How many times have you put something into your mouth and thought, ‘This does not taste good? Am I supposed to swallow it?’ And then you do and you regret it. But seconds later you forget how much you hated it and put more of it in your mouth?
Well, that was me last night and I’m paying the price for it this morning. How can anyone drink whiskey? It tastes like dirt and it’s like swallowing lava. I should have just held it in my mouth and spit it out when no one was looking. No one really cares if you swallow, right? They just care that you’re there making the effort.
Okay, that’s it for me. I know that it’s a cliché for people to wake up with a hangover and claim that they will never drink again. But, I’m really not going to. I will never drink again. Not wine, not whiskey, not even a cider. I’m done with drinking. And, while I’m at it, I need to reconsider my relationship with loud noises and the sun.
“Can you quit that, please?” I said to my roommate Cory before groaning and rolling over feeling awful.
“I was putting on my pants,” Cory replied confused.
“And, can you do it quietly?”
“How many ways are there to put on your pants?”
I groaned. “I don’t feel well.”
“Do you want me to get you a glass of water or something? I’m gonna go get breakfast. Do you want me to bring you back a bagel?”
I thought about a bagel with cream cheese and lox and almost threw up. What was Cory trying to do, kill me? Our dorm room wasn’t very big, was she trying to get it all to herself? I moaned in reply and crawled into a ball.
Cory remained quiet for a moment and then sat on the edge of my bed and pushed her fingers through my hair scratching my scalp. It felt so good it almost made me forget how much I didn’t like girls. To be fair, I didn’t like guys either. It was people, in general, that I had a problem with.
But the truth was, aside from how loudly she put on pants, Cory was very sweet. She was the type of person who restored my faith in humanity. Not completely, of course, because, you know, people.
But after years of living with her, I’ve begun to think that they aren’t all bad. More than that, being around her has made me desire human connection. I even left my room last night in search of it. I, Kendall Seers, went to a campus party. Clearly Cory has been a bad influence on me.
It’s too bad that I’m only into guys and most are the backside of a donkey. The ones who aren’t still treat me like the freak show that I am. I don’t even mind that they don’t see me in a sexual way because I don’t see them that way either.
I mean, they’re alright. But the thought of kissing one of them? Ha! Let’s just say it would never happen.
“I take it you had a good time last night?”
“I don’t remember,” I admitted.
“Did you black out?”
“Yeah,” I told her burying my face in my pillow.
“Wow, that’s rough,” she said rubbing my head a little harder.
The girl had magic hands. If I were a dog, my leg would be going wild right now. Despite not being into girls, if she wanted to crawl into my bed and wrap her arms around me, I wouldn’t have objected.
She wouldn’t do that, though. Because besides being straight as well, she was the purest girl I knew. No matter how innocent, she would probably think of it as cheating on her boyfriend. She was just a good person. I would probably spend the rest of my life looking for a guy anywhere near as great as she was.
“Can I ask you a question?” Cory asked seriously.
“If I will marry you? If you’re going to keep rubbing my head like that, the answer is yes.”
Cory chuckled. “I’ll keep that in mind, but that’s not the question.”
“Ooooh,” I groaned disappointedly.
“I’m wondering why you have a piece of paper pinned to your shirt.”
Cory moved her magic fingers from my scalp and tugged at something hanging from my tee shirt. It was the one I was wearing when I headed out the night before. And until the moment my memories went dark, the pinned paper hadn’t been there.
I rolled over to get a better look at it. Tilting it upwards, I saw words on it.
“It’s written upside down,” I told her as the whiskey’s remains sloshed around in my brain.
Cory chuckled again. “Let me get that for you.”
She released the safety pin and stared at the note. “Willow Pond @ 2pm. What does that mean?”
What did that mean? I knew Willow Pond. It was my favorite spot on campus. It was where I went when I needed a moment to think. But, what about “@ 2 pm”?
I was rolling over to ask Cory if she had read it correctly when an image suddenly flashed into my mind. It was of a boy of indistinguishable size and shape and he was leaning in to me.
“Oh god! I kissed a boy!” I said shooting upright.
Apparently, it was a little too quickly because with it came everything I consumed the night before. If our dorm room wasn’t so close to the bathroom, I would never have made it. But when I returned from the porcelain god I felt like a tiger on the hunt. That lasted about 30 seconds before I was reminded that the sun was the devil and I had to crawl back under my sheets.
Needless to say that the memory of me kissing someone for the first time in my life was a bit of a shock. I was never a popular girl. In high school, I could blame it on actively rejecting every girly expectation growing up in the south forced on me. But, why was it the same in college?
East Tennessee University wasn’t like the suburbs of Nashville. The pressure to conform wasn’t the same here. Because it wasn’t, I didn’t try so hard to fit out. I even saw guys around campus who dressed like me. Yet, never once had I stumbled into a relationship with one of them or found a guy when I stopped looking for one, like people always say.
Don’t get me wrong, having my first kiss ever wasn’t a big deal or anything. I’m just wondering how it only happened after getting black out drunk. I know that alcohol lowered a person’s inhibitions, so what was that saying about me and what I actually wanted?
“Are you, okay?” My roommate asked looking at me concerned.
“I think I kissed a boy.”
“I heard. Who?”
