The footage of me squatting is horrific. Not my form so much, but my body. It’s like a baker’s piping bag, overloaded with frosting and about to burst.
Quinn slides weight onto the bar. “We’ll review later. Relax.”
“Yeah. All right.” What else can I say? Quinn’s been right so far, and I don’t want to screw this up.
If I can create a badass film portfolio using this transformation as a crucial element, then by this time next year, I’ll be accepted into a good school, and on my way. Possibly, if all goes well, I’ll be a skinny-jeans wearing beast, too.
But first, the workout.
Quinn slides the last of the weight on and then reaches to me. “Hand it over.”
I give him my phone and he steadies it to record. “You ready?” he asks.
I nod and get myself under the bar. “Set up?”
“Good man. Two steps back. No more. Remember to send your butt back first.”
I take a deep breath, brace my belly, and step back, one-two. This is a burnout set, max reps, and my ass already feels twitchy. I squat.
“Good, Greg. Keep that chest up.”
I stand and feel all right and I’m right back into the next. Sweat’s dripping and I think of it as fractions of pounds I’m shedding. I squat another handful of reps.
“Easy, Greg. That last one looked like dick.”
“Your dick, maybe,” I manage to say around the pressure. The bar feels wobbly, but shit, I just want to finish. I was hoping for at least twenty.
Q grabs himself and laughs.
I try to take a deep breath, but I’m tired and can’t and the laugh trickles out. It feels like I’m pinned to the floor and resisting a tickle torture. “Damn.” I rack the bar, slide out, and lean on it.
Quinn stops recording and slaps my back. “You needed to cut that. Your form was for shit.”
I nod and sweat flies off my nose. “Felt that way.”
“It’s good you’re feeling the difference.” Q starts stripping off the weights.
I join him, but moving makes my legs feel like Jell-O.
“A little hustle, G. I need to get my workout in, and no one’s saving me.”
“That’s because you like to kill yourself.”
He ignores me because I’m right, and we slide the weights onto the tree stand.
“So, two weeks in, ten pounds gone. That has to make you feel good.”
“It does. But the long haul, that’s the hardest. I have no stamina.”
I expect him to crack a joke because I realize I’ve left the door wide open, but he doesn’t laugh, just tilts his head.
“You hear that?”
Q raises a finger. “There it is again. Chanting?”
“Or some weird-ass music.”
We look at each other and it feels as if we have the same realization simultaneously. Quinn hands over my phone and we make our way to the practice gym doors.
I grab the handle, but the giant Warrior logo on the door doesn’t split in two.
Quinn tries, too. Same result. “That makes no sense. The bros are practicing now,” he says.
“Unless they locked it.”
Quinn looks past me. The noise from the bros has grown louder. “There’s an access door for the bleacher crank through that closet.”
I ask how he knows this, but Q ignores me, and in a moment, we’re passing through a supply closet and through another door that opens up beneath the bleachers.
It’s dark and dusty and tough to tell which way to go. The lights are dimmed.
“This one must be perfect. In unison, you shits.” Andrew Alva’s voice is instantly recognizable. We move toward it, stepping over the bleachers’ tracks and litter.
We emerge near the middle of the gym, thirty feet from ten guys on their knees in nothing but shorts. Another ten players stand behind them, holding their lacrosse sticks. Alva is in front of them all. He raises his hand. “Remember. Perfect.”
I hit record and zoom and can see the boys on their knees shaking. One has blood dripping down his side. Another looks like he might cry. What is this?
Alva drops his hand and the boys start chanting: Our allegiance is to the Warriors, our bodies weapons, ready for sacrifice. We will dominate at whatever cost to our opponent or to ourselves.
Some of the boys stutter through the ending and Alva flexes his thick biceps and shakes his head. Then he goes still. “Not. Good. Enough.”
I pan back to get the entire room.
Alva raises his hand again and the players raise their sticks. Alva drops his hand and the sticks fly, cracking into the backs of the kids in front of them. Some drop to the floor, others cry out. Some try to fight the pain.
