Chapter One

 

MY PILLOW vibrated, and an annoying buzz hit my ears. I kept my eyes closed. Maybe the sound would stop. Maybe for once, Rob would take the hint when I didn’t answer.

No such luck, of course. A moment later, the phone buzzed again. With a groan, I fished it out from under my pillow and squinted at the screen. Why would I be allowed to sleep on a school night? I should have expected this.

Five messages from Rob. Five. In less than ten minutes. At just past midnight. He should have been asleep, the same as I’d been for the past two hours. We had a test in history the next day, even though we were only three weeks into the school year.

Then again, Rob didn’t sleep much. And when he lay awake in the middle of the night with his thoughts spiraling into dark places, I was the only person he trusted enough to talk to.

I read the messages to give myself a clue of what I would be in for when I answered. The first one said simply, Hi, Mira.

The next one, sent only a minute later according to the time stamp, said, I said hi. Are you there?

The next few, sent within about two minutes, escalated.

Are you mad at me?

Why won’t you answer?

You’d better answer me. I need you.

I stared at the last message, my chest tightening. Something might be seriously wrong, and I’d been lying here mentally bitching about Rob waking me. The last time he’d said he needed me, he was sitting in his room with a bottle of pills he’d swiped from his stepmother. Or at least he’d claimed to be. For all I knew, he’d only said it to get more attention from me.

Thinking that made me feel seriously crappy. Rob could be overdramatic, and he clung to me so much sometimes he made it hard to breathe, but he had legitimate problems. I wasn’t a psychiatrist or anything, but even I could tell he was depressed. His parents refused to get help for him. They denied anything was wrong. His stepmother had even said in front of me that Rob needed to stop whining so much.

I wasn’t thrilled about getting into another midnight chat with Rob, but if he needed me, I didn’t have much choice. I couldn’t turn my back on him, even if it meant I was finished sleeping for the night. If he was having a really bad time, he might want to talk until we had to get up for school. It wouldn’t have been the first time. I never told him to leave me alone, no matter how tired I was. He had to be able to count on someone, and I was all he had.

I typed a quick message, hoping to cut him off before he sent another one.

I was sleeping. Sorry. What’s up?

Good. There you are.

I waited, but he didn’t say anything else. If I wanted to find out why he wouldn’t let me sleep, I would have to drag it out of him. Not unusual. Sometimes he wanted to make sure I really cared, and to him, caring meant I would work to get information out of him.

I rolled onto my back and propped myself up on my pillows. This might take a while. I started the process of finding out what was going on in Rob’s head tonight.

Are you okay? Not sleeping?

Couldn’t sleep. It’s a doom cloud night. You weren’t around after school.

“Doom cloud” was Rob’s label for the worst moments of depression. He felt as if the entire world was about to fall apart, and all he could see was darkness wrapping around him. The way he described it, I almost felt it myself sometimes.

I wasn’t sure whether he meant not seeing me after school had caused the doom cloud, or if he was being random because he couldn’t keep his thoughts on track.

Had to work. Thought I told you this morning. Sorry if I didn’t.

Okay. Just had crap with some of the guys after gym. Wanted to talk.

Ugh.

I didn’t know what else to say. He always had crap with someone at school. They treated him like the designated punching bag. Name-calling, insults, even physical stuff like shoving or hitting him. He’d told the administration about it over and over, and so had I, but it was our word against everyone else’s. The freak fag and the drama dyke. Our most common nicknames in the school hallways. Naturally no one else backed us up.

You could have called after you got out of work.

I rolled my eyes. Even if he’d forgotten I had to work today, he knew my shift went until nine on the days I worked. By the time I finished, I was always hungry and had at least a couple hours of homework. I wouldn’t have had time for a phone conversation with him. Those sometimes went on as long as the text ones.

At the same time, I should have checked in with him. Every day he went through hell. I had to listen when he needed support, because no one else would. If I ignored him, I didn’t know what he might do.

I’m sorry. Got home and had lots of homework. Wasn’t ignoring you.

Okay.

I tried to come up with something else to say. Something to show him how much I cared. While I tried to get my brain working, he sent another text.

Someday I’m going to make them stop.

