VARSITY (Prologue-chapter 9)

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Anything but a typical high school junior, Adrian Rodriguez was having a rough time at home and at school. A new teenage father, he was struggling with the pressures of his girlfriend and mother looking to him to handle responsibilities that were recently placed in his life.

 

 

 

I had a dream the other night. A dream that left many people in my life in pain, but instead provided me with instant relief and long-awaited quiet. Most are completely unhappy at the idea of dying in a dream, but for me, it's be the ultimate escape. Allegedly, you can't actually die in a dream. You're supposed to wake up right before the end, whether smashing into the ground, being shot, or whatever hell from your conscious life has you fleeing from in your sleep. Still, I dreamt of death, and imagined laying in my own private space for all of eternity. Yes, I actually envisioned laying in my grave, completely at peace.

Initially, the idea skeeved me a bit. The thought of eternal darkness with my only company being ants, worms, beetles and other creepy-crawlies did leave me a bit nauseated upon waking, but later I thought of how great it would be to never have to listen to my mother give me hell ever again. No more nagging from her to get my shit together, because there was nothing left for me to do but be lazy until the sun burned out. No more bitching about getting a job or finding some way to fill my time because I wasn't living up to her standards—whatever they were—that she bestowed upon me as Department of Education chairperson; only serenity and quiet.

I imagined myself smiling while lying in my sacred space—skin pulling from the stitches that had sown my mouth shut. The tug felt gentle, albeit leaving it impossible for me to really smile. I still felt happier than I had in a while, leaving me to wonder what made people fear death so much. I felt peaceful for the first time in a long time, no longer worrying about measuring up to my friends or even complete strangers. My years on Earth has consisted of being sized up more often than I preferred, considering that I never could measure up to anyone or anything. My nickname? "Stoner Adrian". So, how fair was it that I was being held against a rigid set of standards that I hadn't even had a chance to set for myself, but instead were set for me by incidences that occurred before I was even born? My mother became important in her job, and therefore I was now destined to be equally important, despite the fact that I had absolutely no drive, goals, or understanding of self to even begin fathoming what it would be like to have people answering to me. I was only seventeen, and felt adult pressure. Once again, this is why death had become synonymous with peace in my mind.

I felt my soul snuggle comfortably into my leather jacket—my prized possession during my days on Earth. It was one of the few birthday presents from my mother that was something I really wanted, not just something I needed like school clothes. I'd become the "super son" to convince her I deserved it, scrubbing and mopping the house religiously as well as cutting back on partying to show I could be responsible despite some hiccups along the way—like being held up at gunpoint for all the money I made or having girls try to talk to me because I now had a few bucks in my pocket. All distractions that made that jacket even more worth it.

I'd even gotten a job to help out with bills at home, working as a mechanic's assistant last winter. I thought about it often, my brief stint into adulthood. I remember leaning back on the metro wall as I headed to work every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon. I'd started the job around February. It was the last job I'd applied for, and was hired instantaneously as a mechanic's apprentice in a small motorbike shop near Inner Harbor. I was three days in, and was lucky enough to start in the middle of a pay period so I was entitled to a little pay today. I didn't expect much, but something is always better than nothing.

With the money, I could truly prove to my mom that I earned that jacket, and she'd be crazy not to reward her outstanding son with a great birthday gift. I was so excited that day, I couldn't wait to call and tell her the good news.

"Hey, how's work?" she'd asked when I called her from work that day. "You punching out soon?"

"Yeah, in about 15 minutes," I'd said, yawning into the receiver.

"I got my first check!" I remember screaming into my phone. It was a great time to be alive, as it was one of the last instances where my mother and I would really be getting along. It was well worth it.

Not too long afterwards, though, did things in life begin to get hard and complicated more so than usual. Some experiences left a lot to be desired, making me yearn for this tired-ass box more than most teenagers.

I thought about when I was robbed by some former colleagues for "outstanding fees" for some weed I'd bought and absentmindedly forgotten to pay for—or so they said—when I went home with my first check. I guess it was my fault, walking around with all that cash on me.

I'd reverted back to my old ways and started partying again. My old allies got wind of me working, and knew I'd be reemerging back on the party scene. I blame rap music for the lifestyle of grandeur, and throwing money around when you can't really afford to do so. Not only did they make it look easy, but that made it look rewarding.

It was Spring break and I'd been working every weekend for two months. I missed my friends, my then-girlfriend, and just feeling like myself, even though I'd forgotten what that meant.

I hustled to the metro to get home and I stood on the platform for the sub when I noticed two of my former school mates at the other end, exchanging glares between themselves and me as I opted not to entertain their existence. I stared down the tunnel, eager to avoid eye contact as these were the school mates I'd gotten in trouble for last year.

During the ride, my guard stayed up as I anxiously combed the car with my eyes, hoping they didn't see me again. Javier Menendez and Jamal Jones were seniors last year who were around the way dope boys, and were often accused for trafficking in the school, yet were so good, that no one could ever prove it. It wasn't until they used me as a fall guide that I wondered how they did it, but there you have it. Find some poor, unsuspecting soul who is eager to be down and you will have an instantaneous scapegoat.

That night, I'd fallen asleep on the way home and I forced myself to jerk awake in between stops to avoid surpassing my exit. As I got off at my exit, my guard was officially down as I dragged myself up the stairs to exit the metro. Ordinarily, footsteps behind me didn't faze me. But this time, I got nervous as I spotted my two biggest fears earlier. I turned around several times, only to see other civilians exiting the train.

"Get a grip, Adrian. They didn't see you. And if they did, they didn't recognize you. Relax," I'd thought to myself.

I was about three blocks from home. Bustling down the block in the abnormally freezing temperatures for April, I burrowed myself into my coat as tightly as possible. My boots crunched ice underneath me, and upon stopping at a traffic light, I heard more crunching. I turned around again to see Javier standing behind me.

"Shit!" I yelled, damn near having a heart attack. "Why you sneaking up on me like that?"

"Because you were rude to us earlier, son," he declared, pushing me in the chest. "How are you going to be on the train and not speak?"

"Look, I'm not trying to get involved with y'all. I got a job and shit. I'm legit."

The two exchanged a laugh at my expense, despite the fact that nothing was funny.

"Adrian, do you know who you are talking to?" Jamal asked. "There is nothing legit about you, and we know it. You can't lie to us."

"Well, I'm not lying. I'm trying to get home to help my mom, so ease up off of me." I turned my back to cross the street, and felt a push as I hit the pavement. Ice shards scraped my hands as I tried to break my fall.

"Well, you know we got unfinished business, right? I mean, when you didn't pay last year, we lost money," Jamal said as I climbed back to my feet.

I hung my head. Fuck. Me.

"Ok, so what do you want from me? Money I don't have?" I asked, somewhat scared I was about to get wasted in the middle of the street, but definitely not trying to expose my nerves.

"Actually, yes," Jamal said. "We've been looking for you for a year, and since we weren't allowed at the school, we been keeping our ears to the street. Rumor has it you dated Mariah Warner for a year?"

"Why?" I asked hesitantly. I didn't want the Warner family involved in any shady dealings, so I automatically convinced myself that I would agree to whatever if need be to keep them and AJ safe.

"That's just what we heard. Congrats on finally getting with her. You was chasing that ass for years!" Javier said.

"Mariah is my girlfriend and the mother of my child, yes," I said, trying to maintain composure.

"Lucky dude," Javier said. "She was hot as fuck."

"Why did you bring her up? My baby boy lives there, so if you plan on going over there—"

"Calm down, punk," Jamal insisted. "We aren't beat for hurting nobody who has nothing to do with this. Not our style."

"So what do you want me to do about last year?" I asked.

The two exchanged a glance, then Javier grabbed me by the collar.

"Give up your coat and your shoes," he warned in a low whisper. My stomach turned in knots. $1200 sat in my coat pocket, and I had worked so hard for that money. Losing my boots meant walking three blocks practically barefoot in freezing temperatures. I felt anger build in my throat and tears weld in my eyes. Why was this happening to me now? I thought I'd already paid my debt to the past.

"I don't want to," I whimpered, choking back my fear as much as possible. "I just want to go home."

"Well, you have to pay us somehow," he said, grabbing my left coat pocket where my hand sat gripping my pay. I couldn't hold back my fear anymore as I felt a warm tear run down my face against my cold skin.

"Damn, you got this dude so shook, he is crying," Jamal bragged. "Maybe we should just let him go. He clearly isn't the same Adrian we used to fuck with."

I prayed harder than I probably ever had in my life. Ordinarily, I left things up to chance, but this meant something. This meant my future with Mariah and everything I wanted for us and our son. I did not want to be robbed, possibly at gun point, when I had more to lose than they could ever imagine.

Javier stared at me momentarily, then let my coat go. I pulled away and stood there momentarily before turning to walk away. As I walked down the block I felt uneasy. I began to walk faster, feeling as though I needed to run to escape. No sooner than the sole of my boot making contact with the slippery pavement did I hear a pop, and feel a hot, painful stabbing feeling penetrate through my coat and into my body. I lunged forward, crashing into the ice again, this time incapable of catching my fall. Fire radiated through my body, expanding from my spine down my legs and up my arms. I suddenly felt suffocated, and struggled to breathe. I heard footsteps and saw Javier and Jamal hovering over me, pulling off my boots and taking my pay out of my pocket. Someone, I have no idea who, kicked my twice in what I assumed was a bullet wound.

Suddenly, the past eluded me, though, and that slight tug of the stitches that kept my mouth shut pulled tightly at each corner, forcing a frown. The same sensation went through my eyes, leaving it impossible to even move my eyes, let alone blink my eyelids. I felt a heavy weight collapse onto my chest, taking the little bit of air that I could still breathe out my lungs. I coughed suddenly, then coughed harder. Each cough became more intense as my breathing became more difficult. It was happening more abruptly than I thought—I was losing my senses. I could only gasp for short breaths through my mouth that was tightening constantly from the stitches. Excruciating pain tore through my eyes as each cough pulled the stitches tighter.

It seemed as if my eyes were slipping down into the sockets, causing excruciating pain as the nerve endings pulled and left me with no chance to ever see anything but darkness ever again. Images swirled in my head of my girlfriend, Mariah, my best friend, Malkum, and my little boy, AJ, and that she-devil, Shakira. She did this to me; she put me here. Despite everything I'd been though, a damn female did me in. What are the odds? Not working under heavy vehicles, not being shot, but dating a damn cheerleader because I was on the football team. These were the last people on my mind, the last thoughts I had as I yearned for more oxygen. What felt like a tear seeped through the stitches in my eyes during my respiratory struggles. All at once, I had no more gallops of air, no more weight on my chest. It was all over, and I felt nothing. The imagery was gone, only a dark cloud lingered in my brain. No pain, no weight, no stitches. Just my leather jacket.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

"God!" Mariah screamed as I held her hand, anxiously waiting for the arrival of our first born on that absurdly-cold August day in 2014. She sweated copiously, and I dabbed her forehead as her mother encouraged her to push harder.

"You're almost there!" I reminded her, trying to assure her that the pain would end soon. Still, I knew there was no end in sight as the baby's head hadn't even crowned yet. I secretly wished it would all be over, as I wanted to end my girlfriend's suffering as well as my own. The harder she pushed, the tighter her grip on my hand became and my fingers were turning blue.

Her mother must've noted the agony on my face. She insisted that I go get some water for Mariah, and hunt down her father.

"Tell him that she needs him now," she said as I ran into the hallway, still dressed in the hospital gown I'd been given upon Mariah's entry.

"Mr. Warner, Mariah needs you. Mrs. Warner told me to come and get you," I said, panicked. My head was spinning. The whole scenario was making me delusional. Just yesterday, I was a seventeen-year-old, mixed half Dominican and half Jamaican, bumming it around the streets of Baltimore like there was no tomorrow. Now, I got a baby on the way. Shit. I never thought I'd be adding "fatherhood" to my list of bullshit accomplishments so soon in life.

"Is she ok? Is something wrong?" he asked frantically, his six-foot-four-inch figure trembling nervously. He and my best friend, Mariah's twin brother, Malkum, shot up in frenzy.

"Dad, let's just go in there," Malkum said, more confident in the situation than I was. Then again, he wasn't the one currently losing sleep over how to feed a newborn when he couldn't even feed himself.

"I'll go. Adrian, take a break," Mr. Warner insisted as I sat next to Malkum. I slumped back in the chair outside of Mariah's hospital room, awaiting the birth of my child.

"How are you holding up?" Malkum asked, sitting his lanky self into the seat once again. His dark green eyes glimmered from the reflection of the sun outside as it bounced off of the hospital windows. He ran his hand through his locks as he fidgeted in his chair, clearly worried about his sister.

"Dude, I'm exhausted already, and kid ain't even here yet." I hung my head and shook it at the situation as I silently cursed the piss-poor manufacturing of condoms. That was the ironic part—I actually did take the precautions.

"Well, at least you're here. I'm proud of you for sticking it out," he said. "Not like you have a choice, though. My dad and I both know where you live so it would be nothing to hunt you down," he teased.

I rolled my eyes at him. "Of course you know where I live. I might as well be living in the house with you all since my mother is always threatening to kick me out."

"Yeah, and now you are officially family."

Just then, Malkum's mom ran out of the hospital room to tell me my son had been born. I held my breath as Mal and I followed her back into the room, where Mariah lay, completely drenched with sweat and spent. Her mahogany skin glistened in the hospital light, and her usually bright hazel eyes were dull, lifeless, and full of exhaustion. Her father held the tiny baby, and repeatedly told me to be careful as he handed me my child.

"Oh, God," I whispered as I looked down at him. His tiny body was a shade of chestnut, slightly darker than me, but I could see his mother's features in his nose and mouth. He had a full head of black hair, just like his mother and I both did.

"Mariah, what do you want to name him?" I asked her.

"I like AJ," she said, her voice still tired. "AJ Rodriguez sounds good to me."

"Awww, look at my little biracial nephew!" Malkum said as I handed him the baby. "Black and Dominican? Girls are going to be on his ass when he gets older."

"You know it. That's how we Rodriguez men do," I joked.

"Oh, please," Mariah said, rolling her eyes at us. "You are not that damn special."

"Well, I was special enough to knock you up."

"Hey!" her father intervened. "Enough of that. Mal and Adrian, let's go. Mariah needs her rest as does the baby. We need to get back to the house and get everything situated for him to come home. Malkum, say goodbye to your mother."

Malkum, Mr. Warner and I left the room after exchanging our goodbyes, promising that we'd call later on in the evening. We checked out and made our way to the car.

*

After returning home, Malkum and I were given the honor of preparing the entire house for the baby: painting the crib, securing the outlets, and mixing the formula. As his father put it, "What else do you have to do?" It was only the end of August and we would be going back to school soon, but who needed summer vacation when there was other tedious crap to do?

"Hey, Adrian, are you going to call your mother and let her know the baby was born?"

I rolled my eyes. "Why would I do that? She doesn't seem in a rush to help with anything."

"Well, maybe because she is waiting for you to call and make the first move. Just to let her know what's going on, you know?"

I continued to stroke the side of the crib with the paintbrush, ignoring Malkum completely. I had no desire to entertain any notion of my bitch-of-a-mother actually caring about me, because as far as I was concerned, she didn't. In my mind, she hadn't cared since I tarnished her good name. She was the president of the State of Maryland Department of Education (yes, I know—fancy), and ever since it got out that I got Mariah pregnant, she's been dodging major side-eye from all of her comrades.

"How could this happen? He comes from such a good background. His mother is the president of the DoE for goodness sake! It's got to be the girl's fault. She must not have any morals."

"But what about the boy? He should know better! Look who his mother is!"

"Oh, who are we kidding? Everyone is at fault! The parents aren't trying hard enough!"

And the crappy defenses and excuses continued. My mother came down so hard on me, that I actually stayed at friends' houses until she cooled down. To add insult to injury, I'd just come off a week in juvenile detention for a weed possession. It was only a mere two ounces, but being somewhat brown skinned didn't help my case. It never does.

"Adrian?" Malkum called again, trying to get a response from me.

"No! I'm not calling her, so drop it! Damn!"

"Yo, who the hell you talkin' to?" he asked. "Calm your shit; I'm not the one you're mad at."

"Sorry," I mumbled as I redirected my attention to the crib. "I'm just...I don't know. I need something to make this year better. Anything, really."

"Yeah, I know we don't really do much to help pass the time. Maybe we should consider some extra-curricular something or other."

I turned my gaze in his direction. "Dude, you run track. You already have something extra."

"Yeah, I know, but maybe something we could do together," he suggested as he measured the formula.

I chuckled. "I'm sorry, are we dating now?"

"Come on, you know what I mean. We do everything else together. Maybe we should join a club or try out for a team sport. I mean, I can run in my sleep."

I snorted at the idea. Malkum and I were the guys people went out of their way to avoid doing extra—we smoked, we hit on girls, we drank, that was about it. We didn't offer anything particularly unique to our school or people who knew us. Mariah got teased quite often for being with me, since she was not only more personable but way more attractive than yours truly. All the little jerks on the sports teams couldn't understand why she "wasted her time" with me. Can't say I don't blame them. Mariah is pretty damn gorgeous. With long, wavy black hair that fell to her waist, her almond-shaped eyes were a shade of hazel that was indescribable. She had cheekbones that made Ru-Paul jealous, and lush lips that made me weak every time we kissed. And her figure? Well, I got her pregnant, didn't I?

"I don't feel like doing this," I mumbled to myself, prying open another can of paint with a screwdriver. I looked outside. The sun shined brightly through the freshly painted window panes we'd just completed, giving the almost-new crib a glossy look. Looking outside, I suddenly felt the need to light one up, sitting on the roof with a Corona in hand. That's how a teen should spend his summer days, not painting baby cribs.

I could hear my mother's "Well, you should've kept it in your pants!" creep up into the back of my mind. That was her response for everything I said I missed doing since Mariah got pregnant. At first, Mom didn't even believe it was mine. I still feel that was her denial talking.

I sighed heavily.

"What?" Mal asked, finishing the formula.

"I want out. I'm tired now."

"What do you want to do?" he asked, not fighting me too hard to complete the work we promised his dad we'd finish.

"Sit on the roof with a doobie and a beer. You wanna come?"

He snorted. "Yeah, like we can get away with that. The neighbors will see us. The nosy-ass, nothing better to do with their time, annoying neighbors."

"Hey, it doesn't have to be this roof. It can be, maybe, the school roof. Yeah, there's no one at the school right now."

He nodded in compliance as he finished his last measurement.

"Yeah, I guess we can do that. It will be a nice break from this."

"Yes, let's go," I affirmed, ditching my paintbrush. I ran to the bathroom to wash my hands and face, Malkum not far behind. Finally, some summer fun.

*

"So, where do you want to go to get some stuff?" Mal asked me as we hit the metro to make way to our school, Doilbar High, a stereotypical high school that had "just enough" of everyone from varied socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. We usually dealt with the same guys, but that was also usually at night. Right now, it was about 3:30 on an unusually blustery summer day, and our usual suppliers were probably nowhere to be found. We had to think.

"Oh, we can go see that freckled kid, Fergie," I suggested. "He always got something on him, and he lives near the school."

"Cool, hopefully he's cheap," Mal said, concerned. I laughed. We were looking to share an ounce of weed. I wasn't too worried about going broke in the process.

Theo Ferguson, or Fergie as the masses called him, was the anomaly of my friendship circle. Dude was a head trip like no other, mainly because he was always on a trip. People thought I loved weed. I liked a nice high when life a got little overwhelming. Fergie would get high just because it was Sunday. He was Jewish and Black, and currently being raised by his mother, who was the most oblivious person I'd ever met. Once in the eighth grade, she caught me and Fergie blowing trees in his room. When she asked about the smell, he convinced her it was pine cones. How she believed it, I had no idea, considering that the average Baltimore brownstone had few trees nearby, let alone pine cones.

We finally got off the stop, and surprisingly sweated bullets as we walked the last two blocks to Doilbar. We had to scope the scene out before doing anything, just in case there was a random Professional Development or Board Meeting in the building. With my mother in such a high position, I was all too familiar with random meetings being held in random parts of the city at any given moment.

We snuck to the side of the building, giving a glimpse to see if there were any visible lights on inside. Darkness.

As we continued to check the perimeter, we heard a voice come from overhead, shaking Mal and I both to the bone.

Who the hell is out here? It's the middle of the day!

To our surprise, and my relief, it was just Fergie who we planned on paying a visit to anyway.

Mal and I both looked up at him and smiled. Theodore Ferguson—or Fergie—was one of those kids who nobody really befriended, but he could hook you up with what you needed, so that kind of made him everyone's friend.

"Yo, you guys looking for us?" he asked, Mal and I both thrown by the use of the word 'us'.

"Ummm, who exactly is us?" Mal asked.

Fergie stuck his hand out and revealed a bag of green leaves, bundled together in a similar fashion to that of potpourri. His red hair fell over his face, hanging in his eyes as he hung off the side of the school roof with the bag waving in the wind.

"Come on up! The door is open on the side by the gym!" he yelled to us.

Running to the far end of the school, we pried the gym door open, double checked to make sure that it was clear, and headed for the fire escape.

"Hey!" We heard as we turned to run.

Aw, shit. Who is this now?

We turned around to see our gym teacher, Mr. Nelson, emerging from his office. Mr. Nelson was a former cop, so had no mercy for stupidity, immaturity, or anything else that the average teenager did. In short, he would kick our ass and not even care about parents crying the blues. He would kick their asses, too, if needed.

He had a husky, yet muscular build. He kept his head shaved bald, and usually wore tinted sunglasses, even when inside. He stood at 6'1", and implemented terror into the heart and soul of every student in school—and even some teachers.

Officially winded from running around the school, neither Malkum nor I could put up a fight with him, so we stood in the middle of the gym floor awaiting our tirade.

"Hello, Sir," I greeted him, still trying to catch my breath as he approached us.

"What are you knuckleheads doing here in the middle of August?" he asked. "If you're trying to try out for the football team, you still have another day to go."

Mal and I exchanged glances.

"Really? Another day?" I asked, trying to play off our trespassing as an inability to read a calendar.

