe was scratching his head, pretending my words were foreign to him. “You helped a girl without wanting her to drop her pants? From what world did you drop out of?”

“The one where you left your brain.”

The door to the gym banging open and Coach Walburn, football coach and lover of all things tied to physical fitness, strode in. He was taller even than Joe and Brad and had a gut no one dared make fun of. I liked him a lot, everyone liked him, but having him a gym teacher was almost terrifying.

“Everyone got their uniforms?” he bellowed. There was murmuring of assent and several fists clutching the garish rags lifted into the air. “Then what the heck are you doing in here?! Go get changed and meet in the auxiliary gym!”

We filed out of the gym and into the locker rooms. Ugh, even on the first day of the year, the smell of Axe was offensively strong. I’ll take sweat and pungent armpits first. At least those don’t get in your mouth and hang around on your tongue. I grabbed a locker, memorized the combination to the lock that had been printed on a small slip of paper taped to the back of the padlock, and started to undress. Joe and Brad picked lockers close to mine.

“I thought the first day was all about telling us all the interesting stuff we would eventually be doing,” Joe said, tugging off his shirt, “What the hell does Walburn have planned for a first class?” There was a general smattering of agreement from the other guys in the locker room.

“Hey, just be thankful we’re doing something,” I replied, “Can you imagine spending an hour and a half introducing gym? There’s only so many ways you can tell someone they’re going to be sore and sweaty after getting their ass pounded for an hour.”

I realized, as soon as I said it, what was going to happen. Everyone around me turned, huge grins spreading across their faces as they prepared to say the same thing. “The first motherfucker who makes a joke is getting rat-tailed,” I warned, twirling my shirt into a whip. That shut them up cold.

Changing only took a minute or so. I had expected Craig to say something to me, something along the lines of, “Stay away from my girlfriend! What’s wrong with you?! I’ll kick your ass!” but he didn’t even bother looking at me. Interesting. Joe and Brad noticed it as well and promised to keep an eye on him.

The auxiliary gym was only about half the size of the main gym, maybe even a third, but still had that varnished smell and the list of school accomplishments posted high up on the walls. Championships, student records, etc. The bleachers, only about four steps high, had been pulled out. I sat beside Joe while, to my surprise, Craig sat in front of me. If he was going to sit near me at all, I would have expected him to sit behind me so he could ‘accidentally’ kick me and stuff. Why was he sitting in front of me?

The girls filed in a minute later, most of them still pinning up their long hair. Kayla saw me and Craig at once and made a beeline right for us. Her new outfit did nothing to hide her amazing figure. It wasn’t skin-tight or anything, but, as with all the girls, her breasts stuck out proudly in the thin material while her rear swayed hypnotically with each stride. I saw all that in a second and then focused on her face. Craig’s eyes were still slightly lower.

“Hey, guys,” she said.

“Hey,” we both replied.

Coach Walburn walked in, carrying a huge bag with rubber balls in it (seriously, get your minds out of the gutter). “All right,” he boomed, dropping the bag, “This class is going to be all about fitness. We’re going to be running. We’re going to be lifting. We’re going to be pushing you to the edge of your abilities and the booting you over that edge. But, since it’s the first day, we’ll leave off the heavy stuff for something more ‘fun’.”

He ingested the word ‘fun’ with as much disgust as he could. Walburn’s idea of fun was thirty pull-ups after a mile run with a cool-down of fifty sit-ups. Choo-choo! All aboard the Fun Train!

Walburn upended the sack and the balls came rolling out. “Dodgeball,” he said simply, “We need two teams. Who’s going to be capta—”

“I will!” Craig shouted, bounding forward off the bleachers.

Is that why he sat in front of me? So he could be a captain? But we didn’t even know what we were going to do until Walburn just now told us. Maybe he just wanted to make sure he would be able to be first at whatever Walburn had planned. I don’t know. I gave up trying to figure him out long ago.

“All…right,” Walburn said, slightly thrown off by Craig’s eagerness, “Who else?”

“Me,” Brad said, standing up. If Joe’s thing was carpentry, Brad’s was sports. He wasn’t actually on any team; that only meant that he had to pick one specific thing and stay with it. I had gym with him last year and it had been a very successful year for him and a very humiliating year for anyone who tried to best him.

“Okay, pick your teams. You,” he pointed at Craig, “Pick.”

“Kayla,” he said at once. She smiled and went to stand beside him.

“Jack,” Brad said next. I got up and high-fived him as I took my place.

“Joe,” Craig said.

I distinctly heard Joe say, “Fuck.” He got up morosely and joined Craig’s team.

A minute later, we had successfully divided the class into two equal groups. Craig had gone for size (and the hottest girls) while Brad had picked the more lithe and agile-looking students. I caught Joe’s eye and he made a strangling motion behind Craig’s head. I looked away so I wouldn’t laugh.

“All right, set up for the game,” Walburn called.

We spread out the balls along the line that divided the court and then took our positions against the back wall.

“No headshots, no physical contact, no cheating. If you’re hit, you’re sitting in the bleachers. No arguments.” Walburn checked his watch, put the whistle to his mouth, and blasted a single shrill note.