My chest got tight again, and I had to remind myself to breathe. When he said that kind of thing, sometimes I had to wonder when it would stop being him venting and become something he actually did. He wasn’t violent or anything. The only person he’d ever tried to hurt was himself.

He wouldn’t do anything drastic, though. As long as I kept talking to him and helping him, he would keep himself together. We would finish high school, go on to college, and Rob would get past all the bullshit, the same as I would. In ten years, we might not even remember how bad it was. If only I could convince Rob of that.

I doubted anything I said would make a difference tonight, but I tried anyway.

Someday we’ll graduate and it won’t matter.

It will always matter. It doesn’t get better. That whole thing is a lie.

Maybe.

I knew better than to argue with him. He would spend an hour or more going off about how nothing really got better, and how half the people in the videos weren’t LGBT and didn’t even know what they were talking about. I’d heard it all before.

They’re going to get what’s coming to them. Karma bites.

Yeah.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He wasn’t making threats. As long as he counted on karma to deal with the bullies, he wouldn’t do anything stupid. He was just venting. I could handle that.

Okay, well, go to sleep. I’m better now.

I read the text twice. We’d only been chatting for a few minutes, and doom cloud nights were the ones when he kept me talking until my alarm went off. There was no way he could suddenly be okay after such a short conversation. He’d told the truth about the doom cloud, because he knew how worried I got when he had a bad night. He would never claim things were that bad unless they actually were.

Something was off. I didn’t know how to ask him about it without it sounding like an accusation, and if he was willing to let me go back to sleep, I wouldn’t complain. The conversation was over for now. Hopefully by morning, he really would be better. Meanwhile, if he needed me again, he knew how to reach me.

Thanks. I hope you can sleep too. See you in the morning.

Yep.

I shut off the display and flipped the phone over a few times between my fingers. Rob might text again. We’d talked for such a short time, and he always had more to say. Plus, if the doom cloud hadn’t let up, he probably wouldn’t fall asleep.

On the other hand, I was exhausted. Besides school, I had to work again the next day. The job as a grocery store bagger was good for my bank account, but I wasn’t used to it yet. If I left the phone on in case Rob needed me again, I wouldn’t sleep either. I would be on alert in case the thing buzzed.

I waited a couple more minutes, then turned off the phone entirely. No more texts for the night. No more disturbing comments from Rob. Only a good night’s sleep.

Which I didn’t get, because I couldn’t stop worrying.

 

 

THE NEXT morning, I dragged myself out of the house carrying my way-too-heavy backpack and wishing for a cup of coffee. Dad didn’t let me drink the stuff at home, but sometimes Talia and I met at the donut shop around the corner from school so we could caffeinate ourselves before we had to deal with the day.

We wouldn’t have time this morning, though. I was already late, and I’d texted Talia to tell her to meet me at school instead. Since I’d shut off my phone after texting with Rob, my alarm hadn’t gone off. I’d been so tired I hadn’t even thought about the alarm. Fortunately, my brother Olin had pounded on my bedroom door at seven to tell me it was almost time to leave.

I looked like crap. I’d barely managed a shower and hadn’t washed my hair because I wouldn’t have had time to blow-dry it, so I’d put it in a messy ponytail. My only makeup was lip gloss, and I wore the same jeans as the day before, along with a blue flowered blouse my grandmother had given me for my birthday. I hated the thing, but it was the only clean shirt I’d been able to find. I wasn’t happy with how I looked, but at least I knew Talia would say something nice about me. She always thought I was beautiful.

When I got to school, Talia was waiting at the edge of the parking lot. Rob lurked a few yards away, partially behind an SUV, as if we wouldn’t see him. He didn’t have any reason to hide from me, but that was what it looked like he was doing. Or, more likely, he was trying to avoid Talia.

“What happened?” Talia gave me a hug. “I was afraid you’d miss first bell.”

“Overslept. I messed up the alarm.” I glanced over at Rob and raised my voice. “You don’t have to hide over there. We don’t bite.”

“Yeah.” Slowly he walked over to us.

Talia turned away, wrinkling her nose. She tried to be nice to Rob, but she didn’t often actually talk to him. Every time she did, he got pissy with her. At first, I’d tried to persuade them to be friends, but after a while I’d given up. They didn’t have to like each other solely because of me. As long as they didn’t argue in front of me, I would deal with them ignoring each other.

