The first day of school is always easy. The teachers are still unprepared and we're not ready to settle in. A day of messing around is a pretty cool way to ease back into the thought of having to spend every day here until next summer. Lame.
We're walking outside on the playground and I realize we're the big kids on this side. See, Roosevelt Elementary has two playgrounds: One for kindergarten through second grade; and the other for third through fifth grade. This year we're kings. I'm going to enjoy it before we get knocked back down next year.
Jesse and Ben Kingston, Ethan Ashcroft, and Kennedy Caldwell are the guys I hang with. They're cool. None of them care that I come from money and I like that. My dad always warned me against the kids who like you only because you have money, so I'm always cautious with new people.
Speaking of new people. Jesse lifts his chin in the direction of the monkey bars. There's a girl lying at the end of one side, the bottom half of her legs swinging. Her long black hair cascades down between two of the bars and I watch as the strands get caught in the breeze, blowing in a haphazard pattern. I lift my gaze to the girl's face and I see she's wearing sunglasses with a white frame that are way too big for her face. Somehow she makes it work.
She blows a bubble. We're not supposed to have gum, but she doesn't seem to care because she blows another bubble. If she's not careful, when the wind picks up, her hair might fly up into that wad of gum.
"Who is she?" I ask Jesse.
He shrugs a shoulder. "New kid. Tera Ramirez. She's got a brother in the same grade. She said they're twins but they don't look too much alike."
I grunt in response.
"Seems like she doesn't give a shit about anything," Ethan says.
"Yeah," Kennedy agrees.
I ignore their stares as I walk over to where she's butchering Alanis Morissette's You Learn.
"Who sings that song?" I ask, wincing as she sings every note off key.
"Alanis Morissette," she says quickly, then goes back to singing.
"Let's keep it that way," I tell her with a laugh.
She turns her head and looks down at me. "Haha. Funny guy. You can do better?"
"Heck yeah, I can."
She lifts a brow. "Go on then."
So I do. Her nostrils flare. Bam! I win.
She rolls her eyes.
"What's your name?" I ask.
"Nice to meetcha," she tells me while chomping on her gum.
"Where are you from?" I ask, because obviously she's not going to tell me anything without my prodding her.
"St. Louis. Dad got a job up here." She turns her head. "Those your friends?"
I turn and see Jesse and the guys walking over.
I introduce them and a kid with the same black hair as Tera comes walking up. He's big for a second grader and he's got an attitude.
"Who are these guys?" he asks Tera.
"Xander, Jesse, Ben, Kennedy, and Ethan. And this is my brother, Lincoln, but we call him Linc."
"They giving you a hard time?" Linc asks.
"Nope. They're cool."
Linc nods, and his fists uncurl.
"Were you going to kick our butts if we were?" I ask.
"I would've tried."
I nod. He just gained my respect.
That was the day we all became inseparable—including Tera. We found out pretty quickly that Tera and Linc's parents were nearly as messed up as Ethan and Kennedy's. They all spent most of their time at my house. Then Linc got sick.
"What's wrong with him?" I ask my dad. I'm eight. I don't understand all the big words the doctors said.
"He's got cancer," Dad tells all of us—Jesse, Kennedy, Ethan, and Ben. "It's in his blood and it's making him very sick."
"Is he going to die?" Ethan asks softly.
"We don't know for sure. We're looking for someone who is a match for Lincoln so they can take a special serum from inside their bones, called marrow. Then they can give the good marrow to Linc and hopefully it'll cure him," Dad says.
"He'll be better then?" I ask.
"It's hard to say, Xan. Even if he does get better now, he can get sick again later. People with cancer are never completely healed. When they are better it's called being in remission. That's what we hope will happen with Linc," he explains.
"How come he's gonna live with you?" Ben asks.
"His dad is at work a whole lot and he has to travel for his work. It's a lot for his mom to handle on her own," Dad tells him.
"What about Tera?" I ask. "Is she coming too?"
Dad nods. "She is. I'd never leave her behind. She's been worried about her brother."
"I know. When will we know if he's okay?" Jesse asks.
