Chapter 1

Blindsided—October 14

 

I HAVE anger management issues. I used to be the guy who didn’t worry about much. My mom is very laid-back, and I swear I used to be like her, but my chill factor had taken a hit lately, thereby cracking the door for my aggressive tendencies. Guys like Chris, Cullen, and Josh have never been bothered by situations and circumstances, and I thought I could boast the same. Our little group used to be, and still was, a good mix, as far as my opinion went. Chris had the upbeat personality and leadership skills, Cullen was the shepherd keeping watch over us, and Josh used his drive and know-how to get things done. The four of us had been inseparable since freshmen year of high school.

The last couple of months, however, had seen a shift in the friendship dynamic. Josh spent more and more time with a girl he’d met on campus, Cullen drove home to help out the family on the nights of the week when we didn’t have soccer, and Chris had fallen in love with Alonzo. I’m not complaining necessarily; I liked Cullen’s family and Josh’s girlfriend seemed nice. My anger surfaced regarding Chris and his feelings for Alonzo. Chris was no longer interested in doing things with me 24-7, and I knew I had to figure out how to deal with my jealousy, or I’d lose the closest friend I’d ever had since elementary school. I’d felt discarded like piffle after Alonzo entered Chris’s world, and I hadn’t adjusted very well. I knew I’d get over it, but I still mourned slightly for the days of old that would never return. Chris was no longer mine.

Which makes me sound like a bitter ex-lover.

I wasn’t. Chris had every right to fall in love and form relationships that weren’t with me. I’m straight. He’s not. I had only let my conviction about dating girls slip when I’d watched Chris with Alonzo. I’ll admit I’ve had lingering thoughts about boys in the very back of my mind ever since Tim Canton kissed me at outdoor school in sixth grade, and then again in eleventh grade when I developed a secret man-crush on Chris after he’d started growing facial hair and I hadn’t yet, but I told myself it was jealousy. I’d been afraid of screwing up our friendship by telling him his scruff was hot. Chris hadn’t flirted with me, and he’d never suggested we try anything together, so I figured he wasn’t attracted to me.

Still, I couldn’t believe I’d gone all psycho and kissed him two Sundays ago, which made me question my sexuality for the third time in my life. I was so stupid. Lucky for me, Chris was such a great guy he’d let it go. I had expected him to punch me in the face, but he hadn’t reacted at all. Chris has much more patience than I do.

My mind was so messed up, I thought I was going crazy—until I met Cullen’s cousin Samantha and realized how much I liked girls. She was beautiful, and her voice washed over me in a warm rush of tingles and made me want things.

As soon as I’d seen her and spent some time talking to her, my inexplicable jealousy toward Alonzo over Chris’s affection had ceased. I’d never felt such a strong pull before. I’d dated many girls in high school and college and had even had sex with several, but none of them made me lightheaded like Samantha. Not one girl in a thousand had a heart-warming, sunshiny smile like hers.

And then I found out Samantha was actually a boy named Sam, and all my hope for an easy relationship vanished. I was back to square one, questioning my sexual orientation on top of feeling like a complete and utter idiot for not realizing Sam was a boy. I’d been depressed for days, stewing in my own stupidity. Chris’s support helped. He could have really made fun of me, but he didn’t.

Sam had taken part in a game Cullen’s cousins played every year where one of them was forced by the others to dress up like a girl and wait on the others. It was meant to be funny, and not at all as sexist as it appeared, but I’d been slow on the uptake and had mistaken Sam for a real girl. I’d even kissed her—him—and we’d gone out on a date. We’d texted for a solid week, and then nothing after our date last Friday. I wasn’t sure if Sam had picked up on my discomfort about being on a date with a guy, or if he just didn’t like me. Maybe he was straight and hadn’t thought of pizza and air hockey as a date date, but as hanging out with a new friend. Although after that kiss, I’m not sure how he could have gotten it wrong. I had to have appeared gay. Was Sam gay? Was he waiting for me to text first? I hadn’t heard a thing about Sam or his family, so as far as I knew, he was probably back home in Iowa, and I’d never see him again.

 

 

SOMETIME IN the afternoon on Wednesday, after playing soccer with Alonzo and the guys, I ditched class and went for a walk. Walking was something Chris and Alonzo enjoyed, and I hoped it would help clear my head. I didn’t walk down Main Street as I normally would. I knew I’d end up at Birdie’s Café, and talking to Lance would only confuse me more. I liked Lance, but he was too nice, and he’d see right through my fake smile. I didn’t want to talk; I wanted to be alone.

I strolled toward the grocery store on the other side of Route 31. I didn’t have anything in particular to buy, but I knew I could poke around for some cookies or snacks. I figured I’d swing by the dining hall later. If I swung by there now, I’d probably run into a few chatty cheerleaders.

As soon as I turned down the cookie aisle, I spotted a guy I recognized as Coach Montgomery’s friend Rob. We had all been given permission to call Coach Montgomery by his first name, Ellis, but I was finding it hard to do. He’d earned his title, and I was going to use it, especially at practice and during games. Only Chris seemed okay calling him Ellis since they’d become friends off the field, yet even Chris used his first name sparingly, out of respect.

