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A Is For Amy
When I was a little kid, I used to think that my family’s toilet could talk to me. That was all because, once, at a restaurant, there was a toilet that would say something along the lines of “Toilet needs cleaning” in a robotic voice after a certain period of time had passed. I was convinced that my toilet could talk and it was just staying quiet to protect its secret, and no one in my family had the heart to tell me it was just the toilet at the restaurant that could ‘talk’ like that. So up until I was eight, I spent half of my time talking to a toilet. A stinky, freaking, toilet. After I learned that my toilet really couldn’t talk, I had problems believing things people told me. I had trust issues. That’s probably why when Mr. Raker – my English IV teacher – assigned me to be partners with Amy Shepherd, I did a double take. Was he serious? Amy was the smart, b***hy type. She shot death glares at people when they weren’t looking and constantly frowned at me. With my luck, she was probably going to make me fail. It didn’t really matter to me – I already had a full ride scholarship at UNC for football, so grades weren’t that important to me anymore – but it did matter to Coach. If I dropped below a C in any of my classes, I wouldn’t be allowed to play. Pretty lame-ass rule, if you’d asked me. But Coach was Coach. Half of his rules didn’t make sense to anyone. I took in a breath and glanced over at her from across the room. Her brown hair was the way it always was – pulled back in a plain ponytail. She wore the typical jeans and a t-shirt. I don’t think she’d changed the way she looked since kindergarten. I blew out the air I’d taken in in a gust and walked over to where she was sitting, pulling out my phone to check the time. Only an hour and a half left in this hell-hole called school, two hours for practice, and then I was home-free. First thing I was going to do was eat, then sleep. That was my daily routine. Wake up, eat, go to school, eat, go to practice, eat, sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat. I tried to smile, to turn on the charm for her. Maybe I could pull the typical Jacob Benson magic on her and she’d suddenly stop hating my guts. Yeah, like that’s possible. I groaned quietly and sat down beside her. Her muscles stiffened immediately as she stared at me, analyzing me. Suddenly she tensed up even more noticeably and scooted away from me. “You’ll have to wear less of your cologne if you’re going to be around me,” she said. “I’m allergic to Limonene.” “You know what chemical is in my cologne just by smelling it?” I asked skeptically, looking her up and down as I instinctively moved closer. How the hell could she do that? “Yes. So if you wouldn’t mind staying away from me, that would be fantastic.” She frowned in my direction. “Whatever.” I loudly pushed my stool away from her, throwing my arms up in surrender. “What are we even supposed to be doing?” She glared at me again and pointed to the piece of paper sitting on the desk in front of us. “See that thing right there? It’s called directions. You’re supposed to read them.” I clenched my teeth, trying not to flip my lid at her. She was just such a b***h. I didn’t know how I was supposed to take it. “These are some pretty big words. I don’t know if I’ll be able to understand all of them.” I smiled without humor, hoping she’d get my sarcasm. She didn’t even look up from her binder, nonetheless show any sign of a smile. “I have a dictionary if you need one.” I sighed and grinded my teeth, picking up the packet of papers to read them. And then I groaned. “We’re doing an alphabet book?” I asked disbelievingly. “I haven’t done one of these since I was in second grade!” “So this one shouldn’t be much different, since your mental capability obviously hasn’t improved since then, right?” she replied, still not looking up at me. I swallowed all the words I wanted to scream at her and slammed the papers down on my desk. “Fine,” I mumbled, given up on trying to fight back. It was just a waste of energy. “Just tell me what we’re supposed to do.” “Well,” she said, taking the papers from my hand, “if you’d read the directions, you’d know.” I grinded my teeth again and waited for her to finish explaining. But she never did. She just read a few papers and then went back to her notes. Read a few more papers, went back to her notes. On and on for the next few minutes. “Well?” I asked, looking at her like she was insane. “It’s a Senior Class alphabet book,” she sighed, handing me a sheet of paper. “We write about our experiences, everything that happens to us. The only different thing is that we start with Z and end with A.” “That’s it?” I wondered aloud. “How is that worth half of our semester’s grade?” “It isn’t about the grade, Jacob,” she sighed, glancing up at me from her papers. “It’s about remembering.” I raised my eyebrows a bit at how nostalgic she was being. All I wanted to remember were the things involving football and cheerleaders. The rest I’d forget by the time I got to college. “Remembering,” I repeated softly, trying not to laugh. What a joke. “Class is almost out for today. Personally, I just want to get this done. If we can finish it in the next few weeks, we’ll never have to talk to each other again until we present it. And even then, we won’t really have to interact.” “Sounds good to me,” I muttered. “Come over to my house after school and we can start.” She looked at me expectantly, like she was daring me to put up a fight. “I have practice tonight until four.” “Fine,” she said, like it was some sort of sacrifice on her part. She reached for a blank piece of paper lying on her desk and quickly wrote something on it, pushing it towards me from across the table. “That’s my address. We can get started tonight.” And with that she left me, pulling all of her crap into her bag and leaving the room before I could protest. It’s only six weeks, it’s only six weeks, I repeated in my head, over and over again. It’s only six weeks. I only had to survive through Amy Shepherd for six more weeks and then I’d never have to see her annoying face again. That thought alone was enough to get me through the day. I was just about to get into my car to leave for her house when my best friend Sean stopped me. “I heard you got paired up with Amy Shepherd,” he said, shaking his head. “That sucks major ass, man.” “You’re telling me,” I mumbled. “She’s probably the biggest b***h on the planet.” “Eh, within no time she’ll fall for the old Jacob Benson moves,” Sean replied, elbowing me in the stomach and putting on his stupid grin. “Yeah, right,” I said, pushing his elbow away as I grinned back. “I think I’d have better luck with a piece of wood.” “For all we know, she just might have one,” Sean laughed, punching me on the shoulder. “That’s sick, man,” I laughed, pushing him back. “But probably true.” He laughed again as he shoved me against my car, trying to wrestle the keys out of my hand. “Come on, Jake,” Sean began. “One time. Just once, let me drive your car.” “I can’t, Sean. I’m supposed to go to her house to work on our project.” I made a fake gun with my fingers and pointed it to my temple, pulling the imaginary trigger. “Ouch. Sounds like fun.” He began to turn away, shrugging. “Hope she doesn’t rape you, or anything.” I laughed, shaking my head at him. “You are one f***ed up kid, you know that?” “Yeah, I’ve been told that before.” I sighed and sat in my car, turning the key in the ignition, and pulled out the slip of paper from my pocket. According to this, she lived on Elm Street. Creepy, I thought. Wonder if she realizes that’s the setting for an old horror flick. I shrugged. Probably not. As I pulled out of the school, I turned the radio up. My favorite rock song was playing and I wanted it to calm my nerves down while I drove. For the first time in my life, I was nervous because of a girl. Not nervous for the reason you’d think, though. Nervous because I didn’t know if I was going to find out her dad was some guy like Freddy Kruger, the dude that killed everyone in Nightmare On Elm Street. I shuddered. Hopefully I’d make it home that night – I still had Calc homework to work on. Sighing, I rounded the corner onto Elm Street. Her house was the first one on the right, pretty easy to find. It was a lot like I expected it would be. Small, quaint, with flower beds in front and blue shutters on the windows. The picture-perfect house for a picture-perfect girl. How annoying. I shut off my engine after I parked in her driveway and took in a breath. Only six more weeks, I told myself as I walked up to her front door. Only six more weeks and I’m done with her forever. “Who is it?” I heard Amy’s voice ask from somewhere inside the house when I rang the doorbell. “It’s Jake Benson,” I answered. Who else would it’ve been? Jesus? I heard her sigh before she opened the door. “I forgot you were coming,” she admitted bitterly. “Oh well. Come on in.” She held the door open for me and I cautiously walked forward, looking for booby traps or things that could potentially kill me. Before I saw anything dangerous, I noticed her shirt. It was a plain white t-shirt, but it was covered in some sort of sticky mush that looked like it was either oatmeal or puke. I tried not to look disgusted, but she must’ve seen my face because she quickly gasped as she looked down and saw what was on it. “Ugh,” she groaned. “Hold on. I’ll get another shirt.” She sighed and pointed to the living room. “Go ahead and wait in there. I’ll only be a minute.” I nodded uncomfortably and wandered over to the couch, looking at all of the pictures hanging on the wall. There was one with what looked like a younger version of her, someone I assumed to be her dad, and a little boy that was apparently her little brother that I didn’t know she’d had. They were laughing hysterically and I wondered why no one at school ever saw her smile like that. Before I could look at anymore of the pictures, I heard a man clearing his throat from behind me. “He-l-lo,” the man stuttered out, smiling at me. “M-y name is Za-ch-a-ry Shep-p-herd.” I felt my mouth drop. He sounded like Mitchell, my little brother, did when he talked. Mitch had Down Syndrome. Is that what Amy’s dad had? “Hi,” I said confusedly, walking over to shake his hand but stopping when I saw his eyes widen in surprise. “I-I c-can’t mo-o-ve my arms m-much,” he choked out, staring at my outstretched hand nervously. “Oh. I understand, Sir.” I took a step back and smiled tentatively. I knew, all too well, the effects having someone with disabilities in your family had on a person. For some reason, I felt myself thinking, Poor Amy. “S-so y-our na-ame is Jac-c-ob?” he asked, smiling a carefree grin at me. “Yeah, Jacob Benson,” I replied, trying to enunciate my words. I knew with Mitch, he had a hard time understanding what people said when they mumbled. “I’m in the same grade as Amy.” “A-Amy’s my daugh-t-er,” he said proudly, grinning. “S-she lo-oks like h-her moth-e-r.” “I bet she does,” I whispered, feeling myself smile. I’d never met anyone with a mental disability besides my brother. I’d never met someone as happy as him, either. But Amy’s dad seemed to be a close second. I heard the stairs creak as Amy walked down them and looked up instinctively, only to see Amy staring daggers into my eyes. “Daddy, are you doing okay?” she asked, walking over to him quickly to touch his hand. “Are you hungry? Do you want me to make you something?” He smiled up at her peacefully and said slowly, “N-no thank y-you.” Amy sighed and smiled slightly, looking at me painfully. “We’re going to go work on our project now,” she whispered. “Just call if you need me, okay?” He grinned up at her from his seat and replied something that sounded like okay. As I walked up the stairs with her, Amy looked like she was ready to punch a wall. Or worse, maybe my face. “You weren’t supposed to see him,” she said, trying to be quiet but failing. “He was supposed to be with his speech therapist.” “Why would you hide your dad?” I asked, disgusted. Though not everyone in school knew about Mitch, I sure as hell didn’t try to keep him a secret, like Amy had. “Don’t sound so accusatory!” she shouted. “I love my dad. Don’t you dare try to make me be the bad guy.” I took a step back and widened my eyes. “Amy, why didn’t you want me to see him?” The hateful expression on her face twisted into something of pain, pure agony. I’d never seen anyone look so… miserable. “My family was in a car crash three years ago. He had brain damage, and it changed him… Now he can barely function. It’s like I’m the mother, and he’s the two year old. Don’t get me wrong, my dad is my life. I love him. That’s why I didn’t want you to see him. I wanted to protect him!” “Protect him from what? Me? What kind of guy do you think I am, Shepherd?” I asked incredulously. Did she really think I was that horrible, that I would hurt her dad? “I didn’t want you to laugh at him! That’s what everyone like you does. Then they go and tell all their friends that Amy Shepherd has a retard for a dad who can’t even feed himself. And then everyone makes fun of him, because he doesn’t understand that they’re laughing at him. They make me want to slaughter all of them. That’s why I didn’t tell you.” “I’m not like all of them.” “Really? How do I know you’re not going to go telling all your football buddies about him? How do I know you won’t hurt him, or hurt me?” “Because my little brother is exactly the same as your dad. And there’s no way in hell I’d do anything to hurt him or anyone like him.” I clenched my jaw and stared down at her with pure anger. How could she have been so judgmental? What was wrong with her? I watched as Amy’s jaw dropped and she stared at me in confusion. “Your little brother was in a car accident?” she whispered, looking at the floor. “No. He was born with Down Syndrome. But he and your dad act the same way.” “I didn’t know that.” “Of course you didn’t. I’m just a jock who probably goes around f***ing with every person who’s different, just to be a d**k. I know how it is with people like you. You see a letterman and immediately think asshole.” “That’s not fair,” she objected, and I blew her off by giving her the middle finger. I knew I was being immature, but I wasn’t known for being the most grown-up person when I was pissed off. “Life isn’t fair, Shepherd. Get used to it.” I shook my head bitterly at her and adjusted my cap, forcing my legs to carry me down the stairs and out of her house. Towards my car. Away from her. I was never going to set foot in that house again.