"It shouldn't be long now," Dad tells him.
It wasn't too long. Three weeks and they found a match and it wasn't very long after his treatment that he was back to his old self. Tera clung to him and she still does a little. I think she's worried he might disappear, so if she doesn't let go of his hand, he can't leave.
* * *
One night, when we were in fifth grade, the shit hit the fan.
"Matthew, you know as well as I do this isn't working anymore. Why do you pretend?" my mom shouts.
I sit mute, staring at the blue wall of my bedroom, listening to my mother scream at my father. She's moving out, divorcing him—us.
"What about Xander?" Dad asks.
"What about him? He's safe here and all his friends are close by. I don't want to uproot him and move him to Paris where he knows no one."
Well, at least that's a plus. I was afraid for a minute there she was going to drag me with her—and her boyfriend. She thinks she's so slick, but I know. I hear her on the phone sometimes and I know it's not my dad because he's either at the hospital or sleeping.
"I knew it was coming," I murmur to my silent room of friends. "It was just a matter of time. She was screwing around."
"That sucks, Xan. What can we do?" Ben asks.
"You're doing it," I answer.
It's the truth. Just them being here is making it easier for me.
Tera sidles up next to me, her arm intertwining with mine, holding my hand that's resting on my thigh.
"I'm sorry, Xander," she whispers as she rests her head on my shoulder.
I suck in a breath, the pain of hearing what's going on outside my door.
"When will you see him?" my dad asks.
"He can come visit for holidays and for the summer," she tells him.
"You want him to fly across the ocean by himself?" Dad's tone is incredulous, like he can't believe she's serious. I can't blame him.
"Screw that. I'm not flying to Paris and spending my summer eating slimy snails. I won't go. She can't make me. If she leaves, she can't make me go, right?" I ask them.
"I don't think you have to. Your dad won't make you do anything you don't want to. Your dad's cool as hell," Jesse answers.
I nod. "Yeah. My dad'll have my back."
"Hell yeah, he will," Linc agrees.
"I'll come back for the rest of my things later in the week," Mom announces and I hear her high heels click as she walks down the stairs.
"You're not going to say anything to Xander before you go?" Dad inquires.
"Not tonight. He's got his friends over. Besides, I don't leave until next week."
"Don't worry about it, Lynn. I'll talk to him. Besides, I'm sure he's already heard you with the way you were carrying on," my dad bites out.
"Seriously, Matthew," she scoffs.
"What about your practice? You're just going to leave your patients high and dry?"
"I'm taking a three-month hiatus and then hopefully I'll have my credentials so I can open my practice in Paris."
"You've got it all figured out. I hope it all works out for you, Lynn. Sincerely. But I want the keys to the house and the cars. They are, after all, in my name."
Mom huffs. "Fine."
Tera snickers as we hear keys jingle. "Your dad is so cool."
"I'll have someone pack up your shit this week. Call on Monday. Your stuff will be waiting for you."
"You're being petty, Matthew. I expected better of you."
"Petty? No. That's not what I'm being at all. I'm being logical. You no longer live here. You don't get a key. The security code will be changed. Your boxes will be waiting on Monday. Have your movers come during the day when Xander's in school so he isn't subjected to that as well as this," Dad scolds.
Mom takes a breath. "Fine. I thought we could be civil—"
"Lynn, this is civil. Less than civil would be me dragging you down these stairs and throwing you out on your ass like you deserve. Instead, I'm having a calm discussion, which is now over. You can get the fuck out now," Dad tells her and I laugh.
We're all laughing quietly in my room—even if it's totally screwed up right now. My mom's pretty much abandoning me. It's not like I see her much anyway. It's Dad who takes care of me, who's always there when I need him, who cooks me dinner, makes sure my clothes fit and are clean—he even makes sure I wash behind my ears.
The front door clicks shut and I hear footsteps coming up the stairs.
There's a knock. "Xan?" Dad probes.
"Yeah, Dad. Come in."
