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Win Some, Lose Some

Shay Savage





Copyright © 2016 Shay Savage

All Rights Reserved



Editing : Chayasara

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without the express permission of the author, Shay Savage —except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations embodied in review or critical writings.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Cover art by Jada D'Lee Designs





Dedication


For those whose lives have been touched by a child with autism.





Table of Contents

Dedication

Chapter 1—My Life is a Mess

Chapter 2—Rainy Day Haircuts

Chapter 3—All the Reasons I’m a Disaster

Chapter 4—Ask Me No Questions

Chapter 5—What I Will Do for Cake

Chapter 6—It’s a Family Thing

Chapter 7—Let’s See How I Can Embarrass Myself Further

Chapter 8—Sometimes You Just Have to Go for It

Chapter 9—Almost the First Date

Chapter 10—Follow the Cake

Chapter 11—Conflict Isn’t My Thing

Chapter 12—Maybe Dating is a Bad Idea

Chapter 13—From Freak to Hero

Chapter 14—A Watch is a Bad Substitute for a Ring

Chapter 15—Dive Straight In

Chapter 16—Poke the Fish

Chapter 17—Cookies Aren’t the Only Things That Start with “C”

Chapter 18—Sex is Better than Cake

Chapter 19—You Have What in Your Kitchen Drawer?

Chapter 20—If It’s Ignored Long Enough, It’s Still There

Epilogue—The Biggest Win of All

Author’s Notes

More Books by Shay Savage

Kindle Unlimited—Read for Free!

About the Author





Chapter 1—My Life is a Mess


“Oh shit, shit, shit.”

The impact of the car behind me slamming into my bumper was brief but intense. Even after the shaking stopped, I could still feel the vibrations running through my body. Every muscle was tensed, and my brain was on overload.

A car accident. I’ve been in a car accident.

Bile crept up the back of my throat. My ; hands slid down the steering wheel slowly, leaving cold sweat from my palms on the faux leather wrapping. I closed my eyes and swallowed hard, wondering if there was any way I could possibly get through this without having a major panic attack.

Unlikely.

I had a hard enough time when something was slightly out of my normal routine. For that reason, my uncle had gone over possible crisis situations with me in the past, and a car accident was one of them. I just needed to remind myself what to do.

Make sure everyone is okay, and call 911 if someone is hurt.

Was I hurt? Was the person behind me hurt?

Taking mental note of my body, I realized I was physically fine—shaken up, but fine. I didn’t know about the person or people behind me. I would have to get out of the car to figure that out. The problem was, I couldn’t move.

Did the car still work? The engine hummed beneath the hood, and I figured the car was probably still drivable, so that answered that question. The impact hadn’t been that hard. Since I didn’t appear to be hurt, the person or people behind me might also be all right. Maybe there wasn’t any damage to the car. Maybe I would survive this after all.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I reached over my lap and unbuckled my seatbelt. I wrapped my fingers around the door handle and focused on tensing my fingers enough to release the latch. I pushed the door open. My body remained tense as I slowly forced myself out of the car.

Make sure everyone is okay. Check for damage. You can do this.

“Dude, what the fuck?”

Startling at the sound, I glanced toward a blond guy with a ratty mullet pulled back into a ponytail. His lips were curled up into a snarl.

“Yellow doesn’t mean stop, you idiot!” He crossed his arms and puffed out his chest.

The man’s obvious aggravation at the situation should have sent me into a curled-up ball, but the absurdity of his claim grabbed my attention. For a moment, I forgot his belligerent manner and remembered the words in the driving manual I was given to study for my test.

“Illumination of the yellow or amber light denotes, if safe to do so, prepare to stop short of the intersection.” My chin quivered and my eyes remained on the ground as I spoke the memorized words as if I were on autopilot. “I had time to stop. I can’t afford to get a citation.”

“Citation?” The blond guy threw his hands up into the air and leaned toward me. “You mean a ticket? You don’t get a fucking ticket for going.”

His words didn’t make any sense at all. There was nothing in the law that said he couldn’t be cited for such an offense. He could. I studied thoroughly for the written portion of my driving test. If the light had been red, surely he would have thought running it was reason for a ticket. I continued to stare at the ground near his feet, trying to will myself to make eye contact, but I only managed to blink rapidly.

The guy tapped his foot as I looked over at the rear bumper of my car. The damage wasn’t all that bad, but it was dented on one side, and now it was completely asymmetrical. In my chest, I could feel the panic rising again. I tried to swallow it down.

I needed to keep myself together. The man wasn’t hurt. There was no one else in his car, and the damage was minimal.

I can do this.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t dent up my car,” the man said as he stood right next to me. I could feel his glare on my tingling skin. From his stature and demeanor, I got the idea he was used to being taller than most guys, but we met nearly eye-to-eye. He had at least forty pounds on me, though, so the effect was similar.

“I’m sorry—” I started to say, but he interrupted me.

“I’d say you are!” His laugh was full of menace.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, “but you…”

I stopped. His demeanor and harsh stare were throwing me off. If I could just remember how I’d practiced scenarios like this one, I would be fine, but I couldn’t focus enough to remember everything.

Insurance. I need to ask him for insurance information.

I took a deep breath and continued.

“If you could just give me the name of your insurance company—”

He took half a step forward and poked his finger into my chest—twice.

“Fuck. You.”

I swallowed hard. I knew how to defend myself, but every martial art I had ever studied demanded strict adherence to the rule: only use force if there is no other choice. I still had some choices left.

I made a sweeping gesture toward my bumper, cringing at the sight. I wanted to say something about how he had rear-ended me and was at fault, but I couldn’t get the words out. I couldn’t stop staring at the lopsided dent in the bumper. I wouldn’t be able to drive it like this, not when I knew the bumper was back here, looking the way it did. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.

Would my insurance rates go up?

A fresh wave of panic smacked into my chest.

I was rarely angry at others. I usually reserved that type of emotion for self-loathing, but this guy was so obviously wrong. I pushed back another pending deluge of panic. I couldn’t let that happen here at the edge of the street and in front of this Neanderthal . I took a couple of deep breaths, wishing I had enough money to go back to the therapist in town.

“Call the police,” I whispered. I hadn’t really meant to say it out loud, but I knew this was the next course of action if there was a dispute. I had a prepaid phone in my glove compartment for emergencies.

“Fuck that. You ain’t calling nobody.”

My skin crawled at his grammar. I needed to get back in my car and use the emergency phone, but my feet wouldn’t move.

“Call police,” I said again. My voice was monotone, and I was only dimly aware of what I was saying. I still couldn’t move, and I tried to find something on the ground to draw my attention away from the situation. “Report the accident. Get insurance information.”

I could feel the man’s hot glare on my face, but I couldn’t look at him. I was repeating “Call the police” over and over again. I couldn’t make myself stop.

“Shut up!” The guy poked me in the chest once more. “Considering the piece of shit you’re driving, I’d consider it a mercy killing. Here”—he shoved a little piece of paper at my chest, and I watched as it fluttered to the ground—“consider us even.”

He laughed again as he turned around, got back into his car, and drove away.

I leaned down and picked up the bit of paper—I couldn’t stand having litter in the street—and saw that it was one of those Powerball lottery tickets. I shook my head slowly as I stared at the paper without really seeing it. I always thought the lottery was a tax on people with poor math skills, and that fit the stereotype of the guy perfectly.

It didn’t matter. I saw his license plate, and I would just let the insurance company deal with it. Having an uncle in the insurance business had definitely been a blessing over the past six months. He made sure the car and the house were covered so I wouldn’t freak out. Travis was cool that way, like my dad.

Like my dad was.

I closed my eyes, took another couple of long breaths, and got back into the driver’s seat. I tried to wipe my mind clear of the image of the bumper, but of course, it didn’t work. I had to pull over twice to get myself back into driving condition before I completed the three-mile drive home.

Home.

The house was in a nice neighborhood, but there was nothing extravagant about it. Three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths—a typical suburban place with a small yard and a mailbox with a cedar post. The property backed onto a large wooded area, which was good for hiding out alone. More than anything, it was…quiet.

I walked in and dropped my book bag on the little bench in the foyer before getting myself a glass of water. Mostly I ate stuff out of the freezer that I could heat up in the microwave. I hadn’t cooked any fresh food for three days, and I tried to force myself to make some real food at least a couple of times a week.

All the recipes in my mother’s old recipe box were designed to feed four people. All of them, I swear.

I put my glass in the spotless kitchen sink.

I took the glass out again, filled the sink with sudsy water, washed the cup, and then washed out the sink and dried it off until there were no water marks. By that point, I had completely lost my appetite, so I went into the den to do my homework.

Everything in the den was pretty much how my dad left it—papers, notes, and books all over the place. I couldn’t stand messes, never could, but I couldn’t bring myself to clean it up, either. Mom was more like me; she wouldn’t even walk in here.

She had been.

Had been.

Past tense.

Passed on.

Passed away.

Deceased.

The words filled my mind, unbidden. I closed my eyes and hoped it would just stop, but of course, it didn’t. My mind rarely went in the direction I commanded. I had to get up and leave the den. I stopped in the family room, but even the name of the room still set me off into panic attacks sometimes. All I could think about was how I had argued with Mom over the cooking show she liked to watch all the time. I had wanted to watch Top Gear, and the shows were always on at the same time.

I went back to the kitchen, thinking maybe I would cook something after all. I poked around in the cupboard filled with mostly packaged foods and ended up coming across a box of Thin Mints Mom had bought from a Girl Scout who lived down the street.

I lost it.

My dad had always said life was full of ups and downs.

“Son, you win some days; you lose others. That’s just how it works.”

Today was a lose day.

~oOo~

The next day, I walked through the large double doors of Talawanda High School in Oxford, Ohio.

Oxford was a small university town, divided into areas mostly devoted to the locals, the Miami University campus grounds, and Uptown Oxford, where everyone shopped and went out to eat. The shops mostly catered to the students, and most of the buildings even had student apartments on the second story, on top of the storefronts. First-year students lived in campus housing, but upperclassmen lived in apartments and rented houses within a few blocks of Uptown.

Most of the kids in my class had at least one parent who worked for Miami University. My mother had taught math in the school of education. Growing up here was all right. I enjoyed summers the most when all of the students would leave Oxford to the townies, and I could find a parking space Uptown when I needed one.

I headed to my first class—AP Ecology. I’d managed to drive to school by repeating to myself over and over again: I have an appointment with the body shop right after school lets out, and Travis is going to arrange for a loaner car until my bumper is fixed.

A loaner.

Who knew what had been done in it?

I opened my locker and carefully placed the folders from my book bag into their proper places on the little metal shelf. The corresponding textbook was placed next to the folders in order of my class schedule, my meager lunch placed on the top shelf, and the empty backpack on the hook. Then I pulled out the ecology textbook and green folder to take to class.

I checked my watch and quickly headed to the classroom. I should get there with about ten seconds to spare. I couldn’t stand being late, but I also didn’t want to be there early. I walked inside Mr. Jones’ lab and turned down the aisle toward my desk.