“Get up! Get up, you stupid fucks! You want part of this team? You want to be a man? Get the fuck up!”
Alva’s words frighten me, and I’m thirty feet away. I cannot imagine how those boys must feel. I look at Quinn and he’s ready to run out there. But he can’t. They’ll kill him.
I grab his arm and he whips around. “No, Q!” I check to see if they’ve heard me, but they’re too busy screaming and bleeding. I point at my phone and Q nods. I motion to head back, but Quinn stays rooted in his spot. We have to go. The bros on a regular basis aren’t safe to be around. If we interrupt this moment, I honestly think everyone will find our bodies in the woods. And would look the other way.
Finally, Q turns and we pick our way back. Some kid’s voice asks them to stop, and Alva’s laughter echoes around us. I shut off my phone.
We pack our gear without speaking and head to Quinn’s car. I climb into the passenger seat and Quinn gets behind the wheel. We just stare out the windshield at the Warriors’ stadium, and say nothing. I shiver from the sweat now gone cold, or something else all together.
I find the thumbnail on my phone and press play. Alva’s screaming, the kids are being hit, and everything is so damn dark.
“The hell, man?” Q says and holds a hand to his mouth.
I hit pause and stare at Alva’s contorted face. The kid’s an animal. Always has been. Him being captain was the most logical event that I’ve ever seen happen around here. Which is one of the reasons I want out of this town. But, now, I feel safe with him on my phone, because he’s there, and not real in a way.
“I figured they did this kind of shit, but damn . . .”
“Yeah. We’ve got to let someone know.”
My response wriggles though my mind, and I feel like such an asshole for it. “No.”
“What do you mean, no?”
“Think about it. Who am I going to bring it to? Callaghan?”
“He’s our principal, first, their coach second.”
“You think that’s how it works? Besides, what did we really see?”
“I don’t know, but he has to do something, regardless of whatever that was. Let him make the call.”
I love how naive Quinn is, and I also hate him for it. He’s a good-looking guy, has an easygoing attitude, gets along with everyone, so he has no clue how the world works for the majority of us. The ugly, the nerdy, the obese. Especially the fat. We can’t hide under goth makeup or just be in with the nerd herd. Nope, it’s best we’re by ourselves.
The amount of shit that’s happened to me, that I’ve had to listen to and endure because principals up and down the line haven’t done shit could be its own documentary.
I look at Quinn. “In theory he has to do something. That doesn’t mean he will.”
Quinn squints. “What are you saying?”
“Do you trust Callaghan?”
Q scrunches his face some more. “Not really, but . . .”
“But with that evidence, come on, he has to.”
The gym door opens and the lax bros file out, Alva taking up the rear. It’s March and still cold, snow on the ground, but the boys are all wearing shorts and T-shirts. Through the zoom on my phone, trickles of blood stain their shirts and shine red. Alva barks something and the boys take off running, pounding up the hill, through the snow. He turns back, as if sensing us, but only pauses for a moment and then is on their heels. The last thing I want is for him to be on my ass. Well, any more than usual.
“You see that? They’re still bleeding.”
The shock of that scene from the gym has worn off, and I fully understand who we’re dealing with. That changes things. “Why do you care? The lax bros are assholes.”
Quinn looks at me like I’ve just shit on his mom. “So we just let that go because they’re dicks?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“No. That’s exactly what you’re saying.”
I take a deep breath. “Fine. I am. But it’s not so simple.”
“Bullshit!” Quinn shakes his head. “You don’t want to help them because you’re afraid of the heat.”
“Maybe.” I don’t look at him when I answer. “Or maybe they don’t deserve the help.”
Quinn starts the car. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. We know the truth. You’re scared to put your neck out there.”
He’s right. I am. But I have good reason. “We working out tomorrow?”
“Of course. But don’t change the subject.”
“I’m not. Let me get more of that on film. Not because I want to see them suffer, I just know one piece is never enough. But two. Maybe? Then we can take it to Callaghan, or someone else. All right?”