The door opens and there's my dad. He's pretty darn tall for just a doctor. I think he could have played basketball or something but he said he couldn't make a basket if he was standing right beside it. His black hair matches mine, as do his ice blue eyes.
He always makes my friends feel welcome. Always.
"I take it you heard?" he asks, looking around the room at all of us.
"Yeah. She was pretty loud."
"Your mother has a flare for the dramatic."
I just nod.
"We can talk more about it later or tomorrow—whichever works out best for you."
"Okay," I answer.
"You going to be okay, Xan?" he asks.
I nod again. "Yeah, Dad. I'll be fine. It's not like it was a surprise."
Dad shakes his head. "No. I suppose not. Are you all finished with your homework?"
We all tell him 'yes'.
"I'll order some pizzas. Let's take over the TV room tonight," he invites.
"Cool, Dad. Thanks."
"See you in a few," he replies.
As he begins to close the door, I call out to him. "Dad?"
"I don't have to go over there, do I? To Paris? I don't want to spend my holidays and summers over there where I don't know anyone. I want to spend it here with you and my friends. You're my family—she's not," I tell him honestly.
"You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. I'll fight for you, Xander. Don't worry. It'll all be okay."
I stand up and walk over to my dad and hug him.
"It'll be okay. I promise," he murmurs again.
"I love you, Dad."
"I love you too, Xander." He kisses the top of my head. "Now for those pizzas…"
* * *
My dad was true to his word. He fought for me. Mom tried to get me over there more than once and each time I said no. We went to court and she lost. She left. In truth, she'd left a long time ago and that's what I told the judge. He gave my mom one of those looks that you hate to ever get from anyone, but she still acted like she didn't do anything wrong.
When we hit eighth grade, my mom had been married and divorced again. I wasn't surprised. I didn't go to her wedding and I didn't ever take her calls.
What was of real concern to me lately was Tera. She was getting boobs. Her body was getting curvy and I started having thoughts about kissing and touching her. I didn't want to think of her like that. She was one of my best friends, for shit's sake.
She didn't seem to notice my discomfort, but the guys did and they gave me hell when she wasn't around. I got hard every time I smelled her hair—which was a lot since she slept in my bed with me when we had sleepovers. It was getting harder to hide from her. One of these times she'd see it or feel it and call me the sick pig that I am. Christ. What the hell? I guess I should just talk to her about it when she comes over after band practice.
* * *
Jesse, Ben, Ethan, Kennedy and I formed a band, Falling Down. Linc played keyboards for us on some songs so he was part of it all—as was Tera. I'm not sure how or when it happened, but her singing went from nails on a chalkboard to throaty and hot.
I don’t want to think of Tera being hot—but I do, and she is.
The girls all flock to our practices and that's when Tera disappears. I don't know where she goes, but she's never there anymore. In fact, she's starting to hang out with us less and less unless it's just me and the guys. I know Linc doesn't like it and I don't either.
The girls start hanging on us but I shrug this one off. She's too loud, her laugh is fake, and I can tell she's a clinger. I'm not looking for a relationship. I'm only twelve, but these girls, all they think about is getting a steady boyfriend. I hate to break it to them, we guys think about sex, not relationships. And this group? We think about music more than that a lot of the time.
"You guys want to hang out?" one of the girls asks.
"Nah," Jesse tells her. "We've got stuff to do."
She pouts. Like, sticks her bottom lip out pouts. Whoever told her that was cute, lied. She looks ridiculous.
"Aww, Jesse. Not even for a little while?" she whines.
I know what's coming next and I fight back the grin.
"I already told you once. No. You trying to overstay your welcome, Darla?" he bites out.
She huffs. "No. The only time I see you is when you're practicing and at school."
He nods. "That's my life."
"No time for girlfriends?" one of Darla's friends asks. I think her name is Luanne.
"Hell no. I don't do girlfriends," Jesse answers, curling his lip. "Later, girls."
With that, they scatter and we all burst out laughing.
"Harsh, man, harsh," Ethan teases.
"Fuck that. Those chicks are clingers and they don’t put out," Jesse replies.