The next morning, I woke to Mitch jumping on my bed. “J-J-ake,” he said excitedly, shaking me. “Th-There’s some-one at the door f-for you.” His stutter had been going away recently, but whenever he got excited it always came back full force. I stared at my little brother and couldn’t help but grin. He was the happiest kid I’d ever met. How could Amy Shepherd think I’d do something to hurt someone like him? “What’s going on?” I mumbled, still exhausted even though I was happy to see him. After leaving Amy’s house I’d gone over to hang out with Sean and ended up staying out too late. You could say Sean wasn’t the best influence. “Y-Y-You ha-v-ve a v-visitor!” Mitch shouted, suddenly stopping his jumping and widening his eyes. I heard him say, “Jacob has a visitor!” over and over under his breath as he hurried out of my room and back downstairs nervously. We thought he was getting better with people outside of our family, starting to talk to them, but he was still painfully shy. The only person outside of our family he would talk to was Shannon, the girl that used to babysit him. She was pretty hot. I definitely would’ve tapped that before she got married and had twins. I sat up groggily and pulled on a shirt and some long pants. I’d been sleeping in my boxers lately because my room was the hottest room in the house, but I always regretted it in the morning because the house was usually freezing when I woke up. As I walked down the stairs, I recognized the back of Melissa – my psycho ex-girlfriend that accused me of using her for sex even though we’d never even done it – ’s head sitting on a chair across from my mom in our living room. I groaned. Why did she have to stalk me all the time? “Hey, Melissa,” I said, being blatantly obvious of the fact that I was bored and unexcited by her presence. Yeah, I was being a d**k to her. But I never said I was a nice guy, did I? “Jake,” Mom began, but I stopped listening because Melissa turned around and I saw her face. It wasn’t Melissa. It was Amy Shepherd. “Shepherd?” I asked, even more annoyed that she was here instead of my crazy ex-girlfriend. “What the hell do you want?” “Jacob!” Mom shouted, staring daggers into me. I was about to defend my reaction when Amy shrugged and told her, “It’s okay, Mrs. Benson. I kind of deserve that.” Mom narrowed her eyes, giving me one of her signature if-you-do-anything-rude-I’ll-kill-you looks, and quietly walked out of the living room. “So?” I asked, still pissed off at her. “Why are you here?” I stayed on the stairs, not coming down completely because I was afraid she was going to hit someone in the face. She looked bitter and tired. What happened to the sweet, innocent girl that had just talked to my mother? “Your little brother’s cute,” she said unexpectedly, looking around the room tiredly. “He was very sweet when he asked me if I wanted anything to drink.” I felt most of the anger abruptly fade away as she finished her sentence. “He talked to you?” Amy smiled slightly, not opening her lips. “Your mom answered the door and she told him to introduce himself. So he told me his name and asked if I wanted something to drink. Does he not usually do that?” I breathed in and out for a few seconds, wondering why Mitch had chosen Amy Shepherd, of all people, to talk to. He didn’t talk to my best friend but he talked to the girl who thought I was a complete ass. “Yeah, he talks to everyone,” I mumbled quickly. I didn’t want her to feel special because Mitch had talked to her and not anyone else. It was stupid, but she didn’t deserve someone like my brother being nice to her – not because he was retarded, but because he was the most innocent and ignorant person I’d ever met. I didn’t want someone like her showing him what hatred was. Amy looked around for a few more moments, taking in my house with her eyes. She looked exhausted. “I came to apologize,” she said, groaning quietly. I could tell it killed her to have to apologize to me, and I reveled in that fact. I wasn’t going to accept her apology. I was going to make it as difficult as possible for her. “I didn’t know about your brother. I thought you were like everyone else. I’m sorry.” I stared at her expectantly, wordlessly waiting for her to say more. Like I said, I wasn’t the most mature person when I was mad at someone. “Oh, come on, Jacob!” she said, frustrated with my silence. “You can’t honestly say you’ve never been afraid that someone you knew would make fun of your brother because of who he is.” “I actually never have,” I lied defensively. “Don’t feed me that sh**!” My eyes widened in response and I took a small step backward. I had never heard Amy Shepherd say a four letter word. I didn’t think she knew what they meant. We stood there quietly for a few seconds until she broke the silence softly. “Do you know what people say about my dad, Jacob?” she asked quietly. “They ask how someone as smart as I am could come from a retard like him. They put signs on our yard with SPEDS DON’T BELONG HERE written in big, red letters. He reads them but doesn’t understand, so they watch as he carries them inside every day and shows them to me. They laugh because he thinks that they’re signs for me. He thinks the signs are people telling him that they love us.” I swallowed. People were cruel. I was cruel for not doing anything to stop the kids with the signs, even though I knew they were doing it to someone. I didn’t know who the signs were for at the time, but I was still cruel for not doing anything to help whoever it was. I was cruel for letting all the torture be inflicted on whoever that person was to keep Mitch safe. But that was life. Amy had to learn to accept the fact that people were always going to make fun of her dad. She had to learn to stop caring, like I did. Actually, I guess that was a lie. I did care, more than anyone ever knew. Whenever one of my friends would make a retard joke and they weren’t looking at me, I would glare at them hatefully, plotting ways to kill them in their sleep. Every time someone I knew said something even remotely offensive when it came to that kind of thing, I was always ready to shoot them on the spot. Amy was straight-faced when she said, “That’s why I didn’t want you to see him. I thought you were one of the guys that made those signs. I thought you’d laugh at him.” My mouth twitched, like it did every time I was angry. I took in a few breaths, trying to calm myself down. “That’s why I don’t tell people about Mitch,” I said. “I don’t want him to have to live like that.” “Does anyone know about him?” she asked quietly after a few seconds, looking me up and down like she was disgusted with me. “Sean does. So does Melissa.” I shuddered as I thought of her, but quickly shrugged it off. “No one else has ever needed to know.” “So you hide him from everyone,” she continued, like she was explaining to me what I did. “I don’t hide him!” I exploded, immediately softening my voice because I didn’t want Mitch to hear. “I protect him. There’s a difference.” “I tried to protect my dad. I hid him from everyone, even my friends. But eventually I told them about him. And none of them stuck around.” She stared at the floor, her mouth locked in a straight line. “They all left when they realized it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be friends with me anymore. Is that why you hide your brother?” “I don’t hide my brother!” I repeated, exasperated. She didn’t understand how it felt to have a younger sibling you had to protect all the time. She didn’t know what it was like to always worry about your younger brother getting bullied at school or getting stared at at the grocery store. She didn’t know what it was like. “Why don’t you tell your friends about him, then? Is it because you’re worried that you’ll end up like me?” I registered the pain in her voice but chose to ignore it, instead mumbling a quiet, “Yes.” How was I supposed to lie? I cared what people thought about me. I didn’t want to be an outcast because of him. But the main reason I didn’t tell people about him wasn’t because I was worried about not having any friends. I didn’t tell them because I didn’t want Mitch to have to live like Amy’s dad did. “What?” she asked softly, forcing me to repeat my words. “I said yes. I don’t tell my friends about him because I don’t want to have to live like you do. I don’t want him to have to deal with the crap your dad deals with.” “You’re a selfish ass, Jacob Benson.” She turned away to leave, but something inside me forced myself to stop her. “You wouldn’t do the same thing to protect your dad?” I asked, stepping in front of her so she couldn’t leave. “You’re saying that if you had the choice to make the things that happen to your dad happen to my brother instead, you wouldn’t do it?” I put my hands on her shoulders securely when she tried to move around me and she glared hatefully back at me. She opened her mouth but quickly closed it again, her eyes as cold as stone. “The truth is… I would give anything for that. But I know that I’d feel guilty all the time because I forced that kind of pain upon you and your family. I’d feel heartless for subjecting someone as beautiful as your brother to that kind of hurting. But I’d do it anyways. Because I love my dad.” She paused and continued to glare. “Is that what you wanted to hear? Do you like making people admit that they would rather see someone else in pain instead of someone they loved?” “Of course I don’t. Don’t be stupid, Shepherd.” I shook my head, unsure of what to say next. All this time, I wanted to hate her. I wanted to kick her out of my house and never see her face again. But there was still a voice in the back of my head saying, “You’re just like her.” And it was impossible to ignore. “I really wish you’d call me by my first name,” she mumbled, still glaring. Her glare had lost its piercing daggers, though, so it was a lot less effective. It was actually kind of funny, seeing someone so little trying to scare someone twice their size. She reminded me of my mom’s old dog – a toy poodle – that would always try to act tougher than it was. It was hilarious, actually. I started to laugh to myself, but then I realized that Amy’s life had always been about putting on a brave face. It didn’t really set in, before, how much she had to deal with. It didn’t click in my head how hard it must’ve been for her, to watch her dad bring in those signs every day and not be able to do anything about it. To be honest, I’d probably be in prison right now if they had ever done something like that to Mitch. I’d be in for life for murder. My hatred for her began to fade, because I was only just starting to understand what her life must’ve been like. Though I still didn’t like her as a person, I didn’t hate her. That was a start. “I’ll try to call you Amy from now on.” I sighed, attempting to compromise. “But you have to call me Jake. The only person that calls me by my full name is my mom, and even then it’s only when I’m in trouble.” “Fine,” she mumbled reluctantly, her glare weakening. “You call me Amy, I’ll call you Jake.” I nodded slightly, trying to look at her from an unbiased standpoint. She still had dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail, and brown eyes. She looked like she’d always looked, ever since I’d first met her. But now I noticed the freckles that ran across her nose, the scar on her cheek. I noticed that her eyes had small flecks of gold in them that only showed when she looked at the light. There were so many things that I’d never seen, even though I’d been looking at her directly in the face for the past twenty minutes. Though, as much as I’d recently noticed about her, I didn’t like Amy Shepherd as a person. We were two polar opposites, and the only thing we had in common was a disabled family member. We were never meant to be friends. That’s why, when she said she had to leave, I let her.
The last time I had a nightmare was in eighth grade, after my dad had left for a ‘business trip’ that he never came home from. Turns out it was his way of telling us he didn’t give a crap about us anymore, but that wasn’t even what’d caused the nightmares.
The reason I woke up sweating and panting was because Mitch had told me he hated me because I wouldn’t color with him. And the guilt overwhelmed me until I couldn’t breathe anymore, until I was suffocated under a massive pile of shame.
Before I’d talked to Amy Shepherd about her dad and the signs, I would’ve told you that was the guiltiest I’d ever felt. But now, after seeing the effects my silence had caused, there was no way I could not feel guilty. I was a time bomb, waiting to explode.
That probably explained why I couldn’t sleep.
It was four in the morning and I’d been lying awake all night, staring at my ceiling. My mom called it a ‘popcorn’ ceiling, which meant that it had a bunch those things that looked like stalagmites hanging from it. There were hundreds of thousands of those little specks scattered everywhere across my ceiling, just sitting there. I wished they could’ve done something – dance, sing, juggle, whatever – to distract me from the tremendous guilt, but they wouldn’t do anything. So I decided it was time for a glass of water and maybe a piece of leftover cold pizza.
I walked down the stairs – trying to be quiet so I wouldn’t wake up Mitch or Mom – and eventually ended up on what I thought was the last stair. Instead I ended up forgetting a step and fell flat on my face.
There was a small cracking noise as my arm hit the ground and I heard myself grunt loudly. It hurt when I fell. A lot.
I tried to stand myself up but I was suddenly exhausted. My eyes were drooping, and eventually I felt myself fall into a black pit of nothingness.
