"And to think, today started out so ordinary." I thought to myself as I thought back on today's events. It was the first day of my senior year of high school, and I would never have thought it would be any different then any other day of school. It certainly started out like it normally did: A blaring alarm clock, a shower that was cold for the first five minutes, comb my hair, brush my teeth, get dressed, grab my stuff and get out the door before my father woke up.

The school day started out like the other first days of school I had, for the most part. I met my best friends, Joey and Jamie, in the hallway. We bulled around, chatted for a bit about random things. The upcoming football season, various things that happened over the summer break. And, of course, about Quinn. The three of us shared a lot, but the thing we shared the most was the desire to win that one special girl. Quinn Morgendorffer, the most beautiful woman on the face of the planet. I couldn't count the number of times we had come to blows over her. I'd knocked out, and been knocked out, several times just to be the guy who would carry her books, or get that miniskirt she wanted from Cashman's, or whatever her little heart might desire at the time. And indeed, when the three of us saw Quinn in the hallway this morning, we argued over the privilege of carrying Quinn's backpack to her desk. Joey managed to win today, with a damn cheap shot to my ribs.

When classes started, there was no reason to think anything else would be any different. The teachers went through the same old speeches that they had been giving since I came into high school. They handed out the books we would need, gave us the syllabuses, nothing seemed out of the ordinary with them. Things only started getting weird when I noticed how Quinn was acting during class. Our first shared class was 2nd period history class with Mr. DiMartino.

"Now, class." He had posed. "Which of you can pull your heads out from under the rock you've been living under, and explain to me what the Monroe Doctrine was? How about you, Miss Griffin?" He turned to Sandi Griffin, one of Quinn's friends.

"Why should I care about what some dead people say?" She responded. Mr. DiMartino started talking about something, but I couldn't make out the details. During his little rant, I saw Quinn raise her hand.

"Yes, Miss Morgendorffer?" The teacher asked.

"The Monroe Doctrine was a policy that stated that any attempt to colonize Latin America by a European nation would be considered an act of aggression by the United States. After all, we wouldn't want Europe to get in the way of a good margarita." Quinn answered.

"Why, Quinn, that's actually quite impressive." Mr. DiMartino praised. My eyes went wide. Quinn was actually answering questions correctly in class, and volunteering herself to answer them, to boot.

"Wow, Quinn, you're so smart!" I praised quickly. Quinn brushed my compliment off without a word, but I was still spellbound. When she first came here in freshman year, she wouldn't have been caught dead answering questions correctly for the teacher. She would have fumbled it, in that cute way she always tried to stall for answering something, until the teacher just picked someone else. And she never would have volunteered to answer. In our junior year, she had changed that a little bit. She had gotten a tutor over the summer because she wanted to increase her PSTAT's, and she started answering questions correctly when teachers called on her, doing her homework on time, and getting good grades on essays and tests. And now she was continuing on this trend, becoming more outspoken.

She did it again in 3rd period English class with Mr. O'Neill, when she mentioned Emily Bronte was the author of Wuthering Heights, which was apparently the book we'd be reading in the first trimester. I was in awe of how much she knew, but I was a little confused as to how why she was doing it. I tried to talk to her about it, but my 4th period was in the art room, and hers was gym class, so we were going in opposite directions. I saw her again in 6th period: Biology with Ms. Barch. I asked her to be my lab partner, but Quinn picked her friend Stacy instead, so I was stuck with Jamie, but at least we could take the table right behind her.

"We're going to start with ecology." Ms. Barch started. "Does anyone here know what an ecosystem is?" She posed. I ignored her, and concentrated on Quinn. She had placed her hand to her mouth and bent her neck, trying to think.

"Jeffy, perhaps you'd care to enlighten us." Ms. Barch glared at me, noticing that I wasn't paying attention. I stuttered, and then shook my head.

"What a surprise." Ms. Barch noted. "The big man can't even answer a simple question about life. All you men know is how to ruin it after 20 years of that servitude they call love." She ranted for a while.

"Miss Morgendorffer." She turned to Quinn. "Perhaps you can show the males here how a question can be answered correctly?" Ms. Barch tone changed from her snark cynicism to one of a genuine question. Quinn tilted her head and appeared to be trying to think.

"Umm...I don't know." Quinn answered. Ms. Barch offered no cynical commentary to Quinn, and turned to another student.

Quinn and I had different classes for 7th period, but we were headed in the same direction.

"Hey, Quinn, you were really smart in Mr. DiMartino's class. Can you help me with history?" I posed. Even if it was tutoring, alone time with Quinn was alone time with Quinn.

"Ummm...thanks, Jeffy, but I'm not really good enough for that. I mean, I couldn't even answer a simple biology question." I had never seen Quinn put herself down like that. It was depressing, and I had to move quickly to change it.

"You're really smart, Quinn." I praised. "You just, uhh..." I just started talking without thinking, and now I didn't know what else to say.

"I always have trouble with biology!" Quinn was actually upset now. "That stuff is so disgusting and it's really really hard. That one's going to give me trouble all year, I just know it. Oh, if only biology was more then just those really ugly animals." Quinn, now upset, quickly darted off down the hallway.

My next period was a study hall. Joey and Jamie had the same study hall, and we'd normally just play cards or something. But now, I started to think for a moment about Quinn. It didn't matter to me that Quinn wanted to answer questions and do better at school. That was fine with me. But this was odd. Quinn had confessed that she wanted to do better in biology. She knew it was going to give her trouble. So, how could I help her?

"She's gotten tutors before, I don't see why she couldn't now. But then that guy would be spending all his time with Quinn. Alone, in her room. Face to face, sitting on the same chair. Showing her whatever it was biology was." My fists clenched. They'd get a happy Quinn all to themselves, and then she'd have less free time for everything else, including me.

And that's when I had my brilliant idea. I'd just learn biology myself. I had time before football started. If I could show Quinn I knew biology, I could offer to tutor her. And Quinn would be so grateful there's no possible way she wouldn't date me.

"Yes!" I shouted, jumping from my seat and raising my fist in the air. The other students stared at me, and I realized that I forgot I was in study hall. But I didn't care. Neither Joey, Jamie, or anyone else in this school would have thought of this idea.

After school ended, I headed straight home. Normally, I would have left my books in my locker, where they would have sat for a couple weeks, but now I lugged them all home. I had hoped to get home before my father did, so I could get to my room without being accosted. But, to my bad luck, I saw his car in the driveway.

"Maybe he'll be passed out." I thought hopefully as I opened the door. But, unfortunately, I saw him in the living room lying on the couch, beer in his hand, watching ESPN.

"Jeffy." He gestured to me drunkenly. "Come on and watch this with me." His words were slurred, and I could see the beer cans around the couch that weren't there when I left this morning. Sloshed, like he was every night. Usually, I was lucky enough to get back home when he hadn't arrived yet, or when he was home, he was either passed out or so far gone, he wouldn't acknowledge me.

"Can't." I told him. "I'm studying." Normally, I wouldn't admit that I was studying to anyone, but my father would forget everything I told him by the time his hangover wore off tomorrow. I've gotten away with calling him all sorts of horrific things.

"Studyin'? You on probation or something?" He cocked his eyebrow.


"So what's the damn point. You're never going to be good in school. Just focus on that damn football scholarship, that's all you're good for." He slurred. He told me this at least once a week for about six years now. I was used to it by now.

I was in no mood for his bull, I went upstairs without another word.

I quickly went to my room, flipped on the desk lamp, and placed my biology book and my course syllabus on the desk.

"Okay, so we're starting with ecology." I said to myself as I read the syllabus. "Good. Now, what's ecology." I started to look at the book, and the words started to swirl together. None of these words made sense whatsoever. I briefly started to think that maybe I had gotten in over my head, and I'd be better suited to just getting Quinn a good gift from Cashman's instead.

"No!" I thought to myself. "This was the best idea you've had all year. No pain, no gain, now get off your ass and start reading!" I had to push myself to look back at the book again, but I focused on the letters, and started to read.

"Ecology is the study of the distribution and abundance of organisms and their interactions with the environment." I said it out loud to myself. I didn't get it, it still didn't make any sense to me, but at least I could read it and, I think, pronounce all the words correctly. So I read the passage again, and made a little more sense. So ecology was how animals interacted with the environment, why some animals were in some areas and not others, and why there was more of one animal then another.

"Okay. Now read the next sentence." My brain urged me.

I sat there, at my desk, for hours. The syllabus claimed that we would be studying ecology for several weeks. But I was making it my job to know it by the end of the week. I kept my eyes in the book, even using my computer to look up difficult words, the first time I had ever used my computer for something school-related that wasn't typing a report. The words within the book were hard to look at for such a long period, and many of the times when I read the passages, they made absolutely no sense to me. What did it matter whether or not it rained more in the summer or the winter? What did it matter what kind of leaves were on the trees? And what the hell was a littoral zone? But these were questions that Quinn would ask. These were the things Quinn wanted to know. And I was going to be the guy to show it to her. Me, Jeffrey Mercer, was going to be Quinn's tutor. And I could imagine her smile when she saw that I knew the answers she wanted to learn. I could hear her thanking voice when I offered to help her with her biology homework. I could imagine her eager acceptance to take her on a date when the tutoring went well. And when we were dating each other, and all the other guys saw me with Quinn, they'd know that I was the one who finally won her heart. All by myself.

Those thoughts kept the words from blurring together. They kept me in my chair. I never in a million years thought this would be the way I'd spend a rather pleasant summer evening. Normally I'd be going to some sort of party, or maybe Joey and Jamie would call and we'd go go-karting, or something like that. Hell, even if I was by myself, there was other things I'd rather be doing. Watching the game, playing video games, going to the shooting range, anything could have been better then studying. But Quinn was worth doing this for.

"And to think, today started out so ordinary."

It was past midnight when I looked away from the book.

"Wow, you didn't even eat." I thought to myself. The work was really intense, much harder then any workout I had ever done, even the three hour brutal ones Coach Gibson gave us that left even me feeling pain for days. My brain hurt from trying to process all the random words and facts from the biology book, and my eyes were watering from reading those tiny letters. But I think I was finally starting to get it. For the life of me, I had no idea why someone would need to know this stuff. But I was willing to believe that it was important, and I just didn't know the answer. Although I had to constantly condition myself to continue with thoughts of Quinn in the beginning, I found that the more I read the book, the less I needed to force myself. It was actually quite the challenge, and the fact that it was hard was motivating me to complete it.

"That never happened before." I thought. But I didn't consider that thought for very long. I couldn't hold very much in my head, and, other then football plans and the bits and pieces of information I knew about Quinn, this biology stuff was going to stretch my head.

"And now, tomorrow, we'll see if it all pays off."

Quinn was answering questions again in Mr. O'Neill's class after he handed out the book we'd be reading. He had mentioned it was a romance novel, and once he did, I was two steps away from throwing it out. Who wanted to read those stupid chick books? But Quinn started discussing violence and ghosts and other stuff the book apparently had, and I found myself amazed. Maybe "romance" novels were different back then.

In sixth period, Barch seemed angrier then ever. Maybe it was some anniversary with her ex-husband, but we were her targets for rage. She swung a wooden pointer around in her hands, pacing angrily back and forth. It was a bit intimidating at first, and I thought to save trying to impress Quinn until tomorrow. But I had to move quickly. Football started next week, and my time would be occupied quickly. I needed to establish myself to Quinn as someone who knew his stuff.

"There are three different types of biomes." Ms. Barch started to talk. "Who here knows what they are?" She asked. Quinn rose her hand first and answered "ones on land."

"Technically, it's terrestrial, but very good, Miss Morgendorffer. Do you know the others?" Barch cracked her first smile. Quinn tilted her head and started to think.

"Ummm...marine. I think that was the word." She responded after a quiet moment.

"That's very good." Barch replied. "And the last?" Quinn started to think again. There was another quiet moment as Quinn started to think. I rose my hand.

"Mister Mercer, do you need to use the bathroom? Well, go ahead. Say the rhyme." Barch scowled and teased. I frowned. "The rhyme" was something Barch made all the guys say if they tried to leave the room, a humiliating little ditty that made pissing one's pants only slightly more embarrassing than actually saying it.

"I don't need to use the bathroom, Ms. Barch, I wanted to answer the question." I replied. Jamie looked at me strangely, and I heard a few whispers between lab partners. Quinn turned around to look at me.

"I could use a laugh. Go ahead." Barch was expecting me, or maybe just hoping, that I would fail.

"The last one is freshwater." I answered, confident that I had the answer right. "Marine systems are just saltwater." Barch's eyes widened, and I knew I was right. She only ever looked that way when guys got answers right.

"That's correct, Mister Mercer." She stated. "But can you give me ten examples?" Barch was angry now, and determined more then ever to see me fail. I'd been wrong plenty of times in her class before, but I couldn't back down now. I looked at Quinn, and she seemed intrigued. She had a slight smile on her face as she sat backwards in her seat.

"Watch this, Quinn. I'm going to be your knight in shining armor, finally!"

"Tundra, taiga, Mediterranean forests, temperate forests, tropical forests, littoral zones, coral reefs, cold seeps, hydro-thermic vents, and the endolithic zone." I started. I was be reciting words I never knew before yesterday, and not just that, words that weren't in the textbook, things I knew from my computer research, just in case Quinn read the book too, and wouldn't be impressed. I knew that these were right, and I was pretty sure I said everything correctly. Quinn's eyebrows raised in amazement. She figured I was right, even before Barch said anything. I scanned the room, and all of the eyes were on me. Jamie's jaw dropped. Barch looked extremely pissed.

"What's the difference between an ecosystem and a habitat!" She shouted in a cruel voice, pointing to me with the pointer, leveling it just in front of my nose.

"The...the habitat is just the environment, and the ecosystem includes all the creatures?" I posed it like a question. Barch scowled, and I was now 3 for 3. I sat back down as Barch fumbled in quiet silence. No guy, at least none that I knew of, had successfully stood up to Barch and her barrage of questioning like that. I think the guys would have all been silently cheering the fact that someone slew the dragon if they weren't looking at me as if I had grown several heads. Different lab partners soon started muttering things to each other.

"How was that, Quinn?" I thought to myself, not wanting to speak aloud and let Barch chastise me for talking in class. She would be looking for an excuse to punish now.

I wanted to talk to Quinn after class, but Joey and Jamie immediately came to me before I had even put my books away.

"Dude, what was that?" Joey asked.

"What was what?" I played innocent.

"You answered Barch's questions." Jamie added.

"So?" I replied. "Barch would have just assigned more homework if someone didn't answer them."

"But you never answer questions, man. You turning into a geek or something?" Joey posed, and that was when I realized I might have overdone it. Becoming a geek would have been a death sentence. We football players were not geeks, even Mad Mack, our captain from last year who did better on his grades then the entire team, never became a geek. And my answering, although impressive, was definitely geek material.

I had to deflect this fast. Quinn would never date a geek. Even if I tutored her, there would be no chance in hell of me turning a tutor session into a date if I was unpopular. She'd laugh at me. I wouldn't be her type.

"No way, dude. C'mon, you guys know me. If Barch assigned us more homework, we'd just have less time for Quinn." We started walking down the hall to our study hall.

"Besides, dude, wasn't it cool to see Barch so pissed off. You can't say you honestly didn't want to shove that nasty attitude of hers down her throat at least once." I did admit, sticking it to Barch was pretty awesome, which made my excuse more believable. Much talk in the locker room after practice was about hatred of Janet Barch.

I saw Quinn as I left after class. Today was a Tuesday, and the guys and I were headed to the arcade, as we had done every Tuesday since elementary school. Quinn was waiting outside of the school, apparently waiting for someone. Maybe the rest of her friends.

I first thought I'd call to her, but I soon realized I didn't know how I'd gauge her reaction to my talking in Barch's class without asking her directly, and that would be pretty arrogant of me. Quinn didn't like arrogance in her guys.

"Bye, Quinn!" Was the only thing I said as I passed her, but I started walking slowly, slow enough so that Quinn could stop me.

"Hey, Jeffy!" She called. I turned around eagerly.

"Quinn, what is it!" I asked cheerfully.

"I didn't know you knew biology." She stated to me. Perfect. Let her lead the conversation.

"Yeah." I tried to act like it was no big deal. "But you would have definitely gotten that last question."

"No, I wouldn't have." Quinn dismissed, which was odd. Quinn had never before admitted something like that. She had really changed over this last summer. I didn't see her very much, since she had been working at Governor's Park, but whatever it was she had done, she was a different acting person. But she was still my beautiful Quinn, and she could make smarts look hot.

"Did you...ah...need a little help the class?" I forced a stutter to make my question sound less rehearsed. Quinn paused for a moment, as if she didn't know what to answer.

"Well, I'm going to need help in more then just biology." Quinn commented absently, as if she was speaking to someone else.

"Quinn, you're plenty smart. You did really good in Mr. O'Neill's class." I praised.

"But that's not good, that's just bleh. I..." She looked like she wanted to say something else, but a red car drove up.

"Oh, that's my mom. I have to go, bye!" She immediately ran off to the car and got in the front seat. It pulled away before I could say anything else. Perhaps they were merely running late?

After going home to grab a few bucks, I made it to the arcade.

"You're late, dude." Jamie criticized.

"That's because I was talking to Quinn." I taunted, which made Jamie kick the floor in frustration.

"But I'm here now, come on! I'm kicking all of your guy's ass tonight!" Our nights at the arcade were a habit. Every Tuesday, we came here and played a few games, and then go for food afterward. The loser bought. Luckily, the loser was usually not me; Joey often got the short end of the stick.

"Dude, you've got no reaction time." I criticized when Joey kept getting shot at a light gun shooter. "I could beat you at this completely shitfaced."

"Yeah, but at least I don't drive like an old lady." He returned, criticizing how I usually came in last on the driving games.

"I still got my license before you did." I returned. Joey didn't reply to me, he was concentrating on the game again.

"You guys don't think I'm turning into a brain, are you?" I asked once we reached Pizza Palace. Jamie had lost, which was surprising considering he kicked our asses at the basketball shooting. Neither of them answered for a moment.

"No, dude, of course not." Jamie stated. "You just answered some questions."

"Good, cause that's all it was." I let the subject drop. The last thing I needed were rumors spread to kill my chances with Quinn. And these guys, much as I liked them, were not above doing such a thing. One of them even spread the rumor that I still slept with a teddy bear, just to make me look bad in front of Quinn. All was fair in love and war, but even I thought that was pretty low.

"You know, how come whenever you lose, Jamie, you don't just take us back to your house?" Joey asked.

"Hey, yeah! Why don't you do that." I joined in. Jamie's parents were chefs, and, if I remembered, would be opening their own restaurant soon. He didn't just eat food every night, he ate cuisine. We'd get much better then pizza if we went over there.

"Because the rule is the loser pays. That's not paying." We had asked this question of Jamie before, and he always said the same thing.

"Anyway." He immediately reversed the table on us. "It's not like you guys invite me over for a home-cooked meal when I win."

"Dude, how can the stuff my mom cooks compare to that?" Joey replied.

"My dad doesn't get home until late anyway." I deflected.

"And when he is, he's passed out or just about there." I kept silently to myself. I never invited anyone over to my house unless I was certain my father was out of town. It was just the two of us there after my mom left twelve years ago, and, between the beer cans on the floor and my father's drunken nonsense, it would have been enough to make anyone hate, or worse, pity me as soon as they saw it. We three guys were together each and every day, but we almost never went to each others houses, but we never pressed it much either. I had my reasons for not doing so. They must have had their own too, although for the life of me I couldn't figure out what it was. Joey and Jamie still had both of their parents.

I walked home from the Pizza Palace since the sun was still out. On my way, I mulled over what I heard Quinn talking about outside the school.

"Well, I'm going to need help in more then just biology." She had said. There'd be no way I could learn everything in that short period of time. It was hard enough just learning biology.

"Now what, genius?" I thought. Quinn didn't want someone to just help her in one subject, and she wouldn't take someone who could just do that. Was it just a stupid idea, like so many other ones I had?

I heard a clinking sound on the pavement, and realized I dropped one of my leftover quarters. I bent down to retrieve it, and when I paused, I noticed I was standing in front of a bookstore. I don't remember the last time I had been in a bookstore, maybe to get a gift for my aunt about five years ago. It was definitely very big, but this one didn't have CD's in it like the other bookstore, so I normally wouldn't have even bothered. But I needed a smart idea to figure out how I was going to get Quinn without devoting all of my time to studying. I wouldn't h ave been able to figure everything out even if I didn't have football. But there had to be some trick to it, some way I could win.

"Coach always said if you can't rush, pass. If you can't sack, make them throw incompletes. It's got to be the same thing here. Just plain studying won't work, but maybe I can try a different path."

The bookstore was very clean and organized, but I didn't know what exactly I'd be looking for. I looked in the section with all the study aides, but those seemed to just be books for cramming. I could just use the textbooks if I wanted to do that.

So I decided to check the self-help section. These books were all pretty depressing. Trying to overcome abusive relationships, ways to make money which seemed like scams, why anyone would need this sort of crap was beyond me.

"And here you are." My mind criticized myself. I tried to ignore it as I read the book spines. Just when I thought this was going to be a complete and total bust, I saw a book that might work. The title was Effective Studying Habits. It was certainly blunt into what it promised, so I sat on the floor and read the first couple of pages.

I didn't know the first thing about effective studying habits, mostly because I never studied before. Or rather, I did study, but I did well enough to stay off academic probation and that was all that really mattered to everyone else: Coach Gibson, the rest of the team, dad. Being on academic probation meant you couldn't play football, and that happened to our team every so often, especially to our quarterback, Kevin Thompson. He was actually in the grade ahead of ours, but, through his absolutely horrible academic performance, he was held back a year. We'd have taunted him about it if we cared about that sort of crap.

The book told me some pretty interesting things. Eat a half an hour before studying, study for shorter periods rather then long ones, don't study before sleeping, or before a class. Plan things out.

"Hey, this stuff is pretty easy. Why didn't I think of that?" I thought to myself. I started to walk to the register. Thankfully, the person that worked there was a college student, and wouldn't know me. The last thing I needed was for someone to see me.

If I was caught with a book like this, I'd be over. I'd be the new Mayor of Geekland. And I wasn't a geek. I liked football, and I was still good at it. I liked having friends, I liked going out. I liked parties, and I liked dating. Quinn was the only girl for me, but I went out on dates with other girls as practice, to make sure I didn't screw things up when I was with Quinn. But taking the chance to get Quinn to notice me out of anyone else was worth the risk. That was what I told myself. And I was surprisingly eager when I made my way home. Dad was passed out, so I was able to get a quick snack of chips and Ultra-Cola so I'd be alert, like the book said, and resumed where I had left off.

The rest of the school week was uneventful. I wanted to lay low for a while. I had dodged a bullet by claiming to one-up Barch, but I definitely needed to be more tactful about how many questions I answered. I could take things too far and really screw up my chances. Quinn would never date a brain, not even once. Besides, I could hear the gossip mill working as I walked down the hall, could pick up the tail ends of conversations between people whispering during class. It was just like the beginning of junior year with Quinn, remarks of surprise that someone was participating in class. They must have been pretty stupid to think I couldn't hear them. The last thing I needed was that mill to keep turning.

I tried my best to put up a facade, acting like I did in my previous years. Throwing footballs down the hallway to my friends, not raising my hand for anything. To my surprise, Barch was eager to see me silent, and when I refused to participate, she was happy to oblige. The only thing I did differently was taking notes during class. I used to do that before, but my notes couldn't honestly be called that. They were whatever stray thought flitted into my head at the time, so my notebooks were usually filled with random diatribes about Quinn, small caricatures about my teachers, and other random doodles. Now though, they were actually very good. I wrote the key notes down that the teachers discussed, and I wrote myself questions to look at later; a suggestion from the book to make me learn more. No one looked in my notebooks enough to notice.

Although the students gave me no trouble, it was the teachers that were giving me concern. While most of my classes were easy to duck, English with Mr. O'Neill was very tricky. I knew that he and Barch were an item, and I don't know what she would have told him about me, but during class, he often looked at me when he asked his questions.

"Now, we've been introduced to two characters in Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff, and Cathy, his daughter-in-law. Who here can explain how the two of them are alike?" A few brains sitting in the front of their class raised their hands, but Mr. O'Neill looked towards the back of class, where all of us popular kids sat.

"What about you, Jeffy?" He asked.