"Yes, another day. Can I expect to see you both on the field this year? You sound like you could use the conditioning," he asked.

"Well, you will definitely see me try out, Sir," I lied, trying to make our presence as seamless as possible. "Now, just to make sure, when are tryouts again?"

He rolled his eyes at me, clearly exasperated.

"Tomorrow, Rodriguez. Rising juniors and seniors—that includes you two, dingus—will try out Friday through Friday—all seven days. Those pipsqueak rising sophomores will try out just Thursday and Friday. Whiny ass principal insisted I give freshmen their own team."

"We got it. Thanks a lot," Mal said as we turned to leave the gym.

"Hey, gentlemen, one more thing. Tell your doofus friend to get off my roof before I throw him off and ram the pot down his throat!" he yelled behind us.

"Yes, Sir!" We complied in unison, eyes wide and suddenly nervous when we technically hadn't done anything yet.

Mal and I ran to the fire escape, up the ladder, and grabbed Fergie off the roof.

"Hey! Finally, you guys made—" he stuttered as we gripped him up.

"Shush, Mr. Nelson knows you're up here," Mal warned him as we pulled him back down the ladder. "We can go sit on another roof."

"Whose roof?" he asked suspiciously, like he had someone in mind, but was eager to hear our suggestion first.

I shrugged. "I don't know, but I know we can't be here. I mean, Nelson is a big dude. I'm not testing him."

"Let's just hit the street and see what happens. We shouldn't be blazing in the daylight anyway. Someone will see us. Let's just wait till sunset," Mal suggested.

"Gentlemen!" Fergie intervened. "We are not vampires. We are weed smokers! I like my weed like I like my women—wet, sticky, and wild! So, let's get lit up at Shakira's house!"

"Shakira's house? Isn't she a cheerleader?" I asked. I never interacted with anyone who would be considered popular, and last I checked, cheerleaders definitely fit the description. Pretty? Yes, but damn weren't they annoying. This one in particular, Shakira Duran, was the poster girl for useless people. She was blonde, but not by nature. I'm pretty sure that her DD cups weren't by nature, either, but had no proof. She did have a beautiful smile, though, thanks to about $10,000 worth of dental work in middle school.

Her father was a hotshot divorce lawyer, and her mother was the Chief Financial Officer of "Just Go" sports apparel. Bottom line, her parents were disgustingly, nauseatingly, unequivocally rich. The kind of rich that makes you wonder why they live in Baltimore City when there are plenty of affluent areas closer to Capitol Hill in DC.

As we finally climbed down and made our way from the school's vicinity, Mal and I couldn't help but ask how Fergie was getting in with the likes of Shakira.

"Dude, I know my roll," he said. "I got the hippie parents that grow the good stuff, and everyone knows it. I'm the school's supply. Shakira loves her some Blueberry Yum Yum when Mommy and Daddy aren't home—which, incidentally, is never."

"That's what's up. You ever been around her when she's...using?" Mal asked, brown nosing. He's had a thing for Shakira and her chest since seventh grade she was in eighth, and blossomed what seemed to be overnight. Clearly he wanted to know if the goods ever made her loose....like she needed weed for that.

"Yeah, and she's just louder and more annoying, honestly. But, she's got a great house for parties. All the jocks are always there, and I always get some premium pay for my services."

"Yo, parties with the jocks? You are coming up in the world, my friend!" I joked, patting him on the back.

"We're going into junior year. It wouldn't hurt your reps as stoners and losers if you hung out with me in public more. You'd definitely get invited to more stuff. Adrian, I know you have a lovely lady, but Mal, you don't. What's your pleasure? Shakira in her parents' whirlpool?"

Mal smiled a shy, yet, sinister smile. "I wouldn't be opposed to that."

"I can make it happen," Fergie bragged. "Let's go make a call.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

I poured myself through the front door of my mother's house around 1:30a.m. Still coming off my high, I tried my best to creep through the living room without disturbing her. I slinked slowly through the carefully placed furniture to make my way to my bedroom. Trying to tip-toe up the stairs, my boots creaked on the wooden planks. I silently cussed myself for wearing Timberlands instead of tennis shoes, which probably would've made less noise. I stooped to untie and remove my boots when I heard my mother speaking to me.

"Adrian?" My mother's voice echoed in my ears as she turned on the light above the stairs. I looked at her, and momentarily thought I was dreaming. The light glowed around her, like an aura. Her five-foot-six-inch thin physique with an espresso bean complexion stood in the doorway with thick, black strands of hair covering her shoulders. I tried to speak, but no words came out.

"Don't bother trying to say anything. I don't want to hear it," she ordered, her tone firm and deliberate.

"Mom, I was just having fun with some friends—"

"Right, just like you were just 'having some fun' with Mariah, and now I have a grandbaby?"

"But, Mom—"

"Please, spare me. Look, little boy, I have a good mind to pack you up and send you to your father's house. I don't know what it is that's going on here, but I am out of ideas. I have done everything I could for you. I work my butt off for you, sacrifice, and make sure you have everything you need. You do not seem to care."

I sighed heavily, annoyed that she was harshing my buzz, especially this late.

"It's just some weed, Mom. I'm not using any hard drugs, and I'm not driving around or anything."

"I don't care. You're still bringing it in my house. You're high now, and that's not ok! Why shouldn't I send you away?"

I stood at the bottom of the staircase, quiet. There was nothing I could say. She was so furious.

"Mom, I'm sorry. I will try to do better."

"There's no more 'try', Adrian. You have to do better, or else you are going to finish high school in Florida. I am not playing with you."

Right then, she began to walk down the stairs towards me. I suddenly became defensive and nervous at the same time. I began to move out of her way, but she stopped just shy of me. Standing on the stair right ahead of the stair I stood on, my mother and I were eye level. I looked in her dark brown eyes, smoldering with fury and anger. She looked in mine, scared and unsure.

"You will do better, or you will leave my house," she said in a low register that was more nerve-wrecking than if she'd screamed. "Tell me your plans right now."

"Mom, I need a chance to think—"

"Now, Adrian! What are you going to do to keep me from putting you out the house?"

My brain raced. Still buzzed, I tried to focus as much as I could on the conversation my mother and I were having. I couldn't. I could barely stand as the weed and beer combination always made me sleepy. I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"Football tryouts are tomorrow. I can try out for that."

She looked at me skeptically. I didn't blame her. I wasn't even confident in what I'd said, but knew I had to say something. Maybe I could convince us both that this was something I could do, and actually do well.

"I spoke with Mr. Nelson today. He said for the next seven days I could come out. Malkum and I are both going to go. We figure we might as well try something new."

She nodded slowly. I think it was starting to work. I was starting to get her off my case.

"Ok, go try out for football. Do you think you're going to make the team, as out of shape as you are with all the beer and weed?" she asked quietly, yet still eye-to-eye with me.

"I guess we will find out."

*

I lay in my bed as the summer sun rose early Friday morning. I had to figure out a plan to prove to my mother that I was a son worthy of keeping around. Should I actually get my ass in gear and try out for the team? I hadn't ran since June, when it was a gym requirement. I could toss the pigskin around, but not when getting the life knocked out of me in a tackle. I'd also never played a team sport in my life, because I've never gotten along with anyone, ever.

I sighed deeply as I got up, reminding myself that my father's house was way worse, way smaller, way dirtier, and nowhere near my friends or girlfriend.

Come on, Adrian. You can do this. You have to do this. Maybe a few days of training will help.

Oh, the spirit is so willing. But damn, the flesh is weak. Right as I was getting ready to pretend to get in shape, Mal texted me about a party at Shakira's house today. I couldn't say "no". What kind of wingman would that make me? So, I decided to take one for the team instead, and continued to sleep in my bed until around noon. Tryouts didn't start until around three, so noon is a good time to get in gear.

When I finally woke up, there were an abundance of text messages awaiting on my phone. Several from my mother asking me if I was up and moving yet, and after some hours past, a few more from her yelling at me through the phone to get my ass up and get a move on or else.

Then there were several texts from Mariah, asking me when I was going to come over and help finish painting. She, too, was threatening me to get it together, "or else". I was sick of the women in my life being so pushy.

This is why dudes leave their homes—they get tired of nagging women.

I partook in my usual wake-up routine, trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I could imagine how much more exhausting my mother and girlfriend would become before both wanted nothing more to do with me. In a moment of weakness, I realized that, yes, I do need them both. Not only do I need them, but without them, I really have no one who really cares for me, period. Malkum was my only true friend, and I knew his friendship was heavily based on his sister's feelings for me, understandably so. They were twins, after all.

Finally, around 1 p.m., my mother called. I took a deep breath before answering, nervous about what she was going to yell about this time.

"Yes, Mom?" I asked coyly.

"Adrian, I need you to do me a favor. I am having a superintendents' meeting at the house this evening. Please clean up and take the steaks out of the freezer and put them in the fridge before I get home, ok?"

"Ok, I can do that," I said, while internally I was highly annoyed that she was asking me to do stuff. I was supposed to be going to play football, remember?

Yeah, but you're not right now. So do what your mom asks you to do so you cannot get kicked out the house and stop your bitching.

After ending the call, I made it my business to be suddenly diligent. I completed the chores that my mother requested, took a quick shower, and threw on some clothes before heading to Malkum's house. I hoped maybe a good luck kiss from Mariah might make the whole football thing less cumbersome.

*

"Hey, is Mariah home?" I asked as Mal opened the door, looking her for nervously.

"Hey, no. I thought you had chores to do at home," Mal asked as I made my way inside around 1:45.

"Yeah, I did them," I said crassly. "I already have one mother on my case, thanks a lot."

"Hey, I am just trying to keep you from getting into any more trouble than you're already in. I mean, you steadily have people on your case right now."

I rubbed my temples in exasperation.

"Trust me, I am aware," I sighed. "I was actually going to go to that party at Shakira's house tonight, but I know I probably should stick to my word and to what I told my mom I would do."

"Which is?" Malkum asked inquisitively. "What are you going to do?"

I sat on the arm of his parents' couch in their living room—something that was ordinarily outlawed. I knew if his mother saw me, she'd be too quick to grab me by the ear and pull me off the sofa all together.

"Well, my mom and I got into it last night because I came home so late. She gave me hell about figuring out a plan for myself and the baby, and then Mariah called and gave me hell about coming over here and finishing what I started. So, I told my mom I was going to..." my voice trailed off.

"Going to...?" Mal asked, getting impatient.

I sighed again. "I told her I'm going to try out for the football team."

Taken aback, Mal's eyes widened. He gawked at me as if he couldn't fathom my thought process.

"Look, man, I'm only going to do it to get my mom off my case. I'll get cut, and I can argue that at least I tried."

He continually stared, still stunned at my proclamation.

"She's got to leave me alone after I get cut, right? I mean, I can't help not being an athlete."

Finally out of his daze, Mal shook his head.

"Ok, Adrian. Whatever you have to tell yourself," he muttered, walking into the kitchen.

"Hey, what's that supposed to mean? I mean, it's not untrue."

He chuckled. "Adrian, if you get cut, your mom is going to be looking at you to come up with Plan B. If you make the team, you actually have to...be on the team," he said matter-of-factly.

"I know," I whined. "But I don't know what else to do."

"Get a job," he declared, pulling a can of Sprite from the fridge. "At least then you will have some money."

"No, thanks. Remember what happened last time? I'm not interested in getting robbed again, thank you. Besides, Mariah's going to start going on about all the stuff the baby needs. I will still be broke," I complained, taking a can, also. "This sucks."

He shrugged. "It's a sucky situation, bro. You got yourself into a real bind this time."

I nodded numbly. We sat at his family's kitchen table, completely silent. My mind wandered at the thought of myself trying out for football, being tackled and knocked around like a tee ball post. Then it wandered to working at a fast food restaurant, flipping frozen burgers for a crappy pay, just to fork over my crappy pay to someone else. And worst of all, not having anything to do with my time. I'd undoubtedly stick to smoking and hanging out with Mariah, having high sex, and possibly getting her pregnant again. Couldn't risk that. I felt like I was in a no-end situation.

"Mal, will you try out with me?" I asked sincerely. I felt it was the only thing that might get me through what was bound to be a painful experience since I was not an athlete at all. I'd never played a sport, ran a mile, or even done a jumping jack outside of gym class.

"Yeah, I guess I could do that. Who knows, it might be kind of fun to mess around with the jocks for a bit," Mal joked.

"I hope so. I don't want to end up paralyzed or anything," I said.

"You're over exaggerating. It will be fine."

We finished our sodas, another awkward silence between us.

"Let's go now," I finally blurted. "No time like the present."

*

"We look like creepers lurking back here," Malkum whispered to me as we hid behind a tree near the football field, watching the returning team members warm up for tryouts.

"Yeah, well, they aren't really the crowd we run with. They'd be looking at us weirdly. Two more bodies they had to walk around in the hallway, two more people in class they might have to interact with, two more people to interrupt their daily flow of life."

Mal looked over at me inquisitively. "What is your deal? Why do you give these idiots so much credit? Anyone can catch a ball and run with it."

"I guess we'll find out," Mal and I heard from behind us as we both stumbled to the ground after a particularly hard shove. "Get your punk asses out there since anyone can do it."

Looking up from the ground, I saw our senior quarterback, Jake Lane, hovering over us. His six-foot-two-inch stocky build was intimidating for his age. Malkum and I were both tall, but rather lanky. Jake was all muscle with a buzz cut, and sported a strong physical resemblance to Guile from "Street Fighter". His voice was deep and throaty, like he always had something lodged in his trachea.

"Well, we just wanted to check it out first," I suggested, climbing to my feet. "I got to see what you guys are about before I embarrass you all."

"Big talk for such a little shit," he insulted.

"Well, rumor has it we're not the only little ones," Mal threw back, clearly striking a nerve as Jake turned red.

"Suit up, bitches. I can't wait to destroy you punks on the field."

 

CHAPTER 3

 

I can't believe I'm doing this. I can't believe we're doing this. How the hell did I we get here? We're about to get destroyed.

Mal and I sat in the locker room waiting for Mr. Nelson to give us some try out jerseys. He stood over us, shaking his head.

"I never thought I would see the day," he admitted, handing us each a jersey and a cup. "You can find some clean shorts by the showers, and there are some spare cleats on the field."

He sighed deeply, still eyeing us both before turning to walk away. He hesitated.

"Look, I don't know what you guys are really trying out for, and honestly I don't care. But I don't want you scabs wasting time on my field. Do what you have to do to 'convince' whatever girl that you tried out so I can cut you and move on with the season. Got it?"

"But, Sir, we have nothing but the purest of intentions," Mal joked sarcastically.

Nelson eyed him strongly as Malkum gave him a phony smile.

"Don't bullshit me, Warner," he warned.

After emerging from the locker room, I stepped onto the field, shaken. Mal and I looked at each other as we stood at the end of a long line of male students, all hopefuls to prove a point to either their parents, their friends, the school, or themselves. I looked at the assortment of participants—

athletic builds, a variety of colored cleats, and professional athletic jersey knock-offs adorned them all. I felt like a fraud.

"Ok, listen up!" Mr. Nelson yelled, gathering the current team and the wannabes. "Welcome to the first day of tryouts. If you're here, you're trying to get a leg up on whatever competition might be here at the end of the week, so good job. I'm going to break you all up into three groups. The first group will be with me, the second group will be with Coach Schiller, and the last group will be with Jake."

Coach Demetri Schiller, also known as "Schiller the Killer" was our sports coach. He was only 5'9" and a runt of a man, with bifocals that sat on his nose and nothing but a headful of grey hair. But he was so hard on his players that some had actually broken down in tears on the field. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy, with a stern look always on his face and his brows always arched vertically. I'd been to a few games during homecoming, and watched him chew out players that were twice his size.

Damn, there's nowhere to hide today. I guess I might as well do this and get it over with.

I silently prayed that I might get Nelson, who seemed to despise me and my lack of athletic ability significantly less than anyone else. He swore I just didn't try hard enough, and all the weed I pretended not to smoke had destroyed the hand-eye coordination part of my brain.

We were broken up by name, so there was some comfort in knowing that Malkum would be with me. And of course to our luck, we get Jake. Jake smirked sinisterly, eager to beat up on us because he could. I glared at him as I thought of him using me as a tackle dummy for his own amusement, which made me want to drop kick him in the chest.

"Let's go, ladies!" he yelled as we took our practice helmets and hustled down to the twenty-yard line where we huddled up to listen for instruction.

"So, Coach Schiller put me in charge of you pansies for the day," he said, that damn smirk still on his face. "You know what that means?"

"That you're going to spend a mundane amount of time talking so you can listen to yourself?" Mal responded. I chuckled to myself.

"You think you're funny, dread head? Well, you and your girlfriend just earned yourself an extra set of suicides once I'm done."

Mal shook his head, and I sighed, annoyed. Clearly he planned on throwing his imaginary weight around the whole time.

*

The day passed—barely. As I watched the sun begin to set, I felt every muscle in my body beg for mercy. I cringed as I walked back to the locker room to change. I thought about quitting, right then and there. We hadn't even started the actual tryouts yet, and were still working on conditioning. I ran, sprinted, suicided, bear crawled, mountain climbed, planked, squat thrusted, and done every other damn fitness trend under the sun. My body burned from all the activity. I'd never moved so much in one day on purpose. I felt sick and exhausted. This was worse than my mom yelling at me. Holy hell, how was I supposed to pull this off for four months, despite not even having played the game yet?

Shit!

I gingerly made my way to the locker room—finally—to see Mal waiting for me, already changed.

Damn track star.

Mal ran in the spring, so he was used to all the movement. Myself, on the other hand—

"Do you need help? You're carrying a strong resemblance to my grandfather right now," Mal teased.

"Shut up. Take the helmet so I can get out of these clothes," I said quietly, so sore that even my throat hurt.

I struggled to lift my arms to take the jersey off, trying my best to wriggle out of it without using more effort than necessary. Out of the jersey, I managed to kick off my cleats with more ease.

"Yo, screw this, Mal," I grunted, sweaty and achy. "I'm not going to be able to do this, and I refuse to die trying."

"Come on, man. You were great today. You're just kind of—out of shape. It's ok, we can get you back in shape. Stick with it."

Mal went to pat me on the back, causing more pain than consolation. Cringing again, wondering what tomorrow would be like if I was in this much pain today.

"Clean it up and get moving," Mr. Nelson said as he came in, fitness equipment in tow. As he threw the equipment into his office, he stopped and turned to us.

"Hey, good job out there by the way. I watched you both, especially you, Rodriguez. Good job toughing it out despite the pain."

"You hear that, Adrian? 'Good job, despite the pain'."

It's official, I've been guilted into not quitting.

I glared up at Malkum, then thanked Mr. Nelson for his words.

"I'm serious. You got a lot of hustle in you. I can't wait to see what you do with the ball tomorrow," he pronounced.

I nodded in appreciation, my neck stiffening with each motion. I sighed heavily.

"Do you want to call your mom to pick us up?" Mal asked, noticing my pain. "I feel like you aren't going to be able to walk home."

I shook my head, too stubborn for her to know I was in such pain.

"I'll manage."

The venture home was more brutal than anticipated, so we made it to Malkum's house before I collapsed completely. The house was dark, quiet. We went inside, and fortunately for me, because I was there so often, Malkum had a nice supply of my clothes available. Once Malkum made his way into the bathroom to shower, I limped to Mariah's room, curious to see what the crib looked like in her room. I looked at her door, remembering to the last time I'd been snuck behind it after her parents were asleep. The door was covered in posters of her favorite pop artists, with photo booth pictures of the two of us at Inner Harbor adorning the corners. I looked at one new photo that stood out—a picture of our child, our baby boy. I picked the picture up from the corkboard, analyzing it. He looked so young and fresh in the photo. She'd dressed him in a lime green onesie. His curly hair and rosy cheeks screamed out at me. He was only two days old, but I missed him. I thought for a minute, and realized I really hadn't seen him since he was born.

"Hey, Mal! Where's Mariah and the baby?" I yelled to his door, which was adjacent to Mariah's.

"I think my parents took her and AJ to see our grandparents! They should be back in a week or so!" he yelled back. I nodded to myself, thinking about my mom and how she hadn't seen him yet, either. I exhaled deeply, thinking of a way to bridge the gap between my mother and myself so her grandson could be in her life. I hated the idea of her not seeing him since everyone on his mother's side was. I put the photo back in its appropriate corner, then made my way inside of Mariah's room. I hesitated to touch anything—I didn't want her thinking I was snooping through her stuff. Her bed looked how I remembered it; lilac colored sheets dressing a full bed with a gold headboard. Her desk still kept her laptop and school books with another picture of us in the corner near one of her phone chargers. I laughed to myself of the times we'd facetimed each other and she'd show me that picture as proof that I was the last thing she saw before bed.

Finally, my eyes made their way to the crib, which she'd placed at the foot of her bed. She'd hung a Buzz Lightyear mobile overhead, and added some dinosaur pillows. I envisioned him waving his tiny arms at the mobile, cuddled up next to a pillow.

Completely lost in my thoughts, Malkum knocked on the door.

"Are you alright? You seem out of it," he asked, emerging into the room.

I shook myself out of my trance. "Yeah, just thinking about the baby. I haven't seen him since we left the hospital," I admitted, embarrassed to say it out loud.

"Well, that's because you haven't been by. Don't worry, he will be back. Hurry and take a shower; Shakira's party starts at ten."

I shook my head vigorously. I'd forgotten about the party, and wasn't sure I was even in any mood to party. What was I going to do there? Sit in a corner and sulk over my child and girlfriend that I suddenly longed for?

"Ugh, Mal, I don't want to go to any party," I whined. "It's going to be all jocks anyway."

"Yeah, the same jocks that we've proven we can hang with on the football field. It's the perfect buffer for the rest of the week. Come on, it will be at least worth a laugh once the girls get drunk and start taking their clothes off."

*

Malkum and I met up with Fergie outside of Shakira's house at 10:30. We all looked at each other, somewhat scared but afraid to admit it. I'd never been to party at a cheerleader's house, and was kind of nervous about what to expect.

"We have to knock eventually guys. We look like losers sitting out here like this. Adrian, go knock on the door," Malkum ordered.