Craig’s team charged the balls first but Brad held everyone back. Craig was surprised no one on our team had challenged them for ammunition but he recovered quickly and ordered his team to bean us from afar. That was his mistake. With such a long distance to cover, only a few on his team had the strength to hurl the balls with enough force to actually get one of us out. The rest lost their momentum, meaning we easily caught them and cost him four players instantly. We had lost two, one of whom had been struck by a well-aimed toss from Joe, but, now armed, we charged in and the game began in earnest.

Dodgeball was about as close to a war-zone as you were going to find at a school. Running, shouting, tossing, hitting…They may as well call the game ‘Adrenaline Rush’. Our two teams were evenly matched. The heavy-hitters on Craig’s team intimidated some of the weaker-stomached players on our team, making them freeze up and become an easy target. But the more agile among our team were able to gang up on Craig’s bigger teammates, taking them out one at a time. Kayla had a good arm and was more than capable of holding her own. She grinned the whole time, letting out whooping shrieks whenever she was almost hit and groaning in sympathy whenever a player was taken out. Craig was a good player but not one for guts; he used the bigger players as shields and spent most of his time near the back.

After about ten minutes, it was down to only three players on each side. Brad and I were still in the game, along with another student who, I think, was named Ted. I didn’t know him well. Craig’s team consisted of Joe, Kayla, and Lord Doucheington himself. Brad and Joe were aiming for each other, each throwing their missiles so hard that their grunts sounded like bulls charging a gate. Ted was aiming for Craig, who had teamed up with Kayla to take it in turns to bean our team from near the back of the gym.

Brad and Joe, both dripping with sweat, finally managed to hit each other. At the same time. They collapsed on the bleachers, panting. Craig whispered something to Kayla, who nodded. They charged toward the mid-court line, hurling their dodge balls. Craig hit Ted on the shoulder, leaving me as the last-man-standing. I had been holding a ball, waiting to use it, and I knocked aside Kayla’s with ease. Craig, seeing I was armed and he was not, instantly ran to the back of the gym, but Kayla stayed put, grinning at me.

She knew she was out. All I had to do was toss my ball underhand, hit her in the shoulder, and it would just be me and Craig left. I walked up to the line where she stood, unmoving. “Go ahead,” she said.

I hesitated. I didn’t want to do it like that. I wanted her to have a fighting chance. “Go and get one,” I said, grinning, “Then we’ll see who’s better.”

She seemed pleased by the challenge, even as my team on the bleachers hollered at me to just get her out. She looked around for a ball but before she could find one, Craig was back at her side. I glanced at him just as his arm was coming down.

WHAM!

Pain exploded in my face, right in the spot below my eye and next to my nose. I collapsed, roaring, “Son of a…” It felt like something had broken. I was seeing stars dance in front of my eyes as my nose was filled with the metallic smell of blood. I didn’t think I was bleeding but it sure smelled like it.

I was vaguely aware of shouting above me but my ears had gotten clogged and I couldn’t do much more than hold my face and attempt to sit up, despite shaky legs. I felt someone help me to my feet. The smell of blood in my nose was replaced with a familiar, friendly scent. Kayla.

She lifted my hand away from my face and grimaced. “Jack, I’m so sorry.” Her voice was slightly muffled but it was clearer than the shouts had been a minute before.

“It’s okay,” I said. I was lying through my teeth. It hurt like a bitch.

She kept her hand on my shoulder as I turned toward the shouts. The words were still not very clear, but the image was: Brad and Joe were being held back, roaring at Craig who was holding up his hands innocently. Walburn was standing in the middle of it, looking pissed.

“ENOUGH!” Walburn roared, blowing his whistle loudly, “We can’t have this crap on the first day! You!” he pointed a meaty finger at Craig, “You’re sitting in the bleachers for the rest of the day.”

That wasn’t much of a punishment for Craig. Just seeing me hurt would probably have been worth a detention. “Seriously,” he said, keeping his hands up, “I was aiming for his stomach.”

“My ass!” Joe snarled, fighting against the hands holding him back.

“You!” Walburn pointed at Joe, “Calm down! And you!” He pointed at me. “Come with me.”

Kayla walked with me for a little ways before I turned to her. “I’ll be fine, really,” I said, “You stay.”

“Are you sure?” she said, her voice full of concern. So much so that I started to blush, which only made my face hurt more.

“I’m sure. Stay and have fun.”

She nodded mutely but still kept an eye on me until I was through the door and out of sight.

Walburn led me to the gym’s first aid center, where the nurse took one look at me and immediately began to fill a bag with ice. Well, perfect. Now I was going to have a nice big bruise for a while.

Walburn sat me down in a reasonably comfy chair and said, “Jack, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t care what he said, that shot was intentional. There something going on between you two?”

I shrugged. “He’s not a big fan of me. And he’s dating Kayla.”

“The girl you were having the stare-down with?” I nodded. “All right. Is this going to end up being a problem?”

“I’m not trying to make it one, sir. Trust me.”

Walburn patted my shoulder. “If you say so, Jack. Keep that ice on your face. I’ll be back before the bell so you have time to change.” He left as the nurse handed me the ice pack and wordlessly sat back at her desk.