“I don’t know.”
“How could you not know?”
“Because unlike you, some of us make poor decisions and do things with complete strangers they don’t remember, apparently,” I explained.
“I make bad decisions sometimes.”
“Sure you do, Miss I’ve-practically-been-married-since-I-was-seventeen. You probably don’t even know what a bad decision is.”
“I’m not perfect.”
“Whatever. So, do you think the guy you kissed is the same guy who wrote this?”
I sat up. “I do now.”
“So, this is like an invitation?”
“To meet at 2 pm at my favorite spot?”
“Yeah,” Cory said with building excitement. “That’s kind of romantic.”
“Romantic?” I asked as if she were speaking a foreign language. “I guess. You know, if you were into that sort of thing.”
“Do you remember anything about the guy?”
I searched my memory. “All I can remember is someone leaning in to me. That’s it.”
“What about the angle? Leaning forward? Bending down?”
“He was bending down. And, he was big. I remember that.”
“Big like actually big. Or just bigger than you.”
“I think he was big. Like, I think I remember him having large hands.”
“Large hands,” Cory said suggestively.
“What?” I said with a blush.
“I’m just sayin’.”
“Okay, Innuendo, hold your horses. We don’t know anything about him. For all we know, he could be big because he was a statue I was doing inappropriate things too.”
“But, would a statue write a note telling you to meet him at Willow Pond at 2?”
I thought about that. Cory was right. Whoever wrote the note was human. The guy I kissed was made of flesh and blood. Did this mean that I had met someone I liked who liked me back? You know, not that I cared.
“Kelly and I are going hiking so I have to go grab breakfast. But you’re meeting him, right?”
“You mean the stranger who could be arranging the place to murder me?”
“No, I mean the guy who kissed you under the stars and left you a trail to find him again.”
Cory got up and grabbed her keys and wallet.
“Kendall, as much as you’ve talked about how much you don’t like people, there’s no way you can’t go. Think about it. You met someone who you liked enough to kiss. No matter how drunk you are, there’s no way you’re doing that unless you think he’s someone special. Who knows, this could end up being the guy you spend the rest of your life with.”
“Yeah, because he kills me and dumps my body in the pond.”
Cory laughed. “Okay. Do what you need to do. But if I come back tonight and you haven’t met this guy. I will be very disappointed in you.”
“Good girl,” she said before kneeling on my bed and kissing my hair.
Ugh! Cory really was too sweet for words. But enough about the girl leaving to meet her boyfriend. It was time to think about whoever it was that safety pinned the note to me. I had to admit that it was at least a little romantic.
Did he realize that I wouldn’t remember the night and want to make sure that we would see each other again? That had to be it, right? Not that he didn’t want to put his number in my phone for the police to find? Or, maybe it was both.
Slowly feeling my strength return, I searched for my phone. When I didn’t find it on my nightstand I scanned the floor around my bed. It wasn’t there either. Did I get so drunk I lost my phone?
Crap! It was $800 and I’m still paying for it. I am seriously never drinking again. It’s a good thing that apart from my parents, the only other person on it was the girl I lived with. Thank god for being unpopular.
Needing to get something into my stomach, I eventually made my way to the cafeteria and filled my tray. I didn’t know what would stay down so I got a little bit of everything. Looking up from my food, a guy I recognized from class caught my eye and waved me to join his group. I waved him off knowing I couldn’t carry on a conversation in my state.
Besides, I wanted to see what I could remember before 2 pm. If I didn’t know what he looked like, how was I going to find him when I got there? How did I know he wasn’t staring at me right now?
I looked up and scanned the room. There were a lot of people. Most of them were engaged in conversation or staring down at their plate. The only one who wasn’t was staring back at me. After a moment of eye contact, he came over.
“Hey Kendall, did you get my text about study group? Did you wanna join?” He asked awkwardly.
I knew him. It was the guy from psychology class who was always staring at me. I couldn’t figure out what his deal was. Was there always something on my face or was he just looking at the person behind me?
“I think I lost my phone,” I said before wiping my mouth reflexively.
“Seriously? That sucks!”
“Tell me about it.”
“Did you need my number again?”
“I don’t have anything to put it in.”
“Right,” he said seeming disappointed. “Anyway, we’re meeting on Thursday at Commons. It would be great if you could come.”
“I think I have something on Thursday, but maybe,” I told him not wanting to go.
“Oh, okay. Just let me know.”
He smiled and returned to his table. I had to wonder about him. The guy was always asking me to join him for one thing or another. How many social events did he organize?
Finishing my pancakes, I felt human enough to return to my room and get ready for the day. Sunday was a quiet day at the dorms. Most people were usually shaking off the effects of their Saturday night.
Taking a shower I couldn’t help but imagine who it was who had pinned the note to my shirt. What if Cory was right and it was the love of my life? The odds of it being him was low but it didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
The thought of it made me tingle with excitement. What would it be like to crawl into a guy’s arms and fall asleep? What would it be like to have a boyfriend? I didn’t know about any of that stuff.
All I knew was that no matter who this guy ended up being, maybe I should do everything I could not to screw this up. Yeah, most people sucked but I was tired of being alone. I wasn’t a heartless monster no matter how much I pretended to be. I wanted to know what love felt like.