"Uh uh!" I protested. "Why me? Fergie's the one with the connections, he should do it."

We both turned and looked at Fergie, his red hair pulled back in a ponytail, slung over his white tank top.

We stared each other down until he finally caved, shook his head, and approached the door.

Breathing deeply, he knocked on the door confidently.

It opened quickly, Shakira's five-foot-seven-inch, caramel complexion, buxom, long dirty-blonde haired body greeted us in a bustier and leather skirt.

"Hey, Theo! Uh, Malkum and Adrian, what are you doing here?" she asked, shocked but excited. Malkum and I exchanged unsure glances, reaffirming my belief that our worlds didn't mingle. "I mean, I'm glad you're here, but just surprised to see you. I didn't expect you guys to be the types to take a walk on the wild side and show up to a party," she continued sarcastically.

"Well, Fergie convinced us to come by," Mal said. "Can we come in?"

"Sure, come on in. My parents' room and the den are occupied, but you are more than welcome to take a spot on the couch, in the basement, or in my room."

Mal, Fergie and myself exchanged glances before heading in. Once inside, we stood in the middle of the living room floor sizing up the situation. I saw what I expected to see—

jocks and cheerleaders gyrating on each other with beer bottles in hand. A few girls were spilling all over themselves, creating an impromptu wet t-shirt contest. Music blared throughout the house, making it hard to even hear myself question myself as to why I was even there.

My ass needs to be in bed. I can hardly walk. What the hell do I plan on doing here—stand around until my knees give out?

"How do you want to play this?" Mal asked, yelling over the music.

I eyed Shakira talking to some random girl in the corner. As I eyed her, she eyed me. Her glare intrigued me, but not sexually. I couldn't help but wonder what her angle was. In all the years we'd known her, I suddenly realized that we didn't know any hard facts about her. Did she have a pet? Siblings? Cousins? All I knew was she was an overtly sexual cheerleader with wealthy parents. Those things weren't really grounds for a friendship.

"I'm pretty sure Shakira is looking at you," I responded, trying to play off the stare. "I'll play wingman. Fergie, you cool with that?"

He'd already taken off.

I had every intention on playing wingman for Malkum, until Latisha Lovejoy, one of the cheer demons, sniffed me out like a bloodhound. I never had a chance.

"Adrian, come heeeeeeeeeeere!" she yelled, pulling me toward her with a beer in one hand and the infamous red solo cup in the other hand. "Have a drink!" she insisted, thrusting the beer in my chest. "It will relax you!"

Latisha was one of those girls I never understood. She was a cheerleader, but claimed she despised them, yet was always seen with them. She didn't even fit the look of her "frien-emies"—she donned an asymmetrical haircut which she kept dyed jet black, alabaster skin, and bold, red lipstick always covered her lips. She was thin, practically boney, and only about five-foot-four-inches.

I held the beer, and took short sips. While I had done my share of partying in the past, I hated domestic beer with a passion. I humored her just enough, and sat the beer down on a table when she wasn't looking.

"Hey, come dance with me!" she said, pulling me close as trap music blared through the walls. She wrapped my arms around her waist as she grinded up against me, making it impossible to ignore her advances. She bent over slowly, practically exposing all of herself to me and anyone behind me.

Ok, walk away now.

I backed away and informed her that I was going to get back to Malkum and help him run his game.

"He doesn't need your help! He's got Shakira on his lap, so I'm pretty sure he's fine!"

I turned around to find her laid up on him like he was a recliner. Damn.

"So you might as well stop trying to get away from me," she whispered in my ear as she pulled me eye-level. "You know you came for a reason."

Giving me a seductive look, she put her red cup to my mouth and told me to drink up. I finished the drink and looked at her momentarily, taking a deep breath. If I was going to pretend I wasn't in a world of physical pain and frustrated by being there, I needed every ounce of liquor to renegade my bloodstream as quickly as possible.

*

I stormed out of the bedroom after fending off this girl and went back into the living room, searching the hazy area for my friends. I couldn't see through the layer of marijuana smoke that filled the air. It burned my eyes, leaving my vision even more persistently blurred than before.

Finally, I spotted Malkum on a couch in the den with Shakira propped up on his lap, playing with his hair. She claimed the room was occupied before.

Clearly a spot opened up.

"Yo, let's go!" I yelled, shouting over the blaring music in the background. "I need to get home!"

"Dude, I'm busy right now!" he yelled back, trying not to take too much attention off Shakira. "Why don't you just walk home?"

I shook my head. I had no idea where Fergie had gone off to, and did want to leave alone as it was late, and people who weren't fair skinned often stood out in neighborhoods like this, and people like us often found ourselves on the business end of someone's high caliber weaponry. I hurriedly searched for Fergie as I left the den, but didn't see him anywhere. I sensed he was in someone's bedroom, someone's bathtub, or in someone's closet lighting a dutch and sucking on a neck bone. I shook my head at the thought of it all, and instantaneously thought of my mother. I'll be damned, she was right. I had no business being here. I should've been home figuring out my plans or visiting with Mariah. I had no business in Shakira's house, dodging a game of 'slap and tickle' with some girl I cared less about, and catching a contact high. I had my friends for that, and they already had their hands full—literally and figuratively.

I sighed as I made my way towards the door, head spinning from the contact I was catching. I felt slightly dizzy, eager to escape outside to get a breath of fresh air. I made my way outside, desperately filling my lungs with cleaner oxygen. I'd smoked my fair share of weed, but that much contact was overwhelming. It took to getting outside before I could smell it in my clothes, and I knew I had to ditch my gear before I got home or I would hear an earful.

Shit.

I scanned up and down the street, looking for I wasn't even sure what. Finally, before deciding what to do once I made my way to the highway, I knew I couldn't just go home. I didn't want to just go home this late—it was now approaching midnight—smelling like weed on the metro. I thought of grabbing some extra clothes from Malkum's house, but I also didn't want to risk a bunch of questions from the neighbors if I went over to the Warner house this late, even if I did let them know that yes, I had a key, and no, I wasn't stealing anything.

Nosy-ass neighbors.

Even more reason I needed him, so he could take me to his house so I could shower. I pinched the bridge of my nose before ultimately deciding to go back inside and wait out my fate as I needed Malkum's help. I ran back down the street, sprinted up the stairs and banged on the door. Only God knew who would hear me over the music and sound of their own loud-ass giggles and moans.

"Malkum!" I yelled, trying to override the sound of the music blaring. I tried the door, and naturally, it was locked. I tried to see if maybe I could call him. I pulled my phone out to see a text from my mom.

Where the hell are you?!

Fuck!

I shook my head again. I thought hard before coming up with the only safe lie I could muster:

Mom, relax. I'm at Mal's house for the night. That's all.

I hated lying, after swearing last night that I wouldn't do so anymore. I was kind of pushed against the wall, and took the time to see if she responded before calling Malkum. I didn't know if she knew that the Warners were out of town, but she didn't seem too invested in the baby, anyway. I think my mom was having a hard time coming to terms with that aspect of life, and couldn't involve herself in her grandchild until she'd acknowledge and accept that I did indeed father a child.

I breathed deeply, and called Malkum.

Please answer, please answer, please answer.

The idea of being caught out here in the middle of the night in this situation scared the mess out of me. All I needed was a cop to be on foot patrol, get a whiff of me, and I was screwed.

He finally answered on what felt like the millionth ring, and sounded inebriated.

"Yo, what's up?" he asked, his speech slightly slurred. "What's going on?"

"Come let me back in the house; I can't go home right now."

"Why?"

"I smell like weed, jackass. I have to spend the night at your house so I can shower and get clean clothes. I think I still have some clothes there."

"Can I just give you the key? I really don't feel like leaving right now," he moaned.

I thought to myself that he must be making some serious headway with Shakira. Maybe managed to unbuckle her bra or get his hand under her skirt. Must've been something major to leave me hanging like this.

Frustrated, I ended the call without saying anything. I looked around as I stood outside of the door. The block was dark; it was quiet. No cars had come or go. It was a bit eerie, which made me even more nervous than I was a moment ago. Why hasn't anyone come or gone? Maybe it was just paranoia, but it felt like I was inside of a horror film, waiting for the killer to creep up from out the shadows. A bit nerve wrecked, I figured I'd cut my losses and just make my way home.

I ran back down towards the highway and looked at my phone to check the time. It was now after midnight, and I knew I would get hell for coming home so late. I mentally prepared myself for the tirade I would receive once I get home as I made my way to the nearest metro. The darkness had made the tunnel cold, making me vie for my leather jacket. It was my prized possession—it truly spoke to my inner torment. It was slightly ripped from the numerous fights I'd been in while wearing it, but still did its job of keeping me a recluse, a complete enigma to those who didn't know me and weren't trying to know me. As I sat on a bench on the platform waiting for the next train, my polo shirt and shorts just weren't enough. I scanned the platform looking for only God-knows-what. I looked down onto the track. Nothing more than the usual rats that frequented the metro. I eyed the civilians around me—

hungry, poor, dirty. I was surprised to see such a group in such an area. Shakira lived in one of the more affluent parts of the area.

Well, it's not like they are living in the houses. They're living in the metro.

An elderly gentleman made eye contact with me. His skin replicated leather, truly a result of harsh winter winds and scalding summer sun. His attire was a hodgepodge of whatever he could find, and clearly everything he'd found was being carried on his back. He lay on a dirty sleeping bag, a few black garbage bags in hand. I panicked, turning my head quickly to pretend I wasn't staring. His gaze freaked me out, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable.

"What?" he yelled at me. "What...do you....want!?"

I slid down to the other end of the bench, confused about the out lash.

Maybe he's a war vet. A lot of them have mental problems.

Yes, that had to be it. I continually awaited the sub, looking at the time again. Going on one o'clock. Shit.

Looking down the track again, I desperately hoped for any glimpse of light that indicated a metro car was coming down any minute. Still nothing. I thought about how far I lived, and how long a walk it would be if I just said 'screw it'. I turned to make my way back to the bench. Suddenly, the old man was in my face. I gasped, panic-stricken.

"Don't stare. It's rude!" He yelled, this time yelling in my face. Now standing, he was significantly bigger than he initially appeared.

He grabbed my shirt, forcing me to balance myself between him and the platform.

Shit!

I pulled myself away as hard as I could, desperate to not lunge back into the track. Knowing my luck, a train would come at that minute, and that would be the end of Adrian Rodriguez.

His grip was stronger than expected, and I struggled to unleash his grasp. Finally, I yelled, "Get the fuck off me!" I never wanted to resort to violence or disrespect anyone, but this instance was getting out of hand. I pushed the old man as hard as I could, and sprinted up the metro stairs. Hopping the stairs two at a time, I made my way back up to the street and ran as far as I could for as long as I could. My heart pounded continuously, unsure about the encounter that had occurred. I was scared. No, I was petrified. Maybe that guy was a war vet, maybe not. Either way, it was clear to me he had some mental issues, and just me looking at him had triggered something potentially dangerous.

This is why I stay my ass in the hood.

 

CHAPTER  4

"Adrian, wake up!" my mother yelled Saturday morning. "You're going to be late for try outs!"

I stretched and moaned. I'd forgotten that was my new thing, and was already vying for my days of sleeping in before a "wake and bake". I rolled over to look at the clock. 8:45. I was expected to be at the field by ten. Damn. I felt like I'd just gotten home. The night felt surreal, like a bad dream. I remembered bits and pieces, like going to Shakira's house with Mal and Fergie. Everything else was fuzzy. Maybe I'd dreamt my weird ass encounter in the metro, and that old man was a squirrel that had gotten too frisky. Maybe it was a girl, and I approached her and she spazzed on me out of fear. Who knows? That had to have been a hallucination of the contact high I'd gotten leaving Shakira's house.

Yeah, let's go with that. It was all a hallucination.

I grabbed my phone. I had two texts from Malkum, asking me if I made it home ok.

Really? Now you want to be worried about me?

I shook my head, annoyed at the idea that he was concerned all after the fact. I responded:

OMW to the field. Try outs pt.2.

Finally rolling out of bed, I tried to rejoin functioning society. Grabbing some food and throwing on some shorts and a tank, I made my way to the school for day two of physical and mental torture.

"Make sure you bring your butt home today," my mother instructed as I made my way to the door. "I know Mariah and the baby are away, so there's no need for you and Malkum to be in that house plotting and planning some nonsense."

I nodded in compliance, then left the house. The journey to the field was a rough one; I still felt so unsettled from the night before. A bout of nausea overcame me, leaving me unsure about running around the field today. The sun seemed stronger, the humidity higher. Cloudiness and angst overwhelmed me, a feeling of daze overtook me. I had to sit down.

At the nearest house, I took a seat on the porch. Laying my head against the railing, I hoped the residents weren't home. I knew I was just hanging out on someone's property, and no doubt the way I felt resembled how I looked, and it wasn't promising. I felt sweaty, feverish even. The streetlights and horns blaring made my eyes and ears hurt. I struggled to breathe, vomit rising in the back of my throat.

Ugh, what's wrong with me?

I threw myself into the sidewalk, hesitant to vomit on someone's property. Despite the sensation, nothing projected. I gagged slightly as I struggled to catch my breath.

Come on, Adrian. Get it together.

After a moment, I managed to get back on my feet. I attributed it to a late night, questionable food, drink, and weed, and being physically impounded the day prior. It was the only reasonable explanation for my acute ailment.

Once the sensation passed, I fled to the field, horrified to be late. I did not want to deal with any backlash from any of the coaches. I looked at my phone to check the time as I approached the school. 10:00 exactly.

"Hey," Malkum greeted me as I entered the locker room. "You didn't answer my text this morning."

I snorted. "Well, clearly I made it home alright and even made it back here, no thanks to you."

Taken aback, his eyes widened. "What's that all about? Because I didn't leave a party I was having a good time at so you wouldn't get in trouble?"

"Uh, yeah, that's exactly what it's about. I was in a bind and you didn't have my back," I said, lacing up my cleats. "But I guess a piece of ass was more important than having my back."

"Yo, don't be such a girl. You would've done the same thing. You were just mad your situation was going nowhere--despite the fact that you're supposed to be dating my sister--and wanted me to bail because you needed to bail. But it's not like you wouldn't have done the same. The bottom line is, we all got home unscathed, and life goes on."

"Maybe for you. I had a rough night getting back and a rough morning so far."

He looked me up and down for signs of physically injury, clearly assuming I'd been in a physical altercation.

"What's wrong?" he asked. "You don't look hurt."

I shook my head. "I'm fine, kind of. A weird thing happened last night. I thought maybe it was a hallucination; I got a contact buzz last night. But I got this weird lingering feeling all morning from it."

"What?"

"This old guy in the metro. He got in my face and grabbed me. It was weird. Never experienced anything like that."

"Like, tried to yoke you up? Like he wanted to fight you?" he asked, confused.

"I don't even know, I just know it was bizarre as hell. Still has me a little weirded out," I admitted, changing into a practice uniform.

I sighed heavily, still feeling sore and a bit off balance. I didn't feel as bad as the previous day, but wasn't sure if I had it in me for another five days of physically strenuous activity.

Here goes nothing.

*

Back in the huddle, I adverted my eyes to the sky as rain drops began falling, splattering the exposed parts of my face, arms and hands. We'd been working on offensive drills all day, and I'd already been slipping and sliding all over the field.

"What's wrong, Rodriguez? Scared of a little rain?" Jake asked, noticing my disposition as the drops became heavier.

"No, just trying to keep my energy up," I lied. I had no energy. I had no sense of time, and felt numb and sick. The rain began to fall steadily, now leaving me numb, sick and cold. I sucked in a cold breath, trying desperately to not let my discomfort show. Clearly, I wasn't doing a very good job. My despair was evident. Jake came at me, got all up in my face.

"Listen, whatever you're dealing with, you suck it up. When you're on my field, you better come correct. I don't care about your bullshit problems. Don't disrespect my field. You got that, cabrón?"

Maybe he was trying to awaken something in me, maybe he was just being his typical asshole self. His attitude enraged me, pushing me to push myself in every attempt to not grab Jake by the ankles and slam him into the ground. I desperately wanted to pile drive his skull into the goal post, whatever it took to shut him up. That's all I needed—another self-righteous motherfucker telling me what I will and won't do on their turf, like I didn't get enough of that in my regular life.

"Listen, maggots," Jake demanded as we prepared for the next drill. "Let's get some interception practices going. Rodriguez, you're receiving the ball. Warner, you're throwing, and I'm intercepting."

I eyed Jake, apprehensive about his plans as interceptor. I didn't really trust him, and I only envisioned him using this opportunity to knock me to the ground so he could have yet another chance to beat up on me. He enjoyed seeing me struggle a bit too much yesterday during the day of conditioning. I knew he'd love to see me suffer today.

I made my way to the ten-yard line, awaiting Mal's throw from the thirty. Not a long distance, but long enough for Jake to showboat his ability to catch a ball. I waited patiently for the snap.

"Adrian!" Mal called from his position. Arms open, I focused my energy entirely on ensuring that Jake did not get his hands on that ball. I just wanted to watch him fall, feel the pain of disappointment, and remind him that it was no longer his field.

Malkum threw the perfect spiral. As much as I couldn't help but wonder where he learned to do that, I reminded myself of my objective. I went in for the catch, reaching out for the ball as if my very existence depended on it. I envisioned it as something precious, something I never wanted to see touch the ground or be in the wrong hands.

Jake ran in my direction, extending his pasty arms towards the ball. Jake was exactly an inch taller than me, but significantly larger than me. His frame was one of a bodybuilder, leaving him incapable of being particularly graceful. To my own amazement, I balanced on my toes to retrieve the ball from him, clutching it to my chest as I fell into the end zone.

Too bad this play doesn't even count.

Despite that, I felt fantastic. I'd caught a ball that was meant to be intercepted, because Jake was going to show us all how it was done. Bullshit.

I took off my helmet as I leaped to my feet, Jake on his knees after missing the ball.

"I thought this was your field, tough guy?" I taunted, standing over him as he stumbled to his feet.

"Ok, Rodriguez, good play. Don't get cocky," he snarled, still collecting himself.

Despite the rain, I felt warm inside. This must've been what pride was like. Mal and the other players gave me the approving head nod, confirming that I'd done well. I knew I wasn't the only person who didn't like Jake, but one of the few who actually had the balls to say it and show it.

"Bring it in!" Mr. Nelson yelled after blowing his whistle. The rain went from a drizzle to a storm, lightning and thunder now on the horizon. Walking gingerly yet again, I tried to hustle.

"Another great day in the books, gentlemen. We are obligated by law to not keep you on the field when there's a storm, so let's call it a day," Nelson announced, clearly disappointed that he had to consider our safety despite his personal schedule.

Heaven forbid they make sure we get home alive.

We retreated to the locker room, sweaty and wet uniforms flooding the floor. The smell was rancid--it was a combination of wet dog and sweaty teenage genitalia. I turned my nose up at the scent of my own body odor.

"Yo, you ready to go?" Mal asked, already changed before me again.

"Yeah, I am." I sighed heavily. "Today was rough," I confessed.

"Yeah, it looked like it was. You seemed to be struggling from what I could see, but that catch was phenomenal."

I smirked. "Thanks. He just really needed to be brought down a bit. Who better than a scab like me?"

Mal patted me on the back. It didn't hurt as much today. Maybe feeling good made everything a little less painful.

"Rodriguez?" Mr. Nelson addressed me as I was changing back into my clothes. I couldn't get with showering at the school. I rather just be gross on the metro. It's nasty down there, anyway.

"Uh, yes?" I asked, bringing myself to attention like a military recruit.

"Nice catch just now," he said. "You're getting there, and you're doing it quickly. That's what I like to see. And you embarrassed that little half-wit wide receiver of mine. That was fun for me."

I laughed. I had a whole new reason to be proud. At first, it was just about proving Jake wrong. Now, I'd embarrassed him, and that was just gravy.

"Go home, get some rest, and stay your butt out the street tonight. We are starting at nine o'clock tomorrow," he informed us.

Mal and I exchanged a glance. "Yes, Sir!" we shouted in unison.

*

The metro ride home was quiet. Mal and I were both officially tired, and neither of us felt like conversing. I leaned back in the seat of the car, eager for my stop. I just wanted a shower and lay in my bed as I waited for my body to heal. Upon arriving at our stop, Mal and I both sighed at the idea of walking up the stairs.

"Let's just take the elevator," I suggested. I didn't care too much about any passing judgment that we were too young, neither of us were in a wheelchair, or any other shade that might be thrown our way. I just wanted to get home.

As we sat at the elevator waiting for the car to come down, we heard a clap of thunder before the metro lost power.

Oh, great.

Mal and I looked at each other, hardly able to make out each other's facial expressions in the dark. We could hear the exasperated moans of other metro riders, and even a few babies crying.

"Damn, man, we should've walked," Mal whined.

"Yeah, let's see if we can navigate our way to the stairs."

In the dark, we stuck our arms out and felt around in front of us to ensure we didn't run into anyone. Using my cell phone as a flashlight, I held it up. It was a bit unsettling as I'd occasionally shine it in someone's face. I used it to scan our immediate perimeter, and actually shined it in a man's face.

His eyes widened, frightening me. They looked eerily familiar.

Holy shit!

I heard his voice in my head from the night before. It was the same man from the metro near Shakira's house.

A shrill, ear piercing, "Watch it!" escaped his mouth, terrifying both Malkum and myself. We both sprung forward, running into another bystander. So panicked, we rushed up the stairs into the street despite the heavy rains.

"Shit, Mal, that's the old guy I told you about. The one I ran into last night," I said, panting.

"He is creepy. What are the odds of running into him twice? He must live down there," he said.

I nodded in compliance. "Yo, let's just take a damn cab home. I can't do anymore today."

*

I plopped down on our heather gray couch after showering and eating. The comfort of home never felt so good. Flicking on the television, I mindlessly channel surfed. I scrolled through my phone, also, randomly searching for nothing. My body didn't hurt as much, but that old man's crazy eyes continually pierced through me. Something about him and the way he spoke made me feel like I was under attack. It didn't feel good.

