Chapter 1

Days of Class

Executive Producer and Lead Novelist — Christian Butler

“Seriously, Mandy — holy shit — I’ve got practice,” Ethan Ramos managed to say, totally enjoying the feel of Mandy Klima’s wet lips on his neck. She was ravenous, had made it clear what it was she was after, but she had to have known he very well couldn’t give it to her right then and there, five minutes before he was expected to be in the locker room getting suited for practice. But it didn’t matter, she knew how to make him feel good.

“You’re such a prude,” she said, taking a moment away from his neck to whisper her sultry words in his ear.

“Bullshit,” Ethan offered at a laugh. Mandy took a moment to pull away from his neck to lock eyes with him and said, “Then fuck practice, take a moment for yourself, for once. I know you want to.” She leaned in close, turning Ethan’s head to the side and in that moment, Ethan could feel the warmth of her tongue caressing his ear. God, it was among the best things he’d ever felt and it was hard to say “no”…

When first the two met, Ethan had scarcely imagined that Mandy was capable of doing some of the more enticing things she did. In fact at first impression she had seemed about as meek as a mouse, reserved and self-effacing. She was a year younger than him, a junior to his senior. And she was in the marching band. It was how she was able to boast at having seen him play at all his football games. “I’ve never seen anybody move about that field the way you do,” she would tell him with a modest adoration.

She had been right, as loathe as Ethan was to admit. No one moved like he did. He had a talent — catch the ball and find the end-zone. He was good at his job and they won games for it, so it had come as no shock to him when she had found him that night after their homecoming match. Their district match had just ended and the officials had let the band storm the field to play their celebratory school song and afterwards, Ethan had pulled off his jersey, wearing only his pads and a cut-off shirt underneath. He had been celebrating with his teammates and after they’d left the field, he had been standing alone taking in the field and the atmosphere. They had done a good thing, he’d been thinking, when this mousy girl came up from behind him. She had been wearing a black band shirt underneath her overalls, but still he had seen something cute, there, in her general stature. She had come to congratulate him, which must’ve been the bravest thing she had ever done and he had admired her for it.

It had turned out that the two shared a lunch period, that she had noticed him much earlier in the year. “You just seemed, I don’t know,” she would offer with a blush. “I just thought that you seemed lonely, was all.” Of course she had right, the measure of it. As an advanced-placement student, Ethan rarely shared lunch with the lion’s share of his teammates and for much of his high school career would come to find himself sequestered from the people he knew best. So come time for lunch, he had grown accustomed to eating by himself. He never imagined for a second that anyone had ever noticed him, would ever give two cents’ worth of thought to him or his plight. So there had seemed something endearing about Mandy that she had cared, however little she might. And that was how their relationship would start: the two of them sharing a table together.

Never had he expected, nor anticipated or wished, for that matter, that Mandy would ever have it in her to stick her tongue in his ear. It made him self-conscious, and thankful he had taken the time that morning to clean his ears.

He tried to hold himself together, letting out an exasperated breath, “Oh, my god…look, it’s not that I don’t enjoy that, it’s just I’ve got a leadership position, now, and I’m expected to set, y’know…a good example. I mean, it’s the first day of class, would be a helluva way to set a precedent…” If Mandy was listening, he couldn’t tell. Her hands were underneath his shirt, her palms warm, and she caressed him, moving her hands up and down his sides, tickling him ever-so-slightly.

Again, her lips were at his ear, her breath warm, “Have I told you how cool it is you’ve finally got a car?” Her hands stopped and she pulled away, just far enough to lock eyes with him, as if to command him. Ethan would have been lying if he were to deny that she had total control over him — a difficult truth to admit, but the truth, nonetheless. She was utterly without ruth, and Ethan liked that about her.

He had to stop himself from reaching to caress her face. They had been dating for almost a year and in that time he had been surprised to learn that Mandy cared naught for overt displays of affection. At first blush, it would’ve seemed like Mandy had worn a façade of a meek and mild little girl. But as far as Ethan had been concerned, everyone wore some sort of mask. That had been the name of the game they all played, after all. So one night he got frank with her, honest, encouraged her to be up front about what she wanted. And suddenly this creature emerged, this insatiable thing. Ethan had been surprised, but he was okay with that and took it in stride as best he could. It had been a comfort to be in the company of someone who was confident in themselves, and Mandy had it in spades, was dripping in confidence.