With our meeting time approaching and the butterflies swarming in my stomach, I found the nicest tee-shirt I had and matched it to the same shade of black pants. Wrapping a studded leather bracelet around my wrist, I stood in front of the mirror and stared.
I was skinny, I had almost no boobs, and I dressed like a Goth kid who wasn’t making an effort. Brushing my unruly curls off of my forehead, they fell back. Yeah, this was as good as it was going to get for me. This guy was sure to be disappointed when he saw me in the light of day.
After debating whether I should go a few more times, I left my room and headed to Willow Pond. I could barely breathe I was so nervous. What would happen if I couldn’t recognize him? What if he saw me, realized he had made a huge mistake, and then left me standing there waiting.
The thought was almost enough to make me turn around, but I didn’t. I continued step-by-step until the pond came into view. The place was practically empty. The only one there was a guy who stood along the shoreline staring at the ducks.
Could that be him? It couldn’t be. I could only see his back, but from it, I could tell that he was way out of my league. Imagine shoulders broad enough to carry the world and arms strong enough to crush it in his hands.
His golden hair glistened as the reflection from the pond bounced off of it. The sight of him threatened to take my breath away. When he turned and our eyes met, it did. It was him, the guy from last night. I would have recognized him anywhere.
Memories came rushing back. Drunk, I had walked up to him at the party and had told him that he was the most gorgeous guy I had ever seen. I was expecting him to tell me to go away. Instead, he asked me my name and we talked for the rest of the night.
Mostly I kept telling him how hot he was and tried to kiss him while he fought me off and blushed. Oh crap, I had forgotten about that. I had made a complete fool of myself.
He had only kissed me because I wouldn’t leave him alone until he did. But then he wrote something on a piece of paper and told me that it was for tomorrow and that if I was still interested then, I should meet him here.
I think he had acted the way he had to be a gentleman. He had to have seen how drunk I was and didn’t want to take advantage of me. But, how could someone be that hot and thoughtful? There was clearly something wrong with him.
“Kendall! You came,” he said smiling through a rural Tennessee accent.
Oh no, he remembered my name. What was his?
“Of course,” I said stepping within an arm’s length of him. “How could I not…”
“You don’t remember my name, do you?” He joked.
“I do. It’s um…”
My thoughts tumbled desperately.
“That’s okay. You were pretty drunk last night. I’m just glad you came.”
“The note helped. It was pinned to me.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I didn’t want you to lose it… like your phone.”
“So, I did lose my phone.”
“That’s what you told me.”
“Crap! I was kind of hoping you had it.”
“Why would I have it,” he asked still smiling.
“I was just hoping. So, are you gonna make me ask you your name?”
“Oh. It’s Nero.”
“Right. I have to be honest. I don’t remember much from last night. The only things I do came to me about 60 seconds ago. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. What do you want to know? I remember everything.”
I thought for a second. “Um, did we kiss?”
Nero laughed. “Yeah, we kissed.”
“Was it good?”
“It was for me.”
“And I was kissing you so it was probably good for me too.”
“What did you tell me about yourself that I might have forgotten?”
“I don’t think I told you much of anything.”
“You didn’t ask. But I asked you a lot about yourself. I know that you’re from Nashville.”
“Born and raised,” I confirmed.
“I know that you’re a junior.”
“And, I know that you’re the cutest girl I’ve ever seen. But, you didn’t have to tell me that.”
My cheeks burned hearing his words. It clearly wasn’t true, but to hear him say it sent a pulse through me making me feel warm.
“You’re pretty hot too,” I told him knowing I was beet red.
“Since you know so much about me, I guess I should ask about you.”
“Where are you from?”
“It’s a small town about two hours from here.”
“And what year are you?”
“I’m a freshman. I took a few years off after high school.”
“What’s your major?”
“Right now? Football,” he said with a laugh.
“Football?” I said feeling the air release from our bubble.
“Yeah. I’m here on a scholarship. So right now I’m eating and breathing it.”
I stared at Nero not hearing another word after he said “football.” A pain shot to the pit of my stomach until I was forced to cut him off.
“No! I’m sorry, no. I can’t do this. Football? Hell no!” I said stepping away and pointing my finger. I stared at him again as the shock washed across his beautiful face. Why did he have to be a football player?
“Ahhhh!” I shouted in utter frustration before storming off and not looking back.
What just happened? One minute I’m talking to the girl I had met the night before. Things were going well. I was feeling like she could be someone special. Then, out of nowhere she yelled at me and stormed off.
“What just happened?” I shouted at Kendall as she walked away.
She didn’t turn around or reply. A part of me wanted to chase her down and force her to tell me, but I wasn’t going to. Did it have to do with me playing football? How? Why?
Football had always been what everyone liked about me. Even the people who hated me loved me when I stepped onto the field. Even my mother loved me when I stepped onto the field.
For so many years my mother had been missing from my life. Not because she had abandoned me like my father. But because she had disappeared into her own world. And the only time she would rejoin this one, would be cheering for me under Friday night lights.
Football had been how I and my newly discovered brother, Cage, bonded. Football is what is paying for my escape from the small town I grew up in. Football has given me everything good in my life. But, the first girl who has made my heart tumble just looking at her, hates me for having anything to do with it? Why can’t I catch a break?