“Sorry,” Rob said in a snarky tone. “Didn’t mean to intrude on your morning kiss or whatever.”

“Hey.” I thumped his arm with my fist. “Don’t be a jerk.”

“Sorry.” This time he sounded sincere. “You know I’m happy you two are together. I didn’t sleep well. My internal censor’s busted.”

“Well, fix it,” Talia said. “And be careful what you say. No one besides you knows we’re together, and we want to keep it that way.”

“I said I’m sorry!” Rob gritted his teeth. “See, Mira? This is why I stay away from her. I’m going inside. I know where I’m not wanted.” He spun around and hurried toward the school.

My heart pounded. Conflict. Exactly what I didn’t want this early in the morning, especially between two of the people I cared about most.

I opened my mouth to call after him, but Talia put her hand on my arm. “Let him go. He’s just going to rant at you if you try to talk to him now. Let him cool down.”

“Yeah.” I took a deep breath. If I didn’t go after Rob, he might think I’d taken Talia’s side, but if I did, he definitely wouldn’t thank me. He would say something he didn’t mean, and then we would both be angry. It was better to leave him alone for a while. By the time I saw him in first period, he would probably be putting himself down for getting mad at me. He would apologize, and everything would be fine, the same as always.

Talia and I walked more slowly toward the building. A few times, her hand brushed mine, but we made no other physical contact. It would have been so nice to hold her hand. Plenty of girls held hands with their “besties” walking around the halls. But everyone knew those girls were straight and were just trying to be cute.

Talia wasn’t out, but most people assumed she was a lesbian anyway. She had short, spiky hair, and the only makeup she wore was black eyeliner. She usually wore guys’ jeans or pants, which she said fit her better than women’s stuff would have, with graphic T-shirts. Mostly fandoms and bands. To me, she was beautiful.

She hadn’t decided whether to call herself lesbian or bisexual. She’d had a couple of boyfriends before me, and hadn’t exactly had a problem being physical with them. Either way, she was definitely in a relationship with a girl now, and she got a little freaked out about the idea of anyone knowing. My dad and Olin knew, of course, and a couple of Talia’s friends, but no one else. She wasn’t out to her family either.

My dad and Olin were totally cool about me being into girls. I’d come out to them the summer before I started high school, and I’d come out at school after the first few weeks of my freshman year. I hadn’t entirely planned it. I lost my temper after about the hundred zillionth time someone called me “drama dyke” at school, and I’d stood in the middle of the hall and shouted, “You’re right! I’m a lesbian! Have fun with it!”

Oddly, most of the bullying stopped then. Once I admitted my sexuality, calling me “dyke” lost its entertainment value. People still gave me a hard time sometimes, but nowhere near as bad as middle school and the first few weeks of ninth grade. And, thank God, nothing like the crap Rob got.

I wished everyone could know Talia and I were together. She was my first real girlfriend, and hiding it bothered me. I couldn’t figure out why someone so amazing was interested in me, but I’d made up my mind to enjoy it as long as it lasted. And to make sure it lasted, I went along with her wanting to keep it a secret from most people.

When we walked through the main door, shouting in one of the corridors leading off the lobby caught my attention. Loud voices so jumbled I could barely make out anything except a few swear words and a high-pitched yelp. Without even being able to see what was going on, I knew it had something to do with Rob.

I dropped my backpack, trusting Talia to take care of it, and ran.

The corridor was so packed I had to shove people to get through the crowd. A few people swore at me, and someone punched me in the arm, but I didn’t care. One of the morons should have been getting help, not standing around watching someone get the crap pummeled out of them.

Teachers should have been there anyway, since the crowd was in front of the English classrooms. The teachers had to have been in their rooms. They couldn’t have avoided hearing all the chaos. But not a single one of them was in sight.

In the thick of the crowd, a group of four guys stood clustered around something. Someone. And I knew who.

“Go get a frigging teacher!” I yelled at the girl nearest me, some tiny blonde who was probably a freshman judging from how terrified she looked. She stared at me wide-eyed for a second, then turned and started pushing through the crowd around her. At least she was small enough not to need much space to go between people.

The first bell rang. Some of the spectators headed off to class, but the guys stayed exactly where they were. One of them raised his fist.

