Holding On


"Eighteen year-old Aaron Pickard is dealing with a lot: he’s falling for his straight best friend, his mother has ended up in the hospital after a violent assault by his father, and he’s trying to decide when to come out. Tack on the stress of an upcoming prom and graduation, a part-time job, and the possibility he could lose his best friend, and he’s an emotional wreck.

Aaron’s best friend Jeff Leaton provides a soft place for him to fall when his life is thrown into chaos, literally holding him each night as they fall asleep. As Jeff helps Aaron navigate through the mess that has become his new normal, Aaron’s feelings for Jeff intensify.

Aaron’s pretty sure it’s all going to end badly, but he’s holding on to hope."

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Chapter 1-1
Chapter 1 The lunchroom was noisier than usual and there was a buzz of anticipation in the air as students reveled in their last day before spring break. Stressful midterms were over for most of us so it was finally time to let loose and have a little fun. Having skipped over the main lunch offering—a small slab of indefinable meat—and opting instead for a slice of pepperoni pizza and a Twix bar, I swiped my lunch card and ignored the disapproving look the frumpy cashier aimed at me before carefully navigating my way through the throngs of teenagers to my usual spot. I set my tray on the empty table, taking a seat before sliding off my backpack so I could search for my contraband Mountain Dew buried among the various textbooks, pens, and a crushed pack of spearmint gum. After my fingers wrapped around the now-warm can, I slipped it out of my bag as I scanned the large room for Jeff. No sign of him yet. Carefully, I checked over my shoulder for the watchful eyes of any teachers. It appeared I was in luck as none seemed to be around, so I chugged some Mountain Dew before discreetly setting it on the floor by my feet. Now that Stone Gate High School wasn’t selling soda anymore, wanting us to choose from healthy alternatives instead, I had been smuggling in my daily Dew. Warm or cold, it was still the best. Without that extra jolt of caffeine, there was no way I could make it through my afternoon classes. As for the candy bars? I couldn’t figure out why those were still for sale, but I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up and open a possible can of worms. My gaze traveled the lunch room again in search of my best friend. As I watched the large double doors, I still didn’t see Jeff, but was surprised to see Russell and his posse of football players. They rarely ate lunch in the cafeteria, preferring instead to drive off campus to grab something. It was one of the perks of being a senior, but I seldom took advantage of it. Russell Adams was the Big Man on Campus. He was star quarterback, dated the head cheerleader, had a 3.9 grade point average, and was gorgeous in every way. I furtively glanced around to make sure no one noticed me drooling over him before I let my eyes feast on my secret crush. Well, I guess I wouldn’t really call him a “crush”—I didn’t really want to date him. I mean, I could care less about football, which was what he basically lived for. Russell was just too sexy not to watch, though. And, yes, I admit he starred in some of my favorite fantasies, but in reality, we had nothing in common anymore. Not like when we were kids. But God, he was beautiful. With his thick dark brown hair tousled on top with a gradual fade on the sides, deep soulful eyes the color of milk chocolate, and those full lips, I was amazed more people weren’t openly salivating over him. In addition to all that beauty, he was tall with broad shoulders and thick legs. In a word, hot. Hot. Hot. Hot. Did I mention he was hot? I watched as he made his way to the cheerleader table, where his equally beautiful girlfriend, Deidre, waited for him, his crew of fellow jocks following close behind. She greeted him with a grin and he wrapped her up in his arms, as if all the noise and chaos in the lunchroom fell away and they were the only two people there. They were Stone Gate High’s golden couple. I suppose every high school has one. A sigh left my lips before I turned my gaze back to the door, searching for my friend and wishing, once again, I didn’t have to hide who I was from him. I trusted Jeff with almost everything else, but I just couldn’t bring myself to tell him my secret. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever be ready. I could still remember the first time I realized I was a little different than my friends… Fourth grade had just begun, and several of the girls had started to develop, which meant they wore bras. This quickly became a main topic of conversation among the boys on the playground, and the first time it was brought up, I was more than a little lost. There we stood, a bunch of ten-year-old boys huddled on the playground, just as we always did when discussing our football game. Football was—and still is—a huge deal in Stone Gate, Kansas, and we all spent a lot of time plotting our next big play. To be honest, we probably spent more time planning than actually playing. But this conversation was different. I heard the words, but didn’t understand what they meant. They certainly weren’t discussing football and everyone was speaking in hushed tones. “Did you see her?” “Which one? Kari?” “Yeah! Maria had one on, too!” The boys giggled and I tried to follow along, although at that time I had no idea what they were talking about. I wanted to ask, but even at my young age I somehow knew, if I did, I would only be laughed at. So I pretended to understand, giggling right along with them. Funny how young we are when we first learn to hide a part of ourselves in order to fit in. “I think Dawn has the biggest ones!” “Oh, yeah!” “Definitely!” The boys hooted, but I was still trying to decipher the conversation, which could have been in Russian, for all I understood. Until Russell Adams spoke. “Man, boobs are so awesome,” he declared in a voice already way too deep for his age. My cohorts nodded in solemn solidarity. Comprehension flooded my young brain as I realized they were talking about girls and bras. Personally, I hadn’t even noticed, but I felt great relief that I was up to speed. Not wanting to look out of place, I was eager to share my knowledge and join in the conversation. Of course, the only thing I knew about bras was that my mom wore them, and whenever I saw them in the laundry, they looked weird and uncomfortable. Oh, and there were wires! Finally, I had something to contribute. “Did you know some bras have wires?” I offered, keeping my voice level so as not to betray my relief at being part of the conversation. All eyes turned to me, intrigued by this new tidbit. “Wires? What for?” Leave it to Kevin Mason to stump me. I had no answer. The only thing I really knew was that I had overheard my mom talking about how much she hated those “damn wires.” “They help hold up the biggest ones,” Andy revealed. That made sense. With eight sisters, he would definitely know. We all “oohed” and “aahed” over that new information. Once again, I joined in, although it felt like being in some sort of weird alien brotherhood—one that now included boobs, bras, and girls. I didn’t understand the interest, but these guys had been my friends since kindergarten, so I certainly wasn’t going to stray from the pack. Over the next few weeks, our playground discussions began to include who was cute, which girl was “going out” with which boy and, of course, more about bras. One boy, Mark Hilton, even filled us in on how to remove a bra. Apparently you had to reach around back while you were kissing the girl, so you could unhook it. This was big news because his brother was eighteen and dating a cheerleader, so we knew we could trust any knowledge Mark passed along. Removing a bra sounded like a lot of work to me, and I couldn’t really see an upside to putting in all that work. Suffice it to say, fourth grade was a confusing time for me. I had no interest in talking about boobs or bras. Or even cute girls. I had no idea why my friends were so drawn to these topics. I knew there was something different about me then, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Why didn’t I care about these things? (This is what I now refer to as “Clue #1.”) That question was answered nearly three years later when I attended one of our annual family reunions. I was only one week away from starting seventh grade. It was incredibly hot and humid, a typical August day in the Midwest, and the reunion was being held mostly outside as a large family barbecue. It was always a pretty big affair, as my grandparents each had several siblings. That year it was being held about an hour out of town at a great-aunt’s dairy farm. I was missing a friend’s birthday party at a laser tag center and less than happy about it. Needless to say, I spent most of the drive pouting and sighing loudly while staring out the window. My dad, who usually ignored me unless it was to tell me to “grow up,” “man up,” or “shut up,” decided he had dealt with enough, finally barking that I needed to “shape up” or he was going to “give me something to pout about.” I knew that tone and sat up straight, panic filling my chest. My mom turned to look at me tenderly, her lips curving up. She could always calm my fears; she knew how