How I Got Carter

Chapter 23

By Roe St. Alee

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“We have to win, no matter what.”

I nod my head.

“Got it,” I say. “A must-win game.”

“Exactly.”

“And then you make the playoffs?”

Gray holds up his finger at me and shakes his head. He looks dead serious. He wants to make sure I’m getting this.

“It’s more complicated than that. Even if we win, we might not get a spot.”

“But if you lose, then…”

Gray puts one of his big, meaty hands on my shoulder.

“If we lose,” he says, “we’re out no matter what. But if we win, we need Northside to lose, otherwise it doesn’t matter.”

I get it. I just need to convey to Gray that I get it.

“So you need to win, but you need Northside to lose?”

“Yeah.”

He still doesn’t look fully convinced.

All I said to him was that I hoped they could make the playoffs. I could tell as soon as I said it that he was concerned. It wouldn’t be that easy, and he immediately appointed himself the guy who would help me understand. Now I’m stuck with him in the hallway until he releases me.

He tries one more time. “If we win and Northside loses, then we get the last spot in the playoff bracket.”

“Ok,” I say.

Talking to Gray is different. He doesn’t usually engage people in conversation, but when he does, he goes all in. This is probably the most he’s ever talked to me at one time, but now all I can think about is what I can say that will allow me to walk away without incident.

“The playoff bracket,” he starts, “is made up of eight teams. A lot of it has to do with who you play during-”

“Gray!”

We both turn to look and see Ricky and Matt jogging toward us down the hallway. Ricky makes eye contact with me and I breathe an internal sigh of relief. He’s here to rescue me.

“He gets it, dude,” says Matt, squeezing himself between us to break the connection. It looks ridiculous and essentially creates a Matt sandwich, but I think that’s what it might take to end a conversation with Gray once he’s committed.

“We just have to win the game, right?” I ask.

Ricky’s eyes go wide and Gray tries to sweep Matt out of his way to resume our discussion.

“I’m kidding!” I say. Now that the guys are here I can make a joke about it. “I get it.”

All three of them laugh and Matt continues to lead Gray away from us in the direction of the locker room.

“Seriously, he gets it,” Matt says as they depart. “This is like, twenty times less complicated than soccer.”

These guys are all heading to the locker room, but I, on the other hand, still need to go to class. On game days the football players leave one period early so they can get ready. Part of me thinks it’s just a perk to get more people to play football. How long does it take to put on some shoulder pads?

Unfortunately for me, after getting waylaid by Gray, I figure I only have about a minute left to get back to Chemistry. I hope Ricky makes it quick.

“You coming to the game tonight?” asks Ricky.

I nod. “Yeah, for sure.”

“It should be a good one. I’m sure Gray told you all about it.” He winks at me and I try not to blush. He’s so handsome, I’m still not totally used to him talking to me like this. His wink is merely for my amusement, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a little flirtatious at the same time.

“He sure did,” I say. I’m about to follow up with a joke about Gray, but my words catch in my mouth.

It’s Carter.

I choke down the bile as he rounds the corner of the hallway, hand in hand with Beth. She’s on her phone, so she doesn’t even look up, but Carter gives the two of us a nod as he goes by.

Or rather, he gives Ricky a nod. I happen to be over here as well, but he doesn’t make eye contact with me. The half-hearted nod is in my general direction, and that will suffice to provide an acknowledgement of my existence.

It’s been like that for the last week and a half. We haven’t spoken, haven’t texted, haven’t even really looked at each other. Even in Chemistry we did our last lab in silence as much as we could. A few times we had to communicate, but when we talked to each other it felt more like we were just addressing the room, and if the other person happened to overhear that we were moving on to the next step of the assignment or that the reading was .018 on the instrument, so much the better.

This is the first time I’ve seen him with Beth though.

I have to admit, it makes me jealous. As I watch the two of them walk away down the hallway, I still can’t help but wish it was me. That Carter and I were together. That he could have found the strength and the gumption to choose me before it was too late. Now he’s back with Beth, stronger than ever, and I’m all by myself.

But I know that the jealous feeling will pass. It was just the shock of seeing them together, that’s all. Once I calm back down, I’ll be back on track. I did what I had to do, and deep down I know I made the right decision. It hurt a lot, and I keep reminding myself that it will continue to hurt, at least for a while.

It’s like putting peroxide on a cut. It burns and bubbles, and feels worse than it did before. But you know it’s the smart thing to do, and you know that it’s working. A little bit of pain to get yourself cleaned up.

So while I can’t say I’m happy, I know chasing Carter for the rest of my life wouldn’t have fixed that.

Once they’ve passed, I look back at Ricky, hoping he won’t notice my discomfort. Much to my surprise, he’s rolling his eyes.

“He’s been like that all week,” Ricky says. “What a sourpuss.”

Huh. So it isn’t just a coldness directed at me. Ricky could sense it too.

“Beth is with him,” he says with a grin, “so I’m sure he’s not happy.” He laughs and shakes his head. “That girl sucks.”

My ears perk up when I hear that. Ricky thinks that Beth sucks? He’s made a few comments here and there, but never anything as harsh as this.

“Yeah,” I say, “I don’t really get it.”

Ricky laughs again. “You and me both, man. She’s never happy, she doesn’t make Carter happy, and they don’t even get to bang.”

What? His statement catches me completely off guard.

“What a waste, right?” Ricky nudges me in the shoulder.

I guess I knew that Carter wasn’t satisfied with what he and Beth were doing physically. I mean, why else would he be hooking up with me all the time?

A part of me wasn’t sure though. Carter’s a teenage boy, after all. It’s not crazy to think that he’d be getting it from both sides.

But Ricky said it without any sort of irony in his voice, and if anyone would know it would be him, or maybe Matt. And assuming I’ve understood Ricky correctly and he’s telling the truth, then that means-

RINNNNNNNG!

My train of thought is brought to a screeching halt, because I’m late for class.

“Sorry, dude, I gotta run,” I say, turning around to make a beeline for Chemistry. It’s well and good for Ricky to be late for an hour of getting ready for warm ups, it’s another for me to show up a few minutes late for the second half of Nizen’s class.

“Wait, Jackson!”

I turn around, but keep walking backwards.

“We’re hanging out at Gray’s house after the game,” he calls.

“Ok,” I say.

“We’re gonna watch the second half of the Northside game,” he adds.

“Got it,” I say. It’s taking all of my willpower not to turn around and sprint for my classroom.

“Meet me in the parking lot right after the game!”

I flash Ricky a quick thumbs up and make a break for the lab. There’s only a few other people in the hallways at this point, and more than half of them are football players. Of all the classes to be late for, it has to be Chemistry. If we had been talking about anything else but Carter, I could have excused myself and left, but I couldn’t help it.