Coach’s friend Rob seemed like a jovial fellow from the smile I’d seen glued to his face at Saturday’s game. He’d hung on the sidelines beside the coach’s husband, Cole, at Tuesday’s game and had smiled just as often. I’d gotten a good impression of him. I could ignore him and walk on by, but I wasn’t normally the kind of person who pretended not to notice a friend just to avoid conversation. Besides, I wanted the Oreos, and Rob was standing right in front of them.

I waffled—walk away or say hello?

Too late. He did a double take and asked, “Aren’t you one of the soccer players at McDaniel College?”

I sighed internally. “Yes, and you’re Coach Montgomery’s friend Rob.”

“Absolutamundo!” Rob beamed and stuck out his hand. “The name’s Robin McAvoy, but you guessed right. I go by Rob. What’s your name?”

I shook it. “Doug Archer. I play center forward next to Chris Jackson.”

His already wide smile broadened, threatening to overtake his round face. “Chris? I love that guy! He can sing like nobody’s business. I met him last Friday night at my buddy El’s house. He’s so nice!”

I had to admit Rob couldn’t have been more accurate. Chris was a great guy. “Yeah. He’s my best friend.”

“Then, by default, you and I have to hang out sometime. If Ellis is my best friend, and Chris is yours, then it only makes sense we become friends too. What do you say?”

His enthusiasm was inspiring. I had trudged down the road in hopes of avoiding everyone I knew so I could mope in self-pity over my unrest about Sam, and suddenly I faced what could possibly be the happiest guy I’d met—after Chris, of course. Rob’s smile was contagious, and the brightness in his eyes helped ease my growing tension. If being around the guy for two minutes had such an effect, then I could not imagine hanging with him for an extended period of time. He would probably cure me of my ever-present short temper.

I nodded. “Agreed.”

“Awesomenicity!” he exclaimed with another bright smile.

I had to ask, “Do you always make up words? You’ve done it twice in the span of two minutes.” I knew Chris was a stickler for vocabulary, and Rob’s creative license would drive him nuts.

“Sometimes,” he admitted. “I enjoy mimicking Cole and his penchant for imaginative etymology, but every once in a while, I think up one on my own. I probably can’t take credit for ‘absolutamundo,’ but I like to pretend I came up with it.”

“It’s a good one.”

“Thank you! Anyway, I hate to grab cookies and run, but I want to make dinner for my two roomies before tonight’s practice. I have something special planned.” He giggled and wiggled his shoulders. “Will you be there tonight?”

“At practice or a dinner?” His meaning was unclear to me.

Rob snickered. “Practice, silly. I didn’t think you’d show up for dinner unannounced. Very few people can get away with moves so bold.”

“Yeah, I’ll be there. Did you say ‘roomies’?”

“Yup. I’m back in Maryland for good, and I needed a place to crash until I find one of my own. I could have stayed with my folks, but they live an hour south, and I wanted to be near my friends. Besides, it seemed like a step backward. I want to keep moving forward as I figure out where my life’s ambition is leading.”

“Sounds lofty. All I want to figure out is the here and now. I haven’t thought much about the future.”

“You will.” He stuck out his hand again, and I shook it. “I’ll see you on the field, Doug. Don’t be late. I have something special planned for Ellis. He’s going to be so excited,” he chortled, doing a little dance.

I said, “Sure thing.”

Rob McAvoy took his box of cookies and left, so I grabbed my Oreos before meandering my way back to campus. I was still confused about myself, but after talking to Rob, I felt a little happier.

 

 

I WALKED onto the soccer field at 6:27 p.m., hoping Chris and I were fine after I’d exploded all over him on Monday about my weird “date.” The air between us had seemed okay this morning when we played soccer with Alonzo, but that could have been from all the other guys being around. I needed to see him smile at me one more time to believe it. I’d been so angry with myself for not being able to get Sam out of my head. One confusing conversation with Chris wasn’t going to iron the wrinkles out of my jumbled feelings. Chris had said it: I had kissed Sam and felt lightheaded afterward. Why couldn’t I shake the memory of Sam’s kiss when I’d kissed one other guy during the same dice game and thought nothing of it? This was maddening.

I approached Chris as he was squirting water into his mouth, and I commented, “You still have the bottle I gave you?”

Chris snapped the spout closed and tossed it on top his bag. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I? It’s only been a few months. I don’t lose things often.”

I hadn’t thought about it when I made the comment. “Oh, yeah, I guess not.”

“Dude, you need to snap out of this.” He stepped closer, draping one arm across my shoulders. “Sam’s gone,” he said softly. “It’s over, so stop beating yourself up. We play against Saint Mary’s on Saturday. I say, focus all your frustration on soccer and help us kick some ass.”