I woke up in a room covered in white. Mitch was sitting in a chair next to me, Mom in the other chair reading him some book I didn’t recognize that rhymed in unusual places. I listened to them for a few moments before opening my eyes, but I eventually got bored and reluctantly let them know I was awake.
The first thing Mom did was laugh at me.
“What the heck?” I muttered bitterly, watching my language for Mitch’s sake.
“Jake, you… You look so pathetic,” she laughed again. “You look like someone beat you on the side of the head with a bat.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled sarcastically. “Where am I?”
“You’re at the hospital. I heard you fall, but when I came in you were knocked out cold. Can I ask you why you fainted?” She tried to hide her laughter a little more, but it was obvious she found my pain amusing because of the smile on her face.
“I didn’t faint!” I replied instinctively. Guys didn’t faint. Especially not guys like me.
“Jake, you fainted when you saw the blood on your arm. I know because I heard you say, ‘Gross’ before you were out cold.”
“Why was there blood on my arm?” I asked, now curious. What had happened that I didn’t remember?
“It actually wasn’t even blood,” Mom burst out, giggling. “It was red paint from Mitch’s paint set!”
“Y-You fainted over s-some p-p-paint,” Mitch added, laughing his freaking head off. I wanted to punch the two of them in the face for laughing at me when I was in such a fragile state.
“I didn’t faint,” I groaned. “My arm was hurting. I think it might be broken. Is that why I’m here?”
“You don’t remember?” Mom asked curiously, her laughter somewhat subsided. “You woke up in the car and were awake for the x-rays. They gave you pain medicine that accidentally knocked you out before they could put on a cast, but I told them they could just do it while you were asleep.” She paused, looking at me interestedly. “You honestly don’t remember any of this?”
“Not really,” I mumbled. For the first time I looked down at my arm, my eyes widening as I looked at it. It was in a cast. A pink cast.
“Why in the hell did you give me a pink cast?!” I shouted at Mom, given up on watching my words. She should’ve known I would’ve been pissed if she asked them to give me a pink cast without my consent.
I didn’t even care what was broken or how I’d managed to pass out before they could cast me. I was too focused on the pink brick sitting next to me.
“Well, Mitch said that it looked good on you,” Mom explained, still laughing a little bit at my reaction. She glanced sideways at Mitch when he didn’t add anything.
And then we both noticed that he was crying.
“Mitchy, what’s wrong?” Mom asked, all traces of humor gone in her voice.
“I-I thought he would l-like it,” Mitch choked out in between his tears, falling into Mom’s arms hopelessly.
“Honey, I’m sure Jake–”
“I love it,” I interrupted, trying to smile reassuringly and not look angry. “Pink is my favorite color.” I looked down at the cast, reluctantly seeing it in a new light. If anyone else had chosen the color pink for something that would be attached to my arm for six weeks, I would’ve been pissed. But it wasn’t just anyone – it was Mitch. And if he said he thought it looked good, he meant it. It wasn’t to irritate me or to embarrass me or anything like that. It was because he cared about me.
Yeah, maybe I wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. But I loved my brother. And I would’ve done anything to make him happy.
“R-Really?” he asked quietly, looking up at me from Mom’s arms.
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’m really happy you suggested it, Mitch. Thanks.”
His eyes brightened immediately and he shot up from Mom’s embrace, grinning excitedly. “I-I am so g-glad you l-like it!” He jumped off the chair and ran over to me, hesitantly putting his hand on my cast. “D-Does it hurt?”
“Not too bad,” I whispered, thinking it over. Chances were I was hyped up on pain pills anyways, so I wouldn’t even have been able to feel it if they’d cut off my arm instead of put it in a fruity cast. But it didn’t hurt. Not right now.
“G-Good.” He removed his hand from my cast and leaned forward, gently kissing my wounded arm. “Feel b-better soon, a-arm.” He wandered back to Mom and sat down in the chair next to her, looking at my cast intently.
I laughed and shook my head. Mitchell really did think that, by kissing my broken arm, it would help it get better.
“Well, Jake, if you’re sure you feel up to it, we can check you out now. The doctor said once you woke up we could take you home.”
I sighed and nodded my head, attempting to sit up in the hospital bed I’d been lying in. My head felt heavy, like it weighed a hundred pounds, and it took me a few tries before I could do it on my own. Mom left to go tell the secretary we were leaving and it was just me and Mitch picking up all of my stuff.
As we were heading home, Mitch drew hearts and smiley faces all over my cast. I would’ve objected, but he just looked so damn happy. And it wasn’t like the cast could’ve looked any gay-er, anyways. So I wore that cast with pride.
Until football practice came around, that is.
“Benson, why do you have a fairy stick on your arm?!” Coach asked angrily as I was suiting up in the locker room. Luckily, I’d been given permission from my doctor to play with the cast on.
“I broke my arm Tuesday night, Coach. Don’t ask why it’s pink. It’ll be covered by my pads anyways.” I waited for his country drawl to come out even more like it did when he was angry, but he actually sounded relatively relieved when he found out it was a cast and not an actual fairy stick.
“Right. You do that. We don’t need Douglas High School thinking we have a bunch of fruitcakes for players. Especially not our star QB.”
I nodded my head, bitterly accepting the consequences of my having a pink cast.
For starters, Sean didn’t let me hear the end of it. He knew the reason why it was pink, but he still thought it was funny. For some reason, Mom had the bright idea to tell him that I’d fainted, too, which definitely didn’t help my situation at all.
Coach thought I was some fruitcake with a pink cast, and most of my team did, too, because I didn’t tell them the reason behind it. Eventually, I had to set my foot down. “It’s pink,” I told them. “If you have a problem with that, you can screw off and leave the team. Any takers?” No one took me up on that offer and eventually they all left me alone about it. What sucked was that my high school forced school sports to be considered an elective, meaning I got to practice both during and after school. And I had football practice as my second period, which meant that all the rest of the day I was sweaty and my hair stuck to my forehead like glue because Coach refused to let us shower after second period.
The day continued as it always did until the last period of the day, English IV. Without my knowledge, hell was about to break loose.
As I walked through the halls to my English IV class, I immediately noticed something was off. For starters, half the class was gone. That wasn’t something that usually happened. I turned to a girl whose name I couldn’t remember and asked, “Where is everyone?” She stared at me uncomprehendingly for a second, her eyes almost bugging out of her head. After a few seconds she flipped her hair and started spinning it around her fingers. “I think they’re, like, outside, or something. But, by the way, I think your pink cast is really… sexy.” She smacked on her gum and winked at me, attempting to be seductive. Normally, I wouldn’t have cared – I mean, she was pretty hot – but today I just wasn’t in the mood to mess around with girls who only wanted me for the popularity status. I wanted to know where everyone was. “Yeah,” I mumbled in response, sort of blowing her off. I felt bad for it coming out like that, but not enough to apologize. I just shrugged and walked away while she stared after me. “Do you know where everyone is?” I asked one of the guys sitting at a table across the room. He smirked and I felt my stomach tense. “Between you and me,” he started, leaning closer to me, “I heard some of the guys talking about ganging up on that Shepherd girl. She called Zack Miller a pig. She had it coming, you know?” He laughed evilly and expanded the space between us, resting his back against his chair lazily. I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. “Where are they?” “Out back, I think. Why, you ‘gonna join them?” He laughed again and stared approvingly at me. I didn’t even bother mumbling a response or telling Mr. Raker that I was leaving. I didn’t care. After everything I’d learned about Amy, I felt somewhat responsible for how bad her life really was. I didn’t say anything against the signs. I was cruel and a selfish jackass for doing that. But now I had a second chance. I rounded the corner where the door outside was slowly, trying to calm my nerves. Defending her – the freak, the outcast – would kill my reputation. I wouldn’t have been Jake Benson, the stud. I would’ve been Jake Benson, the guy who stuck up for a girl with a retarded dad. I’m not going to lie and say that I didn’t care about my reputation at all. I wish I could say that I didn’t stand there watching a group of guys surround her outside while she kicked and screamed. I wish I could say that I didn’t hesitate before helping her. But I did. I watched for a good two minutes before doing something. Until I saw Zack Miller punch Amy in the stomach and face for the third or fourth time, I just stood there watching. Before I knew it, my fist had reached someone’s face. “Damn it! What the hell are you doing, Benson?!” Zack shouted, rubbing his bleeding nose. But I didn’t listen to him. Instead I ran to where Amy was lying, curled up in a ball. “Are you okay?” I yelled, praying to god that she could move. She looked dead. So I did something I never thought I would do. I defended Amy Shepherd. “I’ll kill you!” I shouted, overcome by rage and passionate hate. “If you ever do something like this again, I’ll bash your f***ing face in!” I turned back to Amy hysterically, who had woken up some since I’d last seen her. Her eyes were opening and closing quickly, looking around at everything but not seeing. While I was mentally checking her for signs of serious injuries, I felt a shin bash into my chest. I staggered backwards, having trouble breathing. Zack had forced all of the wind out of me. “That’ll teach you to mind your own damn business, Benson,” Zack said bitterly, thinking I was down for the count. But I wasn’t. Not even close. I stood up, panting ridiculously loud. It was damn near impossible to breathe. “Don’t… touch her,” I choked out. “Why?” Zack laughed, his entire group of friends joining in. “What are you ‘gonna do about it?” The breath returning to me, I charged towards him. I felt my fist touch flesh, and I beat him in the stomach, over and over again. His friends were trying to get me to calm down, some trying to peel me off of him, but something inside me wouldn’t stop. And that scared the crap out of me. After what felt like hours of using Zack as a human punching bag, someone finally pulled me off of him. Surprisingly enough, it was Amy. “Jacob, he’s not worth this!” she grunted, terrified, into my ear. “He’s done! He’s not getting back up!” She kept her hands on my shoulders, tearing me away. My animal instincts faded out. I was left, breathing heavily, watching someone who used to be my friend lying on the ground puking his guts out. I didn’t know what had come over me, why I was suddenly so violent. Sure, I played football, but I’d never gotten in a fist fight that intense. Ever. I heard myself say, “What did I do?” so quietly that no one else could hear it. “Jake,” Amy whispered, causing me to turn around and look at her for the first time since I’d wanted to kill Zack. She had blood dripping off of her lip and the first signs of what I recognized as a hundred bruises all over her face and her arms. She looked like she’d been mugged. And it was my fault. Why didn’t I help her sooner? “Amy,” I said, furious at myself for even thinking about something as stupid as my own damn reputation while she was getting beaten and bruised. “Amy, are you okay?” She nodded slowly, still staring at me intensely. Tears were welling up in her eyes and it took everything in me to not attack Zack and his friends again. Fortunately for me – and for them – they’d run away while they had the chance, so I didn’t have to worry about my primal instincts kicking in again. I didn’t want to end up in prison for the murder of Zack Miller. “Why did they do this to me?” she asked softly, the tears starting to fall. “What did I do?” “You didn’t do anything!” I shouted. “Nothing is wrong with you, Amy!” I softened my voice and tried to be even remotely comforting for her. I didn’t know what to do. “They’re not going to hurt you anymore. I promise…” She sniffed loudly, crying even harder now. Before I could say anything she whispered, “Jake, it hurts so much…” I wanted to kill Zack all over again. “Come on,” I commanded, putting one of her arms around my shoulder and picking her up in one quick movement. She flinched a bit at the contact, but besides that she melted into my arms. She was surprisingly light. “Where are we going?” she groaned, flinching at the pain her injuries were causing her. “I’m taking you to a hospital. Can you sit in my car?” I waited for a response, but one never came. She was unconscious, lying in my arms like a doll. I panicked and started running as fast as I could to my car, trying to be gentle when I put her in the passenger seat. I buckled her in and shut the door. I climbed into the driver’s side and drove as fast as I could without killing us both to the nearest hospital. I was freaking out. Even though Amy Shepherd wasn’t someone I wanted to be friends with, she didn’t deserve this. No one did. I pulled into the parking lot labeled EMERGENCY and stopped right in front of the main doors. “Help her!” I shouted to the nearest person in scrubs I saw. I picked Amy out of my car carefully and shouted to the doctor, “Come on, man! Do something!” He immediately bolted for the door, calling out for me to follow him. I walked as fast as I could