It doesn’t matter what people think about you. It’s what you think about yourself that counts.
I wait outside in the hallway, slumped in a chair with my head bent down, staring at my grungy black Chucks. The closed door to my immediate left is composed mostly of glass, hazy and distorting, but I know who’s inside. I can hear the low murmur of their voices but I don’t really hear the words.
That’s okay. I know what they’re saying about me.
My counselor. My coach. My sister. My brother-in-law. They’re all inside, talking about my future. Or lack thereof.
Tilting my head back, I stare at the ceiling, wondering yet again how the hell I got here. A few years ago, life was good. Hell, last summer life was really good. I was on the team. Running on that field like my feet were fire and I couldn’t ever be stopped. Coach approved, a big grin on his face when he’d tell me, You’re just like Drew.
Yeah. That made me proud as shit. I idolize my brother-in-law. He makes me feel safe. He understands me when Fable never, ever could. Not that she doesn’t try the best she can, but she’s a girl. She doesn’t get it.
Thinking of girls makes my heart feel like it’s made out of lead. Solid and thick and impenetrable. I haven’t been with a girl since . . . I don’t know. A few weeks? I miss ’em. Their smiles and their laughter and the way they gasp when I dive in all smooth-like and kiss them. Their soft skin and how easy it all was. Clothes falling off and legs and arms tangled up.
Being on the football team meant I could get all the tail that I could ever want. But if I don’t have the grades, I can’t stay on the team. If I can’t stop smoking weed, then I’m kicked off the team. If I get caught one more time drinking at one of the bars while I’m underage, I’m definitely off the fucking team forever. Zero tolerance, baby.
None of us practice what the team rules preach.
The glass door swings open and my college counselor peeks her head out, her expression grim, her gaze distant when she stares at me. “You can come in now, Owen.”
Without a word I stand and shuffle inside the room, unable to look at anyone for fear I’ll see all that disappointment flashing in their eyes. The only one I chance a glance at is Drew, and his expression is full of so much sympathy I almost want to grab him in a tackle hug and beg him to make it all better.
But I can’t do that. I’m a grown-ass man—or so Mom tells me.
Fuck. There’s my biggest secret. I can hardly stand to think of her, let alone when Fable is sitting right next to me. She would flip. Out. If she knew the truth.
She doesn’t know. No one knows Mom is back in town and begging me to help her. She asks me to get her weed and I do. She gives me beer as payment and I drink it. Handing over all the spare money that I make.
I’m working at The District, where I’m a waiter when I’m not in class or at practice or supposed to be studying or whatever the hell. I’m making decent money, I’m on a football scholarship, and Drew plays for the NFL, for the love of God, so Fable and Drew have no problems. They live in the Bay Area, he plays for the 49ers, and he’s one loaded motherfucker.
But I refuse to take a handout from them beyond their helping me pay for school expenses and my house, which I share, thank you very much, to ease the burden. Mom blew back into town last spring, when my freshman year was winding down. Knowing I have a soft spot for her, that I’m easily manipulated by her words.
Your sister’s rich, she tells me. That little bitch won’t give me a dime, but I know you will, sweetie. You’re my precious baby boy, remember? The one who always watched out for me. You want to protect me right? I need you, Owen. Please.
She says “please,” and like a sucker I hand over all the available cash I have to her.
“We’ve been discussing your future here at length, Owen,” my counselor says. Her voice is raspy, like she’s smoked about fifty thousand packs of smokes too many, and I focus all my attention on her, not wanting to see the disappointment written all over Fable’s face. “There are some things we’re willing to look past. You’re young. You’ve made some mistakes. There are many on your team who’ve made the same mistakes.”
Hell yeah, there are. Those guys are my friends. We made those mistakes together.
“Your grades are suffering. Your sister is afraid you work too much and she called your boss.” Holy. Shit. I can’t believe she did that. But hell, the owner is her friend and former boss, Colin. He’ll rat me out fast, I guess, even though he doesn’t really work there any longer. He and his girlfriend, Jen moved on right after I graduated high school. They’re in Southern California now, opening one restaurant after another, all over the place.
“What did my boss say?” I bite out, furious. My job is mine and no one else’s. It’s the only thing that gives me freedom, a little bit of pocket money that I earned all on my own. Not a handout from Drew. Not an allowance to keep a roof over my head and my cell phone bill paid.
It’s money that’s mine because I earned it.
“That you’re working in excess of thirty hours a week.” Dolores—that’s my counselor’s name. She sounds like a man and she’s ancient. She’s probably worked at this college as long as it’s been around and considering it was founded around the turn of the twentieth century, this bitch is old as dirt. “That’s too much, Owen. When do you have time to study?”
Never, I want to say, but I keep my mouth shut.