There was already someone in my seat.

He was a really big, wide-shouldered guy with a dark complexion. I hadn’t seen him before, but he could have been one of the kids who transferred from Riley schools. I wasn’t concerned about where he came from though. The problem was he was in my seat.

Maybe I should have been a few second earlier.

I stopped between desks—right between Aimee Schultz and Scott O’Malley—and just stared at the floor for a minute. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. That was the seat where I was supposed to be sitting. I had been in that seat all year, and it was spring. This was a two-semester course, so I had been in that same seat each and every school day for over a hundred days.

One hundred and twelve.

“Matthew, take a seat, please,” Mr. Jones said from the front of the room. “It’s time to start, and I’ve got a lot of material to cover before you break into groups.”

Someone in my seat and group work. Double whammy.

I looked at the guy in the chair, then up at Mr. Jones. My pulse was beginning to pound in my temples, and I was having a hard time keeping my breathing in check. I kicked the toe of one foot with the heel of the other—trying to snap myself out of it—but it didn’t work. I turned around and went up to the front of the class.

“Mr. Jones,” I said, “there’s someone in my seat.”

“There aren’t any assigned seats, Matthew,” Mr. Jones said.

I stared at the papers on his desk. All of my teachers were supposed to know the ins and outs of my education plan, including some of my triggers such as unexpected change. Most of them were great about sticking to the plan, but Mr. Jones didn’t seem to understand how much it could impact me.

“But…my seat…” I could barely hear my own voice.

“Devin just transferred here,” Mr. Jones said. “There’s an open seat behind Mayra.”

Mayra.

Mayra Trevino.

I glanced over at the brunette with the long, wavy hair as she leaned forward with a smile on her face and chatted with Justin Lords. She had large brown eyes and full lips. She was trendy, popular, beautiful, and she was the co-captain of the girls’ soccer team along with Aimee Schultz.

It could be worse. She was usually pretty nice to me. Justin, the American football king, was a whole other story. He’d given me a hard time since kindergarten. He was a classic bully, right down to the overbearing, overachieving father, who was also the football coach.

I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to get my bearings. My entire body was tense—poised for fight or flight. There was nothing to fight against, though, and flight would mean not graduating. I could have gotten my GED already if I wanted to go that route. I didn’t want that. I wanted the diploma. I wanted to get into a good school so I could manage a decent career and be able to pay my sister’s medical bills.

You can do this.

I tried grinding my teeth to see if that would help my feet move, but it didn’t. I realized it was because my eyes were still closed, and I’d probably trip over my feet if I tried. I opened my eyes again and took a couple of shuffling steps to the other side of the room.

The other side.

Far from the door.

Shit, shit, shit.

With a shudder, I managed to sit down in the seat behind Mayra Trevino. She glanced back at me.

“Hey, Matthew!”

I crossed my arms on the desk and stared at the little hairs on my wrist. I took another long breath and closed my eyes, trying to imagine myself in my regular seat and that Mayra had just decided to sit in front of me. It didn’t help much because if she were there, where would Joe sit? I shuddered a little.

“Hey,” I managed to say quietly. Thankfully, Mr. Jones started his lecture then. What he had to say didn’t help at all, though—group work.

Shit, shit, shit.

“Everyone will be divided into pairs, choose a potential risk to our biosphere Earth, explore the causes and potential implications of that risk, and then present your findings to the class.”

Pairs. I relaxed a little. Joe and I had known each other since we were both pulled out of the regular classes in the third grade for our “superior cognitive abilities.” He was the closest thing I had to a friend, and we always worked on projects like this together. When Mr. Jones had mentioned group work, I thought he meant a larger group. I didn’t do well in those. I tried to keep my focus on the good news as opposed to the potential for public speaking, which just wasn’t going to happen. Joe would do it for us.

“Justin and Ian, pair up. Joe and Devin, Aimee and Scott, Mayra and Matthew…”

“Wha-what?” I interrupted.

“You and Mayra will work on your project together,” Mr. Jones confirmed. He smiled, and I wondered if he had brushed his teeth that morning.

“I work with Joe,” I reminded him. Surely he just forgot.

“Joe’s going to work with our new student,” Mr. Jones said. “You will be working with Mayra.”

My heart began to pound, and blood rushed to my ears, which also began to pound. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to hold this one back, so I got up and ran out into the hallway.

I didn’t look back. With sweat running from my hairline and onto my neck, I headed straight for the front door, trying to figure out where I could go to hide.

I couldn’t sit in my car—not with the bumper the way it was—and there was no way I was going to hide out in either the bathroom or the locker room. One of the websites I ran was for a public health service, and I’d read the statistics. I wouldn’t even walk into a public restroom without a hazmat suit.

I ended up just running laps around the football field.

Once I managed to calm down, I went to the office and tried to change out of AP Ecology and into anything else, anything that would give me the science credit I needed for graduation.

“I’m sorry, Matthew,” the secretary told me, “but it’s too late in the semester to switch.”

“Is Mrs. Heath available?” Mrs. Heath was the special education consultant for the school. She worked in a lot of the schools around the county, and I met with her twice a year to go over my individual education plan.

“Mrs. Heath won’t be on site until next Tuesday.”

I wanted to bang my head against the wall, but giving myself a concussion certainly wasn’t going to help. I couldn’t just drop ecology for a study hall and graduate on time, and Mr. Jones was clear the project was going to be a major chunk of our semester grade, so I couldn’t just opt out of the project. I was stuck. I would have to do it to keep my GPA up.

I heard the door open behind me and looked back over my shoulder to see none other than Mayra Trevino herself, followed by Aimee. Mayra reached over the counter and dropped a paper on the office desk before turning to me with a smile.

“I tried to wait for you to come back,” she said quietly, “but Mr. Jones said we had to choose from a list today. I picked honey bees. I hope that’s okay.”

I just stared at her for a minute, watching the way her mouth moved while I tried to figure out just what the hell I was supposed to say back to her.

“Honey bees?” I finally managed to say.

“The depletion of honey bee populations could have a drastic impact on our ecosystems,” she replied.

“Oh…um…I have work to do tonight,” I finally said. “I can’t work on it.”

“Tomorrow, then?” she suggested. “We could work on it in the library or maybe at my place?”

Aimee shuffled her feet behind Mayra and tossed her long, brown hair over her shoulder. I wondered if she wanted to say something but was holding back. She had a soccer bag over her shoulder, and I figured they had already started practice for the spring season.

“Matthew,” Mayra said again, “is the library okay?”

“Not the library,” I said softly. That’s where Coach Lords, Justin’s father, worked as the librarian. He was as bad as Justin. He was worse, actually, because he had a position of authority within the school hierarchy. Every time he saw me, he badgered me to play football. They were always short on players, and if there weren’t enough people signed up to play, the funding would be cut.

“Okay,” she responded. “My place?”

“Your place?” I repeated, like a total idiot. Normally, I didn’t make eye contact with people, but I couldn’t stop looking at her eyes. I had never really looked at them before. Most people with brown eyes had speckles of a lighter color or a lot of variations in the hues, but hers were almost solid brown—like a chocolate bar.

“After school?”

“Okay.” I could barely get the sound out because I had totally stopped breathing.

“Cool! Do you need directions?”

“No,” I said. “I know where you live.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow!”

She turned to Aimee, and they both skipped out of the office while I tried to breathe again.

Different seat, different project partner, and soon a different car to drive—these were the kinds of things I couldn’t have stack up on me all at once. Despite the run around the field, I was still too worked up to deal with any more surprises today. I quickly signed myself out of school and headed off to the body shop to get my car assessed.

“Sorry, kid,” the guy at the body shop told me. “You have to be at least twenty-five to take out a rental car. It’s policy.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry, I didn’t know there was a rule.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a smile. “We’ll get you back in your own car as soon as we can. I have to tell ya, though. We’re pretty backed up.”

And the stack of surprises grew higher.

I walked out of the shop door and moved around the corner of the building. There was a place to fill your car tires with air, and I sat on the curb, closed my eyes, and tried to get myself back together with little success.

Lose.





Chapter 2—Rainy Day Haircuts


Finally pulling myself up from the ground, I walked away from the shop and headed down the road. Of course, it started to rain about then—just a little sprinkle. The sprinkle quickly turned into a downpour, naturally, and I was sopping wet as I trudged down the sidewalk, staring at my feet as I went.

I stepped over every crack in the sidewalk, trying to pace my steps just right so I didn’t have to walk awkwardly. As I came to intersections or driveways, I lifted my shoulders up a little higher until I got past. When I was a kid in the car, I would always lift my feet off the floor when we went past driveways—like I was jumping over them. The fixation on the act helped keep me calm and kept me from worrying about whether or not my clothes would be ruined by the rain.

I counted steps between drives. I counted red cars as they passed by me. I counted the number of breaths it took when I had to cross the street. As focused as I was, I didn’t even hear my name at first.

“Matthew? Matthew, is that you?”

I looked up into the face of—once again—Mayra Trevino. She was in an older model, sky-blue Porsche, and she pulled over right beside me—facing the wrong way on the street.

“What are you doing in this rain?” she asked.

I could only shake my head at her.

“You want a ride home?”

“It’s only another mile,” I responded.

She sighed, looked a little exasperated, and pursed her lips together.

“Matthew, don’t be ridiculous. You’ll catch a cold or something.”

“Viruses aren’t caused by weather,” I said.

“Let me give you a ride,” she said more insistently.

“You’re on the wrong side of the road.”

“If I move, will you get in?”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. It would make me feel better, that was for sure. Right now she was facing traffic, even if there wasn’t anyone coming. It just didn’t look right—not at all. Without waiting for me to respond, she backed up a little and repositioned the car at the curb on the other side of the road.

“Well, come on then!” she called out the window. “I’m getting wet here, too!”

“You don’t have to do this!” I called back to her. About that time, the thunder started rolling in. Lightning burst across the sky, and the rain came down even harder.

“Get in the damn car, Matthew.”

When she put it that way, I didn’t really feel like I had a choice, so I looked both ways, lifted my shoulders, crossed the street, and went around to the passenger side. Standing in the rain was a little ridiculous, and I didn’t want Mayra to end up all wet, so I got in the car.

I shivered, and Mayra turned up the heat in the Porsche.

“I’m getting the seat wet,” I said quietly, and my heart began to pound.

Mayra laughed.

“I seriously doubt you could affect the resale value by getting the leather seat wet,” she said. “Besides, this is a hand-me-down from my uncle. He found it at a car auction.”

“I’m sorry,” I said anyway.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Really. It will wipe right off.”

I looked down at my hands in my lap and watched her out of the corner of my eye. It occurred to me that I had no idea what kind of a driver she was, and I inhaled sharply, feeling my breath catch in my throat. I wanted to close my eyes, but I had to keep them on her to make sure she didn’t make any mistakes.