Quinn grunts. “I feel ya. A stronger case makes sense.” He looks back at the field. “Promise you won’t let them all hang just ’cause Alva’s psycho and you hate everything around here.”
“I promise,” I mutter. “Shit, why you gotta always do the right thing?”
“Unlike you, I’m not afraid of the truth.” Quinn starts the car and we roll out of the parking lot. The lax bros are running hill sprints, and their skin is already that cold color pink.
Chapter 1, excerpt
There is no doubt that one of us will die. I’m not hoping for it, just considering the probability: three of us, ten stunts, each “death defying.” At least that’s the plan: spend senior year completing one dare a month. Why? So we’re legends by the end.
Ricky’s driving and he looks at me, rocks his head to the music blaring, and says, “Ready, Ben?”
As if there’s any answer I can give but yes. I know how it works. He looks in the rearview. “John, ready?”
John gives a thumbs-up and gets the camera into position. “On you, Ben.” He slides out of the rear window.
I turn and look. Nothing but cornstalks and pavement, blue sky and puffy white clouds. Perfection. I focus on that image and the stillness, the quiet. If I don’t, I’ll chicken out. My mind’s already filling with scenarios for how this will end badly. But school starts tomorrow, and I agreed to this, however it goes.
I pull the ski mask over my face and slide out the window.
The wind whips even though Ricky’s only going like thirty miles per hour. I can’t hear what John’s saying. His mouth’s moving, but it’s like being in a dream, all background noise, nothing real. He jacks his thumb into the air, an obvious sign for me to get on the roof. I take a deep breath, steady my elbows, and push myself up.
My feet tingle and my heart hammers, but I keep going. I grab the roof rack and pull and am flat on top. The wind pours over me now, but the space around my face is calm. Unreal.
“Let’s do it.” John’s words are faint, but they’re enough to propel me. I grip the rack and slide my feet beneath me. Ten seconds. All I have to do is stay on my feet and count.
I stand but wobble and have to sit back down on my heels. Shit, maybe I can’t do this. No matter how much I convince myself. I look over at John for help, forgetting that the camera is on me. There’s nothing he can do. This is all mine. I’d love nothing more than to crawl right back in the window, but it would be on film, and Ricky would never let me hear the end of it. Just like before.
I’ve decided that’s not what I want, so I swallow, take another breath, and ease my way up.
I rock again, but only slightly. John raps on the roof to let Ricky know I’m up, and Ricky lets out a scream. I spread my arms and yell along with him because this is fucking insane. The road stretches before me, and one false move and I’m part of it. But Ricky’s smooth, and it’s like I’m on a skateboard without the rumble beneath my feet.
A car comes from the other direction and Ricky honks. The driver looks up and sees me and I look down at him and for a second our eyes meet. In his, pure panic. His mouth is dropped and his skin is paper-white. But then he’s gone and my heart is racing and it’s been ten seconds. I let out one more scream and tuck back to the roof rack.
John smacks the car again to let Ricky know I’m done, and I hear muffled cheering from within. I smile. It’s big and hurts my cheeks and my eyes water from the wind, but this is the most alive I’ve felt in forever, exactly like Ricky said we would. One dare down, nine to go.
When I went to bed at 2:00 a.m., there were thirty-five views. I woke up at 7:00 and there were thirty-seven. I just checked my phone and we’re up to a whopping fifty. Ricky talked about these videos being “the best senior prank ever” because they’ll last all year. I had to agree to the brilliance of the uniqueness. He also said that we’ll be “larger than Jesse Holmes” and his crew. I don’t know about that. One look at those guys, and it’s obvious they own our school. Handsome, suave, athletic. Considering either hopeful outcome, fifty views aren’t going to do jack.
John rolls up to my locker. “I’m still wrecked from yesterday. I kept dreaming about it. Woke up screaming.”