scared I was of my dad and was there to protect me. My younger sister, Pamela, looked just as panic-stricken and my mother gave her a small smile, too. For a little while, the only sound in the car was the Christian music my dad listened to. Instrumental only. My panic slowly ebbed and I looked out the window again, watching the farms that dotted the land pass by. Jeez, there were a lot of them. I sighed and resigned myself to a day of boredom. Until my mom spoke up. “Aaron, did I tell you your cousin, Jason, will be there?” My eyes widened at the news and I swiveled my head to see her. “He will? That’s great!” Now I was excited. Jason was only one year older than me and we had been practically inseparable for years, until his family moved to California when his dad got a new job. I hadn’t seen him in over a year and had really missed him. We were actually second cousins, twice removed or something like that, and not even blood-related because his mom already had him when she’d married into the family. But it didn’t matter, we had always felt more like brothers. Suddenly, the day was looking up. I looked at Pamela with excitement, but she was leaning against the headrest with her eyes closed. I wasn’t sure if she was sleeping or not, but I left her alone. I had already learned that girls, even seven-year-olds, were full of drama and I wasn’t about to be the target of her next meltdown. I kept quiet, trying to ignore the music that made me want to stick a fork in my ear, and kept my eyes on the moving landscape. Time crept slowly, but it usually did when I was in a tight space with my dad and fighting the urge to flee the car. We finally pulled up to a picturesque farm with a massive black iron sign arching across the wide drive, announcing we’d arrived at Pickard Dairy. Two enormous metal cows, probably taller than I was at the time, stood on each side of the entrance. We drove through the front gate, following the signs posted in the grass with arrows pointing to a field on the far side of a large red barn. I kept my eyes on the people mingling on the grass while my dad parked in the makeshift lot where more than twenty other cars were already sitting. I was eager to stretch my legs and escape the heavy weight of my dad’s silent anger. I was old enough to know his moods, and any family affair always brought out his temper. As soon as the car stopped, I jumped out, eliciting a stern warning from my dad. “Aaron! You wait for us,” he warned, his voice tight. Yes. Of course. Family. Dad was big on making us look like the perfect family. It didn’t matter that once or twice a month he came home drunk in the middle of the night and beat the s**t out of my mom. Oh no, we were the picture of happiness when out in the world. I pasted on my “blissful son” expression, the one I kept for these occasions, and waited. Pamela slid out of the car and joined me while our parents finished some sort of heated discussion. I shuffled my feet in the grass while I checked out the farm. There were a lot of people at the buffet area and I was pretty sure I saw a chocolate cake, my favorite. A variety of scents filled the air, and I inhaled deeply. Mmm, I could smell the smoked ham, as well as apples and cinnamon. My stomach growled in response and I wished my parents would hurry so I could find Jason and get to the food before it disappeared. When my mom finally climbed out of the car, she was rolling down her sleeves, and I caught a glimpse of a bruise on her forearm. I frowned. She had been wearing long-sleeved shirts more often this summer and, while I hadn’t actually witnessed any more than usual, I was pretty sure the beatings were increasing. If that was the case, my mom kept it to herself, just as she always tried to do. I knew she was hiding the mark from family members at the reunion and I was overcome with a sense of sadness. I glanced at my dad and noticed he also wore his phony smile. It was the “I am a wonderful person” face. Damn. I knew that expression. It usually meant that later, in private, he would berate my mom for doing something wrong. At least what he considered wrong. Last week her great sin was that her heels had clicked too loudly on the tile when she’d walked into church. “Aaron!” I heard the shout from across the field and turned to find out who was calling. I beamed immediately, wildly waving my arm in the air. It was Jason! I started to run toward him, but remembered my dad had wanted me to wait, and with the mood he was in, I wasn’t about to push my limits. I gave Jason another big wave, and he waved back as he began making his way toward us. My family finally headed that way and we reached him in about a minute. He and my parents