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Authors: Chris O'Guinn

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BOOK: Fearless
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“I’m not, you know, an athlete. I mean, seriously,” I looked down at my skinny body to try to demonstrate my point.

“We can train you up.”

More P.E.? Who is he kidding?

“C’mon, coach, you can’t be this desperate.”

Lancaster shook his head. “You may be a klutz on land, but you’re a fish in the water, son. Your time today easily qualifies you for the team.”

I felt an unfamiliar swell of pride at that. “You know I don’t do well with teams.”

Lancaster scowled. “Look, son, the team needs you. I get it. You think you’re too cool to join a school team.”

“I don’t think that.”

“Don’t interrupt.” I shut my mouth and let him continue. “I was you, once. I was terrible at everything. I was slow and clumsy—last picked for every team. Then I discovered I was good at something. My something was wrestling. Yours is swimming. Is it really worth pissing away your talent just because you think you’re too cool for school activities?”

I didn’t much like being scolded by my least favorite adult. I wrapped my towel tighter around myself and glared at him. Soaking wet and shivering, I’m sure I really intimidated him.

“That’s not it at all. I just know how the story ends and it’s not with a ‘happily ever after.’”

“So you’re so scared of failing you won’t even try?”

“I’m not scared,” I told him through chattering teeth. “I just don’t want to.”

Lancaster rolled his eyes. “Well, we practice every day at two. If you change your mind, come on by.”

“Okay,” I told him, turning to leave.

“Oh, and I should mention, being on a team counts as your P.E. credit, so you wouldn’t have to be in this class anymore.”

That stopped me in my tracks. “Really?”

“Yep.”

I wasn’t sure that was reason enough to risk the inevitable humiliation of trying to infiltrate the ranks of the jocks, but it was a pretty good incentive. The coach might be a bastard, but he apparently wasn’t stupid.

“I’ll think about it.”

So now I had that on my mind. I couldn’t deny that I was really flattered to be asked. Over the summer, I’d gotten a letter inviting me to join the track team. Since I had never done track, there was no reason for me to get such a letter unless they just sent one to everyone. So there was nothing special about that invitation.

Coach Lancaster had seen my embarrassing attempts at basketball, though. And he had seen me in the water. He knew what he could expect from me. So his invitation was a lot harder to ignore. But it wasn’t that simple.

Being on a team could mean friends and having a place and maybe not being a total freak. Those all sounded good, but they weren’t guaranteed. I could easily be the odd-man-out on the team as well, the one people put up with because I had made the team but who they avoided because I was still me. It’s not like getting on the team would change who I was—the gay klutz with the glasses and the weird way of talking.

And what if I lost? What if I turned out to be a total failure? Then I’d go from being the weird kid at the school to being the dead weight dragging the swim team down. I couldn’t even guess how bad things would get for me then.

All in all, it sounded like a very, very bad idea. There was just way too much risk with a very small chance for reward.

Liam wasn’t in English class either. At that point, I just wrote him off as one brief but very weird high school experience. It was probably for the best, I decided. He was one complication I really didn’t need. My mom would freak out if she found out I was hanging with a guy who did drugs.

“How’s it hanging?” Zach asked when I got to Physical Science.

“Hey,” I said.

“Oh, you’re smiling. Who’s the lucky girl?” he asked.

I hadn’t even noticed that I was smiling. What was that all about? What was wrong with me? “I, uh, it’s not…. I had a good morning.”

Zach’s grin got even bigger. “Like I said, who’s the girl?”

Not being straight, it took me a little bit to add things up to figure out what he was suggesting. A braver me would have said something like, “Dude, girls aren’t my thing.” But that wasn’t me. I didn’t even know how to banter without offending people. Now that was a class I would happily take—”How to talk to people.” Talk about a useful skill to prepare us for life.

“Uh, no, I, uh….” There was a lot of stammering and stuttering at this point, interspersed with a silent prayer that the earth would open up and swallow me whole. Finally, I managed to get out, “I got asked to join the swim team.”

“Really? Cool. I’d be freaked out, myself. Have you seen the Speedos the swim team wears? I’d never be able to run around like that.”