She was watching me closely, and her forehead was creased a little. She gave me a tight-lipped smile, then put the car into first and looked over her shoulder for other cars. She glanced at me once more and then pulled out slowly. She went the exact speed limit and kept her eyes on the road. Air filled my lungs again, and I felt myself relax a little.

“Where do you live?” Mayra asked softly. She didn’t look over at me, and I was grateful she was concentrating on what she was doing.

“Acorn Circle,” I told her. “At the end of Arrowhead.”

“Oh, okay! That’s over by Aimee’s, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “She lives six houses down and across the street.”

Shit, shit, shit.

I became increasingly aware that I was in a vintage vehicle with the beautiful and popular Mayra Trevino, and I was about as ill-prepared to talk to her as I was to give her a gynecological exam.

In addition, I needed to learn when to shut the fuck up, even when I was only talking to myself. The images of Mayra getting a pap smear that suddenly filled my head nearly caused me to open the door and fling myself onto the pavement. My heart pounded in my chest, and my vision became blurry. I squeezed my thighs with my hands, trying to stop myself from shaking.

Don’t do this…don’t do this…not in front of her…please…

I was vaguely aware that the car had stopped, and Mayra was saying my name over and over. I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing I could do the same with my ears. My body jumped uncontrollably when her hand touched my shoulder, and she said the only thing that could have caused me to answer her.

“Should I call 911?” Her voice was panicked.

“No!” I squeaked. “No…don’t! I just need to get home.”

“We’re here,” she said quietly.

I yanked at the door handle, which wouldn’t budge the door. A strange sound came out of my throat when I yanked again and realized I was trapped. Before Mayra exited the car, I heard her tell me she would open the door, and she ran around to the other side. She opened the door, and I practically fell out on top of her.

Then I ran.

I ran straight for the front door, opened it, and slammed it behind me. I dropped down onto my ass just inside and leaned against it. I could hear her outside, yelling at me.

“Matthew! Matthew! Are you okay? Matthew, please open the door! I want to know you are all right!”

I ignored her. I closed my eyes, pulled into myself, and calculated pi.

“Matthew! Matthew, my dad is working from home today! I’ll call him, and he’ll break the door down!”

I wasn’t falling for that. He would have no legal right to enter my house without the police and a search warrant. There was no just cause. She continued to call out pointless threats, and I went through the engine specifications of an Audi R8.

Finally, there was silence outside.

A moment later, there was knocking again.

“Matthew?” she called through the wooden door. “Matthew—I have your book bag.”

Shit, shit, shit.

I’d left it in the car.

“You can’t do your homework without it, so you’re going to have to let me in.”

Moaning, I grabbed at my hair and pulled. The minor pain helped me focus a little. There was no way I could get along for the night without the things in my book bag. My homework was there, if nothing else, and my lunchbox. How would I pack lunch for tomorrow if I didn’t have my lunchbox? I forced a deep breath inside of me, stood up on shaky legs, and opened the door.

She smiled at me triumphantly, and I scowled back at her.

“Are you going to invite me in?” she asked.

“What if you’re a vampire?” I replied and instantly wanted to smack myself on the back of the head for saying something so stupid.

“A vampire?”

“They, um…” I stammered. “They can’t come inside your house unless you invite them.”

“I promise I’m not a vampire.”

“If you were, that’s just what you would say.”

We stared at each other for a moment, and I could see she wasn’t going to back down. Besides, she hadn’t relinquished my backpack, and it was still raining outside. I stepped off to the right, and she walked in past me.

She put the book bag on the floor as she walked in and looked around. I quickly grabbed it and put it on the bench where it was supposed to be before following Mayra into the family room.

“You’re all wet, too,” I said as I realized she was dripping on the carpet.

“Oh!” Mayra took a quick step back to the tile foyer. “Sorry about that. I can clean it up.”

“It’s okay,” I said. It wasn’t, but a wet floor wasn’t a trigger point, so I wasn’t going to get too upset about it. The carpet was old and easily cleaned. “I’ll get you a towel.”

I ran upstairs to the bathroom, taking out a large beach towel and examining it for a minute. It was blue and green with purple seashells on it and a little bit threadbare. I vaguely remembered my parents buying it when we were vacationing at Myrtle Beach.

I put it back, then tiptoed into the master bath to pull out one of the large, fluffy, cream-colored towels from under the sink there. It was soft and definitely classier than a beach towel.

Classy? A towel?

I shook my head and walked back downstairs.

“You live here alone, don’t you?”

I squeezed my eyes shut for a second before handing her the towel. I tried to decide if I could handle her here, asking me a lot of questions. I wasn’t sure why, but having her here really wasn’t upsetting me too much. It was a little uncomfortable but nothing I couldn’t handle.

“Yes,” I said quietly. My mouth turned up in a half smile.

“You could have cool parties here,” she exclaimed. “No parents!”

I froze, and the whole atmosphere of the room changed drastically.

“Oh shit, Matthew—I’m sorry!” she cried. “I wasn’t…I just meant…shit, I wasn’t thinking.”

My body felt chilled, and I couldn’t look up from the floor. I did manage to speak.

“It’s okay,” I said slowly. “I know they’re dead.”

She fiddled with the towel in her hands and shuffled her feet.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

I shrugged and just stood there, still looking at the floor. Some of the rainwater in my hair dribbled down the side of my face. I closed my eyes again.

“You’re still soaked,” Mayra said quietly.

She took a step toward me, and the next thing I knew, she was reaching up with the towel and rubbing it across my head.

She was so, so close to me—closer than any non-relative female had ever been—and she smelled so good. I inhaled slowly through my nose and tried to figure out the scent—something like peonies. For some reason, it seemed to relax me a little.

I opened my eyes and looked down at her. She had a slight smile on her face, and her gaze was fixed on her hands and the towel she was running over my head, which also felt wonderful. After a minute, she pulled the towel away from my mostly dried hair and tossed it over her shoulder. She looked at me for a moment, smiled a little more, and then reached up and ran her fingers through my hair. She pushed it back up off my forehead and then twisted it around her fingers.

“You need a haircut,” she said.

“I know,” I replied.

She fiddled with it some more.

“It doesn’t stay where I put it,” I said randomly, but it seemed to make her smile again.

When she smiled, her eyes lit up, too.

“I see that,” she smirked. “Do you want me to cut it for you?”

I just stared at her, trying to comprehend what she was asking.

“I cut my dad’s all the time,” she said. “I’m good at it—I swear.”

“You want to…cut my hair?”

“I will,” she said, “if that’s okay with you.”

I couldn’t seem to form any words to answer her, so I silently found a pair of hair-cutting shears and sat down on a chair in the kitchen.

Trying to stay still while Mayra was near me with a pair of scissors was not easy.

I knew I needed a haircut. I had planned on getting one at the end of the month, when I usually got paid for my website work. I just didn’t have much extra money on hand. It was all budgeted exactly with the remainder going into the account for college. I kept whatever didn’t round evenly for spending money.

The lady who usually cut my hair knew just how much to take off. I didn’t like it if it was changed too much, and she had managed to figure out exactly how I wanted it cut after I freaked out on her once. Mayra didn’t know, and even as I sat on the kitchen stool with the cream-colored towel around my shoulders, I felt myself start to hyperventilate.

“Not too much,” I managed to gasp out as she came up behind me. “Please.”

I felt her fingers moving through my hair right before a comb followed.

“Only a little,” Mayra said as she leaned over to look in my face.

I kept my eyes away from hers, choosing to look down at the curve of her neck instead. She had very pale skin. There weren’t many freckles or anything on it, either. I had a weird desire to touch it.

“I promise,” she said. She touched me right underneath my chin and pushed against it until she turned my head to look back at her.

Looking people in the eye was never something that came easily to me. It always felt so…confrontational. Sometimes it was unavoidable, but I still tried to keep my eyes away from others whenever possible. It just wasn’t comfortable.

There was still a smile on her face when our eyes met.

“Just a little,” she said again. Her eyes were intense, and I flinched a bit. “Okay?”

“Just a little,” I whispered back.

Sitting completely still, I closed my eyes and waited for her to be done. She pulled the hair away from my head in little bits. I would hear the snip of the scissors, and then she’d move to the next part. I tensed only a little at the sound when it came close to my ears. There was a strange feeling of unreality, like this was all just a dream, and I was still asleep, almost ready for the alarm to go off and wake me to get ready for school. I turned my head a little and looked at Mayra.

She was standing in the kitchen where my mother had cooked dinner. She was standing on the parquet flooring I had helped my dad install—making sure all the little wooden pieces were lined up just right. She was in the house where my grandparents had lived when I was born. It was just weird.

“All done!” Mayra announced. “Do you have a mirror?”

“Upstairs,” I said.

“Do you want to go look?” She seemed nervous, and I wondered what she thought of being here with me, which made me realize something.

“No one has been in the kitchen since Mom died,” I said, “except for my Uncle Travis.”

Mayra took a half step back, and I heard her gasp. I stood from the stool and moved around her with my eyes on the ground. Once in the upstairs bathroom, I turned my eyes to the mirror over the sink. My hair was noticeably shorter. When I turned my head to the side and looked at it more closely, I determined it wasn’t as short as the lady who usually cut it would have made it. Actually, it was better—less of a change but still a little shorter so I didn’t have to worry about it getting too long. I was smiling when Mayra appeared in the mirror behind me.

“Is it okay?” she asked. “I didn’t take much off.”

“It’s…just right.” I looked at her eyes in the mirror and smiled back at her.

“Great!” she exclaimed. “Anytime you need a haircut, Matthew, just let me know.”

“You’d do it again?” I asked. I could kind of wrap my head around her doing it this time. After all, she was here. I was here. And I needed a haircut. Could I consider the idea of Mayra Trevino actually coming here again with the intended purpose of shortening my hair? I couldn’t fathom it.

“Of course,” she said. “I like cutting hair.”

I dropped my gaze from the mirror and thought about it, but I still couldn’t see her coming back here and doing this again. Mayra moved up beside me, and I leaned forward on the sink, grasping the edge of it tightly. If I let go, I might run. She was right next to me.

“You don’t really like things to change very much, do you?”

“No,” I whispered.

“It’s really okay, though?” she asked. “Your hair, I mean?”

“It’s really okay.”

“Can I ask you something else?”

“You just did,” I reminded her. “That was a question. Did you mean it to be rhetorical?”

Shit, shit, shit.

I shut my eyes a second. I was pretty sure that wasn’t an appropriate response. I remembered the school counselor’s voice in my head.

“Focus and concentrate, Matthew. Try to think about the response before you say it. Is it appropriate for the situation? Does it fit the theme of the discussion?”

Mayra mashed her lips together, and I felt my shoulders tense up a bit.

“I was going to ask you if you didn’t think something was okay, would you tell me it was?”

“Yes,” I said truthfully. “At least, probably.”

“Is your hair really all right?” she asked again. Her voice was full of concern and anxiety. “You can tell me if it isn’t—I can change it a bit or at least know better next time.”