“All your grades have slipped tremendously, but you’re failing English Comp. That’s the class we need you to focus on at the moment,” Dolores the man-lady says.
“Which I can’t believe,” Fable says, causing me to look at her. Ah hell, she’s pissed. Her green eyes—which look just like mine—are full of angry fire and her mouth is screwed up so tight, I’m afraid she’s going to spit nails. “You’ve always done so well in English. Once upon a time, you actually liked to write.”
Once upon a time, I had all the hours in the world to write. Well, not really, but I could carve out enough time to get the words down. It was therapeutic. I copied Drew at first with it. The guy used to always scribble a bunch of nonsense that made my sister look like she wanted to faint, and I wanted to do the same. Not faint or make my sister faint, but touch people with my words.
So I became a carbon copy of Drew Callahan. I played football, I wrote, I studied, I tried my best to do the right thing. I’m a little more outgoing than Drew, though. Girls are my thing. So are my friends. And beer. Oh, and weed.
All of that equals not doing the right thing, despite my intentions.
I tried to kick the drug habit, as they call it. And I did. But then Mom came back around, and now I have a smoking buddy.
That is all sorts of fucked up.
“I don’t have any time,” I say with a shrug.
“Right. Working a job you don’t even need, you little shit.” Fable hisses the last word at me, and it stings as if she’s lashed at my skin with a whip. Drew settles his hand on her arm, sending her a look that says “chill the hell out.”
So she does. He has that sort of effect on her. The two of them together are so perfect for each other it’s kind of disgusting. I miss them. I’m alone, adrift in this town I grew up in, going to school here because this is what I wanted. Independence from them.
Now I wish I’d moved with them. Gone to Stanford like they originally wanted me to. Well, like Fable wanted me to. Drew told her not to push. The more she pushes, the more I pull away.
And I did. With the Stanford thing, with the move-in-with-my-sister-and-her-husband-in-the-big-ass-mansion thing. All of it, I said no to.
I’m one stupid asshole aren’t I?
“We’ve found you a tutor,” the counselor says, pretending as if my sister’s outburst hadn’t happened. “You’re going to meet with her in an hour.”
“I have to be at work in an hour,” I start, but Fable butts in.
“No, you don’t. You’re on probation.”
“Probation from work?” I turn to her, incredulous. What the hell is she talking about?
“Until you get your shi—your act together, you’re not working. You need to focus. On school more than anything,” Fable says. When I open my mouth to protest, she narrows her eyes. I shut the hell up. “They’re benching you on the team, too. You need to move fast before you lose everything. I mean it.”
The classroom is quiet and smells like old books and chalk dust, even though I bet there hasn’t been a chalkboard in here for years. We’re meeting in one of the original buildings on campus, where the air is thick with generations of students past and everything is drafty and old, broken down and historic looking.
I feel very shiny and brand new, and that’s a feeling I haven’t had in a while. I’d almost forgotten what it was like. I got my hair cut yesterday—splurged for the blow-dry treatment, too, so it falls in perfect waves just past my shoulders. Waves I don’t normally bother to make happen since my hair is boringly straight. I’m wearing a new pair of jeans and a cardigan sweater I picked up at Old Navy yesterday with the 30-percent-off coupon they emailed me. Mom would be proud of my newly found thrifty ways.
I don’t have a choice. Being frugal has become a way of life.
Now I’m waiting for the new student I’m going to tutor for the rest of the semester. It’s already October, so we don’t have much time to turn his grades around; not that I’m worried. I’m good at my job. So good, I get the tough cases, and supposedly this one is extra tough.
I’ve been a tutor since I was a freshman in college, and considering I graduated high school over a year early and I’m now a junior, that’s going on three years. I have a lot of experience. I’m not bragging when I say I’m smart. I’m what some people might call a prodigy.
More like I’m too smart for my own good.
All I know about the guy I’m going to tutor is that he’s a football player and he’s failing English. Considering I don’t pay attention to any of the sports teams at my college, I have no idea who he is beyond his name. My first instinct is that he’s a punk with a chip on his shoulder who hates the idea of being tutored by little old me.
Whatever. I don’t let it bother me. I’ll simply collect my check every two weeks and send what I can to Mom. I’ve dealt with plenty of punk athletes in the past who are resentful that they have to do schoolwork in the first place. More than one whined at me in the past, “Who cares about my grades? I just wanna play ball.”
They think they can get by on playing ball and that’s it. Doesn’t matter what ball it is, either. Football, baseball, basketball . . . if they’re good at it, they think they’re invincible. They believe it’ll take them so far they’ll never need anything else.
Relying on one thing and one thing only for your happiness, your expenses, your entire life, doesn’t work. Mom is living proof of that.
So am I.