For a moment I was pleasantly distracted by the image of Zach in a Speedo. He could be wet, with rivulets of water sliding down over his flawless skin, snaking around his pert brown nipples and traipsing downward….

I filed that image away for later use. In its place, I put me in a Speedo. And if I didn’t already have enough reasons to say no to the team, that one was enough to kill the whole idea. There was no way I was going to subject myself to that sort of public humiliation.

“You should totally go for it,” Zach said.

I gaped at him. “I should?”

“Dude, being on a team is like a free pass to as much tail as you want.”

Including yours?

I wished I had the balls to say something like that. The look on his face would have been priceless. But of course, I didn’t. There were just way too many ways that that could go wrong.

I was completely surprised to see Liam in History. He was wearing a black hoody to match his dark sunglasses and ski cap, so he looked even more thuggish than usual. His head was pillowed on his arms. I wasn’t sure why he needed a nap at one in the afternoon, but I had some guesses.

“Hit the bong a little too hard last night?”

He didn’t respond save to flip me off. I didn’t care. Whatever weird impulse had driven him to make an effort in class and try to be friends had clearly passed. It wasn’t important to my life.

But for some reason, I just couldn’t stop asking myself why had he bothered at all? And why he had even come to school after missing half of it? It was an effort, obviously, so why was he making it? He still didn’t quite fit into his box, no matter how hard I shoved him into it.

Just to really confuse me, he roused himself and pulled his homework out of his bag and handed it to me. “Can you make sure it doesn’t suck too bad?”

He’d done his homework somewhere between hits on his bong? I just didn’t get it. I nodded to him and took the sheets of neatly-printed pages from him. Looking at his face, I thought he looked even paler than usual. In fact, he kind of looked like crap.

I checked over his homework while watching him out of the corner of my eye. He looked more than tired. He looked sick. Was that why he had been late today? If so, I couldn’t really fault him, but he had seemed fine yesterday.

“Looks good except that number six is Ramses II and not Seti I.”

“Thanks,” Liam mumbled and took the homework back.

He scribbled out the wrong answer and penned in the right one.

“You sick?”

“I’m fine,” he insisted. “Just waiting for the Red Bull to kick in.”

I was sure he was lying, but I couldn’t figure out why. He was always bailing on school, so why was he showing up when he really looked like he should be home? It just didn’t make sense. He was really quite frustrating, the way he refused to conform to the stereotype I had assigned him.

Over the course of the class, I watched him slowly return to life like an animated corpse. His color was still sickly, but he was awake and paying attention, at least. I considered asking him if he still wanted me to come over, but I just figured he was looking forward to going home and going back to the sleep that school had interrupted.

So I was completely surprised when he found me at the bike racks at the end of the day. He came up to me, puffing away on a joint, and gave me this friendly smile like we really were just buds. I didn’t know what to make of that, honestly. It was like he just didn’t care what an odd match we made. In his mind we were friends.

“There you are,” he called. “You want a ride to my house?”

“Um, sure.”

“Come on, my dad’s waiting,” Liam told me. He pinched off the joint and tucked it away. I didn’t see how that would in any way disguise that he had been smoking weed, but that was his problem and not mine.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to see when I met Liam’s dad, but it certainly wasn’t the average guy in the cheap suit that I found. Balding, a little flabby, he didn’t look to be the sort of guy that would be raising a juvenile delinquent. He looked more like the guy I bought my shoes from.

We put my bike in the trunk of the old Ford and I got in the back seat. Liam’s dad smiled at me and said I could “call him Mike.” Then he turned to Liam and asked him how he was doing.

Seriously? A caring dad? I was so confused.

“Well, I haven’t thrown up in an hour, so I think I’m all better. Does that mean I can get McDonald’s?”

Mike smiled at his son. “Your mom would kill us both.”

“Aw, c’mon, I’d give my left nut for a cheeseburger.”

I gaped at him. Teenagers don’t talk to their parents that way. Do they?

“Okay, fine, but just a Happy Meal.”

“Man, lame,” Liam complained.

“We could just go straight home.”

“Okay, okay, a Happy Meal sounds good.”