I shook my head, trying to shake him with absolutely no luck. I thought of him as a potential stalker, someone who lurked beneath the surface in search of young victims. Maybe he was a scalper. Maybe he was a pedophile. Maybe he was just a creeper who lived in the metro. Either way, he was officially haunting me and that was unsettling.

So consumed in my thoughts, I jumped when the doorbell rang.

Somewhat limping to the door, I peeked out the peephole.

What the fuck?

Jake Lane stood on my doorstep.

I cracked it open slowly, beyond perplexed as to what he could possibly be doing at my house.

"Yeah?" I asked.

"Stop being so uptight and let me in," he demanded.

"You can understand why I'm hesitant, right?" I recanted, the door still only ajar.

"Oh, stop being a bitch," he insulted, pushing his way into my mother's home.

"What do you want?" I asked, the door still wide open in case I had to make a run for it or call for help. I didn't trust this guy at all.

"We need to talk," he said, his arms folded across his chest. He donned a red Under Armour dry-fit tank with grey Champion sweatpants.

God, this kid thinks he has an endorsement deal already.

"About?" I asked, an eyebrow arched.

"Today. We need to talk about today. You can close the door, by the way." He walked over to my mother's couch, taking a seat as if we were old friends and his company was requested. He sprawled out, both arms resting on the back of the couch as he extended his legs.

Taken aback, I closed the door, but still sat near it on the arm of the loveseat.

"Ok, what about today?"

He cleared his throat, leaned forward, and cracked his knuckles as he prepared to speak.

"Today needs to never happen again," he said, his head and voice both low. "I'm the star player, you're the scab. You need to never embarrass me like that again."

Is this dude serious right now?

I opted to test the waters.

"Or what?" I asked confidently. "What are you going to do if I do decide to embarrass you again?"

Jake's face turned cold, sinister even. "Do you really want to go down that path? Do you really want to know the answer to that?"

"You're damn right I do. You got the nerve to come into my mother's house and pull rank like you're someone when a damn scab like myself showed you out, what is your punk ass going to do?"

Any initial fear I felt about Jake being in the house now turned into animosity, and he was pissing me off royally. He stood as I stood, and walked up to me and got in my face. He was getting too comfortable doing that, and it was only a matter of time before I'd have to set him straight.

We stood toe-to-toe in my mother's living room, a sight reminiscent of Rocky and Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

"I will take your fuckin' life, you little prick. You think anyone will miss you?"

I clenched my jaw as my nostrils flared. It was bad enough he was disrespecting me at home. It was bad enough he was in my face. But he added insult to injury with such pungent breath. I wanted to spit in his face, punch him in the dick, and snap his neck all in one fowl swoop. Instantaneously, my son ran through my mind. I refused to let some jackass threaten me because he was intimidated, but I knew I had to keep AJ in mind with everything I did from here on out. As badly as I wanted to destroy him right then and there, I knew it wasn't worth all the repercussion that would follow. I literally bit my tongue so hard to a point where I tasted blood.

"Fine," I finally said after battling internally for what felt like eternity.

Jake headed for the door. Upon his exit, anger coursed through me like poison. As a child, my mother taught me multiple anger management tactics that I still utilized when I was upset. However, today, none of them were working. I had to get out.

CHAPTER 5

"Mal, this jackass actually came to my mom's house to threaten me," I vented, sitting at the kitchen table in the Warners' house. "Who does that without being psychotic?"

Mal chuckled. "You're surprised that Jake is a nutty ass mofo? Where have you been since middle school? Look, he's not going to actually do anything. He is just a lot of loud talk."

"Still, I don't like that it happened. I know I'm not always the most respectful person, but I've never done anything that bold."

Mal leaned back in his chair, clearly searching for some pearl drops of wisdom to bestow upon me. Evidently, he had nothing.

"Sorry, man. Just stay out of his way. Don't you plan on getting cut, anyway?"

I had thought about it, but now I was eager to prove that little shithead wrong. I wanted to see him try and step to me. I wanted him to get so pissed off, that he wanted to do me in. I wanted to see what that would look like, and to see if he was actually about anything. My curiosity was getting the best of me, and my common sense might've been fleeting. However, there was nothing about Jake Lane that was intimidating anymore. I'd proven myself to be able to run his own game against him, and now it was time to put up or shut up.

"Oh, no. I can't get cut now. I have an obligation to shut that punk down."

Mal nodded in compliance. "You know, it wouldn't hurt to maybe study some games. We should familiarize ourselves a little more with the different plays and positions."

"True. You guys have ESPN, right?"

Mal shook his head vigorously. "No, man. I mean we should study some games."

"Oh, shit, you mean from the school? How are we going to do that?"

"Well, we do have a contact who can get always get us anything we want. I bet you he could get some recordings from previous games. We could see how Jake plays, we can see how the opposition plays, and prepare ourselves to embarrass the shit out of him tomorrow. What do you think?"

"Fergie can get us game DVDs?"

"Fergie can get anything. He's like Caretaker in The Longest Yard, I swear."

I nodded. "Let's give him a call."

*

"Yo, I bet y'all never thought you would spend a Saturday night watching old football games, huh?" Fergie said as we sat around Malkum's television. It was after ten, and with Mal's family all still away at his grandparents' house and me trying desperately to stay out of trouble, it was the safest thing we could do.

"Yeah, it is a bit of a shock, especially since we are only drinking water. No beer, no weed, no girls. It's actually kind of depressing," Mal said.

"Well, I always keep something on me, I'm just saying. In case y'all get desperate," Fergie said, alluding to the marijuana that was always in his back pocket.

"Let's just watch the games. I got a score to settle...no pun intended."

Quickly captivated, we started with the first game from last season. Studying, watching, waiting, and taking notes, I eyed Jake's every move. His moves weren't graceful, but rather clumsy. By the third game, I was surprised and even confused as to how he was still on the team. It made me think that maybe he had something on one of the coaches or the principal, because he wasn't that great of a player. He was the wide receiver on offense, yet fumbled the ball fairly frequently. No wonder I was able to catch his interception so easily. I paused the DVD.

"Well? What do you guys think?" I asked, a little surprised at what I was watching.

"Dude sucks," Fergie blurted out. "You should definitely be able to get on the team and shut it all down if this is how he plays."

"Well, hold on, this is still early into last season. Maybe he's better by the end of the season," Malkum suggested.

"Ok, well let's go to the last game then," I said, switching the discs.

We watched the last game, looking for any indication that this was not our minds playing tricks on us, and that Jake had actually earned his keep. None of us were high or drunk. Maybe that's what had made him seem like such a great athlete in the past—we spent so many games inebriated that everyone seemed talented.

I peered at the screen looking for clues--something to piece all of this chaos together. How does someone like Mr. Nelson keep a shithead like Jake Lane on squad when he sucks so badly? Is Jake's dad a loan shark or something that Nelson owes money to? Is his dad a hitman that will take Schiller out? What the hell is the connection here?

"I'm lost," I said, throwing my hands up and tossing the remote aside.

"It could all be relative," Fergie suggested. "We don't know who's related to who these days."

I just shook my head in disbelief. After a couple of days of learning the game, I'd become more aware at what it takes. There's a lot of heart, dedication, and sacrifice involved, and I couldn't believe that someone who was looked at as an icon could be such a poor performer.

"Shit, he might go around threatening everyone that plays better than him. That's why he's been able to stay on the team so long," Malkum said. It struck a nerve. After what I witnessed today, I couldn't put it past him.

*

The next five days were a complete blur. My brain, nothing more than a mess of plays, tackles, scrimmages, whistles, suicides, dehydration and even a hint of sun poisoning. By Thursday night, I didn't care what Friday would hold. I was officially numb to all of it—from Schiller's yelling at me to move my biracial ass faster around the field, to Nelson face-masking me when I didn't execute a play to his liking. Yeah, there was definitely a level of abuse to it all, but I knew Mariah had been back, and seeing her and our son again was the finish line for me. I anticipated being cut from the team, and started preparing myself for finding a job for when the inevitable happened. I'd looked at some part-time gigs online and in the classifieds, doing my damndest to stay proactive.

Standing in the kitchen Thursday night, I breathed deeply as I finished washing the dishes. I'd taken some nasty hits throughout the week, and I had a bruise on my right pec that stung tremendously. Looking down into the sink, I could see the blackish-blue hue radiating through my undershirt. Cuts and scrapes adorned my arms, and tape wrapped my left index and middle fingers.

"My poor baby," my mom said, sitting behind me. "You worked so hard this week. I just want you to know that I'm proud of you for sticking it out. I know you're in a lot of pain, but I hope you are proud of yourself for seeing something through."

"I am, Mom. Thank you," I said quietly, too sore to talk. "I'm actually pretty tired. Do you mind if I finish these dishes tomorrow?"

She dismissed the idea. "Don't worry about it, baby. I will finish them once I finish my tea. I appreciate you trying to help. Why don't you just go up and go to bed?"

Relieved, I thanked my mom and gave her a kiss on the cheek. This was the most she and I had gotten along in a while, and it was feeling pretty nice not having her in my face constantly. I was getting enough of that on the field. I turned to the stairs, and made my way to the bedroom.

Just then, our house phone rang. It never really did unless someone was calling to solicit, so I was pretty surprised to see Mom answer the phone as I began making my way up the stairs. Mom stopped me mid-stairwell to inform me that "some girl" was on the phone.

I sighed deeply. "Hello?"

"Hey, cutie."

The cheerleading buxom beauty from English class, Shakira, sounded even flirtier on the phone than she did in person. "Are you busy?"

"Umm, not at this particular moment," I insisted, my eyes still averting my mother's eyes on me. "What's up?"

"Well, I am having a party on Saturday and I wanted to personally call and invite you. Please come. I want you there so badly."

"Uh huh, uh huh," I muttered into the phone. "So, what would this consist of?"

"Well, pizza, tacos, maybe some beers that some of the team brings. I plan on cutting the ribbon on Mom and Dad's Jacuzzi while they're...out of town."

"Ok, ok. Do you have a time frame?" I asked, struggling to keep my question ambiguous to the content of the conversation.

"Around 8 until whenever you guys leave. They are away all night. And if you come, I will finally get to show you just how glad I am you made the team," she trifled, her voice dropping an octave.

"Right. And what does that entail?"

"Well...me and you, my parents' hot tub, and me in a string bikini that's purposely a size too small."

I suddenly got a vision of Shakira's rack pouring out of this bikini top, leaving me with no room to put my hands anywhere but—there.

"I'll be there," I blurted out, completely side tracked by my impure visions.

"OK, I will see you tomorrow at school," she said sweetly yet maliciously, knowing she got me.

Damn that woman and her double D cups, and her long hair, and her big ass, and pouty lips...damn...her....

I hung up the receiver as the same set of eyes that were peering through me before were looking at me with perplexity now. My mother arched an eyebrow at me, indirectly questioning who I'd just spoken to. In every effort to not get into something with her, I just handed her the phone back and ran upstairs.

She called the house. Who calls the house in this day and age? Why didn't she just text me?

I couldn't help but wonder if she was stirring the kool-aid on purpose, intentionally hoping to create a rift between my mother and me so that she could revel in the drama. 

Walking through the hallway of my house, I felt uneasy. Floorboards had always creaked as it was an old house, but it all sounded louder than usual.

"Get a grip, Adrian", I told myself, walking to my bedroom. I wasn't sure why I was so uptight, but all week I'd felt like Jake had his eyes on me, watching my every move to ensure that I didn't one-up him in any way. He was eager to "take me out"...whatever the hell that meant. I called his bluff on several occasions, but he hadn't done anything. Shit, maybe that creepy old man I always saw in the metro was his spy. It wasn't impossible when working with someone who didn't play with a full set of cards.

I hesitantly placed my hand on the knob, nervous that something would jump out at me once I opened the door.

Stop watching so many damn scary movies. There's nothing there. You've got to relax.

I exhaled heavily as I turned the knob.

Nothing. Just my bed, laced in indigo sheets as it's always been, and my laptop monitor had turned to black. Nothing out of the ordinary. So why was I so jumpy?

Your mind is playing tricks on you. Just lay down.

I lay there, trying to get comfortable, but struggling immensely.

I turned to my closet to fish for the body pillow my mom recently bought me. She swore it would help with my achiness.

I pulled my closet door back.

"Surprise!" Mariah said, scaring the color out of me. My body froze in complete shock.

"Babe, relax," she said as she emerged, stroking my arm. "I just thought I would surprise you."

I practically collapsed on the bed. "By scaring me shitless? How did you get up here, anyway?" I asked, looking around outside, panicked and worried that my mom saw her come in.

"Don't worry about that. Just know that I'm here," she said, pulling me close to her. "I wanted to see you."

"Well, you're supposed to see me tomorrow after you get back from your grandparents' house. How did you manage to get here?" I asked, somewhat confused.

"I'm good like that. I wanted to do something before our date. Something special," she whispered in my ear. Her breath felt warm and seductive, with a sweet aroma of peppermint that lured me in.

I turned my head to look into her soft hazel eyes. "Something special, like what?" I asked, my tone changing from worry to intrigue.

She pulled me even closer, and kissed me deep and hard. I felt her tongue caress mine—something I'd forgotten completely after the week I'd had. It felt good to feel something again, other than oversized high school students piling on my thin body. As she kissed me, her left hand moved from my waist to under my shirt. It made me nervous and excited at the same time. I was scared to get caught but didn't want her to stop.

Her lips moved to my neck as she edged us closer to my bed. Now, both hands were under my shirt as she caressed my chest.

Oh, God. What if my mom comes upstairs?

I tried to not think as much as I could. I had Mariah Warner, a gorgeous specimen of female variety and straight A student, in my bedroom trying to have sex with me. Why was I thinking at all? We'd been dating for two years, and I understood her desires as I shared them as well. We hadn't seen each other in a while, and hadn't shared an intimate moment since we learned of her pregnancy. I never thought it would unfold like this. I mean, she popped out of my closet before we were supposed to have a date to celebrate reuniting after so long.

Still, she'd made serious headway in her seduction tactics, and I was enjoying the feelings of her tongue and lips over certain parts of my anatomy too much to ask her to stop. Once she took a natural break, I was officially too distracted. My eyes had been closed as she indulged in me, and I opened them as I caught my breath to find her topless and in her panties.

Hot damn.

I felt flushed. Looking at her breasts left me heavy on hormones and very low on judgment. She pulled me up from the bed and kissed me again. She placed my hands on her chest, completely losing herself. I pulled my covers back and laid her down. Completely tranced, I watched her pull her panties down. This was about to happen. Looking at her relieved every ounce of stress I'd been feeling, until suddenly—

"Babe, where's AJ?" I asked, laying on top of her.

"He's home, where else would he be?" she asked, a bit exasperated. "Come on, Adrian. Focus."

She kissed the side of my face as we lay there, my mind still distracted.

"Well, you know I haven't seen him since he was born. I would like to go see him."

She looked up at me, taken aback. "Right now?"

"He's on my mind, babe," I rationalized. Frustrated, she jumped up from the bed, completely naked, and hustled over to the pink and white maxi dress she'd worn over, and pulled her phone out of the pocket. She hurriedly—and somewhat angrily—accessed the phone and shoved the screen in my face.

"There he is, Adrian. Right as rain," she proclaimed.

"Why are you getting so mad? I just wanted to see our child—"

"And you will see him tomorrow. Do you have any idea what I went through to get out my grandparents' house and sneak in here to be with you, and you're not even paying attention to me. I'm standing here topless and pantless and you're not even interested."

I sighed, exasperated. "Of course I'm interested, I'm just—"

"Do you want me?" she interrupted.

"Yes, but...I'm distracted," I answered, anxious and excited at the same time. There was nothing I wanted more than to touch her right now and reconnect in a way I hadn't in so long. Still, my mind was so preoccupied with else, that she couldn't keep my attention long enough.

"Help me break my distraction," I finally said after an uncomfortable pause.

With that, laid back down, took my hand and just put it where she wanted it. No compromises, no hesitations. She felt warm and soft, just how I remembered.

Ok, officially undistracted.

*

I glanced at Mariah through the stray hairs on her head as I laid on my stomach. She slept quietly and peacefully. I placed my hand on her abdomen as it rose and fell, slowly and steadily. She felt warm, cozy. I wrapped my arm around her hesitantly, scared to wake her. Needless to say, she'd managed to regain my attention. I can't say I minded; I needed to regroup after such a long week. Nuzzled up next to her, I began to drift away myself until I was startled by a door slamming shut.

Fuck! Mom!

I jumped up and scurried to the door to hear my mom coming up the stairs. Panicked, I ran to the window to see if there was anyone in front of the house. I'm not sure what I was checking for, but momentarily, I thought maybe Mariah drove over before realizing none of us had a license. I reached for a shirt to throw on and pulled up a pair of shorts. I made my way to my bedroom door to see my mother racing up the stairs. I walked out into the hallway to stop her.

"Hey, Mom. What's up?" I asked, trying not to show a sign of panic.

"Where is she?" she asked, her face dark with seriousness.

"Who?" I asked, trying not to let on that Mariah was in my bed, asleep, after we'd fondled each other. "Who are you looking for and what are we talking about?"

"You know damn well who! Why is she here? What did I tell you about keeping it in your pants?" she yelled, trying to push past me to get into my room.

"Mom, stop! We didn't do anything; we just fell asleep," I argued.

"Are you serious? You expect me to believe you when I have a week-old grandson?"

Suddenly taken aback, I was unable to answer. I had absolutely no leg to stand on, and I felt eerily uncomfortable that my mother jumped to that conclusion, despite it being true. But still, why should she be able to make such assumptions about me? Maybe all we did was lay down together and fall asleep. Why should my own mother think the worst of me?

"I'm very serious, and I don't appreciate you violating my privacy like this," I said solemnly.

"Oh, shut up. You have no privacy when you don't prove you deserve it. Sneaking this girl in my house while I'm downstairs doesn't deserve privacy. It's bullshit, Adrian!"

Just then, Mariah emerged from the bedroom, completely dressed and completely unsuspecting. She must've heard us arguing in the hall.

"Hey, Mrs. Rodriguez, how are you today?" she asked calmly and politely. "I'm so sorry for sneaking in here, but I was so worried when Adrian called me and said he wasn't feeling well, I just wanted to make sure he was feeling better. I guess time got away from us."

"He looks fine. Stop lying to me," my mother coldly demanded.

"Well, that's because he's had time to rest, Ma'am. I assure you that he wasn't doing too well when he texted me earlier complaining of the excruciating pain he was in physically from being on the field all week," she said, dedicated entirely to convincing my mother of this story.

Mom stared at her, and Mariah returned her hard gaze. She never faltered as she tried to stare her down and break her. That clearly only worked with me, because Mariah wasn't budging. She said her story and was sticking to it.

"Ok," Mom finally said, dropping it after Mariah refused to change her stance. "Thank you for...taking care of him," she said sarcastically. "Please, make your way home now."

She turned and walked back down the hall to make her way downstairs. Mariah turned to me and pushed me back into the bedroom.

"You're mom needs to relax," she whispered to me. "She's going to make it hard for us if she doesn't calm down."

I nodded in compliance. "She just doesn't understand how wonderful you are and that you love—," I paused in the middle of my sentence, hesitant to allude to such a thing.

"—you care for me deeply."

She placed her hands behind my head and tilted my head down, forcing eye contact.

"I love you, Adrian. I do. I will do anything for you, to be with you, to have you, and to keep you."

Overcome with emotion, I blurted out, "I love you, too."

She kissed me long and hard.

"Get dressed so you can walk me home, babe."

I nodded in compliance again, still surprised by our admittance of love. Maybe it was the overwhelming wave of emotion running through me. Maybe it was the intensity of emotion coursing through Mariah. Either way, I was overcome.

I dressed hurriedly in some jeans, a t-shirt, and boots to walk Mariah home. We stormed past my mother to get outside as quickly as possible without another awkward encounter. We scurried towards the street, hesitant to share a goodbye kiss with my mother in the living room only feet away from the door.

"You sure you want to walk home? It's getting a little cloudy and might rain," I said, looking up to the sky.

Mariah sighed, exasperated. "Adrian, I'm disappointed. Today did not go how I planned at all."

"Well, what do you suspect when you sneak into someone's house? I mean, you're lucky I didn't punch you in the face when you jumped out of my closet. Think shit through a little better next time."

She shook her head. "Whatever you say, just get me home."

"Look, stop being a pain and just be glad we got out of there without my mom tearing us both apart. She's still not happy about the baby."

"She needs to get happy about it. He's not going anywhere, so, she needs to just accept it already. She had my entire pregnancy to make peace with it."

In every attempt to change the subject, I decided to inform her on some of the other things that had been going over during the last week.

"Well, you know I might make the football team this year?"

Shocked, Mariah stopped dead in her tracks.

"Are you serious? You, a jock?" she asked, an optimistic smile creeping across her lips.

"Yeah, can you believe people will actually think we belong together now?"

She laughed, excited at the idea of her boyfriend, the football star.

"When do you find out?"

"Tomorrow, babe," I said as we walked up her front stoop. "Malkum and I will come right over as soon as we know."

She lit up, and it was nice to see her smile for a change. Sometime she got so annoyed with me, all she did was give me the evil eye. Even tonight, what was supposed to be a fun, spontaneous night turned into anything but that. At least now I was back on her good side.

As discretely as possible, Mariah kissed me on the lips and assured me I'd make the team, and when I did, she'd have a "special surprise" for me.

"Can I see my boy?" I asked. "Just for a minute?"

"Tomorrow. I don't want to wake him."

I was disappointed, but nodded in compliance anyway.

It made me think of us always being a part and all of the distractions that constantly trying to break us apart. I wanted to hold onto her, promise her that nothing that was happening in our lives would ever keep us apart from each other. I didn't know if I was capable of such commitment, but I wanted to show it was in me.

"Mariah, I want to ask you something," I started. "I wanted to ask you if..."

"Yeah?"

"Do you want to...maybe...get married, or something?"

In a jolt, she spun around, looking at me with a mixture of confusion and sleepiness in her face.

"What?" she asked.

"Do you want to get married?" I asked again, with more confidence.

"Are you serious?" she asked, more perplexed than before.