without moving Amy too much, entering the hospital. It was loud and busy, but there were people there waiting for us already. They told me to lay her down as gently as I could on the gurney and I obeyed. Before I knew it, they’d hustled me out of the room to the main office. I had to fill out paperwork while Amy could’ve been dying. “Sir, we need to know what happened to her!” the nurse shouted when I demanded that I be with Amy while they worked on her. “She was beat up by a guy from our school named Zack Miller,” I answered distractedly, staring over at the doors she’d been taken through. I wanted so badly to be in there with her. I wanted to save her. Because I felt guilty for not doing something sooner. “What exactly happened?” she gasped, pulling out a clipboard. “I… I don’t know, I wasn’t there for all of it! I wasn’t there for her! I wasn’t there for her when she needed me!” I choked out those last few sentences, feeling all the wind get knocked out of me again, this time not from a kick. I’d finally accepted the fact that worrying about my damn reputation had cost me things that I couldn’t even imagine. The nurse stared at me worriedly, saying, “This isn’t your fault. We’re going to save your girlfriend. Her injuries are minor.” The fact that she’d called Amy my girlfriend didn’t even register in my head. I was so overcome with guilt that nothing anyone could’ve said would’ve gotten my attention. “I need to see her,” I whispered pleadingly. “Please, I have to be with her!” The nurse nodded and came out from behind the counter, taking me through the doors and to where Amy was. To my surprise, there was no dramatic scene going on. Doctors weren’t rushing her into surgery or starting her heart again with giant paddles. They were just hooking her up to a few IVs and checking her heartbeat. She was going to be fine. “What are you doing?” I asked blankly, walking over to where she was. The bruises on her face were starting to appear and I shivered. The guilt was still overwhelming me. “Right now they’re giving her some medicine,” the nurse from before explained. “Her vitals are fine, so all they have to do now is wait for her to wake up so they can examine her.” “She’s going to be okay?” I asked, searching for some reassurance. The nurse smiled softly and whispered, “She’s going to be fine.” “Thank you,” I said, meaning it more than anyone could ever understand. In my head, she’d basically just told me that this wasn’t my fault. I don’t know how I’d come to that conclusion, but in that moment I’d felt a small sense of forgiveness. She nodded and smiled slightly again, walking out of the room. I turned my attention to Amy, who had finally started to show visible signs of life, and sat down at the foot of her bed. She was so small she barely took up any of it. She grunted quietly, which caused a doctor to approach her. “Miss, can you tell me your name?” he asked gently. I realized then that they didn’t know either of our names, but that was a good way of testing her memory, anyways. “Amy Shepherd,” she whispered. The doctor smiled, saying, “Well, Amy, it’s nice to see you’re awake. My name is Johnathon Allum, and I’ll be your doctor. Can you tell me how you got here? How did you receive these injuries?” “I… I fell down the stairs,” she answered. “I’m really clumsy.” “What?” I heard myself shout. “Amy, tell them what Zack did to you!” “Excuse me?” Dr. Allum asked, confused by our different stories. “She was attacked by a group of guys at our school,” I said desperately, wondering why she would lie. “They could’ve killed her!” Amy groaned, trying to turn over but wincing in pain before she could even move an inch. “Amy, is this true?” he asked worriedly. Eventually she nodded, looking at me painfully. I heard her mumble something, but I couldn’t tell what it was. “Amy, we need to take you in for x-rays now. It’s going to hurt for you to move, but without them we won’t be able to find out what’s broken and what isn’t. We’re also going to need to file a police report. Okay?” She nodded again, tears forming in her eyes, and looked up at me. She whispered, “Come with me,” and it was impossible for me not to agree to her demand. I had to be there for her, because I wasn’t before. The only time I left was when she had to take off her clothes and get into a hospital gown. After I heard the words ‘clothes’ and ‘off’ in the same sentence, I panicked and ran out of the room. A few minutes later a different nurse opened the door and told me I could come back in, laughing quietly at me. But I didn’t care, because Amy was crying while they moved her for each x-ray. She was in pain. And it was my fault. “Amy,” I whispered, going over to her. She looked up at me through her tears and painfully reached out for something. When I held out my un-casted hand, she took it full force. It lost its circulation while she squeezed it, but I tried not to pay attention to her nails digging into my skin every time they moved her. It hurt like hell, but if this was something I could do to make up for what I didn’t do, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Half an hour later, Amy was getting an MRI done to make sure none of her internal organs were damaged. After that, we were in a hospital room being told exactly what was wrong inside of her. “You have two fractured ribs,” Dr. Allum began. “Luckily, no permanent damage was done inside of your body. But, unfortunately, your liver is bruised. That will go away with time and medication.” He paused and looked at the two of us. “Now, I can’t do anything else until your legal guardian is here with us, Amy. It’s the law. I can’t administer professional care to a minor without parental consent.” “My dad is mentally disabled,” she replied, in a little less pain since they’d given her pain relievers. “He won’t understand what’s going on.” Dr. Allum sighed. “I still need his consent. I’m sorry. It’s not my rule.” Amy groaned and mumbled some string of profanity under her breath. “Fine,” she muttered. “Jacob, can you pick up my dad? He won’t understand, but just tell him that I need him and that everything is going to be fine. Dr. Allum, I need to tell him that this was an accident. He won’t understand. He’ll get scared.” She stared, begging with her eyes for the guy to understand exactly what life was like with someone like her dad or my brother. Sometimes the truth was a bad thing. “I can’t lie to him, Miss Shepherd,” he replied. “But, unless asked directly by your father what happened, I won’t say anything.” “Thank you,” she whispered. “Jake? Will you get him for me?” “Yeah,” I answered after a few seconds. “I’ll be back in ten minutes.” After I was safely in my car I called my mom and explained to her what had happened and that I didn’t know when I was going to be back. Though she was in hysterics – she hadn’t told me this, but apparently she loved Amy – I eventually got her to calm down. A few reassuring phrases and nine minutes later I was on the highway towards her house. I hated having to leave her again, because the entire time I was driving away from her, I had to fight back the urge to find Zack Miller and hit him again. I was going insane with rage. But eventually the rage went away and all that was left was me, alone, shaking, asking myself how I could have let it get so far. How could I have just sat by and watched? Why didn’t I do something? Why?
“Mr. Shepherd?” I called cautiously into the darkness. “Mr. Shepherd, are you there?” I walked forward carefully. Amy had given me the keys to her house so I could bring her dad to the hospital, but I hadn’t been expecting to find it empty. Then I remembered that Amy had told me her dad would’ve been upstairs in his room. I climbed the stairs slowly, looking for his bedroom. I stopped at one with blue walls and the word JACK written across the door. I’d forgotten about Amy’s little brother, and apparently so had she. I had to let him know what was going on, especially since I couldn’t tell their own father. I knocked gently on the door and walked in, looking around for him. But he wasn’t there. His room looked like it hadn’t been touched in years. There was dust on his nightstand and his bed was made but untouched. I thought maybe he moved out with Amy’s mother – I hadn’t seen her around at all, either – so I just assumed he wasn’t there. I turned my attention to her dad, who I noticed was sitting on a chair in an upstairs den watching television. “Mr. Shepherd? It’s Jacob Benson.” He turned around quickly but grinned when he saw me. “Ja-acob!” he shouted, sounding excited. He reminded me of my nine year old brother. “W-Why are y-you here?” “Amy had an accident,” I said slowly, remembering her wish to keep him in the dark about the way she’d gotten hurt. “She’s in the hospital, but they need you there.” His eyes widened and he stood up quickly. “I-Is she h-hurt?” he asked worriedly. “She’s a little beat up, but she’s going to be okay.” I stared back at him, trying not to show all the emotions I felt, and watched as he scrambled over to me. “T-Then let’s g-g-go,” he replied urgently, pulling me by the sleeve and down the stairs. He stumbled at the door a little bit from walking too fast, but for the most part the walk to the car was quick and painless. I was worried I’d have to force him into my car, him kicking and screaming the entire way. I was lucky. “Are y-you afraid?” he asked after I’d buckled him in and got into the driver’s seat. “No,” I lied. Truth is, I was terrified. But I couldn’t tell him that. “Everything is going to be fine, Mr. Shepherd.” He nodded and stared ahead of him, sighing loudly. I felt guilty lying to him like that, but I was right. I couldn’t tell him I was scared. I couldn’t tell him that the reason Amy was in the hospital was because of me. I couldn’t tell him that everything was my fault. So I let the car ride stay silent until we reached the hospital. A few minutes later we were in her room and Mr. Shepherd was running over to her desperately. “A-A-Amy,” he whispered. “Amy, y-you look b-b-bad!” “Daddy, I’m okay,” she replied through her tears. He stared back at her lovingly, making me want to leave the room. Sure, if I was being honest I would say that I was jealous of how much her dad cared about her – I mean, my dad obviously didn’t give a s*** about me or Mitch or Mom. Yeah, I was jealous. But what bothered me more was how genuinely concerned he was about her. It made me want to kill myself, because now I hadn’t only caused one person’s pain – I’d caused pain for both of them. “W-What happened?” he asked as I pulled a chair next to Amy’s bed for him to sit down on. He was shaking so much I thought he was going to fall. “I fell down the stairs,” Amy whispered. “They need you to tell them it’s okay for them to work on me.” Mr. Shepherd looked at Dr. Allum and said, “D-Do what you h-h-have to do. You h-have my p-permission.” Dr. Allum nodded, handing Mr. Shepherd a clipboard with a piece of paper on it and a pen. “I need you to sign this,” he commanded slowly. Mr. Shepherd took the clipboard and pen delicately, clumsily writing his name at the very top. Dr. Allum smiled awkwardly and accepted the clipboard when Mr. Shepherd handed it back to him. “Great,” he began. “Amy, I’m going to need to fit you for a brace to go around your ribcage, and then write you a prescription for your liver. It should only take around an hour, so you’ll be home before six.” “Thank you,” I replied instinctively. “I mean, for everything.” He looked at me and grinned, happy that someone was actually polite for once. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with a brace.” Amy smiled as Dr. Allum left the room, still somewhat out of it from the pain relievers, and motioned for me to come towards her and her dad. “Daddy?” she said, touching his shoulder gently. “Daddy, you remember Jacob, don’t you?” He looked up at me and grinned, holding his hand out to pat me on the arm. He patted my cast inelegantly, still smiling though it was obvious it was difficult for him to maneuver like that. “O-Of course I r-remember him,” he stuttered. “H-He dro-ove us h-here.” Amy laughed and looked up at me, grinning from ear to ear. “How come you only like Jacob, Daddy? Why didn’t you like any of my other friends?” She stopped for a second and her smile turned to a frown. But she quickly regained her composure and smiled again, just in time for her dad to move his eyes from my face to hers. “B-Because I l-like him,” he answered simply. He grinned at her and then at me, looking blissfully ignorant and happier than I’d ever seen him. Amy chuckled and slowly shook her head, shifting her body so she could look at me better. While she was twisting, though, it was obvious she was in an enormous amount of pain – even with the medicine. She grunted and I saw the tears begin to shape around her eyes. “Are you okay?” I asked softly, feeling stupid right after I’d said it. Of course she wasn’t okay. She’d just been nearly killed, for God’s sake. She nodded, still noticeably in pain, and attempted to smile. It was crooked and lopsided, but I tried to think of it as a form of reassurance that she was going to be alright. “I have the brace,” Dr. Allum called, making his way back into the room loudly. He showed the three of us a white, tube-like fixture that looked incredibly uncomfortable. “The design of this brace is especially interesting,” he began excitedly. “It’s designed to contract and expand with your breathing while still keeping the fractured ribs from moving. You’ll be able to breathe while wearing it. It’s ingenious, really.” He grinned, looking around at us for some form of excitement, and was disappointed when he realized that we weren’t as astonished by it as he was. He sighed dejectedly and walked closer to Amy, mumbling, “It’s better than what we used to have.” Amy attempted to smile again out of sympathy for the doctor. He was obviously exhausted and in need of sleep. “It sounds great,” she replied relatively enthusiastically, Dr. Allum’s mood immediately brightening. He grinned and motioned for me to help him prop Amy up. “I know it’s going to hurt,” he told her while we positioned pillows around her strategically, “but it’s a onetime experience, Amy. You’ll