“What?” Her urgency to pass on the latest gossip was amusing, but all I wanted was to walk into school without wearing my invisible body armor. "What’s the big deal? So what? People think I look nice today. Today! What will they think tomorrow after Jared gets to them?” I hadn’t told her about Jared’s party and what I’d done. If she knew, she wouldn’t be so optimistic about my chances.
“You know, he wasn’t that bad after you left. Maybe we’re worrying about nothing. All I’m saying is that—” K.C. was cut off.
“Hey, Tate.” Ben Jamison came up behind K.C. and reached behind me. “Let me get the door for you.”
I stepped aside, giving him room to swing the door open. Having no choice but to end our conversation, I pursed my lips and waved at an open-mouthed K.C.
“It’s great having you back,” Ben whispered as we walked into class, me first and him close behind. I widened my eyes and had to stifle a nervous laugh. The reality of Ben Jamison engaging me in small talk was too surreal.
He starred on the football and basketball teams and was one of the best looking guys in school. We had been in French I and II together, but he’d never spoken to me.
“Thank you,” I muttered, keeping my eyes downcast. This was out of my comfort zone. I slipped stealthily into a front row seat. Weird!
It was great having me back? Like he ever cared before? This was probably one of Jared’s tricks. I made a mental note to apologize to K.C. for trying to warn me about the unusual attention. Cute guys talking to me equaled unusual.
Madame Lyon, our actual French French teacher, started launching into a full blown lecture right off the bat. Aware of Ben sitting right behind me, I tried to concentrate on the lesson, but even studying Madame’s cute, bobbed haircut couldn’t take my mind off the stares boring into the back of my head. Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed several students around the room glancing my way. I shifted in my seat. What was everyone’s problem?
Thinking back to what K.C. had said when I first got back, I didn’t really think I looked any different. After all, my year abroad hadn’t consisted of any great makeovers or shopping trips. My skin was a little darker, my clothes were new, but my style hadn’t changed.
I wore skinny jeans tucked into mid-calf high black boots with no heels, and a white, flimsy boat neck t-shirt long enough to cover my butt. I loved my style, and no matter what anyone thought, I stuck to it.
After a painfully long fifty minute class of smiles from unexpected people, I retrieved my phone from my black messenger bag.
See you outside for lunch? I texted K.C.
2 windy! She shot back. Always about the hair.
Fine. Heading in now, look for me.
As soon as I stepped in line in the cafeteria, goose bumps crept over my skin. I grabbed a tray and closed my eyes. He was in here somewhere. I didn’t need to turn around or hear his voice. Maybe it was the climate of the room, the way others traveled or the polarity of his presence in relation to me. All I knew for sure was that he was definitely here.
In elementary school we played with magnets that clash together when you flip them to the positive side, but if you flip them to the negative side, then the magnets will repel each other. Jared was one side of a magnet, never flipping over to accommodate anyone. He was what he was. Everyone else either had a pull to him or was pushed away from him, and the flow of a room reflected this. There was a time when Jared and I were inseparable, like the positive sides of the magnets.
My lungs ached with a breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding, and I exhaled. After choosing a salad with Ranch dressing and a water bottle, I handed the cashier my card to swipe and found a seat near the windows. The bustle of the room was an entertaining distraction from meeting his eyes. Several students nodded in passing and offered a “welcome back.” My shoulders finally relaxed after the swirl of greetings.
Jess Cullen waved to me from a few tables over, and I reminded myself about practice this afternoon.
Where are you? K.C. shot a text.
By the north windows.
In line now!
K. I texted back. Twisting around in my seat, I spotted her in line. I gave her a little wave to signal my location and quickly turned back around before I gave in to the urge to scan the room for him.
Twisting the cap off my water bottle, I took a long swig, relishing in the relief. I felt like my heart had been beating a mile a minute for the last hour. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
My relaxation, however, was cut short by the voice of Madoc Caruthers.
“Hey, baby.” Madoc placed his hand on the table to my side and leaned into my ear. As I replaced the cap on my water bottle, my shoulders slumped slightly. Not again! Didn’t the little f**ker ever learn a lesson? I stared straight ahead in an effort to ignore him.
“Tate?” He was trying to goad me into acknowledging him. Non-confrontational me was still not making eye contact.
“Tate? I know you can hear me. In fact, I know every part of you is very aware of me right now.” Madoc ran the knuckles of his left hand down my arm. I sucked in a breath, and my body jerked at his touch.
“Mmmm, you’ve got goose bumps. You see?” He toyed with me.
Goosebumps? If I weren’t so sickened, I would laugh. “Yes, you do make my skin crawl. But you knew that, right?” My disdain couldn’t get any thicker.
“I really missed you last year, and I would actually like to call a truce. In fact, why don’t we put everything behind us and you let me take you out this weekend?”
He had to be dreaming if he thought—
His hand glided down my back and quickly descended to my rear. I sucked in another breath.
Son of a bitch! Did he really just grab my ass? Without my permission? In public? Oh, no.
Then, he squeezed.
Everything after that point happened in a rush of reaction and adrenaline. I popped out of my seat like my legs had springs. The muscles in my thighs were taut with tension, and I clenched my fists.