"Yeah. I mean, we want to be a family right? Well we should be one as husband and wife, not boyfriend and girlfriend."

"Adrian....you do know I can't answer you right now, right? I mean, I am so totally...shocked," was all she could say.

"Ok, but I wanted you to know I was thinking about it. I want us to make a commitment to ourselves and our son that we will stay in this together for as long as we can. I think marriage would make it more legit."

"I will sleep on it," she said. We exchanged one last kiss before I headed home.

I waved good-bye as I made my way back up the street to head back to my house.

I just asked my girlfriend to marry me. What.The.Hell?

6

                I lay in my bed on Thursday night completely restless and unable to sleep. I was too uptight. What if I actually pulled it off and made the team? I’d have to be committed to it because everyone was expecting so much from me now. I’d actually survived the week, been complimented on my ability to actually catch a ball—something I never thought I’d have a nature gift for. I mean of all the things, catching a football? Who knew?

            I listened to the central air click on and off throughout the night, yet my sheets remained soaked with nervous sweat. I looked at my phone. It was almost two o’ clock. In an exasperated huff, I leaped out of my bed and threw on a pair of basketball shorts and my Nike Air Maxes. I don’t know where I was going or what I was going to do when I got there, but I had to run.

            Quietly, I slid down the stairs on my ass like I did as a kid. Even then, I knew it was significantly quieter than walking down the stairs. I knew my mother was still pissed from earlier, and didn’t want to ruffle her feathers again. I crept to the door, grabbed my house keys off the hook by the door, and exhaled deeply as I unlocked and pulled the door open. As I slid outside, I pulled the door closed, locking it from the inside as to not jingle the keys.

            My motor was running. I fled with no particular direction in mind. Just down the street, into the abysmal darkness of the Baltimore’s twilight hours. I thought of all the places to go, and how none of them offered me any reprieve from my current situations. Subconsciously, I realized around 2:45 that I was actually running to the field. It would be after three o'clock once I got there, but it was a demon that had to be faced head on.

            Once I approached the school, I noticed the lights to the field were on. For all I knew, they were automatic and came on every night. I was never at the school this late, anyway. I practically collapsed in front of the building, my legs and chest burning. Sweat droplets fell to the ground in front of me, soaking my fingers. I panted profusely on the steps of the school, completely drenched. Despite the discomfort, I was feeling less anxious--probably because I was too uncomfortable to think about anything else. I was sweaty and tired now.

            Gingerly, I wandered along the side of the building towards the football field. The night was quiet, peaceful even. It was late, but the moment was serene. I actually feared people sneaking up on me more during the day than at night. Who would linger around a high school? As I walked, I began to hear what sounded like laughter. Thrown back, I panicked and hid behind a wall before emerging completely. I snuck around the side of the school, lingering near the gym doors. I listened again:

            “We got those punks right where we want them!” I heard one voice say. “My dad’s been harassing Adrian on the metro for a week now. There’s no way he’s going to be able to handle that on the team. I promise you he’ll quit.” The anonymous voice howled like a wolf, proud of this deceptive ways that were clearly a ploy to destroy me.

            Confused, I inched closer to try and get a better listen. I was lost as to why it sounded like I was being targeted.

            “Well, the boy clearly thinks I’m a bum he just happens to keep running into. That poor moron.”

 

            What the hell?

 

            I slid even closer, desperate to get a look at who could be on the field at this time, talking such recklessness about me. I assumed Jake was involved, but wanted to be sure before I exploded onto the field, throwing around allegations of sabotage.

            I peeked my head around the bricks, and noticed several team players sitting in the end zone with beers in hand. And of course, Jake-motherfucking-Lane was in attendance.

 

            That bastard.

 

            “I even went to Rodriguez’s house to spook him. You should’ve seen the look on his face!” he bragged to an elderly gentleman, who apparently was his father.

            I silently cursed myself for letting that jerk into my house earlier and letting him get to me. Completely infuriated, I slammed my arm against the wall. My brain began to spin, wondering what I could do to get the jackass back.

            “Yeah, between the two of us, he won’t be on the football team for long,” the old man said. It was indeed the same old man from the metro who’d been in my face. No wonder he felt so bold as to get that close. It was all a ruse. Real bums keep their distance because they don’t want to get arrested for harassment. I shook my head in disbelief. I hadn’t even been accepted yet, and already they were trying to get rid of me.

“Yeah, we have to get Warner, too. He’s actually decent and coach likes him, but those fags are a damn married couple. If we get rid of one, we have to get rid of both,” Jake said. “Damn shame, too. His sister would undoubtedly make a great cheerleader if he was on the team. She’s a grade A piece of ass, too. I wouldn’t mind passing her around at a party,” he commented, a demented smirk on his face. I could feel my heart racing all over again.

 

If that punk even comes near Mariah...

 

“You don’t want her, Jake,” I heard his father say. “You said she had a kid, right? She’s damaged goods.”

            I stood against the wall, pissed off to the highest level possible. I clenched my jaw and fists, ready to fight. I practically bit into my tongue trying to calm myself down. I knew I couldn’t take all those guys on at once, and knew that this was about something much bigger--Jake saw me as a threat. Not only me, but Malkum, too, and he his dickhead father had the nerve to call my girl ‘damaged goods’.

            The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a good thing. As I relaxed, I began to smile to myself.

 

            He’s intimidated by me and Mal, and he wants Mariah.

 

            I glowed internally as I thought of the possibilities. I mean, here I was, just trying to do something with my life and he was completely turned upside down by it. So much so that he and his father were going out of their way to sabotage me because I embarrassed him during try outs. That made the run home quite enjoyable.

*

Friday morning came, and I felt jubilant. I knew the day was here, and I was going to show some people up. The look on those bastards’ faces was going to make it all worth it. My mind had been racing lately, but last night was very clear to me. Jake Lane was about to get his comeuppance. I needed to talk to Malkum before then, and make sure our plan was set. It’s amazing how quickly life could change. In a week, I went from stoner who wanted to remain a recluse to an up-and-coming football star with an enemy. The idea made me laugh.

As I flung to closet door open to put on some clean clothes, I crossed my infamous leather jacket. It was what I was known for when I was ‘Stoner Adrian’. Mariah loved how I looked in it. She felt it gave me an edgier vibe. The first time we fooled around, we’d used it as a blanket to cover us. I was overcome with memories when I came across it, and suddenly yearned for fall.

 

I’ll be swapping it with a letterman jacket.

 

I heard my mother tinkering in the kitchen as I rushed downstairs. She greeted me good morning, then insisted I sit and have some breakfast before the big day.

“Mom, I really have to go. I need to get to Malkum’s house before—”

“No, you don’t,” she said, cutting me off and pushing me down into a seat at the table. “You have to eat something first, and I haven’t been up for the last hour making you breakfast for you to run out on me,” she said, placing a plate of hash browns, scrambled cheese eggs, sausage links and pancakes in front of me.

I looked at the plate, and it did look appetizing. My mother and I hadn’t been on the level in a while, it was nice to have her cook for me because she wanted to, not just because it was her parental duty to feed me. In the more recent past, her cooking consisted of frozen lasagna and maybe some oatmeal. She hadn’t been liking me enough to cook from scratch, so this was a nice change of pace.

I smiled at her as she joined me, a cup of coffee in hand and an apron that read “Hot Tamale”.

“Thank you,” I said coyly.

“You’re welcome. Eat up,” she said as she sipped from her mug. “I will take you over to the field when you’re done.”

“Uh, no, that’s okay,” I said, my mouth full of syrupy pancake mush. “I really need to get to Malkum’s house. It’s important.”

“What’s so important?” she asked as I continually threw the food down my throat. “Is this over yesterday and you trying to get with Mariah again?”

“No, I swear. I have something I have to talk to Malkum about before we find out if we are on the team or not.”

She looked at me skeptically, but excused me from the table. Once again, she reminded me to “bring my butt straight home”.

In a blink of an eye, I hustled down the block to Malkum’s house. I scurried up the stoop, hoping he was still home and hadn’t already left without me.

“Malkum!” I hollered as I banged on the door. I tried to the bell, too, eager for an answer.
            “Mal! Someone open the door!” I yelled again, finally getting relief when he came to let me in.

“Yo, what is the problem?” he asked as I rushed past him into the brownstone.

“I have to tell you what happened last night,” I said, panting to catch my breath. “I couldn’t sleep so I ran to the football field. Jake was there with some people trashing us.”

Mal nodded apathetically. “Ok, they were talking shit about us. What else is new? This isn’t what you ran over here for, is it?”

“No, there’s more. They want us cut. They want to get rid of us. And he wants Mariah.”

“What?” I heard her inquire as she walked into the living room. “Who wants me?”

“Jake,” I said, finally catching my breath. “He wants you and wants to get rid of me and Mal. I think he thinks we are definitely making the team and he’s threatened.”

Mal shrugged. “Ok, so let the dick-wad be threatened. I don’t give a shit about him or his measly little ego.”

“Well, I do. Dude came to my house yesterday to pull rank on me.”

Taken aback, Mal and Mariah both stared at me, wide-eyed and conflicted.

“Wow, this dude really does not like you, does he? It makes me wonder what it is about you that pisses him off so much,” Mal wondered.

“Shit, your guess is as good as mine. I mean, is it because I’m me? You know how some people just will never like you just because it’s you?”

Mariah nodded, mentioning her on-going beef with Shakira. “That bitch will never like me for that very reason. Never did anything to her, don’t even talk to her, but she gives me the evil eye every time I see her.”

I sighed, shaking my head. Oh, to be young and hated.

“No one seems to hate you, Mal. You and Fergie seem to get along with everyone, despite the fact you are both considered losers,” I said.

He shrugged again. “I guess because I am somewhat of a jock, I get a pass. You know, I run, like a nigga’s supposed to. I mean, what are they going to do to me? I help bring in track trophies for my awesome ability to run from one line to another line.”

“Ok, so what do you suggest I do? Just let him conspire against me?”

“I wouldn’t worry; you know I got your back. I will help you keep him in line,” Mal suggested. “Now, let’s go make some loser history.”

*

I stood in line on the field as I awaited my fate. Schiller has his clipboard in hand as Nelson talked about running for goals in life and on the field as he commended everyone for a job well done throughout the previous week. I tuned him out as I zoned in on Jake, the back of his colossal cranium in my view. I wanted to bash it in so badly. I tried to refocus my energy on anything else, and started daydreaming. As Nelson went in one ear and out of the other, I sporadically heard a buzz word here and there, like service, and community. It took my mind back to our last year community service project at the recycling plant. It was particularly cold day before Christmas break, and random images of the event bombarded my brain...

 

Pick, scrape, toss. Pick, scrape, toss. This is what my day consisted of as my classmates and I fulfilled our final community service project for the school year on a blustery Monday morning before holiday break.

Christmas is in three days. This shit couldn’t wait till the new year and Martin Luther King Day?

I hated community service. Call me a selfish prick, but I saw no reason to give back to a community that hadn’t done shit for me. I went a mediocre public high school thanks to living in a mediocre neighborhood. Since public school was government funded, all that meant was that our neighbors all paid taxes, which were required by law anyway. So, what’s the point of giving back because everyone followed the law?

We were sorting through trash for non-recycled recyclables, and God help me, the smell was awful. Not only that, but I was somewhat disgusted by how lazy people were to blatantly not recycle. You know damn well plastic goes in the bin, why is it in the garbage? Thanks for nothing, assholes.

I stood over a bag of trash trying to not get myself too messy, despite being in some of the dirtiest overalls I owned. We were advised to not wear our “good clothes”, but of course there are always some who insist on turning every event into a fashion show. I scowled at the football players and cheerleaders in their name brand jeans and Uggs, secretly hoping some dead rodent or even a dirty diaper would land in their vicinity. I would only be so lucky.

“Stop looking so miserable,” Mal said to me. “At least they have to do it, too,” he said in an attempt to comfort me.

“Yeah, but I just hate the fact that they are here. School projects might as well be broken down into class systems just like every other aspect of our pitiful, non-popular existence. I rather slum it with people like me than even look at people like them. It’s not like they respect us at all.”

“Uh oh, sounds like someone is starting to care,” Mariah said to me, her purple bangs falling into her eyes. “Sounds like you’re getting soft. After all these years of going to school with them, you should be cold as ice and numb to all the bullshit.”

“I should be, but I am just fed up. Fuck them and all their fuckin’ high society bullshit. Look at them--they aren’t even working that hard! You see Jake Lane over there? I want to face palm that pussy into a compost heap.”

Malkum and Mariah laughed hard, but I was serious. I hated everything about those assholes. They walked and spoke like they were God’s gift to the world, and anyone fortunate enough to be in their presence had some sort of upper hand. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I looked at Malkum, then turned to Mariah’s soiled diaper in hand.

“You better not; he will have you suspended,” Mal warned. I glanced in his direction, diaper still in hand. Yeah, I probably would get suspended. It was also very childish. Like, elementary school level of immature. Was it really worth it just to see some steroid-riddled pigskin pile-driving punk get pissed off for a few minutes?

Hell yeah.

I must’ve been smirking to myself, because suddenly Mariah and Mal were both yelling at me to chill out and stop thinking whatever I was thinking.

Completely ignoring them both, I opened the diaper just so, and stormed my way through three feet of dead rodents, hygiene product containers, used prophylactics, and spoiled food and heaved the diaper right into Jake’s face.

He couldn’t respond quick enough. Just as he had turned his head from flirting with Shakira, our head cheerleader, his left ear and half of his face caught the leavings of a newborn. It was a particularly proud moment, as I watched it fall from his neck and gazed his reaction of shock and disgust.

The entire trip went silent as all eyes fell on him. Suddenly, he was speechless. Someone who’d spent the bulk of his life vying for the spotlight had nothing to say once all eyes were on him.

“Oh...my...GOD!” Shakira yelled, swatting at the pea-green defecation on Jake’s face and neck. I laughed so hard that I could hardly breathe. Ken Burns, our football team’s linebacker, rushed to Jake’s side to help him clean it off. I was so in the spirit of the prank, I couldn’t help but stick my size eleven combat boot out while he tried to hustle over. He tripped, knocking Shakira and Jake down into a compost pile of banana peels and other nastiness.

Watching them wriggle around in filth as they tried to get up make the image that much more entertaining. I began to hear other classmates laughing behind me before my homeroom teacher, Mr. Hastings, came up to me and pulled me aside.

“Adrian, what’s come over you? Why would you do something like that?” he asked me, trying to keep eyes on the other students to ensure no more garbage would be thrown.

“Eh, because I felt like it. Sorry, Mr. H., but I’m not apologizing,” I said confidently.

“I’m going to have to write you up when we get back to school,” he warned. I nodded, figuring that such a thing would happen. I doubted this would keep me from graduation, so I wasn’t too worried about it. One day of suspension; two, tops.

“Yeah, you do what you must, Mr. H. No hard feelings,” I said, patting him on the shoulder as I walked back to the garbage heap….

            I laughed to myself as I realized that was probably why Jake loathed me so much. I embarrassed him last year, and was doing it again this year. He couldn’t fathom how a loser like me could make such a mockery out of someone like him. It was like the sweet, sweet taste of chocolate pudding after a nice sexual bout with Mariah. Oh, yeah.

            Finally, I heard Nelson call my name as he asked me to step to the right of Schiller. Looking at the line concocted thus far, I felt proud that it was looking like I’d actually made the team. I listened for Mal’s name to be called, he’d round out the group perfectly. I listened attentively to the end of the alphabet: Warrington, White, Wilson, Yates, Zimmerman. Huh? No Warner?

            I stood there, confused. I must’ve missed something in my daydreaming. I listened for further announcements.

            “Congratulations, gentlemen. Welcome to the 2014 Doilbar High varsity football team!” Schiller announced as the field erupted in applause and cheer. I looked around, and notice Mal standing across from me in the group whose names weren’t called. He shrugged—again—and I was floored. How could he not make it?

            After we broke, I ran to Nelson to inquire what happened.

            “Sir, how could Malkum not make the team?” I asked, seriously lost about how an actual athlete did worse than someone who did nothing.

            “Son, it’s nothing personal, but I need Malkum for winter and spring track. I can’t have him burned out on football. Besides, if the team does really well, it will conflict with the winter track schedule. Don’t want to destroy the boy completely,” he informed me.

            Shit. So because Malkum already dominated a sport, he was cut for not being available all year. This saddened me in a very unsuspecting way.

            “Mal!” I yelled when he came back into the locker room. “I’m sorry, bro.”

            “Don’t be, this was your idea. I’m good with it, even though I would’ve loved being on the inside for all the latest gossip,” he joked.

            “Well, you know I will keep you up to date.”

            “Just make sure you give them hell. If you really want to represent, take no shit from no one, you understand?”

            “You got it.”

            He high-fived me, actually congratulating me on the victory. As we prepared to head out, Jake and his band of misfit morons came in, stopping us in our tracks.

            “Sorry we won’t get to hang out on the field more, Warner,” he insincerely apologized. “You were a good player.”

            “You’re not really sorry, but thanks anyway. Besides, your boy Ken got too much pleasure out of tackling me. Something you want to share with the group?” Mal sarcastically recanted.

            “Fuck you, douche,” Ken said.

            “As for you, Rodridguez, remember what we talked about,” Jake threatened. “Remember your place, and we won’t have any problems.”

            I turned to Malkum, then I laughed. “Dude, my place is on that field now, just like you. I will be in this locker room, just like you. I will be riding the same bus to games, just like you. I will have access to the same cheerleaders and parties, just like you. So, what does all that tell you?”

            “He’s growing up to be just like you!” Mal announced humorously. With that, we left the dickheads in sheer confusion, making our way out of the locker room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7

                The school year began like a whirlwind. Between practices, classes, Mariah, the baby, and home, I can’t imagine how I made it through to October. Everything was chaotic. It was good chaos--everyone loved me being on the team and I was getting tons of respect--but it was hectic, nonetheless. Trying to balance a full course load while playing a sport was way easier said than done. I found myself actually going to teachers for help from time to time because I was so tired during class that I often missed important information.

            Despite that, I was also finding perks to my newfound school fame. I was getting respect and being approached from people who hadn’t paid me any mind in the past. Girls looked at me with adoring eyes, some even sending me elicit texts and Facebook messages with no regard for my relationship with Mariah. Yeah, I know it was wrong, but I still was enjoying every minute of it.

It was all I could think as Shakira Durán approached me and my locker, breaking my concentration completely as she stuck her pink cardigan covered chest in my face.

            “Hey, Adrian, congrats on making the team. You enjoying it?” she asked, her arm draped across the front of my locker, making her bosom that much more ample and apparent.

            “Uh, yeah I am, thanks. How about you? How does it feel to have a new group of guys fawning over you?”

            Damn.

            “It would be better if you were fawning over me,” she flirted. “I never get to see you.”

            “Yeah, well, I’m busy,” I said, finally cracking the combination on my locker. I swapped my math book for 100 Years of Solitude, another piece of writing that bored me to tears. Here I was thinking that it would actually be relatable as I felt quite alone on a regular basis. Had absolutely nothing to do with physical solidarity. Shakira walked alongside me as we were in the same English class.

 

            I wish she would stop flirting. She’s making it hard not to like her.

 

            She tossed her hair as we walked, definitely catching my attention more than any book ever could. Dressed in a tight pair of denim jeans, knee-high boots, and a low-cut tank top under her sweater, she was a sight for sore eyes. Not only that, but as a cheerleader she was in impeccable shape. Every curve on her body glided gracefully into the next. I’d be lying if I said I never wanted to see what she was about, but I didn’t have it in me to be a cheater on top of all the other negative titles associated with one Adrian Rodriguez. Loser, pothead, juvenile felon, and baby daddy were enough. I finally had a chance to trump all that “varsity football star”, so I had to live up to it.

 

            But temptation is very real...

 

            As the bell rang, we took our seats. Because our English teacher, Mrs. Knight, had this thing about encouraging discussion, all of our desks were set up in groups like in elementary school. Shakira sat directly cat-corner to me, leaving her in perfect view for me to stare. She’d repeatedly lean over the desk, or reach in my direction for random items that she already had, like pencils. Or even better, my personal favorite was her removing the random piece of lint from my shirt.

 

            She ain’t slick. She knew what she was doing when she woke up this morning.

 

            By the end of class, she’d slipped me her number and invited me to a party that night, but I knew going was out of the question. I had to stay faithful to Mariah more now than ever, and couldn’t play Malkum like that.

            Later that afternoon, I sat in Geometry behind Malkum, half asleep and completely oblivious to all that had been going on that period. I doodled to keep myself awake, frantically praying for the bell would ring to relieve of me from my torment.

            I continually sulked as we sat in fifth period only thirty minutes after lunch. I spent the period tracing the numbers in my textbook because I had no idea what was going on. Mr. Math Man, our dickhead of a teacher, stood at the board dissecting imaginary numbers in his tiresome Ben Stein-esque monotone voice.

            Blah, blah, blah….square root quotient…nag, nag, nag….negative and positive…bore, bore, bore…test next Friday…

       What?                                                  

            “Oh, holy mother of God…” I muttered out loud. “Why are we having a test? School just started,” I whined.

            “Well, Mr. Rodriguez,” he began, turning to address me with his damn polo shirt and khakis on. Damn, he’s lucky we aren’t classmates together. He’d have a perpetual wedgy if we had been.

“Tests assess your knowledge. Without knowledge you can’t decipher if a person is intelligent. Intelligence helps people get jobs. Do you understand how that works?”

“Not really, because plenty of stupid people ‘work,’” I pointed out, making air quotes. “Doesn’t mean they have an ounce of intelligence or knowledge, now does it?”

            “What’s your point, Mr. Rodriguez?” he griped, his frail arms folded across his chest.

            “What, you mean with your intelligence from all the knowledge you’ve acquired, you didn’t get that I just made my point?”

            My classmates chuckled, probably more in astonishment at how crass I was towards my teacher, who I allegedly should’ve had the utmost respect for. Screw that.

            “It’s a little early for you to make a trip the principal’s office, isn’t it?”

            “I’ll be there before the day is over,” I pointed out arrogantly. “It’s just a question of who’s sending me.”

            His eyes narrowed down at me.

