Silence descended upon the lunch room as Ryan walked through the door. He collected his tray then made his way to his usual table. For a moment he stood confused at all the unfamiliar faces at his table. Scanning the room he tried to find another spot to eat. Some empty chair or table where he could sit and eat in peace.
A girl with dark hair, full blood-red lips and curves in all the right places noticed him before he could move off in another direction. She stood up as Ryan’s eyes swept across her unphased by her beauty. “Kristen,” he mumbled as she came towards him.
“This isn’t your table anymore,” she advised him her lips forming a perfect pout as he frowned at her. “This isn’t a joke” she said her voice a sneer she reserved for the lowest dregs of society.
His eyes narrowed as he surveyed the snickering girls behind her. Turning his attention back to Kristen he asked “does this have anything to do with me refusing to sleep with you?”
She gasped as the girls giggled behind her “that’s a lie” she snapped recovering herself “I’d never sleep with you.”
“Oh” Ryan said putting on a pretense of angelic innocence as he said “I must have misunderstood your intentions yesterday. You must have been trying to put your hand down my pants to measure me for my new football uniform.”
Her cheeks took on a brilliant red as the girls burst into derisive laughter. “I never” she gasped even though any number of girls at the table had seen her trying to do just that during the yesterdays try outs. “If anyone says different will be off the squad,” she threatened turning to face the girls. They averted their eyes losing their smiles. Each nodded acceptance to the terms to keep their positions on the squad.
Turning her attention to Ryan once again she smiled “you can have your table back as long as you do as your told.”
“I won’t sleep with you,” he said to the quickly muffled snickers in the background.
“You don’t have a chance with me unless you give up your worthless friends. You know the ones that don’t belong in our circle,” she lifted an eyebrow at him as she took a step towards him “you know they don’t belong in the same social class as us. We’re popular and they’re just nobodies.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw “that wasn’t what you told Hannah yesterday. You told her she was the best one at try outs and she’d be on the squad.”
“She has to comply with the same terms as you,” she informed him ” dump the low lifes or suffer the consequences.” Turning her back on him she joined her friends. Before sitting down she said “it’s really not that hard to choose the right thing to do, now is it?”
Ryan stared at her, for a moment stunned before walking away. His appetite gone he dumped his tray before walking from the cafeteria. The door closed behind him as he leaned against the wall to pull out his phone. He sent a quick text hoping his friends had gotten home without any complications.
It had been the longest day ever Ryan thought as he changed in the boys locker room. The atmosphere was frosty and tense between him and the team. Bull slammed his locker shut before walking towards Ryan. He came to a stand still in front of him. Sighing Ryan glanced up from tying his shoes. “Move” he mumbled as he tried to leave.
“You embarrassed me for the last time today,” Bull said his voice booming off the locker room walls.
“Maybe if you learned to read you wouldn’t get embarrassed,” he wasn’t surprised when Bull slammed him hard into the lockers behind him.
“I’ve had just about enough of your smart ass comments,” Bull snarled spitting in his face “things are gonna change around her Milton. Either you tow the line or your out.”
“I can live without being friends with you,” Ryan told him cheekily “no one tells me who my friends are, certainly not you.” His voice rose so that everyone in the locker room could hear him. He looked around at the boys he had thought of as friends not just as teammates. Their unfriendly glares towards him showed how wrong he was. He shoved past Bull and out the door towards the practice field more shaken than he wanted them to see.
“Hey Milton,” Bull called after him “don’t walk out that door without agreeing to our terms.”
“Or what?” he challenged “you can’t make me quit the team. You can’t make me dump my friends. You don’t own me. I make my own decisions.”
“Alright Milton have it your way, we’ll see how you like it,” Bull nodded a certain gleam in his eyes. All the boys but one nodded in unison as well. A silent pack of wolves ready to follow their alpha.
For the third time Ryan was tackled to the ground. One after another piled on top of him squeezing the air from his lungs. “What’s the matter with you?” the coach yelled at him “get your head in the game.”
“Yes coach,” he gulped then turned to face his teammates. The majority refused to meet his eyes and the ones that did were hostile. Bull snickered “looks like you’ve lost your mojo Milton. We’ve taken it easy on you so far.” He grunted refusing to acknowledge their threats. “Last chance, Milton,” Bull growled “it’s them or us.”
Grimly Ryan met Bull’s hostile gaze and grinned “them,” he said his voice firm and sure. Mentally he tried to prepare himself for the backlash he was sure to get for his decision. When it came it was like being hit by a locomotive.
He was knocked from his feet. His face smashed into the turf. A loud audible snap took his breath away. A fiery red-hot pain seared his side. Time slowed. Then stopped. His vision dimmed then went dark.
He could hear the coach cursing above him. His teammates laughed as they slowly moved off him from the pile up. Bull was the last to get up. He ground a knee into his back laughing at Ryan’s grunt of pain. “You asked for this,” he snarled before removing his knee from his back and walked off to join the others.
Ryan lay on the ground unable to move. Pain shrieked through his body. Each breath a painful ordeal to be avoided as long as possible. He could only think how this could have been avoided altogether if he had gone with Hannah at lunch. He had chosen the team over his friends in a misguided sense of loyalty to the team. A loyalty they didn’t deserve.
Strong hands rolled him over to his back. His vision cleared so he could see the clear blue sky above him. He blinked when the wrinkled, worried face of his coach encroached upon his view “your going to be alright Milton.”