"They...live in the same house?" I posed. It was an absolutely pathetic answer worthy of Kevin Thompson. Even before this year, I could give a better answer then that. But I was trying not to look smart. By any means.

"Well, they do." Mr. O'Neill swallowed as he spoke, what he always did since he could never actually tell someone they were wrong. "Then another question, what is it about the area of Wuthering Heights that is similar to these two?" Mr. O'Neill looked at me with shining eyes, clasping his hands together with an eager delight. Although he was always overly enthusiastic to hear the students answer, he only got that pathetically joyful with the brains.

"It's just a house, Mr. O'Neill. It's got nothing to do with them." It was a little cruel to crush him like that, but there was really no other way.

"But surely you, Jeffy, can see the similarity." Mr. O'Neill pleaded. I shook my head.

"Oh, dear. Um...well, what about..." Mr. O'Neill turned to someone else. I wrote down Mr. O'Neill's question in my notebook so I'd learn it later. He wouldn't have asked that question if there wasn't an answer.

"Jeffy, can you stay a minute?" Mr. O'Neill called my name as I started to leave for art class.

"Ummm...sure. What is it?" I tried to play dumb. Even though we were alone, Mr. O'Neill had absolutely no subtlety whatsoever, and would blab about my learning if he truly knew I was doing it.

"I'm concerned about your academic performance as of late."

"It's not even been a week yet, Mr. O'Neill, I'm not failing." I protested.

"I didn't mean to imply that, Jeffy, what I meant to say is, well, that you were doing so well in school earlier in the week and now, you're...uh..."

"What are you talking about? I'm doing the same as I've always been."

"But in Janet's, err...Ms. Barch's class, you've been doing so well."

"I just answered a simple question, jeez, it's not like I'm a brain or anything. I'm gonna be late for class." I slung my backpack over my shoulder and pushed my way out the door. Mr. O'Neill didn't stop me, not that he could. As I left the room however, I could swear I heard him sobbing a little. What a surprise.

After school on Friday were football tryouts. I wasn't exactly sure why we needed to try out for the team. I'd been on it since freshman year, and, although I wasn't on the varsity team my first year, I soon made my way to the first-string varsity running back soon enough. Joey and Jamie were both offensive linemen: the left and right tackles, respectively. Although there would be a lot of change up regarding new positions, as the seniors, including our center and captain, Michael "Mack" McKenzie, had graduated, my position probably would not change.

After tryouts, I was too exhausted to do anything else. Coach Gibson was very fair, but extremely tough, and he worked everyone really hard at tryouts just to show the newcomers that the team was a commitment full of hard work, and he didn't take it easy on anyone due to tenure.

There weren't any good parties tonight, so I figured I'd just turn in early and get a head start on my weekend. I walked back home.

"How were tryouts?" My father asked me when I came in the door. He knew they would be today. He knew everything about the football team, every event, every practice, every game, not that he actually went to them. Why the hell didn't he serve as an assistant coach or something? It was all he really cared about, anyway. But I supposed that would require effort. And sobriety.

"Same position as always. Varsity running back." I told him briefly.

"That's m'boy. But didn't that captain of yours graduate? You should be gunning for that. It'll look mighty good to a recruiter." He crushed the beer can in his hand and pushed me slightly in the shoulder with his other. The smell of the booze on his breath was enough to make me gag.

"We can't decide that now, we don't know who's on the team yet." I resisted the urge to insult him. It was still pretty early, and, since this was an important day to the football team, he might have taken it easier on the beer, so he might remember things tomorrow. Possibly.

"Hit the gym, tomorrow, Jeffy." My dad ordered. "Then you can bulk up and be the captain. You'll get scouted out, get scholarships, and you can bang that Homecoming Queen you're always fawning over." My father talked with beaming pride tempered with his drunkenness, while my face contorted in rage. Quinn wasn't Homecoming Queen, but I knew who he meant. Now that jerk crossed the line.

"You're disgusting, you fucking asshole!" I told him, resisting every urge in my body to out and out flatten the asshole. I ignored his mutters of "little chickenshit" and whatever curse words he threw my way, but he didn't make any effort to continue the fight. He'd drink more and forget tomorrow anyway. I went up to my room, undressed and lay down on the bed, seething quietly at him, and his horrible words. He said crap like this to me all the time, although he never said it about Quinn, or having sex with her. I did not just want to "get lucky" when it came to Quinn. She was different, she was special. I thought about it, of course, just like any other normal red-blooded male. But I wasn't going to force her to do anything. That would be wrong. Our first time would be by mutual agreement, and it would be magic.

"Heh." I laughed silently to myself. "That guy is such a fucking waste of space. If it wasn't for the roof over my head and the burritos in the freezer I could eat, I'd probably just leave him in a ditch somewhere. At least then I wouldn't have to worry about the house smelling like beer and vomit." I ranted at my father for a bit in my head.

"Do you approve, Mom?" I thought to myself once I calmed down a little, and my mind wandered to my mother, whom I always thought about after I fought with my father. "Are you glad I'm so respectful to women, that I consider how they feel? Oh, wait, you don't care. I forgot." I cursed in my head. My thoughts about her always ended the same, with me mentally condemning her.

My mother's name was Sheila Burton, and, before I was born, she was a stage actress, a singer. Apparently, she was lithe and beautiful, moved like a scintillating angel across the stage, and her voice could make grown men weep in awe and falls to their knees with longing. But then she met the love of her life, Nathan Mercer, my dad, and she left the stage to get married and have her first child: me. Her graceful hands only rocked my cradle. Her beautiful voice only sang my lullabies. But when I was 5, she left, and I never saw her again. I never knew where she went for the longest time; my dad never answered whenever I asked him. But, when I was 12, I learned the truth from my dad's sister, who had apparently discovered it by chance herself. She had changed her name and returned to the stage. That was when Dad turned into the drunken mess he was now. Before he learned about mom, he was a decent enough guy, took me go-karting, camping, and all the great dad stuff. He was often stressed, but he was never bad. Now, though, he just drank and drank some more. And it was all Mom's fault.

"I suppose a tour bus is no place to raise a child." I silently thought to myself, a thought I'd admit to no one. "But still, Mom, I've never heard from you. You know where I live. Why don't you want to see me?" I didn't like thinking such bitter thoughts, but I knew of no other way to feel about her. And with those thoughts, I drifted to sleep.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, I knew what my plans were. After breakfast, I'd have a quick study session, then I'd be off to the pool. Quinn usually hung around the pool on Saturday's, and the weather would be perfect today for tanning, as she normally did while there. My studying had got easier and easier as the week went on, and I found myself wondering if it was due to those tips in the book, the fact that I actually took decent notes, or, like playing games at the arcade, it just got easier the more I did it. Maybe a combination, but it didn't matter. I should be able to bring my average from D+ to B with no problems, And I'd still have time to do football, party, and date Quinn, once I got her. I'd have to cut down on studying once practice started, and I might not be able to hit as many parties as I usually did, but I had my plan set in motion. This year, I would have it all.

"Hey, dude!" Joey and Jamie met me at the pool. Quinn, surrounded by her friends, was already there. We crowded around her, offering to get her sunscreen, an umbrella, a drink, or whatever else we could think of. After satisfying her desires, we took lounge chairs close to her. Jamie and Joey went into the pool to start a chicken fight to impress Quinn, while I remained on the chair, pulling out a book of Sudoku puzzles. We always brought this with us to the pool. After all, if we were just staring at Quinn, we'd be perverts, but one could glance around and observe other people if they were taking a break from a book. I pulled out a pencil and started on one, but my eyes were on Quinn's legs for the most part, and I filled in a number only every so often. After about 10 minutes, Quinn stood up to leave. She left her bag there, so she probably was going to the restroom. I looked around to see if there was any other eye candy around, but found nothing incredible to look at. With Joey and Jamie still acting like dumbasses in the pool, I returned to my Sudoku book.

"Okay, there's a 2 in the corner, which means I've only got a 4 and 9 left in that box. The empty spot in the middle has a 4 in the same column, so it's gotta be 9..." My mind flashed furiously as I tried to work out which number went where. My pencil whirred as I completed the puzzle.

"Heh, not bad." I looked up from my book and saw that Quinn had not yet returned, so I went to the next puzzle. I tackled it with vigor, quickly penciling in the numbers, trying desperately not to make stupid guesses and follow the rules of the puzzle. It yielded to me, and I completed the puzzle.

"Oh yeah, life is good." I cheered to myself, and then I looked up from my book to see Quinn had changed out of her swimsuit and was packing up her bags.

"Huh?" I looked at my watch. I spent nearly 20 minutes on the puzzle, and I didn't even look up once. Quinn, in her bikini, with those luscious legs, was in perfect scoping view and I ignored it to do a puzzle.

"What the hell is wrong with me?" I thought.

"Yo, dude!" I heard Jamie's voice call to me. I looked up from my sunglasses.

"Quinn's leaving, dude." He told me.

"I saw." I replied. "Lucky me, I can help Quinn to her car while you guys are dripping wet." I taunted them a little, quickly shoving the puzzle book into my bag.

"Maybe I am hitting the books too heavily." I thought as I dashed over to Quinn.

The guys and I were going to meet with Kevin Thompson for a late lunch after our time at the pool to discuss football strategy for the year. Although I would have trusted anyone's brains over Kevin's when it came to tactics, even if it was football, he was still the quarterback of the team. Quarterbacks were always full of themselves; I watched enough college ball to know this, and Kevin was no exception. Football was really a team game, and all positions were important. Mad Mack understood this, and treated everyone on the team with respect. Kevin wasn't smart enough to consider that.

"So, as QB, I say we should really concentrate on bringing home State this year. We need to be sleeping, eating, and breathing the game, man." Kevin was talking as if he was already chosen to be captain. I sure as hell hoped that once we knew who the varsity squad was, this dipshit wouldn't be the captain.

"Were you always this insufferable, Kevin?" I thought. When Mack was the captain of our team, as he was for two years, Kevin's arrogance could be tempered easily. The team had a very clear chain of command, and the captain's word had a lot of clout. Mack could shut Kevin up very easily. Without him, were we doomed to Kevin's showboating tactics?

"I've seen the other teams this year practicing." Joey stated. He lived closest to two other high schools, and we often scouted our competition at other games, a suggestion proposed by Mack and encouraged by Coach Gibson. "Their defensive linemen are pretty brutal this year. I mean those guys have to be close to three hundred pounds."

"We can get bigger then that easy. More bulk-up powder and heavier weights at the gym." Kevin replied. I inwardly groaned. Not only would that take a long time, but Quinn didn't like guys like that. We'd lose a lot of games before we saw results from that strategy.

"Why don't I just go scatback? Focus on my speed." I asked. Scatback was a term used to describe a lighter running back who could avoid being tackled. I could lose weight pretty quickly, and become a much more nimbler target.

"C'mon, dude, that's not going to work." Kevin dismissed the idea without explaining why.

"It's a good idea." I proposed. "Our team has never used a scatback before, they'll be caught off-guard." Joey tilted his head and considered the idea, while Jamie readily agreed with me.

"Well, if Jeffy's the captain, why don't we all just follow his lame ideas." Kevin seemed indignant.

"Kevin, no one is captain yet, we don't even know whose on the team." I defended, although inwardly I wondered why I was retracting myself for Kevin. He was only good for his football skills and his stupid antics, which made us laugh. Strategy was always left to Coach Gibson and Mad Mack, and it served us well. We never won state, but we were always respectable. Kevin was still in his hissy fit and ended up leaving. We ate quietly for a moment.

"Hey, Jamie." I spoke up. "I heard a rumor that your parents are opening up their own restaurant."

"I did too." Joey replied.

"The grand opening is not for a while, but, but they're doing a soft opening in a few weeks." Jamie replied.

"What's that?" I asked. I'd never heard of that before.

"I don't know what it means, guys, I'm not my parents." Jamie sounded as he always did, although his tone seemed to have a touch of bitterness to it.

"But we can go, right?" I asked. "It'll be fun. I'm going to invite Quinn!"

"No way, I'm going to invite her!" Joey protested.

"Guys, why don't we just all go as a group." Jamie stated. "That's how it's supposed to be done for these types of things." Neither of us knew anything about it, so we agreed to do things that way.

"Although we probably just shouldn't go, it'll be pretty lame." Jamie stated. "It would be more fun to head out to Mackron." I chuckled. Mackron was the name of the town about an hour away, and it was where the three of us went to really party. There was this little hole-in-the-wall bar there we frequented. Joey knew the owner, and that contact allowed us to get in without being carded and be served booze. We rarely went out there, we didn't want to get caught by the police, but about once every two months we'd book a big hotel room and make a great boy's night of it. We'd only done it for about a year now, but it was a sacred event between the three of us, something we didn't even invite Quinn too. Not that she'd go to such a thing.

"We can do that any week." I returned. "This'll be great!" Joey and I invited ourselves. Jamie seemed about to protest, but shut up. We wouldn't have listened to him anyway.

Back at home, I changed out of my trunks and started putting away my pool bag, and that's when I noticed the Sudoku book again. I picked it up and looked at the puzzles I had done that day. I still wasn't very good at them. Those brainy whiz kids did them in study hall and finished them in like five minutes, while it took me closer to fifteen. But that wasn't what bothered me about the book. What bothered me is the fact that I had completely forgotten about Quinn when I was doing it. I had no other motivation other then the desire to complete the puzzle, and that bothered me.

"I'm not a brain." I said out loud to myself, nearing smacking myself in the face to regain my composure. "I just got caught up, that's all. Just a little bored." I took a deep breath.

"Phew." I thought. Now I could get my priorities in gear. Quinn, that was the goal. This learning was just to get to Quinn. I sat down on my bed, and looked at the Sudoku book again. It was open to a puzzle I had half-completed.

"Why don't you just finish it. Quinn's gone, your friends are off and away. Just something to do. Not like you have quiet when your dad's around." I thought to myself. So I sat at my desk and decided to just finish the puzzle, then head out to the florists and pick out a present for Quinn. After all, today was the anniversary of the time Quinn asked for my opinion on which necklace, a gold or a silver one, would look better with her hair since she could only afford one. I bought her both of them so she wouldn't have to decide.

I didn't stop until an hour and a half later, when I completed not only that puzzle, but six more of them. Gasping in panic, I ripped the book in half and threw in the garbage.

"Oh God, what have I done to myself?"

Although my incident with the Sudoku book was making me nervous, I pushed the thoughts out of my head to concentrate on Quinn. All of the following week, she was very quiet as of late. She wasn't raising her hand in class, she wasn't speaking to her friends at lunch, indeed, she seemed very distracted. But she seemed to be making a lot of sidelong glances at me. I could catch her out of the corner of my eye, looking at me, usually when a teacher posed a question to the class. While I was very happy that she couldn't take her eyes off me, I wish I knew what it was she wanted so that I could give it to her. She was usually very specific about what she wanted, or where I could go if I did need something. Teresa, the sales associate from Cashman's, knew me and my friends well, and could always steer us to what would please Quinn.

After a few days of me staying silent, I noticed that Quinn wasn't looking at me as much anymore.

"This won't do." I thought to myself. What did she want? Why did she look at me just when the teacher was asking the questions? Did she want me to answer them? I didn't know; Quinn knew the answers to the questions, of that I was certain. Why then, would she want me to answer them?

We were sitting in Mr. O'Neill's class, reading the book Wuthering Heights.

"Now, we see in the first half of the novel that Heathcliff and Hindley are often at odds with each other, and it culminates with the fight that Isabella breaks up." Mr. O'Neill was speaking, although I wasn't really paying attention to it.

"How do you think all of these arguments started between them, Quinn?"

"Well, it's because Mr. Earnshaw was nicer to Heathcliff. The book says that." Quinn replied rather quickly.

"Well, yes..." Mr. O'Neill swallowed again, and I started to wonder if this was a good time to speak up. Quinn did say she needed help in more classes than just biology. I rose my hand.

"Jeffy, you'd like to add something?" Mr O'Neill was not as pathetically joyful as he was last week, but he seemed like he wanted me to continue.

"I think Hindley's just stuck-up from the getgo. He's a jerk who doesn't like the fact that his father likes someone else other than him. Hindley still got star treatment." I delivered my opinion on the book. Although this book wasn't remotely as interesting as the biology books I had been reading, I could still get through it without falling asleep.

"Really?" It wasn't Mr. O'Neill who responded, but Quinn. She turned in her desk to face me.

"Well, yeah. I mean, Hindley still went to college, and then he went all angsty and married that poor girl because his father wouldn't approve. It's all just his stupid ego."

"But it's really clear in the book that Heathcliff was treated a lot better." Quinn replied to me. We faced each other, ignoring everyone else, even Mr. O'Neill, not that he would have had the courage to interrupt a student while talking.

"But the whole story is being told second-hand by that maid lady, and she's like Hindley's biggest fan-girl."

"So, Jeffy." Mr. O'Neill finally managed to sneak in a word. "You think that Nelly is the villain of the story."

"No. I don't. But her opinion is the story, so Hindley's probably a lot worse. I wouldn't be surprised if Hindley was trying to kill Heathcliff and Isabella both when they were at Wuthering Heights."

"What an...interesting viewpoint, Jeffy. Kudos to you for sharing it!" Mr. O'Neill returned to his sickeningly sweet demeanor. "Quinn, do you have a reply?" He turned to her. Quinn was looking at me with amazement, just as she did in biology.

"Yeah, Quinn. I'd love to hear what you have to say." I added. Even hearing her talk about schoolwork was hearing her beautiful voice, but, even so, I wanted to hear what Quinn thought of what I said.

But Quinn didn't reply, she looked straight at me, her eyes burning into me. I averted my gaze so she wouldn't see me blushing.

I decided to make more waves during biology, no matter what hell Barch would throw my way. I had Quinn hooked, and now I needed her to want more of me. We were talking specifically about how different creatures interact with each other in the environment. According to the syllabus, it was a transition to our next lecture about biology. Soon we'd be getting into cells, and dissections. I spoke of mutualism, where two organisms cooperated with each other, and parasitism, where one fed off the other to the host's detriment. I ignored Barch's rant into how a parasite leeched on to it's host for 20 years to jump onto another "more attractive" hosts, but I ignored her, and concentrated on Quinn. She was looking at me again, playing it cool so as not to stare, but she turned her neck so she could see me out of the corner of her eye. I just kept a normal smile, looked up at Barch and the board, and tried not to let her see how much I enjoyed her attention.

After class, Quinn came over to me.

"Hey, uhh...Jeffy?" Quinn asked. She was fidgeting a little with her pencil.

"What is it, Quinn?" I asked her eagerly. "Did you need a diet soda?" I fished in my pocket for some change.

"No, it's just, uhh...I really liked what you said. In English." Quinn praised me, and my heart starting going pitter-patter.

"Oh, ah, well, it was just...well, what I thought." I was nervous. No one had ever told me anything like that before, not that I counted Mr. O'Neill's sappy encouragement. Not a teacher, or a classmate, or anyone told me they liked what I thought, no matter where it was. The first person to ever do that was, to my surprise, Daria Morgendorffer, Quinn's older sister, who substituted our class once when the teachers went on strike.

"Umm...Jeffy..." Quinn started to get nervous again. She started to open her mouth.

"Gee, Quinn, could you hurry up?" A low voice sounded from the classroom door. There stood Sandi Griffin, Quinn's friend. I hated that girl, she was a total bitch and unashamed of it. Whereas Quinn would have a kind word if someone brought her the muffin she wanted to eat, Sandi would snatch it from the plate, and demand why her coffee didn't have extra foam.

"Oh, of course, Jeffy, my ring size is 7 for my left hand. What a thoughtful question, but I gotta go, bye!" Quinn completely said something irrelevant and excused herself, leaving me standing alone at my desk. I grabbed my books before Barch had a comment of her own to say.

In study hall, I ignored our ritual card game and instead concentrated on how I could get Quinn alone. It was clear to me she didn't want to speak to me in front of her friends about something, but it was important enough for her to ask me alone. Which meant I needed to find a time to see her alone. I could try swinging by her house, but I was worried I'd run into Quinn's parents. Her mom was really weird. The last time I had really spoken to Quinn's mom, I think she was trying to get relationship advice out of me, which unnerved me enough to not really speak to her.

Quinn's dad was really cool, and I'd hang around him if he was my age. He was like a big kid at heart. The first time I met him, I had gone over for a family dinner. During that time, me, Quinn's dad, and Daria's boyfriend, who was named Tim or Tom or something, skipped the entire meal, caught a squirrel that was terrorizing the backyard, went go-karting at a track out near the county line, and then got bacon cheeseburgers on our way back home. It was one of the best nights I ever had, even though it reminded me of yet another thing I never did with my dad anymore. It would be cool to see him again, but he would distract me from getting Quinn alone. I had ignored Quinn that time as well.

There was a football practice after school today, although I didn't want to go. I needed Quinn-time so I could make my move on her. But we'd be deciding who the captain was, and I needed to attend. Despite my father's drunken pleas, I had no intention of becoming the captain. I'd just have to deal with more hell from Kevin. So I needed to think of a good choice.

When I got to the practice, however, Kevin already seemed to be taking the leadership role, saying how he had been on the football team the longest.

"Being such a complete and utter failure should not be a matter of pride, dumbass." I thought to myself. Was someone going to speak up against the idiot tyrant? The junior members of the team were too coyed by seniority, while the seniors seemed annoyed with Kevin, but unsure how to proceed. I didn't blame them: Mad Mack did all of that stuff while he was captain. It looked like things would be up to me.

"Kevin, did we actually decide who the captain would be?" I asked.

"Of course, dude." He replied. "It always goes to the MVP."

"And...that's you?" I asked. I mentally urged the other teammates to speak up.

"Dude, I'm the QB. Of course I'm MVP."

"Even you can't be that stupid, Kevin. Right?" I thought. Why weren't the other teammates helping out? Did they want this stup-ass leading the team?

"Kevin, we decide these things by voting."

"You think you should be the captain, Jeffy?" Kevin dared.

"No, but..." I started.

"Why not, Jeffy?" Jamie finally spoke up.

"Well, because I'm not the most valuable player." I defended.

"You should do it, Jeffy." Joey perked up. Some of the other members started making overtures for me to take the reins. It was flattering. But it would interfere with my plans on studying and dating Quinn; the captain of the team had an uber amount of responsibility.

I needed to think of a quick plan.

"Joey would be a better choice then me." I quickly deferred.

"No way, dude." Joey put up his hands in protest. "I'm nowhere near as good as you."

"Of course you are. You're the one who always gets the plans from the other teams just by watching them play." This was a pretty weak premise, but it was all I had to go on.

"You always figure out just what their weak point is, and we move on that. If that isn't captain material, what is?" I posed. No one here would be smart enough to think of an answer to it. So I hoped.

"Hey, that is a good reason." Jamie turned to Joey. A sophomore I never met before quickly agreed. I quickly rallied them into a vote.

"All in favor of making Joey Venango our captain?" I asked. My hand went up, and everyone on the team, bar Kevin and Joey himself, followed. Joey looked at all of the hands, and then rose his own. While the other members of the team started cheering for him, I saw my exit and ducked out.

School was uneventful for the rest of the week, but Saturday, I reasoned, would be a good time to talk to Quinn. We were going to Jamie's parents soft opening of the restaurant, and I'd be able to get Quinn away from Sandi somehow. Even if I was walking her to her car, I'd find some chance to get to talk to her. Then, she'd ask me. She'd ask me to tutor her. And then I'd invite her over. And I'd set everything up to be perfect. I'd clean the house, which I rarely did; I'd unplug the phone; make sure my dad was out of town; hide all of my porno mags in my sock drawer, and even make sure I had condoms ready. I didn't think things would go that fast that quickly, but anything was possible; I'd never tutored Quinn before, and maybe that would put her in the mood.

The opening was supposed to be in the evening, although Jamie didn't mention what type of food they'd be serving. But it didn't make a big deal; I'd find something to eat there.

I met up with Joey on the way to the restaurant, and we saw Jamie outside.

"Hey dude!" I called. Jamie waved to us, but said nothing.

"Wow, I can't believe your parents are opening a restaurant." Joey was very excited. Jamie just shrugged.

"I've never had fine cooking like this." I added. Joey and I buzzed like two gossipy girls, while Jamie just stood back and looked annoyed with us. I wonder why he wasn't so excited.

