Chapter 1

 

 

“THIS is the fourth time you’ve been in my office this month,” Mr. Voorheis said without bothering to take his eyes off his computer monitor. “Adam, come in and have a seat.” He turned to me, releasing a slow, audible sigh. Voorheis’s puffy face was red, as always, and the overhead light reflected off his nearly bald head. He was one of those not-quite-completely bald types, sporting a ring of hair just above his ears.

Without speaking, I shuffled over to the chair and plopped down as if in my own living room, preparing to watch the big game. His glare suggested I should sit up straight, but I didn’t feel like it. I looked away and stared out the window. I wasn’t any happier about being there for a fourth time than he was about seeing me again, but I had no remorse for my actions.

“What is it this time, Adam?” he asked.

I shrugged, refusing to waste the effort it would take to verbalize my response.

“I’m talking to you, Adam,” he said, a little louder. He removed his round glasses and placed them on the desk in front of him, then folded his hands together, as if praying. “What did you do this time? Another fight?”

No matter what I said, he wouldn’t believe me, so I didn’t bother trying. After a few seconds, I nodded and then looked down at the floor between my feet.

I heard him push his chair back and again he sighed. “Look at me, Adam,” he said, his voice even. “I’m getting sick of this. My patience is running thin… well, actually, it’s run out. I’m calling your father.”

I glared at him, biting my lip. Part of me wanted to protest. I wanted to state my case and explain why I punched Derek, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Maybe if I pleaded with him—begged for mercy—he wouldn’t call my father, but I’d done that before. And here I was again. I knew it wouldn’t work this time, so I just shrugged.

He made me wait outside his office until my father arrived. Said he wanted me to think about what I had done and be ready with an explanation. I didn’t care about his threats. What could he do to me other than kick me out of school? Like that’d be a punishment anyway.

The chairs in the waiting area had square wooden frames and oversized burgundy cushions. It reminded me of a dentist’s office. This was the only area of the school where they provided students a comfortable seat. Whoever thought up that idea had perhaps been a student like me who had frequently gotten called to the office. In truth, I wasn’t always like that. It wasn’t until this year—ninth grade—that I’d ever been in trouble. Yet now, four times in a month, I sat here staring at the artificial ficus tree that adorned the administrative office’s waiting room.

I shifted in my chair, nervous, when the door opened. I could tell without even looking that it was him. I could tell just by the sound of his walk. He stopped at the desk before speaking to me. “Excuse me, Mr. Voorheis called me. I’m Mr. Irwin.”

“I’ll let him know you’re here, Mr. Irwin, if you want to have a seat.”

I looked down at the tile between my shoes. Nike Shox. My favorite pair. Father got them for me right before Christmas. He laughed and said he didn’t know why he bothered to spend a hundred and fifty bucks on shoes I was going to outgrow in three months. He was right—they were already almost too small.

When I felt his hand on my shoulder, I pulled away, but still didn’t look up at him.

“Adam, what’s this all about?” he asked. He sat down beside me.

I didn’t answer.

“Adam, what happened?”

I was both relieved and startled when the secretary interrupted us, saying that Mr. Voorheis was ready to see us. At least it gave me a reprieve—for a few seconds.

As we entered the office, the principal stepped over to shake my father’s hand. “I’m sorry to have to call you in like this, Mr. Willson.”

“Irwin,” my father corrected him. “I’m Jeff Irwin, Adam’s father. Brett Willson is my husband, Adam’s other dad.”

My face felt hot. I didn’t look at Voorheis but I could imagine his reaction. Bewilderment. Shock. He was probably shaking his head, not knowing what to say. He didn’t seem bothered, though. “Well, nice to meet you, sir. Unfortunately, I wish it were under better circumstances. Won’t you please have a seat?”

“Mr. Irwin,” Voorheis began, “Adam’s always been a model student. I’ve reviewed his junior high records, and he’s never been in any kind of trouble. Straight As until recently.”

My father nodded. “Yes.” I could hear the concern in his voice. “What’s going on? What’s happened?”