“Stop!”

At my scream, three of the guys turned. The one with his fist raised didn’t move, not even to lower his hand. Craig O’Donnell. One of Rob’s worst enemies, for no reason except Rob existed.

I shoved my way past a few more people. Rob was cringing against the bank of lockers, both hands raised to protect his face. Blood dripped onto the floor from somewhere on his face. I guessed his nose. They always hit him in the nose.

So furious I could barely see straight, I slugged Craig’s other arm. “Leave him alone!”

Craig looked down at me and laughed. “Seriously? What are you going to do if I don’t?”

“That’s enough!” Mr. Jameson, my English teacher, hurried over to us, trailed by two other teachers. He pushed between Rob and Craig, facing Craig, and looked at me and the guys. “All of you, office. Now!”

The rest of the crowd, muttering and whispering, started walking away. The other two teachers started herding Craig and his buddies toward the main office. One of them touched my shoulder, and I shook her off. “That’s my best friend. I’m not going anywhere until he does.”

“She’s fine,” Mr. Jameson said.

The teacher nodded and moved along. Rob bent over, sobbing and gagging. “Why?” he asked in a thick, nasal voice. “Why again?”

I quickly moved beside him and put my arm around him. “It’s okay. They have to get suspended. The school can’t let this go.”

“That isn’t—” He broke off in a coughing fit.

“Let’s get you to the nurse.” Mr. Jameson took Rob’s arm and helped him straighten up.

Sure enough, Rob’s nose was swollen, and blood and snot streaked the lower part of his face along with his shirt. When he looked at me with wet, red eyes, something in his gaze almost made me run from him.

From my best friend. Someone I would never turn my back on. But the way he looked right then scared the hell out of me. He wasn’t afraid. He was somewhere beyond fury, and at that second, I didn’t know what he might do.

I breathed in and held it for a couple of seconds before letting go. Some of the tension left with the air. Of course Rob was angry. He had every right to be. He wouldn’t hurt anyone, though. Rob never hurt anyone.

“I’ll have the office send a janitor to clean that up,” Mr. Jameson said. “Come on.”

I stayed right beside Rob with my arm around his back, while Mr. Jameson held Rob’s arm. Rob moved like a zombie, shuffling one foot in front of the other so slowly it felt as if we took an hour to reach the lobby. As we walked to the nurse’s office door, I glanced into the main office.

Craig slouched in one of the chairs by the counter, along with two of his pals. One of the teachers stood beside them, arms folded. The other guy was nowhere in sight.

I started to shake. None of the bullies had ever hurt Rob this badly before. Those guys had hurt my best friend, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I’d never been able to do anything except remind Rob I cared about him. One of these days, that might not be enough.

Rob gagged again, and we stopped. “Are you going to be sick?” Mr. Jameson asked.

Rob shook his head. “Swallowed blood.”

“Not surprising.” Mr. Jameson narrowed his eyes. “Don’t worry about those guys. Mr. Shorey and Ms. Cramer will take care of them.”

“Sure. Just like they’ve done all the other times, right?”

“They’ll take care of it,” Mr. Jameson repeated. He didn’t sound as confident. He knew damn well this kind of thing had happened to Rob before. No one ever “took care of it.” None of the bullies had ever gotten more than detention, and they’d only gotten that the rare times when a teacher had witnessed what was going on. Most of the time, adults were nowhere around, and Rob’s and my word about what happened didn’t mean a whole lot when everyone else denied it.

We reached the nurse’s office. The nurse stood from her desk, took one look at Rob, and grabbed him from us to guide him to the bench beside the door. “Sit here. Don’t tip your head back. I’ll be right back.”

She bustled over to the closet where she kept the first aid supplies. I sat beside Rob and put my hand on his. He was shaking worse than I was. If I could have taken away his pain, I would have. But all I could do was ask stupid questions. “Do you want me to call your stepmom? She can bring you a new shirt.”

“And then bitch at me for getting this one dirty.” Rob shook his head slightly. “No thanks.”

“We have to call your parents,” Mr. Jameson said. “You should probably be checked out by a doctor. Your nose is in pretty rough shape.”

“So?” Rob glared up at him. “It doesn’t matter. It’s only going to happen again.”

