Monday morning they stood outside the school staring up at its foreboding walls. Thanks to the events of less than a week ago they were two down. Zach was still recovering from his injuries and Divia was on her way to her first day in private school. “This is it,” Ryan said taking a foot forward “remember no one goes anywhere alone.”
They nodded. Ryan had always been their group leader even as children they had followed him. He had been the one to take charge no matter the situation. Sunday night they had come up with a strategy they hoped wouldn’t allow anyone to become vulnerable to attack. They would arrive together and leave together. No splitting up.
They stood staring up at the building they had once felt safe and secure in. Now they felt only a cold dread to once again walk within those halls. “Have you considered our proposal?” Kristen’s unwelcome voice asked from behind them. Hannah turned to face her. Her breath caught in her throat seeing Bull sneering at them from Kristen’s side. His arm snaked around her waist possessively.
Teasha snarled stepping forward as if she wanted to pounce on them. Hannah grabbed her arm pulling her back. Stepping between her friend and the other girl. Hannah glared at them then glanced back at her friends. Calmly she remarked “as you can see I’ve made my decision. My friends mean more to me than being a cheerleader. I have no desire to be a shallow Kristen shadow.”
Kristen’s eyes narrowed for an instant before returning to normal “you won’t get another chance.”
“I’m actually ok with that,” Hannah told her “being a cheerleader would have enhanced who I am not define who I am.” She turned to Teasha wrapping an arm around her “I know who my real friends are.”
“You’ll regret this,” Kristen yelled after her.
“I doubt that,” Hannah called back without turning or stopping.
“Are you sure about this?” Teasha asked “you’ve wanted to be a cheerleader since middle school.”
“I’m positive,” Hannah assured her. She had lain in bed for countless hours considering her options. No matter how much she wanted to be a member of the squad she couldn’t sacrifice her friends. “Things change,” she said “cheerleading would have been fun but do you think I could cheer knowing what it had cost me? No I’m happy with my decision. They’re not my friends. My friends would never put me in a position to choose them over someone else. I couldn’t hurt you guys like that.”
“Same here,” Ryan agreed “even if I could play I wouldn’t. Football isn’t that important to me anymore. I chose the team once over you guys. It won’t happen again.”
“You had no idea what was going on,” Vincent protested. He could see the guilt in his friends eyes as Ryan looked down at his feet. “Give yourself a break. You thought they were your friends,” Vincent put a hand on his shoulder giving it a reassuring squeeze.
“I was wrong,” Ryan mumbled shoving his hands into his pockets “I feel like such an idiot.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” Teasha seconded Vincent’s thoughts “your true friends will always be here for you.”
“I know” he sighed looking up at the door coming to a stand still “I’m not looking forward to this.” The others came to a stop beside him nodding.
Vincent was the first to move “let’s get this over with.” He squared his shoulders, lifted his chin and put his right foot forward. The others exchanged glances before following his example.
Hannah and Ryan stopped beside their lockers while Vincent and Teasha went on to theirs. Hannah tried to keep her chin up and pretend the shocked curious looks didn’t matter. Her resolve started to falter as the unkind sneering looks raked over her and the not so whispered remarks that were said loud enough so she could hear them. The malicious spiteful looks from people she didn’t even know who had nothing but hate for her and her friends. Her hands started to shake making it impossible for her to enter her locker code. She wanted nothing more than to run from that place and never come back.
“Hey you can do this,” Ryan’s deep reassuring voice in her ear boosted her confidence.
Looking up with gratitude in her eyes “how do you do it?” she asked thinking he looked so calm and unruffled by everything.
Shrugging he gave a sketchy grin “just ignore it” he said slamming his locker shut.
“Look who we have here, Ryan Milton football team captain.” Pretending shock the boy covered his mouth “oh I forgot ex-captain. He quit. Couldn’t take a couple of harmless tackles. You’re as much of a wuss as that queer friend of yours. I bet you two were more than friends.”
“Shut up Brannon,” Ryan growled turning around to face his ex-teammate.
“I bet you were more like friends with benefits. Tell us Ryan were you top or bottom?” the boy smiled as his comments earned him approving nods from others listening in the crowd. Pushing Ryan against the lockers Brannon stuck his face close to his “I’m glad you’re not on the team anymore. Football is for real men not for little girls.”
“Let him go,” Hannah demanded.
“Or what?” the boy asked pressing harder on Ryan’s throat making him gurgle as his throat closed up. He grunted laughing “your such a pansy needing a little girl to protect you. I bet she fights better than you.”