"I guess he's just used to being around cooking like this. Must be nothing new." I reasoned.

"Is Quinn here yet?" Joey asked. Jamie didn't answer, but I looked through the window and saw her at a table. She was sitting with her friends Sandi; Stacy, the short one; and Tiffany, the one who talked really slowly.

"Well, we're all here." I stated, waiting for Jamie to invite us in. I looked through the window some more and saw Quinn amiably talking with someone in a chef coat. It was Jamie's father, although I almost didn't recognize him. It had been almost 10 years since I had seen him.

"Wow, we really do never see each other at home." I could hear laughter from the restaurant as Jamie's dad apparently cracked a joke.

"Umm...guys, you...uh...you wanna hit the arcade? My treat, dudes." Jamie was stuttering, his body shaking, his face completely pale.

"Dude, you don't look so good. Come on, let's get you inside so you can sit down." I went inside, Joey had to practically lead Jamie by the arm towards his table.

"If that isn't little Joseph Venango and Jeffrey Mercer." Mr. White greeted us as we walked in.

"Hi, Mr. White." I said pleasantly. I made sure to use my good manners; Quinn liked that, and she'd be able to see us the entire night.

"Is that all you can say, boy, it's been 10 years." He said non-seriously as he gave me a friendly bear hug. "Please, sit down, sit down." Joey and I took seats at the table next to Quinn, and we flirted with her for a bit.

"Jamie, son, sit down." Mr. White said to Jamie, who, almost reluctantly, took his seat.

"Now, let me be the first to say welcome to Le Blanc Rossignol. That means 'White Nightingale' in French." Mr. White introduced. I thought it was a weird name, but it didn't bother me.

"Me and Cassie are so happy you boys decided to come and see us tonight. Good to see my idiot son can still remember to have good manners." Mr. White was laughing through most of his sentence, although Jamie started staring daggers at him.

"What'll it be for your boys?"

"Umm...I don't know very much about French food." I stated.

"Well, then, why don't I pick for you. You look like you could use some nourishment, boy? I'll make you a traditional coq au vin." I had absolutely no idea what that was.

"Sure, sounds good." I smiled at Mr. White. He went to take Joey's order.

"What's that thing I ordered?" I asked Jamie once Mr. White had left.

"It means rooster with wine." Jamie replied. "It tastes like raccoon, it's nasty."

"Hey, dude, what's your problem?" Joey asked. "Ever since we got into the restaurant you've been all pissy." Jamie ignored Joey's accusation.

"Yo!" Joey raised his voice a little. I could understand why Joey was so upset. Jamie was acting very strangely. What on Earth could be the problem? Quinn was enjoying herself, and so were we. Jamie just looked down at the table and didn't say a word. I was about to join the assault, but I looked over at Jamie and saw that, when his father was at the table, he looked annoyed. Now, though, he looked really sad. I decided to call off the attack.

The meal came out rather quickly. There wasn't a lot of people in the restaurant, and I presumed they were friends of the Whites, since I didn't know them. I had never eaten anything like this before, but it was actually pretty tasty. I was pretty hungry to boot, and soon the food was all gone.

"I hope you all saved room for dessert." A woman's voice, Mrs. White, came out from the kitchen with two large plates. Mr. White was right beside her, carrying a pot of coffee.

"For you girls." She first went over to Quinn's table. "I've made some homemade Charlottes." She served Quinn's table a plate of cookies while Mr. White poured them all a cup of coffee.

"And you boys, my specialty, Canneles Bordelais." She placed another plate in front of us, filled with tiny little cakes served in groups of four. Mr. White also poured us some coffee.

"Now, be honest." Mrs. White asked us. "When our grand opening comes in two months, we're going to make sure everything is perfect. The newspapers and everything will be hear and we need to be perfect!" I eagerly munched on the cakes. They were very crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, but they were actually really good. I always did have a weakness for sweets, but these were beyond anything I've ever had.

"It's delicious!" I smiled. "This couldn't be better." For an extended moment, my only thoughts were food and friendship. Everyone looked so happy at our group. Quinn had a beautiful smile on her face, Stacy was eagerly chatting with Mrs. White, and even Sandi's scowl disappeared from her face. Joey was chuckling as he sipped his coffee. It wasn't until I saw Jamie that I started to get off of my high. He was staring at the crumbs on his plate, a deep frown on his face.

"Jamie, you alright, dude?" I asked. "You eat too fast?"

"I'm fine." Jamie's tone was dark as he spit out a reply.

"What's the matter with you, son?" Mrs. White scolded. "You can't be proud of your own parents for succeeding at their dream?"

"Congratulations." Jamie noted sarcastically. "It's good to see all your hard work paid off." He didn't even sound remotely sincere.

Mr. White picked up on it.

"You little punk." He joined his wife's offensive. "You gotta ruin everything, don't you?" I frowned. The last thing I wanted to do is get involved in a family spat. I had enough of those with my dad.

But Jamie didn't back down.

"At least I'm not stuck so far up each other's asses I forget the people around me." Jamie flipped his parents the finger and stormed out of the restaurant.

"Friggin' bastard." Mr. White crossed his arms. He immediately looked at us.

"I do apologize for my son's rude behavior. Your meal is on me, tonight." I would have been excited about the free meal if I wasn't concerned about Jamie.

"What's with him." I thought. "He's always the calm one." Quinn and her friends came over to our table.

"Hey, Quinn, what did you think of the food?" Joey asked.

"Where do you think he went?" Quinn ignored the question. I had absolutely no idea.

"You want to go look for him?" I posed. Here was my chance to finally get some alone time with Quinn.

"Yeah, that's a good idea." Quinn replied. "Come on, let's get going." We all stood up. Sandi stated that she would stay at the restaurant in case Jamie came back on his own, but I privately thought that she didn't want to expend effort doing something for someone else.

"Bitch." I thought. "Selfish bitch."

We all left the restaurant. I tried to get Quinn to go with me, but she went with the girls in one direction, and told Joey and I to go in the other. By the time I could protest this, she had already left. Joey and I combed the town for Jamie. We checked our usual haunts of the arcade, Pizza Palace, and other places, but found no sign of him.

"What do you think happened, dude?" Joey asked me.

"Let's ask him that." I replied. I was concerned for Jamie, this was something that was really bothering him. Why didn't I notice it when he was shaking in his sneakers outside the restaurant?

We checked places we'd never thought we'd look. The school, the library, and those turned out to be busts as well. We eventually found him in the graveyard.

"Why are you here?" I thought as Joey and I moved towards him. Joey started to call towards him, but I shook my head quickly so he'd stay quiet. Jamie was on his knees, looking at a gravestone. The sun was setting so I had a hard time seeing, but I think I heard him mumbling something. A prayer? Of the three of us, he was the only one who went to church every Sunday.

Before we moved forward, we called Quinn and her friends. She was on the other side of town, but Stacy was close by and she offered to come by as well. I wasn't planning on waiting though, so after we talked to the girls, Joey and I made our way towards Jamie, who still hadn't noticed us.

When we got closer, I was able to read the tombstone. The name on it was Eleanor White. I didn't know anyone with that name, but I read the dates on the tombstone. She was born in 1937, so she must have been Jamie's grandmother, and she died about 9 years ago.

"Hey." I called to Jamie, not that I knew what else to say. He turned his head and looked towards us. I could see his eyes watering.

"What's up?" Joey asked, in a very quiet, solemn tone I had never heard Joey take before today. Jamie stood up and wiped the dirt from his pants. We took a seat on a nearby bench. He didn't say anything for the longest time.

"Who's Eleanor White?" I asked him.

"My grandma." He said. I didn't know how to continue from here.

"Why are you here?" Joey asked.

"Fucking pretentious stuck-up shitbags." I heard Jamie curse, and I knew who he was talking about.

"Did something happen to your parents? Something about your grandmother?" I asked. I never knew my grandparents, any of them, and I wasn't sure if this was how to go about such a problem.

"My..." Jamie started to talk, but clammed up.

"Tell us, dude. We're not going to bite." Joey stated. I glared at him for making a joke, but Jamie didn't seem to notice.

"My grandma had cancer." Jamie stated, and I started to frown. I didn't know anyone with cancer, but it sucked to high heaven. I held my tongue and let him continue.

"Everyday I came to visit her in the hospital. Every day." He stated. Nine years ago, we would have been only eight, in second grade. That must have been really hard. I couldn't imagine how hard it was.

"We talked about what we'd do once she got better. She liked the trashy gossip magazines, reading romance novels, and all that. But one day she told me that everything was okay. She wasn't scared, and neither should I be. Then I left the hospital, and she died that night." Jamie told me a very sad story, and I felt my own heart breaking. I wanted to say some words of encouragement, but what would I know? I never lost someone like that.

I was scared to speak, but I decided I needed to ask.

"Where do your parents come into play for that story?" I asked. No matter how sad his grandmother's death, I knew that it was because of his parents that he fled the restaurant that night, not her.

"Those fuckers." Jamie cursed again. "They never came to see her dude. Not once. They just dropped me off at the door and filled out the paperwork. I did everything myself. And after she died, they started cooking non-stop. Always together, cooking up a storm, changing this sauce or tweaking that recipe. All the time they were together. Never had any time for me. Never talked to me about it. I didn't get the whole death stuff, and they weren't about to help me out." I bowed my head. This was serious; I never knew Jamie had such horrible issues with his parents. Did that make me a horrible friend, because I didn't know?

"It's the same reason you never talked about that drunk loser you call dad." I thought. It was a needlessly depressing story, and I wouldn't have wanted to bum Jamie out with it. So, it was the same, was it? It was the same with him?

"Hey, man, I know how you feel." Joey started to be sympathetic and put his hand on Jamie's shoulder, but Jamie smacked it off and jumped to his feet.

"What the hell would you know?" Jamie was angry. "You've got two rich parents who always give you great gifts and new clothes and even help you get gifts for Quinn. My parents once spent all night in the kitchen and locked me out of the house! I had to sleep in the park!" Jamie looked ready to punch Joey.

"Hey, man. Calm down." I tried to make sure this didn't escalate. We'd fought before a lot, fought to the point where one or all of us was unconscious. But a fight here would be wrong. Not because it was the cemetery, but because it was for the wrong reason.

"Shut up, Jeffy." Jamie replied. "Don't tell me to calm down. You couldn't possibly understand."

"Yeah, I never understand what it's like to feel abandoned by my parents. My fucking mom packed up and left when I was five and I never saw her again." I was indignant; I could no longer think straight.

"At least you never had any expectations for her. She was just gone and that was that. My mom sleeps in the room next to me and she wouldn't care if I ran off and joined the Army." Jamie still looked like he was about to fight. I stood up to meet his gaze, Joey standing right beside me. Our eyes were locked. I tried to keep myself scowling seriously, while Jamie's face was contorted in rage. Then, he face softened. Fury gave way to despair, and Jamie had lost the will to fight. Instead, he looked like he wanted to disappear. I heard him mumble "grandma" again.

"So, here you are." I heard Stacy's voice sound off from the side. She looked skittish, like a rabbit fleeing from a hunter. She must have heard our conversation, or see us about to throw down in a cemetery.

"Hello, Stacy." I used her to help calm me down. "Were you listening?"

"I heard some of it." Stacy replied. She walked over to Jamie, and I stepped back.

"Hey, Jamie. I'm not really smart or anything, and I don't know everything about what happened between you and your family. I may not be as smart as Quinn or Jeffy or anyone else here, but your friends just want you to be happy. It's a stupid thing to say since I never met her or anything, but I think your grandmother just wants you to think fondly of her, and not fight with everyone." Jamie didn't say anything to Stacy's reply. I knew that, despite whatever rage he would feel, he would never hit Stacy. He was too good a guy for that, which is why I was comfortable enough to let her speak to him.

"Dude, I'm sorry if I made fun of you about the restaurant." Joey stated.

"We both are." I agreed. Jamie's shoulders slumped.

"Why don't I take him back?" Stacy offered. "I think I can handle it." As timid as Stacy was, she was definitely getting through to Jamie, and I nodded.

"And Jamie, if you ever need a place to crash the night, you can always stop by my place." Joey offered.

"Likewise." I noted, hoping I'd never have to actually do it. It was positively criminal that Jamie's parents left him like that. Jamie didn't reply either; Stacy just quietly led him away.

Joey and I stood there in quiet silence for a moment. There was nothing to say. I silently mulled over the past couple of minutes, as well as Stacy's words. Did she think I was smart? Was that a bad sign, that was I overdoing the school thing again? Or was it just Stacy, who was always that self-depreciating? I didn't really want to think about it now, but there was nothing else I could do about Jamie. I could have prayed, but I stopped praying about three years ago, when my wishes for my mother went unanswered for over a decade. I had no intention of starting empty wishes again. Joey and I faced each other, we didn't know whether to laugh, speak, or whatever. So we nodded to each other, and turned around to head back home.

As I went back home, I ran into Quinn. I started to tell her what had happened, but she mentioned that Stacy had already told her the story.

"Thanks, Quinn." I smiled. "For helping us out." She was the one who organized us, and I was happy that she was around. I probably wouldn't have even gone to find Jamie if Quinn hadn't stated out loud her feelings on the situation.

"Hey, Jeffy?" Quinn asked.

"Yeah?" I posed. I had almost forgotten that this was the private moment I wanted with Quinn. But she didn't say anything. Maybe she, like me, was so confused that she didn't know what to say.

"Do you..." She finally started to get out. "Do you...do you think that maybe, one day...I could stop by and you can help me with bio?" She asked. "I mean, it's going to get really disgusting with the dissections and all and you kinda know it."

"Sure!" I eagerly agreed. "Why don't we work out a time next week?" I offered. Quinn seemed pretty happy with the arrangement, but I was happier. Finally, my work was paying off! Now Quinn was going to come to my house, alone, just to see me. I tried to play it cool, tried to look like I didn't feel like flying. But I had a goofy smile on my face, and I even danced a little jig, as I walked back home.

It was too late to do anything when I got back home on Saturday, so, on Sunday, I spent the entire day cleaning the house. I couldn't remember the last time I did it; I never invited people over besides Jamie and Joey who didn't care, so there was no need to make it look good. And my father certainly wouldn't expend the effort.

The task was daunting, and actually extremely exhausting. Our house was not a very big one: it only consisted of my room, the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, the bathroom, and the den. I wouldn't need to worry about my father's room. I cleaned up all the garbage, dusted all the tables, and even scrubbed the floors. As I cleaned, I couldn't help but feel just a little embarrassed at my own squalor. Our family was not poor, by any stretch, but the years of neglect turned this house into something pathetic to show off.

"Well, I guess I can just do this. The ceilings may be yellow when it once was white, but there's nothing I can do about that. Not on my own." I tried to pass the time by humming myself a little tune, but I instantly regretted it as my thoughts drifted back to my mother. Would she be quietly singing as she did things like this too?

The cleaning took all day. By the time I was finished I had filled maybe four giant trash bags. But the house actually looked a lot better. Hopefully, touching up after my father wouldn't be this exhausting. Now I needed to decide on a time when Quinn could actually come over, which meant a time when my father would be somewhere else.

I groaned. That meant actually speaking to my father, and ignoring his prodding long enough to figure out when he's be at his sister's, or hitting the bar, or something. But he wasn't around tonight.

"Hardly a surprise." My weekends were usually completely free of his influence. I had no idea where he went, and neither did I care. Not that I could use that to my advantage; as if Quinn would ever study on the weekend.

But since Dad would be somewhere away, there was little else to do. I studied up on some of my bio, since Barch had announced our first test would be this week, and then decided to head on over to Jamie's to check on him. His parents weren't at home; they'd of course be at their restaurant, and so I figured it would be okay to go over without being announced.

Jamie was home, to my surprise, and he invited me in. Surprisingly, there was very little to say. He just said he was sorry for being such a douchebag, and I told him not to worry about it.

"And sorry about the other thing." He told me afterward. "About your mom."

"Hey, no big deal." I replied. "You were right about that. I never did think much of her." I had no desire to go into a conversation about her any further then that, and Jamie knew it, so he let the conversation drop.

"But if you feel that bad about it, we're thinking of hitting up Mackron in two weeks. You can buy the first round." I joked, and Jamie laughed. Now, things were back to normal between us.

"Wanna hit the arcade?" He asked. I agreed, and waited while he called up Joey. It was good to see Jamie well-adjusted so quickly. Last thing I wanted was my good buddy bummed out.

By the time we all met at the arcade, we had all but forgotten yesterday's unpleasantness at the restaurant. Jamie was on fire when we were racing, and he even did better then me at the light gun shooters, which was odd. I always won the shooters.

After we hit the arcade, I headed back home to call Quinn. Although it probably would have been easier to head over there myself, I wouldn't have been able to speak to her alone. She was already self-conscious enough about asking me for bio help, and it wasn't as if Joey or Jamie being there would make it easy.

"Hello." Quinn answered the phone.

"Hey, Quinn, it's Jeffy."

"Oh, hi Jeffy." Quinn's voice actually lowered a bit. Was she trying to keep things quiet?

"I just wanted to ask when would be a good day to stop by and, y'know, help you out with your bio?" I posed the question very directly so as to avoid Quinn having to say anything about tutoring. If she was with Sandi or someone else, we wouldn't make any progress if she had to say things out loud.

"Oh, yeah. We should do that. What about Wednesday?" She asked. Wednesday we had football practice.

"Sure!" I agreed. It would be easy to blow practice off. Us three guys did it all the time if it meant a date with Quinn, not that it happened that often.

"My place or yours?" I asked, only realizing after I said it that I had no idea whether or not my father would be home.

"Mine. My parents will be out, and I planned on using that night anyway for this." Quinn answered as I silently breathed a sigh of relief.

"But, uhh...I could swing Monday at your place to get started. I'll see you then. Bye." Quinn hung up quickly. Although I didn't mind that Quinn wanted to see me, I was concerned for my father. What hell would he cook up when he discovered Quinn and I were in my room? And, if things did go the way I wanted them, would the ensuing humiliation my father would ensue on her cause her to hate me, or land me in jail for finally snapping and murdering that asshole?

During class on Monday, I made sure Quinn was noticing my aptitude for our assignments. I didn't want her to freak out at the last minute and bail. Everyone in the entire school was looking at me strangely, but I ignored them. Joey and Jamie didn't say anything to me, but Kevin, who was in my class with Ms. Bennett, seemed to take offense.

"Dude, what are you, a brain or something?" He asked me when class was over. Economics was my 5th period, and I was eager to get to Barch's class quickly.

"Don't you have something better to do that piss me off? If not, I suggest buying some deodorant, dude. You stink." Kevin's bullshit was always annoying. When he was on the field, he could be tolerated because he kept his mouth shut. In school, we could have done much better without him.

"I'm just saying, dude, you aren't in the game anymore."

"We haven't had a single game yet." I returned. "I'm just not hitting the gym non-stop. We don't have to do that."

"I mean, come on, dude, you're a football player. We don't have to take tests and study, we have the game. If you need to get a by, I'm sure Coach Gibson can help you."

"I don't need a by, Kevin, that's you, remember. Now get out of my face, you're irritating me!" I stormed off down the hall. I think I could have been more tactful. But Kevin didn't spread gossip, at least, he only did to the other football players, and I had a pretty good rapport with them, I think. I mean, they wanted me over Kevin to be the captain.

School ended without incident, and, when I got home, I realized my father hadn't arrived yet.

"Now, if Quinn can get here before he does, we can just head upstairs and stay quiet. Then Dad will be passed out by the time Quinn's ready to leave." It was a very chancy plan but maybe things would work.

To my fortune, Quinn arrived about an hour later. I eagerly brought her into my room. I couldn't help but feel a little giddy. I knew for a fact that she had never been inside Joey or Jamie's bedrooms before. I was the first one to get her in there. She took a seat on my bed.

"Is there a specific place you want to start, Quinn?" I asked. I had never tutored anyone before, but I had been tutored several times, in order to get off academic probation. I tried to approach it like they would. I knew that the test was going to be on ecology, as that was the only thing we were studying thus far. Quinn didn't answer me, so I just started from the beginning.

During our tutoring session, Quinn had her eyes on me, more than on the book. It was very exciting, and I tried not to show my excitement. But soon it actually started to unnerve me a little bit. It was as if she was looking at something at a museum, and not at my handsome face and ripping muscles.

"Hey, Quinn, is something wrong?" I asked. I knew that I had showered, shaved, combed my hair, and did a damn good job of it, before she came over. I even put on deodorant and cologne so that nothing could possibly offend her. Quinn didn't answer for a moment.

"Ummm...Jeffy." She started. I didn't exactly know what was going to happen. Was she going to make this more intimate? I was a little nervous, well, a lot nervous, actually. I had only gone as far as making out before. As much as I wanted to get closer with Quinn, the fact that I had absolutely no idea how to properly do things like that was a little daunting.

"Jeffy, can I ask you something?" Quinn asked me formally, which was weird. Quinn was always direct.

"Sure, anything!" I cheerfully agreed, having no idea where this would be going.

"What made you want to do science?" She asked. The answer to that was very simple; I learned it so I could tutor Quinn. Alone. But I absolutely could not tell her that. She'd think me some sort of creep or stalker. I had to think of something quick.

"Ummm...well...I do good at it." I replied. That wasn't a lie, I was doing well at it. Even before this year, I did have a decent handle on science. But, between spending most of my time with football, Barch's "encouragement", and the jeers given to all the brains, I didn't really put forth the effort to learn it.

"But you did good at English too." Quinn pointed out, and I acknowledged that. English was actually the subject I did the best in at school before this year. That was partially due to Mr. O'Neill being a pretty easy grader, though. I didn't want to say that to Quinn.

"Well, I guess it's just more interesting." Coach Gibson sometimes mentioned biochemistry during practice. When we were doing weight training, he sometimes mentioned how the body builds muscle, and, supposedly, understand that would help us do things better.

Quinn didn't reply, but she looked at me as if she wanted me to keep talking. My brain racked my mind, trying to think of something to say that wasn't a lie. I didn't want to lie to Quinn.

"Well...uhh..." I stuttered.

"Do you want to do this stuff when you grow up?" Quinn asked.

"Yeah!" I said quickly without thinking it through.

"Crap." I thought. I hadn't thought this far ahead. Now what would I say?

"There's...there's...I think I can do some good with it." I had stopped thinking about Quinn for a moment, and just thought about the science. Almost everything done with science could be good, especially this biology.

"Like what?" Quinn asked.

"Well, I haven't thought that far yet, but I think I can learn medicine." I stated. It was the only thing that I could think of with what to do with a degree in biology. Isn't that what they all did; became doctors? I knew I was lying to Quinn, and I felt bad about it, but I didn't know what else to say without her instantly hating me.

"That's...that's really good." Quinn replied. She brought her knees to her chest and started to think.

"What do you want to do, Quinn?" I asked her. She didn't reply, she was mulling something over in her head.

"Well, I actually need to get going. There's a big sale at Cashman's, you know. Big sale."

"Hey, I'll go with you."

"No...no, it's a...it's a lingerie thing."

"I don't mind!" I said cheerfully.

"Jeffy!" Quinn shouted, and I frowned. So much for getting to second base. But it was the first time we were here. What else could I expect?

"We're still on for Wednesday, though, right?" I asked cheerfully.

"Ummm...yeah. And thanks, Jeffy." Quinn bounded out the door. I followed her, just to make sure my father didn't stop her. But the old drunk was already passed out, and I was satisfied.

After I was sure Quinn had gone, I went back up to my room.

"She was acting strangely." I thought. Stranger then that time she wanted to get a steady boyfriend. I didn't mind; Quinn was still Quinn, but it was very odd. Her questions were so...personal. Usually she never asked questions about my personal life. And never ones like those. About college and life paths and all that. I was starting to wonder if she had watched some trippy television show or something.

"And what about you, Jeffy. You were bullshitting the entire time trying to answer her because you didn't want her to know the truth." My brain was chastising me. Did I lack confidence because I thought of myself only in relation to Quinn? Or was I just selfish and competitive, wanting her because everyone else did? And, given that I was so easily able to casually tell her fibs, did that mean I didn't care about her? That my attraction was just physical?

"Shut up!" I yelled at myself internally. God, what was wrong with me? I never thought like this about myself before now. But my mind kept on spinning.

"And what are you going to do with a biology degree, Jeffy?" My mind taunted me again. "You think you can get Quinn into bed with that? Four years of hard work for one night?"