The ice hurt like crazy and it took a minute or so until I was finally able to put the pressure fully on the spot where I had been hit. I was seething with anger. Craig was trying to escalate this into full-on war. I didn’t want a war with him. Not because I was scared, believe me. I could have taken him apart in a minute. But he was Kayla’s current boyfriend and, at least for her sake, I wasn’t looking to hurt him yet. Which meant he was free to hurt me with impunity. He probably wouldn’t do it while Kayla was around but who knows what else he had in the pipeline?

I leaned back and closed my eyes, wishing again that I had been quicker on the uptake. If things kept going the way they were, it wasn’t going to end well.

I thought back to what my dad had said that morning about finding out what Kayla liked before thinking about dating her. What had I found out so far? Well, I know green is her favorite color. She seems to enjoy doing math. She’s pretty good at athletics, dodgeball at least. But what about favorite books? Favorite movies? Her thoughts on the world? Shit, I still had a long way to go.

The pain gradually lessened in my face, replaced with a growing pressure that I knew would be a bruise. Lovely. After what seemed like an eternity, Walburn came back in and asked, “How’s the face?”

I lifted the ice pack. “Doesn’t hurt as much.”

He grinned. “Well, your face promises a good story. Everyone’s getting ready to head back to the locker rooms. Figured you’d want to get there first.”

I handed the ice pack back to the nurse, thanked her, and walked back to the locker room. The first thing I did was look at myself in the mirror. Fuck. It looked more like I had taken a punch right below the eye than been hit by a rubber ball. It wasn’t as massive as it felt but it didn’t look like it was going to go down any time soon. And auditions for the school play were next week. Double fuck.

The rest of the guys came streaming in and most of them made a beeline right for me, Brad and Joe in the lead. “Holy shit, dude, you all right?” Joe asked, examining my face.

“Hurts like a motherfucker, but I’m okay.”

“That was bullshit, man,” Ted said, “There was no way Craig did that on accident.”

“Fuck Craig,” Brad said, “Let’s kick his ass when he gets in here.” There was some general assent.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“Coach is having a chat with him,” Brad replied, “That son of a bitch was grinning for the rest of class. I wanted to introduce his face to the edge of the bleachers.”

“Guys, don’t even worry about it. It doesn’t hurt any worse than looking at your faces usually does.”

That got some laughter and dispelled some of the tension. I was pulling on my jeans when Craig came in. The tension immediately returned but Craig didn’t seem to mind.

He came up and leaned against the locker next to me. “Hey, Jack, I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I muttered, not looking at him.

“No, really, I feel bad. I was aiming for your stomach, I promise.”

“Then you’ll just have to work on your aim.”

He sighed and peered at my face. “I hope it doesn’t hurt too bad.”

I was getting really annoyed at this point. “It’s fine, Craig. Just drop it.”

“No, really,” he said, pointing a finger at it, “I didn’t think it would do that.” As he said ‘that’ he jabbed his finger forward and pushed on the bruise.

The pain lanced through my face and I barely held back a roar of pain. I turned on him, feeling the fury blaze my eyes, and I considered for a moment letting Brad and Joe tear him apart. They looked ready to, as did a few other guys. After a moment, though, the feeling went away and I smiled benignly at Craig.

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen again.” I slammed my locker shut and stalked out of the locker room, ablaze with anger.

Since the gym classes had the last lunch of the day, we always got ready to leave a few minutes before the bell, and the quicker students had to wait in the hallway between the main gym and the auxiliary gym until the bell rang. Kayla was already there and she ran up to me.

“Oh my God, Jack, your face!”

“Oh, please, you should see it on a bad day,” I smiled.

She swatted my arm. “It isn’t funny, Jack! I was worried about you!”

“Thanks, Kayla,” I said, “But it’ll be okay. I’ll put an ice pack on it when I get home, I promise.”

“I’m going to make Craig drop me off at home early,” she said, “And then I’m coming over to check on you.”

“You sure you’ll be able to?” I asked, “You got dropped off really late last night.”

“I’ll insist. I can’t believe he did that! He says it was an accident, but…” Her face was conflicted and I understood. She saw exactly what he did but he was her boyfriend. He was probably preparing a dozen lines to get back in her good books.

“Maybe it was,” I shrugged, noncommittally. She didn’t look convinced. “How did the rest of class go?”

“It was okay,” she said, “We played a couple more games but Walburn was really cracking down. By the end, we were almost afraid to even toss the balls like softballs.”

“Sorry to have ruined it.”

“You didn’t! Stop that!” she swatted me again.

“Hey, babe, careful!” Craig said, sliding beside her, “He’s hurt enough as it is.” The rage was building like a volcano inside me. “Sorry again, man.”

“Don’t worry about it.” I looked away. I saw Joe and Brad hanging back, looking at me with raised eyebrows. I shook my head.

“Jack, do you want to sit with us at lunch?” Kayla asked, “We’ve got plenty of room for more.”

“Jack’s got his buddies to sit with,” Craig said, putting an arm around her (God, that gesture was pissing me off), “I’d feel bad taking him away from them.”

The spit was growing in my mouth and I felt a strong desire to aim it at his face. “I could invite them,” I said with a shrug.

“Don’t worry, man,” Craig replied, smiling, “There was something I needed to talk to you about, babe.”