“It’s really okay,” I told her. I watched my hands curl around the edge of the sink. My knuckles had gone white.

“I’m going to get going,” Mayra said as she put her hand on my shoulder.

“I’m itchy,” I said.

Mayra laughed.

“That would be from the hair I cut off, you know.”

“I know. I need a shower.”

“Well, I’m definitely going, then.” Mayra snickered and headed back downstairs.

I watched Mayra walk through the front door, waving as she left. I shook my head to clear it and then took a quick shower. My head stayed in a bit of a fog for the rest of the afternoon. It wasn’t a bad fog—just strange. I felt a little lighter or something. I cleaned up the hair on the kitchen floor and decided to do a load of laundry as well.

Dumping the dirty shirts and pants into a laundry basket, I took them downstairs to the washer. I checked everything that had a pocket, just in case I left something in one, which I almost never did. If something did get left in a pocket—like a tissue or something—and it ended up shredded and clinging to everything, I had to wash the clothes all over again.

I grabbed my jeans from yesterday and reached into each pocket in turn. Front right, back right, back left, front left. I didn’t get past back right because there was some paper in there. I pulled out the lottery ticket that had been shoved at me as payment for my bumper.

I sighed. I was glad Travis didn’t have any problems tracking the guy’s license plate and all that. I took the ticket, folded it neatly in half, and put it on top of the dryer while I went through the rest of the clothes and started the machine. I picked up the ticket and went to the kitchen to find some dinner.

I tossed the ticket into the kitchen trash can and then started rooting through the freezer. I didn’t really want another heat-and-eat dinner or something out of a box in the pantry. I was still a little bit chilled from the rain before, so I definitely wanted something warm.

Mayra Trevino was in my house.

She gave me a haircut.

I ran my hand through my hair and thought about how it felt when she was touching it. It was good. It felt good and weird. It felt weird now because it didn’t take my fingers as long to get through it. It still wouldn’t stay down—it was all over the place—but I was used to that.

I realized I was still smiling and decided to make shepherd’s pie. I got out a bag of potatoes, peeled and cut them up, then put them to boil while I picked out a bag of frozen vegetables to go with it. I found some garlic bread, too, and decided that might round it out nicely.

When the potatoes were done, I placed everything in a casserole dish and stared at it. It was enough to feed an entirely family. A family I didn’t have any more.

Not quite true.

I had my aunt and uncle. I tried not to rely on them too much, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped. With the dish in the oven and the timer set for exactly thirty minutes, I pulled my cell phone out of my backpack.

“Travis, I need help.”

I hated asking. I did it rarely, and when I did, I always felt like shit for it. He had already done so much for me, and I was asking for more. My fingers gripped the phone.

“What is it, Matthew?”

“They won’t let me take out a rental car because I’m not old enough.”

“Shit, shit, shit,” Travis mumbled under his breath. “I didn’t think about that, Matthew. I’m sorry. I’ll come get you and take you home. You can use Bethany’s car for a few days—she’s still in Hong Kong.”

“You don’t need to get me,” I said. “I got a ride home.”

“Oh yeah? Did the body shop guy take you?”

“No.”

There was a bit of a pause on the phone. Outside the window, two squirrels were running around the big pine tree. Their tails twitched as they chased each other in and out of the branches.

“Well, are you going to tell me who took you home? Focus, Matthew.”

“Sorry,” I mumbled. I guess it made sense that Travis wanted to know how I got back here. “Mayra Trevino took me home.”

“Who’s that?”

“A girl from my school.” I thought about it and decided he was going to want more. “We’re in ecology together. We have a project we’re starting this week about bees. I’m supposed to go to her house tomorrow to work on it. It was raining, and she saw me on the road, and even though she parked on the wrong side, she moved, so I got a ride with her, and she cut my hair.”

“Whoa!” Travis shouted into the phone. “Did I just hear you right? You have a girlfriend?”

“She is a girl,” I said. The word he used—girlfriend—didn’t quite hold meaning for me. “I’m not sure if we’re friends or not.”

“She cut your hair?”

“Yes. She said it needed it. I was going to wait until the end of the month.”

“Does she work at a salon or something?”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Well, where did she cut your hair?” I could tell by the tone of Travis’s voice that he was getting a little frustrated. I obviously wasn’t giving him the information he wanted, but I didn’t know what he wanted, so I wasn’t sure how to fix it.

“In the kitchen.”

“At the house?”

“Yes.”

“Your house?”

“Yes.”

Travis whistled into the phone.

“I think that counts as a friend, at the very least,” he said. “Joe’s not been over, has he?”

“No, we go to his house or Uptown to do stuff. He’s never been here.”

“Damn.” Travis whispered again. “Well, I want to hear more when I get there, okay? I’ll bring Beth’s car over, and you can drive me back.”

Travis arrived a few minutes later and ate most of my leftover shepherd’s pie. He did less cooking than I did, and his wife, Bethany, traveled on business a lot. She worked for a textile company. He was also a really big guy and could pack it away. He was taller than me by a couple of inches and had curly hair. He and my dad looked a lot alike, both with dark hair and bright blue eyes. I looked like my mom.

“So tell me more about this girl,” Travis said between mouthfuls.

“Mayra Trevino,” I said. “Her eyes are brown.”

He looked up from the plate and tilted his head to one side.

“That’s all you got?”

“Oh, um…” I stammered. I didn’t really know what to say about her. “I sat behind her today in ecology.”

“I thought you sat by Joe.”

“There was a new kid,” I said quietly. I didn’t want to think about it too much and bring the memory back. “He was in my seat.”

“Did you take it okay?” Travis’s tone was guarded.

“No.”

“Shit—I’m sorry.” Travis ran his hand through his hair. “I’ll call the school again, okay?”

“I thought they wouldn’t discuss me with you,” I reminded him. “I’m eighteen, and there isn’t any guardianship or anything.”

“Well, they can listen even if they won’t talk!” Travis said, raising his voice, which made me flinch. “I’ll call that Jones guy myself. He obviously hasn’t read your IEP or your 504 plan. He was supposed to talk to Mrs. Heath last semester. He shouldn’t be putting you through that shit.”

“Please don’t,” I said quietly.

“Why not?” Travis snapped back.

“Because,” I said as I took a deep breath, “I’m already going to have to deal with the hit-and-run guy. I can’t do both at once. It’s too much.”

With a huff of air through his nose, Travis conceded. He picked up his plate and fork and put them in the sink. I followed him and washed them both, put them away, and then I cleaned the sink. Travis knew if he washed them, I would just get them out and wash them again. We had an understanding.

“If your mom had passed a few weeks earlier, I would have become your guardian. I could go to that school and give Jones shit, then.”

“Travis,” I whispered. I felt my whole body seizing up on me.

“Sorry, kid.” Travis looked at me and sighed. “It’s just that…if I had more direct ties to you legally, I could do more for you.”

“You do enough,” I told him again. We’d had this same conversation twenty-four times. “I’m eighteen. Everything’s in my name, and I’m okay.”

“No, you aren’t,” he mumbled. “You need to go back into therapy. You had fewer attacks on that medication.”

“I don’t have any extra money for more prescriptions, and the therapy isn’t covered,” I reminded him. “Making up for what Medicaid won’t pay for Megan’s care is expensive enough. I can get back into it after I graduate. Once I’m at college, the financial aid stuff will kick in, and I’ll be able to afford it.”

“I told you I’d pay for it.”

“And I told you I wasn’t taking any more of your money. You can’t spare it, and you’re already helping with Megan.”

“I still can’t believe they didn’t give me her guardianship. You shouldn’t have to deal with all of this.” He was whining, but it wasn’t meant to be mean or anything. Travis fought to have both of us put under his care, but I proved to the courts that I was high-functioning enough to do it on my own.

“I should be her guardian,” I said. “She’s my sister.”

“Your older sister,” he emphasized.

“Only physically.”

We stared at each other for a minute. We’d been at this impasse before.

“I’m doing all right, Travis,” I told him. “I mean, I’m not really much more fucked up than I was before. I’m doing as well as can be expected for someone who lost two parents within three months, and it happened less than a year ago. All my other issues are just icing.”

“Icing!” Travis snorted.

I ran my hand through my hair again, which reminded me of the haircut.

“You shouldn’t be alone here,” Travis said. He knew this argument was a lost cause, too.

“I’m not selling the house.”

“You wouldn’t have to.”

“Travis,” I growled.

“Fine, fine.”

“I want to stay here,” I said. I looked at him until he finally nodded. He knew this was a subject on which I would not budge. I wanted to be independent. I wanted my parents to know I could take care of myself and Megan without becoming a burden to Travis and Bethany. “The meds I take now work well enough. Megan’s SSI covers her stuff, and the other supplemental income I get is enough to pay the bills. I’ll take care of the issues at school, too.”

“If you went to that other school in Cincinnati, the resources would be better. Bigger school, bigger budget, and more kids like you. They had that whole separate class for kids with Asperger’s”

“I didn’t want to change schools when I started high school, and I certainly don’t want to change now. There are only three months left!”

“I know.”

“I’m all right, Travis. Really. Even the social worker said so when she checked on me last week.”

Travis sighed and nodded.

“If anything else happens in that class, I’m talking to Jones,” he told me as he dropped the keys to Beth’s Civic in my hand.

I drove him back to his place on the other side of town. We didn’t talk much more. I wondered if the idea of talking to Mr. Jones might have put him off. I wondered if Mr. Jones taught when Travis went to school there. Travis was my dad’s younger brother by twelve years, and it wasn’t that long ago that he was a student at Talawanda High.

“Take care, kid,” Travis said as he got out of the car. “I still want to hear more about this girl.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

As soon as the word was out of my mouth, I knew I had fucked up.

Mayra drove me home and saved me from the rain.

She brought me my book bag.

She gave me a haircut.

I hadn’t said thank you.

Shit, shit, shit.

I couldn’t let it go. I had to fix it.

Just when I thought the day was turning into a win, I blew it.

Lose—again.





Chapter 3—All the Reasons I’m a Disaster


The short, panting breaths coming out of my mouth were making me all dizzy and light-headed.

I sat in Bethany’s car in the driveway of Mayra Trevino’s house. I came here to thank her, but I couldn’t get out of the damn car. Every time I tried, my insides felt like they were going to pop right through my skin and splatter over the cement.

I didn’t understand myself at all. She had been in my house, and it hadn’t caused any reaction like this. She’d been close to me, touched me, cut my hair. Why couldn’t I walk up to her house and say thank you?

My hand grasped the handle of the car door, and I tried again. The result was the same. I dropped my elbows onto the steering wheel and put my face in my hands. I slowly shook my head back and forth while I growled and swore at myself.

Giving up on talking to her but still insisting on correcting my infraction, I turned the car back on and drove Uptown to the Hallmark store to look for a thank-you card. At least I could put it in her mailbox. I was pretty sure I could handle that. Thinking about it didn’t seem to upset me.

