Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
The garage door is half cracked, light spilling into the dusk. Beer bottles clink loudly. The maze of cars in the drive tells me my stepdad's buddies are here. Probably took the party from the bar's happy hour straight to our house.
I imagine my stepdad in the middle of his adoring friendsâall blue-collar, calloused, and crass, dirt under their nails, and long, messy hair on their heads and faces. They look like him, get him.
Like my stepdad and his job installing lawn-sprinkling systems, they work for the rich and uppity, for people like my grandmother. Either crawling into mud pits to put in irrigation or digging into the greasy guts of cars. Or busting their asses building roads in a never-ending bubble of car exhaust. They're all tired, worn-out, coated in a thick layer of bitter.
“Tessa!” My stepdad's voice freezes me halfway to Juliette. I wince, turn. Peer into glassy eyes from above cheeks and chin covered in wiry brown hair, strands spilling from his shoulder-length ponytail.
My stepdad looks like Jesus. And I used to think he was. When I was little and he was less tired and more hopeful, he'd put me on his shoulders. I would hold his long hair like a bridle as he carried me from place to place, taught me about the outdoors, joked and laughed. But money got tighter. He got angrier. Eventually, he held a beer can more than he did me. And now we're in
“Where're you going?” he growls. The dark brown bottle in his hands dangles next to his mud-caked jeans. I brace myself for whatever verbal onslaught he has planned. He doesn't touch me. He's never physical. But it doesn't matter. This daily formula of ours is simple: BEER = FUCK WITH TESSA.
I swallow. “I'm going to a football game.”
He grunts. “You think you deserve time off? I worked my ass off today. Your mom is still in there working.” He points to the house, and I follow the direction of his unsteady finger to the ranch home we almost lost ten years ago. Back when my mom only had her occasional subbing jobs and my stepdad couldn't make enough money even with all his overtime. Foreclosure loomed. We were moments from being kicked out on the street. But Grandma Leighton, with her fitted suits and her giant stores
of cash, offered to bail us out. In the hovel of our living room, she said she'd pay off our mortgage. Interest-free. I remember my parents standing as stiff as statues while my grandmother talked so casually. Like she was suggesting she pick up doughnuts or close an open window.
My mom and stepdad took the deal.
And now my parents' debt binds us to her, like we're one of the many solid gold bangles clinking on her wrist when she moves. But because my stepdad can't yell at her for that, I get the treat of his anger.
“Spencer's coming tomorrow.” He says it like it's my fault.
“I know. I told Mom I'd help her first thing in the morning,” I tell him. “And my homework is done.” My voice cracks with the lie.
His eyes narrow. “You lying?”
He glares at me, suspicious with an undercurrent of disgust, sips from his beer again. And for the gagillionth time, my mind flashes to the art piece I'd create of him if I had the strength to do it. Him standing chest high in a mud pit staring up at a hundred ropes made of beer bottles. His eyes are like filthy windowpanes. His skin dirt-streaked. And in the background, Willow laughs in a baby swing, I hold the fairy house he helped me make with string and twigs when I was seven, and Mom grips a clump of wildflowers he picked for her while they walked through the state park. So many good things behind him.
Tears threaten. Everything around me gets darker as dusk folds into night. And I feel the urge to get to Seth, touch and kiss and grab hold of him as hard as my stepdad holds his beer.
A silhouette emerges from the garage. “Rick! Come on, dude. Dave wants you to tell that story about us hauling the toilet from
that abandoned house into the ravine during our guys trip in '02. Hilarious!”
My stepdad lets a half smile loose with the thought of antics he would crucify me for. Over his shoulder he calls, “Coming.” Then he turns back to me, leans in. “I want your ass up early in the morning to help your mom get the house and lunch ready for
My stomach flips. Tomorrow is going to completely suck. My grandmother will want to discuss what I'm including in my college app, my latest grades at Pineville High, and how wonderful it will all be when I start working with Leighton Custom Homes. And I'll have the massive urge to tell her to screw her life's plans for me because I'm running away to live in a caveâthe only place I can affordâand photograph and paint until I die.