Mr. Jameson opened his mouth and closed it again. He couldn’t argue with the truth.

The nurse came back with gauze and a cold pack. She handed a wad of gauze to Rob. “Hold this against your nose. Don’t squeeze and don’t press. Just hold it there.”

He followed her directions, and she looked at me and Mr. Jameson. “Another fight?”

“Unfortunately.” Mr. Jameson sighed. “You’ll call his parents, right?”

“I have to.” The nurse frowned. “Maybe it’ll go better than last time. Mira, are you okay? You didn’t get hurt, did you?”

“No. I got there at the end of the fight.” I turned to Mr. Jameson. “Do I have to go to the office? I didn’t fight anyone. I just yelled at them to stop.” Being interrogated by the vice principals was the last thing I wanted to do, especially since they wouldn’t believe a word I said anyway.

“Mr. Shorey and Ms. Cramer will probably want to hear your side of the story,” Mr. Jameson said. “You saw at least some of what happened.”

“So did a few dozen other people,” I muttered.

Even if Mr. Shorey and Ms. Cramer talked to every single person who’d watched the fight, it wouldn’t matter. Most of them would probably say they hadn’t seen anything, even if they’d been standing right beside the guys. Anyone who admitted there had been a fight would probably blame it on Rob solely to get him into trouble.

“They’ll talk to everyone they can.” Mr. Jameson touched Rob’s shoulder. “I have to get to class. I’m sorry this happened, Rob. Whatever I can do to help make sure those guys are punished, I’ll do.”

“You can’t do anything.” Rob closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. “No one can ever do anything.”

The hopelessness in his tone sent sharp blades into my heart. I’d heard it way too many times before. He’d gone from anger to giving up. To wanting to die because he saw no other way to stop the pain.

I didn’t have anything to say. I should have reassured him. Given him back some hope. Told him things would be okay. Except I wouldn’t have believed it, and neither would he.

I hated this frigging school. So far, Rob had always come out of the darkness, and he probably would this time. But I didn’t know how much more he could take.

“Mira, come to the office with me, please.” Mr. Jameson didn’t sound much better than Rob.

I didn’t want to leave, but I wasn’t doing Rob any good just sitting there. At least if I talked to the administrators, I would be doing something useful. There was always a tiny chance they might listen.

I squeezed Rob’s hand. “Hey. I’ll come back after they talk to me, okay? Hang in there.”

He opened his eyes to tiny slits. “It won’t do any good.”

“I don’t care.” I stood. “I’ll come back.”

His mouth twitched. “Thanks. At least you give a shit.”

“Damn right.” I stood so Rob wouldn’t see my eyes watering. More people should have cared about him.

I followed Mr. Jameson to the main office like the good, obedient little student I was. Craig wasn’t around this time. His other buddy had taken the chair. The other two guys hadn’t moved.

Mr. Jameson led me around the counter and pointed to the chair beside the attendance secretary’s desk. “Mrs. Chaffee, please make sure those boys and Mira don’t talk to each other.”

I narrowed my eyes. As if I would talk to the idiots. I didn’t care whether they said anything to me. I almost hoped they would, because Mrs. Chaffee might actually step in, unlike most of the school staff. She was one of the good ones.

“No problem.” The secretary gave me a tentative smile. “Everything all right, Mira?”

“That depends on how you define all right.” Realizing I sounded disrespectful, I sat. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“She’s waiting to talk to Ms. Cramer and Mr. Shorey about the fight,” Mr. Jameson said. “She’s a witness. Other students might come in as well. I need to get to my class, but I’ll talk to Mr. Shorey and Ms. Cramer later.”

“All right. Not a problem.” Mrs. Chaffee turned back to her computer.

Mr. Jameson left. Tense and trying to avoid looking at the morons on the other side of the counter, I stared at the bulletin board on the opposite wall. All of the notices on it were for teachers and other staff members, probably nothing I should have even been reading. Then again, if they didn’t want students reading it, they shouldn’t have put it in the main office.

The guys mumbled and whispered, and I caught my name a few times. I wanted to scream at them to shut the hell up, but I kept my mouth shut. If I said a single word, they would claim I’d tried to start a fight. Besides, talking to them wouldn’t have done any good. They knew they were jerks. They didn’t care.