She was puzzled. “What?” she asked.

“Something private.”

Jesus Christ. He probably didn’t have anything other than more compliments but it was clear he didn’t want me around. “If it’s something private, then I’ll give you guys space.”

“Thanks, Jack,” Craig said, “You’re a pal.” His grin was nothing but condescension.

The bell rang and was swarmed like a wave out from the hallway, Craig pulling Kayla with him so they were at the front.

Mom had remembered the money so now my account was able to save my rapidly dwindling cash. It didn’t help the food taste any better but it was something. Unimpressed with the pizza yesterday, I opted for the ‘specialty’ dish. They called them Italian Dunkers, but the only think Italian about them was the name. In reality, they were two hot dug buns that had been toasted with cheese on top and served with a side of spaghetti sauce. Yeah, you could make the exact same thing at home for fifteen bucks and have leftovers. The possibility of dying from cafeteria food often entered my thoughts.

I sat with Brad, Joe, and a couple other guys I was casual acquaintances with. They asked about my face and expressed the same outrage and desire to turn Craig into a grease stain on the sidewalk. I said nothing. Trying to stop them seemed to be getting me nowhere so I might as well just let them rant about it. It was just talking.

I glanced over at the table Craig and Kayla had sat at yesterday just in time to see them take their seats. Kayla asked Craig something, probably what the super private thing he had to tell her was, and he started talking. Whatever he was saying didn’t seem to impress Kayla. She smiled at him but I could also tell she was disappointed. Craig didn’t notice. He was too busy listening to his favorite person talk.

The bell rang and Kayla caught up with me right outside the lunch room. “Theater next, right?” she said.

“Yep.”

Craig was close behind. “Well, have fun in your next class, babe.” He wasn’t creative enough to think of anything else to call her. “See you after?”

“Yep,” she said, giving him a hug. He returned it, tossing me a scathing look.

As she turned back to me, he brought his hand back, staring down at her rear. But before he could let his hand fly, Joe banged hard into him, sending him staggering. “Oh, sorry, Craig,” Joe said in a monotone, “I did not see you there. How ever could I be so clumsy?”

Craig reddened with fury and turned away without another word. Joe gave me a wink and I grinned at him. That one, I was okay with.

The Black Box, where we had theater class, was situated across from the auditorium, not too far from the gyms. It was, as it names suggests, a Black Box theater. For those of you who don’t know what it is, I will save you a wikipedia trip. Basically, it’s a small room, though it doesn’t have to be, painted entirely black (natch). The floors were scuffed and choppy from years of scraping chairs and pieces of scenery and the mirror that completely covered one wall looked like it hadn’t been washed in years, but that was part of the charm. The lived-in feel helped with the authenticity of everything.

Instead of desks, the room was scattered with chairs and a few sofas that I think had been around since when my parents were kids. Kayla and I collapsed in one and a plume of dust rose from it.

“All classrooms need sofas,” Kayla said, leaning back into it.

“You’d never stay awake,” I replied. She poked me in the ribs.

Everyone else filed in. Most of them I recognized from theater productions last year. I had never had a leading roles, mostly relegated to background characters with maybe a couple lines each, but I had gotten along well with the main casts.

Ms. Locke, our teacher and the premier theater official of the school, came out of her office that was tucked in one corner of the room with windows looking out into the room.

“Welcome back, everyone,” she said, intoning, as she always did, a dramatic note into the greeting, “And welcome everyone I do not yet know. Before we begin, I would like to remind everyone that the audition sheet for our production of The Winter’s Tale is right outside, by the auditorium. If you feel even the slightest interest, please sign up. It’s one of my favorites.”

Kayla leaned forward, interested. “Wanna sign up after class?” she asked.

“Absolutely.”

“Our focus this semester is going to be on monologue work. For today, I have a stack of monologues here,” she pulled opened a drawer in a filing cabinet, “for you all to choose from. I’m not looking for memorization. I just want to get a feel for each one of you. You’ll have thirty minutes to choose and work on your monologues. You can work in pairs, if you like. Off you go.”

That seemed to be a theme for the last two classes: “Here’s what we’re going to do, now get to it! I’ll sit back and pretend I’m teaching something.” Still, better than outlining the blatantly obvious as if we still shoved crayons up our noses.

I rifled through a few monologues but saw nothing of interest to me. I had a few in my head from last year and the past summer, when I took the occasional break from my PS3. I’d just have to pick one. Kayla, next to me, pulled out a sheet of paper.

“What do you have?” I asked.

“Ophelia from Hamlet,” she said, “I’ve done this one before.”

I glanced at it. It was Ophelia’s speech in Act 3, after Hamlet when on his tirade against her. You know, “Get thee to a nunnery!” It was a good speech but incredibly depressing. I couldn’t see how Kayla, so sunny and cheerful, could do it.

“What did you choose?” she asked.

“I’ve got a few up here,” I said, pointing at my head.

“In your noodle?” she said teasingly. I aimed a jab at her and she dodged away, sticking her tongue out at me.

We sat near the mirror and I helped her work on her monologue. She had it almost completely memorized but needed the occasional whispered word to put her in the right direction. I had her look into the mirror and recite the monologue to herself, since Ophelia, during the speech, was technically talking to herself. Kayla was good, Kayla was really good, and I couldn’t wait to see how she’d do in front of the class.