            “No,” he finally said. “I’m not doing you that favor. Test Friday.”

            I slumped down in my chair and murmured, “Asshole.”

            “It’s not going to work, Mr. Rodriguez,” Mr. Hamara announced from his stance at the chalkboard. “Stop trying to push me.”

            “Well, that’s just not as fun.”

            I sat back in my desk, catching the teacher’s glare again. I exhaled deeply as I retreated to tracing numbers.

            Un-fuckin’-believable.

            As class ended, Mr. Hamara gave me another glare as I gathered my book and pencil. I didn’t care enough to entertain his vendetta, so I made my way out of the door ignoring him completely. Mal pushed me in the back of my head, throwing my balance.

            “What the hell, Adrian?” he scolded. “Seriously, it’s not even halfway through the day.”

            “He started it,” I murmured.

            “Bullshit. What was that all about?” he asked, stunned at my attitude.

            I smirked. “You really want to know?”

            “Dude, you’re being an ass for no reason whatsoever. Hell yeah I want to know why.”

            I laughed. “I finally figured it out, Mal. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, and no one is going to say shit. You know why?”

            I looked at me, inquisitively. “Are you serious? Is that why you decided to be a dick today?”

            I nodded profusely. “I’m finally impermeable. No one is going to write me up. They don’t want me to lose my spot on the team.”

            “Are you kidding me with this?” Mal asked, completely floored. “So, because teachers may not be as likely to call you out on your shit, you decide to be a douche?”

            “Hey, I have earned my comeuppance. Now, if you play nice, I will let you join me in my douchiness with no repercussions.”

            He snorted, shaking his head at me as we walked to the cafeteria. 

            “Well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to be able to play around a bit. Maybe even get in with a cheerleader or two.”

            “A cheerleader or two, or just the one?” I asked, pulling a tray from the conveyer belt as we stood in the lunch line. “You still got your eyes on Shakira?”

            He stood behind me, picking over the choices at the hot bar. “Yeah, I do, but I know it wouldn’t hurt for me to have a backup plan in case she’s already got her attention elsewhere.”

            “True. When was the last time y’all interacted?”

            “The party, which was over a month ago. I mean, I don’t really get to see her during the school day because we are on different schedules. But trust me, I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with her. We did have a good night that night.”

            While my new jock friends often implored me to sit with them during lunch, riding with them on the bus and spending every afternoon with them left very little time for me to reconnect with Mal, so we often ate together. Sitting at a table near the window, we finally got to chat.

            “Oh, yeah? What did you do with her?”

            A sinister smirk crossed his face, and he bit his lower lip.

            “Malkum!” I exclaimed. I felt like a proud parent, seeing my best friend grow into a man before my eyes. He blushed slightly, definitely confirming any speculation that might’ve occurred. “How come you didn’t tell me?”

            He shrugged his typical Malkum shrug, and fidgeted in his seat. He nonchalantly looked around the cafeteria.

            “Well, there was just so much going on at the time. I mean with the try-outs, the baby, and honestly, I wasn’t really proud of it,” he paused. His disposition went from one of mischief to melancholy. He leaned in. “I never thought I would say this, but I wish it had been different, and that I waited.”

            “Really? What happened? You did seal the deal, right?” I asked, confused. Malkum had been chasing Shakira since grade school. He became smitten at the tender age of nine, enthralled by her thick, curly pigtails she wore. She would always come to school dressed like Shirley Temple—knee-high socks, Mary Jane shoes, and an overly cutesy dress or skirt. He loved it, even as a kid. As we grew up, we all learned very quickly that Shakira’s style of dress was vintage by design; she loved the attention it got her. Even now, she often wore 1970’s and 1980’s oriented attire, like bell bottoms, platform shoes, leg warmers and off-the-shoulder sweaters. It kept people looking at her, if for no other reason to figure out why the hell she was dressed like she stepped off the cover of one of our moms’ old Cosmopolitan magazines.

            Mal picked at his food after I posed my question, clearly thinking about the entire endeavor. I was surprised to see that he was so unsure, despite having wanted it for so long.

            “Mal, what happened? Talk to me. Condom didn’t break, did it?”

            He shook his head vigorously, but it was evident that something was bothering him.

            Finally, he sighed heavily. “Adrian, have you ever had something happen in your life that you just wish you could take back? Like, not go back and do again, but completely obliterate it from your personal history?”

            I nodded profusely. “Trust me, I understand. So, it was just bad or you just feel like you...underperformed?”

            “No. I didn’t want to talk about it and the reason I didn’t tell you is because I just...had some buyer’s remorse. I mean, I have been into her for so long, so when I got home and my buzz and high wore off, I just felt pretty shitty about hooking up with my crush at a party on a pile of coats in her parents’ bedroom.”

            “Wow. I thought only girls had those kinds of fantasies.”

            “It’s not a fantasy, it just wasn’t what I expected, and just wish I could have a chance to do it the right way, you know? I always wanted to take her out on a date, make her feel special because she is special to me. I don’t know.”

            Looking at Mal, I could see that he was disappointed, and it was a sudden realization that not everyone lives by the same piss-poor standards I do. Mariah and I never went out on dates, but instead would just fool around in her bedroom. That was how the last two years of life had been, and hearing a different perspective, maybe Malkum had a point.

            “So, you want to spend time with her now to make it feel more real, I guess?”

            “Yeah, I guess. Like I said, I don’t know. I don’t even know if she wants to talk to me or if it was a onetime thing for her. I haven’t seen her, I don’t know her Facebook or Instagram names, so how do I try and get back in touch with her without seeming like a creeper by hunting her down?”

            “Good question. I will try and find out for you. I have a game this afternoon and they are cheering, so I will try and talk to her. I get where you’re coming from.”

            “Thanks, I appreciate it. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but...I had to sort out my feelings,” he said sarcastically.

            Just then, a few of my teammates came over to the table. Their presence off the field still bothered me; I wasn’t used to them approaching me to not embarrass me. Usually, I was taunted or teased to some measure, so my defenses were still up.

            Ken, who had been Jake’s sidekick for the longest, approached us with another player, Davante Henderson, by his side. Both sported their letterman jackets on top of their jerseys, which we had to wear during home game days.

            “Yo, Adrian, how come you didn’t sit with the team today?” Davante asked me, inexplicably flexing as he stood next to the table. Mal and I eyed each other, trying not to laugh at the stupidity of it all.

            “I’m having lunch with my boy; we had to check in about some things. Why, what’s up?”

            “We wanted to talk shop with you about some changes that are going on with the team,” he said. “It’s important that you stay up to date with everything. We actually should talk now, before dismissal.”

            I looked at my teammates, a word I didn’t care for very much, then looked back at Malkum. He gave me a discerning look, like he wasn’t sure what to make of all of it, either. Regardless, he gave me a shrug and left me with, “I’ll text you later” as he excused himself from the table.

            Once Mal was out of earshot, Davante and Ken sat at the table, leaning in closely.

 

            Why is everyone whispering to me all of a sudden?

 

            “Look, jackass, we have to talk,” Ken said to me. “You’re going to stop bullshitting around like you’ve been doing and assimilate to this team already.”

            “Taken aback, I asked him what he could’ve been referring to. “I show up to practice, I play the game, I come to school and attend all the stupid pep rallies. What else am I supposed to do?”

            “Join the team, interact with the team, support the team, and ride for the team,” Davante said. “You’re still spending time with the wrong people. Cheerleaders are trying to get at you, and you still with that wench, Mariah.”

            “Hey! Watch your fuckin’ mouth! That’s the mother of my child!” I yelled, getting in his face.

            “Who cares? She’s old news. You’re a jock now, and you need to be with the right girl. You need to be with a cheerleader. We have reputations, and you’re fuckin’ up the flow right now!” he fired back, in my face. I leaped to my feet from the table, and he from his. Despite being across the table from each other, we were in each other’s faces so severely that Ken had to break us up and remind us we were in the cafeteria and could never risk suspension, especially on a game day.

            “Both of you back it down before we get in trouble, dipshits,” he scolded us in a harsh whisper. “Now look, I know you have this whole ‘rebel-without-a-clue’ act going on, but when you stepped foot on our field for the first time as a varsity team member, you decided to give up anonymity. You are one of us, and you better act right before something happens,” he threatened.

            “Something like what? What are y’all going to do? You can’t cut me from the team, and Schiller loves me too much to give me up right now. He hasn’t started me the last two games for nothing. He’s eyeing me to take Jake’s spot,” I bragged.

            “Trust me, that shit isn’t going to happen. Jake’s got pull in ways you can’t imagine,” Davante warned. “But you do need to act like you’re a part of this team. That means no more quality time with your little Rastafarian friend or his sleazy rider sister. You need to be with us and know your place.”

            I thought about their comments momentarily, suddenly realizing that I was no longer just Adrian. I was, “Adrian, the varsity football player”. I could no longer just hang out with my friends and carry on casually. I now had a social responsibility to play the part of the football player. I had to be social, charismatic, charming, and loveable. I sighed heavily as I thought of the idea.

 Well, I guess I could put on the show at school and hang with Mal and Mariah at home, right?

            “Ok, I guess I hear what you guys are saying. But y’all don’t even like me like that, so what difference does it make?”

            “It makes a huge difference here. This is who you are now, no matter what,” Ken said.

            “No matter what? This is not a ride or die situation,” I insisted.

            “Actually, yeah, it is.”

            I turned my head quizzically. I suddenly felt uncomfortable—well, more so than before—and made my way to leave the table. Davante had ruffled my feathers with his comments about my friends, and Ken was implying that I was stuck with the team no matter what. Both had left a sour taste in my mouth, and suddenly I got the feeling that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.

            I could see Malkum still standing at the entry of the cafeteria, eyeing me at the table from afar. I could see curiosity all over his face. I thought of how I could let him know what was going on without it getting out. There was nothing reassuring about telling your only close friend that you could never interact with him during the day because he was no longer on the same social level as you. It was all very hierarchical, and made me think of the fucked up systems this country was founded on.

            “Well, Mal is an athlete, too. Does it make a difference what season your sport is?” I asked, trying to hide my sincerity with sarcasm.

            “Look, you dumb fuck, football rules this state. No one cares about anything else. We have scouts come out to see us and send us to the best colleges, not track stars. The shit is over, so let it go,” Davante snapped.

            I clenched my jaw in frustration, but knew there was nothing I could do but drink the Kool-Aid. I shuttered to think about what life would be life inside and outside of school if these guys were as assertive as they led on to be. What if they really did go out of their ways to make life miserable? I could only imagine what it would be like, and there was nothing reassuring about it.

Taking a long, exasperated sigh, I made my way out after dumping my tray. Mal stood by the door, and I hated myself for thinking I had to snub him. I could feel Ken and Davante’s eyes on me, watching my every move as if they wanted to see how I was going to respond. Mal turned to address me as I walked out. With my head down, I rushed past him, silently cussing myself for being such a jerk to one of the few people who always had my back.

           

            You are such a sorry piece of shit. You’re a sell-out, a fuckin’ flash in the pan. You’re worse than Vanilla Ice.

 

*

            Time felt like it was moving backwards. With the sound of the shower running and water spiraling down the drain, I became engulfed in the swirling liquid, hypnotized even. I pulled at the thick strands of hair as they soaked up the water, twisting them around my fingers nonchalantly. My brain raced as the hot water ran down the sides of my face, my neck and back. The game was phenomenal. I ran in two touchdowns and caught four interceptions. I left the field a hero, but hadn’t felt so badly about myself in a long time. It was a long game, knowing that Mal may or may not have been there because he was trying to figure out what my problem was, and why I’d ignored him. I continually played it in my head, trying to find that moment when I sold myself so short that I turned on Mal like that. I was frustrated with myself, but the love I was getting from the rest of the school was incomparable. It left me seriously conflicted as I wasn’t used to so many people excited to talk to me and be around me.

            I lay my head against the glass walls of the shower, basking in the warmth. I enjoyed the solitude, the complete quiet of the locker room after a long afternoon. My coaches and teammates were gone, despite trying desperately to coerce me into coming out and celebrating the victory. I just couldn’t bring myself to invest—I was too frustrated.

            Somewhat blinded by the amount of steam I created, I fumbled for my towel once finishing the shower. Reaching for the door, I flung it open. As the door cascaded against the tile, I heard a yelping, “Ouch!” in a female voice.

 

            What the hell?

 

            Completely taken aback, I carefully pulled the door back to reveal Shakira, standing in a pink-lace bra with black stripes and a black satin thong. Her hair was freshly dyed a shade of platinum blonde that practically burned my corneas. Her skin, freshly tanned and glistening. Her lips were covered in bright red lipstick, and she wore a pair of platform flip flops despite the chilly October temperatures.

            “Shakira, what the hell are you doing here?” I asked, confused, shocked, and relieved it was just her, and not an axe murderer.

            Tossing her overly tousled hair, she regained her bearings from shock to vixen, strutting over to me. I squinted at her as the steam began to clear, unsure of what her goal was since she knew I had a girlfriend.

            “I was so impressed by you today,” she flirted, caressing my abs with her pristinely polished fingertips. “I’m really beginning to love watching you play.”

            “You love watching a lot of people play from what I understand,” I retorted, determined to not get caught up in her web. I took a step back in an attempt to remove myself from the situation and make my way to my locker.

            “Well, you’re my favorite so far. Seeing you out there, it really looks like you know what to do with your hands,” she said, tugging at my towel after I turned around. Panicked, I grabbed it before it fell. It slid slightly down around my pelvis, exposing a few pubic hairs. She’d already seen way more than I wanted her to.

            “Shakira, go home. I am trying to get dressed so I can get out of here.”

            “Adrian, lighten up,” she said. “We could have a little fun right now if you just relax,” she insisted again, reaching for my towel a second time.

            “Come on, you know I have a girlfriend. Why are you playing games?” I asked, focused on holding my towel while I tried to open my locker at the same time.

            “Oh, stop it. You’re a football player. You don’t do fidelity. Besides, we are too young for it. That’s what our parents do. Our job is to have fun with as many people as we can before we have to settle down and be responsible. It wouldn’t kill you to live a little, you know.”

            I rolled my eyes. “Living a little is why I have a baby now that I never get to see because I’m too busy running around on a football field like a moron,” I mumbled under my breath. I shook my head, reminding myself of who I was talking to and not to let her get into my personal business. “Shakira, you just had sex with my best friend. What makes you think anything is going to happen between me and you?”

            She snorted. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

            “What is there for me to get?” I asked, suddenly curious.

            “Malkum and I were just having fun. He’s a track star, yeah, but that’s not where the popularity is. It’s in the testosterone driven sports--football, basketball. Y’all be out there, knocking people down, throwing balls around and sweating, and it’s so sexy,” she said, once again moving in on me. “You got me turned on right now,” she teased, grabbing one of my hands and isolating my index finger to trace the shape of her bra cup.

           

            Stay strong, Adrian.

 

            The spirit was willing, but once again, the flesh was weak. After utilizing the one finger, she unfolded the other four and cupped my right hand around the left cup of her bra. She guided my hand to squeeze it gently, and implants or not, they felt great. They were soft, inviting. She flashed a devilish smile once again, pulling my towel from my grip. I couldn’t fight anymore. Her skin smelled too good, felt too good.

            I stood there, completely barren and at full attention. Her delicate hands fondled me, making me more diligent than I already was.

 

            She’s probably been doing this since middle school.

 

            Shakira had a slutty reputation, but in this moment, that made it all the more fun. She was already on her knees, clearly willing and able to do things I could never get Mariah to do. Hmm, Mariah. She ran through my mind while Shakira performed. I silently wished it could’ve been her, but I knew it wouldn’t be. She had strict rules about that--she felt it was something that only married women should do.

 

            Her rules are stupid.

 

            I closed my eyes, enjoying the moment. I thought about her lips, her tongue, and how warm her mouth felt. Warm and moist, like a soft summer rain. As she continued, images of her and Mariah soaking wet from a summer storm ran through my head, helping each other out of their clothes to dry off, and I was the only one with a towel.

 

            Oh, shit.

 

            Opening my eyes, I looked down. She looked intriguingly exuberant, licking my leavings from around her mouth. I leaned my head back again, suddenly feeling distraught and uneasy. I threw my sweatpants on, grabbed my jacket, and ran out of the locker room.

            Running to the metro, I felt sick. What if this random walk on the wild side blew up in my face?

 

            Shakira could have an oral STD. What if she tells someone? What if she tells Mariah? What if she tells Malkum?

           

             I ran faster, hopping down the stairs praying that my train would suddenly pull up as soon as I arrived. I felt antsy, and wanted to hurry up and take a shower. A sensation of filthiness lured over me. I had to get home. I had to get clean. I had to forget what just happened.

 

            Hurry up, you stupid train.

 

            Momentarily, I eyed the platform in search of I don’t even know what. Maybe I was looking for Jake’s dad to come and spook me again. It would be a nice way to redirect my attention, as I was now feeling an itching sensation in my nether regions.

 

            Stop being paranoid.

 

            My heart raced so rapidly, I couldn’t stand still and I couldn’t stop thinking. Sweaty and panicked, my chest tightened. My breathing became shallow, and my nerves were officially wrecked. The metro tunnel felt hollow; I needed to escape. Running back up the stairs, I ran home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

                “Adrian! Get up! You’re going to be late!” Mom yelled from outside my door. I stared at the ceiling blankly, somewhat catatonic. I heard her, but I didn’t. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t even feel my fingers. My body felt like it was going into shock.

 

            Shit, what if that bitch gave me an infection?

 

            I had to stop worrying. But what was I really worried about? If Shakira opened her mouth about last night, who was really going to believe her? The school knew I was with Mariah, despite the fact that no one felt she deserved me now--how ironic. But still, there was something unsettling about the whole thing. It was too easy. I’d spent the entire night wondering and speculating as to how Shakira became that easy. I mean, I was ‘Stoner Adrian’. I had a reputation that preceded my football days, yet because I joined the hardheads on field, I was now someone worth acknowledging? Is that really how that goes?

 

            People can’t be that superficial, can they?

 

            The concept eluded me, and now my mother was banging on my door.

 

            “Adrian! Let’s go!”

 

            I flung my covers from over me, swinging my legs over the bed. I sat there momentarily, gathering my thoughts. I didn’t want to go to school today. I didn’t want to spend the day wondering who would know about my indiscretions. It would be just another day for everyone else, but for me, it would be a nail in the coffin of my former life. I was never respected by the popular kids, but it was okay because I didn’t respect them, either. Now, I was becoming a source of attention. I thought about what people would think of me now if they knew about my interactions with other popular people. I didn’t care for the feeling.

            Throwing on a pair of jeans and some boots, I pulled a grey hoodie over my head, hoping I wouldn’t stand out as much if people didn’t see my signature jacket. Right now, all I wanted to do was disappear.

*

            Walking up the street to Doilbar, I heard “Yo, Adrian!” being yelled from down the street. It was Fergie. I stopped so he could catch up to me, slightly amused to see him again after what’s felt like forever.

            “Hey, where have you been?” I asked, his red hair bouncing from side to side. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in school in a while.”

            “Yeah, that’s because you haven’t. I got suspended indefinitely for using and selling on the premises, and I am currently under ‘parental supervision’ until I get my next hearing in January,” he said. Shocked, I stopped in my tracks.

            “Wow, Fergie. Shouldn’t you be home so your parents can, you know, supervise you?” I asked, concerned.

            “Oh, please. We all know that’s a joke. They don’t supervise me. They aren’t even home. If the court system really wants to crack down on juvenile delinquents, they need to start with their parents. I wasn’t born a marijuana production entrepreneur.”

            “Don’t try and make it sound fancy, now. You’re a weed connect. And I hear you, but still, you have to do your part. You aren’t going to get back in school if you don’t keep your nose clean.”

            He guffawed. “Who are you to talk about someone keeping their nose clean? Just because you’ve spent some time on the field doesn’t hardly make you no role model, Adrian. You’re still just as loathsome as the rest of us from the good ol’ days.”

            I sighed, annoyed. “No one is trying to be a role model, trust me. I don’t think I could be one if I tried--”

            “You’re right about that. Let me show you what was sent to me this morning,” he insisted. My chest tightened momentarily, scared that he was going to show me a video feed that Shakira had hidden in the locker room and was now posted on PornHub for my humiliation. What would it be posted under? Female Friendly? Teens? Amateur? I shuttered to think about it, standing in the middle of the street looking at my own shady dealings.

            “Mal sent me this text last night. If I were you, I’d lay low today,” he warned as I read a scathing text from Malkum about me.

            Yo, Fergie, I cannot believe this asshole played me today in the caf. I have been the only friend that dude has had since Pre K and he plays me for some jackass football players. Some punk asses that never gave a shit about him and never will as soon as he is useless to them. Let him get hurt and see what happens. Yo, I can’t believe this shit. I have never been so mad in my life. I wanna fuck him up right now. Seriously, I wanna fuckin’ stop his heart.

 

            Wow.

 

            “You pissed him off royally. I’d lay low,” he warned again.

            “I would have to, anyway. Can’t be seen with him,” I said. “In more ways than you can even imagine.”

            I bid Fergie good-bye as I made my way into the building. Bullshitting with him, I was officially late, not that it mattered. No one was going to write me up, no one was going to lecture me. I was a great football player, and that’s all that mattered.

            Making my way to first period, I took a seat behind Mariah in English class. I debated with being involved or being rebellious, but I knew I’d given enough people a hard time to last a lifetime. I pulled out my copy of Julius Caesar and tried to listen in and follow along. Saddened by Mal’s text to Fergie, I pulled my phone out under the desk in a desperate attempt to make amends. I’d known him for too long and been through too much to not be cool with him, especially since he was my child’s uncle.

           

            Hey, whts up? Ran n2 Fergie ths morning. Saw the text.

 

            I pressed send and awaited my fate. The anxiety of this and the Shakira situation made my stomach hurt. I now felt like I was being watched and under public scrutiny. Maybe I was overreacting, and there was no real reason for me to be worried or even ashamed, but suddenly, I was missing my old life.

 

            Stoner Adrian never had cheerleaders sneaking into the locker room half naked for him.