Standing where Kendall had left me, my thoughts spun. It wasn’t just that Kendall had walked off rejecting me. It was everything else going on in my life.
Coming from Frozen Falls, big city life was hard. There was so much pressure. It took everything in me to stand out on the field. Waking up earlier than everyone else to run suicide sprints until I puked, was just the beginning.
Last night had been the first night I had felt okay about things. Meeting Kendall had made me believe that I could escape my past and maybe have a future.
I had been as nice and considerate as I knew how to be with her. I really didn’t want to screw things up. Everything about her told me that she was my chance to have the happiness I watched everyone else have. And all of that vanished when she pointed her finger at me and yelled, “hell no.”
That hurt. It ripped my guts out. I started walking so my head wouldn’t explode.
Leaving the pond I headed to the street. It was the one that cut through campus. But instead of heading to my cramped dorm, I jogged in the opposite direction. I needed to get away. I needed to breathe.
My jog quickly turned into a run. As I did, my mind swirled. Thoughts of Kendall shifted to the last twenty-one years of my life. I had had to fight for everything. No one had given me anything. Not even my mother.
While she was catatonic, I went to work. Someone had to make sure we had a place to sleep and food to eat. By 14-years-old, the only person I could rely on was myself.
Most of the time I wore clothes that were a size too small. I couldn’t afford anything else. And when the first kid at school pointed it out, I beat him up. No one made fun of me for it after that.
I went from doing errands that could have gotten me killed at fourteen, to betting on myself in fight clubs at 20. I had always done whatever it took to survive.
If Cage hadn’t found me and told me we were brothers, I would probably still be doing it. Instead, he introduced me to his college football coach, arranged for my scholarship, and rescued me from that world.
Yet even with how far I’ve come, the girl I fell for still thinks I’m too hard to love. That had to be why my mother chose to vanish into her own world and why I grew up without a father. I was too hard to love. I was a nobody worth nothing and that was all I was ever going to be.
Thinking that, everything became too much. My head throbbed and a painful agony ripped through me. I felt like I was going to explode. I needed to release it. So, doing it the only way I knew how, I locked my eyes on the next parked car in front of me and let go.
Kicking the door as hard as I could, the metal bent on impact. It wasn’t enough. I needed to hear a crash. So balling my fist, I pounded on the passenger window. It wouldn’t give in so I slammed harder. Eventually, the glass exploded into a thousand pieces.
As loud as it was, that still wasn’t enough. Kicking the back door I dented that. About to climb on the hood and put my foot through the windshield, something stopped me. It was a siren. It woke me up as if I had been lost in a bad dream.
Clearing my head, I stared at what I had done. I had demolished the car. This was bad. I had lost control of myself and this was the result.
“Get on the ground!” Someone yelled behind me. “I said get on the ground.”
I had just ruined everything. I was about to lose my scholarship and my only shot at life. If I were a smarter person, maybe I would have run. I didn’t have it in me.
I had done this. I had been the one to mess up everything good that I had going on, no one else. And I wasn’t going to fight my self-inflicted destruction.
Not getting onto my knees fast enough, someone shoved me from behind. I fell landing on the broken glass. Before I could get off it, someone was pulling my wrists together and slapping on cuffs. They were tight enough to cut into my skin.
“You have the right to remain silent,” he began.
I didn’t have to listen to the rest. I was familiar with it. I was going to jail. Since I couldn’t afford bail, they were going to hold me for two to three days until I went up before the judge.
From there I would be sentenced. And unlike when I was under aged, this crime would follow me for the rest of my life. I had done this to myself. And to be honest, I always knew it was a matter of time before I screwed things up.
I followed the cops’ instructions without resistance. In the back seat of the squad car, I let my mind wander. I thought about all of the things that had gotten me here. I thought about Kendall. Of all of my regrets, the fact that I had made her so upset was at the top of it.
The truth was that last night’s party wasn’t the first time I had seen her. It was the day of Cage’s graduation. We had locked eyes as she stood under a tree watching the ceremony. I thought she was the cutest girl I had ever seen.
She was dressed in all black with a bit of an edge to her. Her mess of brown curls highlighted her angular features. And completing her tough-girl look with delicate, round-rimmed glasses told me that there was more to her than she let on.
There was more to me than I let on. I was the thug who hosted fight clubs for money. I was ready to take someone out at the drop of a hat. But, all I ever wanted was for someone to hold me and tell me that everything was going to be alright.
When I saw Kendall standing there, I desperately wanted to do that for her. Maybe no one would ever do that for me, but I could be her rescuer. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to give Kendall the love I could never have. But the moment I was given an opening, I messed things up by being myself.
At the station, I answered all of their questions and was escorted to my cell. There were two other people there. One looked drunk, and the other… well, he looked like me, a thug whose time had run out.
I wasn’t in the mood for talking and neither were they. This wasn’t my first time in jail so knowing I would be there for a while, I got comfortable. It was to my surprise when a cop appeared on the other side of the bars and said my name.
“You made bail. Let’s go.”
I got up sure he had made a mistake. But if they were going to let me out on a filing error, I was okay with that. Walking back to the sea of desks, I scanned the room spotting someone I didn’t expect to see. Quin was my brother’s girlfriend and she was looking pretty freaked out.