exchanged quick pleasantries, then he excitedly grabbed my arm. “They rented a bounce house! Come on!” I looked at my parents, knowing my dad would want to appear as the good-natured dad, and waited until he nodded his permission, so Jason and I took off as fast as we could toward the large inflatable house in the side yard. It was awesome. Bright stripes of blue, green, and red puffed out around the mesh windows and I couldn’t wait to get inside. Jason grinned and grabbed my arm again, pulling me to the entrance. We were the only ones there, so we toed off our shoes, climbed in, and immediately started jumping and goofing around. It was as if we had never been apart. We rolled around. We summersaulted. We basically acted like five-year-olds on a sugar-high, laughing ourselves silly until we both collapsed. Suddenly, with both of our weights on one side, we started rolling into the crevice between the blown-up floor and the mesh wall until we were wedged in pretty tight, with my body under his. I was about to shove him off when he smiled shyly at me, his cheeks pinking. I froze. My skin tingled and I couldn’t help but notice his full pink lips only a few inches away. I instinctively licked my lips as I heard laughter outside the bounce house. Jason just stared at me with his big brown eyes, and it was as if a lightbulb literally flicked on in my brain, shining into the darkness, illuminating all those secret questions I held inside. It was all so clear to me. I suddenly knew why I didn’t like girls. I mean, how could I when boys were so much cuter? Jason leaned in and timidly brushed his lips against mine. Oh. My. God! Electricity jolted through me and my body came to life as never before. It had been only a soft, gentle, barely-there kind of kiss, but it was enough to change my life. (“Clue #2” completes the puzzle for me.) Jason pulled back, looking a little flushed. Neither of us moved for a moment, our eyes unable to look away. At least until I heard my sister calling my name. “Uh…” I tried to speak. Wow, l was so eloquent at that point in my life. He nodded. “Yeah, umm, okay.” We pulled ourselves out of the tight spot and headed out to find our families. The rest of the day was a blur, but somehow I knew why I’d always felt different. It was as if a curtain had lifted and I could finally see myself for the first time. The revelation brought both joy and fear, and I spent the rest of the day in a fog. I knew if my dad found out, he would kill me. Literally. He hated “fags,” as he called them. That day changed my life. My pseudo-cousin and I never spoke about it, but we also hadn’t seen each other since the family reunion. I often wondered if he had the same reaction I did. Life went on, though, and the following week I started seventh grade. I didn’t dare share my new discovery with anyone. I was still letting this information settle inside and I wasn’t sure of the protocol. Keeping it a secret was necessary, though, for several reasons. My dad’s anger was at the top of that list. Also, I wasn’t sure who to trust. I mean, what would my friends think? Although, that year I had been placed in what they called the “gifted program,” which meant I barely saw any of my old friends. I was pretty bummed about it until the second week of classes, when Jeff walked into my first period. I had been fiddling with my backpack, not really paying attention to the rest of the students shuffling in, when I heard someone clear their throat. I glanced up and my breath hitched. There before me stood a tall, gangly boy with curly dark brown hair and a pair of icy blue eyes staring right at me. He wore some pretty hideous glasses way too big for his face and I watched, fascinated, as he used his index finger to slide them up his nose. That’s when I noticed the smattering of freckles across his pale skin. Something primal, something I had never felt before, licked at my gut. I felt disoriented as we made eye contact. And if I needed a “Clue #3,” there it was. He broke our gaze and stared at his shoes. “Hi, I’m Jeff Leaton,” he sort of mumbled, shuffling his feet. “Aaron Pickard,” I offered, waiting for him to go on. “This is my first day.” Obviously, I thought, but didn’t want to make him feel stupid, so I said nothing. “Umm, are there assigned seats in here?” “Nope. Sit wherever you want.” I swept out my arm. He gave me a shy smile and slid into the desk next to me. The odd sensation in my gut intensified and I couldn’t take my eyes off his lips. They were so…perfect. They looked soft. I stared for a moment, forgetting myself before I caught what I was doing and tore away my gaze. I returned his shy smile and that was it. We were instant friends. Within