“This is the fourth incident,” Voorheis said. “Not only has Adam gotten into several fights, but his grades are slipping. He’s on the verge of failing two of his classes.”

“What?” He was pissed. I could tell by his tone that he was about to lose it. “What do you mean? Why don’t I know….”

“Mr. Irwin, I’ve been trying to work with Adam. He’s begged me not to call you.”

“Adam, why?” He reached over to place his hand on my arm. I pulled away.

“Adam’s gotten into four fights. This time he broke another student’s nose.” I finally looked up, resisting the urge to grin. I actually broke that bastard’s nose? The look on Voorheis’s face told me I had nothing to be proud of.

“Adam!” my father exclaimed. “What on earth?” The high-pitched tone of his voice was irritating. Embarrassing. Why did he have to be like that, act so nelly when he got upset?

“I’m afraid I have no choice but to suspend Adam for five days,” Voorheis said. “And of course there is the matter of the other student’s medical expenses. And—”

“Of course,” my father interrupted. “How is the boy? Is he going to be all right?”

“I think he’ll be fine,” Voorheis said. “He will be suspended as well. My understanding is that he was the instigator.”

I was surprised to hear him say it. “Yeah!” I finally spoke. “Derek started it!”

“Young man,” my father said. I could sense that he was holding back his temper. “I don’t care who started it. We don’t go around punching other people in the face!” Father’s posture was perfect, his shoulders squared and his feet flat on the floor in front of him. He raised his chin and tilted his head back slightly as he spoke. I looked him in the eye for a split second and then turned away.

Voorheis picked up his phone and pressed a couple buttons. “Irene, can you escort Mr. Willson down to his locker? He’s going to need to collect his belongings. He’s on a five-day suspension…. Thank you, I’ll send him out.”

He nodded to me. “Go with Ms. Stewart. She’ll take you to your locker while I finish talking to your father.”

“I want to know why this happened,” my father said. “Adam?”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I slid out of my seat and stepped briskly to the door.

“Adam?” I heard him repeat my name but ignored him, slipped outside, and closed the door behind me.

Ms. Stewart was hot, at least according to all the other freshmen guys. They talked about her, how she had a nice rack. And she always wore those sweaters that displayed her wares. She was also really nice. Genuine southern charm.

“Now just what did ya’ll do this time, Mr. Adam? Getting yourself suspended and all.”

I shrugged and grinned at her, trying to be cool. I tossed my head slightly to the left. It was a habit—my way of flipping my bangs out of my eyes.

“I already know what you did, mister,” she said, pointing at me with one of her long, fuchsia-colored fingernails. “You broke Derek Peterson’s nose. What’d he do to make you so mad?”

I shrugged. “Runnin’ his mouth… again.”

“Ah, I see,” she said, nodding and frowning. She smelled tropical, like suntan lotion. Maybe she used cocoa butter lotion or shampoo. Whatever it was, I liked it.

“Well, come with me. Let’s get your stuff from your locker. You need a box or something?”

I shook my head. “I have a backpack.”

“Your first game’s this weekend,” she reminded me. “Guess you won’t be starting.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. “Whatta ya mean?” I asked.

“Well, you’re suspended. You can’t attend any school functions while on suspension.”

“But I’m pitching!” I protested.

“You were pitching… till you went and punched Derek Peterson in the nose.”

“Man, are you serious?”

“As a heart attack,” she said.

“Crap! That sucks.” I was going to be in so much trouble with my coach. Worse than that, though, was what my dad was gonna say.

Dad is Brett, and my father is Jeff. That’s how my sister Lisa and I have always distinguished them from each other. When we were little we called Jeff “Daddy” and Brett was “Dad.” By the time I was in the fifth grade, it didn’t seem so cool to use “Daddy” anymore, so I started calling him “Father.”

Dad has always been “Dad,” and he is my dad. Nobody can deny it. We look exactly alike. Lisa looks more like our father. I never really figured it out—or cared—until recently. But it’s obvious that biologically Lisa belongs to Father and I came from Dad. They did the turkey-baster thing with a surrogate mother. Neither Lisa nor I have ever met her, but Dad said we could if we wanted. I don’t know. I think I’d probably rather not know. Maybe someday.