"No!" I protested out loud, not even realizing I was shouting at first. I sat back down on the bed, breathing heavily. God, this was so confusing. I didn't want to be a brain because brains had no friends. Brains had no fun. Brains just sat around in a world of books and thought themselves better then everyone else. My friendships were important; football was important. It meant more to me then biology and schoolwork, that was for certain. So I was telling myself.

But I still liked biology. I was even reading ahead in the bio books during my study sessions, learning all about the different organelles of cells, how everything worked. I could understand the different systems of the human body, even the really weird ones like the lymphatic system. It was interesting, and I liked it. I did well at it when I applied myself, and, to my surprise, I didn't even think of Quinn when I did it; it was interesting enough on it's own. And the more I thought about that lie I told to Quinn, about how I wanted to learn biology, the more I discovered how much of a lie it wasn't. I didn't know what I'd do with college the next year, or even where I'd go, but when I picked a major, I think that was what it was going to be.

"Jeffy Mercer is not a brain. He has friends, he dates, he plays ball like a bad-ass." I said to myself.

"So, why?" I said aloud, quietly to myself as I lay down to sleep. "Why does he keep wanting to learn more? And why does he like it?"

Wednesday with Quinn was all business, although, honestly, I expected it to be. We dealt with bio, although Quinn did ask me a couple of questions about Mr. DiMartino's history class. I wasn't as helpful in that subject. Quinn had been extremely attentive in that class, and thus, I didn't bother learning it as much because I didn't think she'd need the help. I told myself to review it next time.

Quinn also didn't ask me any questions like she did during my first session, and I was thankful. It was weird enough that I had no idea what I'd do after high school; someone asking me questions about it was giving me a coronary, even if it was Quinn who was asking me.

But I think the sessions went well. I brought over flowers when I had came and she was thankful, although she seemed happier to see me then the gift. That was a good sign; that was a great sign. As much as I loved getting Quinn gift, they did stretch my wallet a bit.

I was high-flying all week, and man, did it feel good. I aced Barch's test, snuck a B out of Mr. DiMartino's pop quiz, and, when Mr. O'Neill assigned our first essay on Wuthering Heights, I was all ready for it. I couldn't take it too seriously, though. Mr. O'Neill had a very bad habit of announcing to the world and it's mother when people did well at things. Although Quinn might not mind it, someone else probably would. Jamie, Joey, or someone on the football team would probably take offense. Our first game was starting soon, and Homecoming was three weeks away. I hadn't been paying attention to practice much, but our team was doing decently and messing up that synergy with rumors could make things go downhill.

Surprisingly, I didn't care much about that. I was not Kevin Thompson, whose only measure of success was football, but I had friends on the team. Not as close to me as Joey and Jamie, but I liked working together with them and we had parties every so often together. Not to mention my father was a lot tamer when our team was winning.

After a rather tough practice and quick weight training at the gym, I was ready to head back home and get cracking on my essay. Us three guys had decided we were going to head to Mackron before Homecoming, since we'd be pretty busy that whole week, and I wanted to make sure I had nothing to worry about when I left.

Before I headed home, though, I was stopped by Coach Gibson.

"Jeffy, come in my office." He had instructed. Coach Gibson was a very odd one. He was a gym teacher, although I had never had him during my time at Lawndale. He was dedicated to the game, that much was certain, and he was of the opinion that all other things were subordinate to it. This was encouraged by our school's principal, Ms. Li, who was obsessed with gaining prestige for the school. I couldn't count the number of under-the-table deals were worked out to attempt to keep the team playing all the time. I never needed one myself, although I had come dangerously close a number of times.

On the other hand, he was actually a very pleasant individual who often showed great concern for me, as well as for the other team. He was one of the few who knew my father was a drunken lush, although he only knew that because I had blurted it out during my sophomore year. And he sympathized with me. Coach Gibson was the one who told me that I was me, and I didn't need my father's approval if he spent his nights completely sauced.

"Yes?" Although I was certain he was just going to give me grief for skipping out on Wednesday's practice, I tried to play dumb anyway. Sure enough, he had asked me about it.

"I was..." I briefly considered lying. No one knew yet that I was tutoring Quinn. I hadn't told anyone, and Quinn was certainly keeping things under wraps, so I could easily get out of things by claiming sickness.

"Well, I'm just trying to get my grades up." I told him. I'm not exactly sure what I was thinking, telling him this. Did I want him to encourage me, say the supportive words my father would never say? Or did I want an adult to validate what I was doing, tell me it was the correct path? I wasn't sure, and it made me nervous.

Coach Gibson didn't say anything for a moment.

"Are you grades low?" He asked me.

"They were." I replied. It was true. My average before this year was a D plus, although I rounded the decimals to a C minus. Practically everyone else on the team had similar grades. Report cards were months away, but I knew I'd be doing better then that. Only our captain had ever gotten high grades. But Mad Mack went to every practice and every game. Coach wouldn't have cared if his grades were low or high since his dedication was proven.

"You concerned about college or something, son?" He asked.

"A little." I replied. With all that was on my plate, I hadn't started thinking about college until Quinn asked me the questions. But it was in the back of my mind now. Originally, my plan was just to get a scholarship and go to a Division 1 state university, but I doubted those plans now. I didn't want my life to be such triteness.

Coach Gibson leaned back in his chair.

"Try not to miss practice, son." He told me. "You're one of my star players this year."

"Oh, you don't need to say that." I replied. I didn't mind if people praised my football skills, but when Coach Gibson did it, it felt, well, more sincere. It made me feel like a little kid praised by his parents for coloring inside the lines.

"I mean it, Jeffy. I saw how you rallied the team to pick Joey as captain over Kevin, and that kind of rapport is good for morale. And, like I always say..."

"...Morale is key to everything." We finished at the same time. That was what had made me nervous about doing what I did this year; our team might suck if they thought me egotistical.

"Do you think it was a good choice, to pick Joey?" I asked him, trying to turn the attention away from my grades.

"You mean because the team thought it should have been you?" Coach Gibson replied.

"Yes, sir."

"Joey's got a decent enough head on his shoulders. He's got a good tactical head on his shoulders.." The coach didn't answer my question, although he probably thought he did. I decided not to press it.

"I should be going now." I told him. He dismissed me. I don't know if I felt better or not telling the coach the truth. I knew he wouldn't talk about it with anyone, but he didn't criticize me for it. That was a good sign. Possibly.

The next week passed by pretty typically. We started our first game with high energy. The team we were playing against had poor guard against rush plays, and Joey caught up on that. He initiated quite a number of running plays, and, with superb blocking from Jamie, the right tackle, we managed to win the game 28-10.

This was great. Now our trip to Mackron would be full of good cheer and high spirits. We'd even canceled trips up there because we had lost games. Jamie, in particular, always seemed to take losing harshly.

School itself was uneventful the next week. There was lots of buzz as various clubs got set up for the school's Spirit Week, the precursor which led to Pep Rally. Sports teams, though, did surprisingly little in regards to that. We were playing; our spirit was proven. The other clubs needed to show pride, not us.

Mackron was about an hour away, on the state line. I think Joey used to have family there, but they moved away a while ago. However, during his time there, Joey had met someone who really liked him. She was a Vietnamese woman, emigrated from the country after the fall of Saigon. I couldn't pronounce her name correctly, even though I tried very hard. She wasn't angry about it, though, and told us to call her "Iris" as that was what her name meant in her language.

Iris had done various sorts of odd jobs when she came to the States, but eventually she set up a very popular bar that was often frequented by the nearby colleges in the area. She made killer profits every night, and always had good music playing. Although Joey never told us the story about how the two of them met, she knew all three of us, and liked us a lot. She even caused us a Vietnamese word that she told us meant "my sons." It was this friendship that allowed us to get into her nightclub, free of both cover charge and the need to have ID. We'd still have to pay for drinks, of course, but these types of nights could never be had without a fake ID, and they had a host of other problems. I knew quite a number of people at Lawndale who were busted for having those.

Our routine for the trip was simple, at least it was for me: I only brought a toothbrush and toothpaste. That was it. I didn't need to tell anyone about the trip, not that my father was around to notice, or sober enough to care. If he asked, I'd just tell him I told him before where I went. He could never remember what happened the previous night anyway. I'd walk to Joey's, who had the best car for making such a trek. Once all three of us were ready, we drove out, booked a hotel room, then went to the club before it opened. We'd help Iris set the place up for the evening's customers, and then she'd let us in the service entrance once the night got started so we could get past the bouncer. Once we were inside, no one bothered to check ID.

"Hey guys, have you guys noticed Quinn recently?" Jamie asked once we were on the highway.

"Yeah, of course. We notice everything about Quinn." I returned.

"I mean how she's been acting. She's been becoming a brain or something."

"A brain?" I protested. "Come on, Quinn wouldn't do that."

"I'm serious, guys. I asked her for help on my English essay, and she agreed. And when she talked to me about it, she really knew her stuff."

"So?" I posed. A perfect deflection for his concerns.

"You think someone's been tutoring her again?" Jamie asked.

"No way!" Joey was the one protesting now, although he still kept his eyes on the road. "Quinn wouldn't do that during the school year."

"But what if she is, guys? Quinn won't have time for dates anymore." I turned away to face the road, so the guys wouldn't see me laugh. So they finally caught on, although they had no idea Quinn's true tutor was right under their noses.

"What difference does it make. It's not like they're dating or anything." I shrugged as I spoke.

"What if it's some pervert looking to get close to Quinn?" Jamie asked.

"You say that about everyone Quinn meets." I returned. "But we're worrying for nothing. If Quinn wants to learn, let her. It's hot."

"Everything she does is hot." Joey agreed. Jamie let the conversation drop, although now I was the one starting to think. He was none too pleased that someone was with Quinn like that. And if he found out it was me, what would that mean? He would never accept that I was closer to Quinn then he was. Would he break up my relationship with Quinn? Or worse, would he say our friendship was over?

After reaching the hotel room, we drew straws to see who'd be sleeping on the couch, and Jamie lost.

"Heh, karma." I thought. It was still early, so we went and got some pizza before heading to Iris's bar around 6.

"Nó là con trai cu?a tôi!" She cheered when she let us in. I didn't know Vietnamese, but I knew what this meant. She was calling us her sons again. It always felt nice to hear that.

"Good to see you." Joey hugged her affectionately.

"Talk later. Get to work, lazy boys!" She ordered in broken English. The bar was Iris's sanctuary, and we were not allowed to touch it, but there were stools to clean, tables to wipe down, the floor to mop. It was a lot of hard work getting a bar open each night, and I wondered how Iris did it all by herself each night. Maybe she had other kids like us for different nights. We were quiet as we got the place ready. These forays of ours were boys's nights. There were no fights, no talks of Quinn. The world only consisted of us three and the bar. They were so important to each of us that even Quinn could not stop them. I remember, one time last year, when Joey decided to not take Quinn on a date because we had planned one of these nights.

We were let into the bar around 11, when the place got a decent crowd. Jamie bought the first round for us; and I milked him for what it was worth by getting a rum-and-coke double. Joey decided to cut a rug with some girls from a nearby community college while Jamie and I quietly nursed our drinks for a bit.

"Hey, are we allowed to dance on the bar?" A slightly tipsy college girl asked Iris as she placed her glass on the bar. Iris shook her head.

"It was worth asking." I chuckled at her. She laughed at me.

"You're not dancing." She returned

"Not a really good one." I laughed again, taking another swig of my drink. "But I'll dance with you, if you want." Without even waiting for an acceptance, I got up from my stool and started dancing. I really wasn't a good dancer, but I knew to rock my shoulders and shake my butt a little to the rhythm, and that was enough for her. I never asked her for her name; I wasn't interested in doing anything with her more then dancing, and I probably would never meet her again for the rest of my life, and it didn't matter to me. My gloomy thoughts about Quinn and Jamie were disappearing because of her, and that was all I needed her for. We danced for about twenty minutes, and I returned to my bar stool. Jamie was still seated, drinking, although another girl had pressed her ass to his back and was shaking it. Jamie was getting into it, dancing from his stool.

"Having a good time?" I asked. Jamie nodded, although he was a bit more somber then the two of us when it came to our nights in Mackron. I gather it was probably about his parents; must have been tough to go home to them every night. At least I could ignore my useless father.

"Yo!" I heard Joey call over to me. He had his arm around a college-aged girl with short strawberry-blonde hair. Not as cute as Quinn, but definitely a hot little number.

"Guys, this is Ruby." Joey's speech was slurred, and I gather he had gotten some more drinks already. Or maybe I was just a slow drinker.

"Hey." Ruby was as drunk as Joey was.

"Hey, we're going to call it a little early tonight." Joey told us, and I stared at him like he grew another head. He was going to leave with some girl? On our boy's night? I suppose there was no rule against it, but it was the strangest thing that had happened all year. Even stranger then me learning bio.

"Hey, whatev." Jamie seemed nonchalant. "Just make sure you're ready to leave when we have to get back tomorrow."

"I know, I know. Hey, say goodnight to Iris for me." Joey walked, half-supported by Ruby, out the door.

"That was weird." Jamie stated. I agreed, although I didn't want to talk about it now. The music was too loud, and I didn't want to think. I had enough to think about already.

"You need another?" Iris came over and noticed my empty glass.

"Yeah. Hard stuff. Bourbon on the rocks, please."

Jamie and I drank and danced with some girls until about 1:30. Mackron was a small enough town so that everything was close enough to walk too, and we reached the hotel in about 15 minutes of walking. When we made it up to our room, the first thing I noticed was the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door of our room.

"All right, Joey!" Jamie cheered. I tried to hush him, although I was pretty impressed too. There was only one reason why that sort of sign would be on the door: Joey had come back to the room with Ruby and had sex with her. He was the first one out of all of us to score a touchdown.

"Think we should go in?" I asked Jamie. He nodded. Joey left around midnight, so the two of them were probably done by now. I opened the door. The room was dark and quiet. I told Jamie to hush again as I made my way into the room. I noticed Joey was asleep alone in one of the beds. Although, from the clothes strung around the room and the smell of the perfume I could remember Ruby wearing, I think I had known what happened here.

"Hey, dude, I got Iris to give me some beers to go." Jamie reached into his pockets and pulled out some bottles of Bud.

"You want?" He offered. I declined, I was too sleepy. I chuckled briefly to myself as I got ready for bed. Perhaps it may have been the booze, but it was still a little unbelievable that Joey managed to score. And I knew exactly what things would be like tomorrow. He'd be talking about it on the ride home, every squishy and X-rated detail would be ours to savor. It would be his badge of honor. And I'd listen. After all, I didn't plan on being the only virgin at Lawndale. I was waiting for someone special, though. Waiting for Quinn. It was pretty cool of Joey to just screw randomly like that, but it couldn't compete with being Quinn's first. Cute as Ruby was, she just wasn't Quinn.

I woke up with a hangover, like I usually did whenever we went to Mackron.

"Wow. That was some night last night." I was able to get up without feeling sick or the room spinning, so I probably didn't go overboard last night like Jamie did. He was still dozing off on the couch, empty beer bottles around him.

"Like Dad." I thought briefly, but I dismissed the thought. Jamie was not my dad; he was considerate and friendly, and at least the bottles were stacked neatly on the table, rather then strewn around on the floor.

I turned around to Joey's bed, and saw it empty. I wondered where he was for a brief second, but then I noticed the bathroom door was open and the light was on.

"All right, let's go over and hear the victory stories." I chuckled quietly as I moved to the bathroom door. I took a quick peek inside, and saw Joey standing at the sink, looking into the mirror. I started to call out to him, but I hesitated. There was something...off about him. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, so I ducked away from the door so I could peer at him stealthily.

Nothing seemed off at first glance. His hair was a mess, but he probably just hadn't showered or combed it yet. He had quite a bit of sweat on his forehead, which wasn't odd considering his excursions last night. But there was something about his entire body that made me pause. His forearms were resting on the sink, and his posture slumped as he was regarding his own reflection. He certainly didn't seem happy with himself. Then I saw Joey wash his face. His back was to me, but when I noticed his reflection, I noticed that the whites of his eyes were red and puffy.

"Had...had he actually be crying?" I thought. After washing his face, Joey started washing his hands, lathering soap in his hands and scrubbing up to his elbows.

"When were you such a germ freak?" I thought. This was weird. After he washed his hands, he regarded his face in the mirror again. There was a quiet pause were nothing happened. Then I saw him slam him arm into the sink.

"Ouch." I thought as I winced. I saw Joey's head move, and I quickly ducked away, not wanting him to see me eavesdropping. I heard him start to move out of the bathroom. Thinking quickly, I grabbed the first piece of clothing I could find; Joey's shirt. When he exited the bathroom, he would see me rummaging around the room for clothes.

"Didn't know you were up." Joey said to me. I stood up to face him, trying to act innocent.

"Morning." I said to him pleasantly. I made no mention of what I saw in the bathroom, or how absolutely crappy he looked.

"Have you been up long?" Joey asked, almost in fear.

"No." I lied. "I just got up. Hey, you seen my shirt? All I could find was yours." I handed him his shirt. Now that I was closer to him, it was clear to me that he had been crying recently. Joey paused for a minute, but then he seemed to perk up a bit.

"Check under your bed, dude. But I call the shower." He fished around the room for his pants and went back into the bathroom. I heard the water fire up a moment later.

As I waited for the shower, I thought glumly about what happened to Joey. He had just went all the way with a hot chick, and she didn't even seem to want to stick around for love and respect in the morning or all that other after-school special crap. He had the perfect opportunity to brag to me about it, tell me all the details only someone who'd done it would know. And he didn't. He pretended like nothing had happened. Sex was anything but nothing.

"So, why were you crying in the bathroom?" I thought. It didn't make any sense to me. Part of me wanted to ask him what was bothering him; I certainly didn't want my best friend to be upset. Another part of me told me to back off. I had never had sex before; I wouldn't know what advice to give to make him feel better.

And a third part told me I had no right to prod. I kept my own secrets. I was quiet about Quinn, quiet about my desire to learn, and, most importantly, I was quiet about my fears regarding the two of them. I didn't want my two best friends to think less of me because I wanted to learn. It sounded trite in my head, but Jamie did not have a high opinion of brains, and Joey's was even lower. I didn't want to lose my weekends in Mackron, my Tuesdays at the arcade. Even our fights over Quinn were precious to me, no matter how many bloody noses I got.

"You got involved with Jamie because you were there at the restaurant. Plead ignorance, it's the only way." It seemed the only course of action open to me. But I still felt bad as Joey exited the shower.

Jamie slept through Joey and I getting ready. We had to wake up him to make sure we were out by check-out time.

"So, Joey, tell us." Jamie was eager to speak once we were in the car and away from the prying ears of other people.

"Tell you what?" Joey asked.

"You know, dude. Tell us about Ruby. Go all the way?" Jamie was pathetically eager.

"Jeez, could you act like any more like a virgin?" I thought to myself. But I really didn't have the right to criticize. I would have been acting the same way had I not seen Joey so gloomy in the morning.

"What was wrong, dude?" I mentally urged him to speak up. But Joey kept his eyes on the road. He looked like he was about to cry again.

"It was everything you couldn't imagine." Joey gave an absolutely vague answer. If I didn't know any better, I'd say he didn't actually have sex.

"Hey, whatever. You don't wanna tell us, fine." I finally made myself heard. "But we'll find out sooner or later." I stated it almost as a hidden challenge to Joey, but he wouldn't pick up on the subtext. All of us three were pretty dense, but he was the worst.

We drove in silence, Jamie seemingly accepting Joey's reluctance to talk. I stared out the window at the fall scenery while Jamie napped in the backseat, probably still even a little inebriated. Joey stared at the road, his frown deepening with every mile.

"Hey, guys. About Ruby and all, let's keep it to ourselves, yeah?" Joey asked once we reached Lawndale.

"Why, dude? You'll be famous for this!" Jamie cheered.

"And then my parents will hear about it." Joey returned. "Come on, you think I want them to know about that. They'd kill me." I didn't remember very much about Joey's parents. I know that his mom did something in insurance and his father worked for the county, and they were both really well off, but that was it. Joey never brought us over to meet them, or even discussed them in matters other than normal teenage bitch-fests.

"Aw, come on, dude, it won't reach them." Jamie was obliviously cheerful. "The guys will think you're a hero, dude." I didn't share Jamie's optimism. Some of the guys, like Kevin, had already had sex with their girlfriends. They would cheer for a moment and forget all about it within fifteen minutes. Those that didn't would put Joey on some sort of pedestal. And he didn't want that.

I needed to step in here.

"Hey, dude. If that's what you want." I silenced Jamie yet again.

"Jeffy?" Jamie seemed confused, and even Joey was starting to look at me quizzically. Was he catching on?

"It's just like how we didn't tell anyone else about you in the graveyard, dude. You didn't want us talking. That's all there is to it. Leave it at that." I replied. Jamie accepted the explanation easy; Joey seemed to linger on it longer, but eventually turned back to the road.

After that week, things started to go downhill for the football team. Homecoming came and went, and our team bombed. Horribly. The worst we had ever done on a homecoming game in my time here at Lawndale. Joey's strategies for the teams were pathetic, and we were getting sacked and intercepted left and right. Losing the homecoming game positively crushed team morale. During the next month, we played a number of games, and lost every single one.

I knew that Joey's head was no longer in the game. He was distracted by Ruby, so shell-shocked he could barely hold on to the ball, let alone give the team a winning strategy.

"Heh, for all your worrying about losing your focus, someone else beat you to it." I thought to myself, immediately horrifying myself for having such a thought. I now bitterly regretted keeping silent, even though I told myself that I wouldn't have been able to help.

So, who could? Coach? I knew that Coach Gibson was married and had three kids, so he'd probably know something about bad sexual encounters.

"No." I thought. That would mean I would have to state that I knew Joey had had sex. I promised to keep it quiet, and I wasn't going to betray my buddy like that. Even if I was real discreet about who I told, rumors spread like wildfire at Lawndale, and if someone overheard, or Coach accidentally blabbed, everyone would know shortly. Joey would be devastated, and he'd hate me. He'd have the right, too.

I tried to look up things online during one of my study sessions, but some of the crap those people talked about scared the living daylights out of me, and most of the rest of it made no sense.

"I swear, some people are just sick!" I read some of the fetishes people had mentioned, and I almost thought I needed to go see a priest. I shut the computer off. I was in a real double-bind now. Couldn't help him because I was confused, couldn't ask for help because I promised to keep my mouth shut, and I couldn't learn without having sex myself. And that might set me off as bad as Joey. Then how would I be able to learn and impress Quinn?

While our team's star was fading, my own appeared to be rising. I didn't even need to answer questions in class now, or even raise my hand. The teacher would call on me occasionally to answer when no one rose their hand, and I'd give the correct answer, usually. Wasn't always right, but I was most of the time. Quinn smiled when I answered questions, and I was still her tutor, however infrequent it was. Our tutoring sessions were still all business, but I was fine with that. It was still being alone with Quinn, a rare instance for sure. And something I'd have over practically any guy at Lawndale.

No one accosted me, not even Kevin. I even seemed to be getting a few fans. People were eager to partner with me during group assignments, although I still tried to get with Quinn at every opportunity, like I always did. Mr. O'Neill seemed very pleased with my essays, and I managed to get not one but two A's back-to-back on them, a feat I'd never done before this year.

I even seemed to be having my own little stalker. When I was walking through the halls, or standing at my locker, there was this one girl who always seemed to be attracted to me. She was in my grade, although I had never met her before, although I had seen her in classes before. She was a short, bespectacled girl with dark blonde hair in a ponytail. Her name was Megan Crawford, and she was a nerdy girl. I would normally never have associated with her, and even now, I was pretty cool to her. After all, I didn't want her to get in the way of me and Quinn. But she was pleasant and friendly, and whenever she said hi to me, or asked me if I was well, I smiled at her and responded to her.

"Dude, what's with that girl?" Jamie had asked me after we passed her on the way to Barch's class.

"She's just nice." I responded. "Nothing wrong with that."

"Did I see her give you some cookies?" He asked. I chuckled, she had given me a small bundle of homemade cookies after our sixth consecutive loss.

"She said they were for morale, to perk up and win the next big one." I replied. "You just trying to score a snack?"

"Dude, you got yourself a stalker." Jamie noted.

"I do not!" I protested. "She's just enthusiastic."

"Girls don't usually do that when the team's losing." Jamie reminded.

