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Authors: Chris O'Guinn

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Fearless (7 page)

BOOK: Fearless
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“I dare you.”

“I’m sorry, are we eight?”

Liam laughed. I didn’t like being pushed, but I had to admit that with him encouraging me, the whole idea was a little less ridiculous-sounding. I chewed on my thumbnail and brooded. In the span of three days, my entire plan for surviving high school had been put into the wood chipper.

 I waited until the class was dismissed before approaching Lancaster. I still didn’t really like him, but I guess that wasn’t important.

“Uh, so, uh, if it’s still okay…. I mean, if you still want me to…. What I mean is, if there’s still room on the team….” He didn’t say anything as I floundered. Like I said, he wasn’t one of my favorite people. “I’d like to join the team,” I finally managed to say.

“You sure? I don’t want you to put some half-ass effort into it and then quit after a couple of days.”

He was starting to piss me off. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Good. You’ll need some equipment, a signed permission slip and a note from your doctor that you’re cleared to join. I’ll get the forms,” he said, turning to go.

“Er, a doctor? I’m not sick, really,” I told him, causing him to stop.

“School rules, kid.”

“I don’t…. That is, my mom doesn’t….”

Lancaster actually looked sympathetic, for once. I was shocked he even knew how. “Don’t worry about it, kid. There’s a clinic you can go to. It’s not expensive.”

I breathed a little easier. “Um, okay.”

After I got changed, Lancaster handed me a packet of papers. One was the permission form, another was a list of the things I was going to need like goggles and (oh crap!) a couple of Speedos. I’d forgotten about the dress code.

Liam met me outside the locker room and swiped the packet out of my hand. “Holy shit! I didn’t think you’d do it.”

I glared at him, choosing to blame him for the mess I was now in. “And now there’s no way out of it, either. The coach made me promise I’d stick with it.”

“Good for him. Oh, Speedos! I bet you’ll look hot in them.”

I went crimson. “I doubt it.”

“Dude, you need some self-confidence, stat.”

I sighed and took the packet back. I had to get to math and he had biology, so we said goodbye. I was still freaked out by what I had committed to, but I was also smiling because Liam had said I would look hot in a Speedo.

He was insane, of course. But it made me feel really good.

I was surprised to find my mom home already when I got there after school. It was Thursday and she always had the afternoon shift on Thursdays. I didn’t ask her about it, though. We had this kind of unspoken agreement between us—she didn’t tell me how bad our finances were and I didn’t tell her how miserable school was. Little white lies kept our family strong.

“No Liam today?” she asked.

“Uh, no, he had stuff to do,” I told her, sitting across from her at the kitchen table.

She gave me a tired little smile that broke me up inside. My mom is too good a person to work as hard as she does and have so little to show for it. She broke off some of the grapes she was eating and handed them to me.

“So, how was your day?” I asked.

“Wonderful,” she lied. “I got promoted to manager, complete with a fat raise. And then I won a tropical vacation in a contest on the radio.” She savored a lush red grape. “You?”

“Great,” I fibbed, munching on the sweet little fruits. “I got A’s on all my quizzes. I scored the winning basket in P.E. And a group of seniors asked me sit and have lunch with them.”

Her wistful smile swelled and faded. “I got you something. Well, I got me something but it’s still for you to have with you.” She reached into a bag at her feet and brought out a small box.

“Mom, we can’t afford that,” I told her, eying the cell phone covetously. I hadn’t had one since the divorce.

“It’s cheaper than the hospital fees for me when you worry me sick,” she told me. “It’s a prepaid phone, kiddo, so it’s just for emergencies.”

“Mom….”

“I wish I could get you one of the fancy ones, hon, but your father couldn’t send his check this month, so….”

I took a moment to hate my father a little more. He knew how to push my mom around. He’d done it all through their marriage, always getting his way. Now he was still doing it, depriving her of money she needed just to spite her. I wanted her to take him to court, but she wouldn’t do it because of course we couldn’t afford a lawyer.

“What would I do with a fancy phone, mom?” I told her, making myself smile. “I barely use the phone we do have. And I’d just lose it anyway. So this is perfect.”