But there were times where all Ethan wanted was to look at her. Her skin was dark and wind-chafed, her brunette hair streaked modestly with blonde and cut short at the shoulders. There was something gentle and stereotypically effeminate in the curve of her jaw and that cute little dimple in her chin. He had come to affectionately call her a chipmunk and, naturally, she had come to hate it. But sometimes, all he wanted was to look at her, to take in the simple beauty before him. Believe it or not, he wasn’t all that interested in physical intimacy — not that the notion wasn’t enticing, only he had found that it wasn’t the sort of thing which sustained him. But he wouldn’t complain. He had somebody, which was more than a lot of people could say. So instead, he grabbed each of her wrists and held them so she couldn’t freely move her hands to further entice him, “You know what would be a good way for me to lose these newfound vehicle privileges of mine? — Being late for practice.”

Mandy let out an exasperated sigh and let loose a smirk soaked in wry. “Look at you: ever so much the academic,” she said, playing at fighting back, though clearly over powered.

Ethan chuckled to himself. “You never said: what lunch d’you have?”

“B-lunch.”

“Fuck,” he breathed to himself, letting her wrists go free.

“What did you get?” she asked with a mite furrow of the brow.

“A, guess I’ll be on my own, then.”

“Oh, you poor and lonesome thing,” she said, giving him a light kiss on the cheek. “And you’re sure you wouldn’t prefer that I leave you with something to remember me by?”

Ethan chuckled, “Your appetite is voracious.”

“Is that a thing? Are you, like, practicing your SAT words on me?”

“Is it an efficacious strategy?”

“Fuck you,” she offered, slapping him on the chest. Ethan chuckled. She eased up off his lap, settling herself in the passenger seat. “I’m serious, though, I mean, is it me…or…?”

At first, Ethan really had no clue as to what Mandy was getting at and then it clicked, “What, whaddya mean?”

“What, are you gonna make me say it?” she offered. Ethan could only fire off as disarming a smile as he could muster before saying, “I’m not psychic…”

“Look, I’ve been pretty forward, I mean, are we ever gonna, y’know…”

“Oh,” Ethan said, raising his brow. “It’s totally not you, Miranda, I’m just…”

This hadn’t been the first time they’d had this talk. Frankly, Ethan was surprised to find himself on this side of the fence. Again, it was totally counter to his first impressions of her, and the general perception of her public persona. But each time they’d broached this subject, she had proved understanding, and Ethan had little reason to expect anything less. She batted her eyes like she had so often before and said, “Yeah, I know — you’re not ‘ready’, which sounds like bullshit to me, but who am I to pressure you, right?”

“Am I wrong for thinking that here in the parking lot before class isn’t the best place for the first time?”

“You do have some idea how many boys are after me, I mean, I’m fighting ’em off with a stick, y’know.”

“No, I get that, I totally do…and I’m grateful that you’re being, y’know, patient with me. I’m not stringing you along, I promise. It’ll — it’ll happen.”

There was a pause bordering on the pregnant before Mandy finally said, “You want it to happen, don’t you?”

Ethan measured his response, “Well…who wouldn’t?”

“The question is about you, though — would you?”

Ethan averted his gaze, sure to show that he gave her query his genuine effort and consideration. Were he honest with himself, he’d admit that he wasn’t sure what he wanted, that he wasn’t sure why he was so nervous about the notion. But that wouldn’t be altogether true, not to himself, at least… “I would, totally, yeah.” Being grilled by her wasn’t nearly as entertaining as her licking his ear, and was he wrong to want her to be doing that as opposed to this display of vulnerability — what would it take to convince her that his reticence wasn’t about her? And there her face was, yearning to be caressed. But Ethan fought the urge.

“Good,” she managed to muster with a smile. “Because I’m waiting for you, ‘kay?”

Ethan only nodded his head with a meek enthusiasm, “Cool…cool, cool.”