None of the cards said “Thanks for the ride” or “Thanks for the haircut.” I found some cards that just said “thank you” on them in gold script with the card all blank inside, so I bought one of those. Then I sat in the car for thirty minutes trying to figure out what to say. I wrote a few words, then tore the card up and went back inside for another card. The cashier gave me a weird look, but I ignored her.

I did that two more times before I settled on something that I didn’t think was too bad.

Dear Mayra,

Thank you for giving me a ride home and cutting my hair.

I’m sorry I forgot to say that before.

Sincerely,

Matthew Rohan

I took a deep breath and slid the little card into an envelope and sealed it. Then I flipped it over and wrote Mayra on the front. I looked at it for a bit and decided to add her last name—Trevino. I smiled as I drove back to her house and pulled up near the mailbox.

I realized I hadn’t put her address on the front of the card, so I added that as well. Of course, since I hadn’t planned to write that much on the card, it didn’t all fit with the same-sized letters. At least I had the extra envelopes from the other cards I had messed up, so I ripped the card out of the first one and put it into a blank envelope. I wrote her name and address again.

Just before I put it in the mailbox, it occurred to me that the mail carrier just might think they were mailing a letter out, not receiving one, and could collect it and take it back to the post office. It didn’t have a stamp or anything on it, so it could end up being lost completely. She would think I was insanely rude and might never speak to my again.

How would we get our project done?

I pulled the card back to my chest. Maybe if I wrote my return address on it, it would at least come back to me due to a lack of postage. How long would that take, though? Oxford mail wasn’t known for being overly fast even when there is the correct postage on a letter.

I considered taking it up to her front door, but the thought immediately started my heart pounding. Just looking at the little, covered porch and thinking of myself walking up there and ringing the bell made my stomach clench and threaten to expel dinner.

Bethany would be really pissed if I threw up in her car.

That idea started a whole other attack. I dropped the card onto the passenger seat and got out of the car altogether. The air outside the car smelled fresh and clean, which helped calm me a bit. I leaned against the driver’s side door and put my face back in my hands.

“Matthew?”

Shit, shit, shit.

I lowered my hands and saw Mayra Trevino standing at the curb near her mailbox.

“What are you doing here?”

I looked down to the street under my shoes and kicked at a tiny little rock there. There was another one a few feet away, so I kicked it, too. Then a third. I kept kicking rocks until there weren’t any left in my reach and then started looking for more.

“Matthew? Are you okay?”

I didn’t know how to respond. I wasn’t okay, but focusing on the rocks had made the attack go away at least. I could breathe normally, and my heart wasn’t pounding too much. I wasn’t okay, though. I needed to give her that card, and I wasn’t sure how to do that.

“Sometime you just have to do, son. Don’t think. Just do.”

Dad’s voice in my head came at a pretty good time. I turned and opened the car door, leaned inside, and grabbed the card. If I gave it directly to her, at least it wouldn’t get lost in the mail. I grasped the envelope in my hand, backed out of the car, and walked slowly over to where Mayra was standing. She was still calling my name as I raised my hand and gave her the card. I ran my hand through my shorter hair and cringed a bit as she reached out and took the card from me.

I couldn’t stand to watch her read it, so I got back in the car and drove away.

It might not have seemed like much to anyone else, but I was reasonably pleased with myself.

Win.

~oOo~

School was particularly noisy the next day.

I tended to ignore most of the sounds around me as I walked through the halls, but I could tell people’s voices were either just a little bit louder or maybe just more people were talking at once. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it.

In ecology, the new kid was in my seat again even though I entered the classroom a good thirty seconds before the bell rang. I stopped at the front of the aisle, not walking the rest of the way to the seat. I knew if I said something to Mr. Jones, he would likely react the same way as before, and Travis would end up calling him. I really didn’t want that to happen.

I wanted to take care of myself.

I stood there, looking at my feet.

“Hey, Matthew!” Mayra’s voice sang out from the other side of the room.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mayra stand up and walk over to me even though I didn’t raise my head.

“Come on over and sit by me,” she said. “We can talk about our project.”

I jumped a little when she took my hand and started pulling me behind her. My feet didn’t move—I think they were as confused as my head. I focused intensely on the feeling of her hand touching mine, and everything else in the room disappeared.

Mayra stopped and turned around.

“Will you sit behind me, Matthew?”

“Okay,” I said softly, and my feet decided to go along.

I saw Justin Lords roll his eyes as Mayra led me to the seat behind her. She smacked him in the shoulder as she walked by.

“Hi, Matthew,” Justin said in a weird, sing-song voice. “Are you having a wonderful day?”

I stiffened for a second, trying to figure out how I was supposed to respond. Justin never said anything remotely nice to me and usually ignored me altogether. Sometimes he’d shove me in the hall, but he never said anything polite.

I didn’t believe he was being polite now.

“I had pancakes for breakfast,” I said, then cringed. I wasn’t sure if that was right, but I usually microwaved frozen pancakes in the morning when I was in a good mood.

Justin laughed.

“Fucking freak,” he muttered.

“Shut up!” Mayra said through clenched teeth. “Go on and sit down. Jones is about to start class.”

Mayra let go of my hand, and I sat in the seat behind her, just where I had the day before, and stared at the places on my skin that had been touching her. The seat was still way too far from the door, but every once in a while, Mayra would look back and smile at me, and I’d remember what it felt like to have her holding my hand.

“Did you hear about the lotto ticket?” Justin asked Mayra while Mr. Jones’s back was turned.

“No, what lotto ticket?”

“The winning Powerball ticket—it was sold at the gas station in Millville. One hundred and twelve million.”

“No shit!”

“That’s what I said!” Justin beamed like cursing was something for which he should get an award.

“Who bought it?” Aimee asked as she leaned over her desk to listen closely.

“Whoever it was hasn’t come forward yet,” Justin replied.

“Wow!” Mayra whistled low.

“Watch for new Ferraris!” Justin laughed out loud.

“Justin, would you please pay attention?” Mr. Jones’s comment snapped Justin out of his fantasy.

“Sorry.”

After class, Mayra reminded me I was supposed to go to her house after school.

“See you about four o’clock, right? Do you need a ride?”

“No,” I replied. “I have Bethany’s car.”

“Who’s Bethany?” Mayra asked.

“My aunt.”

“Oh, gotcha. Okay, I’ll see you at four!” Mayra smiled and waved as she headed down the hallway. I just stood off to the side and watched her go. The bell rang, and I realized I was going to be late for my next class if I didn’t move quickly.

After school, I drove to the Trevino house, sat in the driveway until three fifty-nine and then totally failed to get out of the car. Once the clock flipped to four o’clock, I knew there was no way I could go up to her door. I took a long, deep breath and drove back home.

Once I was back in my own house, I sat on the couch with my head in my hands.

I couldn’t do this.

I couldn’t work on a group project with Mayra Trevino.

There was just no way.

The doorbell rang, and I knew it was her long before she started pounding on the door and yelling at me to let her in. Remembering her tenacity from the day before, I relented and opened up.

“Matthew! Why didn’t you come over?”

Taken aback by the abruptness of her question, I just stood there and stared down at her shoes—black Converse with bright yellow laces. I wondered why she picked laces that color since they obviously didn’t come with the shoes.

“Matthew?” Mayra said. Her voice had gone soft. “Did you forget to come over?”

“No,” I replied. “I was there.”

“You were there?” she repeated. “Matthew, I waited for you, but you never came to the door.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

I glanced up at her face and then quickly looked away. I didn’t know what to say to her, so I instinctively embraced the repetitive action of kicking the toe of my foot with my other heel.

“It’s okay,” Mayra said, “you can tell me.”

She reached out and took my hand in hers. Her fingers coiled around mine. Her hands were really soft, and I wondered if she put lotion on them a lot. My mom’s hands always got really dry in the winter, and she would put lotion on them every time she washed her hands.

“Matthew?”

“I just…couldn’t,” I whispered.

“Do you want to work on it here?”

“Okay.”

I couldn’t say no to her, so we set up the project stuff on the table in the dining room.

It was surprisingly easy to work with Mayra on the honey bees project.

In the past, I had only worked on projects with Joe. He was fine with other people for the most part though he tended to look down on them because they weren’t as smart as he was. Everyone thought he was a snob. He was a snob. He didn’t have a ton of friends either, but we had always worked well together.

Mayra was completely different from Joe. She was really passionate about everything we researched and often got excited when we would find some article on the internet that supported what she believed to be right. She also got really mad about some of it.

“I don’t understand how something like this could just be overlooked!” she exclaimed again. “Doesn’t everyone know all life is dependent on each other? People obviously just don’t play enough dominoes anymore!”

She took a deep breath and let it out in a big whoosh. She looked over at me and smiled.

“Sorry,” she said, “I get a little carried away.”

I just shrugged.

“Should we think about the PowerPoint?” Mayra asked.

We hadn’t talked about the actual presentation. I always focused on the written portion, which was almost done. I would just need to take my clunky old laptop into school to get the information printed. I could put it on a thumb drive, but I was afraid something would happen to the data if I walked too close to something magnetic.

We hadn’t started the PowerPoint or even talked about it.

What if she wanted me to give the presentation? Joe knew better, but I hadn’t worked with Mayra before. Maybe she would want to do every other slide, passing it back and forth between us. I’d seen some kids do it that way. My heart started pounding, and I squeezed my hands into fists beside the keyboard.

“Matthew,” Mayra said. “You never stand up in front of the class. I know that. I’ll give the oral part of the presentation.”

I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath, but it rushed out of me suddenly and forcefully. I was torn between wanting to thank her and wanting to be able to say that I could do it. I couldn’t—I knew that—but I wished I could.

“Want to take a break?” Mayra asked.

“Okay.”

“Got anything to drink?” Mayra asked with a smile.

“I have filtered water in a pitcher, Coke, and Sprite,” I said, offering her a choice.

“I’d love a Coke!”

I smiled a little, too, and got up to get two cans of soda from the pantry and two glasses from the cabinet. I pulled out the ice cube tray from the freezer and carefully selected four cubes for each glass. I tilted the glass sideways to pour the soda. With four cubes, the twelve-ounce drinks fit into the glasses perfectly.

Carrying a Coke in each hand, I brought the glasses back into the dining room, which was attached to the living room and the kitchen. The whole floor made a circle you could walk around. Mayra had moved over to the couch, so I took our drinks and placed them neatly in the center of the coasters on the coffee table.

“Thanks!” Mayra said as she took a sip. “Mmm…it’s so much better in a cup with ice. Justin always just has the cans in the fridge.”

“You’re welcome,” I replied. I sat down on the other end of the couch. The comment about Justin had my head spinning a bit. I wondered if she usually worked on ecology projects with him and if she went to his house often. I tensed up again though I wasn’t sure exactly why.

“Hey, Matthew?” Mayra said as she turned toward me. She moved closer to the center cushion and pulled one of her legs up underneath her. “Can I ask you something?”

“Okay.”

“Something kind of personal?”