I couldn’t tell if she believed me. It wasn’t likely. She’s a smart woman. But she seemed to accept it, like all the other fibs I told her.

“Could you sign something for me?” I asked.

She looked puzzled. “Sure, hon, what is it?”

I took the packet out of my backpack. “I sort of joined the swim team.”

For the first time in way too long, I saw her eyes light up. “Really?”

“Yeah, I was kind of drafted. Anyway, I just need you to sign the form. It’s the third page.”

I regretted not having separated out the permission slip as I saw her stop on the list of equipment I had to get. I could tell what she was thinking as she looked it over:
We can’t afford this. How can I tell him?

“I still have that birthday money from Aunt Judy,” I told her. “Don’t worry about it.”

The joy at my having joined a team evaporated, replaced now with the faintest glimmer of tears. “No, that’s your money, kiddo. I’ll talk to your father. We’ll figure something out.”

Like you skipping lunches for a few days?
I knew that was her go-to when pennies needed to be pinched, but I didn’t think she knew I knew.

“Fuck him.”

“Justin!”

I was too angry to flinch from her shock. “I don’t want anything from him.”

“Justin, he’s still your father.”

“You divorced him, why can’t I?”

She looked down at her folded hands. “I don’t want you to hate him.”

One of us has to
. “Mom, please, just let me take care of this. I want to.”

“Justin….” She looked at me with something I guessed was pride. “Okay, hon. But I’ll pay you back when I can.” She shook her head when I started to object. “Nope, that’s the deal, kiddo.”

“Okay,” I said with a smile.

The number for the clinic that Lancaster had recommended was in the packet. I called them and asked how much the physical would cost. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, but it still made me hope the Speedos were priced on a per ounce basis. The clinic had an opening that afternoon, but I was going to have to rush to make it.

“Mom! Can you give me a ride?” I asked as I dashed into the shower.

“Of course, hon.”

In minutes, I was wandering through the hospital grounds, looking for the clinic amid the wide and varied assortment of buildings that surrounded Mercy Medical. They all seemed to be dedicated to various “ologies,” none of which meant anything to me. I wouldn’t have been able to say, for instance, what the difference between radiology and hematology were. But since none of them said, “sports medicine-ology” I guessed they weren’t my goal.

I was five minutes late when I finally got there, but I still had to wait twenty minutes to see the doctor. It was all kinds of embarrassing, being poked and prodded and examined by some lady who some kid probably called grandma. But that wasn’t as bad as when she asked me questions about my non-existent sex life.

I was only too happy to escape the place with my doctor’s pass.

Afterwards, as I was walking back to the car with my mom, I got a little surprise. I spotted Liam on the campus. He was there with his parents. I almost called out a hello, but something about the scene made me hold off. It looked like they were having a really serious conversation. Mike had his arm around his son’s shoulders. Liam looked grim. Anna was dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief.

Clearly, it was a private moment and I would be intruding.

“What is it, kiddo?” my mom asked.

“Nothing,” I told her, feeling a knot twisting my stomach.

I took a note of the building they were coming out of. As I said, I have no idea what “ology” is what, but that’s what the Internet is for. So as soon as I got home I rushed to my computer and plugged the phrase into the search engine.

Oncology, a branch of science that deals with cancer and tumors.

I stared at the screen and tried very hard to understand what I was seeing, but no matter how much I stared, I couldn’t make sense of the words in front of me—or at least, I really didn’t want to. As the pieces fell into place, all I could do was hope that somehow I was wrong.

Chapter 7

T
HE NEXT MORNING,
L
IAM WAS
his usual smirky self. He flashed me, just like normal, but this time I couldn’t even muster a blush, let alone a smile. I barely slept the night before, thinking about what I’d learned and what it meant. I still didn’t have it all figured out.

It seemed like there were a lot of things I should ask him, but it also seemed like none of them were any of my business. Maybe the only thing I
could
do was just pretend I didn’t know, since he didn’t seem to want me to. I kind of felt like that might be the good “friend” thing to do.

But I had no idea how I was supposed to act like nothing was different.