"That's the truth," Kennedy agrees. "Last week I was barely able to cop a fucking feel on Tori. She got all shy and covered up and took off right away. I almost wish she'd have stayed a few minutes more to watch me jerk off. I think she'd have been scandalized at the sight of my cum."
I chuckle. "No doubt."
Tera walks into the kitchen as we're filling our plates. Our housekeeper can seriously cook.
"Where've you been?" Linc growls.
Tera rolls her eyes. "Out."
"You've been 'out' a lot lately. Care to fill me in on where?" he asks.
"If you must know, I've been hanging out with Shea Dawkins," she answers, grabbing a plate.
I sit down at the table and just watch and listen since Linc is asking all the questions I've been thinking.
"The geek painter chick?" Linc adds.
Tera spins, color flushing her cheeks. Oh boy. She's pissed.
"She is not a geek. She just likes to paint, and it just so happens that I do too."
"You paint?" Ben asks.
"Yep, and it turns out I'm good at it."
"Cool," Ben mused.
Linc narrows his eyes and lifts his fork to point at Tera. "Doesn't Shea have a brother?"
Tera sits down at the table. "Yep."
There's a moment of silence. I want to know more about this and if Linc isn't going to ask—
Linc takes a drink. "What's his name again?"
"He's a wrestler, right?"
"Mhmm," she answers between chews.
"I know who that guy is," Jesse announces. "He's bad news."
Tera rolls her eyes. "He's not. Besides, I hardly ever see him. He's usually at wrestling when we're painting."
"Usually," Ethan points out.
"Don't start," Tera snarls.
Ethan chuckles because we all know it's started.
"Yeah," Linc states. "What about the times when he's there? You interested in him?"
This part I'm particularly interested in. I never took Tera for the relationship kind.
"So what if I am?" she says, with a lift of her chin.
I scoff. "Seriously? That guy? The one who wears tights?"
She snarls. "He doesn't wear tights. He wears the required uniform."
Kennedy grins. "A leotard."
Tera whirls on him. "It's called a unitard, for your information."
I laugh. "Whatever it is, it's made out of spandex and that shit's for chicks."
"Ugh. You guys can kiss my ass," Tera declares.
Linc pats her back. "I'm just trying to look out for you."
"Yeah, well, I'm looking out for myself just fine. Worry about the girls who are trying to tie you all down. They've set their sights on you and they aren't going to give up," Tera informs us.
"How do you know that?" Jesse asks.
"You should hear the talk in the locker room." Tera rolls her eyes again. "They're pathetic. They think if they hang around you enough you're going to ask them out."
"Meaning… steady girlfriend?" I inquire.
"Yep. You should have known better than to mess with those prissy girls."
I shrug. "I didn't mess with anyone."
"Uh-huh," Tera replies, rinsing her plate in the sink. She turns around and the light in her eyes is gone. Something major's about to go down. "Look…"
"What's going on?" Linc asks.
"I stopped home to pick up my sketch pad. Mom was 'entertaining' again," Tera says softly, looking down.
"What happened?" I ask. "Did someone hurt you?"
Her head snaps up and she looks at me. "No."
"But?" Jesse prods.
"But they wanted to. I managed to get out of the house before they could catch me."
"What the fuck?" Linc shouts. "And Mom was going to let them?"
I stand and walk over to her, pulling her to me. She's shaking.
"It's all right, T. It'll be all right. You can stay here as long as you need to," I inform her. I know my dad won't have a problem with it, and even if I do have issues dealing with Tera being a hot chick, friendship comes first—and she's one of the best ones I've got.
Linc looks at me. "I think it's time to talk to your dad when he gets home."
I nod. "Yeah. It's time he knows what's going on—with all of you." I give Kennedy and Ethan pointed glares but they're looking at their plates. I've seen enough bruises on those two to know something bad is going down.
Their moms are into drugs and whoring for their next fix. It's why they spend most of their time here. I think my dad already knows, but it's time they tell him straight out. I think I know what's going on over at Ethan and Kennedy's houses too, and if it's as bad as I think it is, something needs to be done fast.