I THINK she would’ve liked him. Maybe not at first, but I think my mom would’ve fallen in love with his smile just like I did. It’s kind of more of a smart-ass smirk than a smile, really. Quirked up on one side more than the other, it seems to say you’re the butt of a joke that only he knows. I always liked that smile, even when he wasn’t giving it to me. I must’ve been in love with him forever.

I’m not really a pushy person. She used to say that quiet strength was the best kind, so I sort of patterned myself that way. It’s how I got to be captain of the swim team and cocaptain of the wrestling team. When you’re quiet and steady, centered, people pay attention to you when you speak. She liked that best about me.

However, there was a mutiny brewing in my carefully quiet world, and its main organizer was none other than my friend, Rick Castalla, and his two coconspirators, Devin and JJ Gibson. I expected it out of the Gibson boys. They were trouble from day one, always starting a fight, always picking on the less popular kids who made it onto the team, and generally making my life as cocaptain a living hell. Rick had always had my back, at least until I started dating and living with Jason Strummer, boy of my fantasies. Somehow we’d become enemies over my choice of boyfriend, and I couldn’t figure out why. Well, okay, I could figure out where some of the hostility was coming from, but I hadn’t thought he’d had a grudge that deep against my boyfriend.

“I thought I asked you guys to help clean up tonight, Rick? I can’t do it all by my lonesome,” I said. It was a reasonable request. After two solid hours of grueling drills, sweaty workouts, and exhausting conditioning exercises, my arms were numb, and rolling up the practice mats and cleaning out the coolers seemed an insurmountable task.

As cocaptain, it was my responsibility to get the guys on a rotating system where a few of them and myself would stay after every practice and do what needed to be done so the morning gym classes wouldn’t have to spend time picking up our mess. Unfortunately, there were two nights a month where I was stuck with Rick, Devin, and JJ on cleanup duty. Between Rick and me, we could typically get Devin and JJ in line. Tonight, even Rick was fighting me.

Rick shifted from foot to foot before giving me this “screw you” look. “Man, I’m tired, sweaty, and in need of a shower. Ask some of the other guys to stay.”

“It’s your turn, Rick. Everyone stays after twice a month. You know that. If the four of us get on it, we can be done in forty-five minutes.” I didn’t see what the big deal was. I always stayed after.

“Why don’t you get that faggot boyfriend of yours to help? He’s always hanging around after practice waiting on you anyway,” Rick sneered.

I should’ve expected it. He’d been calling Jason that more and more lately. It was like he was trying to goad me into a fight. My hands balled into fists at my side. As always, her voice came to me. Strength means not having to show it off because someone made you angry, Tommy. Strength means holding back when all you want to do is lose your mind.

“Jason is not on this team. You are. And if you want to stay on it, Rick, I suggest you check your attitude, unless you want to discuss it in detail with Coach. We don’t have to be cool right now, but this isn’t negotiable.” Pulling rank on him was a dirty move, but I didn’t have any other choice. It was either that or brawl with him, and there was no way in hell I was risking getting grounded this weekend.

This was “the” weekend, me and Jason’s one month anniversary. It was Jason’s longest relationship, and he wanted to do something “outrageous.” His words, not mine. So Uncle Mark had agreed to let Jason and me head out to the lake for a weekend of camping. It was only twenty minutes away, but it satisfied Jason’s impulsive nature. How he’d managed to get the weekend off from his sucky job at Kmart, I didn’t know, but Jason was beyond pleased with himself.

Rick’s noise of frustration brought me out of my thoughts of the weekend. “Fuck you, Tommy.” Not in this life or any other.

I WAS sweat-covered and sore as hell when I pulled up in front of Kmart a few hours later. I hadn’t bothered going home because between practice, homework, and Jason’s shift getting over early because of payroll cuts, I wouldn’t have had time. The store was in the ghetto, so the fact that Jason worked there at all wasn’t something that made me happy, but the fact that they continuously kept him there on random, often late-night shifts made me even less happy. I hated when Jason took the bus home.

I glanced at the clock on my dashboard and let out a string of low curses. I was still early. I pulled down a parking lane and went ahead and parked. At 10:00 p.m. the lot was mostly empty except for a beat-up pickup truck, two other cars that looked like they had seen better days, and the employees’ cars toward the periphery of the lot that weren’t much better. After I put my Camaro in park, I climbed out and made my way across the blacktop to the automatic doors. I could at least go wander around until Jason’s shift was over or I found something to buy so I’d have an excuse to go through his line.

The store was mostly empty, aisles of merchandise in neat rows. Corporate America was nothing if not organized. Nothing appealed to me, though. It was all junk—organized junk, but junk nonetheless. Maybe I’d get a new CD. Then I remembered that Uncle Mark had installed a hookup for my iPod. Oh well. Soda and a bag of chips it is. I was starving anyway.

“Fuck you! I’m not leaving!”

Was that Jason?

“You don’t quit me, boy! Not ever! You are a minor, and if I have to drag your ass from this store, you’re going!”

I quickened my footsteps as my heart started to pound. Whatever was happening, it didn’t sound good.

“I’m not even living with you anymore!” It was Jason. I ran toward the sound of his voice, my arms pumping like a marathon runner. I tore around the corner, skidding to a halt in time to see an older guy built like a brick shithouse grab my boyfriend’s arm. He was my height but much thicker through the chest than I was. His dirty wifebeater was stretched over his stomach pouch, and his baggy blue jeans were off-brand.

The older man’s lips stretched out into a nasty grin. “You’ve been gone for longer before, boy. That doesn’t mean you’re not coming home. Your mother wants you home.”

“Get the hell off him!” I snapped. All those patient lectures on keeping my temper went right out the window. I charged toward them and jerked the guy off my boyfriend by his wifebeater. The shirt ripped, and he stumbled against me.

We lost our footing on the linoleum and crashed into one of the stands that was advertising some kind of brightly colored play set. The thing crashed to the floor, sending the boxes on it scattering. He righted himself at the same time I did and turned on me. His muddy brown eyes widened in surprise, and then a cocky look made his face even more frightening than it had been, filling it with rage.

He straightened and crossed his arms over his chest. “So you’re the one that has his dick in a knot. You’re the boy he’s been staying with?”

My hands balled into knots of anger at my sides. “Yeah. I’m his boyfriend. If you touch him again, I’m calling the cops.” I somehow managed to fumble in my pocket to get my cell phone and held it up to demonstrate. The guy actually laughed.

“And tell them what? That his father is demanding he come home? I could have your parents brought up on kidnapping charges.”

A chill went through me. “You’re the one.” I hadn’t meant to say that aloud, but there it was. He had hurt my boyfriend, raped my boyfriend. I lunged at him, completely intent on bashing his damn face in.

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