I picture John in his bed, all wound up in his sheets, screaming into the night. Doesn’t surprise me. He’s always had nightmares. Scared the hell out of me the first time he slept over in fifth grade. “You’ve got a month before the next one. Try to relax.”
He shakes his head and doesn’t say anything, but I know what he means. This isn’t our thing: trouble. That’s Ricky’s territory. But we’re only visiting, right?
We walk toward the cafeteria and go as unnoticed as usual. I watch the clusters and wonder what the hot girls are discussing, the übergeeks, the Bible-thumpers. I remember Ricky’s words: This is how we make our mark. You’ve seen all the stupid dares kids are doing. Cinnamon eating and vodka in the eye. Not us. We’re going balls out and will leave here legends.
Yet day one of senior year feels like we never left. Classes have been exactly as I expected. I’m Mr./Mrs. so-and-so, and this class will be difficult. You are a senior, so I’m not holding your hand. Here’s your first assignment. And off we go.
John and I grab trays and get served the miserable offerings and head to our table. Ricky’s already there.
“Hey, John, don’t trip!”
Ricky laughs at his own joke and chews on a French fry.
“You hit that pothole on purpose?” John sits but doesn’t touch his food.
“That’s one way of looking at it. Or maybe you wanted to end up on the windshield. Crying.” Ricky smiles. “Guess we’ll never know, huh?”
“I wasn’t crying,” John mumbles into his food.
He was totally crying, but who cares? It was good footage. Well, for our purposes.
I take a bite of the hamburger. “You think maybe the low numbers are because of the distortion?”
Ricky takes a sip of his drink. He looks calm, like this is all part of his plan. “We need the masks and the blurring so we don’t get in trouble. No faces, no identity match. We’ve been through this.” He leans in. “Don’t worry, I got this. Plan B, the old-fashioned route.”
“What are you going to do?” I ask. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked him this question. For all of high school, the answers didn’t include me. Until now.
Ricky laughs. “Ben, don’t worry, I’m going to make a PSA. You like those, don’t you?” He climbs onto the table and I kind of hate him.
“Shit,” John whispers.
Ricky looks around, smiling and waving. Some kids point. Others swear at him. But in a moment everyone is watching. He opens his mouth.
“Ladies and gentleman of the senior class, today is the beginning of our last year at this institution.” His voice is steady and thick and he pauses for the cheers that accompany anything about seniors. “It could be just another year, the same as the last and the one before, where we hope for something exciting to actually happen, but it never does. Or, we can make a decision. We can decide to make that excitement a priority.” He pauses dramatically and I wince. “That’s what someone here has done.”
The room murmurs and students look around at one another. I’m trying not to think of all the ways this could get us into trouble, but the infractions scramble my head.
“Do yourselves a favor,” Ricky continues, “check out Brookwood High Senior Year Dare Number One on YouTube. It seems like someone here has a plan for the year. Hopefully, you’ll see it and feel like I did: pumped. Hopefully it will get you excited for this year. Hopefully it’ll give you something fun to watch instead of just stalking one another on Twitter.” Ricky thrusts his fist into the air and nods his head while looking around the room. He’s gone too far. Most of the kids stare, while others start cracking jokes. A teacher motions for him to get off the table, and in a moment his big scene is over and people are back to their lunches. I’m quietly relieved.
“That was impressive,” John says, as Ricky gets down from the table.
Ricky’s jaw is set and his shoulders are pinned, and it seems he doesn’t know where to look or what to say. His PSA failed, like the video. Maybe he’s realizing that his ideas suck. This is nothing new, but the way he seems to feel about it is. I take another bite out of the hamburger, and it’s like putting my mouth around a sponge.
I am a pussy. I know this, and not much else.
A wet smack sounds in the next room. My mother cries in pain. “Please, Cameron, I didn’t mean anything.” He hits her again, twice, dense flesh on flesh.
“The fuck you didn’t,” Cameron, my mother’s boyfriend, slurs. She must have made some joke that he was too drunk to understand. Again.
So he’s kicking the shit out of her. Again.