As she was practicing her speech in the mirror, I happened to look at myself. The bruise on my face stood out like a sore thumb. I’ve never exactly considered myself handsome, nor do I obsess so much over my looks that something like the bruise would cause me distress, but I was struck by this. Maybe less from what it was than what it represented: Craig’s attempts to belittle me in front of Kayla. My anger started returning again and, all of a sudden, I thought of the perfect monologue to perform. It fit perfectly with my mood, at least.

A few minutes later, Ms. Locke clapped her hands. “All right, everyone. Let’s gather over here.” We shifted the sofas and chairs to make something resembling an audience. “Anyone want to go first?”

A few people shuffled up and recited their monologues. Most of them were good actors, given time. Right now, they either phonetically recited their monologues with their eyes glued to the paper, or they tried to say them from memory and had to keep glancing at their paper to check a word of phrase. Most of them stuck with Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet speeches. The easy ones.

After one particularly embarrassing spectacle, Ms. Locke looked over at me and said, “Jack, why don’t you go up?”

“Okay,” I said, taking my place on the ‘stage’ created by the open floor between the class and the mirror. Kayla gave me an encouraging smile. I wanted to smile back but it would have been detrimental to the monologue. I closed my eyes for a moment, then opened them, imagining an entire class of Craigs grinning at me.

I started my monologue, slow and silent at first but gradually building in energy and fury:

“You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.”

The monologue was from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, one of his lesser known and underrated plays. The speech takes place when Coriolanus, the greatest general of Rome, is banished from his city by jealous nobles. He is roaring at the crowd that has gathered to banish him, telling them, in essence, to rot in Hell. All I had to do was think about Craig and I had all the motivation I needed.

The class was silent for a moment. Then, starting with Kayla, there was a round of applause, even from Ms. Locke, who looked stunned at what I had done.

I sat down next to her again, receiving compliments from my classmates as I went. “Wow,” Kayla said, looking at me, “Are you okay?”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“That was so real,” she said, looking concerned, “You were so angry and hurt. It just…seemed so real, I thought something might be wrong.”

I gave her a wan smile. “I promise I’m fine.”

She looked at me, unsure, then stood up and made her way out onto our ‘stage’. She looked at me, closed her eyes for a second, then opened them. I was struck by the sadness in her eyes; it was as if something had been broken inside of her.

She started:

“O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observ’d of all observers—quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harse;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstacy. O, woe is me
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”

Two tears actually rolled down her face as she said the monologue. She didn’t take her eyes off me for a second and I had a horrible, sneaking suspicion that she was basing her emotions off of my monologue.

Like me, she received wild applause, which she didn’t acknowledge as she sat back down, mutely. “Are you all right?” I asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.

She nodded, biting her lip. “I just felt so bad. You looked so hurt and I don’t want to see you hurt.”

I stammered for a second before saying, “I’m fine. I’ll tell you if I’m ever hurt.”

She looked up at me, her eyes still a little cloudy. “Promise?”

“I promise.”

She smiled and stayed cheerful for the rest of class.

The last student was just finishing up as the bell rang so Ms. Locke had no time for a denouement. “Don’t forget to sign up for auditions!” she called as we filed out of the classroom. Kayla and I immediately went to the sheet and signed our names up for next Friday. Jessica Wilson had already signed up, no shock. Even as a freshman, she managed to snag a couple lead roles.

We waited outside the school together, her for Craig and me for my siblings. “I promise I’ll text you,” she said, “I don’t want you to get worried again.”

“Kayla, don’t worry about me, you just have a good time, okay?”

“I’ll try,” she said, though she didn’t sound too hopeful.

“Oh, what was the super private thing Craig had to ask you at lunch? Can you say?”

“He just wanted to tell me I was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.” She didn’t sound too impressed.

“Well, he just pointed out the obvious,” I said, before I could stop myself.

She looked up at me and gave me a small smile. “Are you just saying that?”

It was too late to turn back now. “No way.”

She smiled even bigger and was about to say something when Craig’s horn blared from the street. It seems, despite her promise to talk to him about that, it hadn’t quite sunk in. “Have a good time,” I said, trying to keep a smile on.

“Thanks, Jack,” she said, running a hand down my arm before running to Craig’s car.

I leaned back against the wall and waited, watching Craig drive away. I turned my phone on loud so I could hear when she texted, no matter what I was doing.

“Holy crap!” I jumped. Jessica Wilson and a gaggle of about four other girls were standing in front of me, staring at my face. “What happened?”

Jessica Wilson was talking to me. Odd. “I, uh…had an accident in gym class.”

The girls all made sympathetic sounds. Okay, seriously, what? “I’m sorry, Jack,” Jessica said, “Go home and put some ice on it.”

“I will,” I said, “It looks worse than it feels.”

“If you’re sure,” she said. She kissed the tips of her fingers and pressed them lightly to the bruise. Then she turned tail and walked away with her friends, giggling and casting glances back at me.

I was still recovering from the shock of that when Alan and Amanda arrived. “Damn, dude,” Alan said, “The hell happened to you?”

“Gym class,” I said shortly, “Accident.”