But I can't. Because with her name on the deed to our house and my mom and stepdad owing her for it, she can kick us out if she doesn't get her way. I've seen her destroy the careers of people who have worked with her for decades. Friends, even. What would make her treat us any differently?
“Tomorrow, just kiss her ass a little,” my stepdad says, “and let's hope that by the time she leaves, your future isn't completely blown to hell and we still have a place to live. Understand?” He tips his bottle back, glaring at me down the perspiring slope of the glass.
I give my stepdad a nod.
“What? I didn't hear you,” he grunts.
“I understand,” I say.
He shakes his head, like he's profoundly disappointed, then turns and saunters back to the garage.
I stumble through the increasing darkness toward Juliette. I'm
sure she saw my stepdad's angry movement. How he jabbed a finger at me with one hand, held his beer with the other. But when I slip into her Chevy Cruze, she only smiles, says, “Hey, hottie. Love your blue shirt. Let's go enjoy some football.”
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
“I hate football,” I say to Juliette.
It's Pineville High's first home game of the year. My boyfriend doesn't know I loathe his favorite sport, along with the other things he doesn't know about me. But he asked me to be here, so I'm here.
The stench of puke wafts from the pile of sick under the bleachers and mixes with a citrus/musk/flora cloud from the designer-scented bodies around us. I hold my nose, breathe through my mouth.
“Truly,” I say, all nasally. “I could live without ever going to another football game. Ever.”
Juliette smiles. “Yeah, but as a hot-blooded American female, there's got to be a thrill in watching your boyfriend run across the field in tight pants.” Her ultra-green almond-shaped eyes flash. She waggles her dark eyebrows, making me laugh.
I scan the line of players all suited up and helmeted. Seth is easy to spot. His long torso curves slightly to the left when he stands, his left leg bending as he fidgets with nervous energy. He's not the first boyfriend I've had. But he's definitely the most popular. And he's lasted the longest. A couple got bored with me within a few weeks. One made it a month in before he broke up with me. He said I hardly talked. But kissing is always easier than talking.
“Besides, Tess,” Juliette says, “this football game signals the start of our senior year. And you and I have serious work to do.” She throws an arm around me. “We're going to beef up your
extracurriculars, get you as many As as possible, and get you into U of M.”
She's overly hopeful. I look at her like I'm about to add to the vomit beneath me.
Juliette squeezes me tighter. “Come on, Tess. Your SATs aren't horrible, but you can always take the test again. So it'll all work out. Trust me. I know that U of M was never your plan. But I'll be there.”
And although she hasn't been accepted there yet, she will be. With her perfect grades, all her school and community activities, and how she rises to be a leader in
, the University of Michigan will, for sure, roll out a red carpet for her.
“Don't you want to go to college with your bestie?” She bats her dark eyelashes at me. “And maybe in between all those business classes your grams wants you to take to become queen bee of Leighton Custom Homes, you can fit in some art classes.” She lifts her head high, confident as usual.
Juliette and I are opposites in every way. Her dark-hair, olive-skin exotic to my blond, fair all-American. My overly skinny to her super-curvy. Her storm-troopering through life while I amble, bump, and trip my way forward. I'm not the world's worst student, but with all the crap outside of school exploding and grinding me down, I often have a hard time focusing on classes. And math is my nemesis. If I'm only an A/B student now at Pineville High, I'll be eaten alive at U of M.
Juliette gives me a playful shove. “Buck up,
,” she says, recalling our first year of friendship in seventh-grade Spanish class. We became close after building a piÃ±ata together and then becoming conversation partners. We realized Spanish words were like secret code that put us in our own little world. No one
outside of class seemed to understand when we mentioned
, cute boys. Or
, annoying girls. It gave us a bond that's lasted. “I'll be with you all the way this year,” she says. “I'll help you study. I'll help you volunteer. I'll get you into U of M. I promise.”
I rest my head on her shoulder, try to curb the swirly, sick feeling. “Thanks.”