be able to sleep with it and it’s water-proof, so you’ll never have to take it off until your ribs are healed. Now your dad, boyfriend, and I are going to leave so the nurses can help you put it on. We’ll be back when you’re finished.” I saw Amy’s face register confusion at the word ‘boyfriend’ and laughed as her cheeks reddened slightly. I didn’t have the energy to explain that I was just her English partner, so I just let him go on thinking that. I was pretty sure Amy would’ve said something if she hadn’t been in so much pain. The three of us – Mr. Shepherd, Dr. Allum, and I – all left the room quickly so they could help her with the splint. I was more than ready to take both of them home and then get something to eat. I was starving. A few minutes later we were back in the room and a normally-clothed Amy was standing beside me. “Just check out at the desk and you’ll be free to go,” Dr. Allum said, gently ushering us out of the room and towards the exit where the desk was. “There you can make a follow-up appointment with your regular doctor.” We thanked him and left to the desk, Amy wobbling unsteadily as she walked. I had to support her more than a few times and she smiled at me awkwardly. I knew she was embarrassed to have to rely on someone so much. I tried to act like it was no big deal. “Name and insurer, please,” the nurse – different from the one I’d talked to before, unfortunately – demanded uninterestedly, looking around like she was bored. “Amy Shepherd, Blue Cross.” She pulled out her wallet from her pocket and gave the nurse her insurance card. We waited for a few minutes while the nurse entered all the information into the computer, and eventually she gave Amy back her card and began printing something. “This is your receipt,” she said, handing Amy a few pieces of papers. “Stapled to it are a few things you need to know about your injury, a doctor’s note for your school, and a prescription for a pain reliever. There is also a phone number to call to make an appointment with your regular physician. You don’t have a co-pay, so you’re free to go.” She waved her hand slightly, chewing her gum loudly. She obviously didn’t give a damn about any of the patients she met, so it wasn’t really hard for us to leave without much conversation. I helped Amy into the front seat of my car when her dad politely requested to sit in the back. He said he wanted her near the airbag. As we were pulling out of the parking lot, my stomach made a ridiculously loud noise that got everyone’s attention. Both Amy and Mr. Shepherd laughed hysterically while I groaned internally. Why did it have to be so damn loud? “Are you hungry, Jacob?” Amy asked, still laughing at my expense. “Yeah,” I mumbled. “I’m starving.” She grinned and looked back at her dad, asking, “Daddy, is it okay if Jacob stays for dinner tonight?” to which he responded with an excited, “Y-Yes!” Before I knew it, we were at her house and she was struggling to cook lasagna. I had to help her with the pan because she couldn’t bend over to reach it, and I had to help her pull out the lasagna because she couldn’t maneuver her body enough to open the drawer in the fridge. Soon it became me cooking dinner and her telling me what to do. “I-It sm-smells good,” her dad called from the living room where he was watching something on the television. Amy laughed and shouted, “Thanks, Daddy,” back to him. For some reason I found myself laughing whenever she did. It was infectious. Soon after that we were eating beef lasagna around a dining table big enough for a family of six. I think the biggest thing I remember about that night was the way Amy interacted with her dad. She was always hovering around him, sitting next to him, helping him cut his food when he couldn’t even though she could barely do it herself. She took care of him like a mother took care of her child. It was obvious she would’ve done anything for him. She loved him. After dinner, I did the dishes while Amy took her dad upstairs to his bed. He was yawning the entire time during dinner, and we could both tell that today had been a long day for him. It had been a long day for the both of us, too, but somehow we still managed to stay awake. Once I nearly dozed off while scrubbing a plate. After that I decided that I needed to go home. It was only nine o’clock, but something inside me made it feel closer to eleven. I also wanted to see Mom and Mitch before they went to bed, so when I found the opportunity to say goodnight, I took it. Amy surprised me with what she said as she held the door open for me so I could get out. “Jake,” she whispered, trying to be quiet because her dad’s room was right above us and she didn’t want to disturb him. “I just want to thank you, for everything you’ve done today. I didn’t realize how much I needed you.” I stared at her, dumbfounded, while she smiled a small smile and leaned in to kiss me delicately on the cheek. “You’re not who I thought you were, Jacob. You have no idea how happy I am about that.” She smiled tiredly and shut the door, leaving me to stand there silently. Amy Shepherd just kissed me, I said in my head, feeling my cheek with the tips of my fingers. It was burning up but smooth, like heated rocks. Throughout the entire time I stood there like an idiot, I found myself grinning stupidly. My heart was beating at a hundred miles an hour as I walked back to my car and I was sure something was wrong with me. I mean, she’d just kissed me on the cheek. Why was I happy about it?
I woke the next morning almost an hour before I usually did. Part of that was because I wanted to have time to shower and finish up some homework that I hadn’t done the night before; the other part was that I couldn’t sleep with my cast. It was impossible to find a comfortable position that didn’t involve sleeping with my arm behind my back like I was being arrested. It was six in the morning – school didn’t start until eight forty five – and I was regretting getting out of my bed. It was one of those foam mattresses. So damn comfortable. “Jake?” Mom called from the stairs below me tiredly. “Jake, come down here for a sec.” I groaned, expecting the worst. Chances were she was going to make a scene about what had happened last night, and I really didn’t want that. I just wanted to forget about it, mostly because if I kept thinking about it I would’ve wanted to attack Zack again. “What’s up?” I asked, walking down the stairs without a shirt on. “Jacob Benson?” a deep male voice announced as I turned the corner into the living room. I wasn’t expecting it so I jumped a little, but I tried to sound calm and manly once I realized that it was a police officer that was asking my name. “Uh, yeah?” I replied cautiously. “My name is Officer Bauer. I’m here to take your statement on the events that occurred yesterday involving Amy Shepherd.” I gulped loudly. S***. “Are you going to arrest me?” I asked stupidly, my voice shaking. I sounded like a scared little twelve year old girl. He laughed quietly, making my muscles un-tense a little bit. “No, son. I’m just here to confirm that your statement matches Amy’s. Nothing to worry about.” “Oh,” I sighed. “What do I have to do?” “Just tell me what happened, in your own words. That’s all you need to do.” “Okay.” I took a breath. “It started when I walked into my English room.” As I told him the story of everything that’d happened, I couldn’t help but feel judged. He was staring at me intently, committing everything I said to memory. Occasionally he’d write something down in his notebook, which made me even more self conscious. “And then we got the hospital and found out she had broken ribs and a bruised liver,” I finished dumbly. The entire time I was talking my heart raced. Even though Officer Bauer had said I wasn’t going to be arrested, I still had this overly paranoid feeling that he was going to go back on his word and end up handcuffing me right there on the spot. “That matches identically to what Amy said,” he explained, smiling a little. “That’s all I need to know.” “Wait,” I began when he stood up to leave. “What’s going to happen to Zack?” “He’ll most likely be charged with assault,” he answered. “There will be a trial you’ll need to speak at.” I nodded my head, a silent way of thanking him. I suppose it looked like I was thanking him for listening to my side of the story, but in reality it was me thanking him for not locking me up or beating me with his battering stick I knew cops loved to use. Mom stood up with him, and after he was gone, she ran up to me and hugged me. “Helping Amy was a brave thing to do, Jake,” she said into my shoulder. I was a good six inches taller than her. “I’m very proud of you.” I squeezed her back but eventually found myself releasing her. “I have to finish getting ready, Mom,” I whispered into her hair. “Alright. I love you, sweetheart.” “I love you, too,” I mumbled, letting her go. I climbed the stairs two at a time and immediately turned on the shower. It was freezing when I jumped in, but I needed something to clear my head from all of the overwhelming details surrounding it. Overwhelming detail number one: Zack was, most likely, going to end up in Juvie or jail, depending on if he was eighteen or not. That meant we’d just lost our best running back and one of my best friends. Overwhelming detail number two: I didn’t care. I was being honest. I didn’t care that Zack was going to rot in some form of prison, because he’d hurt Amy. If I could’ve done it all over again, I still would’ve hit him the way I did. Probably even harder. Because something inside me forced myself to realize the final, most important detail of my life. Overwhelming detail number three: Amy Shepherd wasn’t the psychopathic b***h I’d thought she was. She was… I don’t know what she was. Something strangely – and confusingly – amazing. After I showered, I put gel in my hair for the first time in a year. I twisted my brown hair in my hands, giving it that just-out-of-bed look. I had to admit, it looked sexy. I wonder if Amy will like it. I stared at myself in the mirror, my eyes widening in shock. Had I really just wondered if Amy Shepherd would like my hair? Was I really thinking about that? I took in a mystified breath and kept looking at myself. I was shirtless, tan, and relatively buff if I may so myself, but that wasn’t what had caught my eye. There was a huge, brown bruise all the way across my stomach and chest where Zach had kicked me. You know what freaked me out the most, though? I didn’t care. I would’ve taken a hundred of those bruises if it meant keeping Amy safe. And that thought terrified me. My original plan was to pick up Amy at her house and take her to school because I knew she couldn’t drive herself. It was going to be me making up for all of the things I never did. But when I found myself wishing she would kiss me on the cheek again, I forced my foot to stay on the gas pedal as I accelerated past her house. I wouldn’t let myself stop. I wouldn’t let myself get stuck in a situation where I’d have to resist the urge to ask her to kiss me again. Something was wrong with me. And it was all because of Amy Shepherd. I slammed my car door shut after I took my backpack from the back seat and the noise echoed across the parking lot. There were at least a hundred other cars sitting there, but for some reason it felt like there was no life at the school. At all. I’d just turned to face the entrance when I saw her stepping off of the bus. She’d dropped all of her books and binders as she’d stepped off the last step, and I watched every single high school student walk past her like she wasn’t even there. She was trying to bend over and pick them up, but she couldn’t. And no one even bothered to help. I found myself instinctively running over to where she was. I exhaled loudly, silently cussing myself out for giving in to the temptation so easily, and she looked up at me. Small tears had started to form – one was starting to roll down her cheek – but, for some reason, she smiled when she saw me. For some weird reason, she looked happy. “Need some help?” I asked rhetorically, bending down to pick up the books and binders she’d dropped. I didn’t hand them over to her because they were heavy. Instead I kept them in my arms while she continued to smile. “You just keep rescuing me, don’t you?” she replied, smiling sarcastically. “Do you not want me to?” I laughed. She grinned, looking me up and down as we walked, and mumbled, “No, I guess I can let you tag along for a while.” I scoffed jokingly. “In that case, I guess I’ll chill with you for a few minutes.” She laughed quietly but abruptly distanced herself from me as a group of people walked in front of us. We were just now making it to the school, only half the distance of a football field away from the front doors. “I can carry my books from here,” she said, stopping. “If you want to go in ahead of me, I understand.” “What?” I asked, not believing her. “Why would you think I’d do that?” “Jake,” she sighed. “You’ve already done so much for me. If you don’t want to be seen with me, I understand.” I felt myself take a split second of hesitation before I answered her, because she was right. I was worried about my reputation. I mean, I still cared what people thought about me. But if people had seen the Amy I’d only just begun to see and not just what everyone said she was, they wouldn’t have cared if I was with her. It was finally my chance to make up for everything I’d never done to help her. Of course I was going to take it. “Shepherd, I jumped one of my teammates for you. If I was really that worried about my reputation, I wouldn’t have done that in the first place.” I shook my head. “Why do you beat yourself down so much?” “After being told by everyone that you’re a freak, it just kind of starts to come as second nature.” She sighed and looked up at the sky, squinting her eyes in the sun. I tried to smile at her. Of course, there was nothing funny or happy about the situation she was in, but it sucked, having to watch her look so depressed. Some of that was guilt because her sadness was partially my fault, but, for the most part, I just wanted to see her happy. Was that cheesy to say? “If it helps, I don’t