 

            But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a nice experience. It made me feel important, albeit dirty.

 

            Stoner Adrian would’ve never gotten a BJ from a cheerleader unless she was high or drunk.

 

            Damn conflicting conscious.

 

            Finally, my phone buzzed. A few minutes prior, I’d hoped it was Malkum telling me that we were cool and there was no bad blood, just a misunderstanding. Now, I was indifferent. I envisioned him in this situation, shrugging at the back and forth of it all. I opened the text to see a heart emoji from an unknown number. It was local, but I couldn’t place why I’d gotten this random emoji. Then I thought about it.

 

            Shakira.         

 

            I didn’t want to assume, so I asked. Sure enough, she reassured me it was her, a kissing emoji following up the heart. I sighed, looking at the back of Mariah’s head while Shakira was sending me flirty texts.

 

            U no Im in class, rite?

 

            So am I. who cares?

 

            U no Mariahs in my class, rite?

 

            Nd Jake, Mal, and a couple other boys I screwed r n here. Who cares?

 

            Wow.

 

            Look, last nite was a mistake. It meant nothing.

 

            Come on, it meant something. U liked it.

 

            OK, yeah it felt good. Dont mean it will happen again.

 

            We’ll c.

 

            What does that mean?

 

            Just wht I said.

           

            I powered down my phone, diligent to not tolerate any more of her weirdness for the rest of the day. I was giving her the brush off, whether she wanted it or not. I had to refocus on what my goals were and why I joined this team in the first place.

            As the bell rang, I poked Mariah in her back with a pencil to get her attention.

            “Hey, I need to talk to you,” I implored. “Can we walk and talk?”

            She turned to me, a puzzled look on her face.

            “Oh, now you want to talk to someone, huh? Where was your relentless need to talk yesterday when you played my brother?” she barked, storming out of class with her book bag draped across her right arm. I grabbed the bag to pull her back. She fought me, causing more of a scene than I wanted. As I pulled her back, she lunged backwards into me, practically falling.

            “What is your problem?” she yelled, struggling to steady. “Why would you do that?”

            Somewhat shaken, I apologized, assuring her that I meant no harm. Still, she stormed away despite the group slowly forming around us. I didn’t know if that made things better or worse.

            “Look, I’m just trying to talk you. I have something I need to tell you, and it’s important I tell you because I feel like things might get out of hand.”

            Once again, she looked at me with confusion. She sighed heavily, shaking her head.

            “What are you talking about? What could possibly get out of hand?” she asked. I grabbed her by the arm again, pulling her towards a janitor’s closet that was nearby so we could have privacy. I jiggled the knob, surprised to see that it was left completely unlocked. I lead her inside, locking it so no one could disturb us.

            “I need to tell someone what happened yesterday. There’s a reason I had to snub Mal, and trust me, I’m not proud of it.”

            “Ok, so what was it? Did someone threaten to revoke your letterman jacket if you didn’t stop playing with him?” she recanted sarcastically.

            “It’s not quite that simple, Mariah. I think there might be something up with them. I got nervous. I’m kind of scared, to be honest.”

            She gave me a cold, stern look, not buying anything I was saying.

            “Why would you be scared? These are the same lame mofos we’ve been making fun of for years. What could possibly have changed now?”

            “Did I ever tell you how Jake came over my house and threatened me during try outs? Even with that, the conversation yesterday, and even some...suggestive texts I’ve gotten from Shakira have me thinking I might be in over my head.”

            Taken aback, Mariah’s expression changed as I’d divulge more information than I wanted.

            “Why was Shakira texting you?” she asked suspiciously. “How did she get your number?”

            Quick to lie to cover my ass, I told her I didn’t know. Actually, I really didn’t know. I’d suspected she’d gotten it out of Fergie or Malkum, but didn’t want to spend too much time on that subject. I needed her to focus on the fact that this was a Stepford football team where everyone was expected to act the same, hang out with the same people, and practically date the same girls.

            “Mariah, forget that for a minute. I think there might be a problem here and I’m just asking you to have my back when dealing with Malkum. I need him to understand that my back is against the wall.”

            She sighed again. “Why should I, Adrian? I don’t even see you anymore, you haven’t been around to see our son that we had together, and I feel like we’ve become strangers. I don’t think I would have the back of anyone I felt estranged from.”

            “I hear you, and I’m sorry, but you know it’s not all up to me. The team does take a lot of my time. I have to be at practices and games. It’s not like I’m going out of my way to do a lot of social events. Besides, you were excited for this.”

            “Whatever. I just know that Malkum isn’t the only person upset with you. I miss you, and I want my boyfriend back.”

            I nodded in compliance. “Ok, you guys win. I will try to figure something out.”

*

            Practice was a blur that afternoon. Sweat stung my eyes as the beads ran down my face despite the crisp, cool fall afternoon. Running to the locker room to call it quits for the day, I was interrupted--again--by Jake and his group of dysfunctional dill weeds.

            “What the hell do you guys want now?” I asked, feeling impatient.

            “We have a problem, Adrian. A big problem,” Jake said, his face dark. “You crossed a line.”

            “And what line would that be?” I asked, uncertain and a little shaken.

            Just then, Davante held up his cell phone. There was video clip uploaded from a social media site. He played the clip for me. I felt blood churn in my cheeks, probably turning me the brightest shade of red imaginable. My stomach dropped, my hands felt clammy. Holy shit. She’d recorded a video. Shakira recorded a video of her giving me head in the locker room and now it was online. Fuck me.

            “That’s the problem,” Jake said after the video ended. “You fucked around with my girl,” he said.

            I looked up, shocked he was calling her his girlfriend. I thought about ratting out Malkum, throwing his discrepancies with Shakira at that party over the summer out there, but didn’t want to risk Jake coming after him, too.

            “So, what do you want me to do about it? I can’t help if she wanted a real man. Besides, last I heard, you wanted my girl,” I asserted. Once again, Jake and I were standing toe-to-toe. He was so close, I could smell his breath. He slammed his helmet into the locker my back was up against in an attempt to rattle me, but I refused to collapse.

            “What the fuck did I tell you back in August? Clearly you have a very short memory,” he barked, his tone low.

            “No, dickhead. My memory is fine. You’re mad that your broad is a low-down bitch who will spread her legs for anyone and everyone. She probably don’t even want you,” I barked back.

            “Fuck you! I will end your life!” he hollered in my face, clearly upset with my statement. I wiped his saliva from my face, then turned around to grab my jacket.

            “Go ahead then, Jake,” I insisted. “You and your group of goons always asserting yourselves like the damn mafia. If you want to hurt my vessel, go right ahead. I haven’t tried to stop you yet.”

            Silent, I put a hand to my ear awaiting a retort.

            “What’s that? You all have nothing to say?” I asked sarcastically.

            “Don’t get so full of yourself, dipshit,” Ken snapped. “You won’t be so cocky when that video goes viral.”

            I shrugged it off. “Porn vids don’t go viral. They’re explicit, jackass.”

            “Well, that’s what email is for,” Davante said. “In a manner of seconds, your life will be ruined once everyone who has a school district email account sees this.”

            Fuck. I tried to think. He could’ve been bluffing, but he could’ve been serious. I couldn’t risk him doing that, because knowing my luck, my mother would see it. Mariah and Malkum could see it. Even if they never checked their school email, someone would show them undoubtedly. Our coaches could see it and put me off the team, or worse, expel me for fucking around on school property.

            “Ok, look. I know y’all got it in for me. I’m not trying to front like you don’t have me cornered right now. But for real, please don’t send that video. I don’t want people to see that.”

            “Why should we do you any favors?” Jake asked hastily. “This is a dream come true right now. I don’t need to beat you down, I just need to humiliate you. How does it feel?”

            I was cornered in the worst way. I could envision Mariah lashing out, her parents calling me all kinds of names and banishing me from their house, and losing Malkum as a friend forever for messing around with the girl he liked the most, not to mention my mother beating the crap out of me if I got expelled. I felt so completely and royally screwed, I needed a miracle to save face.

            I tried to react before it was too late. I lunged at Davante, grabbing for his phone. Too bad there was only one of me and three of them. As I pounced, Davante pulled himself away as Ken grabbed me. He pushed me hard into a locker, and Jake punched me in the stomach. Doubling over in pain, I tried to hold it together. I didn’t want to let on how much pain I was in, but that gut punch threw me off so much that I felt like vomiting.

            “Try it again and see what happens,” Jake said, nudging me in the head with his helmet. I panted, trying to catch my breath after the blow as I slowly rose to my feet.

            Once I was up, I was blindsided with another punch to the face, knocking my head into the locker.

            “Shit! What was that for?” I yelled, putting my hand over my face. I was practically in tears from that one, which felt like it went right into my eye socket.

            “Don’t put your grubby nigga hands on my girlfriend ever again,” he reiterated. Great. Shakira was into me, Jake wanted to kill me, Mal and Mariah were mad at me, and now there was a video available of something that could get me expelled and even put my mother and her job in trouble. What the hell was I going to do?

            I had to come clean to someone before things spun out of control. Once I was sure the brain dead society was out of the locker room, I stumbled over to Mr. Nelson’s office to see if he might still be in there. Naturally, the door was locked.

            Of course, Adrian. He would’ve come out if he’d heard the commotion.

            Trying his door, I wanted to see if there was a way to get his address from inside. I had to talk to him. I couldn’t handle this anymore. I was officially scared that something was about to blow up in my face, and knew I needed it fixed before it got worse. I managed to jiggle the knob and the door indeed popped open. I flipped the light switch, looking around at his desk for a business card or something. Trying not to move anything, I ebbed attendance books and hall passes around on his desk. I looked up at his cork board that hung on the wall above his computer and lucked out. A business card hovered in the corner with a pushpin in it. There was a god, and he was on my side tonight.

            I walked over, picking it up off the board and smiled. Relieved, I took off to Nelson’s house.

 

*

            I scurried around the side of the house to ensure that no one would see me. I hesitated to think of what hell would break loose if a misunderstanding occurred between me and an unsuspecting neighbor. I peaked in the windows looking for signs of life, and they were minimal. I assumed Nelson had a pet--I could hear a dog growling through the walls. I hoped he was home before I started banging on his door like a madman.

            I ran back around to the front, scanning the street for any cop cars or nosy neighbors. When I reached his front porch, the door creaked open before I could even knock.

            “What are you doing, running around my house like a damn spy?” Mr. Nelson asked me, a newspaper tucked under his arm and a beer in his hand. “You know I almost had a good mind to come out here and fire a few warning shots into your simple ass.”

            “I’m sorry, but I had to come down here and talk to you. I have a situation and I think you are the only person who can help out with it.”

            He sighed, shaking his head at me. “What nonsense did you get yourself into? I can’t help you if you got someone pregnant again.”

            “No, it’s nothing like that. I am having some issues with my teammates. I am a little shaken.”

            He eyed me up and down, deciding whether I was worth his time or not. I stood there, feeling utterly helpless in a tank top and sweatpants. I’d ran out of the locker room before retrieving my hoodie from my locker. Upon eying me, touched my chin and tilted my face upward into the porch lighting.

“Uh huh,” he murmured. “Where did that come from?” He asked in reference to my eye.

“That’s what I would like to talk about, Sir,” I said.

He let my face go, and invited me in. I looked around at his home, jealous of how lavish it was. He had his huge flat screen, a reclining sofa with outlets in the seats, and a mini-fridge as an end table. Clearly it was the end-all, be-all of man caves here. 

            “Grab a seat,” he insisted, offering me a bottle of water. “You look like hell, so tell me what happened.”

            I sat back and sighed before I began. I looked up at the ceiling, noticing the pristine chandelier with the Ravens logo engraved at the top. I closed my eyes momentarily, trying to gather my thoughts and where to start. I figured there was no point in splitting hairs, so I just started from the beginning.

            “I joined the football team to get my mother off my case because she had been so mad at me after getting Mariah Warner pregnant. I was shocked when I actually made the team. But now, I have a lot of people on my case even more than when I was just a nobody. Jake hates me and threatens me every day. Malkum and Mariah both hate me for “selling out”. Shakira Duran and I….well, we got to know each other in an indiscriminate way that is now coming back to haunt me because she taped it, and there’s a good chance it will be in every school district e-mail by morning.”

            He looked at me, confused. He probably couldn’t make any more sense of it all than I could, despite that I was giving him the condensed version of it all. I shuttered to think of what he could do to me and the other players, but I knew he had to be told.

            “And the black eye?” he asked stoically.

            “Jake,” I responded.

            “The possible video in my e-mail?” he asked.

            “Davante.”

            He nodded. Silence passed between us for what felt like an eternity. I internally pleaded for him to respond with a penalty, some words of wisdom, anything. But we only sat there, exchanging a stare.

            “Ok, I will take you home. I will deal with those two tomorrow, but we need to go talk to your mother before she finds herself with a situation she can’t control,” he warned.

            “Do you think she will get that e-mail?” I asked nervously.

            “Absolutely. I know you don’t want her to see it, but she needs to know it will come so she can be prepared on how to handle it. I will do my best to help you out.”

            With that, he escorted me out of the house and into his Ford F-150 pickup truck. I climbed in, still achy from the gut punch I’d taken earlier. Aside from me murmuring directions, the ride was quiet. I fidgeted as we got closer, petrified as to what my mother was going to say. Not surprisingly, she was already up and swung the door open when we pulled up. Without realizing it, it had gotten late and she’d probably been up worrying about me.

            “Adrian, where have you been? I called you and it didn’t answer!” she fussed. “Who is this with you, and what the hell happened to your face?” she asked, eying Nelson.

            “Ma’am, I’m Coach Nelson. Adrian came over this evening to talk to me about some issues he is having with his teammates, hence his lateness. I decided to bring him home as we need to talk.”

            “Hello. You’re my son’s football coach? Do you know what happened to his face?” she asked again as we walked inside.

            “Yes, he is being bullied by some teammates. Unfortunately, he shared an intimate moment with one of their girlfriends who recorded it, and they are now threatening to blackmail him with it,” Nelson informed her, sitting on the living room sofa.

            My mother looked at me, a mixture of shock and disgust in her face. I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing I could say.

            “Threatening to blackmail him how?” she asked, still looking at me. “Adrian, is there something I need to know? I want to hear it from you.”

            I couldn’t look at her. With my head down, I explained what happened and admitted that hormones got the best of me and that if the goons had their way, that video would be in every inbox tomorrow morning. She didn’t respond as I expected, however. She simply turned to Nelson and thanked him for bringing me home.

            “I appreciate it, and I hope this doesn’t jeopardize his spot on the team,” she implored, shaking his hand.

            “No, I am more concerned about the deviants on my squad who think assault and blackmail are okay,” he assured her. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to return home and make some phone calls.”

            I sighed a temporary sigh of relief. I didn’t know what was going to happen to them, but I knew at least their nights would be ruined. That made me feel a little better.

            Once Nelson left, I sat as I awaited my mother’s tirade. I knew there’d be one. There always was.

            “Go to bed,” was all she’d ordered. I sat there, perplexed. No yelling? No telling me how much this was all bullshit? No giving me an ultimatum?

            “That’s it?” I asked, surprised. “I expected you to yell at me.”

            “Well, clearly that hasn’t been doing either one of us any good, has it?” she retorted as she locked the door. “So, just go to bed.”

            I turned to the staircase, initially thinking that I was home free. Still, something just didn’t feel right. Why was she letting me off the hook so easily?

            “Mom, you’re not upset?” I asked, halfway up the stairs. “I thought you’d be furious.”

            She breathed deeply, massaging the bridge of her nose. “Adrian, I’m livid. I am so tired of your bad decisions. But I’m also tired of spending all of my time yelling at you. So, guess what? You win. Be a stereotype. Make babies you can’t take care of. Push people away. Disappoint your only parent that gives a damn about you. Do it all. You spent a month projecting a positive image and completely abolished it in one day. I give up,” she said, pushing past me on the stairs.

            Her voice was so unsteady and heartbroken. I hated my mom being mad at me, but hated her being disappointed even more.

            “Mom, come on. Wait,” I begged as I chased her up the stairs and to her room. She moved quickly when it suited her, and because I was still reeling from practice, she got away from me. I knocked on her door, listening for movement.

            “Mom, please open the door,” I begged. “I don’t want you upset.” I knocked again, slightly harder. After waiting for a response and getting nothing, I tried the knob. Her door was unlocked. I pried it open and peeked my head inside.

            “Mom?” I looked around and saw her nowhere. It seemed as though she’d vanished. I was taken aback standing her room, a place I rarely frequented. I hadn’t really been in here since I was a child, when I’d lay in bed with her on snow days and watch movies. Everything was how I remembered: she had a queen sized bed with plush lavender sheets, a large sixteen-by-twenty inch painting of Dorothy Dandridge, and the room always smelled of spiced apples, her favorite aroma. I felt a sense of nostalgia as I walked in, reminiscing on my childhood and spending such precious moments with my mother.

            I snooped around, looking for her by gently pressing down on the covers to see if her thin frame was hiding from me. I knocked on her bathroom door, too. Still nothing. I couldn’t imagine where she’d gone off to, but finally checked the closet.

            “Mom?” I whispered, looking down at her sitting on her closet floor, silent tears running down her face.

            “Mommy, I’m so sorry about everything. I really am,” I swore as I kneeled down to her. She sat there, her face wet and an empty look on her face like she had no more fight in her. “Please, just tell me what I can do to make it better.”

            Sitting there stoically, she glared at me momentarily. “All you had to do was go to school. I don’t know where or when it became so difficult for you to just go to school,” she said in a low register. “I don’t know if there is anything you can do, because when all this hits the fan, it’s going to tear down everything I’ve worked so hard to build.”

            “Well, maybe it won’t. Maybe they were just bluffing to throw me off. Maybe Nelson will get to them before anything happens,” I tried to reassure her, not knowing why I was wasting my time. She wasn’t buying it, and frankly, neither was I.

            “Adrian, it doesn’t matter. I am already looked at as a hypocrite for talking about how important education is and how it all starts at home, but I can’t even keep a handle on my own child. No one takes me seriously anymore, anyway,” she said, sighing heavily.

            I sat there, shocked that my mother was admitting such defeat. Not only that, but it hurt me deeply knowing that I’d had such an impact on her job without even realizing it. Initially, I felt that people were snobs for judging someone on their home lives, but then I realized how naive that was to think that someone would only judge a person by their character or work ethic. I never minded being “Stoner Adrian” because I knew it hurt no one but me—or at least that’s what I thought. Sitting here now, I knew my mother had paid for my ways even more than I had.

            “What do you want me to do?” I finally asked, desperate for some clear-cut direction on how to fix this situation.

            “Nothing. It’s over,” she uttered. “Just go to bed.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9

 

            It was another sleepless night as sleep eluded me. I stared mindlessly at the clock, my vision eventually blurring from staring so long. My legs tingled with restlessness, my palms clammy with anxiety. I had to get out.

            Grabbing my jacket, I threw on a pair of black boots and some jeans as a slithered out of my bedroom window and jumped down the side of the house. It was my signature move from my stoner days whenever I’d sneak out. Amazingly enough, I’d never been caught. My mother was an intense sleeper.

            I bear-crawled from the shrub under my window to the street, desperate to not be seen since I was up and about in the wee hours of the night. Once I finally made my way to the sidewalk, I began to walk erect. Despite that, I looked over my shoulder constantly. It was official—my nerves were rattled. My teammates had scared me senseless, and I felt paranoid that someone or something was always watching me. I zipped up the leather jacket as far as possible, desperate to escape the chill of the late October air. I found myself wandering aimlessly, gawking at Halloween decorations on the houses in the area. I looked at the tackiness of it all—fake blood, tombstones, cobwebs and skeletons. Why would someone place all this mess on their property?

 

            I wonder what their houses look like. Do they decorate? Do their parents hang lights? Are they living on better blocks than me?

 

            I suddenly felt myself feeling jealous of my team, wondering if maybe their lives were better than mine. I mean, they had to have something going for them if they could carry on in such a way and never be penalized for it. It angered me profusely. Looking at the seemingly perfect houses with their perfect decorations, I couldn’t help but think how much of it was a fraud. I knew it was for a lot of neighbors, but also wondered how crazy I must’ve been for not wanting any part of it—this fantasy world or even the football fantasy world. I was being offered a grand opportunity to be a part of something elitist, but didn’t care. I just wanted my slime ball lifestyle because it was comfortable. Everyone who was a part of it with me was legit, and I didn’t spend my days on eggshells wonder if I was measuring up. Well, I did, but not with my friends. They didn’t care I was a loser, didn’t care that I hadn’t figured it all out yet, and didn’t care to place unnecessary or undo pressure on me. My girlfriend was ok with the fact that I didn’t have a title, and didn’t seek me out for her own amusement and prestige.

 I mean, the whole thing with Shakira left me uneasy, but now I was wondering if maybe trying to blow her off was equally crazy. She’d seen me with Mariah not too soon after that night in the locker room, and knew I didn’t want to pursue her despite her consistency.

 

“Aaaaadriaaaannnn!” Shakira sing-songed my name as she approached my locker that afternoon, several days after my impromptu proposal to Mariah. “

Where have you been? I feel like I haven’t seen you all day.” As always, she draped her arm across my locker, forcing her chest in my face. Today, it was barely covered in a low-cut graphic Hello Kitty tee. Maybe it was sleep deprivation, but I wasn’t the least bit in the mood.

            “I’ve been busy,” was all I could muster up the energy to say. The day had been a rough one, with Mariah, Malkum and my mother all upset with me for different yet similar reasons.

            “Are you coming to my party Friday after the game?” she asked as she wrapped her free arm around my waist, pulling me as close to her as possible. “I really want you there. I have a special surprise for you.”

            I’d rolled my eyes. Any other day, any other time, any other century, I would’ve wasted no time getting her into the janitor’s closet during math class. Like I said, I was a slime ball and knew it.

            Today was just not that day, time, or century.

            “Shakira, I have to go. I have a lot to do. I’m trying to get my grades up and I’m starting some tutoring soon, so I probably won’t be around much on weekends or after games,” I lied.

            I’d stuffed the last of my notebooks into my book bag, despite wanting to hurl everything into an incinerator. She and I both knew my grades didn’t matter as long as I could throw a tight spiral.