Ethan waited for Mandy to finish getting herself together before stepping out of his small Toyota Echo and opening her side of the door. She stepped out cool as ever and walked away, doing that thing with her swaying hips that she knew he liked to watch, turning her head back, all devil-may-care — his own little devil, of course. Then he opened the back seat and grabbed his practice bag, wondering to himself if he was going to have to find a way to manage the morning’s practice with a massive boner…

“We’re so happy you could join us, Mr. Ramos,” Ms. Hayes said as Ethan burst through the classroom door. It was second period and he was late, having decided to take the time to wash out his hair. Which was still wet. As well as the rest of him. All eyes were on him and suddenly he was aware of his muscled frame as he could feel his tight-fitting shirt stick to either side of his torso. “Please, why don’t you find yourself a seat?”

Most of the seats had already been taken, as he gave the room a quick scan. Still, most of his classmates were watching him, waiting. All save for Soren Clipper, thankfully, whose own eyes were glued to his sketchbook as they so often were. Ethan found an empty row of desks on the room’s far side and negotiated the treacherous terrain to find a seat at the rear of that row. He slid his backpack from his shoulder and set it in the seat in front of him before taking a seat, himself. He was still breathing hard, having run straight from the locker room to the classroom. Vice Principal Kerry was still going on with the morning announcements, his tinny voice ringing through the intercom, welcoming them all to their first day of the fall semester. Ethan couldn’t have cared less had he tried.

First period had passed mostly without incident, which was to be expected, seeing as the football team had spent the last two weeks of their summer break engaged in their summer training camp. The coming Friday would bring with it the second game of their regular season, which meant much of this morning’s practice had been spent running drills. It had been mostly mindless work, but there was a method in the madness, or at least that was how Ethan had rationalized it.

But for freshman wide receiver James Buchanan, the point of the practice seemed to have gone over his head, as though he had forgotten everything the team had gone over during the summer’s training camp. They had run the same play twice and both times, Coach Johnson, their offensive coordinator had blown the whistle. Both times, Buchanan had chosen to improvise on the field, and both times he had been open just five yards over first down. But he never saw the ball, it never came to him.

The team gave a collective, exasperated groan as offense and defense reset the field. Coach Johnson had been insistent. “Yeah, you’ve got class starting in, what, five minutes? I guess you’ll be late unless you get it right. Seniors, you better get your underclassmen in gear or else this is gonna be a long morning!”

“I don’t fucking get it,” Buchanan would say, and that much had been evident. But Ethan had understood it, not only what had gone wrong, but how it was that James hadn’t understood what his role truly was, the purpose of his being on that field and the nature of the play they were attempting to drill. It had been the very same lesson Ethan had learned when first he’d moved back to Upshur, when he, too, had been a freshman. Back when he lived at The Colony, he had all the license to run the play however he saw fit, and always, Ethan got the ball and always he got points on the board. Naturally, Ethan had figured this same tactic would be welcomed at Upshur. But he had been wrong in that assumption. And it was that same lesson Ethan tried to instill in Buchanan —

“Your job isn’t to catch that ball,” he told him. James’s brow had furrowed in confusion, and again, Ethan understood, so he continued: “It’s about pressure and exposure. We need defense to come after you to relieve pressure on Jameson. Give him the time to make the play. If he gets you the ball, then more power to you, but your job isn’t to get the ball. Your job is to be where you’re needed to be. You can’t be afraid to get hit.”

It might have taken a couple of more run-throughs, but the message eventually set in.

But not in time enough to ensure that Ethan wouldn’t be late to second period English. Were Ethan to be totally honest, he’d have made it to class on time had he not insisted on washing his hair, but there was nothing to be done about it. As he sat in his lone seat in Ms. Hayes’s room, he ran an absentminded hand through his wet, black lochs, trying as he might to restore his modest faux-hawk. The vice principal was only just then winding down the morning’s announcements.

“…And with that, your administrators are glad to see you all back, we hope you have a good morning, and have a great first day.”