I’m sitting on the corner of my bed, listening, but not doing anything, even though I want to. My muscles are all coiled, tight, like I’m ready to roll, but I won’t. Cameron is wiry, works construction, and could toss me across the fucking room. At least that’s what I tell myself about him, this boyfriend. I’ve had excuses for all the others as well, and an entire list of reasons for my father.
He hits her again, a dull thud, the sound of his fist hitting her head. “You gonna apologize or what?”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything.”
Another blow, and she hits the wall. The house vibrates. “Damn straight, you dumb bitch.” The door squeals as he pounds down the hall and the fridge opens. He’s grabbing a beer, or two. The can clicks and pops, followed by the sound of him falling into the recliner. The volume on the TV goes up: lots of screaming and yelling.
Fuck, maybe it’s over. I grab the back of my head and bury my face into the crooks of my elbows. I want to block out the sound of him and forget what I just heard, but my mom’s crying seeps through the paper-thin walls. I hate the noise, but more, I hate how common it is. How many times has she been like this? It’s impossible to keep track, there’s been so many.
Her cry lifts and then is muffled. She must be using her pillow. I hope so, because if he hears her . . . Hopefully she’ll be able to calm and then sit, red-faced and swollen, and wait for Cam get a sleepy buzz. Then, like always, she can ice or shower, depending on how bad it is. Once it started, it only took them three months to find this pattern. Not a record, but pretty fast.
Wonder how long it took for her and my dad?
He’s the reason I’m such a little bitch now, hiding out instead of stepping up. As a kid I never once went after him, just daydreamed about taking him out. In the end I didn’t have to; he just left. As have all the rest. But Cameron’s still hanging around, and this time I see myself stepping into her bedroom when he’s wailing on her. I grab his arm mid-swing and twist him around. He sees me and his eyes go wide, but then he gets that sneer like he always does. But before he can do anything, I head-butt him. He collapses to his knees, grabbing his face as the blood pumps out. I ignore it and put my fist into his jaw. No, through it. My mom screams, but I ignore her and enjoy his pain. He goes to speak but realizes that his jaw is shattered and I laugh, because I know in that moment I could kill him. I may not be big, but you don’t get beat your entire life without hardening.
I could take him out. I have the capacity, and that is enough for me, because I don’t want to actually do it and be like him, or the others. In my fantasy I help my mother up and walk her out of the room, away from the oozing mass in the corner. We step into a cleaner version of our life, where we’re not confined to our prison of a trailer and no one sees us as white trash.
It’s never gonna happen though, so there’s no point in wishing for it. I stand up and walk to the bathroom and the trailer wobbles. Or it could be I’m still amped and it feels that way. Or the fucking thing may really be falling apart. Why wouldn’t it? Everything else is.
I piss and brush my teeth. The TV blares and I listen: an announcer’s voice. Fuck. I peer down the hall. He’s watching a cage match. Two guys hop around a mat. One is all tatted up and has blood leaking out of his nose. The other is so thin that his abs look like individual plates. I don’t know how they can even be in the same weight class, but they throw jabs back and forth and then the tatted one kicks. The skinny one catches it, and the tatted guy’s eyes go wide. He knows what’s coming, and sure as shit the skinny dude latches on to the tatted guy’s leg like a monkey to a tree and takes him to the mat. The skinny guy squeezes on the tatted guy’s leg and arches his own back, every muscle popping. The ref hovers over them, wearing the same black latex gloves we wear at Vo-Tec, and the tatted guy screams as the blood pumps faster. He looks up, grinds his teeth, and then taps the mat. Fight’s over.
“Fucking leg bar.” Cameron tosses an empty can to the floor and then pops open another.
I head back to my room and have to shake away the fantasy rising again. I’ll stay awake all night if I don’t put it out of my mind. I sit on my bed and can hear my mom still crying. I lie back and pull a pillow over my head, but it doesn’t help. Her tears still seep through, and the sound of another fight beginning on the TV punches in.