            “Oh, ok,” she responded, surprised I was blowing her off. “Well, who’s tutoring you? Maybe I know someone better who can help both of us out.”

            “It’s probably no one you know. I don’t want to risk distractions from visitors.”

            “But I bet Mariah’s allowed to visit, isn’t she?” she asked, her voice thick with attitude.

            “Well, she might need me to help with the baby. That’s the difference.”

            She hastily folded her arms across her chest, sulking. “Well, you let me know what it is about her. I guess I wasn’t good enough of a lay for you.”

            “Shakira—“

            “Adrian, how dumb can you be? You’re in the big leagues now, and that means you need to be with a girl who represents your status, not someone who is a nobody. I remember your freshman year. You had such potential, but you had to go ahead and get suspended for keying the principal’s car. Sophomore year, you get suspended for dealing in the school like a moron with Javier and Jamal, and then you get that little girl pregnant. Now, you’re finally starting to come up and get some respect, get sucked off by someone who can make your reputation something you’ve never dreamed of, and you’re blowing me off? Are you insane? What the hell? Why are you so hung up on this bitch?” she asked, coldness in her eyes. “You are the only guy I want right now, and you just don’t seem to get that. I can take you places you’ve never been. I don’t care about anyone else. I’m trying to see what you’re about, so you tell me, what do I have to do?”

            I’d sighed, throwing my book bag over my right shoulder and hugging her with my left. I looked her in her eyes, and could only wonder how much sincerity I saw in her. There were no tears, no curiosity, no mystique, or even wonderment. I struggled pinpointing any actual emotion. I kissed her softly on the forehead.

            “Shakira, you’ve only been trying to come at me because I’m on the team now. You never paid me any mind before, and despite your attempts, I refuse to be that guy, and I don’t want to be that guy. It’s not fair to Mariah, or to me. She and I deserve someone who believes in commitment, not just popularity. Mariah deserves loyalty, and I deserve to respect myself enough to not be labeled a philanderer.”

She raised an eyebrow, attitude written all over her face. “So you’d rather commitment than attention and fun? You can’t have much fun with someone who is home all the time caring for an infant, and I know you’d rather be hanging out with me, having a good time in a way you’ve never thought possible.”

            I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter, because I feel more for her than I do for you. I’m sorry,” I announced, closing the locker.

            She glared at me one last time as I ran off…

 

Returning my thoughts to now, I turned around to look back down the street, and saw that our part of the block was dark. Nothing artificial gave the illusion of unity, because frankly, there was none. My mother and I never decorated. Why bother? It was a phony precedent to set—we were not a close family, and probably never would be again.

            My aimlessness landed me in the highway around 4:30am. I exhaled deeply as I thought about the long walk I’d have to take back home, but didn’t mind. Incidentally, I found myself feeling peaceful looking down at the road. I could see cars merging onto the interstate, and I pondered their travels. I wished for my own ability to drive, to escape. More than anything, I wished I had a joint on me. It felt like an ideal location to blow one and kick back. I thought about Fergie, his house arrest, and laughed at the idea of him bringing me something all the way out here over the highway. I briefly thought of his parents and their lackadaisical attitude with him. All it did was leave him with a reputation as the neighborhood manufacturer. Not really something to be proud of, yet they never gave him a hard time about it.

            Then, I thought about Mr. and Mrs. Warner. They were stern, harsh even. Malkum and Mariah both had straight A’s, never missed a day of school, and never saw the inside of a detention hall or even been suspended because any faltering would mean their asses. Mariah’s pregnancy left a permanent strain on her relationships with her parents, one that I felt particularly guilty for. We were both nagged to death about abortion, or at very least, adoption. Mariah cried to her parents about wanting to keep her child until they finally broke—only after Mr. Warner made me sign a contract that I would participate 50% of any monies I came across (part-time job, allowance, etc.) and 25% of my time at their home with the baby. He played no games.

            My mind circled back to my own mother. I always felt she was a happy-medium between the two, but wasn’t sure anymore if anything she’d done had worked. I thought of where we were, and our relationship was severely damaged to what felt like beyond repair. She wasn’t so lenient that I grew and dealt weed throughout the neighborhood, but she wasn’t so strict that I’d wet myself if I got a B on my report card. Yet, we seemed to be doing way worse. So, what went wrong?

            Sitting on the ground, I picked at the rocks and leaves around me. I tried to find solutions to my current dilemmas, but all the walking and thinking and overanalyzing had done nothing for me but leave me wishing I could disappear yet again. I continually looked down at the cars, tempted to jump down with the hopes of landing on someone’s roof, them driving me to a new location where I could start over.

 

            I wonder if Nelson ever got in touch with any parents.

 

            As much as I wished that was the case, I felt like it wouldn’t make a difference. Even if he’d suspend all the players, I would still have to go to school with them. I would be the reason they got kicked off the team, and have even more people pissed with me. Shit, talk about a no-end situation.

 

            You need a plan B.

 

            Dare I set myself back even further down the totem pole and get a job? Go from pothead, to football star, to fry cook? Talk about a huge step backwards in societal importance. I felt so overwhelmed.

            “Fuck!” I shouted, throwing the handful of leaves I had as if it would make an impact. Checking my phone, I decided to log into my school account to see the fate that awaited me. I knew if that video was sent, I would have it, also. I just had to know if it was there. I had to know it I was as screwed as I thought, or if Nelson had managed some damage control.

            I logged into Outlook and waited for what felt like forever for the data to pick up and open the inbox. I held my phone up, hoping for a stronger signal. My inbox was bombarded with reminders about school fairs, pep rallies, parent-teacher conferences, and midterm exams. I scrolled for something that could’ve been a video disguised as anything else—a grumpy cat gif, a sneezing dog, a UFO sighting, anything. I would expect nothing less as it was an easy trap.

            Scrolling through the e-mail, I saw nothing deceitful or remotely misleading. I started to think that I’d lucked out, and Nelson got to them before they could send it. Maybe my luck was starting to change after all. My anxiety subsided momentarily, until I got an unsolicited text from a blocked number.

            Opening the text, it read a simple, “You’ve crossed the line again”. I immediately thought it was Jake, but had no proof as it was a blocked number. I didn’t really know what to make of it, and couldn’t help but wonder how random people kept getting my number. I hated feeling like I was being watched, and the momentary relief I felt was quickly overthrown by instant panic. Looking around, I checked for someone to be peering at me. Undoubtedly, it was a football goon. But then again, it could’ve been one of their little friends, a parent, a sibling, a girlfriend. They’ve made it clear that their torturous techniques were indeed an all-for-one effort, and they recruited frequently.

            Once I realized that I was indeed alone, I decided to make my way back home. It was going on 5AM, and if my mother woke and noticed I wasn’t there, I’d have another problem on my hands. I rustled through the bushes as I made my way back. My own rustling sounded louder than usual.

 

            Maybe it’s a squirrel.

 

            I walked hurriedly through the leaves, eager to get back before the sun started to come up. As I walked, more rustling.

            I turned around quickly, panic-stricken. Nothing. With my head over my shoulder, I exhaled deeply before turning back around. Within the blink of an eye, I lunged back to the ground from the force of a jab to the face.

 

            Holy shit!

 

            On the ground, I struggled to open my eyes as I took another jab to the face. Tasting blood, I stirred wildly on the ground trying to get back to my feet so I could defend myself. My breathing became rapid and shallow. Scared and angry, I wiped what I knew was blood from my face to jump back up only to receive a third punch to the face, and a jab to the stomach. I hit the ground harder than I had the first time, assuming I’d been tripped this round. My fear and anger transformed into sheer confusion, as I had no idea why I was being pummeled. Not being able to fight back had left me completely winded and practically unable to recuperate. This time, I lay there, hoping my attacker would stop.

            “Get up!” I heard a low, muffled voice yell. Incapable of complying, I continually lay there.

            “Get up, faggot!” the voice asserted again.

            Writhing in pain, I was grabbed by the throat and punched in the face again before being dragged someone I couldn’t imagine. I could hardly breathe, so fighting back was officially out of the question. My legs were rubbery, my stomach ached, and I was now spitting blood and what felt like a loose tooth. My eyes had begun to swell, so I couldn’t even open them to see who was beating the crap out of me.

            Whoever dragged me was either incredibly strong or had help. I felt my upper body being pulled by my arms as my legs were carried. Wherever he, she, or they had taken me, it was inside a car or van. Sound was the only sensation I’d had left, because I couldn’t see, feel, smell, or taste anything but darkness, pain, outside and blood.

 

            Dear God, I just want to go home.

 

            Another punch to the stomach, another jab to the face. The attacks came quicker, stronger, and from more directions. My body went numb. I was overwhelmed with pain. It consumed me. I tasted my blood and vomit mix as I gasped for breath. I just wanted it to be over. I prayed for it to be over. I couldn’t even cry, it all hurt so badly. No tears, no breath. Just pain.

*

            I blinked profusely as tears flooded my eyes. Whatever tears I couldn’t cry the night I was beat down were coming full force now. I looked up, trying to clear my vision. My arms hurt too much to wipe my face, leaving everything blurry.

            “Let me get you a tissue,” I heard from the left side of me. It vaguely sounded like my mother. I couldn’t be sure since my ears were ringing from so many blows to the head. She dabbed my eyes gently, yet still inflicting pain. I shuttered to think what I looked like. Maybe it was all in my head, but it felt like 30 people had gotten to me at once. My entire body ached for relief that I knew wasn’t going to come until I’d healed.

            “Mom?” I asked, my mouth too sore to really speak.

            “Shhh, it’s me. Don’t try to talk. You’ve been worked over pretty severely here,” she informed me.

            I had so many questions for her, but was in too much pain to ask. I wanted to know who it was, where they’d taken me, where they left me, and how I ended up in what I presumed was a hospital.

            “Mom,” I insisted again, hoping my tone would encourage her to give me some details to all the chaos that I’d encountered.

            “I don’t know very much. I just know you were left on the porch around 6:30 this morning. I called 911 and they brought you straight here. They were worried about you having a concussion because you took a couple of punches to the head.”

            “Who?” I asked despite the pain.

            “I’m guessing whoever you’ve been having issues with on the football team,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “But don’t worry, you will still be able to play once you heal,” she assured me.

            Damn. In a moment of desperation, I’d hoped I’d broken a bone and would be able to stay off the field for a while. It would’ve helped ease my anxiety, because things were starting to get out of control. I almost cried at the fact that, yes, I will still be able to play football.

            “When can I go home? I just want to lay in my own bed,” I asked, eager to forget this awful experience.

            “Maybe tonight. I’m sorry about the fight we had, love. You know I would never want anything bad to happen to you,” she said, tears in her eyes.

            “I know, Mom. Besides, all this is my fault,” I mumbled, my mouth still sore from the punches. “I am struggling with fixing this madness. I don’t know what to do,” I admitted to her.

            She rubbed her temples, clearly as lost as I was about how to fix what felt like a no-end situation. Clearly, Nelson had managed to keep the e-mail from being sent. However, it backfired in the form of me catching a beat down for “telling” on the team. So I was damned no matter what I did.

            “Maybe you should just quit. It seems like that’s what these boys want,” Mom suggested.

            “Honestly, I don’t think that’s what they want. I think they want me on the team because I do help win games. No one wants to part of a loser team or from a loser school. I think it’s more of an assimilation thing. They want me to know my place and partake accordingly, which is what I refuse to do.”

            I attempted to sit up with no luck. I became angered that these fuckers had ruined my friendship, possibly my relationship, my mother’s career, and now my basic ability to move on my own. No matter how temporary it all was, it wasn’t fair that they were able to run rapid like this throughout the world and the rest of us had to just eat crow and deal with it.

            Mom and I exchanged silence as she looked at me inquisitively, probably trying to piece together my thoughts as I festered. Suddenly, we heard a knock on my door. Mom rushed over to get it, and I heard a pleasant yet surprised, “Hi!” come from her. It made me optimistic—for once—that maybe something upbeat and positive was coming down the pike.

            Mom pulled back the curtain to my bed, revealing Malkum and Mariah. Utterly shocked yet pleasantly surprised, I waved at the two. They solemnly waved back.

            “I guess I will give you all a minute,” Mom insisted. “I will be in the hall if you need anything.”

            With that, she left, leaving the three of us in an uncomfortable silence.

            I tried to shift in the bed, once again with no luck. I was too sore.

            “What brings you guys by?” I stifled. “How did you even know I was here?”

            “Your mom. She called the house to let us know you’d been attacked, and was curious as to if we knew anything about it,” Mal informed me.

            “What happened?” Mariah asked. I eyed the two momentarily, thinking about how much of a jerk I’d been to them. I could tell both were still reeling from my betrayal. Both stood at the far end of the bed, arms folded across their chest as they looked at me.

            “Eh, I was out wandering around and trying to clear my head when I was jumped. I couldn’t see who it was, but I’m guessing they were teammates. They fuckin’ hate me.”

            “You’re just making all kinds of new friends,” Mal said sarcastically. “Only you would go from being a hated loner to a hated popular person. There’s no happy medium for you, is there?”

            “No, I guess not. I’m sorry about everything, guys. That’s all I have right now is a sincere apology,” I implored. They continually looked at me, their eyes dark with distrust.

            “We just came to make sure you weren’t dying, but to be honest, we have talked it over, and we don’t accept any apology from you. We’ve known you a long time and we know that you will talk the talk, but your actions don’t show shit,” Mariah said, enraged.

            “We’re glad you didn’t get severely injured, but until you give us reason to believe you are actually our Adrian, and not sell-out Adrian, we’re not trying to hear anything you have to say,” Mal said.

            “Call us when you’re feeling like yourself again,” Mariah said as they turned to leave.

            “Guys, wait!” I screamed, bolting up and putting myself in even more pain than I was already in. “I really need you guys on my side right now. There’s something happening and I am pretty sure I am screwed if I stay on this team or not, and I just need to know I have some support somewhere when the shit hits the fan.”

            “What are you talking about?” I heard Malkum ask as he stood near the door. “What things are happening?”

            I sighed deeply, realizing I finally had to admit the betrayal that had occurred between me and Shakira. I thought that maybe once my conscious was clear, I’d at least have my squad back on my side. But then again, I was vulnerable right now and couldn’t escape. They could very well use this moment to fuck me up even more than I already was.

            “Ok, I have to tell you guys something. Please promise you won’t get mad,” I begged.

            “We promise nothing,” Mariah snapped. “Just say what you need to say.”

            I sighed deeply, trying to think of a way to ease into it. “A couple of days ago I was getting out of the shower in the locker room, and Shakira was in there. I didn’t mean for anything to happen, but…”

            “You fucked her?” Mariah interrupted. “Did you fuck that lame-ass, pop star, celebutante wanna-be?”

            “No, technically, I didn’t,” I defended, hearing the anger arise in her voice already.

            “But you messed around with her,” Mal inferred. “You want us to ride for you when you over here playing us both? Are you serious right now?”

            “I don’t have anyone else to help me. I’m seriously worried for my life right now. Look at me!”

            “Yeah, I’m looking, and I’m sure that somehow, you had it coming,” Mal said, storming from the room. Mariah shook her head at me, lagging behind.

            “When you’re done playing ‘hood football star’, it wouldn’t kill you to spend five minutes with your child, by the way. If you don’t want to, just let me know. I’m sure your mom would love to hear that.”

            I listened to the door slam as they left. I hated that they came in with skepticism and left with fury. My heart sank as I knew those two relationships were damaged for good, and it would take an act of congress for them to ever be reestablished. I didn’t know what to do.

            Laying back in the bed, I stared at the ceiling. I was at a complete and utter loss. My only other option was one that I never wanted to resort to, but knew it was my only hope. It was time to assimilate.

*

            “It’s about time you decided to see things our way,” Jake said to me on the phone a week after my beat down. “We have some business to tend to, so meet us at the field tonight at eleven.”

            I sighed again as I ended the call, nervous and disappointed that I’d sold my soul to a high school football team. Of all the things, this is one that I never thought would occur in my life. And this meeting tonight? It made me petrified as to what “business” we could possibly have? Was it a hazing? Someone had already kicked my ass, thank you. I didn’t know who, but I’m sure it was someone from the team. I’d been blackmailed, and that resulted in just what they wanted--my ties being cut with the people I loved and trusted most.

            Sitting on my bed, I looked around the room. What did I have to show for all of this? A damn letterman jacket that I didn’t even wear? Once the season was over, I’d receive a varsity letter and maybe a trophy. Nothing worth remembering or keeping. I knew homecoming was a few days away, and that was a monumental night, but my mind was made up. After homecoming, I was done.

 

            I guess I will just get a job or something.

 

            I thought about looking now, canvassing the neighborhood and local areas for anywhere that would hire a teenager. I didn’t want to do fast food, but figured it was the best place to start.

            I decided to hit the street, but then realized all the crap that had been going on lately, it might be best for me to lay low and look online. Aside from going to the field tonight to tell these bums that I was done after homecoming, I didn’t want people to see me. I felt like I now had a scarlet letter on me, and the world would know that I was public enemy number one for so many people, for an unfortunate amount of reasons. No one wanted to see me, except the people I didn’t want to see.

            Booting up the computer, I scrolled through pictures of me and Malkum, Mariah, and Fergie back when things felt shitty, but normal. I missed them all. I decided to call Malkum, hoping he would pick up the phone.

            I listened to the phone ring redundantly. I don’t know what I expected--I fooled around with the girl he liked. That was rule number one of the “bro-code”. He wasn’t going to answer. I had to go over there.

            “Mom!” I yelled as I came down the stairs. “I’m headed over to Mal and Mariah’s house,” I informed her, throwing my leather jacket on. I hadn’t worn it in a while, and I felt like I’d lost a part of my identity without it.

            “You’re going over there? They didn’t seem too happy with you when they left the hospital last week.”

            “Is anyone ever happy with me?” I asked sarcastically as I opened the door. “I will see you later.”

            Taking a deep breath, I ran two blocks down the street to the Warner house, a place I hadn’t frequented since the summer. It felt surreal going back there; I no longer felt I belonged. Still, I hoped they’d taken some time to cool down and would be willing to talk to me again.

            “Go away!” I heard a voice yell before I could even knock on the door. “Your company is not wanted!” I looked around, not seeing anyone in the windows or outside.

 

            Who the hell?

 

            I opted to knock anyway, uncertain as to who was objected when I couldn’t even tell if anyone was home.

            “You are so hard-headed! We said, ‘go away’!” I heard the same voice yell. I looked up towards the top of the house. Mal, Mariah, and Fergie were up on the roof. I felt melancholy and nostalgic, reminiscing on my rooftop days with them. I could use a hit of weed right now.

            “Hey! Come on, guys! I just want to talk!” I shouted up. “Please, just let me explain myself!”

            “Why should we? You aren’t on good terms with anyone up here, and frankly, life is better without you in it. No more drama!” Mal shouted.

 

            Ouch. That was below the belt.

 

            “Guys, we are friends! I don’t want to end twelve years of friendship over one season of football! I have to tell you something that I think will get you to trust me again, but I can’t shout it from the street!”

            I could hear mumbling, and soon saw Mariah direct Fergie to let me in the house. Once the door popped open, I rushed up to the roof to sit with them.

            “Thanks, guys. I have something really important to tell you,” I said.

            “Even more important than the romp with Shakira in the locker room?” Mal asked bitingly.

            “Yes, I am quitting the team,” I exclaimed. Surprised by the luring silence, I went on to mention, “Tonight”.

            “Ok, you want a cookie?” Mariah barked. “How is that good news for us? You think that we’re over here like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait till we get our Adrian back. We hope he leaves those mean football muscle heads alone so he can come back to us!’ We all have more pride than that.”

            “Well, I thought you all would like to know so that you know I miss you. I want to be with my friends again.”

            “But we don’t want to be with you, so….” Mal sniped. “We are not on good terms, and you quitting the team for us isn’t really enough to show us we should fuck with you again. I mean, you messed around with someone I’d just told you I had sex with, who you knew I’d been into since middle school. You knew all this, and still fucked around with her.”

            “It wasn’t like I didn’t try to stop her, but she’s pretty damn persistent.”

 

            Fuck. Why did I say that? That makes it sound like we’d been going back and forth for a while.

 

            “Wait a minute. Persistent? She’d been chasing you?” Mariah asked.

 

            Yeah, I knew that was going to bite me in the ass.

 

            “Well, she hadn’t been chasing me, but at the particular moment, she wouldn’t let up. That’s all I’m saying.”

            Fergie just sat back, shaking his head as Mal and Mariah stared at me. Neither cared what I had to say. I thought maybe a week would be long enough to heal some wounds since we’d all known each other for so long, but I was learning very quickly that I was wrong.

            “Go home, Adrian,” Mal finally said. “We just don’t care to hear it.”

            I looked at the one last time, scowling at me with such animosity and disgust. Twelve years of playing, loving, crying, joking and caring completely obliterated. Was it that easy to turn it off and stop caring for someone because of one mistake?

 

            Excuse the hell out of me for not having it all figured out.

 

            I stood up, addressing them one last time. “You know what? I guess guys you assholes don’t think you ever did anything to hurt me. Like you’ve never played me and left me out in the cold, or cause a discrepancy in my life. Fine. You all want to sit here and play the victim because I got a damn blowjob from some trampy girl who’s been messing around since fifth grade, then fine. Get all in your feelings. Stay in there, too. If you ever decide to come out, you will realize that our friendships are all we fucking have.” I paused momentarily. “Actually, you know what? No, you won’t, because you all are too busy running scared and staying cooped up in your little bullshit world. At least I took a chance. You all loved that shit. You loved having a football playing boyfriend, and you loved the idea that I could use my pull to get you an actual date with Shakira. Don’t deny it. Now you all want to play funny? Go right ahead. Fuck you all.”

            “What did I do?” Fergie asked, clearly hurt by the statement.

            “Nothing, that’s what. You sat here and listened to them bag on me, and you did nothing,” I said, running back through the house.

 

            This is bullshit. I don’t need them. I am a football player now. They are going to learn what it means to play me. I got pull now they can’t even imagine. Just wait.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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