Since I already know I’ll be late, I preemptively pull out a pencil and my Chemistry notebook. Anything to make my transition into the classroom quieter and quicker. I wouldn’t want to clandestinely slip into my chair only to spend the next two minutes fishing through my backpack to find what I need. If I’m lucky, I might be able to pull this off with minimal problems.

I get to the door and it’s already closed. Not a good start.

If the door was open I could dart in and hope to get to my seat before Nizen sees me. If he’s looking at the board or writing notes on it, there’s a chance I could be sitting down before he even notices that I came in. He probably wouldn’t stop class to call me out for being late if I was already at my desk. He would cut his losses, be glad that I made it, and keep on teaching. Maybe he’d talk to me after class.

But if the door is closed it’s a whole different ballgame.

I turn the knob as slowly as I can, but I know the instant it moves that everyone’s eyes are on the door. They’re all waiting for it to open, to see who’s coming in. And if Nizen didn’t hear the door, he’ll definitely notice when everyone’s attention shifts away from him.

I push the door open a few inches and my fears are confirmed. I can only see five or six people through the crack of the door, but they’re all looking at me. Stealth no longer an option, I push the door open and step into the room, moving towards my desk as quickly as possible. I manage to get about four steps in before Nizen calls me out.

“Mr. Willard.”

I turn around slowly and look up at my teacher.

“Yes, sir?”

“Thought you might have joined the football team.”

“No, sir.”

He’s not the type to ask for excuses, so it’s best to accept his scolding and move on. Not that my excuse is any good, anyway. Sorry, I was talking to my friend and he was explaining the high school football playoff system to me. That wouldn’t buy me any good will at all.

“Your lab partner is counting on you to take notes for him today,” Nizen says. “Being tardy isn’t just hurting you.”

I nod once and try to look as sorry as possible.

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry.”

He raises his eyebrows at me.

“You can apologize to Mr. Mulkins when his study materials are incomplete,” he says, gesturing towards my seat.

I sit down and open my notebook. Apologize to Carter? I don’t think so.

He’ll be lucky if I even share my notes with him.

------- ------- ------- -------

I’m on my feet with everyone else as the clock ticks down through the final seconds of the game. You can’t ask for much more to finish the regular season. A commanding win against a division rival.

We outplayed them on both sides of the ball. It was one of those games where the score is fairly close, 28-10, but Bay never really had a chance. They capitalized on all their opportunities, and still couldn’t manage to keep the game closer.

It bodes well for the postseason, but I try to keep what Gray was telling me in mind. We only go to the playoffs if someone else loses tonight.

Even so, step one is complete. We won the game.

I take a last look around the stadium and am reminded of how much people here love football. I know it’s the last game of the season, but I’m amazed at how many people came out. Not for lack of support for the team, but because of the weather.

Yesterday was mild, but a cold front swept in between now and then, and the temperature dropped almost twenty degrees this morning compared to the day before. Now it’s getting even colder, with lows tonight supposed to be in the teens.

I shudder a little bit as I think about it. I’ve lived in this town all my life, and the weather gets like this sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I like it.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THANK YOU FOR ATTENDING TONIGHT’S GAME!”

A hush comes over the crowd as we listen to the announcer’s address over the PA system.

“LET’S HEAR IT FOR ANOTHER GREAT SEASON FROM YOUR AMHEARST EAGLES!”

The crowd roars at this, and the players all raise their helmets up in salute to the fans.

“DON’T FORGET, YOUR EAGLES CAN STILL BE PLAYOFF BOUND!”

The crowd cheers again.

“TUNE IN TO WGAT AM-850 ON YOUR WAY HOME FOR THE ARCADIA-NORTHSIDE GAME. AN ARCADIA WIN WILL GUARANTEE A SPOT IN THE PLAYOFFS.”

The fans roar at the news.

“THE SCORE AT HALFTIME - NORTHSIDE 24, ARCADIA 21.”

So much for ending the season on a high note.

The fans start filing out as the announcer continues thanking the coaches, athletic boosters, and sponsors of the team for another great season, but the mood has definitely been a bit subdued since the announcement that Northside is winning their game.

I don’t think it’s in the high school football mentality to ever be satisfied - for players or fans. While I’ve already been thoroughly indoctrinated into how the playoffs work and what’s at stake tonight, it seems to be news to most of the crowd, and it’s like all the joy of winning has been sucked out of them.

Still, it was a great game for us, and a nice way to end the season. At least I think so. On the soccer team we tend to be happy any time we can win a game. Playoffs could happen, but we don’t have a chance at winning the state title. Honestly, when our season ended, we were mostly just happy to move on to other things. It’s high school, and there are only about five million other things we could be doing.

As we file out of the stadium, I start to wonder how the rest of the guys will react to the news. I know they’ll be stoked at winning the game, but I’m sure they’ll be just as worked up about the Northside score. It leaves a lot up in the air.

It’s high stakes, their season hinging on whether Arcadia can make up a three-point deficit and win. Their entire lives revolve around football for almost half the year, and now I’m going to sit down with them for an hour and possibly watch all that effort go to waste.

And that’s not even mentioning Carter.

This is the first time we’ll be hanging out since…

Since we broke up, I guess.

I mean, I know we didn’t actually break up, because we weren’t actually going out in the first place. But that’s what it feels it. We were together, at least in some sense of the word, and now we’re not.

I sigh to myself and try to shake it off. The bad feelings come and go in waves. I have to focus on the positive and know that I did the right thing, even if it hurts. As I get out to the parking lot I can feel a little bit of the weight lift off of me. Tonight I’m just hanging out with the guys, and if Carter happens to be there I can deal with it.

If I remember correctly, Ricky drives a yellow Toyota SUV. It’s the sort of car that’s just obnoxious enough for someone like him. Not over the top, but it is bright yellow. It should be easy to spot, at least.

He texted me that he was in the fifth row, and I regret not asking for more information. Is that the fifth row of cars? The fifth row of parking, as each row past the first is parked with two rows of cars? It’s dark and cold, and I know I’m going to have trouble finding the car, even if it’s bright yellow.

“Jackson, hurry up!”

I look down the row to my right and see Matt and Ricky waving at me. I break into a jog and make my way over to where they’re standing.

“Come on, dude, we don’t want to miss the game,” Ricky says. The car’s already running.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I run up to the car. It’s just Ricky, Matt, and Gray. Thank goodness. Maybe Carter is driving himself. Or better yet, maybe he isn’t coming at all.

“Coach let us go early to watch the game,” Matt explains, implying that I’m forgiven for holding them up, in spite of the urgency in Ricky’s voice. “We have to be back at school tomorrow anyway, so he’ll give us the rundown on today’s game then.”

I forgot about that. I have to go to school tomorrow, too. It’s fall locker cleanout. The day after the last football game of the season they open the school all day on Saturday for everyone to come empty their lockers and make room for the winter sports, which officially start in the next week or two.