Considering Quin’s parents had more money than God and she grew up vacationing in places like the Bahamas, no wonder being in a police station made her look like she was about to pee herself. The only question was what she was doing here. I hadn’t used my one phone call. I couldn’t think of anyone who would help me.
When I got within arm’s length, Quin threw her arms around me. Her embrace was genuine and tight.
“Nero, what happened? What are you doing here? And, why didn’t you call me?”
I was about to answer when someone else I knew walked through the doors. Titus was my roommate and a guy I knew from back home. He had been inspired to attend East Tennessee University by the same two people I had, Quin and my brother. He approached and threw his arms around me too.
“What the hell is going on, man? And why did we have to hear you were here from some guy at campus security?”
“It’s nothing,” I told them. “I just did a little damage to a car.”
“A little damage?” Quin asked pulling away. “They said you smashed in a window and a couple of doors?”
“Like I said, a little damage,” I said with the hint of a smile.
“Why?” Quin begged, her cutely nerdy face narrowing.
I thought about Kendall and how she had told me to go to hell.
“I don’t wanna talk about it. You two got a ride out of here?”
“Yeah, I’m driving,” Titus told me pushing his fingers through his shaggy, coffee-colored hair. “I’m parked out front. Let’s go.”
The three of us headed to Titus’s truck and drove back to campus in silence.
“Where am I headed?” Titus asked as we turned onto Campus Lane. “Am I dropping everyone off or are we headed to Quin’s place for our usual Sunday dinner?”
I was about to ask him to take me to our dorm when Quin cut me off.
“My place. Cage is driving down and he’s going to want to hear about all of this. It may as well be over food.”
“You didn’t tell Cage, did you?” I asked Quin feeling a pain in my chest about it.
“He was the first person I called after Titus told me.”
I looked at Titus.
“Look man, Campus security told me you had destroyed one of their cars and was in jail. Who else was I supposed to call? She was the only one who would know how to get you a lawyer.”
“You called a lawyer?” I asked Quin.
“I didn’t have to. Cage called the school and was able to smooth things out. He still has a lot of good will from winning them those national championships. So, all I had to do was put up your bail and get you out.”
“So, I’m not gonna lose my scholarship?”
“I didn’t say that. But, I’m sure Cage will tell you everything you need to know about it. Seriously, Nero, what were you thinking?”
I didn’t reply.
“So we’re headed to Quin’s place?”
I looked out the window resigned. “Yeah.”
“Cool. Lou told me she didn’t have a date tonight, she’s gonna be there too,” Titus said with a smile.
Both Quin and I looked at him.
“What? She and I are friends. I know neither of you has much experience with having friends, but trust me, hanging out is a thing people do.”
I turned to Quin. We were both thinking the same thing. Titus and Quin’s roommate were pretty close. I knew that being friends with a girl didn’t mean anything. And Titus was a very friendly dude. But, I couldn’t help but think how cute the two of them were together.
I would never say that to Titus because that wasn’t something a guy said to his buddy. Besides, what did I know about relationships? And after what happened with Kendall, I realized I knew even less than I thought I did.
Parking in front of Quin’s fancy dorm room, we headed up and were greeted by Lou.
“You brought the criminal,” she said staring at me. “What did it end up being? Armed robbery? A B&E?”
“How do you know what a B&E is?” Titus asked.
“I watch Law and Order. I know things.”
Quin interjected. “I don’t think Nero wants to talk about it. So…”
“It was a classic smash and grab wasn’t it? Look, don’t think because you have this whole bad boy thing going on you’re going to get me to fall in love with you. I like nice guys.”
I opened my mouth to reply.
“Okay fine, we can go out. But if you get me pregnant after a drunken night of lovemaking, I’m having the baby and I’m not raising him alone.”
I looked at Lou stunned and then laughed. We all did.
“I’m serious, Mister. I’m not raising Nero Jr. by myself.”
“Okay, I promise,” I told her suddenly feeling better about things.
Titus spoke up. “Now that we got that settled, how does everyone feel about a game of Wavelength?”
Wavelength was our go-to Sunday night game. Mostly it was over drinks and when things were a lot less tense.
Pairing up, Titus grabbed Lou, of course, and I partnered with Quin. Playing a couple of rounds, things were good. Then Cage arrived.
My brother was fuming. I couldn’t blame him.
“Why the hell did you smash up a campus security car?”
“It was a campus security car?” I asked.
“You didn’t know?”
“It wasn’t like I was targeting anybody. I was just mad.”
“Nothin’,” I said really not wanting to talk about it.
“Don’t want to say, huh? Well, you’re gonna have to talk about it. The school’s willing to let you pay for it instead of pressing charges.”
“I don’t have the money.”
“You’re the one who destroyed it. You’re going to be the one to pay for it.”
“I could lend you it,” Quin volunteered.
“I don’t need your money,” I snapped.
“Watch it, Nero. She’s just trying to help.”
“I don’t need her help. I don’t need anyone’s help.”
“Considering she was the one who bailed you out of jail, that doesn’t quite seem true, does it?”
I shut up knowing Cage was right. As soon as I stopped talking, so did Cage. With a lot more sympathy in his eyes, he approached me and put his arms around my shoulder.