"So what? She's just nice. And if she's a weirdo, I can take care of myself." I shrugged him off.

"Anyway." We had reached Barch's class, and we took our seats. "I'm more concerned about Joey right now."

"Yeah, I am too." Jamie admitted. "What's up with him."

"No idea." I lied.

"Think maybe we should pick a new captain?" Jamie asked.

"And who would we pick?" I replied.

"You, doofus." Jamie returned.

"Why not you?"

"You'd be better than I'd be. Our team is sucking."

"Dude, listen to yourself!" I criticized. "We should be sticking up for our buddy."

"Hey, I'm not saying anything about Joey, I'm talking about our captain." I paused as Jamie said that. He actually said a pretty insightful thing.

"It all went downhill at Homecoming." Jamie sighed.

"Yeah." I frowned.

"Mister White, Mister Mercer. Class is starting, so shut up, you two males!" Barch's shrill voice snapped us away from our thoughts. I would have thanked for it, were I not scared of a reprisal.

After school, we had another practice. I didn't see Joey, or Coach Gibson, when it started. Kevin was about to take command of the team, but I would have none of it. We were in a fragile spot right now, and the last thing we needed was that bozo screwing us up even more.

"Listen to me, all of you." I started to speak, and everyone stopped their minor conversations to listen to me. It was actually pretty humbling, to have them listen to me like that. But I ignored it, and focused on my work.

"We're really sucking right now. We can all admit that to ourselves. And I know many of you think it's our captain's fault. And it's easy to do that. He gives the plans, he's the one who tells us what to do." The crowd was captivated by me.

"And to those of you who think that, I have only one thing to say." I took a deep breath to create a dramatic pause, then I grabbed my crotch and made the rudest gesture I could think of.

"Fuck! You!" I said slowly. The crowd was amazed.

"That's right. I said fuck you! Blaming Joey for this. We're a team. We succeed, and fail, together. I'm not going to defend him and say he's doing a good job, but we're still the ones on the field. We're all fucking it up and looking like asses in front of the entire school. So stop your bitching. We all need to look at how we've all been fucking up these past six games, and start changing that! That's how we're going to turn this losing streak around, not by whining that our captain let us down! Now come on, get on the field and get to work. And if I hear one more bitch-fest about our captain, I'll introduce you to the business end of my fist!" And with that, I dismissed the team. I turned around and noticed Coach Gibson and Joey both watching me. I didn't say anything to them, and I went to work.

Coach worked the team ragged, like he always did whenever the team was losing. I could barely think by the time it was over.

"Might have to cancel tonight's studying." I thought. It was a shame, and I inwardly marveled at myself that I thought of things that way. As I went back to the locker room, Coach Gibson called me into his office. He told me I did a good job of speaking to the crowd. He said absolutely nothing about our last conversation regarding grades. Maybe he was convinced I hadn't given up the game. But he kept me there for a while, so, by the time I left, the rest of the team was leaving.

After I finished my shower, I toweled off and went back to my locker to get dressed. After slipping my boxers on, I noticed that Joey's backpack was still lying next to his locker.

"Had he not left yet?" I thought. He probably would have bailed as soon as practice was over, as he had been doing ever since our trip to Mackron. The entire locker room was quiet, no one else was here. I held still for a minute and listened, trying to see if I could make out where Joey was. I could hear someone breathing over by the showers. I walked over to see Joey seated on one of the wooden benches where the team would wait if a shower wasn't available. He was dripping wet, with a towel around his waist, with the same slumped shoulders that I had been seeing for a month now.

"Hey." I called over to him. He only looked my way briefly and returned to his mopey self.

"You all right, dude?" I asked.

"Fine." He growled at me. "I'm fine." I had asked this question at least two dozen times this past month, and he answered the same each time. And each time, I was fine with that answer, and didn't press it further. I was close to not prodding this time too. It would have been easy to just say "alright" or "whatever" and return to my locker to finish getting dressed.

"No." I challenged him. "No, you're not." This had gone on long enough, and I was through being such a pussy. I was going to help him out with this.

"You callin' me a liar?" He accepted my challenge.

"Yes." I returned, taking a seat next to him. I knew my boxers would get soaked from the damp wood, but I didn't care right now.

"You're not yourself, dude." I started with what I knew. "And I know it has to do with that Ruby chick that night we went to Mackron." Joey ignored me at first.

"I saw you in the bathroom, dude. I knew it was eating you up then, and you were just fine earlier that day. That's all it could be." I quickly laid out my attack plan.

"You wouldn't understand." Joey replied glumly. He didn't try to deny it was about Ruby.

"Was it...not good?" I asked.

"No, that was fine. It was incredible." Joey stated, and I didn't think he was lying.

"Are you worried she gave you something?" That would certainly spook him out if he got some sort of sexual disease.

"No, not that." Joey seemed a little frustrated with me. I was getting a little frustrated with me too, not being able to guess. I racked my brain for answers.

"Did...did she rob you when you were done?" That was the only other thing I could think of.

"No, asshole!" Now Joey was pretty upset, and I chastised myself for thinking stupidly. He wouldn't be angry if someone took fifty bucks from him. At least not this long. Thinking about this situation was getting me nowhere. So I shut my eyes for a moment, cleared my thoughts of any preconceptions regarding Ruby or sex in general.

"So, tell me. What went wrong?" I asked sincerely, perhaps the second time I had ever been so serious; the first time being with Jamie at the graveyard.

"You'd just laugh at me." Joey dismissed. He started to stand up, but I quickly reached out and grabbed his arm, not letting him escape. I wouldn't have been able to restrain him if he didn't want to, but he didn't fight me. He sat down a moment later.

"It's..." Joey paused, trying to form the words. I started to ask him a question, but stopped. Questions were just causing me to fuck things up.

"It's just, I thought I knew what I was doing. After we left Iris's, Ruby and I started making out outside. Damn, was it hot." He chuckled a bit, although I could tell he was forcing it.

"She asked me where I was staying, and she drove us back to the hotel. We got back to the room, got naked, and that's when it started." Joey seemed very uncomfortable; he stuttered and swallowed as he spoke.

"It was really hot, and it felt really good. A porno was nothing when compared to the real thing in front of you, dude. And I think she enjoyed it too, I mean, it sounded like she did. And then when it was done, she thanked me and left. Then I went to the bathroom and threw up for about ten minutes." Joey finished his story. I listened intently. Although I had a good grasp on what happened, it didn't tell me why he was upset.

"Why did you throw up?" I asked. I resisted the urge to blame the booze.

"God, I really suck." Joey didn't answer the question, although I wasn't about to call him out about it.

"I mean, before I actually had it, sex was this magical thing we could talk and think about all the time. Then you have it and it's just over. And now things are different. I can't even look at Quinn the same way I used to. I threw that away for fucking Ruby. And as fun as it was, it just wasn't worth it. I really fucking suck." Joey started crying, and I patted his back sympathetically.

I still didn't have any good advice for him regarding sex. The furthest I'd ever gone was making out, and I never regretted that. But I think I knew what the real problem was.

"Okay, you screwed up." I stated. "We all screw up. I screw up all the time."

"This isn't buying Guys 2 Guys tickets just for Quinn to blow you off, this is huge! My life will never be the same." I looked down at the floor and realized he was wrong, but he wouldn't have known about my own shames.

"Well, I'm not going to laugh." I stated. "And I'm not going to pity you or anything. If you say you messed up, you messed up. So stop wallowing in your misery and deal with it. You can't change it and take that night away, but you can just accept it, pick yourself off the ground, and get over yourself, knowing that you're better prepared for the next girl because of your mistakes."

"Look, I've never told anyone this, but I know what it's like to learn from your mistakes. My father and I...we didn't have a good relationship when I was younger." I took in a deep breath.

"You don't now, dude." Joey didn't know my father, but he'd heard me complain about him.

"It was worse when I was younger. Much worse."

"He beat you or something?" Joey asked me, his eyes widening.

"No." I responded, almost glumly. "No, but I think I wish he had. Then he would have been in jail and everything would have been over. I never told you this, but, five years ago, my dad and I learned where my mom was."

"Really?" Joey knew that my mom and left me and my dad, but he would have never known this.

"When my dad found out, he was pissed off and livid for a bit, but then he wanted to go see her. And I told him to go do it, to go find her. I stayed with my dad's sister while he got the tickets and tried to make his way backstage." I paused for a minute; I could feel myself tearing up.

"What happened."

"I don't know." I replied. "I know that he was able to speak to her. But she didn't come back. And that's when my father just stopped giving a shit." Joey's eyes were wide as he looked at me.

"So your dad blames you for that?" Joey asked. I nodded,

"He came back different. And it was all my fault. And I wallowed in misery like you did for the longest time. But then I realized how weak I was for thinking that way. You can't just believe you're not going to fuck up. It's true that you messed up, just like I did. But that doesn't make you a loser. I never thought less of you when I figured out you regretted this." Joey was silent for the longest time. I didn't know if I was getting through to him. But I heard him speak a single word softly.

"Thanks." And he stood up to go towel off and get dressed. But he picked his head up, stopped slumping, and finally looked like the winner I always thought he was.

Our team didn't miraculously start winning after the conversation Joey and I had in the locker room. We lost any chance of winning the state championship, or even regional. Even Joey still seemed kinda down after I talked to him. But he wasn't as depressive as he was before that, and the Lawndale Lions were starting to make a comeback. We still weren't in our previous no-loss streak before Homecoming, but the point spread was lower when we lost, and we were starting to win a few games again.

Joey's regained confidence and sanity meant more to me than the team's victory, and I wasn't ashamed of it. Perhaps it was just because I was a senior, but I didn't see football as important as it was back when I joined as a freshman. It was still fun, and I still enjoyed myself playing it, but it was just a game to me. Like playing at the arcade. Looking back on things now, I think Mad Mack was the same way last year when he was a senior. There were other things more important to worry about.

Like Quinn. The first trimester was nearing it's close, and Quinn seemed to be engrossed with the thought of college. When I went over to her house to tutor, I saw various applications in her room. Mostly for colleges like Pepper Hill, but she seemed to have a lot of applications in the woodwork.

That started me thinking about my own ideas for college. I had no idea where the hell I would go. I had already decided to follow biology into college, but I had no idea where to go to do it. The best schools, like Crestmoore, Bromwell, or Anthony Page would never accept someone like me, not with the poor grades I had in my past three years. Would I be stuck at some state university?

I had no idea what schools were good, and which ones would accept someone with blemished grades like mine. Not that there was anyone to ask. Mr. O'Neill would just give me sappy encouragement without any sort of real aid, Mr. DiMartino was far too frightening and wasn't a fan of me, and Barch would tell me males didn't deserve to go to college. I was flying blind with that one.

But, for now, I guess I could focus on my SAT's and making my first trimester's grades as good as they could be. At least then I'd have a better idea of where to go once there were some scores in front of me. The three of us guys were going to take our SAT's again in a week. When I took the PSAT's two years ago, my score was a 910, and, although I did better then Joey or Jamie did, they weren't far behind me. And, considering last year, when Joey couldn't even remember what "those things with the pages" were, that was a bad sign.

The three of us decided to meet to "study" for the tests, although we normally wouldn't do anything of the sort. Studying for our PSAT's involved playing fighting games for three straight hours, followed by pizza, picking up some 'good luck on the test' flowers for Quinn, and then getting one of Jamie's college-aged friends to sneak us a bottle of vodka.

But this time would be different. I wanted to succeed at this test, and I wanted those guys to succeed too. But, when we met for our study session, those two weren't interested in cracking the books. Joey had already gotten his quarters ready, and Jamie already smuggled a bottle of tequila in his backpack. Neither one had any books to mention.

"Uh...guys." I started to protest. "Shouldn't we actually do well on the test?" I posed.

"We'll be fine, dude. Most people with our scores do better when they take it. That's what the paper we got back said." Jamie replied. I winced at that one. Would I have actually believed that a year ago? Probably.

"I mean it, guys." I noted. "We shouldn't just get drunk tonight. Why don't we actually study for it."

"Come on, there's no need for that." Joey stated. I guess I should have been happy his gloomy mood dissipated, and he was back to his old self. But his old self wouldn't last after this year. High school would end, and then he'd be stuck flipping burgers.

I think I would try once more.

"We shouldn't just leave this to chance, guys. We...we should really do well on this test. Quinn seems to want to do it." I didn't want to mention Quinn, it might give the guys the idea I had at the beginning of the year. Even though I had tutored Quinn a couple of times, things could change on a moment's notice. They could end up being better than me, unlikely as it seemed.

"Dude, what's wrong with you?" Joey asked.

"You're acting weird." Jamie mentioned. I sighed to myself.

"Nothing. Forget about it." I noted dejectedly. I didn't protest at all as we played a few rounds at the arcade, then did shots in the park before heading home. Didn't they understand they were dooming themselves? Didn't they want better then to just follow in Quinn's shadow and play football? I couldn't force them to see this, much as I wanted to. Instead, I cut the night short, and went home to study on my own. It was hard to concentrate though, between the tequila and the frustration, and I decided to try again when I had a clearer head.

When it finally came time for the SAT's, Joey and Jamie were cramming in the car while I drove them to the school to take the test. According to the study book I bought ages ago, cramming did little good. But I said nothing as I drove. I said nothing as we waited in line to go to our assigned classrooms. When the tests were brought out, I attacked it vigorously. Jamie and Joey were in different rooms, so I had no distractions as I silently filled in the bubbles. It was a lot harder then the PSAT's were. Of course, during the PSAT's, I would guess whichever letter hadn't been used recently if I didn't know the answer. Here, I considered every question seriously. It was a shame there was no "science" section of the test, since math was not one of my specialties. But my seriousness was rewarded, as many of the math questions yielded their answers to me when I puzzled them for a moment.

"Dude, you took a long time." Jamie noted after I exited the classroom.

"There's a reason why they give us that much time, dingus." I noted.

"Now we're going to miss practice." He lamented.

"Coach knows SAT's are today. He's not going to give anyone grief. You are supposed to take them." I responded.

"Guess that means we've got the afternoon to ourselves. Hey, Quinn took the SAT's here too, didn't she?" Joey asked. I shook my head: Quinn was going to take them in two weeks. Although I had known when Quinn would be taking them, I decided not to revolve my schedule around her. I wouldn't have been able to concentrate on my test if she were there.

"Now you really have gone nuts." I thought to myself, although I knew Quinn would actually have approved of what I did, were she privy to the knowledge. I saw the big test prep book in her room, and I knew she was taking things seriously too.

Another month had passed, and the first trimester was ending. The weather was starting to get colder, the days shorter, and the football season was ending. Normally, we'd be falling over ourselves to date Quinn, now that we had the free time. We could buy the concert tickets, choose the appropriate sweater from Cashman's for the new winter season, whatever that was. I still planned on doing that: Quinn was treating me as a tutor and not a suitor, and I chuckled when I realized it was a rhyme. She didn't seem inclined to date me, even though I tried to transition it. She'd blow me off each time. She'd blown me off a lot of times before, and it was frustrating. Now, though, it actually hurt. I really did this for her, and it wasn't getting me anywhere. All that effort was going to waste. But I wasn't about to give up yet. Never say die, that was my motto.

Report cards were being handed out during homeroom. I was never nervous to receive them before, because I knew how I'd be doing. C's and D's, with a lone A in P.E. That was how it always was. There might have been an F, but never two in a row. But now I had no idea what to expect. I knew they'd be better, but better was a vague word. I ripped open the envelope and started to read over it. The letters that stared back at me were so unusual, they were practically in a foreign text. B's in all my subjects except English, P.E, and Biology, where I had three beautiful A's. I nearly fell out of my seat with joy.

"I can't believe it! You did it, Jeffy. You did better then you could have ever imagined." I savored the details on the page. The comments section were all positive. Although Mr. O'Neill would always try to say something nice, Mr. DiMartino actually noted that I showed improvement. Ms. Defoe in art said I was a pleasure. Ms. Bennett in math noticed that I demonstrated consistent effort. Barch had nothing to say, a compliment in itself considering she never gave good comments to her male students.

"And your class rank, look at that. You're at 73. Last year you were at 200." I was ecstatic. I started feeling a genuine sense of accomplishment.

I was only privately sad that I'd have no one to brag about this too. Quinn would never talk about grades in public, and the guys would just be angry with me. So I folded my report card up and stuck it in my back pocket. Although, during my classes that day, I couldn't help but open it up and look at it again. I think some people were starting to stare at me, but I didn't care. Finally, for the first time in my life, I was proud of my accomplishments. It was a good feeling.

While I was at my locker putting away my books for my first three periods, I was stopped by none other than Sandi Griffin. She and I usually had nothing to say to each other, and I wasn't too keen on starting a friendship with her.

"Jeffy, I needed to ask you a question about Quinn." She stated to me in her deep, nasally voice. I privately wonder if that was the voice of Satan.

"Ummm...sure!" I responded, not actually bothering to look at her.

"As of late, Quinn's been acting very strangely, and from my understanding, you've been seeing a lot of her. So you can tell us if there is something going wrong with her."

"There's nothing wrong with Quinn. She's the same as ever, far as I can tell." I still didn't bother looking at Sandi. I had no idea where she was going with this, but it couldn't be good. Sandi never liked the fact that we all thought more of Quinn then we did of her, and never hesitated to try and bring Quinn down a peg. I privately wondered if the reason why Quinn still hung around her was because it was easy to trick her and turn her plans at derailing Quinn as Queen of Lawndale into something positive, or something that just made Sandi herself look bad.

"Oh." I heard Sandi pass by me without incident.

"That was weird. I thought she'd try to bilk me for something saying it was a gift for Quinn. Not that I'd fall for that again." I thought. That girl started nothing but trouble.

"Hey, Jeffy, wait up!" Quinn called to me as I was leaving the front doors of the school.

"What is it, Quinn?" I asked pleasantly. No matter what it was, my day was always better when Quinn sought me out. It made me feel special.

"I...uhh...wanted to say thanks." Quinn smiled. "You really helped me this term."

"Hey, that must have meant you did well on your report card. Can I take you to Chez Pierre to celebrate?" I offered. I had asked her this question many times before, even before this year, and I was shot down each time. Because I wasn't Derek with his nice car, or Graham with his dazzling smile, or whatever it could be.

"Well." Quinn fidgeted a bit. It wasn't an outright denial, that was a good sign. But before we had a chance to come up, Sandi strode up to the two of us.

"Well, well, if it isn't the lovers." She teased us.

"Knock it off, Sandi." I was in no mood for bullshit, least of all from her. I was in too good a mood for this.

"Oh, come now, Jeffy, there's no need to be embarrassed." A small crowd was starting to gather around us, drawn by Sandi's voice.

"Sandi, what's going on?" Quinn asked.

"Nothing, Quinn, I just wanted to congratulate you." Sandi's words were fake and her tone sarcastic. This was not going to end well for Quinn.

"After all. It takes a lot of courage for someone of your status to date a brain."

"Date?" Quinn protested. "I'm not dating anyone right now, Sandi, and I certainly wouldn't date a geek!"

"Oh? Then what do you call all those late nights Jeffy's been spending at your house?" She asked.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Now I started talking. "I'm no geek."

"Oh really." Now Sandi had a wicked smile on her face. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded slip of paper.

"Can you explain what this is?" She waved it in front of me as a piece of meat before a hungry dog. There was only one thing that it could be. Before I answered, I reached into my back pocket and, sure enough, my report card was missing.

"You swiped my report card, you thief!" I accused, not that it would have made a difference. No one would care if someone stole someone else's report card. She opened it up and started to read what was on there. I could notice football players, cheerleaders, and others of my friends within the crowd. Sandi then waved the incriminating evidence in front of the crowd, passing it slowly around so that they could read it and see she wasn't lying. Looks of surprise were staring at me. I never felt more uncomfortable. I could feel their eyes judging me, condemning me, watching my fall from grace, and savoring it.

"I freaking knew it." I heard a voice say.

"I knew Jeffy was acting strange." A woman's voice answered.

"An A in Barch's class. Isn't that like a crime?" I could hear the voices talking. I could see Joey and Jamie now in the crowd. They were staring in amazement at me, as if they'd just found out I was radioactive or something.

"Jeffy? You turned into a brain?" Jamie stated. Joey didn't say anything. I felt like I wanted to disappear. I turned to Quinn, my only lifeline. I had no practice at regaining social status as I had never lost it, but Quinn did. She rebounded from people knowing that her sister was super-geek Daria Morgendorffer. I had no idea how that would help me, but she had experience in this.

"Of course not, Sandi. We're not dating." Quinn started. This didn't sound good.

"Jeffy was just...helping me out. I mean, brains have their uses, right?" Quinn casually chuckled, and some of the guys in the crowd laughed with her. Sandi did not look pleased. Neither was I.

"Sure, Quinn. And with all your..." Sandi continued to talk, but I no longer paid attention to her. Instead, I stared daggers at Quinn, the first time I had ever done so. I had never been more upset with her in my entire life. Did I not matter to her at all? Didn't she want what I was giving her? Or was this just another Guys 2 Guys concert to blow off, another box of chocolates I had bought for her to throw away. Another bouquet lovingly selected only to end up thrown away because a bigger one arrived ten minutes later.

"No, we weren't doing anything." My voice was low and guttural as I snatched my report card from Sandi's hand.

"I was just over there 'cause I had to take a leak." I turned back towards Quinn. Her face was nervous and skittish, but I knew why. She was still nervous that she had work to do to regain her glory as Lawndale's Alpha Female. It had nothing to do with me. I was just something for her to use, and now that I was exposed, I'd be thrown out, cast aside, and hated.

I stormed out of the school. At first, no one followed me. As I made my way to my car, I heard someone call my name. I paused, and saw Joey and Jamie running to catch up with me.

"Dude..." Jamie was out of breath, and Joey just breathed heavily for a moment.

"Go ahead." I dared them. "Laugh it up, it's funny. Your old buddy Jeffy's a brain now." I was sarcastic. The two of them didn't say anything.

"Why aren't you laughing." My face was red with fury. "After all, the big man on campus, motivational football speaker, love of all of the ladies at Lawndale, decides to become a geek. It's just so pathetic, isn't it." I was vocalizing their thoughts. Both of my friends looked meek in front of my accusations. Both looked at the ground, averting my gaze. They had accepted my criticisms. That was all I needed to know.

"Nothing? Silence? That's all the answer I need." I angrily got into my car and drove away.

At least my father wasn't home when I got back. When I checked the mail, I noticed that my SAT results had come back. I threw it with the other junk mail on the kitchen table. The last thing I needed was something else telling me I was smart.

"Look where it got me." I said to myself sarcastically. I started to go up to my room, but stopped. I reached in the fridge and grabbed two of my dad's beers and chugged them. He only drank the cheap stuff, and the bitter ale burned my throat as it went down. I growled, then headed upstairs to my room. I looked around at my sanctuary, where I spent my time studying, learning, actually taking pride in something that I did myself. I saw the books I had bought, anatomy, physiology, things I would have never even been able to spell before this year. I saw the notebooks I had written full of questions to myself, paraphrased summaries. I grabbed them in my hands, tempted to throw them all in the trash, then take the can outside, soak it in gas, and light it aflame. Then it would all be over. I could forget all about science and just go back to the way things were.

But I knew it would never be back to the ways things were. Everyone would remember this whenever they saw me. And the fact that the Lions were sucking at football wasn't going to help. I'd be to blame for the lack of focus and dedication, since I was too busy studying. There'd be no one else to blame; they wouldn't know about Joey's distractions.

"It's all over." I thought as I put my notebooks back on the desk. I'd never be accepted by my friends and the popular crowd again. And the brains wouldn't like me either. They knew the jeers I had made to them my previous years here, they'd remember the taunts. They had long, accurate memories, and never forgot when someone taunted them. They'd call it karma that I was betrayed by the popular crowd. They'd be right, too.

"Fucking hell!" I shouted as I slammed my arm into the wall. It hurt like hell. I cursed Sandi for the little carnival of chaos. Then, I cursed my supposed best friends, Jamie and Joey. After all we'd been through, after all I did for them, and wanted to do for them. They abandoned me like all the others. Despite all my fury though, I couldn't bring myself to hate Quinn, even though I tried. I was angry with her, but I couldn't curse her like the others.

Then, I span around and came face to face with my mirror.