Dad was going to be really disappointed. He’d been really supportive of me when it came to sports. Went to all the games and even most of the practices. We have pictures of him from when he was in school, centuries ago, and he was a quarterback. That was when he and Father met. They went to school together and later got married, after it became legal.

I didn’t know what he’d say. I didn’t really want to know. All he’d been talking about was how proud he was of me. After all, he was the one who taught me the game. He taught me how to pitch, how to do everything. Fielding. Catching. Hitting. It started with tee ball when I was barely big enough to walk, and then continued all the way through grade school. I played Pee Wee League and then Little League, on the junior high team, and now Saturday was supposed to be my first game pitching on the varsity team.

“Do you think there’s anything I can do?” I asked Ms. Stewart. “Can’t I appeal to someone?”

We were in front of my locker, and she placed her hand on her hips. With her other hand she pointed to the padlock. “Go on,” she said, “get your stuff. Well, I suppose you could talk to the athletic director, but I don’t think it’ll change anything. Mr. Voorheis is the principal, and he’s the one who decides who gets suspended.”

“But Coach Williams might be able to talk him out of it,” I reasoned. “He might be able to get him to at least let me play in the opening game.”

Still chewing her gum, she raised her hand to her face and tapped her index finger against her chin. She was thinking. “Maybe ask Mr. Williams if you can do something else… some other form of punishment.”

“Like detention or something?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s probably too late. I think Voorheis has already decided.”

“Well, still, it’s worth a try!”

“I guess you have until Friday to get it worked out. I don’t suppose it’d hurt to at least call him. Have your mom or dad call him, maybe.”

“My dad!” She was right. That was a great idea. Dad had always been friends with Coach Williams, and if anyone could talk sense into him, it’d be Dad. “You’re brilliant, Ms. Stewart. Thanks!”

She smiled and puffed up her chest. Holy crap. No wonder all the guys talk about her rack.

 

 

I WAITED for him to launch into a lecture all the way home, but we just sat there, side by side, in icy silence. I debated bringing up the game with him. I would be better off waiting until Dad was home, I decided. I was sure he’d be more understanding than Father.

“I’ll make you some lunch,” Father said.

“Not hungry,” I mumbled.

“Adam, sit,” he said, pointing to the kitchen table.

I released a heavy sigh. “I said I’m not hungry. I’m just gonna go to my room.”

“And I said sit,” he repeated. “We need to talk.”

I should have known this was coming. If there was one thing Father knew how to do, it was lecture. I pulled out a chair and plopped down, scowling as I did so. My posture told him I wasn’t interested in anything he had to say, but of course he ignored the obvious.

He sat across from me. “Adam, look at me.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Adam… please.”

Why won’t he just leave me alone?

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” He spoke in a hushed tone, his voice inappropriately quiet. “Your grades. The fighting. Something is really bothering you, and if you’re hurting, I’m hurting. We all are—our whole family.”

He always came up with this kind of stupid shit. Why did everything always have to be about our family? This wasn’t about them. It wasn’t about anyone but me. But there was no point in arguing with him, because he’d never understand.

“Mr. Voorheis said this kid Derek has been picking on you, egging you on. Adam, are you being bullied?”

Derek had been picking on me… relentlessly. It had gotten to the point that it was nonstop. It really wasn’t so bad when he was just being a jackass and mocking my “Justin Bieber haircut” or calling me names. What really got to me, though, was when he brought my dad into it and started calling him names.

I looked up at my father and made eye contact. “No!” I said, feeling extremely defensive. “Nobody bullies me, and I proved it. Derek’s a loudmouth, always saying sh… stuff. Always talkin’ smack.”

He nodded, unfazed by my outburst. “Well, I can’t say that engaging in a fistfight is the best solution, but I’m glad you stuck up for yourself. Do you want to tell me what this Derek said that made you so angry?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I mumbled. I looked away, staring at the wall clock. It was eleven thirty and I really was starving. I wasn’t going to admit it to him, though.