It’s a little different for the football team, as they might still be playing. If Northside loses tonight, they have practice tomorrow. If not, they’ll be cleaning out their lockers like everyone else. With the way the temperature’s dropping outside, I’m glad our season’s over for soccer. Practicing when it’s below freezing is not fun, and I will not envy the guys if they have to do it.

The boys pile into the car, with Ricky driving, Gray riding shotgun, and Matt and me in the back. As Gray loads into the car, I get an unexpectedly good view of his ass. He’s still wearing his uniform, albeit with a jacket over the top, and those pants leave very little to the imagination.

I slide into the backseat and will myself not to stare too hard at Matt as he climbs in next to me. Boys in uniform. It might be my greatest weakness.

They may have pulled out their pads and put on jackets, but they’re still wearing the pants. Football pants are something else. Tight in all the right places, cut high at the bottom to show off a good amount of calf muscle, and low enough at the top to show off some hip. And if they’re untied, just forget about it.

That also explains another reason they were so keen to get going. They must have been freezing out here in their uniforms.

As Ricky starts driving, I’m hit with the smell.

Three teenage boys who just finished playing a game of football who haven’t showered or changed yet, packed into a car with the heat blasting and the windows up.

It’s not a bad smell. It isn’t sweaty like it would be in the summer - it was way too cold to do much in the way of sweating tonight. More like the smell of boy. Worked out boy.

Some people would probably say it’s a bit musty or even a little stinky. Most moms probably hate it, because they have to try and wash it out of uniforms and practice clothes every single day.

But I think it’s sexy.

It makes me think of locker rooms right after practice. Tight uniform pants like the ones the guys are wearing right now, and the act of peeling those uniforms off. Shirts with the sleeves cut out so wide you can see everything underneath. It’s all things youthful and masculine and athletic, and it’s intoxicating.

I try to keep my eyes focused ahead of me, but Matt is sprawled out in his seat, doing nothing to cover the bulge in his skin tight pants. It’s hard to gauge in this situation, but I wouldn’t mind taking a closer look and seeing exactly how big it is…

I close my eyes. It’s the only way I can stop staring. It doesn’t solve the problem, though, as my imagination takes over. Now instead of what’s right in front of me, I have all sorts of images in my head, mostly what the guys look like in (and out) of their uniforms.

My eyes jerk open as Ricky’s car stops in the driveway of what I assume must be Gray’s house. We pile out of the car and I let myself have a quick peek of Matt’s ass before I turn to the other side and pull myself out the door. It’s right there in front of me. I can’t help myself.

The shock of cold, wintery air puts the nail in the coffin of my fantasy and we all make a run for the front door. Anything to spend less time outside. If the guys wind up in the playoffs, this weather is going to be absolutely brutal.

I’m relieved to feel how warm it is inside the house. I wasn’t sure if Gray’s family had been at the game and whether or not they would have had the heat on in the meantime. My mom usually keeps the house at a temperature just barely high enough to support human life, and if we’re out for even a few minutes she’ll turn everything off.

Not so in Gray's house. The toastiness is a welcome relief from the cold of outside, and once the front door is closed behind us I'm already feeling better.

"Is the game on?" asks Gray.

"Still halftime," says a deep voice from within the house. "You just made it."

The four of us file into the living room, and the source of the voice is revealed. I was expecting someone older, but instead we're greeted by a young man in his 20s. He stands next to a big leather armchair, watching us with his arms crossed against his chest.

"What's up, guys?" he says, giving a quick nod in the direction of Ricky and Matt.

His eyes land on me and he quickly looks me up and down. He furrows his brows in the way of a question, just like Gray does when he's trying to figure something out. Even though he has the same facial expression and general look that Gray does, his gaze is a little bit more piercing, like he's appraising me on multiple levels. It makes me feel a little nervous.

"Who's the new guy?"

Gray puts his hand on my shoulder, making me jump. I didn't realize he was right behind me.

"This is Jackson," he says, and leaves it at that, moving around the couch and toward another big chair on the far side of the room.

A typical introduction from Gray. No extra information.

The man sticks out a big, meaty hand for me to shake.

"I'm Derek."

I reach out and do likewise. His handshake is firm. Not crushing, which I'm sure it could be if he wanted, but still powerful. He holds his handshake and makes eye contact with me and I'm again struck by the intensity of his gaze.

There's no doubt he's Gray's brother. Along with the same facial expressions, they're built the same way. Tall, wide in the shoulders, and you can tell at a glance that he’s strong as an ox. While Gray works out all the time with the football guys, Derek has the advantage of years. It's impossible to know for sure underneath his heavy flannel shirt and jeans, but I would be surprised if he wasn’t every bit as ripped as Gray underneath those clothes.

"You play football?" he asks.

"No," I say. "I just know the guys from school."

He slowly nods his head.

"Cool."

He finally breaks eye contact and turns back to his chair. I feel my breath come out and realize that I had been holding it. None of the other guys seem to have noticed anything strange about our introduction. They're already on the couch, waiting for the second half of the game to start. Must be my standard anxiety at meeting someone new.

I remind myself that I felt the same way the first time I talked to Gray. He's kind of an intimidating guy. Physically, of course, but also in his manner. He doesn't talk much, and he doesn't go out of his way to make you feel at ease. But that doesn't mean he isn't friendly, only that he doesn't show it like most people do.

And maybe Derek is the same way. He wasn't cold to me, I just felt a little bit overpowered in his presence. There's nothing wrong with that.

The couch is one of those big L-shaped numbers. Ricky is on one side of it, and Matt is at the end of the other, sprawled out with his legs hanging over the top of the armrest. It makes me chuckle a little bit. My mom always tells me not to sit like that, but it's good to see that I'm not the only one who does it.

I take a seat right in the middle and figure it will be good to have both sides to rest up against during the game. I turn to the TV and that's when I notice it. There's nothing on the screen.

No one else is saying anything, so there must be something I'm not getting. Matt and Gray both have their phones out, so they aren't paying attention to me. I resign myself to sit quietly until something happens. I finally look back at Derek and he smiles at me.

"It's a feed from the internet," Derek says, as though he senses my confusion, "nothing too professional. They only show the game, so there's nothing to see during halftime."

I smile back at him and nod my head.

"Yeah, I was gonna say something but..."

He laughs.

"Don't watch a lot of football, do you?" he asks.

Maybe I misread his tone before, or maybe he just doesn't look quite as big and imposing when he's sitting down. Either way, his question comes off as friendly, and I don't feel as intimidated as I did the first time I spoke to him.

I shrug. "I'm more into soccer, I guess."

"Then why you hanging out with these clowns? I'm sure there's a soccer match on you could be watching tonight."