My fingers gripped my thighs. I tried to keep my breathing in check, but the number of possibilities of things she might ask me was too overwhelming. What did girls ask guys when they were together? I hoped she wouldn’t ask me questions about soccer because I didn’t know much about it at all. My dad had only been into the Cincinnati Reds, and the closest competitive sport Mom had gotten into was Iron Chef.

I jumped as her fingers moved slowly over mine. I dropped my gaze to her hand as she reached around and pulled my fingers away from my leg. She wrapped her hand around mine and then turned my hand over and laced our fingers together.

“Can I ask you?” she repeated.

“Okay.” I kept staring at our fingers. They fit together really well. Thumb, thumb, finger, finger…

She took a deep breath, and her fingers moved up and down my fingers, stroking slowly. It was calming, and I pressed my shoulders against the couch cushions.

“What’s wrong with you, Matthew?”

“Huh?” I sputtered. I was glad I didn’t have a mouthful of Coke at the moment because it would have gone everywhere.

“I mean, I know you are…different. I heard people say you were…you know…retarded or something, but you’re not. You’re very smart—I can tell that. But you also aren’t…aren’t…”

“Normal,” I whispered as I pulled my hand away. My heart was beating too fast. The couch seemed really, really small all of a sudden.

“Yeah, I guess.”

I swallowed hard. I was frantically trying not to panic, but trying to frantically defeat panic really didn’t work well. I closed my eyes, counted backwards, and tried to think of some way to respond to her that wouldn't make her immediately run for the hills.

“I'm sorry,” Mayra said softly. “I shouldn't have asked.”

I glanced at her eyes and quickly looked away again. The strange thing was I wanted to tell her. I wanted her to know, but I didn't want her to run away. I also needed to get the fuck out of that room immediately.

“I have to go.” I pushed off the couch and tugged at my hair as I walked out of the family room and down the short flight of stairs to the lower level.

“Matthew—don’t go! I’m sorry—really! I shouldn’t have said anything. I just…just—”

I paused and glanced over my shoulder to see her standing at the top of the stairs.

“Give me a few minutes.” I sounded like I was begging, but I didn’t want her to leave—not yet. She nodded, and I ran off, flinging open the door to the basement and running down the stairs.

Once I got down into the cool, unfinished room, my breathing came easier. I closed my eyes and waited for my heart to calm down a bit, then reached down and pulled my shirt off over my head. I bent down and pulled off my shoes and my socks.

I walked slowly to the far side of the large, open room, picked up a pair of training gloves, and pulled them over my hands. I tightened the straps and lined up the Velcro perfectly around one wrist and then the other. I took one more deep breath and turned to the large heavy bag that took up most of that side of the basement.

I stepped onto the mat surrounding the bag and pulled my arms in front of myself to stretch out a bit. I clenched my hands into fists, stared straight at the center of the bag, and began to punch.

Right, left, right, left.

Left, left, right. Left, left, right.

Right, right, left. Right, right, left.

Equal number, each fist.

It didn’t take more than the first few hits in the center of the bag before I was lost to the moment—no anxiety, no panic—nothing but me, the bag, and my fists.

Left, right, left, right.

Right, left, right, left.

My breathing was steady and each hit perfectly accurate. My feet carried me easily on the mat and around the bag.

Left, left, right. Left, left, right.

Right, right, left. Right, right, left.

Each impact traveled from my fists up through my arms and into my shoulders. My hips and chest tilted to receive each blow. My mind became empty and clear. I barely registered the slight movement near the door when Mayra entered. It didn’t matter.

Right, left, right, left.

Left, right, left, right.

Kick left.

Kick right.

Roundhouse left.

Roundhouse right.

Butterfly.

I took a step back to the corner of the mat and tried to catch my breath. I knew she was still there, watching me silently, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t mind her being there. I leaned over and braced my gloves against my knees, exhaustion engulfing my limbs.

“I'll tell you,” I finally replied when I found my voice again.

“You don't have to,” she said.

“I know.” I took a deep breath and righted myself again. “I want to.”

Back in the living room, Mayra and I sat down on the couch with fresh glasses of soda.

“I don't know where to start.” It was hard to admit that to her.

“Start with whatever you want to say,” Mayra said.

I sat back against the cushion and took a long breath. I already knew the words I needed to say, which made talking about it easier.

I can do this.

“The first doctor said I had attention deficit disorder,” I told her. “She said I couldn’t focus on anything because of that. Dad said she was crazy—I was focused on everything at once. The next one said I had obsessive compulsive disorder.”

I rubbed my hands on the thighs of my jeans and wriggled my toes around in the carpet. I was still hot from the boxing, and I hadn’t put my shirt back on either.

“So, you’re OCD?” Mayra asked. I realized I hadn’t continued the story.

“Not…exactly,” I replied. I glanced over and sighed before continuing. “Have you heard of autism?”

“Sure,” Mayra said. “That’s kids who can’t talk to their parents, right? And they do the same thing over and over again?”

“Kind of,” I replied. “There's a spectrum of autism. Some people have it a lot worse than others. The next doctor they took me to said I might have Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a very mild form of autism. Actually, we’re supposed to just say autism spectrum disorder now, but they still called it Asperger’s when I was diagnosed. I started going to therapy then, but it didn't help much.”

“So which one is it?” Mayra asked after some more silence.

“A little of all of it, I guess,” I told her. “I have…”

I paused and mentally pushed down the panic in my chest again.

“…social deficits,” I finally got out. “You may have noticed.”

“You aren’t like some of the other kids.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mayra shrug. “Sometimes it seems like it’s hard for you to even be in the room with them. I thought it was because of your…”

“Because my parents died.”

“Yeah.”

“No, I was fucked up before then,” I admitted. “It just got worse.”

“Sorry,” Mayra said. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“I don’t really fit Asperger’s,” I said, continuing. “People with Asperger’s usually have one or two things that become fixation points. I have hundreds.”

“Fixation points?”

“Once I start thinking about something, I can’t stop,” I said. “When I was up here before, all I could think about was hitting the bag. I had to go do it, or I’d drive myself nuts. But it’s not always the bag. My sister is all about the clocks.”

“Your sister?”

“Megan,” I said. “On the autism spectrum, if I’m at one end, she is at the other. Megan has never said anything except the time.”

“I don’t understand,” Mayra admitted.

“She knows what time it is all the time,” I explained. “She will tell you it’s eleven twenty-six a.m. She will tell you it is time to eat dinner, and she will tell you it is time to watch iCarly. She can also walk by and tell you how many clocks and watches are in the room and what kind they are. She doesn’t talk about anything else at all. She’s never even said hello to me or called me by my name.”

Mayra sat with her hands in her lap and thought awhile.

“Where is she?” Mayra asked.

“In an autism institution in Cincinnati,” I said. “When Mom got sick, she couldn’t take care of Megan, and then when Mom was gone…well, I can just barely take care of myself. Most people who have some form of autism can’t interact with others at all. I can, at least some of the time. It just has to be under certain circumstances.”

“Like it’s okay for me to be here, but you can’t really come to my house, can you?”

“Not really,” I whispered. I had no idea why I was speaking softly. I had no idea why I was speaking at all. I never told anybody about any of this outside of the therapist I quit seeing right after Mom died when the insurance wouldn’t pay for any more sessions.

“Is it just because you haven’t been to my house before?”

“I don’t know what’s inside,” I said. My heart started pounding just thinking about it. “I don’t know if there are dishes in the sink or if you have magazines on the coffee table or when your Dad might walk in or if he has a gun.”

Mayra snickered a little.

“He never actually uses them outside of hunting and the practice range,” Mayra told me. “He spends most of his time cleaning them.”

“He still has guns.”

“What’s wrong with magazines on the table?”

“They might be out of order,” I said. “They might be from different months, or magazines that don’t go together might be touching each other.”

Squeezing my eyes shut, I leaned over and put my face in my hands. I sounded ridiculous, and I knew it, but I couldn’t help how I felt. I rubbed my fingers into my eyes and jumped when I felt Mayra’s hand on my arm.

“Lots of people with autism don’t like to be touched,” I said.

“I’m sorry.” Mayra pulled her hand away.

Shit, shit, shit.

I hadn’t meant my words to be taken that way. We’d been talking about autism, and I was just stating a fact.

“I just meant…others don’t like it.”

“You don’t mind?” Mayra asked.

“If…if I know it’s coming,” I said, clarifying. “I don’t like to be surprised.”

“Because that’s not what you’re expecting.”

“Right,” I said. I looked over to her, and Mayra was smiling just a little. I didn’t know what made her smile, but there were a lot of times I didn’t understand the behavior of others. I just wanted to get this over with. “So, they all finally decided I was just messed up in multiple ways.”

“You seem to do pretty well.”

I replayed her words in my head a few times, trying to decide if she was being sarcastic or not. I had a hard time picking up on sarcasm.

“I’m okay,” I said softly. I took another long breath. “The doctor I had most recently said I had mild forms of Asperger’s and ADD and had developed various obsessive-compulsive behaviors to combat those other characteristics.”

“Does that really work?”

“Usually,” I said. “As long as things are the way they are supposed to be, I’m fine. Here I’m fine. It’s when I leave here that I run into things that are out of my control.”

“Like Devin in your seat the other day,” Mayra said with a nod, “and having to work with me on this project.”

“Yes,” I replied quietly. “So for me, it’s all about finding ways to cope with what’s in my head and finding ways to focus. To everyone else, the coping makes me look like an idiot.”

“You aren’t an idiot,” Mayra said. “Aimee has ADD, too.”

“She does?”

“Yeah. When she was little, she was on medication for it, but the meds made her cry all the time. Her mom got a bunch of books about different treatments, and now she has a really strict diet. That’s why we play soccer. She’s my best friend, and we started playing at the same time. As long as she gets enough exercise and eats right, she does okay without the drugs. I’m sure that doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for her.”

“I have to take the meds,” I said. “Even if I work out, it’s not enough.”

“Aimee still gets a little scatterbrained,” Mayra said with a smile. “I used to sit with her to make sure she got her homework done. She’d get distracted by anything and everything around her, but she’s better about it now.”

“Homework help.” I stared at my hands and remembered Mom sitting with me and trying to get me to focus on math problems. When I got distracted, she would turn the page around and make me do the problems upside down. It made the work more challenging, and I could focus better.

I felt her hand on my bare shoulder and I flinched a little, wondering if she’d been talking, and I had missed it.

“Is this okay?” Mayra asked.

I looked at her hand on my shoulder and thought about it being there and how it felt. I wasn’t going into any kind of panic attack at least.

“I have panic attacks when things aren’t the way I expect them to be,” I said. “Those got a lot worse after Dad died.”

“He was in the reserves or something, right?”

“National Guard,” I said.

“There was an accident.”

“Yes.” My voice had dropped back to a whisper again. “They were up on the trails in the Appalachian Mountains, doing a training exercise. One of the hummers went off the road, and he was hit on the head by the tree it knocked down. Fluke accident.”

“I’m sorry.”