think you’re a freak. Not usually, at least.” I shrugged, attempting to lighten the mood, and opened the door to the school for her. She laughed quietly and looked back at me, gluing this half smile on her face that I’d grown accustom to seeing on her. Surprisingly, she was gorgeous when she smiled. I mentally slapped myself as my thoughts turned to her kissing my cheek again. People stared as we walked into the school together. I waved and smiled at all of the people I knew, trying to act like nothing was out of the ordinary, but inside I knew they were going to give me hell for it later. But, for some reason, I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t know why, but I was happy. Somehow being with Amy made me forget about every stupid little thing going on in my life. It made me realize that there was a hell of a lot more than just football and high school. There was Mitch. There was her dad. There were her broken ribs and bruised liver. There was the giant bruise on my chest. Somehow we managed to walk all the way to my locker before she responded. Amy snapped me out of my reverie when she mumbled, “Shut up,” and playfully punched me in the chest. She hadn’t hit me hard at all, but the pain quickly spread to my entire upper half. Before I knew it, I was buckled over in the puking position, nearly dropping everything I was carrying. “Jake, are you okay?” she asked, staring at me worriedly. I grunted in response, a noise that was supposed to sound like Yeah, but she didn’t seem to understand it because she was still freaking out. “Oh my god, what did I do?” “I’m fine,” I choked out, leaning against the wall with the lockers on it. “Just a little sore.” She took in a deep breath and murmured, “Is Zach the reason you’re sore?” I narrowed my eyes – I was still pissed off to the extreme whenever I thought about him – and nodded slightly. The breath was coming back to me in shallow bursts. I hadn’t realized how sensitive that area really was. I probably should’ve gotten checked out while we were at the hospital. Amy squeezed her eyes shut and eventually opened them forcefully. “I wish I could kill him,” she whispered furiously, the hatred seeping into her words. I laughed bitterly, saying, “So do I.” She sighed and glanced up at me. She’d been staring at the place where she’d hit me and looked like she wanted to cry. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” she whispered. “I feel really bad for making it worse.” I attempted to shrug it off, waving my hand nonchalantly. “Don’t worry about it,” I replied as I regained my composure. I couldn’t look like I was really hurting. I wasn’t anymore, which was nice, but I still didn’t want her to feel guilty. I mean, I’d just made fun of her. I was asking to get a punch for that joke. She sighed and smiled softly, saying, “Well, class is about to start.” She shifted on her feet but made no move to leave, so I took that opportunity to stare at her, to really take in everything about her. She was probably four or five inches shorter than me, with brown hair the color of the grandfather clock in my living room, a chestnut honey. I could just barely see the outline of her brace when I looked at her shirt – she was wearing surprisingly tighter clothing today – and it was then that I realized what kind of figure she had. To keep it simple, she could’ve been a model. I looked at her up and down, hormones kicking in. I didn’t know how or why, but suddenly Amy Shepherd was the sexiest girl I’d ever met. I swallowed, forcing my hands to stay by my sides. I can’t do this, I told myself. I can’t kiss her. A few seconds of silence later, I set the books down on the floor. Amy stared at me, wondering what I was doing but not objecting, and my hand moved itself to the side of her face, sliding the stray strands of hair away from her cheek. Before I could tell myself not to, I found my lips getting closer and closer to hers until they were only inches apart. “What are you doing?” she asked shakily, her breath touching my lips. It smelled like spearmint. I paused, keeping my lips the same distance away as they were before she’d spoken, and murmured, “I think I’m kissing you.” She laughed nervously. “Why?” That was a surprisingly good question. Why was I about to kiss Amy Shepherd? Why was I so desperate to be close to her when yesterday I wouldn’t have cared if she dropped off the planet? What was happening to me? Those questions repeated in my head continuously, no real answer in sight. Eventually I stopped asking them and allowed myself to say, “Because I want to.” Shortly after that I felt the touch of her lips against mine. And it was unbelievable.
“What’s going on with you, man? And what’s with the bruise on your face?” Sean asked me during lunch when I hadn’t responded to one of his stupid questions. “I’ve never seen you like this.” “Amy Shepherd punched me in the face,” I mumbled bitterly, staring at my tray of food. I was still fuming over her response to my kiss and didn’t want to deal with whatever it was that Sean wanted to talk about. “She what?!” he laughed hysterically. “What’d you do?” I swallowed and pursed my lips. “I kissed her.” Sean immediately stopped laughing and stared at me confusedly. “You kissed her?” he asked skeptically. “Come on, Jake, I’m not an idiot. Why’d she punch you, really?” I sighed angrily and looked up from my food to him. “I’m serious,” I muttered. “I kissed her, and she punched me for it.” “Why would you kiss her? There are two hundred other girls that would kill for you to kiss them, Jake!” “I don’t know!” I shouted heatedly, immediately lowering my voice after I’d finished my sentence. “I don’t know why I kissed her. I don’t even know why I want to be with her at all.” He shook his head. “I think the football’s getting to you, Jake. You’ve been knocked around so many times you actually want to kiss Amy Shepherd. Maybe you should take a break.” I narrowed my eyes at him, mumbling, “Thanks for the pep talk, Sean. It’s been great.” And then I stalked away bitterly. Even though he was my best friend, I couldn’t tell him anything without him making fun of me for it. Why did I even bother being friends with him, anyways? I groaned, remembering that we were friends because we’d known each other since we were in diapers. That wasn’t a bond that was easily broken. Our friendship had been sealed for a while – I couldn’t change that. I wouldn’t want to, even if he did piss me off. He was like my brother. I started to turn around to sit back down, but something I saw out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Why was Zach Miller still in school? Shouldn’t he have been expelled? I stepped over to him and stared him down. He tried to look intimidating, but after I’d completely owned his face a few days before, he knew I could’ve killed him on the spot. I could see the fear behind his glare. “What are you doing here?” I asked, staring into him like a lion stares into a gazelle. “I’m getting my stuff,” he huffed. “You got me expelled, man. I thought we were friends.” “No, Zach. I can’t be friends with someone who fights an innocent chick. What kind of guy does that?” “She deserved it,” he whispered underneath his breath, making me want to hit him again. “No one deserves something like that, man! What is wrong with you?” “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with you! Why are you defending someone like her? Since when have you even cared?” I took in a breath. I’d always cared. The question he should’ve been asking was when did I start showing it. “I don’t,” I lied, trying to convince myself that defending Amy was just a spur of the moment thing. But even I knew that was a load of crap. “Bullshit,” Zach mumbled. “Something’s gotten into you, Benson. Now leave me alone.” He nodded his head furiously and shoved past me, knocking his shoulder into mine. It hurt, but I wasn’t paying attention to the pain. I was paying attention to Amy standing behind him. Her reaction had even me scared. She stared him down while he cowered like a scared little boy in front of her. He winced as she slapped him, right across the face. He took it like a man, though, knowing he couldn’t do anything back to her in the middle of a cafeteria, and quickly left through the front doors. I shook my head as he turned back to flip her off when she wasn’t looking. What a coward. “Amy,” I started when she noticed I’d been standing behind Zach. “Amy, why did you punch me?” She glared and began to walk towards the math section of the school. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t even worth a response to her. I silently followed her after she’d left, and once we were outside of the cafeteria, I forced her to stop and acknowledge me. “I don’t want to talk to you right now, Jacob,” she said, staring at me with a hurt expression while I held onto her shoulders. She dropped her books loudly, angrily, and I instinctively picked them up and held them in my arms. “Why?” I asked, exasperated. “What did I do wrong?” “What did you do wrong? You kissed me!” “And that’s a bad thing?!” She breathed in loudly, shrugging her shoulders out of my hands so I couldn’t stop her from leaving anymore. “I don’t like being played,” she whispered bitterly. “I thought you were different.” I made her look at me again by securing my un-casted hand around her elbow. “What are you talking about?” “You used me,” she mumbled. “I thought you were a good guy, but you really just wanted me for your trophy collection of girls. You lied to me, Jacob!” “What?” I shouted angrily. “Who told you that?” I kept my grip on her tight when she tried to wiggle out of it, having to resist the urge to squeeze even tighter. I was pissed. “No one had to,” she replied, the tears starting to form. “I just knew.” “You’re crazy, Amy.” “How am I crazy?” she shouted back. “You’re the one who kissed me! Why would you do that?” “I don’t know!” I responded loudly. “I mean… I guess I wanted to. I wanted to kiss you.” “But why?” she whispered. “Because… Because you’re a pain in the ass!” I admitted. “You drive me insane. You get pissed off at me for the dumbest things, and you act like a b***h to everyone. You annoy the hell out of me.” I paused and looked at her. She was glaring through her almost-tears. “But then you go and smile or laugh. Or you tell me about your dad or invite me to dinner or look at me. You just… I don’t even know, Shepherd. You make me nuts. I should hate you, but since two days ago all I’ve wanted to do is be with you.” I looked up at her again and I could see the why question in her eyes. “Don’t ask me why, Amy. I don’t know.” “Am I really that insane?” she asked almost silently, biting her lip. Her eyes had softened and she looked like she was going to cry even harder. “Yeah, you really are.” I shrugged. Once again my blatant honesty had come out full force. “Well you’re not exactly the greatest guy ever,” she mumbled, staring at the ground. She looked up at me miserably and it was almost impossible not to support her. I just wanted to help her. “I know I’m not,” I replied dryly, letting her elbow go. “I’m just sick of pretending like I don’t care.” “So?” she asked quietly. “What do we do now?” “An apology wouldn’t hurt,” I mumbled grumpily. Yeah, I was being a baby. But I would’ve been lying if I’d said that her words didn’t sting. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m crazy. I’m not used to being around people besides my dad and his nurses. I’m not good with other human beings…” My eyes darted from her lips to her eyes and back again multiple times before I could respond. “You don’t have to be good with everyone else,” I murmured. “You just have to be good with me.” The silence was cutting while I waited for her to say something, anything. I counted to ten before she even bothered opening her mouth. “We have to get to class,” she replied after a few seconds. “The bell’s going to ring soon.” I opened my mouth to say something but quickly shut it. I wasn’t sure how to respond to someone shutting me down like that. “Yeah,” I eventually agreed. “I guess I’ll see you in English.” “Jake,” she called after I’d walked a few yards away from her. “Jake, wait.” “What?” I asked bitterly. She sighed softly. “I need my books.” I swallowed, handing them to her silently. I forced myself to stare at her, piercing my eyes into hers. She’d just completely rejected me. The one girl I actually wanted to be with didn’t want me. I guess people weren’t kidding when they said high school sucked.
Name: Jacob Benson
Occupation (if any): Grocery Store Clerk
I scratched out that last line bitterly. Sarcasm probably wasn’t the best thing to use when filling out college applications.
Sighing, I crumpled up the piece of paper into a tight ball and threw it into the trash can across the room that Mitch and I shared. I’d been filling out practice applications all morning and still hadn’t written one even remotely worth sending.
Why am I doing this? I asked myself. I already had a full ride scholarship for football to a college I wanted to go to. Why was I poking holes in The Plan?
The Plan started in third grade when I’d been getting bullied by a kid the size of Jupiter that thought it was cool to push me around because I was scrawny. It was simple: buff up, grow a foot taller, gain a hundred pounds, and start drinking raw eggs for breakfast. After elementary school was over, The Plan quickly grew to new heights. Instead of just bulking up, I added Join the football team to my list. Shortly after that came Make friends in high places, Start to smell good (I’d been told girls liked that), Get ten cheerleaders to sleep with you by the time you’re a senior, and eventually get into a college as far away as possible. That last one came around back when I was in my rebellious pre-pubescent teen phase.
It was also the reason I was even in the situation I was in in the first place. Did I really want to go so far away from Mitch and Mom? As much as I would’ve liked to deny it, I could barely go a day without seeing them. I would’ve ended up going crazy if I went more than twenty miles away, like UNC was.
So that was why I sat there, waiting for an inspiration to come to me that would suddenly make everything easy.
