Boys will be boys is never an excuse

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Ashley

Bellford Ohio — Now

School is terminally irritating.

I missed the first period entirely and by the time the old bat in the front office gives me my pass, I’ve missed half of the second, too.

“Ashley! Hey,” Tara whispers when I finally take my seat in junior lit class, her face split in a huge smile. “What took you so long?” And then she looks at my outfit. “What are you wearing?”

I shake my head. “Don’t even.”

She puts up both hands in apology — or maybe, surrender — and turns back to her notebook. Mrs. Kaplan is reading us the class rules, homework, exams, class participation. I know this drill so I zone out. I take a look around the class, see who’s here, who’s not, and spot Sebastian Valenti over by the window at the same second he jerks his eyes away from me.

They’re really amazing eyes. Hazel. I used to think hazel was a color but found out it actually means eyes that change colors. Sebastian’s eyes look green sometimes and other times, they look brown and I’ve even seen them look practically yellow. Sebastian’s a good guy. The best. He saved me when my stupid brother didn’t. Wouldn’t. He keeps asking how I’m doing and I keep saying fine. And that’s about as deep as our conversations ever get so I just don’t bother anymore. I haven’t talked to him all summer. But he’s still a really good guy.

“May I have your attention please.”

The PA system cracks into life and Mrs. Kaplan takes a seat at her desk while the principal welcomes us back to the new school term and tells us about some after-school clubs. And then, right after an announcement about several new teachers, Principal McCloskey ruins what’s left of my life.

“We’d like to welcome Mr. Davidson to Bellford High. In addition to teaching calculus, Mr. Davidson has agreed to help us re-form a new and improved football team. Tryouts for this year’s Bengals team will be held after school.”

A cheer goes up around the classroom.

I sit in my seat, frozen. I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine. I lie to myself but my brain knows better and I can feel that old pressure spinning inside my chest.

A hand squeezes mine and I jolt like I’ve been struck by lightning. I look up into the concerned eyes of Tara. That’s when I discover everybody in the entire class has swiveled around to see how I’m taking this news. Most people look concerned, like Tara. But others are triumphant, like Andre, sitting at the front of the classroom, and Bruce over by the windows next to Sebastian. I can’t stand it, can’t deal with it. Suddenly, I’m on my feet, running for the door. Mrs. Kaplan shouts after me. “Ashley! Ashley, come back here!”

I dart across the hall into the girls’ bathroom and lock myself into a stall. I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine.

I repeat the words over and over so fast, they morph into percussion that syncs to the pounding of my heart. It’s bad enough seeing everybody stares at me. Everybody blames me for cancelling football.

Derek blames me.

My brother blames me for what happened two years ago. I can never forget that…or forgive it.

It doesn’t matter how many lies I tell myself or how deep I bury those memories, how strong the dam. They keep finding ways to break out and I’m just not strong enough to hold them back.

I don’t think I ever will be.

 

Derek

Long Island, New York — Now

 

“Derek, you’re a guy.” Brittany says, pulling me out of my trip down memory lane.

“Thanks for noticing.”

She smacks my arm. “Do you know how rare it is for guys to get where we’re coming from about campus assaults?”

I lift both eyebrows because I’m pretty sure my sister would say I don’t get a thing but before either of us can say anything, Britt’s phone buzzes.

She frowns at the text message.

“It’s Tara.” Her eyes snap to mine, wide with worry. “Derek. They’re bringing back football.”

I snatch the phone and read Tara’s message.

 

Tara: New coach, new football program and she ran out of the class. What do I do?

 

I stare at Britt. I don’t need to ask who she is. Oh, God. I can’t do anything. I’m several states and about six hundred miles away.

Shit.

“Derek.” Brittany grabs my hand. “Sebastian?”

Yeah. I nod. Yeah, Sebastian. I take out my phone, text my former teammate.

 

Derek: Heard about new coach. Make sure there’s no hunt. Please. I’m begging you, protect her.

Sebastian: Already am.

 

Do more, I want to shout, vibrating with the need to rush home and do something. But I’m not welcome there anymore.

I shove away from the table, spilling my juice, because there’s a limit to how much suffering I can take. “I gotta go,” I mumble and bolt, storming through the glass doors like the football player I am. I look feral. Lethal. I always look this way whenever I think about what happened to Ashley.

I wanna tear Victor Patton into tiny little Vic-bits but I can’t. The DA warned me — and Dad and Justin — that such a course of action would result in lengthy prison terms for us if we tried.

It sure would feel good, though.

I hate Vic, my former friend, my teammate. I hate him with that thermo-nuclear kind of hate and I wish, more than anything, that I could call my sister and tell her I get it now.

I understand hate.

And I’m sorry.