I wait outside in the hallway, slumped in a chair with my head bent down, staring at my grungy black Chucks. The closed door to my immediate left is composed mostly of glass, hazy and distorting, but I know who’s inside. I can hear the low murmur of their voices but I don’t really hear the words.
That’s okay. I know what they’re saying about me.
My counselor. My coach. My sister. My brother-in-law. They’re all inside, talking about my future. Or lack thereof.
Tilting my head back, I stare at the ceiling, wondering yet again how the hell I got here. A few years ago, life was good. Hell, last summer life was really good. I was on the team. Running on that field like my feet were fire and I couldn’t ever be stopped. Coach approved, a big grin on his face when he’d tell me, You’re just like Drew.
Yeah. That made me proud as shit. I idolize my brother-in-law. He makes me feel safe. He understands me when Fable never, ever could. Not that she doesn’t try the best she can, but she’s a girl. She doesn’t get it.
Thinking of girls makes my heart feel like it’s made out of lead. Solid and thick and impenetrable. I haven’t been with a girl since … I don’t know. A few weeks? I miss ’em. Their smiles and their laughter and the way they gasp when I dive in all smooth-like and kiss them. Their soft skin and how easy it all was. Clothes falling off and legs and arms tangled up.
Being on the football team meant I could get all the tail that I could ever want. But if I don’t have the grades, I can’t stay on the team. If I can’t stop smoking weed, then I’m kicked off the team. If I get caught one more time drinking at one of the bars while I’m underage, I’m definitely off the f**king team forever. Zero tolerance, baby.
None of us practice what the team rules preach.
The glass door swings open and my college counselor peeks her head out, her expression grim, her gaze distant when she stares at me. “You can come in now, Owen.”
Without a word I stand and shuffle inside the room, unable to look at anyone for fear I’ll see all that disappointment flashing in their eyes. The only one I chance a glance at is Drew, and his expression is full of so much sympathy I almost want to grab him in a tackle hug and beg him to make it all better.
But I can’t do that. I’m a grown-ass man—or so Mom tells me.
Fuck. There’s my biggest secret. I can hardly stand to think of her, let alone when Fable is sitting right next to me. She would flip. Out. If she knew the truth.
She doesn’t know. No one knows Mom is back in town and begging me to help her. She asks me to get her weed and I do. She gives me beer as payment and I drink it. Handing over all the spare money that I make.
I’m working at The District, where I’m a waiter when I’m not in class or at practice or supposed to be studying or whatever the hell. I’m making decent money, I’m on a football scholarship, and Drew plays for the NFL, for the love of God, so Fable and Drew have no problems. They live in the Bay Area, he plays for the 49ers, and he’s one loaded motherfucker.
But I refuse to take a handout from them beyond their helping me pay for school expenses and my house, which I share, thank you very much, to ease the burden. Mom blew back into town last spring, when my freshman year was winding down. Knowing I have a soft spot for her, that I’m easily manipulated by her words.
Your sister’s rich, she tells me. That little bitch won’t give me a dime, but I know you will, sweetie. You’re my precious baby boy, remember? The one who always watched out for me. You want to protect me right? I need you, Owen. Please.
She says “please,” and like a sucker I hand over all the available cash I have to her.
“We’ve been discussing your future here at length, Owen,” my counselor says. Her voice is raspy, like she’s smoked about fifty thousand packs of smokes too many, and I focus all my attention on her, not wanting to see the disappointment written all over Fable’s face. “There are some things we’re willing to look past. You’re young. You’ve made some mistakes. There are many on your team who’ve made the same mistakes.”
Hell yeah, there are. Those guys are my friends. We made those mistakes together.
“Your grades are suffering. Your sister is afraid you work too much and she called your boss.” Holy. Shit. I can’t believe she did that. But hell, the owner is her friend and former boss, Colin. He’ll rat me out fast, I guess, even though he doesn’t really work there any longer. He and his girlfriend, Jen moved on right after I graduated high school. They’re in Southern California now, opening one restaurant after another, all over the place.
“What did my boss say?” I bite out, furious. My job is mine and no one else’s. It’s the only thing that gives me freedom, a little bit of pocket money that I earned all on my own. Not a handout from Drew. Not an allowance to keep a roof over my head and my cell phone bill paid.
It’s money that’s mine because I earned it.
“That you’re working in excess of thirty hours a week.” Dolores—that’s my counselor’s name. She sounds like a man and she’s ancient. She’s probably worked at this college as long as it’s been around and considering it was founded around the turn of the twentieth century, this bitch is old as dirt. “That’s too much, Owen. When do you have time to study?”
Never, I want to say, but I keep my mouth shut.
“All your grades have slipped tremendously, but you’re failing English Comp. That’s the class we need you to focus on at the moment,” Dolores the man-lady says.