He grunted in pain as someone else inspected him for broken bones, internal injuries and other things. He wanted to tell them to leave him alone but it required to much effort. Air he didn’t have to spare. “Broken ribs,” a voice said above him “we should take him in for x-rays just to be safe.”
“I’ll call his parents to meet us at the hospital,” the coach said “don’t worry Milton we’ll get you all fixed up.”
“The game,” Ryan squeaked.
“You’ll be out for the rest of the season,” the coach replied standing up eyeing the team milling around watching. “Laps now. You’ll run laps until someone tells me what the hell is going on.”
Ryan could hear their angry groans and complaints as the boys moved off “not my fault,” he gasped trying to sit up.
“Calm down,” the EMT said pushing him down.
He closed his eyes as pain overwhelmed him. He definitely should have skipped class today he thought. He moaned as they moved him to a stretcher before passing out again.
“I never liked him playing that dangerous sport,” Gayle said from the passenger seat.
“He’s alright,” Trent said taking her hand and holding it tight “it’s just a couple of broken ribs.”
“Oh is that all?” she cried “he could have punctured a lung or something.”
“Mom please,” Ryan croaked from the backseat “it’s not the sport.”
“Then what is it?” Gayle demanded.
“Unreasonable demands,” he said vaguely “I didn’t comply. This is the consequence of my decision.”
Trent gave him a concerned look over his shoulder “what are you telling us?” he asked.
“I was told to choose between my friends or the team,” Ryan closed his eyes as the car hit a bump sending stabbing pain through his ribs. “This is their way of getting me off the team I guess.”
Gayle and Trent exchanged worried looks. “We’re proud of you son for not caving into their demands. Why didn’t you just come home with the others?”
“I didn’t know what was going on at the time. With the game on Saturday I couldn’t skip class.” He took a shallow breath trying to control his breathing best he could “I feel like an idiot for choosing the team this afternoon. I should have left.”
They drove on in silence until they reached the house. Trent and Gayle moved around to help their son from the car. “I’m not an invalid,” he complained leaning on them for support “don’t say it. Right now I feel enough of an idiot.”
Helping him to his room Gayle pushed back his hair “we love you son.”
“Love you to mom,” he laid on his bed closing his eyes for a moment “have you heard from everybody else? They get home alright?”
“They were all scared but fine,” Trent told him “get some rest. We’ll talk later.”
He knew what that meant. The parents were meeting to discuss things. Which meant something big was happening or had happened. He closed his eyes trying to blot out everything that had happened during the day.
A couple of hours later he woke up to the sound of his vibrating phone. He had received multiple calls and texts while he had been asleep. Most of them were from the team, some were threats, some were apologies and others were pleas to not tell on them. He deleted all of them too angry and hurt to want to deal with them. He responded to the texts from Vincent and Divia. Teasha had left a message, her voice alternated between anger and tears. Nothing from Zach which he found odd.
He dialed Hannah’s number and her subdued voice was all he needed to know that things were bad “what’s up buttercup?” he asked trying to sound happy when all he wanted to do was scream.
“Are you alright?”she asked ignoring his false cheer.
“No” he said dropping all pretenses “every single member of the football team sat on me in an epic pile up. My ribs hurt and I can’t breathe.”
“I should have insisted you come with us instead of leaving you behind,” Hannah said after a pause she continued “it was awful Ryan. Zach was beat up pretty badly.”
“By whom?” Ryan asked sitting up. Zach’s silence was even more ominous now than he thought.
“I think Bull did it. Zach won’t tell us,” her voice became quivery as she fought back tears “Bull and his henchmen almost attacked us in the parking lot before we were able to leave. Teasha said her dad’s took one look at Zach and made a beeline for the hospital. He’s there right now.” She gulped “now your hurt…”she burst into tears.
“Hannah it’s going to be alright,” he assured her.
“Did you know I could make the squad if I comply with certain terms?” Hannah asked “Kristen called me and said all I needed to do was dump my friends.”
“Kristen said the same thing to me at lunch,” Ryan said.
Another pause ensued “what are we going to do Ry?”
“I don’t know. I know I’m not looking forward to school on Monday,” he said.
“Neither am I,” she agreed.
They talked for another fifteen minutes than glancing at the time he made one more call. His mouth spread into a smile at the sound of a girl saying “hello” in his ear sending butterflies to flight in his stomach.
“Hey” his voice cracked as his ribs chose that moment to throb in pain.
“Ryan” she cried her voice a mixture of fear and relief “Nana said you were hurt at football practice.”
“Just a couple of broken ribs,” he told her keeping his voice neutral.
“Oh is that all,” she repeated in disgust “you could have punctured a lung or something.”
She sounded so much like his mom that he started to laugh until the pain in his ribs took his breath away. His vision dimmed until he was able to get the pain under manageable levels “don’t make me laugh.”
“I wasn’t trying to make you laugh,” she mumbled “but you’re really ok aren’t you?”
“I will be,” he told her.
“Good,” she sniffed “I was worried.”
“Worried enough to give me a kiss?” he asked trying to keep his voice light and teasing.
“Don’t be silly. Your my best friends cousin. Kissing you would be gross,” he imagined how her face must be scrunched up like she had seen or smelled something disgusting. He sighed trying to squelch the disappointment he felt. He knew Charity would never see him as anything but Hannah’s cousin. It didn’t mean he liked her any less. He just wished it didn’t hurt so much when she rejected him.