"You!" I accused my reflection. "I hate you, too!" I slammed my arm into the mirror. It offered no resistance, and it shattered around me. The glass cut into my flesh and I could feel my forearm bleeding rather profusely. I angrily tore the sleeve of my shirt off, although I made no effort to dress the wound. After that depressingly futile raving, I think I finally started sobbing to myself as I eventually passed out.

I drifted in and out of consciousness for the next couple of hours, I couldn't remember things too well. When I was coherent enough to think again, I was lying on the floor in my room. My head was lying next to a puddle of vomit, the carpet had quite a number of bloodstains. My arm hurt like a mother and there were still shards of glass embedded in it. But, despite it all, I couldn't feel a whole lot. Was it blood loss? No, I hadn't lost enough for that. I could only feel an empty void in my own soul, an itch in the corner of my mind, lamenting what I lost.

I stood up and wobbled unsteadily towards the bathroom. I looked a mess when I saw my face in the mirror, although I was calm enough to not want to slam my other arm into it. I opened the medicine cabinet to find a pair of tweezers. Most of the mirror shards were not large, but enough of them protruded for me to get a good grip on them. It hurt like a bitch when each one was removed. We didn't have any sort of first-aid kit at the house, so I just applied pressure with toilet paper.

"Like a giant shaving nick." I thought to myself, trying to get myself to laugh. I failed. After the emergency was taken care of, I regarded myself in the mirror again. My arm soaked in blood, my shirt drenched in tears and vomit, missing an entire sleeve, my face flushed and red. I looked absolutely pathetic.

"When did I throw up?" I thought. Must have been one of those times I drifted into consciousness; I didn't remember it. I went back to my room to change shirts, and used the now ruined one to pick up the rest of the broken mirror.

During my chore, I heard a knock at my door.

"Oh, fantastic. Now I'll have the jeers at home. Wonder if I can still beat them up with this wounded arm." I thought. I briefly considered ignoring the door, but my car was outside, and whoever it was would know I was home. The students at school were patient; they'd wait to get their taunts in. So I answered the door, expecting to get ready for a fight.

However, it was that nerdy girl, Megan Crawford, at the door. She looked meek and submissive, even more so then Stacy, standing outside with a plate of something covered in aluminum foil in her hands.

"Jeffy." She was very quiet and apologetic in her tone. "Oh my God, your arm!" She shrieked, nearly dropping what she was carrying.

"Huh, oh, it's...Megan, right?" My head was swimming and it was hard for me to think.

"Sorry, today's a bad day to stop by, and I'm not much for visitors even on a good day." I tried to be pleasant. Megan wasn't a part of the condemning crowd that witnessed Sandi's little escapade, but scandals were like herpes at Lawndale; anyone who had it wanted to spread it around. She would have known what happened.

"Jeffy, your arm!" She ignored me. I sighed.

"It's fine. It was just an accident. Look, it's not bleeding anymore." I told her. She still looked at me strangely.

"It was an accident." I insisted. I held my arm out to her.

"See, Don't worry." It was a little extreme of me to hold my arm in front of her, but that probably would have calmed her down, I thought.

"We need to treat that."

"It's fine." I insisted, yet again. "Why do girls have to be such worryworts. Besides, I don't have anything to treat it with."

"I do. Hang on." Megan went back to her car and rummaged around the front seat. She came back with a tiny first aid kit. I was about to protest again, but I knew better. When a woman made up her mind, that was pretty much the end of a conversation.

I brought her into the dining room, one of the cleaner rooms in the house since we never used it. She scrubbed my wounds with an alcohol swab, then bandaged up my whole forearm.

"Thanks." I responded somberly. What on Earth was she doing here? She was a geek, and would not associate with a fallen jock. As bad as it was to be a brain, traitors to the cause were despised worse.

"I just wanted to say I'm sorry about what happened today, Jeffy. It was absolutely unfair what she did." Megan was polite, but dismissive, about Sandi. I certainly had a few choice words for that bitch.

"I'm on your side." Megan told me. "I'm not going to laugh at you or call you whatever. I know you're a really nice person, and that's all that matters to me." Her voice was soothing, although that may have just been the blood loss talking.

"It's probably too early for me to stop by like this, you're probably really tired." Did Megan notice? She stood up, and took my arm so I could steadily get to my feet.

"Call me tomorrow." She wrote her number on a scrap of paper. "If you feel like talking." Her voice was still very soft, and I almost felt it lulling me to sleep. I tried to fight off an image of my mother. I stood in the dining room for a moment as Megan excused herself. Then I noticed she left that foil-wrapped bundle on the table. I peeked inside.

"Brownies. My favorite." I thought. I wasn't hungry, so I took the plate up to my room to eat later. At least my father wouldn't scarf them down if he saw them.

I woke up really early, just around sunrise, and I felt a little better. I cleaned up the mess on my carpet. I wondered whether or not I should even bother going to school today. I'd probably end up suspended for picking a fight within the first ten minutes of my day there, and that would involve my father coming to school so Ms. Li could bitch about it to them. Although it would be amusing to watch the two of them come to a head. They might even kill each other, although I knew I would never be that lucky.

Eventually, though, I decided to just go. I couldn't hide forever, and I'd just have to endure it.

Surprisingly, when I went to school, very little was said about me to my face. I could still hear whispers, as the students were too stupid to realize how discreet they weren't. I could feel their stares as I walked to my classes. I was ignored in classes, no one wanted to partner with a pariah. I tried my best to just perform as I usually would. Joey and Jamie said nothing to me at all, neither did Quinn, although I think I still caught her looking at me every once in a while. I only looked at her coldly whenever our eyes met. No words were spoken between us.

No matter what I tried though, it was still very painful, to walk down the halls and have no one to throw a football too. For other people to hush up as soon as I walked by, eager not to let me in on the conversation. It felt very lonely. Did all of the brains feel this way?

"No. The brains have other brains." I thought. "This is just...depressing."

I did decide to call Megan after school. I didn't want to talk or anything, but I was hungry for a friendly face, and she was the only one willing to give me the time of day. We met at Pizza Palace, and I was surprised when she went for extra cheese, just like me. Most girls ate cheese less pizza, and I always thought that was ridiculous. We barely said anything to each other, but soon I was uncomfortable. I could feel the looks of other people upon us; people from class noticing the outsiders in their midst.

"Let's leave." Megan sensed my discomfort, and we headed back to my place. Unfortunately for me, my father was home.

"Let's...go somewhere else." I started to mention.

"Why?" Megan asked. "We're already here." And she went towards the house without another word. I was surprised she was so forward. I quickly followed her. My dad was in the kitchen, grabbing some beers from the fridge, as we walked in.

"Jeffy, who the hell is this?" He slurred towards Megan. "This that Homecoming Queen?" I scowled immediately. Five seconds into the conversation and I was already prepared to slug him.

"No, Dad, this is Megan. We stopped by to piss, and now we're leaving." I crossed my arms across my chest and cold stared him down. Dad didn't say anything for a moment.

"Goodbye, Mr. Mercer." Megan politely walked out of the door. I stared at him for a moment longer, then followed her.

"Sorry." I told Megan once we left the house. "I didn't want to tell you, but he kind of sucks."

"It's no bother." Megan was surprisingly comfortable with this.

"Why don't we hit your place or something?" I offered. Megan shook her head.

"I'm afraid my parents won't even allow boys over." Megan replied.

"Okay, then. Thanks for today. I feel better." Megan smiled at what I told her before she left. I waved and smiled as she drove off.

"This isn't that bad." I thought. "At least somebody loves me."

A week passed, and Megan occupied most of my time, not that anyone else would have been doing so. We studied a little together, talked a bit about what had happened with Sandi and all. I was glad to have a confidant, someone to share things with. I never really had friends that were girls before; it was usually just romantic interest when it came to them, but having her around was actually kind of fun. She was a little forward, praising my looks and such, and I suppose I was a little flirtatious as well, but we weren't dating, and I had no intention of starting one with her. Quinn still held a grip over my heart, much as I didn't want her too.

"My dad won't be around over the weekend." I had told Megan outside of her locker.

"No?" Megan smiled. "Then maybe you'll give me a tour of the house." She smiled pleasantly. "It'll be nice to review things not at the library. I prefer soda when I study."

"Well, there isn't much to see." I told her. "But I guess if that's what you want." Megan smiled, and shut her locker. We were headed in separate directions, so I started to bid her farewell as she dashed off. Then I noticed that something had fallen out, a picture of some kind. I stuffed it into my pocket for now since I was running out of time before Ms. Defoe's class, but once I got safely situated, I snuck a quick peek at it.

It was a picture of me, Joey, and Jamie at the beach, flexing, posing, and generally making fools of ourselves. I remembered this one; we took it sophomore year during Spring Break. Where did she get it? On the picture, my face was circled in a red marker, with little hearts around it.

My eyes widened at this; it was definitely kind of creepy. I didn't even know Megan at this point, and, during my sophomore year, I wasn't exactly the nicest person to brains like her. I would never have given a picture like this to her, and neither would Jamie or Joey. And the fanaticism shown here was borderline psychopathic.

"Stalker." I remembered what Jamie had told me about her. Had she always been doing this, and I just never noticed? Or did she see her invitation when I started stepping up in class? I returned the picture to my pocket. I needed to think on this later.

Sure enough, Megan came over on Friday night. I showed her the house, although she didn't seem interested in the furniture and all the other crap we had around. I took her up to my room, where we planned on reviewing some of Mr. DiMartino's notes. Ever since I'd been exposed as a brain, I'd been having a harder time concentrating as of late.

I excused myself to take a piss. While I was in the bathroom, I thought about that weird picture Megan had of me. How, exactly, would I handle this? How did you deal wit h stalkers, or was I just overreacting? She wasn't hurting me or anything, that was for sure. I doubted she'd flip out and get violent with me.

I sighed. Why were people so complicated? I zipped up and headed back to my room.

"Took a long time." Megan replied from my bed. I had gone to my desk to get out my notebook, then I turned around to get Megan, who was on the bed.

Megan was still on the bed, that's for sure. But, in the time I was in the bathroom, she had stripped almost completely naked. She was only wearing her panties.

"Wow." I was stunned. She wasn't the best looking girl I had seen, clothes on or off. But it was definitely a nice view, nontheless.

"Should I be in awe of your confidence, or angry that you think I just hop in the sack on a moment's notice." I thought. Megan winked at me, then stood up and wrapped her arms around my shoulders.

"You've been such a good guy, Jeffy." She whispered to me, and I could feel myself getting excited. "You've endured all those awful things people have said about you. Let me take care of you."

I was still quite stunned by what had happened. But before I knew it, I had lost my shirt and my pants, and we were making out on the bed. It was very steamy and passionate. I kissed roughly, letting out my week of frustration. Megan seemed to love every second of it. Her hands played with my boxers, slipping them down a little at a time. For a second, I thought about going all the way. I was angry, I was frustrated, and Megan was the only person in the world that was kind to me. She wanted this more then I did, and I wanted it pretty bad. I could feel the loneliness ebb away.

But I broke it off.

"Stop." I instructed, lightly grabbing her wrist and moving it away from my boxers. I readjusted my shorts as I sat back down on the bed away from Megan.

"Why? What did I do?" Megan asked. Lie after lie went through my head. I could say that I had no condoms; she wouldn't know about the box in my sock drawer. I could say that I was religious and was saving myself for marriage. I could have said it was wrong to take advantage of someone like this since we barely knew each other.

"You aren't the one I want." I told her, sadly. For all her kindness to me, she deserved the truth, even if it wasn't the whole truth. When we were on the bed, it wasn't Megan I was thinking about. It wasn't Quinn, either. Instead, I couldn't help but think about Joey. I could only see how he looked in the bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror with tears in his eyes. I could only see that sopping wet loser crying in the locker room consumed by his guilt. I didn't want that for him, or for me.

But I wouldn't tell Megan that. As furious as I was at Joey, I wouldn't betray him like that. Not that the story would have done me good anyway. So I had told her there was someone else.

"So, it's Quinn on your mind." Megan tried to wrap her arms around my chest, but I resisted.

"You should leave." I told her. Megan dressed, and I heard her car start up. I knew I was making the right decision, I thought. This wouldn't have been right and I would just end up sobbing in the locker room lamenting my lost innocence like Joey did. But I wouldn't have a friendly someone waiting for me to snap me out of my funk. I'd just be more miserable then before, however that was possible.

I sighed as I shut the light out and went to sleep. It was a little cruel of me to refuse her like that, but how else could I have done it? I had no practice at refusing to jump into bed with women. The only girl I ever really chased never gave me the chance.

The next day at school, I didn't hang around Megan. The day passed by slowly without anyone to talk to, and I couldn't concentrate on my work. I really wish Christmas break would come around soon, I could use the time away from all of these losers. At least the upside to being so distracted by personal matters was that I wasn't paying attention to the gossip mill. It had been about a week since I was revealed to be a brain, and I'm sure there were quite a number of made-up stories by now. There might have even been rumors about me and Megan, although I doubted anyone would have paid attention to that for too long. She'd be the one under fire, anyway, not me.

After Barch's class, I started to head for my study hall, but realized I would need my history book, so I took a detour back to my locker. I walked down the hallway to the corner where my locker was at, and I saw Quinn standing nearby, talking to Sandi. Or rather, Quinn seemed to be accusing Sandi, pointing angrily at her with one finger. I was not close enough to hear what they were discussing, but as I got closer, I think I heard my name mentioned. Sandi wasn't saying anything to her. In fact, Sandi seemed rather disinterested in Quinn's accusations.

Quinn stepped in closer to Sandi, and I wondered if whether or not she would hit her. I doubted it, Quinn was hardly violent, even though I'm sure she had the desire to, at one time or another, smack Sandi with a tire iron.

"You!" I heard another woman's voice shout. It wasn't Quinn or Sandi. From the other part of the hallway, I saw Megan step into view. She glared at Quinn, while Sandi seemed to step back and watch.

"I won't let you sink your claws into him, you bitch!" Megan raised her fist at Quinn.

"Oh, crap, this could get serious." I thought. I quickly moved in to intercept, but I wasn't close enough. Before I could reach the two of them, Megan lunged at Quinn. The collison drove both women back into Sandi, and all three of them collapsed in a heap. A crowd started to form around them, but I was the closest to the catfight, and in the best position to break it up. I immediately pulled Megan off of Quinn.

"Stop this, right now!" I ordered, dragging her backward and keeping her away from Quinn, while restraining her arms so she wouldn't lunge at her. Megan seemed surprised that I was the one who stopped the fight.

"Don't worry, Jeffy." Her voice turned strangely cheerful. "I'm just going to beat this wench down. There'll be nothing standing in our way after I'm through with her."

"You're a fucking loony." I insulted her.

"All right, fight's over, back to class!" Mr. DiMartino's shrill voice shouted. The crowd dispersed

"Augh, get me away from those two crazy girls." Sandi moaned. "They're going to hurt me, I just know it!" She wailed a crocodile wail.

"You can let go of her now, son." Mr. DiMartino instructed me. "But all four of you will be going to Ms. Li's office, pronto!"

I wasn't exactly sure what was going on when we reached Ms. Li's office. Quinn seemed confused as well. But Megan was livid and stared daggers at Quinn, while Sandi looked straight ahead, her face completely blank. I tried to peace together the events of the fight in my mind. It was quite clear that Megan was the aggressor and Quinn her target. Sandi was just in the way. But Sandi's words in the hall clearly stated something to the contrary. Was this a scheme of hers? I had to be on my guard.

Our parents were all summoned. Mrs. Morgendorffer looked genuinely surprised to be here, although I caught a very not-friendly glare towards Ms. Li when she arrived. I doubted any parent was close with Ms. Li. Except, perhaps, Mrs. Griffin, who arrived next. Sandi stood up and hugged her mother, and I was certain an elaborate plot was being spun. I had never met Sandi's mother before, but I had heard about her through Quinn, and she didn't like Quinn. Or her mother. Megan's parents arrived last and stood beside their daughter. After ten minutes, though, it was clear my father wasn't joining us.

"Not that it matters." Ms. Li replied. "This fight was reported as to just involving the three girls and Mister Mercer merely broke it up. Now, parents, I trust you all know why you were summoned here."

"Not the details. You seemed to be very...brief, with those, Ms. Li." Mrs. Morgendorffer sniped.

"I've heard the entire story, Helen. Perhaps if you bothered to ask the questions, you would have known about it." Mrs. Griffin replied.

"Perhaps being punctual was the more appropriate action of the day, Linda. After all, Ms. Li would not have called us in if she wasn't going to explain it to us here." Both women smiled at each other, although even I could tell that they were ready to kill each other.

"Alright parents, let's deal with the matter at hand. Apparently Miss Griffin, Miss Morgendorffer, and Miss Crawford were involved in a fight on school property, which is unacceptable. That sort of behavior should never be tolerated at Lawndale High."

"Yes, we've all heard that, but what happened is the question. My Quinn would never pick a fight with anyone."

"Megan was the one who started the fight." I volunteered to speak before Sandi could twist things to her advantage. Everyone turned to look at me. I was the neutral party in this, I was able to speak my mind freely.

"You're lying, boy!" Mrs. Crawford yelled at me. "Our sweet little Megan?"

"Inconceivable!" Mr. Crawford agreed.

"No, Jeffy's right." Quinn noted. "She's the one who attacked me."

"That girl did throw a punch at Quinn, Quinn didn't try to hit her." Sandi agreed.

"I heard her insult Quinn, and then she jumped on her. Quinn didn't do anything." I elaborated on what I saw.

"Jeffy is telling the truth." Quinn noted.

"Everything Jeffy said is true, but you didn't mention the part that happened before that." Sandi noted. Now I was scared. Sandi's tone was the same as it always was; she had planned for me to say this.

"Nothing happened before that." I replied. "You and Quinn were talking to each other then Megan showed up."

"And how long were you there, Mister Mercer." Ms. Li asked.

"You mean before Megan fought? Less then a minute." I replied.

"According to Miss Griffin, it was Miss Morgendorffer who threw a punch at her first."

"What!" Quinn and her mother exclaimed at the same time.

"That didn't happen!" I stated. "Those two weren't standing anywhere near each other."

"Jeffy, you weren't there when it happened. First she swung at me, then she started insulting me, and then the weird nerd girl showed up. I saw you walking up just before the nerd girl." Sandi corrected. I was pissed.

"That's bullcrap!" I replied.

"That's enough, little boy!" Mrs. Griffin scowled at me. "No one is accusing you of lying, don't you dare accuse my Sandi of such without proof."

"Mister Mercer, I think we know what you could tell us, and no one is disputing it." Ms. Li replied.

"We are!" Mr. Crawford replied.

"No one else isn't, and that includes your daughter." Ms. Li replied. That seemed to shut them up.

"I never tried to hit Sandi!" Quinn protested.

"Then what did happen?" Ms. Li asked.

"We were only talking!"

"You don't talk to someone with your fists, Quinn." Sandi was derisive, and I felt my blood boil.

"Incredible plan, bitch." I thought. "Trying to one-up Quinn by getting her suspended. Since there was a fight already, no one will notice a fake one on top of it. And Ms. Li will believe anything if it threatens school prestige." I think I would have been impressed, if I wasn't consumed with the desire to drown her.

"I think the Morgendorffer's and the Griffin's will need to discuss this with me further. For now, Miss Crawford, you are suspended for ten days." Ms. Li ordered.

"And what about that boy?" Mrs. Crawford ordered. "He's..."

"Shut up!" I yelled at him. "I did nothing."

"There is no reason to believe Mister Mercer did anything other then break up the fight. All of the witnesses agree on this. So, Mister Mercer, you are free to go. Return to class." I tried to protest Quinn's innocence, but Ms. Li was not going to believe me.

Study hall was almost over by the time I went to class. People were actually paying attention to me now, asking me about the fight. I ignored them. There was nothing I could do to stop Sandi, there was no reason to make myself a target for her next scheme now.

"Did you manipulate Megan, too, Sandi? Did you tell her that fighting Quinn would restore my honor? Were they all just pawns in your stupid quest to reclaim your glory?" I couldn't help but marvel at Sandi's skill in intrigue.

"And what will become of you, Quinn? Shall you just bounce back, or will you finally become the creature you despised." I tried to think of it as karma, but I couldn't.

"You still can't hate her, even after she abandoned you." I thought to myself. I was pretty sure this would end with Quinn's suspension from school. I'd find out tomorrow, one way or another.

The next day, the rumor mill was circulating about Quinn, Sandi, and Megan, and Sandi was playing the victim every step of the way. People were flocking around her, asking her about the fight, telling her how much they supported her. I scowled when I saw it, but ultimately couldn't do anything. I could wipe the floor with that smug bitch easy, but I'd just end up in trouble, Sandi would be even more popular, and I'd be a slimeball for picking a fight with a girl. It wasn't as is I skilled enough in that intrigue game to take down Sandi with it, so I really had no options in front of me.

"Shame." I thought. Everyone was so stuck up Sandi's butt that Quinn wasn't mentioned at first. But during Mr. DiMartino's class, I saw the sheet of absent students on his desk. On the back, it carried a list of suspended students. Sure enough, Quinn's name was listed on it. Ten days, just like Megan.

"Dammit!" I moaned. So in the end, Quinn would look like a pugilist and a fool. Without her being here I had no idea how popular or unpopular this would make her. Students had been loved for doing greater things, and cast out for doing less. I was the prime example of that.

But I was furious, and powerless. Ms. Li would never listen to my appeals. There were security cameras, of course, but she was the one with access to the tapes, and could easily erase the footage or doctor it or however it was done on those crime scene shows. And she'd do that so that no student could dare challenge her. This entire month had bad news shoveled down my throat, and I was stomaching it and stomaching it and soon I was about to burst, ready to pick a fight with anyone who crossed my path.

It was Mr. O'Neill who picked up on my rage.

"Jeffy, might you stay after a moment?" He asked after English had ended, very pleasantly, as always. I was in no mood for his meddling.

"I did my essay, Mr. O'Neill." I tried to keep the topic on schoolwork, so that I could at least deflect him with my good performance.

"Oh, I'm not discussing that, but since you've mentioned it, I loved reading your essay about the parallels between Edgar and Mr. Lockwood. It's was so interesting how you mentioned their physical frailty and tied it with every tenant of Thrushcross Grange."

"Mr. O'Neill, I kinda need to get to class."

"I'll write you a pass, Jeffy. What I wanted to ask is if everything is okay with you? This past week you've been very...distant, and quiet."

"I'm fine." I lied through my teeth.

"Are there problems at home?" Mr O'Neill prodded. "Or with another student?" If I didn't know better, I'd say Mr. O'Neill was very astute. But no, he was as meddling as a parole officer, but with the spine of a jellyfish.

"It's alright, Mr. O'Neill. I'm not having problems."

"Jeffy, I know I can be strange to talk to, being an adult, but all I want is for you to feel good about yourself." He was so sickeningly sweet, I thought I'd get diabetes. I thought of brushing him off again, like so many other times he prodded. Despite his absolute denseness, he could, accurately, pick up when someone was upset. Didn't change the fact that he was as helpful as a football to Helen Keller, though.

"You want to know my problems?" I angrily shouted at him. "Fine, here goes. My dad's a lush, my mom's a no-show. I'm a senior in high school with no fucking clue where to go to college, every time I try to get a date, it ends up exploding in my face and I only end up embarrassed, and when I find the one thing that actually motivates me to learn, everyone despises me!" I said practically in all one breath. I'm not sure what I was thinking, laying out my problems in front of Mr. O'Neill in anger like that. I certainly didn't think he'd have an answer for me.

"Oh, dear..." Mr. O'Neill tried to compose himself. "Well, if you'd like to talk about your..." He started to speak, but I slammed my fist on his desk. He yelped in terror.

"Quiet!" I ordered. "Don't talk. I only wanted her to like me, dammit. So I started to learn to impress her, but then as it turned out, I was good at it, and I liked it for myself. I'd do it even if she hated me. Anatomy, physiology, all sorts of conditions and diseases. Yesterday I read and learned how to treat tension pneumothorax. I couldn't even spell that this time last year. So tell me, Mr. O'Neill. Give me your sage wisdom. Tell me why something that makes me happy and would do such good for the world end up making everyone hate me!" Mr. O'Neill shrank in his chair at my increasing choler, and I heard him let out an "eep."

"Well, Jeffy...take a deep breath." Mr. O'Neill started.