The bell rang and the crowd of students started to drift away towards their respective classes. Ryan brought his hands up and shoved Brannon away from him. Gulping for air his ribs protested the movements as they fought against his bindings. Ignoring it all Ryan gasped “I’d rather be gay then be a bigot like you.”
“Yeah whatever,” the boy mumbled eyeing him waiting for an opening to attack again.
A teacher stuck his head outside his classroom “get to class,” he ordered them before going back inside to tend his students.
Laughing Brannon took a step back. He gave Ryan one last nasty look “this isn’t over,” he turned away to presumably go to his first class.
Hannah reached for Ryan preventing him from pursuing Brannon “don’t” she pleaded afraid he’d get hurt even more than he already was.
“I can’t do this,” he mumbled kicking the locker in front of him.
“I sent a text to the others,” Hannah told him “they’re on their way.”
While they were talking Vincent and Teasha came up beside them. They took one look at Ryan and started walking towards the exit. After a brief hesitation and an insistent tug on his arm Ryan followed. Breathing the crisp clear air he sighed “I’m sorry I lost my cool back there.”
“With reason,” Hannah told him “Brannon was asking for it but he knew you were in no condition to fight back otherwise he’d never have done it.”
Ryan rubbed his collar-bone wincing from the bruises Brannon had left behind.
Teasha looked at him with concern her blue eyes worried “he didn’t hurt you did he?”
“I’m fine” he felt a little self-conscious as she pulled his shirt down to inspect his injuries.
“Hold still,” she demanded as she ran her fingers lightly over his skin.
Shaking her hands off him Ryan walked away “I said I was fine,” his cheeks burning brightly.
Silently they followed him into the parking lot coming to a stop beside the car. “I take it we’re leaving,” Vincent stated.
Nodding “I can’t go back in there,” Ryan’s voice shook vibrating with emotion.
They piled into the car Vincent mumbled “maybe Divia’s parents weren’t wrong about sending her to a private school.”
“Would you go if you had the chance?” Hannah asked turning in the front see to look at him. She wouldn’t be surprised if Vincent said yes. He had more brains the rest of them combined. A private school could probably offer him more than what he’d get in public school.
“I would if I could,” he sighed wistfully “it’ll never happen though. We just can’t afford it. My medical expenses and glasses make it impossible.”
“My dad’s would love to send me and Zach to another school,” Teasha added beside him “I heard them discussing it but they can’t afford it. Not with all the other kids and Zach’s hospital bills. It’s out of the question.”
Hannah nodded knowing it wouldn’t be a problem for either her parents or Ryan’s to send them to private school. “I won’t go unless you guys could come to,” she said coming to a decision turning to face the front “we’re in this together.”
“Yeah me too,” Ryan said from the driver’s seat “I just can’t do it today.”
“I kind of feel like we’re the musketeers. All for one and one for all,” Hannah said fastening her seat belt.
“Where are we going?” Vincent asked as Ryan drove from the parking lot.
“I’m open to suggestions” Ryan said glancing in the rear view mirror.
“The park” Teasha suggested.
“The part it is then,” Ryan smiled relieved that they were leaving that hell hole behind them. He never wanted to go back if only it were that easy.
Pointing towards the swings Hannah began to run “last one there’s a rotten egg.”
“No fair,” Teasha cried running after her “you started before us.”
Grabbing the chains of one of the swings Hannah giggled “I win.” Her eyes twinkled with merriment as she sat down demanding “push me.”
Vincent came up last panting “alright m’lady your wish is my command.”
Teasha watched them catching her breath. Sitting in the other empty swing she said “you sound like your eight instead of sixteen.”
“Right now I wish I was eight,” Hannah squealed as Vincent pushed her higher “it was better than.”
They all nodded in agreement. Just about anything would be better than now. Teasha noticed the goofy grin on Ryan’s handsome face “I bet I know what your thinking” she teased.
“I bet you don’t,” he retorted sitting on the ground pulling at the green grass.
“It’s a girl,” Hannah said teasing him.
“Don’t” he mumbled feeling his cheeks flush.
“It is a girl,” Teasha giggled “he’s turning bright red.”
“I know who it is” Hannah giggled in delight.
“Ryan and Charity sitting in a tree,” Teasha chanted kicking her legs to go higher as she began to swing.
“K-I-S-S-I-N-G” Vincent joined in on the fun earning himself a glare from his friend.
“You better stop or I’ll tell everyone who you like,” Ryan threatened his tone serious.
“You wouldn’t dare” Vincent gave him an uncertain stare.
“Oh do tell us,” Hannah pleaded.
“Yes do,” Teasha added.
“What do I get in exchange if I tell you?” Ryan asked relieved that their attention had been diverted from him to Vincent.
