Okay, that’s not weird.

“What other obligations did you mean?” I asked.

“Oh,” she said with a nervous smile, “around the time you left last year, things got pretty bad here. Jared was out at all hours. Sometimes, he didn’t even come home. My…drinking…got worse with the stress of Jared’s behavior.” She paused and shrugged her shoulders. “Or maybe his behavior got worse with my drinking. I don’t know. But I entered rehab for about a month and got detoxed.”

Since I’d lived on this street, eight years now, Jared’s mom had had a drinking problem. Most of the time she’d been functional, able to go to work and handle Jared. After he came back from visiting his dad that summer three years ago, he’d changed, and Jared’s mom had sought escape in the bottle more often.

“He got into some trouble, and then he got it together. But steps needed to be taken, for both of us.”

I continued to listen, unfortunately too interested into this rare peek of Jared’s life. She still hadn’t explained the “other obligations”, but I wasn’t going to pry further.

“Anyway, a few months ago I started seeing someone, and I’ve been staying with him on the weekends in Chicago. Jared has a lot going on, and I just don’t feel like he needs me. I stay here most school nights, but he knows to stay out of trouble on the weekends.”

Yeah, instead of taking his debauchery elsewhere, he brought it home with him.

Some people might see her reasoning as logical, since Jared was almost an adult, but I let my judgment form. As much as I liked her, I blamed her for a lot of Jared’s unhappiness growing up.

I didn’t know the whole story, but I’d heard enough to figure out that Jared’s father wasn’t a good man. He had left when Jared was two, before I even lived in the neighborhood. Katherine raised her son almost completely alone, but she had developed a drinking problem during her marriage. When Jared was fourteen, his father called and asked if Jared could come and visit him for the summer. Happily, Jared agreed and left for eight weeks. After the visit, though, he returned cold and cruel. His mother’s problem got worse, and he was utterly alone.

I’d always known, deep down, that Jared’s problem with me was tied to that summer.


The truth was I resented Katherine. And even though I’d never met Jared’s father, I resented him, too. I would take responsibility if I’d hurt Jared, but I had no idea what I could’ve done to deserve his hatred. His parents, on the other hand, had clearly abandoned him.

It was one the tip of my tongue to ask her about his scars, but I knew she wouldn’t tell me.

Instead, I asked, “Does he see his father?”

She glanced at me, and I instantly felt like I’d invaded Top Secret territory. “No,” was all she said.

The next day in first period, I sat taking notes about linear approximations when I got a text from K.C. Covertly sliding the screen to bring up the message, I completely lost my attention to Calculus.

Jared texted me last night.

I swallowed hard. Before I had a chance to respond, she’d sent another message.

He wanted to make sure I was o.k. See? He’s not all bad.

What the hell did he want with her? K.C. was pretty. Definitely. She was also my best friend, and that had to factor in somewhere with him.

I texted back: He’s up to something!

Maybe, maybe not. was her response.

That was the last I heard from K.C. until lunch. Physics, P.E. and French passed in a blur as I fought the urge to text her again.

“Hey,” she said as we met in line to grab our lunch.

“Hey, so talk to me.”

“Well, like I said, he texted to see how I was doing, and we exchanged a few more texts after that. I just thought it was nice that he checked up on me.”

She thought he was nice? We exited the line after paying and made our way outside, while I tried to sift through how the hell K.C. went from agreeing with that Jared was a dick to thinking he was “nice.”

“Well?” I was trying hard to seem like I didn’t care. “What could you two have talked about after that?”

“Oh, not much…other than you cut the electricity to his house?!” She laughed it off, but I could tell she wasn’t as amused as I thought she’d be. Maybe she was pissed that I didn’t tell her myself.

“Um, yeah.” I was fighting for words. Jared complained about me to her? “The ass**le’s party was too loud, so I shut it down.” I cleared my throat. It didn’t sound as good saying it out loud.

We took our seats at a picnic table and began digging into our food. She stayed quiet, but I caught her glancing at me between bites.

“What?” I asked, annoyed. “You told me to play the game, remember?”

“Did you at least ask him to turn it down first?”

“No.” It came out more like a squeaky question. “Well, yes. On a different occasion I did.” It started to feel like I was on trial.

“And how’d that turn out?” She paused, water bottle in hand.

“Well, he wasn’t cooperating. So…I incited a panic and yelled ‘cops.’ People kind of left after that.” I tipped my head back and gulped some water to keep from meeting her eyes. I was still proud of that night, but K.C. clearly didn’t find it funny.

Instead, she rolled her eyes. “Tate, when I said to play his game I meant—”

“You meant play his game!” I blurted out. “You didn’t say to kill him with kindness. You’re defending him?” What had happened here? It was like I was in the Twilight Zone, and K.C. had been body-snatched.

“All I’m saying is that Jared has talked to you.” Her voice was calm, the opposite of mine. “That’s it. You look like the bully now. You’ve broken up two of his parties, broken his friend’s nose, and kneed that same friend in the balls.”

Great! Fucking great! He’s coming off looking like the victim?