I shrugged. So many people said that during his funeral. I was never really sure what it was supposed to mean. The people who said it weren’t responsible for the accident. Lots of them didn’t even know Dad. They only knew Mom, or they were distant relatives or someone that I had never met before.

“Your mom?” Mayra whispered.

“Osteosarcoma.” I felt a shudder run through me, and my skin went cold.

“Cancer, right?”

“Yes,” I whispered. I gripped my legs with my fingers and tried to stop the shaking. I couldn’t think straight—I couldn’t even count. I tried to breathe deeply, but everything was coming out fast, and I was starting to get dizzy.

Mayra’s hand was still on my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You don’t have to say any more.”

“It was a month after Dad died,” I said quickly. It was the only way I was going to get through it. Now that I’d started the tale, I had to get it all out. “She went in for something routine, and they said they saw a shadow on an x-ray. They thought she might have a slipped disc or something in her back. It was giving her a little pain, but it wasn’t a disc—it was bone cancer. It had already spread. She asked them how long she would have if they did nothing—no treatment. My grandfather had cancer, too, and the treatments were worse than the sickness, Mom thought.”

“What did they tell her?”

“If she did nothing, she would have eight weeks.”

“Eight weeks?” Mayra gasped. I nodded.

“She started treatment right away—I wasn’t even eighteen then. She thought if she did radiation and chemo and all that, she would at least live to see me graduate. She died six weeks later, twelve days after my eighteenth birthday. The cancer was in her blood, too.”

I closed my eyes and tried to breathe normally again. My limbs felt icy and lethargic, and I wondered if I overdid it with the heavy bag. I did that sometimes. I would lose track of how long I had been down there. It wasn’t just the physical feeling in my muscles though. My head felt numb and worn out, too.

“Matthew?”

I wondered how long I had been sitting there without saying anything or how long she’d been trying to get my attention.

“Yes?”

Mayra turned sideways and got up on her knees on the couch next to me. She started reaching toward me and leaning in at the same time.

“I just want to try something,” she said. “Would that be all right?”

“Okay,” I said. I wasn’t so sure that it was, especially not when she reached out and ran her fingers through the hair on one side of my head. My hands started to shake a little, but then she ran her other fingers over the other side of my head, and it was okay again.

“I’m going to give you a hug,” she said quietly as she leaned in more.

“Okay,” I whispered back.

Mayra’s hands moved down to my shoulders, and she was very, very close to me. I was suddenly quite aware of the fact that I was still not wearing a shirt or shoes or anything. I swallowed hard.

“Don’t worry,” Mayra murmured. She wrapped her arms around me and pulled my head to her shoulder. “You aren’t alone.”

As soon as my head touched her shoulder, my entire body gave out. I nearly fell against her as she held me tightly, and the burning sensation behind my eyes gave way to tears. I slowly wrapped my arms around her waist, inhaled her scent, and began to sob.

Letting go was an unexpected win.





Chapter 4—Ask Me No Questions


Though there was still plenty of natural light coming through the windows and lighting the room, I was groggy. I was also sore everywhere and keenly aware that I was lying in Mayra Trevino’s arms. My body ached and my eyes burned. I was pretty sure I had bruised a couple of knuckles, but I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so good.

At some point, Mayra and I had lain down on the couch and fallen asleep. I wasn’t even exactly sure when or how long I had been crying earlier, but we were still lying together. Even before I opened my eyes, I could feel her arm around my shoulders and the other around my head, holding me against the spot on top of her arm and next to her neck. I had one arm beneath her body, around her shoulders, and the other was resting just underneath the tank-top she wore with my fingers splayed across the skin of her lower back.

I tilted my head to look up into her face, and I could see her eyes were still closed and her breathing steady. In the back of my head, I wondered why I wasn’t panicking in the slightest. This was new. This was different. I always panicked at new and different. However, I was also surrounded by the most incredible scent. It was all warmth and comfort and security and serenity—and just her.

I tucked my head back into the crook of her neck and closed my eyes again.

In what felt like the next moment, I was startled awake.

“Holy shit, shit, shit!”

I opened my eyes. The light in the room was the soft, dim glow of dusk.

“Oh my God,” Mayra mumbled under her breath.

I managed some incoherent sound before turning my head to look over my shoulder toward the sound that had originally startled me. Travis was standing in the open area between the foyer and the living room with his mouth hanging open and his eyes as big as Phobos and Deimos.

“Travis?” I was still really groggy. “What are you doing here?”

“I brought dinner,” he said as he held up a paper bag from a Chinese restaurant a few blocks away.

“Oh no,” Mayra said as she glanced around and noticed the low light in the room. “I need to go. Dad will be home soon, and I need to make dinner.”

“Okay,” I said. I still watched Travis. I couldn’t understand why he was looking at me so strangely. Mayra was shifting around beside me on the couch.

“Matthew, you have to let go of me.”

“Oh, yeah…sorry.” I pulled my arms out from around her. She stood next to the couch, adjusted her jeans, and fixed her shirt. Her cheeks had gone really red, and she didn’t seem to be acknowledging Travis at all.

“Matthew,” Travis said after he managed to shake loose the weird look on his face, “introductions, maybe?”

Shit, shit, shit.

“Oh, yeah…sorry,” I said again. “Mayra, this is my uncle—Travis Rohan. Travis, this is Mayra Trevino.”

“Good to meet you, Mayra,” Travis said with a toothy smile. “You must have been Matthew’s savior when he needed a ride the other day.”

“Yeah, it was raining really hard,” she told him. Her face was getting redder by the second. “He was soaked.”

“I bet he was.” Travis pressed his lips together and raised his eyebrows. He snickered. “You probably were, too.”

He was acting weird. I didn’t get it.

“It was nice meeting you, too,” Mayra said as she gathered up her things and placed them into her book bag. “Don’t forget to bring your laptop tomorrow, Matthew!”

“I won’t forget,” I said with a furrowed brow. It was a pretty rare occasion for me to forget much of anything, certainly not something homework related.

Mayra laughed.

“No, I guess you won’t!” She waved and headed out the door. “Bye!”

“Bye.”

“Matthew Anthony Rohan!” Travis boomed as soon as the door was closed.

I half jumped out of my skin.

“What?”

“Did you fuck her?”

“Wha-wha-what?” I had to have heard him wrong.

“Did you have your dick inside of that hot chick who just waltzed out your front door?”

“N-n-no!” I stammered. “We just fell asleep!”

“With your shirt off and your hand up under hers?”

Everything clicked together. I was still, for all intents and purposes, half naked, and we had been lying all wrapped up in each other on the couch. My hand had been up her shirt though I really didn’t recall when or how that happened.

“It wasn’t like that,” I whispered.

“Dammit, Matthew!” Travis bellowed. He dropped down heavily on the easy chair and stared hard at me. “Are you telling me you were alone in the house with that beautiful girl, and nothing at all happened?”

“Yes!” I swore to him, nodding my head quickly.

“You didn’t even kiss?”

“No!”

Travis growled and stood up, grabbing the bag of Chinese carryout and heading into the kitchen. I followed, and he started pulling out little cardboard boxes of lo mein, Szechwan tofu, and rice. He slammed each one down on the table as he pulled it out of the bag, practically breaking open a little plastic packet of duck sauce.

“Travis, what’s wrong?”

“Dammit!” he said, swearing once more. “Bethany’s been gone for two weeks. How am I supposed to live vicariously if you aren’t getting any either?”

He didn’t really seem angry, but I couldn’t understand what the hell he was talking about, so I grabbed an eggroll and dove in.

“So what were you doing, then?”

Travis was about as fixated on Mayra and me as I had ever been on counting cracks in the sidewalk.

“We fell asleep,” I said again.

“What were you doing before then?”

I poked at my lo mein with the end of a chopstick. There were only a few left on the plate, and they were little pieces. If I poked them in the right directions, I could make letters. Ms and Ts were easy, but Bs were hard to make.

“Matthew!”

I jumped.

“What?”

He let out a long sigh.

“Why did Mayra come over?” he asked.

“We’re doing an ecology project together.”

Travis started coughing until rice came out of his nose. I narrowed my eyes at him as he finally stopped and looked at me, shaking his head.

“Let me guess,” he said. “The effects of cuddling on the environment?”

“No,” I said as I started cleaning up the empty containers and wiping down the table as Travis finished off the rest of the tofu, “honey bees.”

“You really aren’t helping here, dude,” Travis said. He sounded really sad, and I didn’t know why.

“What do you want me to tell you?” I asked.

“Tell me about Mayra.”

“Okay.” I finished putting everything in the trash and sat back down at the kitchen table. “She’s in my ecology class, and Mr. Jones made me work with her.”

“I got that much.”

“Right.” I ran my hand though my hair. “I was supposed to go to her house to work on the assignment, and I tried—I really did—but I couldn’t knock on the door.”

“So how did she get over here?”

“I guess she just came over when I didn’t show up,” I said. “I think she knew I had tried. I tried to go to her house once before.”

“And she came over here to see you instead?” Travis asked for clarification, and I nodded. “And you’re okay with her being here?”

“It’s weird,” I said. “I don’t know why, but having her here doesn’t bother me much at all.”

“Uh huh.” Travis chuckled. “So what’s her story? She’s one of the outsider kids in your class, too? She’s really cute, but I know that doesn’t always matter in those cliques and stuff. Is she smart? Maybe on the chess team or something?”

My brow furrowed as I tried to process what Travis was saying. Mayra was smart, but she wasn’t those other things at all.

“She plays on the soccer team. She’s a team captain.”

“Oh yeah? Jock-girl, huh?” Travis’s head bobbed up and down. “I guess that only counts when you’re a cheerleader or something. Kids sure can be mean.”

I shook my head.

“She’s the captain of the team,” I told him. “Or co-captain at least. Aimee Schultz is the other captain. Mayra was class president last year. She’s really popular.”

Travis flinched and narrowed his eyes.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“What’s she doing with you, Matthew?”

It was my turn to flinch.

“I don’t know.”

Travis ran his hands though his hair. He stood from the kitchen chair and dragged me into the living room with him so we could sit more comfortably. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and looked at me. I stared at the coaster where Mayra’s Coke class was still sitting. There were little beads of condensation coating the outside of it.

“Matthew,” Travis said, “you and your sister are my only blood relatives. You know I love you and try to do just what your dad would have done for you. I think you are an awesome kid. You’ve done so much better than I ever would have dreamed after your mom was gone, too.”

He leaned back and put his arms on the armrests as he tilted his head toward the ceiling. He rubbed his eyes.

“I don’t know how to say this without sounding like an asshole.”

“Say what?”

He sat back up and looked at me again.

“What does she want, Matthew?” Travis asked, his voice dropping a little. He sounded angry. “I love you like a son, but why would a girl like that be over here, wrapped up on a couch, alone with a boy like you?”

I stared at the droplets of water as they trickled down the side of the glass.

“She has to want something,” he said, “and I just might have to find out what.”

He stood up and started to pace around the room a little.

“If they’re fucking with you for some reason, I’ll fucking kill them.”