“What, did you trip and fall?” he sniggered.

“No, but I’ll gladly give you that experience, if you like.”

“Guys,” Amanda said calmly. She turned to me. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine. I feel like I’ve had to say that about twenty times today.”

“You’ll have to say it one more time for mom and dad,” she said. I sighed, knowing it was true. She wrapped an arm around my neck and pulled my face close. She kissed the bruise lightly. “Hope that helps,” she said, smiling.

Okay, seriously, what the fuck?

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

As Amanda predicted, I had to reassure mom and dad, a few times, that I was all right. “Well, keep this on it for the rest of the day,” mom said, handing me a ziplock bag full of ice wrapped in a towel. I pressed it against my eye.

“Next time it happens,” dad said, “make sure you let them know you could sue them.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For anything. It’s a free country.”

I grinned and lay back on the couch. The ice was actually starting to feel rejuvenating.

“So, how go things with Ms. Kayla?” mom asked, bringing out a tray of M&M cookies. I mentioned she liked to bake, right? I may have forgotten to mention she doesn’t need an upcoming meal to get her in the mood for it.

“All right,” I said, taking a cookie.

“She still with the mayor of Doucheville?” dad asked. You can see where I get it from.

“Yes,” I replied, “They’re at dinner right now.”

Mom and dad exchanged a look. “This guy realizes that she needs to get her homework done, right?” dad said.

I shrugged. “I doubt he cares. I helped her with some of it today during homeroom.”

“Oh, did you learn anything else about her?”

“Her favorite color is green and she likes to work ahead.”

Dad nodded approvingly. “Good start. What about her favorite—”

“Haven’t gotten there yet,” I interrupted, feeling more and more like this was an interrogation.

“Honey, let him relax,” mom said to dad, “He’s had a long day. He needs to unwind.”

“I know, I know, but if my son is interested in a young lady, I want him to get her.” I smiled at dad. He gave me a wink and pulled me in for a tight hug.

I passed Alan and Amanda on the stairs. They were coming down, presumably to talk to mom and dad, and I wondered for a second if they had been doing anything. I couldn’t smell it on them but you never know.

I collapsed in my beanbag chair and checked my phone. No messages from Kayla. One each from Brad and Joe asking if I was okay. I texted them both that I was fine and then decied to send Tara a text.

Me: Hey hey cousin.

No response. I picked up my controller and started playing some Skyrim. I was in the middle of hacking off a draugr’s head when my phone beeped.

Tara: Hey superstud ;) how goes it with the crush?

Me: Lol it’s going.

Tara: Has she ditched that loser and started dating you yet?

Me: No.

Tara: Awww, sorry hun.

Me: It’s okay.

Tara: She’ll realize soon that you’re a much better guy!

Me: I hope so. Tell me about your date.

We talked for a while longer. She had gone on a date with one of the football guys at her school and, much to her surprise, he wasn’t just some meathead jock looking to get into her pants. I was happy for her. Eventually she had to go because she had homework to do. We said our goodbyes and I was left in lonely silence again.

Around 6:00, with no text yet from Kayla, mom called us down to dinner. Unlike last night, I had an appetite and gladly joined them for a meal of Beef Wellingtons, a particular favorite of mine. Mom must have known I needed a little cheering up.

“Oh, Jack,” Amanda said at one point, “Did you decide to try out for the play next week?”

I nodded. “Oh, what play is it?” mom asked eagerly.

The Winter’s Tale,” I replied when I swallowed my food, “Shakespeare play.”

“Well, if they have any sense, they’ll give you a bigger role than last year,” dad commented dryly. He had also been something of a theater kid when he was younger and was disgusted at the continuous practice of brown-nosing to get good roles.

“I’m sure Jack will do just fine,” mom said soothingly.

“If they need a rock,” Alan muttered. I kicked him beneath the table.

My phone beeped loudly, making everyone stare at me. “Sorry,” I said, trying to focus on my food. If it was Kayla, I wanted to respond as quickly as possible.

“Just answer it,” my dad said, looking down at his food, “No point in making the young lady wait.”

I pulled out my phone and, sure enough, it was from Kayla.

Kayla: Hey Jack! Sorry for the late text. Craig’s in the bathroom.

Me: How is it going?

I turned my phone on silent and left it in my lap. Mom and dad engaged Alan and Amanda in conversation and I suspected they did it so I wouldn’t feel like everyone was waiting for me.

Kayla: It’s okay. The restaurant is nice.

Me: But…?

Kayla: I haven’t really said a word all evening. Craig keeps talking and I swear I could just get up and leave and he wouldn’t notice.

Me: Need me to come get you?

Kayla: Lol thanks for the offer. I think I’ll be fine.

Me: You were amazing in theater today.

Kayla: Aww thanks! So were you :)

Me: Do you need me to go?

Kayla: Please stay until he gets back? I hate sitting here by myself.

Me: Seriously, I’ll come get you.

Kayla: I’ll be fine.

Me: You still going to tell him you want to come home early?

Kayla: I mentioned it and he said it was okay but I think I might need to remind him a couple more times.

Me: Okie-dokie.

Kayla: He’s coming back. I’ll text you when I get home and then I’ll come see you.