Said inspiration never came.
Why was I not surprised.
I groaned again and tossed my pen across the room. It hit the wall with a thump and landed dejectedly on Mitch’s bed, like it was depressed. For some reason I actually felt bad for throwing it. I mean, the pen hadn’t done anything to me. I shouldn’t have blamed it for my complete inability to fill out any form of paperwork besides magazine subscriptions.
Giving up, I stalked out of Mitch and I’s room and left to find something to eat. It was five o’clock – I’d just gotten home from practice – and I could smell Mom’s cooking filling the house with its deliciousness. My stomach grumbled hungrily like a monster I could barely control.
Being a teenage guy sucked.
“Jake, would you set the table?” Mom asked when she heard my footsteps approaching.
I nodded a response and reached above her to get the plates from the cabinet. I set three places, one with a small plate and set of silverware for Mitch, and threw some silverware and napkins down for good measure. Mom always lectured me about how I should “take pride in my work setting the table” but, to be honest, I didn’t care. At all.
“Smells good, Mom,” I said while I walked over to the fridge to pour myself a glass of milk. I began to chug it thirstily, pretending I was Godzilla and the milk was a river made of blood from the unsuspecting townspeople I’d just ruthlessly murdered. The townspeople mostly consisted of all the people that had wronged me. I stepped on all of them.
Soon I found myself setting the glass down hesitantly and walking away. I’d freaked myself out with the Godzilla thought. After taking a few seconds to clear my thoughts, I shook my head and slowly wandered back to take the glass of milk again and sit at the table.
What Mom said surprised me.
“How is Amy doing?” she asked nonchalantly, like she was just one of the ever-so-innocent mothers concerned about their sons’ wellbeing. But I knew better than that.
“Who told you,” I asked, without it sounding like a question.
“Mrs. Swanson,” she sighed. “Sorry, Jake. She saw her hit you and told me at our book club meeting.”
“Why do all of my school’s teachers have to go to your freaking book club? Why can’t they have their own?”
“Not enough people, I guess.” Mom shrugged and put another bite of the stroganoff she’d made into her mouth. “So? What happened?”
“What, Mrs. Swanson didn’t tell you all of the juicy details?”
“She only saw her punch you. She’d just walked out of her room.”
“Fine,” I groaned. “She decked me… because I kissed her.” I braced myself for Mom’s shocked response, the oh-my-God-you-did-what?! reaction, but it never came.
“Can you pass the pepper?” is what she chose to say instead.
“What?” I asked exasperatedly.
“The pepper. Can I have it, please?”
I slid it across the table, shaking my head. I hated my mom sometimes.
“Can you at least try to act a little surprised?”
“I-I’m sur-prised, Ja-acob,” Mitch put in with a mouth full of noodles. It scared me a little – I’d forgotten he was there.
“Thanks, Mitch. I know you’ve always got my back.” I smiled and nudged him playfully with my casted arm. His grin was ridiculously contagious and I soon found myself not nearly as mad at my mother as I was before. But that quickly faded.
“It’s not my fault you’re predictable, Jake,” Mom said while Mitch continued to laugh and smile.
“It’s not my fault you know me better than I do. Seriously, stop doing that.”
She just shrugged and kept on eating. Her apathy to the fact that she could read me like a book was cutting.
“Why can’t you be like a normal mom and just not care about anything I do?” I mumbled sarcastically, being a douche about it. I acted like I hated when she poked her nose into my business, but of course I wanted her to care. I loved the way my mom was.
Apparently, she didn’t see the beauty of the sarcasm in my comment.
“You want me to not care?” she asked loudly, dropping her silverware on her plate. “Fine. Why don’t you cook your own dinner, pay your own bills, and take care of Mitch by yourself. If you didn’t want me to care, I would’ve left like your father did.” Mom stared daggers into me, daring me to say something else.
I took in a sharp breath. I’d never heard Mom talk about Dad like that. She was always the most composed person when it came to that subject.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I mumbled apologetically, avoiding eye contact like a dog that’d just peed on the carpet.
She nodded her head angrily and picked up her silverware again, shoving more noodles and meats into her mouth. Somehow I’d pushed a button that I didn’t know existed.
Chances were I was going to be in the doghouse for a while.
The next morning I started to make my own breakfast before Mom could come down and do it for me. I still felt bad for our little fight the night before and wanted to do everything I could to make it better. I also didn’t want her to put some kind of poison in my cereal, but that wasn’t the point.
“Hey,” I said quietly as she came in the kitchen in a robe and nightgown. “Do you want some cereal?”
She glanced at the box of Trix I was holding and then back at me a few times. Eventually, she sighed and took the box from my hand before I could before pour my own bowl. She let a bowlful of the cereal fall into the bowl, set the box down, and emptied a few splashes of milk into it before she even said a word. Silently, she grabbed a spoon, set it next to the cereal, and gestured to it like she wanted me to eat it. I stupidly stared at her in response until she said something.
“You eat, I’ll talk.” She pointed to the bowl and made an eating motion with her hands like I was stupid.
I shrugged and shoved the spoon into my mouth a few times, and eventually she got up the nerve to speak.
“Your dad called me yesterday while I was at work.” She let those words sit for a few seconds and I heard the spoon clatter on the counter because I’d dropped it in shock. “He wants to apologize for everything. He expects it all to just go back to normal.”
“It can never go back to normal!” I replied angrily. “He left us. Does he think we can just forgive him for something like that?”
“That’s what I told him – believe me. He probably thinks I’m psychotic by the way I yelled at him. But that doesn’t change what he wants.”
“What does he want?”
“He wants to come back, Jake. And I need to know what you want before I tell him any sort of answer.”
“I don’t want him here,” I answered bitterly. “He left us. He doesn’t get to come back after doing that.”
“I feel the same way. He won’t be living with us, then. But, Jake, he’s going to come around from time to time. I can’t deny him the right to see his children. If I did, he’d take it to court and you’d have to see him even more often than you would if he just occasionally came over for dinner.”
“This sucks,” I whispered. “Why does he choose now to decide to care?”
“I don’t know,” Mom sighed. “I guess you’ll have to ask him.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t planning on asking him anything.
“I ‘gotta get to school,” I mumbled, setting my bowl in the sink. “I’m sorry, Mom. If I’d known Dad had called I wouldn’t’ve said what I said.”
“Don’t worry about it, honey. I love you.” She put her arms around me like I was eight again and whispered, “We’ll figure all this out.”
But what if we can’t figure this out? I wanted to ask. What if he comes and expects everything to be like it was before? What if he wants to be my dad again?
I sighed against my mom and took in a few breaths.
The thing that was stressing me out the most was the one thing that I shouldn’t have cared about at all.
Amy Shepherd couldn’t stand being anywhere near me. She’d sent me a pissed-off email telling me that she convinced Mr. Raker to let us do our own separate alphabet projects and that she never wanted to talk to me again.
So the one person I hated most wanted to come back into my life, while the person I wanted to be with did everything she could to stay out of it.
I’m starting to think God hates me.
“And then my mom went on this b***h-rant about how my room’s never clean enough.” I nodded at Sean uninterestedly, unfortunately being obvious about how little I cared about his story. “Jake. Man, are you listening?” I nodded again, not paying attention to what he was saying. I’d started to master the art of pretending to listen – mostly because I’d used it on my mom a lot. There was the occasional nod, grunt of acknowledgement, or sometimes a reassuring smile when I heard the other person laugh. It was a simple system that worked without failure. Except with Sean. “No, I’m not listening.” I sighed and turned to face him, looking at him plainly. The truth was, I’d been staring at the other half of the school yard for the past twenty minutes, silently hoping that Amy would at least glance over in my direction. But she never did. She was always alone, looking at the floor. “Why not?” “Because I don’t care about your mom b****ing you out about your room,” I responded blatantly. “Sorry. I’ve just got bigger things on my mind right now.” “Like?” he asked, following my eyes to where I’d been staring. “Oh, come on, Jake. Why are you so hung up on her? She’s just a freakin’ chick!” “I know that,” I mumbled bitterly. “I just can’t get her out of my head.” “Then let’s do something to clear it. Sam Warner’s having a party tonight. You should come.” “By party do you mean get drunk and hook up?” I clarified, laughing dryly. Sean’s idea of fun had started to change from what mine was since we’d started high school four years ago. “Yeah, mostly.” He shrugged. “But you can always go sober. If you want to.” “I think I’m gonna pass,” I said, shaking my head. “Besides, Mitch has a piano recital tonight. I promised my mom I’d be there.” I acted like I was being forced against my will to go there, but the truth was I’d been looking forward to it all week. Mitch spent most of his time telling me about how excited he was to play in front of all those people and how hard he’d been working. I wanted to support him in something he was good at. He was my brother. I just wanted to make him happy. “Lame,” Sean mumbled in response, but he let it go. Sean knew how much I cared about Mitch – how I would’ve done anything for him – and I think that was the reason he didn’t press it so much. “I’ll just see you later, then. Coach asked me to tell everyone that practice is cancelled for the rest of this week, by the way. His daughter just had a baby, or something.” I sighed, thankful for the first time ever that practice was cancelled. I was just worn out. “Thanks. See you later, Sean.” I stood up from the place Sean and I had been sitting and started to walk towards my car. I had to pass in front of Amy to get there. I decided to pretend like I didn’t care. I could see the hurt expression on her face as I walked by her without even acknowledging her existence, but I couldn’t make myself turn back and apologize. No matter how bad I felt, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t going to devote every second of my life to her. She had to accept that. So I kept on walking. *** A few hours later I was in the elementary school’s auditorium watching some fourth grader play a crappy version of Chopsticks. I knew I should’ve been more supportive of the kid, but he had to know by now that he couldn’t play piano for crap. It was something someone needed to tell him. Maybe he could put all his energy into something he was better at, like banking. Maybe he was destined to be a banker. I’d just started describing in my head how that kid’s life would be if he were a banker when I heard a woman announcer say Mitch’s name. She’d said he was playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. In thirty seconds, Mitch was in front of a giant grand piano with his back facing us. I could tell he was shaking out of nervousness by the way his back twitched every few seconds. Before I could silently reassure him, his fingers hit the keys. I could barely make out the song – he was playing so quietly. But I was proud anyways. I was proud because my little brother, the kid who could barely do anything for himself, was making music out of nothing. My little brother was doing something for himself. For some ridiculous reason, my eyes started tearing up around their edges. It was stupid. Mitch was just playing a song. I don’t know why it got me all emotional. I looked to my left to see small tears rolling down Mom’s cheeks, making it even harder to not cry with her. I was just so proud of him. Yeah, sometimes I acted like I didn’t care about anything. Sometimes I’d say stupid things and do even stupider things. But I loved my brother. And seeing him do that was one of the best moments of my life. Before I knew it, the song was over and Mitch was standing up and leaving the stage. I wanted to get him to come back and play something else for me, but I held my tongue. I didn’t need everyone else thinking I was crazy. “That concludes our program,” the same woman from before said into the microphone. “Thank you for coming. Parents, your children will be out to meet you shortly.” I glanced sideways to check on Mom and saw that the tears were gone. She looked completely normal. Maybe I was just crazy. “Wasn’t Mitch fantastic?” Mom asked rhetorically, grinning at me. “He was great,” I whispered. “I can’t believe how good he was.” Mom nodded and smiled, adding, “He’s been practicing for so long.” But I didn’t pay attention to what she was saying, because Mitch was walking out to greet us. And he had Amy Shepherd with him. I stared in disbelief at the two of them. What right did she have to come here? She didn’t know Mitch! Why would she completely shut me down and then expect to be totally fine with my brother? What the hell? “Well hello, Amy,” Mom said cheerfully, like it was completely normal for her to be here. I swear, I was starting to think the entire world was out to get me. “Hi, Mrs. Benson. How are you?” Amy smiled widely, making me want to punch a wall. How could she act like everything was fine?! “I’m great, thank you,” Mom replied sweetly. “Mitchy, you did so well!” Mom swooped down to pick Mitch up in her arms and spun him around a couple times. “I think you’ve earned some ice cream. Does that sound good to you?” Mitch nodded his head enthusiastically, saying, “I w-w-want ch-chocolate!” Mom laughed and swung him back onto the ground. “Well I think that can be arranged. Amy, would you like to join us?” I stared at my mother in disbelief. How could she be such a traitor? My own mother wasn’t even taking my side? What was this world coming to?! Amy smiled and said, “I’d love to,” which made me want to punch a wall even harder. How could she act like things were normal? What the hell? “Would it be okay if my dad came, too?” Mom grinned. “Of course, honey! The more the merrier. Meet us at Coldstone when you can, okay, sweetheart?” Amy nodded and smiled, and then walked away quickly while I stared after her in disbelief. I quickly turned to face my mom, shouting, “What are you doing?!” “I’m helping you, Jake. Trust me.” “Since when is calling Amy sweetheart and honey helping?!” “Jake, I’ve been talking to Amy. She’s been volunteering at the shelter for the past few weeks and we’ve gotten to know each other. I think I know some things that might be able to help you out.” “When are you going to tell me?” I asked, still annoyed that Mom had been going behind my back and talking to Amy. She sighed. “I’m not.”