“That’s illegal,” I reminded him.

“Well, I’ll go tell on them!” he yelled. “I know most of their parents! She’s Henry Trevino’s daughter, isn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe I’ll go talk to him.”

I had an image of Travis walking up to Mayra’s front porch—a place I couldn’t even manage to approach—and talking to her dad, maybe even yelling at him. I wondered if Mr. Trevino would get mad and then tell Mayra she wasn’t allowed to come and work on our project again.

“No!” I suddenly yelled. “Don’t do that!”

“Why not?”

“She’s not like that!” I said insistently.

“How do you know?” Travis said with a growl. “Matthew, you don’t read people well. You know that. Remember the guy who came over and trimmed the trees last fall? He took you for two grand, and you couldn’t afford that. He took advantage of you, dude. I don’t want that to happen again.”

“She’s not like that,” I repeated.

“Then why was she trying to make out with you on the couch?”

“She wasn’t,” I responded. “She was…was…just holding me.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Travis moaned, exasperated now.

“I told her everything,” I said. “I told her about the doctors and how they don’t know what I have. I told her about Dad and about Mom. I told her everything, and she held me, and I cried.”

Silence.

Another bead of condensation worked its way to the bottom of the glass and onto the absorbent stone coaster.

“You told her about it all?” Travis finally asked quietly.

“Yes.”

“You really cried?”

“Yes.” My voice had dropped to a whisper again.

“Matthew—you haven’t cried since they took Megan away. You didn’t cry at the funerals or anything.”

“I know.”

Travis got up and walked over to the couch to sit beside me. He put one arm over the back of the couch and held the other one out.

“Come here,” he said.

I leaned into him and he gave me a brief hug.

“Maybe I am an ass,” he muttered as he let go. “And maybe I’m wrong. I worry about you, dude. I do.”

“I know.”

“You like her?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. I thought about it for a minute. “She smells good.”

Travis chuckled.

“I bet,” he said. “Are you going to have her over here again?”

“We still have some work on our project to do,” I said, “so maybe. Probably.”

“You gonna kiss her?” he asked as he wiggled his eyebrows.

I shook my head.

“You want to?”

“I don’t know, Travis.” I felt myself tensing up. “I don’t know anything about any of that.”

“I know Kyle gave you ‘the talk’ when you were younger,” he said.

“‘The talk’?”

“You know,” Travis said with another raise of his eyebrows, “that talk.”

“What talk?”

“Ugh!” Travis stood and took a few steps away before he turned around to look at me. “The sex talk!”

“Yes.”

“I’d guess that talk was probably pretty…‘mechanical’ in nature.”

“You can use machines?” I asked.

Travis began to laugh.

“Well…um…not what I meant,” he said, “though yeah, you can.”

A portion of the discussion between my father and me about sexual reproduction made a quick drive-by in my brain.

“I don’t want to have a baby,” I said.

“No, you don’t, but there are all kinds of birth control and stuff out there. She could already be on The Pill.”

I glanced up at my uncle for a long moment. My gaze danced around his eyes, and I could see he wasn’t angry or upset any more. He seemed relieved, maybe, and I wondered if he thought I was going to actually have a girlfriend, like he mentioned before.

I wasn’t so sure about that. He was talking about sex, and I hadn’t even kissed her or anything. I was pretty sure you were supposed to do that first.

“Travis, I wouldn’t have any idea what to do,” I finally said. “I mean, not at all. I know what gets done but…nothing else.”

“Well, dude,” Travis said as he stood up from the couch, “I would sit here and tell you everything about it”—he chuckled again—“but if I did, I’d be here all night. You’d learn a lot, too. You would also freak out on me about every fourth word, so I’m not going to do it.”

Travis grabbed his keys from the table near the door.

“But you know what?”

“What?”

“Google is damn handy.” Travis continued to laugh softly as he went out the door.

Google.

Google what?

Dating?

Kissing?

Sex?

Is that what I wanted? To date Mayra? To kiss her? To…to…to…do more?

I hadn’t the slightest idea.

I couldn’t determine what I wanted, so I just locked up and went to bed.

~oOo~

The next day at school was about as strange a day as I could have ever imagined, stranger than rain when the sun was shining, stranger than the way peanut butter smells when it’s wet, and stranger than vampires that sparkle. The worst part was first thing in the morning.

As soon as I walked into school, I heard my name being yelled from down the hall.

“Matthew! Matthew!”

Mayra came running down the hallway. There were some other kids with her, including Justin Lords, Aimee Schultz, and Carmen Klug. I slowed my steps a little as they approached, but I didn’t stop my trek to my locker. That’s what I did when I got to school—I went to my locker. My hands were shaking a little as I reached for the lock to work the combination.

“Mayra, what the fuck?” Justin grumbled under his breath as Mayra came up next to me.

“Hey, Matthew!” she said, ignoring Justin.

I squeezed my eyes shut for a second, then concentrated on the lock so I could align the numbers properly. It was difficult since my hands were shaking. I knew I hadn’t responded to Mayra yet, but I couldn’t decide how, especially with her other friends standing there. Should I just say “Hey” back to her? Should I say “Hey, Mayra”? Something else? Ask about the weather?

“Seriously, Mayra?” Carmen sneered. “He can’t even say hello, for Christ’s sake!”

My chest rose and fell with labored breaths as Carmen’s words echoed through my head. She was right. Greetings were a strange concept for me. I didn’t understand the point. No matter how many times I practiced, the whole activity was worse than going to the dentist and lying there with my mouth open. That was just when one person approached me, and now there were four of them, looming close.

“Shut up!” Mayra turned her head over her shoulder and hissed under her breath. She turned back toward me just as I managed to get the locker open.

I crouched down and started organizing the folders and the books from my book bag into the locker. Focusing on the items in the locker, I made sure everything was lined up precisely. I could hear them talking behind me in hushed voices, but I wasn’t paying attention to the words until I felt Mayra’s hand on my shoulder.

I startled, which elicited giggles from Carmen. Aimee elbowed her in the side, and Carmen called her a bitch. I glanced up to see Justin rolling his eyes and turning away dramatically from the row of lockers.

“Matthew, did you hear me?” Mayra asked.

I thought about it for a minute, but I couldn’t come up with what she had said. The first bell rang, and I didn’t have the right things for my period one class. My timing was all off.

“Shit, shit, shit,” I muttered as I grabbed for the right things.

“Fucking freak.” Justin snarled before he stomped off down the hallway. He continued to yell over his shoulder. “Just fucking forget it, Mayra! Find some other stray to take in!”

I couldn’t catch my breath and started to hyperventilate a bit. I was feeling dizzy, and I couldn’t decide if I should just grab my stuff and get to class or not. Maybe I should say something…ask Mayra to repeat her question, or maybe I should at least say hello.

Was it too late to say hello?

I had no idea.

“He’s even panting like a dog,” Carmen said, snickering.

Aimee glared at her and leaned close to her ear. Carmen’s lip curled as she responded, and then she laughed out loud. Aimee gritted her teeth and continued to glare at Carmen.

I tried closing my eyes, but I could still hear the laughing behind me. I didn’t think it was just Carmen anymore. I was pretty sure I heard someone start barking, too. Mayra was yelling at them to stop it, and the sheer amount of sounds around me—about me—was just too much.

I shut down.

Kneeling on the hard tile floor of the hallway in front of my locker, I slowly began to take everything out of it. One class at a time, I placed the correct textbook, associated folder, and spiral notebook next to each other. Once a set was in, I straightened them exactly, wishing I had a level with me and wondering if I could afford to get a small one at the hardware store to keep in my locker.

With all my attention on the contents of the locker, I blocked all sights and sounds coming from the hallway and the people around me.

I sat back a little on my heels and looked at what I had done. One of the folders had the edge of a paper sticking out the top, so I took everything out, fixed the paper, and started all over again. By the time I was done repeating the process for the third time, I looked up, and the school nurse was beside me with a cell phone held up to her ear.

“…completely non-responsive…yes, if you could, I think that would be for the best…”

She ended the call and looked down at me. I blinked a few times and saw Mayra Trevino over on the other side of the hallway with her back pressed up against the opposite row of lockers. She had her hand covering her mouth, and I wasn’t sure, but I thought there might be tears in her eyes. Principal Monroe was there and a couple other faculty members too. There wasn’t anyone else in the hallway, and I realized that first period must have already started.

I was late.

If someone was late to class, they always got a tardy slip. I’d never gotten a tardy slip before. Would it go on my record? Would it be seen on my college applications?

Shit, shit, shit.

I looked back down at the floor. I had no idea what I was supposed to do at this point. I didn’t understand why there were people standing around me or why Mayra looked so upset. I wanted to get up and go ask her, but I didn’t know what to say.

I felt a cold hand on my arm and I jumped, which caused me to bang the opposite shoulder against the locker door. As I rubbed against the sore spot, I glanced up to see Travis coming down the hallway.

“Hey, dude,” he said as he walked toward me. He gave me half a smile and looked over to the principal and the nurse. “I got him—just give us some space, okay?”

I saw the others take a few steps backwards, but I mostly watched Principal Monroe as he walked up to Mayra and told her to go on to class.

“No!” she said. “I want to make sure he’s all right!”

“Miss Trevino, Matthew’s got his uncle here with him now. You move along.”

“Not until I know he’s all right!” She was insistent.

“It’s okay.” Travis walked over to them both. “I think Matthew wouldn’t mind if she sticks around a minute. Might be better for him.”

The principal gave Travis a weird look before shrugging and moving over to talk quietly with the nurse. Travis crouched down next to me.

“You with me, dude?”

“Yes,” I said quietly.

“You want Mayra to stay?”

“No,” I replied.

Travis looked surprised.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know what to say to her.”

“Why don’t you start with hello? Then you could see where it goes from there.”

“No.”

“You sure?” he asked.

“No,” I said again and then sighed. “I’m late for class.”

“Not a problem, dude,” Travis said. “You want to go there now?”

“I’ll get a tardy slip.”

“Nah, it’s all good—I’ll work it out.” Travis’s words were reassuring.

“You will?”

“Sure,” Travis said with a smile. He wrapped his hand around my elbow and pulled me up. “You got the stuff for your first class?”

I reached down and pulled out the folder and the notebook before nodding.

“Maybe Mayra could walk with you,” Travis suggested. “Then I can talk to Monroe about the tardy slip, and you can say hello.”

I took a deep breath and tried to stop my hands from shaking. I had something that resembled a plan now, and that usually got me going when I was stuck. Travis was going to take care of the tardy slip, so that should be all right as well.

“Okay,” I whispered.

Travis walked over to Mayra, and then they both came back next to me. At some point, the corner of my notebook had become slightly bent, which sucked. I’d have to write all the notes into a new one.

“Hey,” Mayra said as she looked up at me through her eyelashes. They were definitely wet. “You have English first, right?”

“Yes.”

Mayra walked beside me down the hall without speaking. We stopped when we got to the closed door of the classroom, and