“Nero, you have a temper and you’re gonna have to get control of it.”
“And yet, my girlfriend had to bail you out of jail today.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I admitted.
Cage stared at me. I guess he didn’t know what to say either.
“I’ll think of something. I’ll talk to the school and see what we can come up with. Don’t worry, we’ll get this straightened out. I’m here for you, man. I’m not going anywhere.”
“None of us are,” Titus added.
“Yeah,” Quin agreed.
I looked at the people around me and wiped a tear from my eyes. Maybe everything would be alright. Maybe I wasn’t as alone as I thought.
“Ahhhh!” I screamed popping awake.
I looked around. I’m in my bed and it’s morning. Cory is sitting up staring at me. She looks startled.
‘It was just a dream,’ I tell myself. ‘That’s all it was.’
“Evan Carter?” Cory asks me slowly relaxing.
“Evan Carter,” I admit.
“Friggin’ Evan Carter,” my roommate said making me feel a little better.
I lay back down and tried to calm myself. I couldn’t tell if the nightmares were getting worse but they weren’t getting better.
Evan Carter was the football player who made my high school years hell starting my freshman year. There was something about me he couldn’t stand. I always assumed it was because he was a small-minded prick who targeted anyone who didn’t know how to fit in. But if I were honest with myself, it wasn’t like I tried.
I experimented with the color of my hair, wild makeup, and the type of clothing I wore. Perhaps dressing like a boy for months was a little too far for him. I wasn’t fighting to bring down the patriarchy or anything. I was just having a little fun. I was trying to figure out who I was.
FYI, I’m not a girl who wears boys clothes or wild makeup. And it isn’t because Evan Carter bullied me to an inch of my life when I had. It just isn’t my thing.
But, there came a point when the football meatheads couldn’t take my fashion choices anymore. They told me that if I wanted to act like a boy, they would treat me like one.
From then on they shoved me every time they passed me in the hallway. I could be eating lunch and my head would jerk forward followed by the sting from their open palm. And on a regular basis they threw me into the boy’s locker room while guys were changing.
They took every opportunity to humiliate me in front of as many people as possible. The worst part was I could never see when one of their attacks were coming. It got to the point where my entire school day would be spent searching rooms for them.
When I spotted one, I had to make myself as invisible as possible. If they saw me, they could attack or not. It was always random. But when they decided that today was my hell day, I wasn’t safe anywhere.
And, if it wasn’t the physical abuse, it was the constant teasing about being flat-chested. I know that all bodies are beautiful, but no one wants to be reminded of something like that every day.
Also, if I hear the word ‘dyke’ one more time, I think I’m gonna crack. It would be one thing if I was actually into women, but I wasn’t. I just dressed that way… which didn’t do me any favors with the girls who came out to me thinking I was lesbian.
By senior year I would cry as I got dressed in the morning knowing that what I was putting on would bring Evan’s wrath. I got to the point where I didn’t even want to wear it. But I did it anyway because… who knows why anymore? I just refused to give in.
Maybe I kept wearing what I did to prove to myself that I wouldn’t succumb to pressure. Maybe I didn’t want to give Evan the satisfaction of thinking he had won. Maybe I was just a glutton for punishment.
Whatever the reason, I did it and I barely had the will to live by the time high school was done. I was so glad to start university and get past all of that. I could dress how I wanted, and I could be my true self. I thought it was the greatest thing ever until the nightmares started.
Granted, they were always there. But now they had sharpened and focused around one person, Evan Carter. He was the leader of the bunch. I still believe that if it wasn’t for that idiot, the rest of them would have left me alone.
I guess I’ll never know that for certain, but what I’m sure of is that, in high school, I lost the battles and the war. Not only was I the one going through hell every day, but Evan Carter owned real estate in my head years later. It was so unfair.
The worst part was that until last night, the nightmares seemed like they were beginning to fade. I used to have them up to a couple of times a week. Cory knows all about that. The number of times I had woken her up screaming, it’s a wonder she’s still willing to be my roommate.
It had been two weeks since my screaming fest before last night. I’m pretty sure I know what triggered it. I had kissed a football player. The thought almost made me throw up. Sure, Nero was nothing like Evan Carter or any of his horrible friends, but still.
Football players have made my life a hellish nightmare of epic proportions since I was 14-years-old. They threatened my will to live. I wake up screaming and dripping in sweat because of them. I didn’t want to suck on a football player’s face now.
“You going to class?” Cory asked me not having left her bed.
“Oh shoot!” I exclaimed remembering my early Monday morning class.
My professor had to be a sadist. Who scheduled a core class at 8 am on a Monday? It’s ridiculous. But, if I wanted to become a clinical psychologist, I needed to major in psychology and I had to take it.
I scrambled out of bed and quickly got dressed. Getting ready, I loaded my backpack and hurried out. I walked into class late but tardiness was graded on a curve at 8 am.
“Today you will be filling out the T.E.Q., The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire. Not only will it lead us into our discussion on empathy, it will tell you wannabe therapists out there whether you are right for the job,” my professor said suddenly grabbing my attention.
I very much wanted to be a therapist. It was the only thing I had wanted since I was 12. I had read a Psychology 101 textbook cover-to-cover when I was 15-years-old because I was so interested in it. I needed to do well on this test.