"You. Are. Useless!" I shouted. "God, get me out of here! I'd rather be late then wait here for a pass." I turned out the door and practically ran to my next class.

School ended without me blowing up again, although that was probably due to Ms. Defoe's gentle quiet demeanor, followed by an intense math lesson from Ms. Bennett forcing me to concentrate. Barch and I may have come to a head if I had her after Mr. O'Neill.

It wasn't long after I got home that I heard the phone ring. It hadn't rang much since I was outed as a brain.

"Hello." I answered.

"I'm looking for Jeffy Mercer." The voice on the phone was an older woman's. It sounded familiar, but my phone was so old that everyone's voice ended up distorted.

"This is he." I replied.

"Jeffy, it's Quinn's mother." The voice stated. "I was hoping you could stop by our house and give me notes on what Quinn missed today. I understand you and her have many of the same classes."

"Ummm...sure. I'll be right over." I replied.

It had been quite a number of months since I had been over Quinn's. Quinn never spent much time there, and there was no other reason for me to go there. Mrs. Morgendorffer answered the door when I rang.

"Hello, Jeffy, how are you." She was very pleasant to me, and I felt a little faint in the knees. I was always weak to an older woman's kindness, which made Ms. Defoe's class a little difficult. It always made me think of how much I wanted my mother.

"Where's Quinn?" I asked.

"Well, you took a little longer then I thought, so I had sent her to the store for some snacks." Mrs. Morgendorffer replied. "But she should only be a few minutes. Please, take a seat in the kitchen." She invited me to the back. Mr. Morgendorffer was already there. He stood up to greet me and we high-fived.

"Something to drink?" Mrs. Morgendorffer offered. I accepted a soda.

"Well, while we wait for Quinn, Jeffy, I wanted to ask you about that fight yesterday." Mrs. Morgendorffer asked as she invited me to sit. We all sat down.

"Our little Quinn picking a fight with anyone is just weird." Mr. Morgendorffer stated. I agreed.

"Well, didn't we already talk about that?" I asked.

"Jeffy, Ms. Li and that insufferable Linda aren't here." Mrs. Morgendorffer reminded. I silently acknowledged the point's truth.

"Like I said, I only saw Quinn and Sandi talking before that Megan showed up."

"What were they discussing?" Mrs. Morgendorffer asked.

"I wasn't close enough, I didn't hear anything. But they were standing far away from each other. Neither of them were fighting."

"That's what I thought." Mrs. Morgendorffer replied.

"I knew it was just a story." Mr. Morgendorffer chuckled. "Thanks, dude." I laughed. Mr. Morgendorffer had a bad habit of trying to act cool whenever we guys showed up to take Quinn out. It was kind of sad, but harmless, and we always indulged him.

"After all." Mr. Morgendorffer leaned back in his chair. "She'd never hurt someone like that. She knows better. She would never hit another person or leave them with a skinned knee or ship them off to military school!" Mr. Morgendorffer started to talk pleasantly, but then his hands balled into fists, and he started to speak with rage.

"You hear that, Dad! Your tyranny will never live on in my daughters!" He rose his voice and shouted at the ceiling.

"Mr. Morgendorffer?" I puzzled.

"Jake!" Mrs. Morgendorffer scolded.

"Sorry." He returned to his meek self. "I'm going to go...uhh...check the oil on the Lexus. Yeah, that's it, the oil." Mr. Morgendorffer fled from the kitchen.

"I do apologize for that, Jeffy." Mrs. Morgendorffer was apologetic.

"It's no big deal. It's more fun then my dad, that's for sure." I smiled at her. Mrs. Morgendorffer forced a laugh.

"You know, Jeffy, your parents didn't show up to Ms. Li's. Was your father working?"

"Yeah, my dad worked." I had no idea where my father worked anymore. He never discussed it, and I doubted he had the same job when I was 12, the last time I knew what he did. He would have gotten fired for being drunk long before five years. But we never lacked for money.

"And what about your mother?"

"My mom walked out when I was five." I told her. "I have no clue where she is."

"Oh, I'm sorry." Mrs. Morgendorffer apologized.

"That's okay." I shrugged her off. "It's no big deal. That's why I like coming over to places like here. I can see what it's like to have a good mother for once." I turned her faux-pas into a compliment. Mrs. Morgendorffer blushed like a young woman.

I then heard a crashing sound from the garage.

"Agh! Helen!" Mr. Morgendorffer's voice shouted. "The shelf fell down again! The oil is mixing with the caulk!"

"Jake!" Mrs. Morgendorffer let out an exasperated groan. "I'll be right back." She darted off towards the garage. I sat there and drank my soda for a minute, then I heard footsteps coming from the living room. I turned to see if Quinn had returned.

But it wasn't Quinn walking through the kitchen. Instead, it was Daria, Quinn's older sister. Wasn't she at college in Boston? She went into the fridge for a soda, and noticed me when she turned to leave.

"Oh!" Daria was surprised to see me.

"Hi, Daria." I was pleasant to her.

"Hello...ummm...It was Jamie, Joey, or Jeffy."

"Jeffy." I smiled. "I thought you went to college."

"It's our Fall Break." Daria replied. "Well, excuse me, Jeffy." Daria turned away.

"Hey, Daria!" I called to her. She stopped.

"You know, I never said thank you for what you said to me."

"Huh?" Daria looked puzzled.

"When you told me I wasn't a half-bad student. Remember, when you taught our class last year. I mean, I think you were talking to me, right?"

"Oh yeah, I do remember that. Well, you're welcome, but you don't need to thank me. I didn't need to say it; you earned it on your own. A number of you did." Daria was surprisingly humble at my compliment, although she didn't brush it off.

"But all the same, it really was nice to hear. It was the first time anyone said something nice to me about my schoolwork. Well, except Mr. O'Neill, but he doesn't count." I noted. Daria smiled a small smile when I talked to her, and rather then continue on her leaving, she took a seat at the table.

"You were a junior in high school and that was the best compliment you ever received on your academics?" Daria looked at me as if I was a museum specimen. I nodded.

"That's pretty sad." She noted. I didn't deny it.

"I heard from Quinn that you were learning biology." Daria noted. Did she and Quinn even talk to each other? They had only ever avoided each other in school.

"Yeah, but everyone thinks it's weird. Like I'm some sort of freak."

"Who cares what they think." Daria didn't raise her voice, but she became a bit more forceful.

"It's not just them. I mean, my dad says I can't do anything else but football, and..." I started, but Daria cut me off.

"Listen, Jeffy. Learning isn't a crime. If you don't want to be stupid, you don't have to be. It's your decision to make. Stop worrying about what they will say. You're the one living with yourself your whole life."

"But Joey and Jamie. I haven't heard from them once since everything happened." I noted sadly. "It really hurts that they're not around."

"If, after they knew you wanted to learn, and they still reject you, screw them. They don't matter, put them out of your mind. But, Jeffy, ask yourself something. Did they reject you, or did you reject them?" Daria posed. I paused at her question. I would have expected the aloof Daria to say something to the effect of screw other people, but was she actually telling me to give my two buddies a chance?

"Well?" Daria asked.

"I...I was the one who rejected them." I admitted sadly, the realization that I was the asshole depressing me. It was true, I was the one who filled in the blanks, not them.

"So that's your fault." Daria noted. "That part of your misery is on you."

"So...what should I do?"

"I already answered that." Daria replied. "You don't have to be stupid if you don't want to be." We sat there in quiet silence for a moment.

"You're pretty good at this stuff." I praised.

"I just said what I thought was best." Daria replied.

"How good are you with mothers who left their children at the age of 5."

"I'm not your therapist, your hair stylist, or your bartender." Daria stood up. I chuckled. Now she was returning to the Daria I remembered.

"I wonder where Quinn is?" I noted.

"She's been listening in to the entire conversation." Daria replied. She motioned her head towards the living room, and I turned to see a brief flash of red hair dart away from the corner.

"Your mom said she went to the store."

"Mom wanted to ask you about the fight for herself." Daria informed. "Do you want me to tell Quinn you're here?" I paused and thought about that question.

"No, don't bother." I stood up. "I've got something to do."

I went back home, feeling better about myself for the first time in ages. Even the huge storm clouds in the sky couldn't put a damper on my spirit. But when I saw my dad's car in the driveway, my good mood evaporated.

"Oh well. Just another day." I tried not to let it bring me down when I went inside. Dad was lying on the couch, beer around him, just like before. Normally, we would have just ignored each other. Now, though, he slurred out my name.

"What, Dad?" I sighed.

"That any way to talk to yer father. That principal of yours called. What'd she want?"

"There was a fight at school yesterday." I informed. "Nothing major, I was just there."

"So why the fuck did she call me?"

"Probably because parents are supposed to show up for those things." I noted. "She had no idea I wasn't part of it until the story was told."

"You weren't fightin'? What're you, a pussy?" Dad insulted.

"It was a girl fight." I replied. "I just stopped one of them from killing the other. Now, I've got to go study." I turned away.

"Study? Why the fuck you doing that?" Dad's speech slurred even more as he pounded his brew.

"Because I'm going to college, moron." I scowled.

"What happened to the football scholarship."

"I'm not getting one, the season's almost over. Besides, scholarships don't work unless you're accepted. That's how they work."

"Don't you insult me, you prick! You be damn grateful for all the work I put into your useless self."

"Useless? Yeah, because I really benefit when you scratch your balls for several hours, pound back a 12-pack, and pass out." I replied. "The useless one in this room isn't me, it's you." I dared to accuse.

"Fuckin' boy, watch your mouth!" My dad moved towards me.

"Please." I shrugged. "Why the hell should I care about what some drunk loser says to me. You're the one who never amounted to anything." I knew very little of my dad's personal life, but I knew here was where he ended up.

"You couldn't get into college because of your grades or your skills at ball, you can't even raise your own son, and when you go find the woman of your dreams, she rejects you cause you're such a loser." To that, my dad actually laughed.

"You think yer mother left because of me?"

"No, she left because she wanted to go back to the stage." I replied.

"Yeah, that's true." Dad pounded another beer. "But when I went to see her, she told me she thought about comin' back to me. Livin' a quiet life away from the stage. At least fer a while. But she couldn't do it. And you know why?"

"Cause she didn't like the idea of cleaning up your crumbs and vomit?" I snidely commented. I knew it wasn't fair; my dad only became this way after meeting with my mom.

"Because of you, dipshit!" My dad dared. Now I was livid.

"How the fuck was this my fault!" I shouted.

"You were born, asshole. That was the problem. She told me she loved living quietly with me, just the two of us. Then you were born. She tried to take care of you, but she couldn't do it. And then when I found her again, she told me she couldn't start her life over again, because of you. Because one you have a child, she said, you have to deal with it. Yer mother never loved ya, Jeffy. She wanted nothing to do with you the second you were born. And she wouldn't have me either." I balled my fists in rage. I was certain that fucker was lying. He always lied and just brought me down because he blamed me. It had nothing to do with her.

But my rage started to be replaced with despair. As much as I didn't want to admit it, it made sense. If my mother wanted me, it would have been easy to avoid my father. He was never home most of the time.

"You screw everything up, you punk." My dad insulted, and I hadn't the effort to deflect it. "Yer own mother didn't even want you. Face it, Jeffy, you're the loser. I tried to be fucking nice and not tell you about it, but you had to go blamin' the only person who ever did anything for you. Now get out of this fuckin' house!" He shouted. And, to my surprise, I walked out the door.

I didn't go in my car, instead, I walked, going anywhere that wasn't that horrid den. Soon after I started walking, the sky let loose and I was caught in a torrential rainstorm. I immediately became soaked, but I continued to walk through it. All I could think about was my mother. I had always thought my mother didn't like my father because he was a jackass. It was easy to hate him, after all. Easy to watch him change from devoted if stretched thin single father to pathetic reject. And if Mom had told Dad that I was to blame for her leaving, it would be easy to see why he'd treat me like he did.

I could feel tears falling from my own eyes, but they quickly mixed with the rain. All the happiness I had felt in my whole life had been crushed in one feel swoop. Not even Sandi was that thorough. Medicine no longer mattered to me; medicine never cured hatred. Football didn't help, my mother would never be cheering in the stands for me. Thoughts of my friends didn't help; their mothers never blamed them for being born. Even Daria's encouragement didn't bring me any warmth. After all, my mother was doing what she wanted, and damn the rest. Damn her son.

I don't know how long I walked, but eventually, I made it to the bridge. I lived on the outskirts of Lawndale, and the bridge across the river was the way into town. I don't know where I thought I was going, but here was where I made my stop.

"I quit." I thought bitterly to myself. I leaned against the railing of the bridge. "I'm never going to be happy." I propped myself up onto the railing and looked at the river. It was a wild thing, and had a really swift current. It never froze up, even in winter. It was about 40 feet down from the bridge to the river. I was already cold from the rain, and my clothes were already soaked. I'd probably sink and be carried to the bottom if I fell from this height. And that would be it. This pathetic existence would finally be over.

I stepped down from the railing, turned around to face my back to it, and tried to prop myself up again. I could lean backward and fall. That would be the easiest way.

"I'm sorry." I thought to myself. "I'm sorry I just screwed everything up, Mom. You were right to just leave. It's my fault, I shouldn't have been born." And that's when I slipped. But instead of falling backwards into the abyss, I fell forward back onto the bridge.

"Damn hands. I can't do anything right." I tried to prop myself up again, but, between the slippery stone and my cold clammy hands, I wasn't getting the traction I needed, and fell down before getting on the railing, getting a nice bruise on the back of my head when I slipped. I couldn't muster the effort to try a third time, and I leaned against the railing of the bridge.

"What the hell more do you want from me!" I raged at the sky, who made no other sound than that of the rain. Who the hell was I talking to? I didn't believe in God, not anymore.

The sky continued to rain upon me, and my vision started to lose focus. I could only make out the white glow of the street lamps, not that there were any other things around. I was very, very cold, but soon I couldn't even feel that. I didn't move a muscle.

"Maybe it was just supposed to be here." I thought. If my eyes shut, would they stay shut forever? I didn't know. My head tilted back, into the glare of the lamps. And then the lamps darkened, and I couldn't feel the rain anymore. My eyes still weren't focusing on anything, but I saw something in front of me. Something white. A white figure, silhouetted against the darkness. I heard a low voice, but I couldn't make out any words.

"What is it, an angel?" I thought. "Did I make to Heaven?" At first I couldn't make out any features, but then I saw an arm reach out to me. I tried to reach it, but my arms weren't budging. I couldn't even feel them.

And the figure's arm grabbed me by the shirt. I was lifted off the ground to my feet, but my legs couldn't support me, and I fell forward into the creature's body, which supported my weight. I tried to move my head, but I was too close to make anything out. But my ears were still working, and I could hear the low voice again. This time I could make out the words that the creature said.

The only thing the creature said was my name. But the voice belonged to Jamie.

I couldn't make out very many exact details of what happened next. I just knew I was dragged a short distance and was placed in the back of a minivan. Jamie's mom had a minivan, although he rarely drove it, preferring his father's Jaguar. I could hear Jamie's voice again, although he wasn't talking to me. I tried to make out his features, but he wasn't in front of me, and my neck was only moving so far. The car drove for a minute, and then it stopped. We didn't go that far, I thought. Maybe he just drove into a parking lot, just to get off the bridge. After the car stopped I heard some rustling, and the rear door of the minivan opened. Jamie then picked me up and carried me. I could start feeling the rain again.

"What are you doing?" I tried to say to him, but my mouth only let out a gurgle and some indistinct moans. Jamie didn't hear me, or just concentrated on his task. I heard a door open, and soon, we were out of the rain. I wasn't exactly sure where we were, but it was dry. He lay me down on the ground, then started talking on his phone again.

"Yeah, we're at my parent's apartment." I heard Jamie state. "Yeah, bring a change of clothes and lots of towels. Hurry up, Joey." He hung up the phone. We must have been on 2nd Street. There was a small apartment there that Jamie's parents rented out on occasion, although there wasn't a tenant there now. Jamie had made a copy of that key about a year ago, and it was a good place to go when we wanted to polish off a bottle of booze.

I tried to speak again, but I just let out another gurgle and started to shiver. Now Jamie started paying attention to me. He crouched down beside my head and look at me concernedly.

"What is it?" He asked. I wanted to say something, but I couldn't form the words, and just kept shivering. I heard the door open again, and Jamie stood up to face it.

"There you are." Jamie replied. It must have been Joey. Sure enough, I saw him crouch down in front of me and looked me in the face, and his face, like Jamie's, was contorted in a mask of extreme worry.

"What the hell happened to you?" Joey asked me. I couldn't answer him. Then Joey stepped away from my sight, and I heard him and Jamie rustling around. They hastily stripped off all of my wet clothes, then covered me in towels and started drying me off. After I was dry, they covered me in an old blanket. I was still incredibly cold and it was hard to move, but I was able to sit up and look at my two rescuers.

"I never asked for your help." I shrugged, finally able to get out coherent sentences.

"Shut up." Jamie replied. "I didn't do it for your approval." I remembered Daria said something like that to me. I took a deep breath and looked at the ground.

"I suppose I should thank you." I noted.

"What the hell were you doing on the bridge, dude?" Joey asked.

"Good question." I thought. I couldn't look at the two of them. I still felt deeply ashamed of what Daria had revealed to me; that I thought they had abandoned me. I thought little of them, and here they were, saving my life. After all they had done for me, they deserved to know the truth.

"I intended to jump off that bridge." I told them. Both of their eyes widened.

"Dude." Jamie started.

"Why?" Joey asked.

"Why do you think?" I stated, even though I knew that wasn't the question he wanted to ask. I buried my head into my knees, and started sobbing, my shame overtaking me. The two sat down on the floor with me and came in closer.

"What happened?" Jamie asked. I started shivering again. Between my body's coldness and the mental stress, I had pushed myself to speak to them, and now I had barely any energy to do more then shiver and sob.

"Dude, you're still shivering. You need something warm." He stated. Joey threw down a change of clothes, and ordered me to get dressed. They were Joey's, so they were a little big on my waist, but I was able to get them on. After a short time trying to regain a little feeling in my body, I was able enough to walk unsteadily. That was enough for them.

I had no idea what time it was until I got in the front seat of Joey's car, but it was actually close to 2 AM. How long had I been sitting at the bridge? Or did I fight with my father longer then I thought? There was only one all-night place in Lawndale, and it was completely deserted when we got in.

The lone occupant was a waitress with a bored look in her eye, although I don't think she was happy to see us. She was reading when we came in, and sighed with disappointment when she noticed us.

"Take a seat anywhere." She replied with the apathetic speech of someone used to not having a customer. We piled in a booth.

"Three mugs of coffee. Hot as you can make it." Joey called out before the waitress even came to our table. We sat quietly for a moment while the waitress brought out our coffee. The mug was piping hot and I unsteadily grabbed it with both hands. It was extremely hot, and my hands were still shaking visibly from all that time in the rain. The mug shook like an earthquake, and it spilled onto my hands.

"Agh!" I screamed, nearly dropping my mug. I wiped it off with a napkin.

"That's a blister." I thought. I settled for merely gripping the mug for the moment.

"Okay, now we're here." Jamie stated while sweetening his brew. "And we're not leaving until you tell us something. What happened tonight?" I thought of another smartass answer, but I decided not to say it. Was it time for truth?

I told them the story my father told me about my mother. The two of them stared at me.

"Isn't it rich?" I stated sarcastically. Was it karma, for all the bitterness I threw her way? Or was she just born bad? Or was it just that we wanted two different things. I think I would have been laughing if I wasn't trying so hard not to cry.

"That isn't the whole story, is it?" Joey asked.

"Well, not really." I admitted. "But that's the most important part." They probably already knew Sandi's little scheme with Quinn, or at least enough of it to know it was one of her schemes. She always pulled this little plots.

"You know something." I took a drink of my coffee, and felt it slowly warming me. "I never did ask you guys what you thought of my extracurriculars." I noted, finally ready to deal with what Daria revealed to me. Neither of them answered, just like before.

"I haven't even thought about it." Joey replied. "After you snapped at us, I was really just wondering if I said something to upset you."

"And then there was that girl Megan." Jamie followed up. "We were just really worried. I don't think I spent more then a couple minutes thinking about that other part."

"You didn't say anything." I remarked, sadly. "I thought you guys were just like all the others."

"Dude, haven't you forgotten, we're stupid." Joey put himself down. "I had no idea what to say. The only thing I know how to do is football." I didn't want to say they were right, that would have been rather cruel.

"Anyway, I don't think anything of it." Jamie replied. "You're just Jeffy. Nothing else."

"It wasn't some dumb Kevin Thompson who helped me feel better about Ruby." Joey noted. "And it wasn't some brain either. It was someone whose been my friend for...how long has it been."

"Six." I replied. "We've known each other since we were six. That's eleven years."

"If that made you happy, then fine. It's not like you were hurting anyone or anything. You never been less of a friend because you wanted to learn." Jamie replied.

"I don't understand why learning makes you feel good, but I'm no good at it." Joey sadly admitted. "You are, though. I mean that report card was almost as good as Mad Mack's."

"That's not the reason I do it." I replied. It's not because I'm good at it, it's because I feel good when doing it. It's interesting. I'm sure you guys could do it too if you gave it a shot."

"I thought about that." Jamie noted. "But we were both more concerned for you so it didn't really go anywhere."

"But this isn't helping you in regards to your family, is it?" Joey noted. I sighed, and shook my head.

"Looks like we're going to need more than coffee." Joey turned his head and looked at the waitress, who had returned to reading.

"I think we could use some cake." Joey called to her. She sighed and went back to the kitchen. I chuckled at that. I was the sweet fiend, Joey rarely ate anything like that.

"So, you think it's true?" Jamie asked.

"I don't know. Dad's said worse shit to me before." I noted, staring at my coffee mug. "But never anything about my mom. And he wouldn't have the effort to wait for the right time."

"It might not be true." Joey said reassuringly.

"Who cares if it is." Jamie added. Both of us looked at him.

"Why even think about the what if. We like you fine the way you are. We didn't become your friends because of your mom, you turned out just fine without her." Jamie noted.

"Aren't you like, a tougher person because you didn't have to rely on her?" Joey tried to use that line I gave him in the locker room. Although I don't think he used it as well as I did, it did make me feel better.

"It's just...well, part of me just really wanted my mother back. I prayed every Sunday for her for 10 years." I confessed. "Then when nothing kept coming of it, I just stopped praying. And I thought I didn't want her anymore. But when I heard she didn't want me, it was just devastating." The waitress came back with a confection of peanut butter pie, chocolate syrup, and whipped cream. We dug in. I started to feel a lot warmer, my hands no longer trembled.

"We have school tomorrow, don't we?" I noted once the cake was finished.

"Yeah. Screw that." Joey noted. "I think we deserve a break."

After a quick stop-off at the apartment so Joey and Jamie could both have their cars, they drove me back to my place, although the guys planned on staying over the night. My dad, sure enough, was passed out on the couch again. It was as if we never fought. We all piled into my room.

"I don't remember the last time we did this." I said.

"We never did." Jamie replied.

"Oh yeah, because my dad sucks. I forgot." I turned out the light, and I slept the most restful sleep I'd felt in weeks.

We slept until around noon. When I awoke, Joey and Jamie were already up.

"You didn't have to just watch me sleep." I shrugged.

"Not much else to do here." Jamie replied. "Besides, we need to stay out of sight until school ends."

"Last thing we need is a knuckle rap." I chuckled slightly. I felt better then I ever did before. I had no desire to end my life now, and I could get back to the things I loved, among them these stupid jokes.

"You know something, there's something I didn't ask." I sat up in my bed. My two friends looked at me.

"How did you guys find me?" I posed. "I mean, it'd be pretty hard."

"Well, we wanted to talk to you." Joey replied.

"I was just driving down to see you. I was gonna take you to Joey's. I got on the bridge and then I saw something lying on there. I actually didn't know it was you, dude. Not till I got close, anyway. I was just worried someone was hurt. I guess I was right."

"Anyway, what difference does it make." Joey replied. "That's all in the past now." Those two started to head downstairs.

"I suppose it is." I thought. The guys excused themselves so I could get changed. After getting some fresh duds, my eyes fell on Jamie's cell phone. I remember him talking into it last night while he was attending to me.