“He’s not telling the whole story,” I sputtered. “He broke into the girls’ locker room while I was getting dressed.”

K.C. frowned, looking confused. “He just talked to you, though, right? He didn’t touch you?” Thankfully, she showed some concern for me, finally. I was ready to rip her head off.

“Well, he didn’t attack me, of course,” I snapped defensively. For a moment, I considered telling her that he’d broken into my house, but that would just send her back to him with questions that he’d answer…his way.

“He has issues,” K.C. conceded, “but I told you, there’s something going on between you two that you haven’t dealt with. I’m just not convinced that he’s such a bad guy after all.”

Sweat beaded my brow, and I took a deep breath. “K.C., Jared is bad news. You know this. I mean really, he’s a jerk, and I don’t want you making excuses for him. He’s not worth it.”

She shrugged, probably not wanting to argue but definitely not wanting to give in. The discussion was over, and for the first time, I wanted to throttle my best friend. My only friend, pretty much.

“So, have you talked to Liam at all since Saturday night?” I changed the subject before ripping a bite out of my chicken sandwich.

“No, and I couldn’t care less,” she snipped and concentrated on her phone.

“Uh huh,” I muttered, not convinced. Liam and K.C. had been together longer than any other couple I knew. I had a difficult time wrapping my head around the idea that K.C. didn’t care about his betrayal and losing him. If I were her, I probably wouldn’t be able to forgive him, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t hurt.

“Hey, Tate. How are you?” Ben Jamison plopped down on the bench next to me, looking as good as always. We had zilch in common, but he was cute and made me laugh.

“Hi. I’m good. You?” I had spoken to Ben a few times lately. He seemed not to notice the rumor about Jared and me in the locker room.

“I’m good…” He strung out the “good” like he was nervous and looking for what to say next. “There’s this Mexican restaurant, Los Aztecas, that opened up while you were away, and I was wondering if you’d let me apologize for being a dick and not asking you out a lot sooner by taking you to dinner this week?” He raised his eyebrows and waited.

A surprised laugh jumped out of my throat. Well, he was refreshingly honest.

“Um, well…” I searched for words. “How do I know you won’t be a dick on our date?” I challenged him. K.C. giggled beside me.

Ben’s eyes smiled, and he bit his bottom lip, clearly turning over something in his head. He took out a piece of paper from his notebook and started writing. After about a minute, he handed the paper to me and walked off. Looking over his shoulder just once and offering a winning smile, he turned and disappeared into the cafeteria.

“What does it say?!” K.C. peered down at the note in my hand before taking a bite of her chicken wrap.

Opening it up, I immediately smiled. He had written a contract.

To Whom It May Concern,

I promise to take Tatum Brandt to dinner. She is pretty, smart, and lovely. I should consider myself lucky if she says yes.

If I act like a dick, then I am a stupid, brainless ass**le. All who see this note have my permission to retaliate in any way necessary.

The Most Attractive, Humorous, Wealthy Superhero in School,

Ben Jamison

I passed the note to K.C. and watched as she tried not to spit out food during her laughter. Not three seconds later I got a text.

Tonight, pick u up at 7?

He wasn’t giving me much time to think about it, was he? I had been using my dad’s car since returning, so I texted him back and told him I would meet him there. I’d rather have the option to leave when I wanted.

Sounds good! he shot back right away.

I couldn’t keep the smile off my face, and K.C. was looking at me curiously.

“Well?” she asked with her mouth full.

“He’s taking me to dinner tonight.” Even though I was excited to be on an actual date, my tone was cavalier. Ben seemed like nice guy, but I noticed that my heart didn’t beat faster when he was around. Wasn’t it supposed to? “I’m meeting him at seven.”

There had been a few dates while I studied abroad, but none of them turned out to be more than friends. Ben and I had different interests, but it wasn’t like guys had been pounding down my door lately. I could go on one date with him. Hey, maybe he’d surprise me.

“That’s awesome. Call me tonight after you get home. I want to hear how it goes,” K.C. probably knew I was still apprehensive about the attention I’d been getting. After so long of not trusting people and being ignored outside of my small circle, my head fogged at the idea of one of the best looking guys in my class asking me out.

Paranoid! I chastised myself.

After the latest rumor, things seemed to have calmed down, though. Apparently, Mr. Fitzpatrick, the Drama teacher, was caught in a rendezvous with senior Chelsea Berger, so I was old news…for now.

Chapter 13

Dinner with Ben started off with him clearing the air, so to speak.

“I never believed that crap about you, Tate. I’ll admit, I was one of the ones to laugh at first, but after a while all I had to do was look at you or see how you acted in class to know that something wasn’t adding up.” He took a sip of soda and added, “Plus, you look too clean to have lice.”

I shook my head and smiled at those stupid rumors. “Well, you’d be one of the few to think differently of me, then. But be honest. It was the picture of me in my towel that got you, wasn’t it?”

Ben nearly choked on his chip as he laughed. Blowing off all the shit of the past few years seemed like the best idea right now. Jared was drama. K.C. was drama. I wanted Ben to be easy. I just wanted to have fun tonight.

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