Where to even begin on that one? I hang out with these guys because I thought I was in love with Carter. Since that went south, now I’ll just hang out with the rest of the crew. That's not exactly an easy answer.

"He's friends with Carter," Ricky says casually. I think back to our conversation out on the porch at his house and wonder again if Ricky suspects anything was going on between us. I wasn't sure at the time, and I'm still not sure now, but his tone doesn't seem to imply anything.

"Where's Carter at tonight?" Derek asks. "I wanted to talk to him about that play in the first quarter that he-"

"Game's on."

Gray makes the announcement and everyone stops talking and turns to look at the TV. No one follows up on the question or asks Derek to finish. The game is on and the boys are here to watch it.

As the teams kick off the second half, we all fall into a lengthy silence. No one says anything, they just watch the game, fully focused. As the teams start to play, we get occasional comments. Something about the play they're running or one of the players on one of the teams. It's like the guys are watching film at school.

To be honest, this is exactly what I expected from Gray, Ricky, and Matt, but even Derek joins in. Maybe that's why he was surprised that I didn't play football, because he knew what I was in for once the game got started.

I don’t have quite as much of a vested interest in the proceedings. While I'm not completely disinterested in the game, I can’t help but be more focused on Derek's question from before it started.

Where’s Carter?

From Ricky’s invitation at school, I had assumed that Carter would be joining us. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s on the football team, he was at the game with them, and he hangs out with these guys all the time. Maybe he wasn’t hanging out with them as much for the last month or two, but that’s only because he was hanging out with me. The only other place he could be right now is…

I feel a lump catch in my throat and I swallow it back down. There’s no reason to think about that. Even if it used to matter, it doesn’t anymore. That’s what Carter chose. I wanted him to choose. For better or for worse, he was the one who had to choose.

A huge cheer goes up from the guys and I come back to reality. A player from Arcadia is on a breakaway for the end zone, and there’s only one man left to stop him. He jukes left then spins right, leaving his defender in the dust and darting in for a touchdown.

The guys all get up and give each other high fives. I forget all about Carter for a minute and join them in the celebration. This is huge.

The kicker lines up and drills the extra point, putting Arcadia up 28 - 24, with seven minutes left in the third quarter. It’s crucial to extend that lead past three points. Now Northside needs more than a field goal to win.

We settle back into our places on the couch, and now the guys are even more intense about the game. Being behind is a challenge, but being ahead is stressful.

I feel the same way when I watch soccer. When your team is down you have to wait to score a goal. There’s nothing else you can do. The pressure’s on, but mistakes on offense don’t ruin lives, at least until the final minutes of the game. You’ll make plenty of offensive errors and miss who knows how many opportunities on your way to scoring. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to play hard until you get lucky.

But when you’re leading in a critical game, it’s so much more stressful. Any little mistake could cost you. The only way you’re going home with a win is if you’re perfect.

That’s where Arcadia is now. Granted they can slip a little bit and let in a field goal, but a single blown coverage could cost them the game, and cost us our chances at going to the playoffs.

Unfortunately we don’t have to wait long for Northside to strike back. A holding call gets them out of a jam deep in their own territory, and then they keep pushing forward. Gray and Ricky are convinced that it was a bogus call, but it’s impossible to tell without the camera angles and instant replays of the NFL. This is a single camera experience, and we’ll never be able to settle that debate.

A few more plays take Northside over the 50, but Arcadia finally manages to make a defensive stand and stop their opponents at the 22 yard line. 4th and 5 on the 22. It’s time for a field goal

In the NFL or even college this would be a gimme, but in high school all bets are off. Kicking is hard, and most schools just wind up poaching someone from the soccer team to kick for them. According to Derek, each team has already missed one tonight. Especially in this weather, I can’t imagine getting up off the ice cold bench, taking off my jacket, and running out onto the field to kick a high pressure field goal.

The kicker lines up, the ball is snapped, and he boots it. The ball has the distance, and it flies up towards the goal posts and…

We all sit in silence, waiting to see if it got through the uprights. From the angle of the camera, dead on from midfield, it’s impossible to see where the ball wound up. It went far enough, but who knows if it was on the money.

Finally, the referee runs out to the middle of the field and holds his hands up above his head. It’s good. 3 points.

Arcadia 28, Northside 27.

Matt sighs and slides himself a little bit deeper into the corner of the couch where he’s sitting. I see Gray punch his fist down on the arm of his chair. They aren’t happy, but at least it was just a field goal.

Arcadia finishes the quarter with the ball, driving up to a little bit past the 50. The clock runs to zero and the teams leave the field for a minute or two of rest, and undoubtedly a pep talk from their coaches. Twelve minutes left to play, and this game could easily go either way.

Matt sits up and shakes his head in disbelief.

“This is too much for me,” he says.

Ricky agrees. “I didn’t think it would be this close,” he says, “Northside should be crushing them.”

“The weather sucks,” adds Derek. “Bad weather will equalize anything. Plus Arcadia’s line is good, and they got that kid back from injury last week.”

“Oh yeah,” says Ricky, “that huge kid. I remember when we played them last year. It’s like, Mackey or McMann, or something.”

He looks over to Gray for confirmation. If the kid they’re talking about plays on the line, Gray would know who he is.

Gray isn’t paying attention though. His face is buried in his phone. He has a rather uncharacteristic smile on his face.

“Yo!” says Ricky. “Gray!”

No response.

Ricky nods to Matt, who tosses him a pillow from the other end of the couch. Ricky winds up and throws it at Gray.

“Dude, what the fuck?”

Gray takes the pillow straight to the head. It definitely did the trick.

“Who’s the guy on Arcadia’s line who-”

“Ben Miller,” says Gray without missing a beat. He tosses the pillow across the room back to Matt and looks down at his phone again. He still has that weird smile on his face, even though he just got clocked in the face by a pillow.

“What are you doing over there, brother?” asks Derek.

“Nothing,” Gray says.

“Don’t ‘nothing’ me,” Derek responds. “Why are you so smiley all of a sudden?”

If Derek is anything like other siblings I know, there’s no way he’s going to let this go. When I have either of the twins on the hook about something, I’ll keep bugging them until they tell me what’s going on, especially if they want to try and pretend it isn’t anything. It’s your right as a big brother.

Gray must realize the same thing, because he puts his phone down and turns to us.

“I just got Heather to go with me to the Dance.”

“What?” says Matt. “Seriously?”

Gray nods.

“I thought she told you flat out she wasn’t going,” Ricky says.

Gray shrugs, and for the first time since I’ve known him, he cracks a sly little smile in the side of his mouth. Weird to think of Gray being coy, but maybe I don’t give him enough credit.

“She did,” he admits. “But she also promised to go with me if we won the game tonight. I dunno if she was being serious, but a promise is a promise, and I just got her to own up to it.”