“What do you mean, you’re not?” “Can we talk about this later, Jake?” Mom sighed. “Please?” “Not if we’re going to be eating ice cream with her in five minutes!” “I want cho-c-c-olateeeeeeee!” Mitch interrupted, throwing his hands in the air. I knew he was acting like some character he saw in a TV show – for a while he’d wanted to be SpongeBob – so I was even more annoyed. “It’s not my story to tell,” Mom said, nodding. “Amy will tell you when she’s ready. I can’t make her talk to you, hon.” “Can you at least tell me why she suddenly hates me?” “I think we both know the answer to that, Jake.” She took Mitch’s hand and started to walk out of the building, motioning for me to follow. I opened my mouth to say something but she gave me a look that told me to drop it. I groaned and reluctantly stayed with them. I didn’t have my car, and I didn’t know anyone here. There was no way I was getting another ride. “Is your seatbelt on, Mitch?” Mom asked when we were in the car, Mitch in the backseat. He gurgled some sort of response – he had a juice box and couldn’t talk clearly – and she took off out of the parking lot towards Coldstone. “So you’re really not going to tell me anything?” I whined, like a little girl. “Why do you get to know and I don’t?” “I know because Amy told me. You don’t know because it hasn’t been any of your business until now.” She turned onto the street Coldstone was on quickly, nearly taking out a curb. “That doesn’t seem fair,” I said, continuing to pout. Mom shrugged. “I know.” I huffed and crossed my arms, feeling like a teenage girl on a reality TV show. “Whatever.” Within a few minutes of silence – aside from Mitch’s random singing in the back seat – we made it to Coldstone and pulled into the handicapped spot. Mom didn’t like that we’d been given a permit to park there, because none of us had any disability that made us unable to walk, but she used it anyway because parking lots were constantly full. That way she didn’t have to worry about Mitch getting hit by as many cars as he could have if we always parked in the back. Mom slid the back door of the minivan open and Mitch jumped out, finishing his song with a dramatic hand motion. He grinned and took Mom’s hand, skipping off towards Coldstone while I stood next to the van grumpily. I’m going to get an expensive bowl of ice cream, just to piss her off. I smiled without humor and followed in Mom and Mitch’s footsteps, excited to see Mom’s reaction when she saw how pricy Coldstone’s ice cream was. She was going to be pissed at herself for suggesting to go here, and I was going to subtly revel in that fact. The door creaked as I opened it, and I noticed Mom and Mitch sitting in the corner immediately. Amy was with them already, and so was her dad. I tried to ignore the fact that his face lit up noticeably when he saw me, but it wouldn’t leave my head. His dad reminded me so much of Mitch. I wondered if that was how Mitch was going to be in forty years. “What’s this?” I asked when I saw that they all already had their ice cream. It felt like I was only gone for a minute, but apparently it had been much longer. “There wasn’t a line, so we ordered. I wanted to get you vanilla, but Mitch said your favorite was chocolate. I didn’t want to get you something you wouldn’t like.” “You’re both wrong,” I mumbled. “I like strawberry.” Mom shrugged, trying not to be hurt by my curt response. Luckily Mitch wasn’t paying attention or I would’ve felt even worse than I already did. “It’s fine, though,” I added, trying to make it sound better. “Can I borrow some money to buy something?” “Of course, honey.” Mom dug out a ten from her purse and handed it to me, giving Amy one of her looks. My stomach clenched uncomfortably when I saw Amy start to stand up, so I decided to bolt over to the counter to order. There was no way Amy would try to talk to me in front of all those people. “Can I get you something?” a girl I recognized from school asked from behind the freezer filled with ice cream. “Yeah, a large strawberry sherbet.” I felt a small smile creep up on my lips. This girl was probably a Sophomore or a Junior and I knew it would be easy to make her melt in front of me. “Would you like any toppings on this?” “Nah, I’m good,” I replied, smiling suggestively. “Hey, don’t you go to my school?” She blushed, walking over to the cash register. “I think so,” she answered quietly, trying not to smile. I, Jacob Benson, the quarterback of the varsity football team, had just recognized her. Of course she’d be excited. Not to sound conceited or anything, but who was I kidding? I handed her the ten my mom had just given me and she took it with shaky hands. After she handed me my change, I grabbed my ice cream and winked at her. Her eyes widened in pleasant surprise and I almost busted out laughing at how happy she looked. I couldn’t lie, I loved the attention I got from girls. I wasn’t going to complain about that. I took a huge bite of my sherbet and started walking back when I noticed Amy standing behind me. Of course, I knew she was going to be there, so I didn’t act surprised. “Can I help you?” I asked blankly, trying to seem innocent, with my mouth full of strawberry goodness. “We need to talk.” I paused and took another bite, waiting for her to speak. She sighed and started walking towards the door, looking back at me to see if I was following. I couldn't even enjoy my overpriced sherbet or the satisfaction of spending my mom's money. My feet moved themselves, I swear. “Jake,” Amy mumbled, sitting herself down on a bench outside of Coldstone. “Yeah?” “I’m sorry,” she whispered, putting her head in her hands as I sat down next to her. “For punching you.” “Yeah, about that. Why exactly did you deck me in the face?” She bit her lip, staring at the ground. “Can I ask you something?” she asked, so soft it wasn’t even a whisper, completely avoiding my question. I sighed and nodded, rubbing my eyes tiredly. I was getting sick of her dominating all of our conversations. “What would you do if you lost your brother?” I did a double take and took in a breath. Why would she ask that? Why would she make me think about something like that? “Why?” I asked loudly, resisting the urge to stand up from the bench and leave. When she didn’t respond, I answered, “I’d go crazy,” my voice getting stronger as I continued speaking. “I’d lose it. I’d be a mess. I love Mitch. I love him so G-damn much, Shepherd! What, did you think I didn’t?” “Of course not!” she replied, quieting her voice down when people started to look at us. “Jake, I felt the same way about my brother. But he’s dead now. He’s gone. Nothing can bring him back, and it’s because of me. That’s why I asked you what you’d do if you didn’t have Mitch anymore. To know that I'm not alone." I blinked away the tears that had started to form when I thought about losing Mitch. I wasn’t surprised that I’d started to cry – losing him would’ve killed me, and I wasn’t afraid to admit that. It was my job to take care of him, and if I lost him, it would’ve meant I’d failed. I was more surprised at her response to my reaction. “What happened?” I asked, even though it didn’t sound like a question. “He died in the crash that made my dad the way he is,” she worded softly. “He died because I made him sit in the front seat. He was too short… I should’ve known that. The air bag killed him. I… I killed him.” “You can’t blame yourself,” I mumbled unemotionally, blinking. “Come on. Let’s go for a walk.” I held out my hand to help her up and she took it shakily, releasing it after she was on her own two feet. “I have every day for two years,” she whispered as we wandered around the corner. She put her arms around herself like she was worried she was going to fall apart. “Nothing’s ever going to change that, Jake.” I let out a breath sadly and tossed my half-full sherbet bowl in a nearby trash can. I wasn't hungry anymore. “Do you want to know the real reason I hit you?” she asked quietly, continuing once I nodded. “You make me happy. When I’m with you, I laugh. I smile. I’m not always thinking about my dad or my brother or my mom. When I’m with you, I’m not alone anymore.” I scrunched my eyebrows. “And that’s a bad thing?” “Yes,” she whispered. “I’m happy when I’m with you, Jake... And I don’t deserve to be happy.” “Oh, come on,” I started, shaking my head. “Don’t feed me that. You know your brother wouldn’t want you to be depressed all your life. You can tell yourself that’s the reason you’re not happy all you want, but you and I both know that you only say that because you don’t want to take the risk!” I stood there with my mouth open, breathing heavily. I don’t know what had come over me, why I was suddenly yelling at her. The guilt overwhelmed me when I saw her face. “I-I’m sorry,” I mumbled, glancing at her apologetically. “I shouldn’t have said that.” She swallowed loudly and stared at me, on the verge of tears. “You’re right,” she whispered. “I relive that crash and remember my brother every time I see my dad. But that’s not the reason I can’t be with you. I can’t be with you because I don’t want to get hurt…” “Why do you think I’m going to hurt you?” I panted. “Can’t you see that I’m crazy about you?” “You shouldn’t be,” she murmured. “It’s in both of our best interests for you to just forget about me right now.” “You know I can’t do that,” I sighed, running a hand through my hair. I was furious at myself for admitting that I wanted her. I wanted to hate her. But some joke God played on me made every cell inside of my body scream for her. I hated myself. I’d only gotten to know her a month ago, but for some reason, everything I did made me want to be with her even more. She stopped and turned towards me, holding up one of her hands like she wanted a high five. She just stood there, holding it up. Confused, I reached to give her one, but stopped before our hands touched. We held them a few inches apart until I slowly laced our fingers together, keeping them suspended in the air. I chose to ignore the fact that I realized the reason she had her hand up was to block the blinding light from one of the streetlamps. “I’m not perfect,” I mumbled, shaking my head as she tried to pull away. “I can’t guarantee that I’m never going to mess up or make you want to hate me. But I want to be with you, Shepherd. I can’t explain why, so don’t ask. For the past month all I’ve done is think about you.” She sighed. “You’re making my hand sweaty.” “That’s all you have to say?” I groaned, throwing my hand down out of hers. “I just spilled everything to you, and that’s what you tell me?” “What do you want me to say? That I feel the same way? Because I do!” She paused and took in a deep breath, her voice still loud. “I want to hate you, but all I want to do is kiss you. I want to run away and never come back, but then I want to stay with you! Do you understand how confused my emotions are? Do you have any idea what it’s like to feel like this?” “Of course I do – I feel the same way!” I replied, my voice carrying as much as hers had. “I just want to be with you! I want to hold your hand like this and talk to you and go places with you. I want Mitch to have you in his life, because he loves you. I want my mom to stop worrying about you, because I know for a fact she worries more about you than she does about me. I want you, Shepherd. And I’m going to do whatever it takes to get you.” “You want me even though I’m crazy?” she whispered, her voice so soft compared to mine. “You’re not crazy,” I sighed. “You’ve been through a lot. I’d be the exact same way.” “Regardless,” she began, shaking her head, “you have to know that I’m not going to be like any of the girls you’ve been with before. I won’t know what to do all the time, and it’ll most likely be you hating me...” A small tear rolled down her cheek as her voice broke and I wiped it away with my now-free hand. I’d begun to notice that Amy cried a lot, which was something I was going to have to get used to. “But you make me happy,” she murmured softly, placing her hand back in mine timidly. “So if you want to deal with me, then I’m holding you responsible.” I laughed shakily, squeezing her hand tighter when she tried to loosen her grip. “I will,” I mumbled, putting my free hand on her hip. “Then so be it,” she sighed and leaned into my chest, looking up at me despairingly. I glanced down at her and half-smiled, wrapping my arm around her tighter as she instinctively pulled away. Slowly, I leaned in and pressed my lips to hers, running my fingertips along her side. And this time she actually kissed me back.