Glancing at my phone, I see my new student is almost ten minutes late. I’m only giving him fifty minutes, then. I have to go to my other job after this and don’t have time to wait for him. I work some nights and weekends at a crappy little diner downtown and I don’t really like it there. The boss is an arrogant jerk and the customers are grouchy. But the tips are decent, and I need whatever dollars I can get.
We’re two broke girls, Mom and I. Dad left us with nothing.
I hate him. I sorta hate guys in general. Once, when I was almost fourteen and suffering in high school as the young kid no one liked with hardly any friends, I went through a stage where I believed I was a lesbian. I told the few friends I had, I told my parents, I told everyone who would listen to me that I liked girls. I never told them the reason why I’d decided I was a lesbian.
Sixteen-year-old Cody Curtis had stuck his tongue down my throat, his rough, inexperienced hands roaming all over me one Saturday night at a birthday party gone wild, and I almost gagged. I decided right then and there if that’s what boys do to girls, I would have no part of it. I’d rather become an ostracized lesbian than deal with guys who wanted to grab my butt and lick the roof of my mouth.
Funny thing was, no one believed me. Not my parents or my friends. They all thought it was a stage. Especially my best friend, Kari, who knew Cody stuck his tongue down my throat and how much I hated it.
They were right. It was a total stage that wasn’t really a stage at all. More like a front. But I’ve never been comfortable around guys. They give me even a hint of attention and I think they have ulterior motives. They want something from me I don’t want to give.
My body. My mind. My soul.
They’ll take everything, then destroy me. Walk away without a backward glance. Look at Dad. He’s done it time and again. He leaves. My mom cries. He comes back. She gives in. He decimates her, piece by piece, until she’s a broken crumble of human spirit on the ground, and then he’s gone. This time for good.
I’m the one left who has to pick up the pieces. Glue her back together and tell her she’s strong. She’s tough. She doesn’t need him. We both don’t need him.
But I’m lying. I think she does need him. And I need him, too, only to keep her together more than anything else. I don’t love him, not anymore. He stomped all over that love until he made me resentful.
Seeing what he does to Mom makes me really wish I’d stuck to that lesbian deal. Or maybe I should just become asexual. That would work, too. I like it here in my little world that makes sense, with school and tutoring and plans to go on to get my master’s degree. I can be whatever I want. I don’t need a man to define me. Kari’s afraid I’ll never want to graduate college because I like school too much. She thinks something’s wrong with that.
It’s hard to confess to her how scared I am of the real world.
A creak sounds, startling me out of my thoughts, and the classroom door swings open. A boy struts in—there’s no other way to describe his walk. It’s all effortless grace and smooth movement. He’s tall and broad, and with a menacing glower on his face. A face that is . . . holy wow, it’s beautiful.
All thoughts of returning to my so-called lesbian ways are thrown right out the window. If I’m as smart as I claim to be, I’ll go chasing after them and snatch them back up. Pretend this gorgeous boy doesn’t exist.
“You my tutor?” He stops just in front of the table that I’m sitting behind and I leap to my feet, pushing the chair back with so much force it falls to the side with a loud clatter.
My cheeks are hot, but I ignore the fallen chair as though I didn’t knock it over. I am the biggest dork on the planet. “Yeah. You’re Owen?” I wince. Yeah. I’m supposed to bring up his English grade and I can’t even utter a proper yes.
“Yeah.” He flicks his chin at me. It’s a firm chin and jaw that’s covered in golden stubble that doesn’t match the color of the hair on his head. That’s brown. A rich, golden brown, though, that hints he could almost be a blond if he sat in the sun long enough. “I don’t have time for this shit, though. I gotta go to work.”
Oh. Not even a minute in and he’s blowing me off and cursing at me. Jerk. “You’re late.”
“I know. Told you I don’t have time.”
“I don’t think you have a choice.” Turning, I bend over and grab my chair, righting it. When I turn back to face him, his gaze quickly lifts to my face, as if he’d been checking out my butt, and I swear my cheeks are on fire.
More over the fact that I actually liked catching him most likely checking out my butt.
What is wrong with me?
“I really don’t need your help,” he says, his gaze locking with mine. “I’m usually pretty good at English.”
I’m at a loss for words just looking at him, which is pitiful. His eyes are green. A deep, intense green that is so beautiful, they’re almost painful to stare into. A girl could get lost in eyes like those. I bet a thousand girls before me already have. “Really?” I ask, my voice full of contempt. “Because according to your teacher, you’re failing.”
His generous mouth sets into a hard line, the lush fullness that could be considered almost feminine if he didn’t have all those harsh angles in his face to offset it disappearing in an instant. “This is such bullshit,” he mutters, running a hand through his hair, messing it up completely.
Excerpted from Four Years Later by Monica Murphy. Copyright © 2014 by Monica Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.