Derek laughs and gives his brother a double thumbs up before getting out of his chair and leaving toward the kitchen.

“Let me know when the game comes back on, I’m getting a sandwich,” he says.

Even as much as I’ve been hearing about the dance from everyone for the last two weeks, this is a new one. Betting a girl that she has to go with you. Whatever it takes, I guess.

Still, Gray should be stoked. Heather is a senior and she’s fairly popular and attractive, although she doesn’t hang out in any of the so called ‘cool’ cliques. I’ve only run into her a few times, but she seems like she would make a fun date.

The reason Gray wants to go with her, however, probably has a lot to do with her huge tits. Not just big, but well shaped and perky too. No matter what she wears, they always look fantastic. I’m one hundred percent gay, but have to admit that they’re pretty damn amazing.

“That’s good to hear,” says Matt, “then it won’t just be me and Jackie.”

Jackie and Matt have been hanging out since the beginning of summer, and officially dating since the beginning of the fall.

“What about Lucas?” I ask. He has a steady girlfriend, but from Matt’s comment I’m guessing they have other plans.

“He’s going with Steph’s friends,” Matt says, “they roped him into that ages ago.”

So it’ll be Matt and Jackie, with Gray and Heather. Should be a good time.

“What about you,” I ask, nodding my head at Ricky. He’s so popular with girls, there’s no way he hasn’t figured out a date. He just broke up with his girlfriend, but it can’t take him more than a few hours to find a replacement if he needs one.

Gray snorts with laughter when he hears my question. “He’s going with his made up girlfriend.”

Matt giggles to himself as well. I haven’t heard about this yet, but I’m excited to find out.

Ricky chucks another pillow over at Gray.

“Fuck you guys,” he says. “She’s not made up. Caitlyn is going to be there and you guys are going to look so stupid.”

Caitlyn? I look over to Matt for clarification.

“You don’t know her,” Matt confirms. “She’s supposedly this really hot girl who goes to Trinity, and she’s crazy about Ricky.”

“None of this is confirmed,” Gray adds, “in real life or otherwise.”

“I told you,” Ricky says, “she doesn’t do Facebook.”

Matt raises his eyebrows at me.

“If that’s real, that’s fucking weird,” yells Derek from the kitchen.

Ricky scowls at all of us before turning back to me.

“What about you?”

Ugh. What about me? I would literally rather talk about anything else in the entire world.

“I’m not going,” I say.

Hopefully the game comes back on and that will be the end of it. I stare intently at the screen, willing the players to take the field.

“What?” Ricky says. “You have to go. It’s the Winter Dance.”

“Yeah just come with us, it’ll be fun,” Matt adds.

As much as I appreciate the offer, I can’t imagine going with these guys, especially if Carter is tagging along. Even if he’s not going with the guys, I know I’m going to hulk out and flip a table over when I see him and Beth taking a slow dance together. Just because I know we shouldn’t be together doesn’t mean I want to see him all over someone else.

“You guys all have dates,” I explain. “I don’t want to be that extra guy who’s just tagging along.”

Ricky dismisses me with a wave of his hand.

“That doesn’t matter, it’ll be fun,” he says.

I shake my head. “No, dude. That’s weird. I mean, it’s not ‘No Facebook’ weird, but it’s still kind of weird.”

Ricky glares at me, but Matt leans over and gives me a high five.

“Come on,” Matt says, “I promise you’ll have a good time.”

“Yeah dude,” says Gray, “we want you to come.”

“If you’re worried about going stag I could ask Caitlyn if she has any friends who…”

He trails off as Matt and Gray start laughing at him again and he throws up his hands in defeat.

Just then, the teams come back out to start the fourth quarter and the guys all turn back to the screen. Discussion is over, at least for now. The game’s on.

Derek slides back into his chair, now with a massive sandwich on his plate. I can’t be sure, but I think he put an entire ham between two slices of bread.

“You ladies sure get worked up about the Winter Dance,” he says. “Don’t worry, I’m sure all your dresses will be so pretty.”

He gets shushed by everyone else.

After a second Matt turns back to him with a funny look on his face.

“Weren’t you prom king?” Matt asks.

Now it’s Derek’s turn to shush him.

“Game’s on,” he says. He dismisses it, but I see the slightest trace of a smile as he does.

The guys have mentioned Derek a few times, and he seems pretty cool. Easygoing and laid back, with a good sense of humor. He’s definitely a good fit with the rest of this crew.

I also get a sense that he has my back. Like he’s going to take care of us if anything happens - the big brother quality in him. For whatever reason, I find myself hoping I’ll have a chance to spend more time with him now that I’m hanging out with the guys more.

The fourth quarter starts with a strong drive from Arcadia, but it gets snuffed out after a couple of bad penalties push them back out of field goal range and they’re forced to punt. Gray makes a comment about the lack of discipline, but the penalties seemed more like bad luck to me.

Northside makes slow but steady progress up the field, and they look like they might be stalling out around the 50 yard line when Matt breaks the tense silence.

“Oh, shit.”

I look over at him and see that he’s on his phone. Nothing happening with the game makes me think he would have said that, so it must be something he saw on his cell. None of the other guys take any notice; they’re too focused on the game.

My curiosity gets the better of me and I’m just about to ask what’s going on when I hear the front door open.

I look toward the entryway and immediately turn back to the TV when I see who it is.

It’s Carter.

He doesn’t say anything when he comes in, save for asking the score of the game. Ricky tells him, and then he walks around the side of the couch to find a seat without another word. Luckily, Matt slides himself over toward me, leaving an empty spot at the end. Thank goodness for small miracles. I don’t have to sit next to Carter.

Within seconds he’s just as absorbed in the game as the rest of the guys. Northside broke the defense for a first down, and they’re almost in field goal range, which is all they need to win.

With everyone so interested in the game, I let myself risk a few looks over at Carter. It’s hard to gauge through the focus on his face, but he doesn’t look very happy right now. I wonder what he’s thinking. Is it because of the score of the game? Is it because of me? Or is it something else entirely?

He didn’t change out of his uniform, either. That makes sense for the rest of the guys, since we came straight from their game. Heck, they beat me out to the parking lot. But Carter took an extra half hour to get here, and he’s still wearing his uniform too, albeit with a hoodie pulled over the top. I figured that’s what was taking him so long to get here, but I guess not.

I turn away and look back at the television.

I shouldn’t have let myself look at Carter for so long. I shouldn’t be letting myself wonder about what he was doing, or why he was late coming over. It’s not my problem anymore.

I feel a familiar tightness creeping across my chest, and I will myself to focus on the game. Not here, not now. I can’t start thinking so much about Carter. It’s only happened a few times this week, and thankfully all of them have been at home, where I could easily go to my room and get away from everyone.