"I wonder..." I thought as I checked it out. I did feel a little guilty for snooping but I was a little curious as to what exactly happened that night on their end. Most of Jamie's calls that night were to Joey. There was only one call after 6PM that came from a number other then him, and it was Quinn's number.

There weren't any text messages to check, but this was intriguing enough. Did Quinn actually call Jamie, something she rarely did, and ask him to check on me? Or was it Daria, who would have known I was having troubles. But would Daria have had Jamie's number? Did that mean Quinn still cared for me? Or was I overthinking things again.

"Hey, why you taking so long?" Joey called through the closed door.

"Don't worry about it." I put the phone down and exited.

We didn't make it very far, for downstairs in the kitchen was my father. It was the first time I had ever seen him during the day in a long time. He was still sloshed, though.

"Jeffy, what the hell you doin' home? Don't you have school?" The old man insulted.

"Not today." I lied. He wouldn't care enough to check.

"Whatever." He shrugged. "Hey, if it isn't Joey and Jamie. Been a long time, boys." Dad was surprisingly cheerful when he noticed we had company. Neither Joey nor Jamie spoke to him.

"You boys wanna toss the pigskin?" He was pleasant in his asking. "Jeffy's no good at it. He spends his time studyin'. Can you believe that?" It was as if yesterday never happened. He didn't remember it, of course.

"We have to leave, Mr. Mercer." Jamie replied.

"Oh, too bad. Goodbye, boys." Dad staggered off back to his room.

"You guys handled that well." I praised when we he left.

"I've had lots of practice." Jamie replied. "My parents aren't drunks, but they are just as jerky."

"You should see mine." Joey noted. "It's all a game of one-up with them to see who can be better then the other."

"Didn't know that." I chuckled.

"Well, compared to that guy and Jamie's parents, there was nothing to talk about." Joey deflected. I suppose there really wasn't.

"Hey, aren't those your SAT results." Jamie was sitting at the table, and saw the envelope. I had completely forgotten about it.

"I forgot to open those." I replied. "It's been pretty chaotic." Without even being asked, Jamie ripped open the envelope.

"Hey!" I yanked it from him.

"So, how'd you do?" Joey asked.

"How'd you do?" I returned.

"Bad." He replied.

"Worse." Jamie noted. "I gotta take them again in November." I looked at the piece of paper.

"1260." I read. Better then I could have ever anticipated. I put the paper back down.

"Whatever difference that makes." I smiled. I may have had a slip of paper telling me of my accomplishments, but it didn't make me smart. After all, 12 hours ago I was prepared to end my own life, and now, I was determined not to make such a mistake again. And it was thanks to people who admitted they were stupid.

"C'mon, Jeffy, we're starved." Joey called.

"I'm coming. Hold your horses."

After grabbing some pizza, we hit the arcade, which was much more awesome then usual considering there was no crowd. We didn't have a whole lot else planned, since by the time we were finished, school had ended. As we were walking down Lawndale, we suddenly ran into a familiar face.

Quinn, shopping bag in hand, was exiting the mall. I'm not sure what we were doing stopping by the mall; we only came here to get Quinn gifts, and that wasn't our plan. I wondered why Quinn's parents didn't restrict her to the house, as she was still suspended. But, Mrs. Morgendorffer believed my story, and I guess she saw no point in discipline.

"Oh!" She seemed surprised to see us. At first we said nothing to each other. Quinn wouldn't have known anything about last night.

"Hey, guys!" She smiled at us.

"Quinn!" We weren't as cheerful as we normally were when we greeted her. I knew my own reasons, but Joey and Jamie's reactions surprised me a bit. I suppose that meant they remembered how she treated me in front of Sandi, and sided with me over her.

"How's it going?" She asked.

"We're about to head out." Joey replied. "Sorry, but we have to run." Now I was certain those two had lost their minds. To blow off Quinn, especially when we had no plans? I couldn't help but feel touched.

"Oh, Jeffy, I have something for you." Quinn noted. She handed me a rather large book.

"The lady in the store told me it's perfect for someone who's learning medicine." Quinn stated. "I wanted to get it for your birthday, but I couldn't remember when that was."

"My birthday isn't until April." I stated. "But thanks. I'll take it home with me later."

After handing me the book, Quinn reached into her back pocket and pulled out a piece of paper.

"And this. Daria told me to give that to you." Quinn stated. I opened it up to realize it was a phone number. It didn't have an area code I recognized, so it must have been a long distance number. Was it her number in Boston?

"She said something like after you finish what you needed to do, to feel free to ask her anything you wanted. Quinn stated. "I don't know what that means, exactly." However much Quinn knew was irrelevant to me.

"Thanks a lot." I smiled.

"You look a lot better." She praised.

"I feel a lot better." I stated.

Quinn grabbed her bags and walked to her car. We didn't offer to carry her bags like we usually did. Instead, the three of us walked past the mall.

"So, you know Daria?" Joey asked.

"Yeah, remember her, she taught our class when the teachers went on strike."

"I do. She gave us that essay test. I got a C+." Joey chuckled. "She said my arguments were pretty good, but I needed to work on my grammar."

"I got that too." Jamie replied. "I never thought she'd say something like that to me. I thought she'd just laugh and call me stupid like all the other brains did."

I smiled a bit as I thought about Quinn's older sister. So much different from Quinn she was. I think I still preferred Quinn to Daria. Quinn was prettier and was definitely more fun. But Quinn had nothing on her sister when it came to words.

"We don't have to be stupid. Not if we don't want to be." I said to my friends as I slipped the piece of paper safely into my pocket.

Lawndale's Winter Break lasted about two weeks this year, and, unlike our previous Winter Breaks, we had a real plan this year. Normally I would just be hanging around, trying to score a date with Quinn. It wouldn't go anywhere, and I'd usually just end up doing nothing, spending Christmas curled up in bed with a bottle of booze. This time, though, things would be different.

"I can't believe we pulled this off." I noted to Joey and Jamie as we loaded up Joey's car.

"Hey, my parents are so busy trying to get me to say I love one more then the other, that they'll do anything. Even let me take a trip like this." Joey chuckled.

"With the restaurant's grand opening coming up, mine were thrilled to have one less thing to worry about." Jamie added. We were going on a trip, like our weekend trips to Mackron. But this was going to be different this time. We were going on a trip I never thought I'd be making in a million years. We were going to New York to see my mother.

"How, exactly, did I pull this off?" I thought to myself. I had no plans on doing it until last week. I had spent my time studying my ass off and trying to get my grades even higher for my college applications. As soon as football ended, I practically became a hermit. I still didn't think I'd get into the best schools, but maybe, just maybe, I could enter a school that was still prestigious, do well, then go to medical school at Anthony Page. My high school grades would be irrelevant by then.

But at around this time last week, Joey and Jamie had told me something interesting. My mother, after she left, had adopted the stage name of Abby Crane. I had told the guys of her name merely for clarity's sake when I told them the story of my mother, not thinking anything of it at the time. They, however, discovered that she would be performing in New York during our time off from school.

If it was just that, I probably wouldn't have gone. But Joey, thanks to his parents' games of trying to outdo each other for gifts, was not only able to score us good seats to the performance, but were able to get us backstage to meet her. I had no idea one could do that for stage actors. But I guess when you had a lot of money and something to prove, there wasn't a whole lot that couldn't get done.

I had thought about that one for five days before deciding to actually go. We nearly ran out of time. But I eventually said yes. The drive up there would be pretty intense, so we gave ourselves three days.

Much had changed since I was that sniveling little crybaby on the bridge. I started not to care about the whispers in the hall about Jeffy being a brain. And the second I stopped caring, all the whispers stopped. They moved on to other things, supposedly more important things like some girl's boob job or this guy's car or whatever. Popularity started to return to me as well, cheerleaders talked to me, party invitations were sent my way, everything seemed to be returning to how it was, aside from the not being stupid part.

It was much the same for Joey and Jamie. Following my advice, or should I say Daria's advice, they resolved not to be stupid and do better. It was clear that they would never be on my level when it came to scholastic matters, but both of them set a goal that, by the end of the second trimester, they would not have any D's or F's to speak of. They would reach those goals, of that I was certain. We spent our time much as we did the previous years. The arcade was hit every Tuesday, we still had weekends in Mackron, although now we created a "no women" rule officially. They were to be danced with only.

We still tried to get Quinn to date us. Even though Quinn never apologized to me for ditching me, she made pains to associate with me, and that made all the difference. I don't think I was ever going to get a date with her, but that didn't mean I couldn't give it my best shot. Quinn's popularity returned fairly quickly following her return from suspension. I'm not exactly sure how she did it, but I think it had to do with a prank we played on Sandi involving a bottle of fake tan rigged to explode when she opened her locker. The ensuing humiliation was priceless.

And now, us three guys were headed up to New York to see my mother. I wondered what exactly would happen when we met. I had thought of several different ways the conversation with her could go in my head.

The drive up was long, but uneventful. We stopped by our hotel first to change into our nice clothes, since that was apparently the dress code for these events. I didn't start feeling uncomfortable until I reached the theater and we received our Playbills. Sure enough, Abby Crane's name mentioned nothing of her husband or her son. While other actors and actresses proudly mention their partners, children, or even grandchildren, my mother's listed only her accomplishments on the stage.

"You look a little pale." Joey stated. I took a deep breath.

"It's okay. Let's get our seats." I deflected, trying to calm myself.

When my mother came out on the stage, I didn't recognize her. Hardly a surprise to me, I couldn't even remember what she looked like. Her voice only evoked the slightest tinge of nostalgia. I did start to feel a little down when I saw her speaking, moving, and singing. She was truly talented at her art, and deserved to be known as a great actress. For a second I wondered whether or not I was doing the right thing.

"Of course you are, Jeffy." I thought to myself. "You aren't here for revenge. You are here for closure, to see the demon that has plagued you your whole life. Handle this the way you know to be best."

After the show ended, I was to head backstage to meet her alone. Joey and Jamie insisted on that, and said they would meet me at the hotel afterward. After being assisted by the stage manager, I eventually was inside of Abby Crane's dressing room. She had already finished changing, the manager said, and was expecting me.

"Well, so this is the man who helped sponsor our little show." The woman emerged from the restroom, still wearing her stage makeup but wearing her normal clothes. She lit a cigarette and took a seat near the mirror.

"I rarely get to meet such a young patron." She seemed enthusiastic. I guess all people, no matter who they were, followed money when they became adults.

"My girlfriend is such a huge fan of yours. I decided I need to see what everything was for myself." I had decided to take a more subtle approach to my mother. I owed it to myself not to screw this up from the get go.

"Well, I certainly wouldn't want to have you leave empty handed. May I have your Playbill?" She opened up the cover and signed it.

"What is your name?" She asked me.

"Jeffrey Mercer." I was very formal as I introduced myself. Now my mother was nervous. The color started to leave her face as she turned around from the mirror. She was no longer content with my reflection. Now she needed to look at me.

"It's a good name, isn't it." I played innocent. I chuckled as I scratched my hair. She and I had the same auburn locks. When I looked at her, it was the only thing she had ever given me.

"I..." Abby started to hesitate.

"Are you alright, Miss Crane? Or is it Mrs. Crane? You look a little agitated. Do you have a stomachache?" I tilted my head and forced a smile on my face.

"I'm...I'm fine." She could no longer look me in the face.

"Tell me, Jeffrey. You must be, what, eighteen?"

"Seventeen." I corrected. "I'll be eighteen in April." I didn't see the need to reference facts about my life even my absent mom would know. She knew who I was now, probably. But I couldn't help myself.

"That's...lovely, dear. You should be graduating high school, then."

"That's right." I noted with another fake smile. "And then college, then med school. Trying to get into Sentinel."

"You're doing...rather well. That's a school with a lot of prestige." Abby's mouth was pressed in nervousness, as if she was holding her breath and trying not to throw up at the same time.

"Yeah, I tried really hard. Don't know if I'll make it though."

"Your parents must be proud." She replied.

"I wouldn't know. My dad's a drunken loser, and I haven't seen my mom in years."

"Well, I'm sure if you looked for her, you'd find her." Was that hope I sensed in my mother's voice? I was glad I was seated, for I started to feel my legs turn to jelly.

"It's no big deal. I don't care about my mother anymore." I noted to her. Abby's nervous look turned to one of sadness.

"Your own mother?" She posed.

"Make no mistake, I'll always be grateful for everything she gave me, but everything she gave me amounts to little more than being born. I haven't seen her in 12 years, and I'm not going to go look for her. But sorry, I didn't mean to tell you about some woman you don't know." Would she see through my facade?

"Oh...well, I just hope you're making the right decision." I wonder what exactly my mother meant by that. Was my father lying about how my mother didn't want me? Possibly, he did lie a lot. But it no longer mattered. I did know what my mother did, and what she didn't do. That was all I needed.

"Goodbye, Miss Crane. It was really nice to meet you today." I excused myself before she could say something else. Even though I knew I was doing the right thing, I couldn't help but feel just a little gloomy as I left the theater.

New York was apparently very famous for it's cheesecake. I needed no excuse to eat sweets, but we guys figured we'd decide to check out what all the fuss was about.

"I might have to go to skip Sentinel and go to college up here, dudes." I eagerly ate my dessert. "This cake is just banging."

"These cold winters will suck though. But, we will have to decide where we go to college." Joey replied. "I just hope all of my numbers are good enough."

"You did better on the SAT's, though, didn't you?" I asked. They did. Both guys took them again in November last month, and they did much better. Jamie had a 1040, and Joey got a 1060. They were better then Kevin, or most of the other football team's. With their better grades and activities, a little luck might have got them into a halfway decent school.

We ate our cake in silence for a moment, I soaked up all the good times. This would be the highlight of my Winter Break. Not the part where I finally let go of my mother, but the closeness, the friendship. It was a good feeling, to have friends who stood by me even when I didn't stand by them, a mistake I hoped never to repeat.

"Joey? Jeffy? Jared?" I heard a voice I knew all too well. It was Quinn's voice.

"Quinn?" We all sounded confused when we saw her in the cake shop with us. She had not been told by any of us that we would be up here.

"What are you doing up here?" Jamie asked.

"Well, I was looking at Pacific College up here during the break and then I decided I wanted to try some of that new low-calorie cheesecake that's supposed to be really good for your...hair. Anyway, you guys mind if I join you?" She asked.

"Sure!" Joey eagerly accepted, and Quinn took a seat in the booth.

"You boys looking at colleges up here too?" Quinn asked when she was situated. All three of us denied it.

"So what brings you here? The cake?" At first I considered not answering. I wasn't about to tell Quinn about my mother. As much as I still desired Quinn, this was something that just could not be shared with someone like her.

"We're having a boy's night." I noted. That wasn't a total lie.

"But you can still join us, Quinn." Jamie added.

"Sounds fun." We all ate cake for a moment longer.

"Are you with the Fashion Club?" Joey asked.

"Of course not." Quinn replied. "There is no Fashion Club. And besides, I doubt Tiffany is even going to college. And Stacy's looking at places out west."

"So...who brought you here?" I asked. Quinn didn't answer. It didn't really matter if she did or not. This was far too well-planned; New York was a gigantic city and Pacific was several dozen miles away. I knew exactly how Quinn found us, someone told her we'd be in the area. I probably could have found out who the person was, if I asked Quinn the right questions.

But I didn't leave my chair. I took another bite of cake. I sweetened my coffee. We got another round of food as an hour passed. It didn't matter what other happenings there were. It didn't matter to me. What mattered to me now was only the future of those I cared about.

Sentinel University was a pretty fantastic place when I took my trip to see it. Although the skeletal trees didn't make it look appealing, the fresh snow on the ground with the mountains in the background actually made it look like a nice winter paradise.

"Man, it's really cold up here." Joey noted to me. I couldn't feel it, I was far too excited. I had sent my application out to Sentinel expecting a rejection letter, and, as it turned out, they wanted to meet me. I sent out applications to other schools, including Anthony Page, who rejected me, unsurprisingly. But Sentinel was the first one I heard back from that wanted to meet with me.

"I saw a pizza place not far from here." I noted. "Why don't you guys get yourself a pie and wait for me there. I'm sure they have heat and a bathroom." Joey and Jamie, who was also quite bundled up, agreed and slapped me a high-five before slagging off through the snow.

I had done everything I could to prepare for this interview. My initial plan was to ask Daria, the smartest person I knew, for advice, but I decided against it. From my understanding, this was about impressing people, and that wasn't the way she was. So I did my own research to discover what it was I should do, asking Quinn only for advice on looking good for the interview. Surprisingly, she eagerly assisted me with my appearance.

"Blue goes better with your eyes and skin, so wear a blue suit so it shows them you take it seriously." She had issued orders like a general. "Make sure you brush your teeth, comb your hair so it's not frizzy, and it'll probably sound girly, but wash your face with a moisturizer and use baking soda on your teeth a week before so you can look perfect. After all, no one can say no to a pretty face." She was surprisingly cheerful about all of this, and it helped calm me down enough, at least until the day of the interview, to concentrate on my task.

Because Sentinel was about 3 hours away from Lawndale, the guys and I decided to get a hotel room so I wouldn't be spending such time in the car and wrecking my clothes. I even used the iron the hotel provided to make sure everything was perfect. After all, my grades would still be on display for this interview. I couldn't give them another excuse to reject me.

"I have a noon interview with David Silverman." I told the receptionist. She told me to take a seat. I followed orders, but as I waited, I started to sweat.

"Just breathe, Jeffy. In and out. That's all you can do...before they notice your pathetic grades from freshman year and cut you in half with their questions about it." My forehead started to sweat, and it took a great amount of effort just to breathe.

"Mister Mercer?" I heard a voice call. "Mister Silverman is ready for you." I stood up and followed the receptionist, where I was led to his office. Mister Silverman looked to be in his thirties, his office was covered in pictures of him and a little girl, probably his daughter. I noticed no pictures of an older woman in the bunch, so perhaps he was a single father like mine. That could help.

"Hello, Jeffrey." He smiled to me warmly, like I remember my father doing before he became a drunk. We both took our seats.

"I assume you've already toured the campus?" He asked me.

"Yes, sir." I was very formal, trying to impress him with posture and all that other stuff I never thought I'd need to use.

"I've seen the Bradley Essex Gymasium, love the work-out room, and a few of the lecture halls." I answered.

"What is it about Sentinel that made you want to choose this school." Textbook question, every place I looked for interviews told me I'd get a question like this.

"Well, as I put on my application, I am going to be a biology major, and Sentinel has one of the best undergrad programs in the country for that major." I delivered perfectly.

"So does Anthony Page." Mister Silverman replied. "Why not pick that one? I read here you're in Lawndale, and that's maybe an hour from Anthony Page." Pretty clever question. I wasn't about to admit that I was rejected into Anthony Page, as that would look awful.

"Well, I've applied to a bunch of schools, but I think this one would end up working out better for me. The size is smaller, so there's more interaction with the professors. I'd benefit more from that." Not a total lie, but, like claiming to answer Barch's questions just to ruffle her feathers like I did ages ago, a small truth to disguise a larger one.

"So, I'm looking at your transcripts, and I have to say, they're not the usual Sentinel student's transcript."

"I know." I admitted out loud. "It wasn't until my senior year that I discovered my ability at biology."

"Biology and medicine are more then just the actual science. There's plenty of math and statistics too." Mister Silverman informed.

"I've been discovering that." I noted. "And my math has improved since my junior year. Substantially so." This was the truth, but I only had two good grades in math, compared to nine bad ones. The numbers weren't in my favor.

"During my senior year, I...I underwent many different experiences." I started to talk from the heart. Mister Silverman hushed and listened, and I wondered whether or not I was doing the right thing.

I pressed on.

"I never used to take an interest in schoolwork, or anything like that. I played football, hung out, and did all the standard dumb jock things. My science teacher was a hateful woman who made me say this humiliating rhyme whenever I wanted to go to the bathroom just because I was male, and you know what, I wish I was making this up. I decided to learn science my senior year for all the wrong reasons, and then I discovered I was good at it. I loved it, it moved me. Not for any other reason other then the fact that I wanted to learn it. I know that senior transcripts don't matter much, and I know I only have a long shot of getting in this school. But this is an important step to my future. I want to be here to learn from the best and do something good with my life."

I hesitated for a moment, then continued.

"I never did anything with my life before then because I didn't think I'd amount to much. I just thought I'd play football forever and I could forget about my absent mother off doing her own thing, or my loser father. But that was just a dream. Being a famous doctor is just a dream too, but this a dream I can make happen with my own two hands, just given the chance. That's what I want from Sentinel, the chance."

Mister Silverman leaned his head back to his chair, shut his eyes, and started to think.

"Mistakes are a part of life, Jeffy." He replied.

"I know." I said meekly, but I don't think Mister Silverman heard me.

"Sometimes we really screw up our lives." He noted, and I knew I had blown it. I opened my heart to a stranger to try and get accepted, and this was where it led me.

"And sometimes, those mistakes end up being the most precious things of all. Not because you learned something, or because you lost something, but also what you've gained." I saw his eyes look on his desk at a photo, probably another one of his daughter. Although there were various pictures of the girl around the office, the oldest of those pictures put her as a young woman, maybe my age or a little younger. He was in his early thirties. He would have been a teenaged father. A teenaged single father.

"Mister Silverman?" I asked. He opened his eyes. His head tilted a little at my face's desperate pleading.

"Thank you for coming today, Jeffrey." He stood up to shake my hand. I wondered how to feel. I was escorted out and had no clue how to feel as the snow started to fall, and I made my way to meet Joey and Jamie.

I wouldn't hear back from Sentinel for a couple of weeks, maybe even months. I had never been more apprehensive before, even when wondering if Quinn would take me out on a date. I received a few letters in the meantime; some were rejection, some were acceptance. I'd have a place to go, of that I never had a doubt. But how good would it be?

Joey and Jamie received their acceptance letters before I did. Joey was headed to Aribeth College in Miami, which had a decent enough football team, although he was going in as an undeclared major, although he did take some interest in Criminal Justice. Jamie was headed to college not far from Lawndale at East Borealis, also with a decent football team, and also with an undeclared major. I suppose they didn't have the time to consider things like I did. But they'd figure things out, soon enough.

It was a very cold day in late February, when I received information of any kind from Sentinel. During this time, I had spent the time getting myself getting myself ready for accepting one of the lesser colleges. I was tempted to call Daria and ask her advice, but there would be little she could tell me. The interview was done, the paperwork in process, all that mattered now was to wait.

After school had ended, I eagerly tore into the mailbox. Most of it was junk, some bills, but in the back I noticed two things addressed to me. Two white envelopes. The first one had Mr. Jeffrey Mercer typed formally on it, with the return address the emblem of Sentinel. I opened the letter.

"Dear Mister Mercer, thank you for your application..." I read the letter silently to myself.

"Pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the freshmen class of Sentinel University. Fuck yeah " I shouted aloud when I got to the good part. The letter further explained that my course registration materials would arrive shortly, and that I would need to come up to the college in March to take some tests, but I wouldn't have cared if they told me to shove shards of glass in my ass. This was my school now. The part that was out of my hands was gone.

That's when I turned my attention to the other letter. I rarely received letters from anyone. Anyone who wanted to talk to me would call me, and e-mail was a good way to reach me. The envelope was handwritten with a very beautiful script.

I opened the letter carefully. I didn't recognize the handwriting, although I never paid attention to handwriting before today. It was a plain, handwritten note that was very short. In fact, it was only a couple of sentences.

"Sentinel University is a great school." I read the note aloud to myself once I was in the privacy of my own room. "I hope that you can do well there." This was a very unusual note to receive, and it was even more peculiar to receive it now, on the day of my Sentinel acceptance.

The letter wasn't signed, and I wondered briefly if Megan had been following me around again. I hadn't seen nor spoken to her since she fought with Quinn, but that didn't mean I didn't sometimes feel her eyes upon me. But that didn't make sense, why would see do that? It was far too subtle for her. I puzzled it over for a minute, waving the paper in my hand. That's when I noticed there was something written on the back of the page. I would never have looked there, considering that the paper was thick enough that the ink didn't bleed through it, and the note wasn't long enough to need to write on the back.

Like the front of the note, the back of the note was short and direct. It was only one sentence, a few words. I read the words on the paper. After that, I didn't know whether to rip it up and burn it, put it away in a safebox somewhere, or hold it to my chest as I cried on my bed. After a quiet moment to myself, I said the words aloud, wondering if I should follow the instructions written.

"Forgive your mother, Jeffrey."