The thought cheered me and I remained quite happy throughout the rest of the meal. Mom and dad smiled, Alan teased, and Amanda seemed completely oblivious to it all.

After dinner and dishes, I retreated back to my room and Skyrim. I needed to eat up some time and there’s no better way to do that than hunting dragons. Unless you play Minecraft but I wasn’t in a Minecraft mood.

I was in the process of clearing out my third dungeon when I decided it was about time to check my phone. It was almost 8:30 and still no message. I thought about texting her but if she was with Craig, she probably wouldn’t be able to text back. I twisted my mouth. Probably more of the, “Just five more minutes” thing he pulled last night.

Lights rolled across my room and I heard the sound of car doors being opened. I paused my game and listened. I heard two people talking. One was definitely Kayla. I shut off the game and leapt to the window. Craig was just pulling out of the driveway and Kayla was giving him a wave. As his lights disappeared down the road, she turned and started walking toward my house.

“Kayla!”

A woman, presumably Kayla’s mother, had come out of the house next door. Kayla started talking to her, gesturing to my house, but her mother pointed inside and, with a heavy sigh, Kayla obeyed. I watched her disappear into her house and fell back on my bed. Well, Craig had dropped her off earlier than last night, as promised, but just late enough that she couldn’t come visit me. Wonderful.

My phone buzzed.

Kayla: Hey, Jack…

Me: Don’t worry. I heard your mom. It’s late.

Kayla: I feel so horrible.

Me: Don’t.

Kayla: But I promised.

Me: I’ll see you tomorrow. And I’m talking to you right now. That’s fine with me.

Kayla: She said I needed to get my homework done. I know I have to! I’d just rather do it with you.

My eyes shot open.

Me: Oh, really?

Kayla: Yes, really. You rock!

Me: Lol I aim to please.

Kayla: Lol! So…

Me: So?

Kayla: Craig kissed me.

It was like a boulder dropped into my stomach and flattened out my insides. My arms turned to jelly and I almost dropped my phone. I had to kneel beside my bed for a moment while I fresh wave of despairing nausea threatened to take me over.

Me: Oh, really?

Kayla: Yeah…

Me: What’s up?

Kayla: Idk. I mean, he’s not the first guy I’ve kissed but…maybe I’m just inexperienced.

Me: You didn’t like it?

Kayla: Not really. It was like kissing your cousin. I’ve never had it feel so awkward.

Me: I’m sorry.

Kayla: It isn’t your fault! I’m just not in a huge hurry to do it again.

Me: Well, I hope you feel better. Do you want me to go?

Kayla: I’m going to do my homework but I’ll text you if I’m bored, okay?

Me: Promise?

Kayla: Cross my heart.

I was feeling a little better but that boulder in my stomach was still there. I had been told by Craig’s previous conquests that his kisses were atrocious and I’m just sorry that Kayla had to witness that firsthand. Poor girl.

My parents popped their heads in. “Hey, Jack, just wanted to let you know we’re headed to bed,” dad said.

“All right. Good night, guys.”

I was staring at my phone conversation with Kayla when I heard my parents saying goodnight to Alan and Amanda. I wondered if they were going to do anything. The shock I had felt last night and this morning had morphed into a genuine curiosity. Did they do it every night? Was it always the same thing? I know it was probably sick and perverted of me to even think about it but I thought about it anyway. I wanted to know what was going on.

If they were going to do anything, it wouldn’t be right away. They’d wait until they were sure mom and dad and I were asleep. As such, I needed to make it seem like I was getting ready for bed. I brushed my teeth and took a quick hot shower that, even though I had my mind elsewhere, still felt really good.

I knocked on their door as I passed it. “Good night, guys,” I called through it.

“Good night, Jack,” Amanda said.

I froze. Were they doing stuff already? But then the door opened and the two of them came out, headed for the bathroom.

I closed the door to my room and waited. I couldn’t think of anything to do so I just poked around online for a while, looking at random crap. The anticipation was slowing time down and making my heart race. I checked the time. 9:30. I told myself at 10:30 that I’d sneak out and take a look. It was going to be a long hour.

Finally, when the clock read 10:20, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to know. I slid off my bed and crept to the door that I had purposefully left cracked open. I tip-toed down the hall and, sure enough, saw some light spilling out from the twins’ room. I knelt down at the keyhole and looked in.

Alan was laying on his back, his eyes closed in ecstasy. Amanda was on her knees, bra still on, bobbing up and down on his cock. She had her eyes closed, clearly concentrating as hard as possible on what she was doing. Alan was letting his arms hang limp off the bed, a dopey grin spreading across his face.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of what Amanda was doing. Seeing it in porn is one thing but this was something else. She had her lips clamped firmly around his member, sliding it up and down while one handed tugged in rhythm with her lips. Her other hand was fondling his balls, stroking them and scratching them lightly.

She took Alan’s cock out of her mouth and began gently running her tongue around it, swirling it around and around the head like an ice cream cone. Alan moaned and clenched his fists. Amanda smiled at that and began licking up and down, occasionally stopping the suck on a small section.

“Please,” Alan whispered, “Put it in your mouth again.”