The intercom went silent and the classroom’s commotion filled the vacated space. Ms. Hayes stood at the front of the classroom in front of the whiteboard. She raised a conciliatory hand before she spoke. “Alright, alright, good morning class, good morning.” The commotion died down to give her words space. A few of Ethan’s classmates met her greeting with their own, and she continued: “Some of your faces I know from Spanish 3 but some of you are new, so I thought I’d introduce myself — I’m Linda Hayes and welcome to AP English 4.”

She was met with a meager greeting from the class.

“I hope most of you enjoyed your summer. I know its only your first day back so I’m not going to get too serious with you or anything. I thought we might take the time to talk about what we’ve been up to, how you spent your three months of freedom.”

Aleks Tefteller had apparently spent the summer in Italy with his family, which hadn’t surprised Ethan at all. Aleks’s was a well-off family made up of three generations of doctors, a future of which was likely to be Aleks’s own. It had the sound of a fun excursion, just the sort of formative experience around which movies are based, so maybe not the most original, but fun nonetheless. Corrine Pritchett apparently bought a horse and spent her summer learning how to train it. Dustin Coleman went to band camp for the first time in his life and loved it, apparently. Ms. Hayes made it round virtually the entire class before finally she came to land on Ethan. But he had nothing to volunteer. He had spent most of the summer moving weights and conditioning training. Football was his responsibility and it was really the only thing within which he invested much of his time and energy. It wasn’t likely that his mother could afford an extravagant vacation on an RN salary. But Ethan wasn’t concerned, it was time well-spent. He’d gained something like fifteen pounds of muscle and he had been pleased to find that he looked good, so that was enough for him.

Everyone spoke of their summers save for Soren, whose eyes had remained locked to that sketchbook. This had been a typical thing, for him, and no one was like to bother him, not even Ms. Hayes. So she moved onto the subject of their summer reading assignment: Romeo & Juliet.

A subject with which Ethan was glad to bow out.

Apparently a writing assignment was waiting for them in the wings, so that in mind, Ethan wasn’t particularly interested in expending the requisite energy in contriving BS statements designed to impress his teacher. And in that regard, he had been doing well until Corrine volunteered a comment as to how romantic she felt the story was. Ethan had forgotten himself for a moment, letting slip a mocking scoff at the sentiment, which hadn’t escaped Ms. Hayes’s notice. So she crossed her arms and said, “Does this mean you might actually have something to add, Mr. Ramos?”

Fuck, he thought. If ever there was a hallmark to Ethan’s rhetorical strategies it was the avoidance of attention altogether. This was not what he wanted, “Not really, no.”

Ms. Hayes wasn’t buying it, though, “No, please, go on, it sounds like you have an opinion on the matter. Don’t be shy.”

Suddenly all eyes were on him, Soren’s too. Again, the sort of thing he preferred to avoid. But there was nothing to it. Ethan sat himself up in his seat and let out a sigh, “It’s just…I just, I didn’t find it all that romantic, is all…”

“So you have a contention, then, with Shakespeare on the matter of romance?”

The classroom had just about died, everything dead-quiet and the air still, as each of his classmates waited on bated breaths. It didn’t seem likely that Ms. Hayes was just going to let this go, let him off the hook, so he crossed his own arms, “Yeah, maybe. I mean, I’m entitled to my disagreements, right?”

Ms. Hayes raised her hand, “No one is saying that you’re not. I’m only trying to encourage you to make an argument. You read the story, you have an opinion — what’s the argument?”

Ethan averted his gaze, taking a deep breath, letting the air out of his nostrils before he continued, “It just, it all seems…contrived…to me, that’s all: manufactured. There — there’s nothing authentic, here…” Ethan could feel the silent gazes of each of his classmates boring deep into him and he hated it. But he continued: “Boy meets girl, boy knows nothing of girl, and now suddenly boy is ‘in love’, willing to take his own life at the prospect of never being with girl? I’m just…I’m calling bullsh — uh, BS, y’know?” He definitely said more than he would’ve liked, but it was what Ms. Hayes wanted and she wasn’t like to let him go unless he went there, full-tilt.

“You don’t think that they were in love?”