weeks, we were best friends. Whatever I had felt at our first meeting had subsided and we bonded over our non-muscular frames, our love of soccer, all things Star Trek, and our desire to make good grades and go to college. We shared our hopes and dreams with each other, something I had never done with any of my previous friends. It was so easy to open up to him; I never felt the slightest bit of judgment or condescension no matter what I told him. But I didn’t share my big secret with him. I wasn’t ready to confront it myself, let alone talk about it with my best friend. Deep down in my heart, I thought he would be able to handle me being gay, but I just never felt ready to bring it up. Somehow the years had rolled by and I still hadn’t told him. I didn’t date anyone in high school and he would sometimes ask me why I never asked out a girl, but I let him think it was because I was too shy. It wasn’t a total lie—I was timid around people sometimes. But I wasn’t sure he totally bought it because I never acted apprehensive around girls—it was only boys I would be shy around. One day, I pointed out to him that he never dated either. He laughed and called us “The Two ‘Too Shy’ Musketeers.” Dorky, but it worked for us. Over the years, we spent more weekends together than I could count at his house, but I never reciprocated. Not even once. That was another big secret to hide. I was too ashamed to have him see how my dad treated us, although it was impossible to hide completely. Occasionally, Jeff would hang out at my house after school or for an evening if I knew my dad would be out, but I never invited him to sleep over. Nights were too unpredictable at my house. Jeff never asked me why I didn’t invite him to stay, which led me to believe he probably knew, but was too kind to bring it up. It had become an unspoken understanding between us. As I grew, my dad’s drinking intensified into a daily occurrence, and the abuse my mom suffered at his hands became harder for her to hide. I hated being home, but it also tore me up to leave my mom and sister alone with him. My dad had never been physical with me or my sister, but he had ratcheted up his verbal abuse each year until he was a master at it. He was famous for giving us a compliment that was really an insult. One of his personal favorites for me was “You look nice. Is that your sister’s shirt?” This was a dig at my small stature, and his way of telling me he thought I looked feminine. I think I handled it pretty well, but I was worried about my sister. He was destroying her self-confidence. I could see the pain in her eyes. I wondered why my mom stayed with him—surely she didn’t love him, did she? Truthfully, I wasn’t sure my mom had the ability to leave him. I believe, in her mind, she felt trapped. I tried to stick up for her a few times over the years, but she literally begged me to stop. She was so in fear he would kill me that she made me promise to let her handle it. There would come a day I would rescue my mom and sister and get them away from him. Deep in my heart, I was certain of this. It had become my mission. It was one of the reasons I worked so hard in school. I needed to get good grades and go to college so I could have a career that would allow me to take care of my family. My goal was growing closer. High school graduation was only two months away, then off to community college next fall. I would have loved to go away to college, like Jeff planned, but I couldn’t leave my mom alone… I sighed as my mind drifted back to the present just in time to see Russell Adams kiss Deidre again and squeeze her ass. Ugh, why did I have to see that? Why couldn’t he be attracted to men? “Aaron!” I watched as Deidre practically climbed onto Russell’s lap, grinding against him. Damn, where were the teachers? Did they have spring break fever, too? I watched a little longer, imagining it was me straddling those big, thick thighs… “Aaron? Are you okay?” I finally realized someone was speaking to me. Crap. It was Jeff. How long had he been here? Had he seen me staring at Russell? “Hey,” I offered, trying to act nonchalant. His eyebrows raised as he looked at me and slid into the seat on my right. “I’ve been saying your name for a whole minute, dude. What were you staring at?” He glanced around the lunch room before bringing his gaze back to mine. Had I ever noticed the blueness of his eyes? Icy blue. Surely I had noticed the darker flecks before, right? “Aaron?” Jeff quizzically c****d his head. What the hell was wrong with me today? “Sorry. Just tired. Uh, I was…was watching Deidre practically humping Russell over there.” Please believe me. He scanned the room until he saw them. “Oh, yeah, they’re