Amanda obliged, sliding her mouth with torturous slowness down his length. Alan tried to buck his hips up to go in deeper but she held him down with her other hand and pulled her mouth off his cock. “Try that again,” she said in a sexy whisper, “And I’ll have to use my teeth.”

She started the journey again and I couldn’t help myself; I pulled out my cock from my pants and began to run my hand up and down its length. It seemed like an hour before Amanda had all of Alan’s cock in her mouth and she began the journey back up. He was hissing and moaning like crazy now, beating his hands lightly against the sheets.

“Do you want me to go faster?” she asked, though I could have sworn she glanced toward the door before looking at Alan.

“Yes, please! Oh, Amanda…”

“Yes?” she said, rubbing the top of his cock.

“Oh, shiiiiiiiiit…you’re so fucking good at this…”

“I know,” she said in a sultry voice. She began sucking him again, this time making slurping and sucking noises as her speed increased.

I was also increasing the speed of my hand. I was panting lightly, my movements making my body quiver as I jerked off, feeling myself coming closer to climax. But just as I was about to reach it, my phone vibrated.

It scared the shit out of me. I had it on silent (I wasn’t stupid enough to leave it loud at night) but it seemed extraordinarily loud in the quiet hallway. I quickly looked back in the keyhole. They didn’t seem to have heard. Alan was still in the throes of ecstasy but Amanda had stopped sucking. For a moment, I thought she might have heard, but then she took her mouth off Alan’s dick and said, “Ready to be inside me?”

“Oh, fuck yes!” Alan said, his eyes flying open.

Amanda slid onto his body, lifting her hips so she could help him enter her. She slid down onto him with a low moan, thrusting her bra-covered breasts forward. She slowly began to rock back and forth, her eyes shut and her tongue running around her lips. She found a steady rhythm and slowly unhooked her bra and let it fall. Her tits, the short mounds that promised future greatness, bounced in unison with her movements. They were hypnotizing.

I was so focused on her breasts that I didn’t even realize her eyes were open. When I noticed, I saw, to my horror, that they were aimed right at mine. She couldn’t see me. There was no way! She put her arms above her head and shoved her chest out, not at Alan, but at me.

I fled.

I made it back to my room and shut the door quietly, my heart pounding, my forehead drenched with sweat. Did she see me? Did she hear me? Shit, shit, shit.

I pulled out my phone and saw I had one new message from Kayla.

Kayla: Got most of my reading done but there’s so much more! Ugh. I’m headed to sleep. Have sweet dreams!

Me: Thanks! You too!

I leaned my head against the window, letting the coolness of the glass equalize the sweat. Fuck, if only I hadn’t been so curious! Then again, Amanda’s been a lot more familiar today. Did she somehow figure out I’d seen them last night? Has she been teasing me? God damn, but this was a bad place to be in.

Suddenly a light came on in a room over at Kayla’s house. I looked over and saw Kayla enter the light. The curtains were half-closed so I couldn’t see much but I guessed that it was her bedroom. I could see directly into her bedroom. My cock, angry with the case of blue-balls it was forced to endure, started to wake up again. I felt bad looking in on her but somehow I couldn’t stop myself.

Kayla looked like she was putting books away. She finished and her hands went to the bottom of her shirt and started to tug upwards. I was paralyzed. She was facing away from me but even the sight of her back, cut in half by the bra strap, was enough to drive me crazy. She reached behind her to unclasp her bra and I managed to regain control of myself and fling myself away from the window. Not that I didn’t want to see her but if she caught me looking…

I dropped my pants and pulled off my shirt. My cock, denied relief again, was now completely flaccid and I doubt there was a chance of waking him up again. Oh, well. I lay down on my bed, letting the events of the day wash over me.

Craig was now going to be a problem. He had all but declared a feud with me. Kayla was warming up to me and seemed to be wising to Craig’s tricks, but there was no guarantee. It didn’t look like we’d be able to have a study session together outside of school anytime soon, not if Craig had anything to say about it. And here I was, stuck at home, with two siblings who were plowing each other’s brains out on a regular basis.

Basically, the only thing I could look forward to after school was homework, and even that was barely a distraction. Videogames would have been a distraction but it wasn’t looking like I’d get the money for any new ones soon. So I decided there was only one thing that could help solve my problems. That would keep me busy after school and give me some extra cash.

I needed to get a job.
82 comments

Anonymous readerReport

2014-08-29 07:15:30
Can. Not. Stop. Reading. Jashley13, you are just an amazing writer. You blend together an utterly relatable story about getting a girlfriend for the first time with the alluring yet uncertain topic of sex during one's teenage years. I'm conflicted between reading more or less in order to save chapters to read over the next couple days. Such a pain :/ But great job, I'm glad I found you :)

Anonymous readerReport

2014-08-24 11:07:52
Stumbled onto this on the advice of BashfulScribe, it's great! Will have to tear myself away from it for the sake of not running out of chapters to read over the coming days. :)

Anonymous readerReport

2014-08-24 09:10:23
its actually 9:10 am for me.. and also just cant stop reading ffs

Anonymous readerReport

2014-08-22 12:24:06
2:30 am… Cant. Stop. Reading, It's so good!!!~

Catmandue53Report

2014-08-18 23:26:25
Great chapter of a great story! Keep up the good work!

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