After a little while, Craig came out of the vice principal’s office with Ms. Cramer. He glared at me, and I looked away. Even making eye contact might come back to bite me.

“Mrs. Thompson, have you called these boys’ parents?” Ms. Cramer asked the other secretary.

“I haven’t been able to get hold of Jack’s,” Mrs. Thompson said from her desk beside the bulletin board. “The other parents are on the way.”

“Mr. Jameson brought Mira in to speak with you,” Mrs. Chaffee said. “She saw what happened this morning.”

Ms. Cramer nodded and gestured at me. “Come in, Mira.”

I stood on shaky legs. Between leftover adrenaline and trying not to go off on the guys, my whole body trembled, and my heart raced a zillion beats a second.

Ms. Cramer led me into her office. Mr. Shorey, the other vice principal, was sitting at Ms. Cramer’s desk. He had a separate office, so I guessed he and Ms. Cramer wanted to be together to interrogate everyone.

“Have a seat, Mira.” Ms. Cramer sat in one of the two cushioned chairs in front of her desk.

I took the other chair. “I only saw the end of what happened.”

“Tell us what you saw,” Mr. Shorey said. “We’ve already talked to the boys involved, other than Rob. We’ll be talking to him in a few minutes.”

“He’s in the nurse’s office,” I said. “They made a mess of his nose.” They shouldn’t have wanted to talk to him. He was the one who’d been hurt. That was all they needed to know.

“I know.” Mr. Shorey sounded irritated. “Just tell us what you saw.”

I bit my lip. I had to be completely neutral in front of them. If I sounded emotional at all, they wouldn’t listen to anything I said. They never did. That was part of the reason they overlooked what Rob reported: he always cried. “Um, I came into the building and heard a lot of shouting and stuff in the English corridor. I went to see what was going on. A bunch of people were standing around, and Craig, Jack, Allan, and Seth were in front of the lockers. Craig had his hand up like he was going to hit someone.”

“Who was he going to hit?” Ms. Cramer asked.

She already knew the answer. Aside from hearing Rob had been injured, she and Mr. Shorey had probably listened to the guys blaming Rob for the fight. Everyone knew he had a temper, so of course Craig and the others would try to convince people he’d started it. And some would believe them, even though there had been four of them and Rob wasn’t that stupid.

Ms. Cramer and Mr. Shorey were supposed to be objective. Just the facts. If the guys had said Rob started the fight, Ms. Cramer and Mr. Shorey should have been smart enough to figure out they were lying. I had to make sure they did.

“Rob Stevens,” I said. “They had him up against the lockers, and he had his hands up like this.” I demonstrated. “He was bleeding.”

“Did he try to hit anyone?” Mr. Shorey asked.

I shook my head. “He just tried to keep them from hitting him. He didn’t touch anyone.”

“What did you do?” Mr. Shorey folded his arms.

“I yelled at the guys to leave Rob alone.” I paused. Craig might not even have noticed me touching his arm, but just in case, I figured I’d better mention it. “I tapped Craig on the arm to get his attention so he wouldn’t hit Rob. Then Mr. Jameson and the other teachers showed up and took care of everything.”

My heartbeat sped up again. I’d told the complete truth, but there was no guarantee they would believe me. It all depended on what the guys had said. If anything didn’t match up, Ms. Cramer and Mr. Shorey would probably believe the guys because there were four of them. Numbers always won. Rob would back my story if he was thinking clearly, but that would still only be two against four or more, depending on whether Mr. Shorey and Ms. Cramer talked to anyone else who’d been there.

If they decided I was lying, I might end up in detention or even suspended.

“Thank you.” Ms. Cramer stood. “We’ll let you know if we want to talk to you about anything else. Get a pass from Mrs. Chaffee. Do you need to go to your locker, or are you ready for first period?”

“Um.” I didn’t know what Talia had done with my backpack. “I think I’m ready for class. Talia had my bag.”

Mr. Shorey rolled his eyes. “You kids need to stop making other people responsible for your things. Go to class and see if your bag’s there. If it isn’t, come back down here.”

I tensed and pushed myself out of my chair. He sounded pissed off, which I didn’t appreciate. I’d been trying to save my best friend from getting beaten into the hospital. Obviously I hadn’t cared too much about my bag at that point.