putting on quite the show, aren’t they?” His cheeks pinked as he turned back to me. “So, you need a ride to work tonight? Or is your piece-of-shit car working?” One corner of his mouth quirked up as he watched for my reaction. “Ha-ha, funny man,” I replied, rolling my eyes. Making fun of my car was one of his favorite things to do. “My car is awesome and you know it. You’re just jealous!” He laughed. “Whatever, Aaron.” Unfortunately, he was kind of right. As much as I loved my 1995 Saturn, it was always breaking down. Last night it had died on me again. And God, did I hate admitting that. “But, uh, yeah…my car isn’t working,” I said sheepishly as I glanced at him from the corner of my eyes. “Can you give me a lift tonight?” He didn’t even try to hide his smirk. “Sure. Need a lift home from school, too?” “That’d be great.” Jeff and I had part-time jobs at the local movie theater. It was a fun job and we were able to see movies for free anytime we wanted, which we took advantage of as much as possible. It sucked that we almost always had to work Friday and Saturday nights, but at least we were together. This weekend we had to work only Friday, though. “Seriously, man, you need to look at another car,” Jeff began, jumping in with his weekly “get a new car” pitch. “I can’t,” I said, trying to tamp down the irritation in my voice. “You know that, Jeff. I have to save for college.” “I get it. But since I’ll be over two hours away at Central Kansas State University, what are you going to do if your car breaks down again?” My stomach did a little flip-flop I didn’t want to examine right then. The same thing always happened when he talked about college next fall. “Hey, pretty soon, when I have enough saved, I’ll put some of it into the car and get it fixed. Don’t worry about me.” I waved my hand. “But I do worry, Aaron,” he said, staring into my eyes. Huh…there went that flip-flop again. “Hi, Jeff! Got any plans tonight?” We both jumped at Lily’s question, our weird little moment broken. The petite redhead parked herself in the seat directly in front of Jeff. Her lips were bright—almost neon—pink today. She had a collection of lipsticks that ran the gamut from peach to hot pink to red. I swear I saw her with deep purple lips the other day, too. She watched Jeff with her pretty green eyes as if she’d rather devour him for lunch instead of the pitiful peanut butter sandwich on her tray. “Uh, gotta work tonight,” he muttered, looking at his hands. I knew how much he hated when Lily cornered him. I wasn’t sure what he had against her. I mean, even I could tell she was cute. Good figure. Sweet. Not the brightest in our class, but she worked hard on her assignments. She’d made her interest in Jeff known over the last few months, but it was obvious he didn’t want to go out with her. I had tried to talk him into it for a few weeks until he shut me down. Said he liked someone else and to leave it at that. Of course, I couldn’t drop it, though. When I’d found out Jeff had a crush on someone, I was like a dog with a bone—determined to find out who had finally captured his attention. I had hounded him to tell me who he liked. Nope. He hadn’t budged. I knew his shyness, but I wished he would realize he wasn’t that gangly little guy with glasses anymore. No, he certainly was not, I thought, as I watched him talking politely, but stiltedly, to Lily. Last summer, he had grown several inches to at least six-four, if not an inch or two more. He had taken up working out and was more muscular than I had ever seen him. Not massive like Russell Adams, but he had definitely filled out. He kept his dark brown hair trimmed, but still shaggy enough that the ends curled around his ears and neck. I was secretly glad he kept some of the length. It fit him. Once he’d traded in his glasses for contact lenses and started shaving on a daily basis, well, let’s just say he was definitely not a geek anymore. Nope, definitely not. I felt Jeff’s thigh brush against mine and my eyes widened as I realized I had been staring at him. f**k. That was twice in one day I had been caught staring at a man. And this was Jeff. My face heated as I cleared my throat. He was obviously asking me to bail him out. I tuned in just in time to catch Lily’s last words. “…so maybe when you get off, I could meet you there?” She twisted her hair with her fingers, and it looked like she was trying to puff out her lips. I didn’t understand why girls did that. What was sexy about duck lips? His leg pressed harder against mine and I finally jumped in. “Jeff, don’t forget, you promised your mom you would come straight home since you have to leave so early in the morning.” He turned to me with such relief, I almost