In a haze, I shuffled out of the locker room, my eyes on the ground. As I passed by the coach, he gave me a frown and a weird look. “You still taking this class?”

“Huh?”

“I thought you were joining the team.”

“Oh….” I shook my head. “Uh, yeah, I have the paperwork in my backpack. Sorry, I forgot.”

The coach shrugged. “Well, you can stay if you want to, but….”

I shrugged, not really caring. I didn’t have anywhere to be. So I just went to the bleachers and took my usual spot and tuned out the coach as he gave the class their marching orders. Since it was Friday, he basically gave them permission to goof off—diving, swimming, whatever they wanted to do.

Liam plopped down beside me, giving me a sidelong look. “So, that
was
you I saw at the hospital yesterday.”

I cringed, worried I’d pissed him off—like maybe he thought I was snooping. “I had to get a physical.”

Liam nodded, not looking angry. He didn’t look happy, either. “So, you figured out my dirty little secret.”

I nodded. I didn’t know what to say.

“I was eight when I first got sick—leukemia. When I was that age, I thought it was called ‘Lou Keema.’ I would complain about Lou Keema always making me feel bad.”

I looked down at my toes.

“Come on, say something. You’re freaking me out.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why? You didn’t give me cancer.”

I flinched at his naked honesty. Now that the truth was out, he wasn’t mincing words. It made me squirm.

There was a lot I wanted to know, but I wasn’t sure how to ask or even if I should. I tried to find the least offensive question in my head that felt like it was full to bursting with them. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. It wasn’t like he had done anything bad.

“So, the weed….”

“Helps, especially with the chemo. But if you can believe it, I can’t get it legally because I’m underage.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

Liam actually colored and looked away. “Because I wanted you to like me before you found out. I didn’t want this to be a pity friendship.”

I stared at him in total shock. How could anyone think
I
would befriend someone out of pity? I thought it was obvious that if anything like that ever happened in my life, it would be the other way around.

I almost asked him why he’d picked me to make friends with, but then I realized that didn’t really matter. Whatever had motivated him to reach out to the class freak, we were friends now. And that helped me realize that nothing really had changed at all. He had cancer, but he was still Liam.

“What makes you think I like you?” I asked around a smile.

It hung in the air for a tense second as I waited to see if the joke would flop. The last thing I wanted was to hurt him. My sense of humor was one of the things that got me into trouble with people.

But when he turned to me, he was grinning. “Oh, I see, now that you’re a star athlete, you don’t have time for us mere mortals.”

I waved my hand like I was a royal prince and he was a common peasant. “That’s pretty much it.”

Liam’s face glowed with happiness. “What are you doing after school?”

“Well, I have this practice thing because some guy I know thought I should get on the swim team.”

“Smart guy. I’ll come cheer you on.”

“It’s just practice.”

“Yeah, but a guy has to support his pal.”

I hadn’t really thought about practice since finding out about Liam’s illness. Now, though, the very idea of stepping into foreign, hostile territory made me sick with worry. Having a familiar face there might make it more bearable.

“I’d appreciate it. It’d be nice to have one guy there who won’t laugh at me when I fall on my face.”

“Just try to avoid doing that.”

That made me roll my eyes. “Yeah, I’ll give that a shot.”

I found myself just kind of looking at him, trying to figure him out. He looked like a typical stoner, but he was actually a really cool, decent guy. He had this fantastic, super-positive attitude, even though life had handed him this totally shitty deal.

“I know, you got questions,” Liam said with the shrug of one shoulder. “But not here, okay? I’m keeping my relationship with Lou a secret for now. After school, I’ll tell you everything.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I know. It’s cool.”

With that more or less settled, I was able to focus on the doom awaiting me. For the rest of the day, my stomach was in knots. I couldn’t eat anything at lunch. I kept thinking of one excuse after another I could use to get out of the stupid thing I’d committed myself to. If it hadn’t been for Liam bucking me up, I probably would have ducked out of practice

You know that dream where you’re walking around naked? Yeah, that was pretty much what it was like stepping out of the locker room in my Speedo for the first time. The only problem was that I was completely awake.

BOOK: Fearless
7.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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