“Good choice.” Mike looked back at me. “You want anything?”

“Uh, no, I’m good.”

The fast food reinvigorated Liam much more than the Red Bull had. He gobbled up every fry and devoured the burger like it was the finest feast in the world. Afterwards, he licked his fingers clean, humming in contentment.

“That’s what I’m talking about.”

“There’re breath mints in the glove compartment,” Mike told his son. “Please use one.”

“In a minute.”

I watched like some kind of slack-jawed idiot as Liam took the half-smoked joint out of his pocket and lit it with a cheap cigarette lighter. He did it casually, like it was the most typical thing in the world and not an illegal substance.

“Liam!” Mike snapped.

“Geez, chill already. I’m getting to it.”

Liam rolled down the window. That was it. That was all he needed to do to appease his dad. I looked back and forth between them, waiting for the punch line. There just had to be a gag here, even though I had zero guesses about what it could be. I mean, I was just completely at a loss to explain what I was seeing.

What the shit is going on?

Chapter 5

W
E EVENTUALLY CAME TO AN
apartment complex I had only been to once before. My mom and I had checked it out when we were looking for a place. But it had seemed a little too seedy, even if it was a great deal. The thing I remembered most was not liking the way the manager had looked at my mom.

Mike dropped us off and then left. I watched him go, still trying to figure out how to even ask about the joint thing.

“Where’s he going?”

“Oh, he has to get back to work.”

Liam said this with a look in his eyes I knew to be sadness. It was an emotion I had never expected to see on his face. Before I had a chance to ask about it, he told me to follow him. So I just fell into step with the most confusing guy I had ever met—
ever
.

Liam (chewing on an Altoids) led me into his apartment. At once, the claustrophobic feeling of clutter pressed in on me. The walls were lined with bookshelves, and each was packed with massive tomes and binders and reams of paper. The floor, too, was piled high with the same sort of haphazard mess. The den had a worn couch and a desk with an old computer on it.

A big golden retriever ambled over to us and nuzzled Liam affectionately before sniffing me to make sure I could be trusted. Liam’s face lit up as he knelt down to pet and hug the friendly animal, cooing so adorably that it made me smile.

“Hey, Sully, this is Justin. Don’t bite him.”

The way the dog looked up at me with his long pink tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, I wasn’t much worried about getting bitten. I reached out and petted his fluffy golden head.

“Is that you, Liam?” a woman’s voice called.

“It’s me, mom. And I brought my friend Justin with me.”

Liam’s mom was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen in real life. I guess I mean that she was obviously a beautiful woman, underneath the signs of exhaustion. Her green eyes were soft and kind, but under them were dark rings that hinted at many sleepless nights. Her face was flawless, but it was also gaunt.

She cleaned her hands with a towel and smiled at the both of us. “Justin, it’s nice to meet you. You can just call me Anna.”

“Um, hi.” I looked sidelong at Liam. “Uh, nice to meet you too.”

“We’re going to take Sully out to the park, okay?”

A brief squall of worry passed over Anna’s face, and when it was gone her warm smile was back. “All right. Dinner’s at five.”

“Hot dogs and potato salad?” Liam asked, and even I could tell that his hopeful look was sarcastic.

“Very funny. The store had a good sale on cabbage and spinach, so it’s Brown Rice Bake tonight.”

“Joy,” Liam sighed.

“Are you staying for dinner?”

“Uh,” I looked at Liam and I could see he didn’t want to face this mysterious rice dish alone. My mom was going to be working late anyway. “If it’s not any trouble.”

“Of course not, there’s plenty.”

“In fact, you can have mine,” Liam muttered.

“Liam….”

He affected an innocent look, which made his mom roll her eyes and head into the kitchen. “Be sure to take some water with you to the park.”

Liam grabbed two bottles of water and handed them to me. Then he grabbed a Frisbee and told Sully to follow him and we were out the door. Unlike every other dog I had ever met, Sully did not bolt as soon as freedom appeared before him. He stayed right by Liam’s side. However, from the way he was wagging his tail, it was clear he was very excited to be out of the small, cramped apartment.

BOOK: Fearless
6.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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