An air horn blasts, and the marching band squeaks out the Pineville High fight song. The Pep-Till-You-Puke Barbies on the cheerleading squad tumble, thin as Pixy Stix, onto the football field. They build and rebuild a human pyramid.
Seth's old girlfriend, Simone Channing, is always at the peak, her arms high, her smile so wide, her bottom teeth show. Her brown eyes are like binocular lenses as she darts glances at Seth.
I try not to be jealous. But he and Simone still talk all the time. Take the same buses to away games. Have the same friends. And even though Seth swears it's over between them, that he's only ever looking at me, Simoneâwith her black hair, petite curves, and smooth, light brown skinâis always two steps away from him. Waiting.
Students amble and flow into the bleachers around us. Across the field, the away team's bleachers are filling, too. At the mike near the twenty-yard line, Principal Levy sweeps his arm in the air like a broom. “That's right. Keep moving in. Get settled.”
Behind us, several guys snort out laughs. “Dude. Shh! Shh! Wait. It's working.”
I start to glance at them, but some guy presses his face against the side of my head, stopping me. The stubble on his chin scrapes against my earlobe as his arm shoots out toward the bleachers across from us.
“See, it's beautiful in its simplicity.” His voice beats warm and low in my ear. “If you put âReserved Seating' signs down, people. Just. Don't. Sit. There.” The scent of spearmint gum streams across my cheek as I watch students sitting in some spots and not in others. Sketchy letters form from the empty spaces.
F O O T B A L L B L O W S
The guys behind us explode with laughter.
Principal Levy catches sight of the prank. His heated gaze sweeps the crowd, searching for the culprits, until his glare stops on our clump of bleachers. On the idiots laughing it up behind me. And on me right in the middle of all the offenders.
I feel the sting of Principal Levy sizing me up. Like
am a part of this. U of M, my parents, and definitely my grandmother would
be amused. Panic prickles through me, followed by intense bitterness at this guy, no longer touching me but still hovering in my personal space.
I glare at him. His square cleft chin. Dark brown bangs splaying across his forehead. A silver hoop in his lower lip glinting in the field lights. Black tattooed letters scrawl across the side of his neck in some kind of Latin phrase. The T-shirt under his army-green jacket shows a cartoon squirrel clutching two huge acorns and the words
MY NUTS ARE BIGGER THAN YOURS
His pale blue eyes hook mine. He gives a killer smile, then leans in until there is barely any space between us. “I hate football, too.” His face drips with pride. He stands, thrusts his hand out. “Jack S. Dalton.”
And although I'd normally be thrilled to have a guy looking at me like he's looking at meâall sizzle and swaggerâI never so much as flirt with guys in Pineville, especially not guys in my school. I don't want to risk losing Seth. And with Principal Levy
still eyeing this section, me included, I'm getting more pissed every second that I might be caught up in this lame bleacher stunt. My glare at this Jack kid intensifies.
Juliette points at him. “Why don't I know you?” As the head of student council, Juliette knows everyone.
“Do you want to?” Jack asks.
Juliette rolls her eyes.
“You've never met him.” Carver Malowski hovers behind Jack with his scraggly white-blond surfer hair, a pale green Oxford, and designer jeans.
“Thanks for the insight, Carver,” Juliette says all sarcastic.
Carver's dad, an unemployed trucker just fifteen years ago, bought a single truck, grabbed his out-of-work brother, and started Transitions Moving. Now national, the company has given the Malowskis elite economic status and given Carver zero manners coupled with a spoiled loser attitude.
Next to Carver, Sam Kearns says, “Jack moved to Pineville this past week from Hallend.”
Sam, with his light brown hair shorn close to his neck and ears and his ultra-prep-school clothes, is the son of Pineville's mayor. Pineville crawls with wickedly bored rich kids like him and Carver looking to fill their time with recreational drugs and occasional acts of vandalism. Jack S. Dalton has obviously entered the spoiled-and-apathetic fray.
“But you know, Juliette,” Sam continues, “it seems like you should be very aware of any new students. Being our school's student council president and all.” His arms cross. His eyebrow rises as he gives my best friend a smug look.