It starts with a few errant thoughts. I wonder what Carter is doing, or if I could talk to him again. I think about why he couldn’t decide to be with me or how I could be good enough for him. I question whether I’ll ever find anyone like him again, or whether anyone will ever seem as attractive to me as he does.

It’s a fast, steep spiral of thinking, and it doesn’t take long before I’m overwhelmed by the worrying and wondering. My head starts to spin and it’s hard to breathe. Next thing you know I’m bawling my eyes out.

Not here. I can’t let it get to me. Just focus on the game and don’t worry about Carter.

I take a few deep breaths and feel it start to pass. Of course I’m going to have strong feelings about it, and this is the first time I’ve been this close to Carter since it all happened. I have to weather the storm, and it will get easier. Being in the same place as him, talking to him, maybe even hanging out with him at some point - it’s going to be tough, but I can handle it a little bit at a time.

Because I know it was the right thing to do. I have to keep reminding myself, but I know it’s true. It’s going to hurt for a while, but I can always cling to the knowledge that I did exactly what I had to do.

My heart is just starting to settle back down to normal when I’m startled by a sudden chorus of shouts from the guys. I look up at the TV and catch what looks like the tail end of a broken up pass play. Northside’s quarterback made a lob for the end zone on a 3rd down play and Arcadia’s corner must have barely managed to break it up. At least that’s what it looks like.

I have to remind myself that we aren’t watching the NFL, and if you miss an important play, you miss it for good. There’s no instant replay to show you what you didn’t see the first time.

I must be right, because Northside brings out their field goal unit. A well-placed kick will put them in the lead, and there’s only about four minutes left in the game. The stop on that pass was big, but even a field goal could spell disaster for Arcadia.

The kicker lines up and the ball is snapped. He makes solid contact and the ball sails up, up, up, and…

It’s good. There’s no doubt about this one, as the Northside bench erupts.

Northside 30, Arcadia 28.

The guys look agitated. Maybe I was wrong about what I said before about it being tougher to be up than it is to be down. This last drive is going to be crucial. It’s the difference between a win and a loss for Arcadia, but it could mean the end of the season for our own team. It has to be brutal to sit here and watch, powerless to change the final outcome of your own season.

Northside kicks off, and we’re off to a bad start. The returner slips as he catches the ball, and by the time the kicking team brings him down he barely manages to get past the 10-yard-line.

90 yards. 4 minutes. They are going to have to make every down count, and in this cold no less.

I can’t imagine trying to throw or catch a ball in this weather. It’s bad enough in soccer on a cold day when you have to make a throw in. Now you’ve got to throw a ball with pinpoint accuracy 30 yards down a field and catch it in the middle of traffic.

Surprisingly it doesn’t seem to affect Arcadia’s players. They string together a couple of quick passes and push the ball up past the 40. They just need to get into field goal range, which I’d guess is inside the 25. If they even get to the 35 they have a chance.

On a first down Arcadia calls a short run to the left. They pick up maybe 4 yards, but there’s a pile up on the play. The refs are blowing their whistles like crazy and pulling players off the pile, but a few of the Northside players are waving their hands frantically trying to get the ref’s attention. They’re all pointing down to the opposite end of the field and jumping up and down.

The referee pulls the last player off the stack and points his hand back to Arcadia’s end zone.

It’s a fumble.

The Northside bench erupts, and the players storm the field. The game isn’t technically over, but it might as well be. There’s less than two minutes left and Northside has the ball at midfield, up by two.

We watch the clock tick down in silence as Northside runs it out. They get a final first down, kneel the ball twice, and the game’s over.

Northside 28, Arcadia 26.

For a while, no one says anything. This is it. The game’s over, and the season’s over. For Ricky, it’s the end of his high school football career. Just like that. One running back not holding the ball tight enough and it’s all done.

For them it’s the disappointing end to a football season. For me, I suddenly realize, it might be the ultimate social nightmare.

I’m stuck at this house with a guy I just broke off my secret relationship with, and now everyone else is upset because their football season is over. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no one to talk to.

The feed of the game turns off, and we’re all left staring at a blank screen in silence.

Finally, the last person I usually expect to speak, Gray, breaks the ice.

“At least we don’t have to practice anymore.”

We get a few more seconds of silence, then I hear a chuckle from Matt. Ricky starts sniggering too, and then everyone joins in. It was such a weak attempt to look on the bright side of things, but it hits us all just right and gets us laughing. Honestly, I’m sure all the guys are actually a little bit relieved that the season is over. And I’m just relieved that everyone isn’t going to be all bent out of shape for the rest of the night.

Everyone except Carter, it seems.

He pounds his fist once into the couch cushion and everyone turns to look at him. He has a deep frown on his face. More than I’ve ever seen him with, and way more than I would have expected from seeing the end of the football season.

“What’s the deal, dude?” asks Gray. “You’re as sick of practicing as any of us.”

Without answering, Carter gets up and walks out of the room. He doesn’t say anything, but you can feel the black mood radiating off of him as he goes. I hear the bathroom door close in the hallway.

The other guys seem to notice it as well, and Ricky speaks up.

“What’s with him tonight?” he asks.

Gray shrugs. If anyone was going to be upset about the loss and the end of the football season, I would have guessed it would be Gray. Or even Ricky since he’s a senior. But Carter? I know he gives the game everything he’s got while he’s playing it, but I never thought it meant that much to him.

Matt, however, looks out into the hall before leaning in toward the group. He lowers his voice to almost a whisper.

“They broke up.”

It takes the rest of us a few seconds to figure out what he said.

“Carter?” Ricky asks in disbelief.

Matt nods his head. “At least that’s what it said on Facebook.”

What? Carter and Beth broke up?

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” says Ricky, “and that would at least explain why-”

Ricky stops talking as we hear the bathroom door open. We lean back away from each and return to our normal positions on the couch, pretending as hard as we can that we weren’t just having a conversation about Carter.

I can’t believe what Matt just said. Maybe he’s wrong, or maybe they just changed something on Facebook accidentally. After all that with the Winter Dance, why would they break up now? Whether she knew it or not, Beth finally had Carter back all to herself. And Carter didn’t have to be conflicted anymore. This doesn’t make any sense.

Carter looks at all of us when he gets back in the living room and sighs. It can’t take much to guess what we were all talking about.

“I was gonna tell you guys, but I didn’t want to interrupt the game.”

Everyone stares at him, not sure if we should just admit that we were just talking about it five seconds ago.

“That’s why I was late,” he explains.

It isn’t much of a story, but at the very least it confirms what Matt said.

The guys take a minute to process this, and it’s Ricky who breaks the tension this time.

“You want to know the good news?” he asks with a tentative smile.

The sides of Carter’s mouth twitch, and I can tell he actually wants to laugh.

“What’s the good news?” he asks.