“I think it does matter,” he said. “Obviously he said something that struck a nerve.”

“When’s Dad coming home?” I asked, changing the subject.

“He’s out of town until Friday,” he answered. “I’m going to call him tonight.”

I sighed and shook my head. “Why’s he got to be gone all the time?”

“Is that what this is about?” Father asked. “You’re upset that your dad is away so much?”

I shook my head again, annoyed. “No, I’m not a baby. I know he’s got a job and has to travel. I just want to talk to him, that’s all.”

“Okay. I’ll see if he can come home earlier.”

A sense of relief washed over me, yet I was apprehensive. Dad might be pissed if he got called home early just because of me, but I wanted him home. “It’s okay,” I said, trying to sound ambivalent. “It doesn’t matter. It’s just… my game is supposed to be Saturday.”

“Yes, we know about your big game,” Father said, “and your dad’s definitely going to be here for it. He’s looking forward—”

“There’s not going to be a game!” I exclaimed. “At least not for me. I can’t play while I’m suspended.”

He raised his eyebrows, then leaned back in his chair. “Adam, I’m sorry. For every action, there is a reaction.”

What the hell is that supposed to mean? “What?”

“I mean, you got into a fight. You broke the rules, and this is the result. Adam, it’s a part of life. Maybe if you’d thought before you started throwing punches….”

“It isn’t fair,” I replied. “I’ve been working for this for years. Then some loudmouth comes along and ruins it, shooting his mouth off, calling me names.”

“I know,” he said, his voice still even. “Life isn’t fair sometimes, but you do realize that I’m no stranger to name-calling? Neither is your dad. But we’ve learned that the solution is not to go around hitting people. You could have reported Derek to your teacher, or to the principal.”

“It doesn’t even matter now!” I was getting really pissed. I knew he’d be like this. Trying to explain something to him was like talking to a wall.

“Adam, it seems to me that you’re far more upset about missing the game than you are about what you did. That kid has a broken nose now.”

“My hand doesn’t feel too great either,” I said, glaring at him.

“Let me see,” he said, holding out his hand for me to show him.

“I’m fine,” I said, “and you’re right, I’m not sorry. Derek deserved it, and I bet he won’t be calling anyone ‘faggot’ anymore. If he does, it won’t be just his nose that’s broke.”

Father shook his head and looked away. I glanced at him and saw his eyes welling with tears. He was so annoyingly emotional. I knew I shouldn’t have told him.

“Adam….” He tried to respond but was choking up. He took a breath. “Adam, please believe me. I do understand. I know those names hurt. It’s awful. It really is, but….”

“But I’m supposed to just be like you and take it,” I said. “I’m supposed to just let bullies like Derek go around calling me faggot and homo and all kinds of shit like that and never do anything about it. That’s bullshit! I’m not like you. I’m nothing like you, and I’m not gonna let someone talk to me like that!” I pushed my chair back and stood up. “I’m done talking about this!” I stormed down the hall and into my room, then slammed the door behind me.

 

 

WHEN I got to my room, I texted my friend Christian. I knew he was on lunch and probably wondered where I was. He responded by telling me he already heard about the fight. It was all around school, and he said everyone thought I was badass. I couldn’t help smiling. He said he couldn’t believe the news about the game and that it totally sucked.

I pulled my laptop over to the bed and watched some YouTube videos, using my headphones. Stupid and boring, as usual. I posted a comment on Tumblr, bitching about my suspension. Checked my Facebook page—it’s so lame.

This was going to be a long five days, especially since Dad wouldn’t be home until Friday. I wondered how long I’d be grounded. I decided to play video games. I could spend hours gaming, and hopefully I’d be able to do just that. If I was going to be confined to my room, I’d have to have something to pass the time.

A little after noon there was a knock on my door. I acknowledged it with a mumble and the door opened. It was my sister.

“What’re you doing home?” I asked. She was carrying a tray containing what appeared to be my lunch.