But I didn’t say another word, just walked out to Mrs. Chaffee’s desk, got my pass, and headed to Mr. Jameson’s room. Where, fortunately, I found my backpack beside my desk.

I didn’t see Rob for the rest of the day, and he didn’t answer the texts I sent. I assumed his stepmother had taken him to get his nose checked out and brought him home afterward, but I was still worried. He might not have had a chance to tell Mr. Shorey and Ms. Cramer his side of the story before he left. Without hearing from him, they would have even more reason to believe the other guys.

I didn’t see Craig or the other guys either, though, so maybe Ms. Cramer and Mr. Shorey hadn’t believed them. Maybe for once, the school was actually punishing the people who should be punished.

After school, I sent Rob a couple more texts while Talia and I walked to the grocery store. I kept my phone in my hand until we reached the store, but Rob still didn’t answer.

“Why are you so worried?” Talia asked as we walked into the back room to put on our uniform shirts and aprons. “His mom probably picked him up. He’s fine.”

“Stepmom,” I said. Rob got furious when anyone called Lee-Anne his mother. Even though she’d been married to his father for ten years, Rob refused to consider her any relation to him. His mother had bailed when he was four, and he didn’t want another one.

Talia groaned. “Whatever. Point is, you’re acting like they broke him in half or something. He got hit. Again. He’s used to it.”

Used to it? Seriously? I narrowed my eyes. She made it sound like the fight didn’t even matter. Like Rob didn’t matter.

I should have expected it. We’d been in the same schools since sixth grade, but until the end of tenth, Talia had never talked to me or Rob. And now she only talked to him because he was my friend. She didn’t actually care about him. Maybe I was wrong to care about her.

“No one should be used to getting treated like that,” I said slowly through gritted teeth so I wouldn’t yell. “Just because it’s happened before doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother him. It does. Every single time, especially when the school acts like it’s his fault for being there instead of the assholes’ fault for doing it!”

“Whoa. Calm down.” Talia put her hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it’s okay. I only meant… I don’t know. This time wasn’t any worse than any other time, right? And he’s always been all right before?”

“Yeah.” I exhaled and tried to relax. Talia wasn’t the enemy. “It just pisses me off. Yeah, this has happened before. Yeah, physically he’s been okay every time before. But you don’t understand how hard it is for him to even get out of bed sometimes. He always knows something like this might happen.”

I clamped my lips together so I wouldn’t say anything else. The things Rob told me were meant to stay between me and him. I couldn’t share them, even with Talia, without betraying his trust, and there was no way I would ever do that. I was the only one Rob trusted.

“It sucks.” Talia bent over to tie her combat boot. “I mean, sometimes he does kind of bring it on himself, you know? I don’t mean he deserves it, but he spouts off when he shouldn’t, and he treats people like shit sometimes. But that doesn’t mean those guys or anyone else should be, like, assaulting him.”

I bristled. No matter how she explained it, she was victim-blaming. It wasn’t a whole lot better than making someone a victim in the first place. Rob wasn’t always easy to get along with, and he was so used to people hurting him that sometimes he went off on them before they did anything. But he didn’t deserve their crap, and he wouldn’t have acted that way if people had just left him alone.

I took a deep, long breath and blew it out slowly. Talia had never been bullied as badly as Rob and me. The way she looked and dressed mostly scared people off. So she didn’t know anything about how Rob felt. She was just giving her opinion, but it was based on not having a clue.

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” I said.

She straightened and looked at me. “Are you mad at me?”

“I don’t know.” I put on my apron and reached around my back to tie it. “I’m mad. I don’t think it’s at you. Just about all of it, I guess.”

“I get it. Here, let me.” She stepped behind me and tied the apron. “There. A pretty bow.”

I couldn’t help smiling. “Thanks.”

“Turn around.”

I did. She leaned in and touched her lips to mine. Just a tiny little touch. We couldn’t risk anyone walking in and seeing us kissing. But it sent warmth straight through me. Talia and I hadn’t said “I love you” to each other yet, but I definitely felt it, even when she ticked me off.

She grinned and took my hand. “Come on. Let’s get out there and wait on all the happy little Shop-and-Save customers.”