When the paper was slipped in front of me, I saw that it wasn’t very long. The questions were also fairly basic. I put my name on it and began.
‘When someone is excited, I tend to be excited too; never, sometimes, or always?’
Easy. I may hide it pretty well, but I always am.
‘Other people’s misfortunes do not disturb me a great deal; never, sometimes, or always?’
Again, easy. Never… usually.
I mean, if it were a normal person, who I assume this question is referring to, I never feel good about someone else’s misfortune. But, let’s say Evan Carter gets hit by a bus. I’m not suggesting that he die… necessarily. I’m just talking about him feeling a fraction of the pain he put me through for four years.
The question can’t be referring to situations like that, could it? Or, did it? Was the questionnaire trying to dig out your darkest thoughts? Was my lack of empathy for a psychopath who tortured me what will make me a bad therapist?
I stared at the question paralyzed. I couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t believe that after everything he put me through, the echo of it could prevent me from being good at the only thing I had ever wanted.
“Please hand your papers forward,” my professor said snapping me out of my trance.
“I’m not done,” I told the grabby girl who took my paper from me and passed the stack along.
She shrugged barely acknowledging my struggle. I knew for sure that that ice queen would make a horrible therapist. But what about me? Was empathy really that important?
I didn’t have to wait long to get an answer to that question. Two days later, my professor asked me to see him before I left.
“At the beginning of the semester I asked you all what your goals were for the class,” Professor Nandan began.
“Yes. And I said that I wanted to become a therapist, because I do.”
He looked at me confused. “Right. Which makes me wonder why you would do this on a questionnaire designed to determine your level of empathy,” he said before placing my sheet on the desk between us.
“I know, I didn’t finish it.”
“You didn’t. But that’s not what I’m talking about,” he said placing his finger next to the doodle I had drawn in the top right corner of the paper.
Looking at it again, I realized that it was less of a doodle and more of a sketch. I was known to draw on things when I was bored, and they weren’t always happy pictures. This one was decidedly not happy and had a message that was hard to miss.
“You drew a football player hanging from a noose in the corner of an empathy questionnaire? Is there something you would like to talk about, Miss Seers?”
My mouth dropped open as I looked up at the rounded-faced man in front of me. There was no question what had inspired this. Friggin’ Evan Carter.
“Okay, I can explain,” I began not knowing what I would say next.
“Go on,” he urged patiently.
Was I going to lie? Tell him the truth? This was feeling like a no-win scenario.
“I might have an issue with football players.”
“You don’t say,” he said sarcastically.
“And, I might have woken up from a bad dream about one of them right before coming to class.”
“Did you want to talk about that dream?”
“Not really. It was a pretty standard nightmare. Lots of chasing. Lots of running. You know, the usual.”
“And then you came here and drew this… on an empathy questionnaire?”
“It would seem,” I said with an uncomfortable smile.
Professor Nandan leaned back in his chair and stared at me. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking but I couldn’t imagine it was anything good.
“The way we deal with childhood trauma is unique to each of us,” he began. “Some of us choose to avoid it. But the most effective strategy for having a healthy, happy life is to deal with issues head-on.”
“You’re suggesting I should see a therapist about it?”
“It wouldn’t hurt. But, what the research shows is that the most effective way to gain empathy for a group is to humanize them.”
“I don’t think football players aren’t human. They’re just the worst ones who ever existed.”
My professor looked at me strangely.
“Right. But you do accept that not everyone who shares a trait is the same? Not every football player is alike. Just like how not every student who dresses in all black and studded bracelets are alike. We are all unique individuals.”
“What are you suggesting?” I asked feeling a knot tighten in my chest.
“I’m suggesting you get to know a football player. I think if you see their individuality, it might go a long way to helping whatever negative feelings you have towards them. It might even help your dreams.”
“And, how do you suppose I get to know a football player?”
“Interestingly enough, there is a program I’ve been trying to put together for a few years. It’s kind of a mentorship thing. Upper-class students are matched with freshmen who are having a hard time adjusting to university life to act as someone they can lean on. Considering your goal is to become a therapist, this might be up your alley.”
“That sounds great. But, I’m guessing what you’re not saying is that I would be mentoring a football player.”
“There’s one that has gotten into a little hot water for his behavior. And instead of expelling him from school and the football program, the university thought that something like this would be helpful.”
I stared at my professor. Worst idea ever! Not the whole thing. The mentorship part sounded pretty cool. But the part about me being locked in a room with one of those pig-throwing psychopaths was insanity.
Was he looking to get me killed? As soon as the door was closed and we were alone, this guy would dislocate his jaw and swallow me whole. Having devoured me, he would most likely slither his way to Washington D.C. growing in size until, with his tail wrapped around the Washington Monument, he would eat the president turning the United States into a demonic dictatorship… or was I overreacting?
“Yes,” I said before it registered in my brain. “I’ll do it.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. But, yes. Look, I want to be a good therapist someday. No, I don’t just wanna be good. I wanna be great. I wanna help people. I want kids to not have to go through what I did growing up. And if that means confronting my issue with a certain group of demonic soul suckers, I will.”
Professor Nandan looked at me questioningly.