“I don’t have classes Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, remember?” Yeah, that was right. She was one of those brainiacs who’d already gotten all her credits for graduation. For her last semester she had a light load.

“I told him I’m not hungry,” I said.

“You’re always hungry,” she reminded me.

I shrugged and directed my attention back to the game. She stepped in front of the television screen, standing there as if it was no big deal. I shifted on the bed, craning my neck to look around her as I continued to blast away at my animated enemies. “Move,” I told her.

“That’s totally uncool, the way you talked to Daddy,” she said. “He’s really upset.”

I rolled my eyes. Of course she’d take his side. “What about what he said to me?” I asked.

“What?” she said. “That you should have realized you’d get suspended if you punched someone?”

I pressed pause and set the controller on the bed, realizing it was futile to even try to continue with the game. I looked up at her. “You’d think he’d be proud or something. I gave Derek what he deserved.”

“In school they’re saying you gave him a concussion and two black eyes.”

I smile. “Really?”

“You know how things get exaggerated.” She thrust the tray in my lap. It smelled good. Tomato soup with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.

“I said I’m not hungry.”

“Shut up and eat,” she said. She took a seat in my desk chair while I stuffed half the sandwich in my mouth.

“It is kinda funny that you kicked his ass,” Lisa said. “I can’t stand that kid.”

“I know,” I tried to say with my mouth full. I gulped down the first bite, half-chewed. “He’s a jerk. Always makes a big deal about me having two dads, says I must be a fag.”

“That’s ’cause he’s an idiot,” Lisa said. “You should just ignore him.”

“Tired of ignoring it. What’s any of that got to do with me? Just ’cause my rents are gay doesn’t mean I am.”

“True,” she said, “but if you go around trying to kick the ass of every moron, you’ll be fighting constantly.”

“So…?” I replied.

“So you kicked his butt, and now you’re this big badass, but that doesn’t give you the right to be mean to Daddy.”

“How was I mean to him?” I asked. “I just said I’m nothing like him, and I’m not.”

“You two used to be so close,” she said. She leaned forward, resting her chin in her palm and her elbow against her knee. “You were always closer to Daddy, and I was close to Dad.”

“Shit happens,” I said. “Guess I grew up.”

“Well, you hurt his feelings, and I think that sucks.”

“Do you even care that I’m totally screwed?” I asked. I was getting pissed again. “Do you know how long I worked for this position on the team? I’m the fucking starting pitcher, and now I can’t even play!”

She shook her head as if disgusted. “Adam, grow up,” she said. She stood up and headed for the door.

“Whatever,” I said as the door slammed in my face.

 

 

AFTER a couple hours in my room, I started to get bored. I was beginning to realize just how long this week was going to be. In another hour Christian would be free, out of the schoolyard prison. This room of mine felt sort of like my own prison. I texted him, hoping he’d be able to respond. We weren’t allowed to use cell phones during class, but that had never really stopped anyone. You just had to be careful. And sneaky.

Come over, I said.

I waited. No response.

I tried again. Dude come over after school.

At last my phone vibrated. His response: Going to mall. Meet me there.

Crap. Father would never let me go, and it was pointless to even ask. Then again, he hadn’t said I was grounded. But if I asked and he said no, I would be really pissed. Maybe I should just go. Sneak out without telling anyone. It was probably not a good plan. If Dad did come home early, he’d be super pissed. He was my only chance of being able to pitch on Saturday, and even then it was a slim chance.

What the hell. I decided to ask anyway. Father was in the kitchen, already starting dinner. I walked past him and straight for the refrigerator, waiting to see if he’d speak first. I cleared my throat. He was at the sink scrubbing potatoes. He looked up.

“Calmed down now?” he asked.

I wanted to throw him a snappy comeback but held my tongue. I nodded. I was thinking about what Lisa said, that I’d hurt his feelings. “I… um… well, sorry about earlier,” I stuttered.

He turned off the water and dried his hands on a kitchen towel, which he then draped across the edge of the sink. Turning to me, he smiled. “Come here,” he said, holding out his arms.