God dammit. “I’m not saying that they weren’t,” Ethan offered. “I’m just saying, I didn’t buy it, it wasn’t, y’know…it wasn’t executed very well, I guess…”

“Hmm,” was all Ms. Hayes seemed to have in response, but Ethan could tell she was far from finished, so he held his breath, waiting with dread for whatever it was that was coming. “Then the question before you is this: what is the nature of love? What does it mean to fall in love with someone?”

The worst possible question, and there was this moment where Ethan hated Ms. Hayes for even having contemplated its asking. This simply wasn’t where he wanted to be, wasn’t the sort of attention he wanted for himself. But there was still a good five minutes before the bell, so there was nothing waiting in the wings to save him, to spare him from giving an answer.

So Ethan offered a shrug of his shoulders and said, “What do I know about love, I’m just some kid, right? I mean…I dunno…I just…I just, I feel like love should be about…I don’t know…like, Romeo isn’t ever in love with Juliet, he’s infatuated with her, obsessed with the idea of being with her because he thinks she’s beautiful…maybe…maybe he wants to be in love with her, but what he wants, he wants because of how she looks. It’s selfish, and that’s just…that’s just not love, to me…”

A silence filled the classroom. And in that moment, Ethan found himself wishing someone, anyone, would finally fill it, Ms. Hayes, even. But she hadn’t seemed up to it, as if in her lack of response she had conceded to his point. And just as the silence had grown to its most uncomfortable, the bell rang, a thankful savior, ushering forth the start of third period. The classroom came alive, and Ethan obliged himself to grab his backpack and file out of the room, keeping his head down.

Third period had proved so inconsequential that the whole class passed without much a thought of consideration. If anything, it was lunch that drew Ethan’s concern. He had grown hungry and eagerly anticipated the opportunity to sate his appetite. Ethan had a seat near the classroom door, so by the time the fourth period bell rang, Ethan was already packed and ready to go, getting up from his seat and bee-lining it to the cafeteria. No one he knew shared lunch with him, so Ethan found a lone table to himself atop the stage and sat himself down, his tray before him and fork in-hand.

At first, everything was without incident, not worth noting. But eventually, as Ethan had been well engrossed with his meal, he had that sense about him that he was being observed. Over the last three years, Ethan had developed a keen awareness for when he seemed to bear someone’s attention. It was almost like a sixth sense. And so it was, then, that he began to notice it — someone was looking at him. So he looked up to try and determine the culprit, when for a moment, his gaze met that of Soren Clipper’s, who stood about a foot away from Ethan’s table.

Soren was the definition of meek. He was lanky and stood a few inches taller than Ethan, though his posture was actually exceptional, his back straight and chest out, a likely indicator of his time in the marching band, standing at attention. He had his shoulders raised, as he held both backpack straps in each hand, looking as innocuous as ever, and at first, Ethan wondered if he would ever say anything, when finally, Soren took a breath, “Is it alright if I join you?”

Ethan had been unsure of how much time had passed before he realized he was looking into Soren’s deep, green eyes. This much he knew: Soren was expecting him to say something, only, Ethan was unsure of what it was he even should say, what would be the most appropriate remark for this most unexpected of occurrences. He caught himself scoping the cafeteria, looking for any sign of Aleksander Tefteller or Dustin Coleman, Soren’s usual entourage. But they were nowhere to be found. Soren must have caught him because he took a breath and said, “Aleks and Dustin don’t have A lunch, you’re the only person here I know. We don’t…we don’t have to talk if you don’t want to…”

Ethan wanted to tell him that that wasn’t necessary, but the words seemed to be stuck in his craw, so he offered him a wordless shrug. Finally, Soren slipped the straps of his backpack over his shoulders and pulled out a seat. Ethan couldn’t help himself but watch as Soren pulled a blue Arctic Zone lunchbox from his bag, setting it on the table and unzipping its top. All the while, Ethan was asking himself how this had come to happen.

After three years, Ethan had been comfortable and content with eating lunch alone. Never before had Soren ever considered sharing lunch period with him, nor had he even said so much as a word to him. And again, Ethan was okay with this, had accepted it as the norm. So to what whim did Ethan owe this happenstance? The answer was not obvious. All the while, Ethan had to remind himself: don’t stare, don’t look at him.