“I’m kidding… mostly. No, I’m kidding. I can do this. And you’re right. Confronting my issue head-on is the best way to handle this.”
“Then I’ll set it up. Thank you for this. If this works out with you and him, it could lead to a lot of people receiving help for years to come,” he said with a smile.
“In other words, no pressure?”
He laughed. “No pressure. Just be you. It’s not about you being able to provide him with any answers. It’s about being there for him and lending him your ear when he needs it.”
“I could do that.”
“You’ll do great,” he said before promising to email me the details and sending me off.
It was a good thing that no one actually needed sleep to maintain their sanity. If they did, I would have been in a whole lot of trouble. Because lying in bed in the dark, all I could think about was everything Evan Carter and his teammates did to me.
I didn’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to do this. Me mentoring a football player was a bad idea, a very bad idea.
That wouldn’t stop me from going through with it, though. Who was I to reject a bad idea?
Walking to the agreed-upon meeting spot, I was sweating through my clothes. I was having a full-on panic attack. We were meeting in the serpent’s den, the football team’s practice facility. But at least my professor was going to be there with me.
“You ready for this?” He asked me as excitedly as I was terrified.
“No, but I’m here. So, let’s do it.”
Professor Nandan put his arm around my shoulder and led me into the room. The beast sat with his back to me. The funny thing was that I recognized his back. It was unmistakable. And when he turned around and I got a glimpse of his to-die-for cheekbones, I thought this was a cruel joke.
“You?” I asked stunned.
“Do you two know each other?” My professor asked.
We stared at one another. I didn’t know how to respond.
“We’ve met,” Nero replied.
“I’m hoping that’s good,” my professor suggested.
Nero looked at me again. “Yeah,” he confirmed allowing my professor to breathe.
“Then perhaps I don’t need to introduce you two. But, Nero Roman, this is Kendall Seers. Kendall, Nero is a very promising football star.”
“I don’t know about all of that,” Nero quickly interjected.
“I’ve seen you play. You’re very good,” the older man gushed.
“Thanks,” Nero said looking away bashfully.
“And Kendall, here, is one of my most promising students.”
“I am,” I confirmed. “Probably his best.”
I have no idea why I said that. But it broke the tension. At least for those two.
“I don’t know about all of that,” my professor joked. “But she’s very good. You should be in good hands with her. Should I leave you two to get to know each other?”
“I don’t see why not,” Nero said looking at me like I hadn’t spit in his face and kicked dirt on him as I walked away the last time I saw him.
“Very good. Then I’m off,” the glowing man said before leaving us alone and closing the door behind him.
We both stared at each other. It would have been the worst thing in the world if he wasn’t so hot. Seriously, how could someone be that good-looking?
“So, what do you wanna talk about?” He asked me smiling. God did he have a great smile.
I thought I was sweating before. Now I was practically standing in a puddle.
“Are you hot in here?” I asked. “I mean IT! Is IT hot in here? Do you want to get out of here? Let’s get out of here. I need some fresh air. I can’t breathe in here.”
“Are you okay,” he asked concerned.
“I just need to take a walk. Can we take a walk?”
“Whatever you want,” he said dripping with small-town southern charm.
We left the practice facility and walked back to campus in silence. Halfway there I realized I wasn’t going to be able to walk away from this, so I headed to a bench and sat down. Nero sat next to me. I could smell him. He smelled like leather and musk. The scent gave me a rush. What was I doing getting excited for a football player?
“How did you know?”
“How did I know what?” I asked still not looking at him.
“That this was my favorite spot. I don’t remember telling you that the night we met.”
“This is your favorite spot?” I asked finally turning towards him.
“Yeah. I stop here every day after practice. Practice is always a lot, you know. Everything can be a lot. So this is the bench I sit on to get my thoughts right.”
I looked around. I hadn’t spent much time on this corner of the campus during my years here. But it was a beautiful spot. There were more trees here than any other part. And with the colored fall leaves blanketing the ground, the scene looked like a postcard.
“What is it that gets to be a lot?” I asked suddenly feeling calmer.
Nero’s smile disappeared. “You name it. Practice. Classes. Having feelings I probably shouldn’t have.”
I stared at Nero wondering what those feelings were. “Can I ask you something?”
“Is this southern charm thing you do an act?”
Nero shifted uncomfortably. I don’t think he was prepared for the question.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“It’s not that I don’t wanna tell you.” Nero paused and looked at the sky as he took a deep breath. “Let me turn it around on you. Is this edgy, I-don’t-like-anybody thing you have going on an act? Because when we talked at the party, you were the complete opposite.”
I stared at him like a deer caught in headlights.
“I was really drunk that night.”
“Doesn’t that mean that you were being more of your real self?”
I stared at him speechless. He was saying what I feared to be true. And what made it worse was that I still didn’t remember everything I did that night. It was possible that he knew things about me that I didn’t know about myself.
“We’re not here to talk about me.”
“I get that. I was just trying to show you that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to answer your question.”
“It’s that you don’t know the answer. You don’t know if your charm is an act?” I suggested.
“Is that bad?”
Nero looked at me with pain in his eyes. He looked like a guy intensely struggling with who he was. My heart ached for him.
“What does “good” or “bad” mean?” I asked sympathetically.