I stepped over to him and allowed him to embrace me. It was weird how all of a sudden I was taller than him. “You’re going to need a haircut,” he observed as he pulled back and looked at me. Using his fingers, he brushed my bangs out of my eyes and up across my forehead. I rolled my eyes.

I took a deep breath. “Father…,” I began.

He stepped back but still maintained eye contact.

“Would it be okay if I met Christian down at the mall?”

His smile slowly faded and his expression became serious. “Adam,” he said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I felt myself beginning to get angry. My initial urge was to argue with him, but I suppressed the reflex. Instead I tried to use reason. “I’m going to go crazy if I have to stay locked in this house for the next week. All we want to do is hang out….”

“Why don’t you have Christian come over here?” he suggested. “You could go out and shoot hoops or something.”

“Why can’t we just go to the mall?” My tone was defensive, in spite of my efforts to stay calm. “What’s the difference?”

“The difference is that I said no,” he said.

“Come on!” I protested.

He stepped away from me, again turning toward the sink.

“So does that mean I’m grounded? Am I going to be a prisoner here for the next seven days?” Since it was Tuesday, I calculated that my suspension would be five school days, which unfortunately included the weekend.

“Adam, your dad is on his way home,” he said calmly. “I want you here when he arrives.”

“Oh,” I said. My anger instantly began to fade and was replaced with apprehension. “Did he sound mad?” I asked.

“Well, what do you think?” Father said. I hated when he was sarcastic like that. It seemed maybe he also was holding back, not saying all he wanted to say. “We’ll discuss everything when he gets here. In the meantime, if you want to have Christian over, that’s fine. He can stay for dinner and then leave when your dad gets here.”

“Dad won’t be here for dinner?”

“He said not to hold it for him. His flight lands at seven.”

That meant Dad wouldn’t even be here until eight o’clock, so the whole thing made no sense. I could have gone to the mall and been back in plenty of time. There was no point in arguing, though. Father never listened. It made me wonder what he was like when he was a teenager. Do people get a certain age and then suddenly become unreasonable?

I opened the fridge and grabbed a soda. Standing there with the door open, I scanned the shelves, looking for something to devour. Father wasn’t even looking at me, but it was as if he had eyes in the back of his head.

“Cold pizza on the second shelf,” he suggested. “That’ll tide you over till dinner.”

An excellent suggestion. I grabbed the box.

“One piece,” he said. I grabbed two, thinking he wouldn’t notice. “Or two…,” he added, still without looking at me.

Christian agreed to come over, and when he arrived we went outside. “I seriously thought I broke my hand,” I told him. “I can’t believe how bad it hurt, but not so much now.”

“So you really broke his nose?” Christian asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

“That’s what Voorheis said, but who knows.”

“You know you really shouldn’t let him get to you. Everyone knows he’s an asshole.”

I nodded.

“He’s so fucking gay,” Christian added, and then he suddenly stopped. He was struck with a look of panic as he realized what he’d just said.

“I know,” I responded right away. “He’s a total faggot.”

At first Christian looked puzzled. He turned from me and shot the ball, easily sinking it. “Score!” he proclaimed. “Dude, so you punched him out for calling you a fag, but now that’s what you call him?”

I shrugged. “You’re the one who said he was gay. I was just agreeing with you.”

“Well, you know I didn’t mean it. Not like that anyway. I mean gay as in gay. Not cool. Lame.”

“What if your parents were gay?” I asked.

“I know, man. I thought of that after I said it….”

“Look, it’s no big deal. I know what people mean when they say something is gay. I was just making a point. Honestly, I don’t give a rip who’s gay or not gay. I wish everyone felt that way about it. Why do people hate on me just ’cause my rents are gay? It’s not like I can help it.”

I had the ball, and I rushed him. He tried blocking me but I slid around him and went for the layup.

“Nice one!” A voice from behind startled me as the ball swished through the net. I turned to see who it was. Dad!

“You’re early!” I exclaimed, rushing over to him.

He put his arm around me and