As I faced Madoc, who had raised himself to meet my gaze, I grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted my knee into his groin. Hard. The amount of pressure must’ve been a lot, because he yelped and fell to his knees, moaning while holding his crotch.
I had been manhandled my Madoc enough. There was no way I was going to be able to turn the other cheek anymore. Breaking his nose a year ago clearly wasn’t the end of my rope. It was the start of a new one.
With my heart pounding and a cool heat surging down my arms, I didn’t stop to think about where this would put me tomorrow or next week. I just wanted him to stop.
Jared had been threatening for years, but he had never crossed that line. He had never touched me or made me feel physically violated. Madoc always crossed the line, and I wondered what the f**k was his problem! If what Sam had said was true, that I was off limits, then why did Madoc mess with me so much? And in plain sight of Jared?
“Don’t touch me and don’t talk to me.” I hovered over him, sneering. Madoc’s eyes were closed as he breathed hard. “Did you really think I would go out with you? I hear the girls talk, and contrary to popular belief, good things do not come in small packages.” The entire room erupted in laughter, and I crooked my pinky finger to the bystanders. I spotted K.C., tray in hand and an “oh, my God” expression on her face.
“Thanks for the offer anyway, Madoc,” I sang with mock sweetness. Grabbing my tray, I headed through the ocean of eyes and threw away my food. The only thing that mattered was making out of the lunchroom before I crumbled. Everything felt weak with tingles, and I was afraid my legs would give out. What had I just done?
But before I reached the doors, I threw caution to the wind. Oh what the hell, I’ve developed a death wish lately. May as well drown in it! I turned around and immediately locked eyes with the one person that made my blood boil more than Madoc.
Jared’s full attention was focused on me, and the world in my peripheral vision stopped as we stared at each other.
He wore dark distressed jeans and a black t-shirt. No jewelry, no watch, only his tattoos as accessories. His lips were slightly parted but not smiling. Those eyes, however, seemed challenging and too damn interested. He looked like he was sizing me up.
Leaning back in his chair, he had one arm hooked behind him on the back of his seat and one arm resting on the table. He was staring at me, and unwanted heat rushed to my face.
There was a time when I had all of his attention and loved it. As much as I wanted him to leave me alone, I also liked how he seemed surprised. I liked the way he was looking at me right now.
And then I remembered that I hated him.
The rest of the day unfolded as one surreal moment after another. I had to constantly tell myself that I was in a dream and this wasn’t really the first day of school. I received mounds of admiration over my lunchtime rumble, and I felt like this couldn’t really be my life.
After my high dissipated, it occurred me that I’d hit another student on school grounds. I could get in trouble—a lot of trouble—for that. Every announcement or knock at a classroom door had my hands shaking.
I texted K.C. after leaving the lunchroom, and apologized for ditching her. Since I hid in the library for the rest of lunch, I had time to try to figure out what the hell was going on with me. Why hadn’t I just walked away from Madoc? Had it been fun to knee him in the balls? Yes. But I was losing control lately, and perhaps I was taking K.C.’s advice of fighting back too literally.
“Hey, Jackie Chan!” Maci Feldman, a fellow senior in my Government class, sat down next to me. She immediately reached into her purse and pulled out a tube of glittery pink lip gloss, applying it while eyeing me happily.
“Jackie Chan?” Raising my eyebrows, I pulled a new notebook out of my messenger bag.
“That’s one of your new nicknames. The others are Super Bitch and Ball Buster. I like Jackie Chan.” She smacked her lips together and slipped the gloss back into her purse.
“I like Super Bitch,” I mumbled as Mr. Brimeyer handed out the syllabus with a questionnaire attached.
Maci whispered, “You know, a lot of girls were happy about that scene in the lunch room. Madoc’s slept with half the senior class, not to mention some juniors, and he deserved what he got.”
Not knowing how to respond, I just nodded. I wasn’t used to people being on my side. My responses to Jared’s and Madoc’s antics might have changed, but my goal to keep my head focused on school remained the same. My first day had included too much drama already. If I’d kept my head down, I might’ve escaped notice for the most part. But it was almost as if I had no desire to be silent anymore, and my actions were inviting more trouble. What was I doing? And why wasn’t I stopping?
Catching up with Madame Lyon after school, I was able to get my mind off the day’s events. She expected me to speak to her entirely in French now, and it irked me that the German I learned during the summer was getting me flustered. I kept saying things like “Ich bin bien” instead of “Je suis très bien.” and “Danke” instead of “Merci.” But we laughed, and it wasn’t long before I got my sea legs back.
Coach Robinson wanted us on the bleachers by 3:00, so I ran to get changed for cross-country practice. After a year away, my spot on the team didn’t exist, but I had every intention of earning it back.
“Have you had any backlash from what happened at lunch?” Jess Cullen, our captain now, questioned me as we headed for the locker room after practice.
“Not yet. I’m sure it will come tomorrow, though. Hopefully the Dean will go easy on me. I’ve never been in trouble before,” I replied hopefully.
“No, I mean from Madoc. You don’t have to worry about the Dean. Jared took care of that.” She glanced back at me as we walked down the aisle to our gym lockers.