“We can all go to the Winter Dance now…”

Matt jumps on the idea before Carter or I have a chance to derail it.

“Jackson was all worried about going as a third wheel, but now you guys have each other.”

The rest of the guys look to us for confirmation, while Carter and I do everything in our power to avoid each other’s gaze.

What a clusterfuck.

It’s like all my dreams have come true in the worst possible way. In the course of the last two hours, all the pieces have fallen into place. I hung out with Carter’s friends, so now I’m one of the guys. Step one complete. Carter and Beth broke up. That’s huge. And now Carter and I are going to the Winter Dance together.

A few months ago, that would have been my entire to-do list for getting Carter. Now it’s all here, and it feels like shit. But how do I get out of it?

“We’ll get both of you laid, no problem,” says Gray. “Like half the couples break up at the dance, so there’ll be tons of single ladies floating around by the end of the night.”

Ricky nods in agreement. “That totally worked for me last year.”

“Yeah, but you also broke up with someone at the dance,” says Matt.

“Exactly,” says Ricky, “it’ll be even easier for these guys.”

I laugh, and I realize it’s probably the first time I’ve smiled since Carter got here. Ricky can be totally obnoxious sometimes, but you can’t say he’s not a good guy to have around when you’re feeling down. His energy and positivity are relentless.

I let my smile wash over me. This will be fine. I can figure out an excuse not to go to the dance. No need to worry about it now, I’m sure the guys will understand. Tonight I just need to get home and get to bed. I can process all this stuff about Carter and the dance tomorrow.

“Are we ready to go?” asks Matt, as though he’s reading my mind. He smells his armpit and grimaces. “I want to get out of this uniform before it fuses with my skin.”

“I can drive you guys.” Ricky looks toward me and Matt and we nod in affirmation.

“I’ll take Jackson, he’s on my way.”

My heart misses a beat as I hear Carter say it. What the hell is he talking about?

I frantically rack my brain for some way to get out of it, but he has me trapped. I can’t make a scene about this because none of the other guys know anything. None of them say anything or make any move to stop him, because to them it makes perfect sense. Ricky and Matt live north of Gray’s house, and Carter and I live south of Gray’s house. It’s a normal, sensible offer for Carter to make.

But for me, it’s whatever the opposite of normal and sensible is. Inexplicable and insane, maybe?

Nine days ago we had a huge blowup. I told Carter to leave my house, with every intention of never speaking to him again. I finally managed to pull my head out of my butt and see Carter and his intentions for what they really were: Confusion, nothing more. It was bad enough that we both came here tonight and had to sit in silence and watch a football game ten feet away from each other. But now he wants to drive me home.

Matt and Ricky are heading for the door, and Gray and Derek both get up to show us out. It’s all happening and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’m riding home with Carter, whether I like it or not.

I look around for something, anything to get me out of this situation. I could always have Ko or Katy come pick me up, but that would take time, and I’d still have to explain myself to Gray. On any other night I could just blow Carter off and wait outside for a lift, but I’m not feeling quite proud enough to die of exposure just to avoid an awkward car ride.

Or what if I act coy about it? I could ask Ricky for a ride, and then just make it seem urgent. Throw him a wink or a look that conveys how important it is to me. Then when I’m in the car I could explain it somehow. Like maybe I don’t want to ride with Carter just because of how grouchy he’s been today. It still makes me look a little dramatic, but maybe I can pull it…

A big meaty hand claps into my back and makes me jump.

I turn around. It’s Derek.

“Good to meet you, dude,” he says.

He smiles at me. He has a nice smile, and it weirdly calms me down. It’s like the big brother effect or something. It’s just like how I felt earlier tonight when I met him. Like he has my back.

Somehow that reassurance is what I need. I resign myself to just sucking it up and getting in the car with Carter. I can handle it. It’s less than a ten-minute drive. If Carter wants to talk, then he wants to talk. If I get upset, then I get upset. The other guys won’t know about it, and maybe one or both of us will even get some kind of resolution from it.

I’m sure he wants to talk to me about the breakup. I’m the guy who always listens to him when he’s having issues, and I’m the one who understands him. I don’t know if Carter deserves a chance to talk it out with me, but I’ll give it to him anyway. It can’t hurt to hear what he has to say.

That being said, it doesn’t change anything. I wasn’t wrong in my decision last week. I did the right thing. If Carter wants to come crawling back to me now, we can talk, but I can’t imagine that anything would be different. He isn’t ready for a relationship. Not with me, at least.

“Thanks,” I tell Derek, “you too.”

We head outside and I climb into Carter’s car. It’s not the fancy Tesla tonight. Just a RAV4, albeit a nice one.

Ten minutes. That’s all it will take. Ten minutes in a car with Carter, and then it’s over. I’ll be home.

Carter backs out of the driveway and heads back toward the school, which we’ll pass on the way to my house. I keep my eyes straight ahead, not wanting to make the first move. If he has something to say, he can say it. I sure don’t.

A minute goes by and the only sound is the engine and the air vents, blowing luke-warm air into my face.

But he doesn't say anything.

He just drives. In silence.

What the hell was the point of taking me home if he doesn’t have anything to say?

It makes perfect sense though. He wasn’t strong enough to make a decision with me, and it shouldn’t surprise me that he doesn’t have the guts to say anything about it now. I can tell he needs to talk this out, to get it off his chest, but as usual I’ll have to make the first move.

“Were you going to tell me you broke up?”

I see Carter flinch when I say it. I wasn’t trying to put venom in my question, but I’m sure that’s how it sounded.

“It just… happened.”

He purses his lips and doesn’t say anything else.

That’s it? It happened? I know that it happened. We’ve established that fact.

I’m about to follow up with something witty and biting when Carter surprises me and turns off the road into the school parking lot.

What’s he doing now? He’s supposed to be taking me home, not taking me back to school. Or is he just pulling off the road so we can stop somewhere and talk?

He doesn’t explain himself, so I have to keep wondering as he drives up to the far end of the school where the football practice field is. He parks in a loading zone and turns off the car.

I brace myself for the conversation we’re about to have. A million different thoughts are swimming through my head. All the feelings and emotions, threatening to boil over the box I put them in when Carter decided to go to the dance with Beth. I did such a good job all week - not to mention tonight - containing my feelings and staying resolute in my decision to stop pursuing Carter.

But now we’re stopped in the parking lot and I’m going to have to confront all of it. I haven’t had time to process all this new information. Carter broke up with Beth. They aren’t going to the dance. Carter and I are both going with his friends.

Contrast my nervousness now with how decent I’ve felt all week. Besides a few rough patches, I’ve actually been really happy with my decision to end things with Carter. Again, I’ve been holding tight to the knowledge that I made the right decision. Maybe not to make me feel good now, but to make me ok in the long haul.