They didn’t make it sixty seconds before Soren finally said, “I liked what you said in English, today.”

Ethan looked up at him, his mouth full with a chunk of lasagna. Ethan wasn’t sure of what Soren was expecting, so he offered him a curt “Thanks” and said nothing else.

But that didn’t stop Soren, “I know you usually eat alone. I hope I’m not bothering you, it’s just…look, I sort of pride myself on knowing everybody in our class, y’know? I can run off the list of names almost in alphabetical order. I saw you sitting alone and it occurred to me, y’know, that we don’t really know each other all that well. It’s our senior year, y’know, so I figured, why not?”

Once more, for another uncomfortable moment, they met each other’s gaze and still, Ethan was unsure of what to say, and he found himself on the verge of shaking and he tried with all his might to maintain his composure, to not telegraph his discomfort.

“Can I…d’you mind if I ask you something?”

Without looking up, Ethan shrugged. “…what’s up?”

“I just…I noticed — ” Soren let out a breath, “Why is it that you never…y’know, look at me?”

It had seemed were this any other circumstance, were any other question being asked of him, that the appropriate thing to do would be to make eye contact, but given the nature of the question, it left Ethan feeling even more self-conscious than was the norm, and he wanted to, really, to meet that of Soren’s piercing gaze, but it was like he was locked, somehow, incapable of doing so. As if to meet Soren’s gaze would only confirm whatever suspicion it must have been, percolating beneath that of Soren’s well-manicured façade. His question meant something, that much was certain, but Ethan couldn’t have known what it was.

“I just…it makes me feel like I must’ve done something…”

That was when their eyes met. And all Ethan could see was sincerity, there, in those green irises. And it was impossible for Ethan to provide for him an adequate explanation. Because Soren should’ve known, should’ve understood…why was he only just now pursuing this line of questioning? Why not before? After three years, why wait until the first day of their last year of high school? What was this?

“You don’t…you don’t have to answer that, if you don’t want to.”

Despite himself, Ethan couldn’t take his eyes off of Soren. He wanted to say something, truly, he did. He just didn’t know what.

For the rest of his lunch break, Ethan didn’t have the stomach to finish his meal, and the rest of that half-hour was spent in a painful silence. The two of them sitting there, Soren eating his food, an elephant in the room, present and clear, and one Ethan couldn’t address. And so he said nothing, and nothing was exchanged between the two of them.

In fact, Ethan would spend the rest of that first day in a stunned silence.

Eventually, eighth period came and went and the final bell rang and it was time for practice, which seemed to end faster than was the usual. And in a daze, Ethan found himself sitting in his car, parked out in a lone corner of the rear parking lot, nothing but the sound of his own breath in his ears. His mother was still at work, so instead of heading home, he drove to the nursing home. The receptionist greeted him with a “Hi, honey” and let him sit in the waiting room. His mother strolled in not ten minutes later and she was jovial and glowing as per the usual, donning her light pink scrubs. “Hey, mijo, enjoy the first day of class?”

Ethan hadn’t a response at the ready. He didn’t even look up to meet her gaze. She must’ve caught on that something was up because she asked him, “What’s the problem, mi negrito?”

He wasn’t sure how to say it. He knew his mother would be the only person who’d ever understand, and he needed her to know what happened, to get how it was his life had suddenly changed. So he told her, “It…it happened, mamá. He talked to me…Soren talked to me, today…”

She didn’t say a word. She only took the seat next to him, placing a careful arm around his shoulder, “How was it?”

“I don’t…I’m not sure, mamá. I’m not…” Ethan struggled to find the words and his eyes began to burn, so he had to will himself not to cry. He was almost a man grown and grown men don’t cry, not over things like this, not over ancient history. “I guess I just thought…it’s worse than I imagined, I think…yeah, this is much worse than I thought…”

“What is it baby, tell me?”

Ethan shook his head, not believing it himself, the obviousness of it, the enormity of the truth that sat before him, unfurled, that he had spent the majority of his day considering. And that truth —

“He…he doesn’t remember me, mamá. He doesn’t remember me at all…”


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