laughed out loud. “Damn! I forgot. Thanks for reminding me.” He shrugged. “Sorry, Lily. Completely forgot I can’t go anywhere tonight.” She pouted and her shoulders slumped. “Okay. Maybe another time?” Her voice, though quieter, sounded hopeful. “Maybe…” he answered, his eyes on the table. She beamed as she grabbed her tray and headed to her normal table. Jeff blew out his breath as she left. “Thanks, Aaron.” I shrugged. “Seriously, Jeff, she is really into you. Why don’t you ask her out and get it over with?” He leaned his elbows on the table and let his head fall into his hands. “You know I’m not interested in her like that.” “Then who are you interested in?” I teased, knowing he wouldn’t tell me. He turned and glared at me. “Really? Again? I told you to drop it.” My smile widened. “You know I can’t do that. I have to make sure the girl my best friend picked is good enough for him!” His lips tugged into a reluctant smile. “I’m still not going to tell you.” “Fine,” I huffed, “then just give me a hint. Like, what color are her eyes?” He squinted, probably trying to decide if he should answer me or not. “Seriously? You can’t tell me the color of her eyes? If you really like her, then you should at least know that.” “Of course I know what color they are!” “Then what? You think I can figure out your secret crush? At most, it will just eliminate some of the girls.” I rolled my eyes. He was being so mysterious. “Fine,” he groaned, “I’ll give you the eye color, but that’s it!” Jeff sighed and raked his fingers through his hair, letting the longer locks fall from his fingers. I wondered if his hair felt as silky as it looked…wait, what? I shook my head, pushing the thought from my mind as I waited for his answer. In recent weeks, I had become fascinated by Jeff’s hair and had to constantly fight the urge to touch it. He closed his own eyes as if picturing hers and a little smile played on his lips. “They are brown and sort of golden with some flecks of green in them. I guess you would say hazel. They’re beautiful. Sometimes they look almost green, when the light hits them just right. And sometimes, when…when…she’s…concentrating or doing something intense, they look golden. Like honey.” His eyes fluttered open and he stared straight into mine. “Happy?” Damn. Not really. When he was talking about her, his voice was gentle, deep…like just thinking about her made him happy. I had never felt that way about anyone. Yeah, I lusted after Russell Adams, but so did half the school. Jeff spoke about someone he really cared about. Maybe even loved. My stomach rolled and I broke our gaze so I could stare at the table. “Yeah, got it. Hazel. Thanks,” I muttered as I grabbed my can of Dew and took a swig. The bell rang, signaling we had only five minutes to get to our next classes, so we dumped our trash into the large containers by the doors and headed into the hall. “Later,” I said, turning to go the opposite direction. “Hey, um, actually…” He looked at his feet for a second. “Um, can we talk after work tonight?” “Sure.” I c****d my head. “Are you okay?” “Yeah, uh, well, there’s just something I need to talk about.” Jeff looked everywhere but at me and seemed really nervous. I gripped his shoulder. “Sure. Whatever it is, don’t sweat it. Okay?” He grinned and nodded before we took off for our own classes. I slipped into the boy’s bathroom, pleased to find I was the only one in there. I hated when some of the guys hid out to skip class, although I had been guilty of it at least once. For some reason, the teachers never looked inside this bathroom. As I washed my hands with the school’s hideously floral soap, I checked myself in the mirror and sighed. While Jeff had been lucky enough to be over six-feet tall, I had stopped growing at five-eight. This year, I had cut my mass of dark blonde hair into something more stylish, and so far I liked it. Keeping it pretty short on the sides sure made it easy to dry and take care of in the morning. The top was a little longer and I combed it forward before tousling it and making it stand up a little. Honestly, it took me a few days to figure out how to style it. I straightened my shoulders. Yeah, I was never going to be ruggedly handsome, or even sexy. Petite. Lithe. Somewhat toned because Jeff dragged me out running about four mornings a week. Hazel eyes. Petite facial features. Dimples in both cheeks that I hated. The bell rang and I cursed for wasting time admiring myself in the mirror. Well, “critiquing” was probably a better word for it, but whatever. I was late to physics. Again. Crap. I pushed open the door and ran down the hall. Mr. Bracket hated tardiness.

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