But this is confusing everything. He was insistent on driving me home. And now we’re here to talk. Is he here to take me back? Or is he here to tell me that today’s events don’t change anything, and he still wants us to keep our distance?

Either way, I’m not sure how I should react. As much as I know I still want him, I know I shouldn’t let myself try again. I have to be strong.

My internal monologue is interrupted by the sound of the car door opening.

“Come on.”

Carter steps out of the car and starts walking toward the school. He stops after about ten steps and turns back to look at the car. He’s waiting.

I sigh and shake my head. What the heck is he doing now?

I don’t know, but I unbuckle my seatbelt, open the door, and swing my feet out of the car onto the pavement. I guess I’m following Carter.

The wind hits me as soon as I step outside. I pull my jacket tighter around me as I follow Carter in silence around the back of the school. It’s so cold. Just the shittiest, bone-chilling cold.

We walk for a minute or so until we stop by a door. The door to the locker room.

Carter grabs the handle of the door and pulls on it. It’s locked.

“Carter, what are you doing?”

He pulls on the handle again and yanks the door hard. Nothing.

“Hang on a second.”

Hang on a second? This guy is unbelievable. I’m standing out here freezing my ass off while Carter is apparently trying to break into the school in the middle of the night and I’m going to just hang on a second. Whatever he’s doing, he needs to do it fast.

“I want to go home-”

“Can you hang on?” Carter asks again. “Please?”

He looks tense. His jaw is clenched. He doesn’t do that unless he’s really stressed about something.

I don’t know what he’s up to, but the look he gives me makes me decide to give him another minute or two to figure it out. He seems so on edge. Not angry or anything like that. More anxious. I have to fight the impulse to reach out and try to help him. It’s in my nature to care for people when they’re distressed, but I can’t let it make me feel bad for him.

Finally, on his fourth or fifth try, Carter pulls the handle of the door down, then slams into it with his body. Even stranger than the fact that he just threw himself into the door, the impact actually releases something in the lock, and when he pulls on it, it swings open.

I follow Carter inside and mercifully it’s about sixty degrees warmer than it is outside. Unfortunately it still smells like a locker room, but I’d much rather be in here doing whatever it is that Carter needs to do than outside.

Carter leads me through the room and stops in front of my locker. He turns back and looks at me.

“What?” I ask.

“Open your locker.”

I shake my head.

“Carter, this is ridiculous,” I say. “What do you want?”

“Just open your locker,” he repeats.

“No.”

I don’t know what makes me say it, but I’m done with him being cryptic. I was braced for the worst on this trip home, expecting that we were going to talk things out. As awkward as that could have been, this is even worse. Carter trying to play some weird game with me. Dragging me into the school and then asking me to open my locker. I know exactly what’s in there. My soccer gear.

“Jackson, can you please-”

“No,” I say again. “I’m tired of you doing this.”

“Doing what?”

I throw up my hands.

“Every time you do something… or you can’t give me something I want, or can’t make up your mind. You just brush it off and distract me.”

“Dude, just-”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were breaking up with Beth?”

He takes a deep breath and thinks before he answers.

“I told you,” he says, “it just happened. I didn’t know-”

“And now the dance,” I say, cutting him off. “How fun, we get to go together. Because your friends were nice enough to invite me.”

“Jackson-”

“Carter, I can’t be your fucking back up plan.”

His eyes have the same look as when he was trying to get the door open. Anxious. Almost panicky. He tries to meet my gaze, then looks at my locker, then back to me again. I shoot him back daggers and he drops his eyes to the floor.

“You can’t say anything?” I ask. “You don’t have any answers for me?”

Finally he lifts his head and looks at me.

“Open your locker.”

“Jesus…” I mutter to myself as I turn to my locker.

I can’t imagine what’s inside of here that is so important. Something to excuse Carter for his inability to even explain himself, generally the one thing he can do without trouble. I don’t expect action, but I can usually count on him for an explanation.

I wheel through the combination on my locker and pull off the padlock. I open the door and look inside.

I know what it is the second I see it.

A piece of construction paper with words written on it in Sharpie. Minimal decoration, but some. And a flower attached. It’s just like all the other kids get before the dance. An invitation.

“When I… When we broke up today I realized it,” Carter says, “and this is the first thing I did.” I hear him take a step closer to me. “Because you aren’t my backup plan, Jackson. You’re my only plan, and I should have known that, even before-”

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I keep staring at the invitation in my locker. In disbelief, or shock, or something.

“I wanted to show you,” he says. “I was going to wait for you to find it tomorrow, but I couldn’t. I needed you to know that this is really what I wanted.” He pauses then corrects himself. “What I want.”

“Carter,” I say, turning around to face him, “I’m not sure about this.”

I stop short. He’s standing right next me, less than a foot away. I can’t tell if he’s too close to me or too far away. A part of me wants to shove him out of my way and a part of me wants to pull him in closer.

Carter nods his head in understanding.

“That’s fair,” he says. “You deserve to not be sure, and I deserve not to know.”

I try to think of an answer but there’s too much in my head. My feelings, thoughts, and emotions - none of them agree right now. This is what I wanted so desperately two weeks ago, but now it feels like something I’d have to force myself to do.

Carter’s eyes suddenly light up.

“Don’t agree to come with me,” he says, “but at least agree to come with us. Just as friends.”

It sounds crazy, but I can’t help but smile at that idea. It’ll be kind of weird, but maybe it would be doable.

“That way there’s no pressure on you,” he says. “But we’ll both be there.”

Carter reaches out and puts his hand on my shoulder. I flinch a little bit when he touches me, but it feels ok. I can let him in a little bit. That won’t hurt anything.

“I owe you a lot,” he says. “So much time and patience.” His hand moves down my arm. “This time I can be the one who’s sure, and you can have all the time you need to figure it out.”

I search his eyes and see only honesty. They aren’t shiny and alive like they get sometimes. He isn’t turning on his charm right now. Whether it’s a conscious effort or because he can’t, I don’t know. But either way, when I look into his eyes, I believe him.

“Let me show you.” Carter lets his hand fall to my hip and brings the other up to join it on the opposite side. “If I can’t take you to the dance, at least be there so I can prove to you that I want to.”

“Ok.”

Some of the tension falls off of him and Carter almost manages to crack a smile.

“Thank you.”

He leans forward and I close my eyes, almost as a force of habit. He kisses me.

It’s strange, the kiss we share in the locker room. It’s full of a thousand things, but feels profoundly empty at the same time. It’s the echoes of the kisses we’ve shared in the past, tinges of lust and longing, expectation and excitement, wonder and amazement.

But it’s conflicted and uncertain at the same time. Our kiss is full of a void, and the void is full of questions. It has all the familiar parts of the kisses we’ve shared in the past, the ones that lit me on fire and made my head spin. But there are so many questions.

And I don’t know the answers anymore.

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