“I’ll give you all the money in my pockets,” Hannah offered.
Shaking his head Ryan snorted “you never have money in your pockets.”
“How do you know I don’t?” she demanded sticking her bottom lip out pretending to pout.
“You never do,” he shook his head at her “you used to get me with that when we were kids or have you forgotten?”
“Then what do you want?” Hannah asked “I want a secret for a secret,” Ryan looked at Vincent who nodded back at him.
“What do you want to know?” Teasha asked her smile slipping.
“I want to know who you like Teasha,” Ryan said with a mischievous grin.
Teasha turned to Hannah eyes pleading. Hannah shook her head firmly “you can keep your stupid old secret. We don’t want to know.”
Both Vincent and Teasha sighed in relief. “Ok have it your way,” Ryan shrugged “it would have changed your lives though.”
“I bet you don’t even know who Vincent likes,” Hannah said.
“Whatever makes you feel better,” Ryan said laying back in the grass. He closed his eyes enjoying the peaceful surroundings. His parents wouldn’t be pleased to know he skipped class but they’d understand.
Later that night the parents gathered in Eddie’s living room. “I know we’re all concerned about our children’s safety and well-being,” Rory looked from one worried parent to another.
“I can’t tell Ryan he has to stay in school if he feels threatened,” Trent said telling them what happened at school that morning “he’s been hurt enough. I send my kids to school to learn not to collect bruises.”
Gayle nodded taking his hand squeezing it tight “I’m all for sending him to a private school.”
“For some of us that’s not an option,” Ramsey announced “I’d like to get them out of that place. We just don’t have the funds to do it.”
“We’re in the same boat as you,” Milo added.
Leaning into her husband Jillian said “with Vincent’s special glasses, follow-up eye exams and surgeries we barely make enough to cover our expenses now.”
Eddie stood to address the group. He swallowed feeling on display but he pressed on “I’ll understand if you say no but I want to make this offer,” he looked to Rory who nodded and waved for him to continue “it’s important to our kids that they stay together.” He sighed remembering how Hannah had a minor melt down when they had suggested the possibility of sending her to a private school. “Rory and I would like to offer to cover the fees for anyone who needs the help.”
Bruce looked to Ramsey whose initial reaction was to refuse the offer. “Please,” Bruce pleaded “can we at least discuss it?”
Ramsey looked around the group of people who had become an extension to his family. As much as he disliked the idea of accepting what felt like charity to him the offer he knew was made from good intentions. “Alright we’ll discuss it,” he smiled at his husband who snuggled into him looking at him like he hung the moon. A look and feeling he’d never get tired of.
“Jillian and I will need time to discuss it as well,” Milo told them “we appreciate the offer but it’s an awful lot to ask of you.”
“We’re willing to do it no matter the cost,” Rory assured them “it’s important to Hannah and if it gets our kids out of an unsafe environment I’m all for it.”
“Gayle and I will help with the cost,” Trent offered to the astonishment of his wife “but I have one concern. If we do this aren’t we giving our kids the message that it’s ok to run from their problems?”
“I don’t see it like that,” Bruce shook his head “sometimes they need to know that their safety and well-being is the only thing that matters. We as parents are here to make sure they have that safety even if that means sending them to another school.”
Gayle turned to Trent “I know you want to treat Ryan like a man. Teach him to handle his problems but he’s not there yet. He’s still a kid, our kid. He shouldn’t have to worry about getting beat up for going to school or choosing to be friends with someone.”
“I know but what if it’s no different in another school? We could be exchanging one problem for another,” Trent said addressing the group.
“It’s a chance we’re willing to take,” Rory said taking Eddie’s hand “we won’t be sending Hannah back to that school. We’ve already called and taken her out.”
Eddie nodded “it’s not like she’s learning anything there except how to be bullied. I commend all of our kids for standing up for themselves and each other. It takes a lot of courage to do that. Unless the school does something, which I don’t see happening the situation isn’t likely to improve.”
The other parent’s nodded “they seem to think the football team can do no wrong,” Jillian said “then you add in the other parents and we’re facing an insurmountable task.”
“The way I see it,” Ramsey spoke his voice low and furious “is we either put up with the unfair treatment or we do something about it.” He tried to smile reassuringly to his husband “we’ve already taken the twins out and we’ve discussed the idea of homeschooling them.”
“I’m going to call the school tomorrow,” Jillian said “Vincent won’t be going back either.”
They all turned to Trent and Gayle who slowly nodded “Ryan won’t go back either.” Gayle said looking towards Trent who nodded wrapping his arms around her “whatever’s best for the kids. Their safety is all that matters.”