Chris made sense. I didn’t want to admit he was right, but he was rarely wrong. He was the team captain for a reason. Chris was a born leader, discerning and logical. If I was honest, my relationship with Sam hadn’t gotten far enough for me to hold resentment toward him. It was a stupid misunderstanding, and I needed to let it go.

I nodded to Chris. “Yeah. I’m fine. I’ll deal.”

“Gather up,” Coach called to us.

Chris clapped me on my upper arm, and we followed the others over to the coach for instructions. Right as Coach Montgomery glanced at the notes on his clipboard, his friend Rob strode up and stood at attention, saluting Coach as if he were a general. “Ready for instructions, Mr. Montgomeried,” Rob said, face serious, lips tight.

Coach Ellis cocked an eyebrow and turned his head slowly to regard his friend. I didn’t know much about Rob, but after chatting with him at the grocery store this afternoon, I knew they were best friends.

“Um, Rob, what do you think you’re doing?” Ellis asked. The team stood silently waiting, watching the scene play out. His interruption came across as randomly comical, given the Green Terror soccer jersey Rob was wearing and the whistle hanging around his neck.

Rob lowered his arm from his two-fingered salute and stood at attention. He answered, “I’m reporting for duty, Coach. I’m your new assistant.”

“But I don’t need an assistant,” Ellis replied.

Rob let his natural expression replace his fake serious façade and said, “Sure you do, El. I told that guy, what’s his name, Mr. Mathews, you needed someone to help you because you were overwhelmed with responsibilities.”

“You what? You could get me fired.” Ellis was not pleased. Chris glanced at me, and we exchanged a look.

Rob waved it off. “Naaah. Mr. Mathews told me how chuffed he was with the team’s record and said he would consider hiring an assistant if there was any money in the budget next season. When I explained I would assist for free since I made enough money at my new job on campus, he wholeheartedly welcomed me on staff.” Rob pulled his shoulders back and beamed proudly at his friend.

Ellis stared blankly for a few seconds as if taking in what Rob had said and then turned to the team, blinking away the shock. “Um, yeah, so this is unexpected. Team, meet Rob McAvoy, our new assistant coach.”

The guys didn’t seem to know how to respond until Chris prompted them by clearing his throat loudly and waving his hands encouragingly. Then they responded with broken greetings of “Hello, Rob,” “Welcome aboard,” and “Nice to meet you.” Chris looked to me for the meaning of the team’s lukewarm enthusiasm, and all I could do was shrug.

Ellis started over. “You know how we practice and the types of drills we do. If Rob—”

“Mr. McAvoy,” Rob corrected.

“Mr. McAvoy—”

Coach McAvoy,” he interrupted again.

Coach McAvoy,” Ellis corrected one more time with a roll of his eyes, “asks you a question, please be polite and answer. If he tells you to do something out of the ordinary—”

“Like, ‘Drop and give me fifty, soldier!’?” Rob asked, lifting his eyebrows at Ellis.

Ellis turned to Rob and said, “You can’t do that.”

Rob whined, “But why should you be the only one to have any fun?”

“Rob, this isn’t boot camp. They’re soccer players. The worst they get is a few laps around the track.”

Rob’s eyes widened, and he grinned. “Oooh, can I do that?”

“No,” Ellis said. “No one on this team ever needs to run laps. All my guys—”

“Our guys.”

Our guys practice hard and play hard,” he explained. Ellis turned back to the team. “If Coach McAvoy tells you to do anything out of the ordinary, like wash his car”—I saw Rob smile and cross his arms over his chest—“see Chris or myself before complying.”

Rob let out a disappointed huff. “Ah!”

Ellis pointed a finger at him, and Rob rolled his eyes. He remained quiet for the rest of our huddle. I thought their banter was silly, but it showed a different side of our coach. He was more patient than I would have been, and also very accommodating. He didn’t skip a beat as he picked up right where he’d left off and gave out drill instructions. Coach had many of the same qualities I saw in Chris. Would this be Chris in a few years?

I switched my attention to his assistant. Would I be Rob in that scenario? I was more serious, and I would bet I’d lose my temper way more than Rob. No, I wouldn’t end up Chris’s assistant, if for no other reason than I was the Exercise Science and Physical Education major. I would end up being a coach at the school where I taught, or I would have something like Mr. Mathews’s job. I would have to find my own “Rob” to be my sidekick.

My daydreaming ended when Coach said, “As you know, we have a new player starting today. Sam has been enrolled in the University of Maryland University College, which is an online school, and was given permission from the dean to play on the team as he audits this semester until his grades transfer.”

Sam? My insides knotted up in little balls.

Coach continued. “Cullen Rafferty is bringing Sam here momentarily, and I expect all of you to welcome him as you would any other player. He’s here from Iowa and hasn’t benefited from new student orientation, so let’s help him feel welcome.”

Cullen? Did Cullen know Sam was going here and didn’t tell me?

As I contemplated what I was going to do to Cullen if he’d known all this time, I caught sight of the two of them approaching. Ellis waved them into the huddle as soon as they drew near.

“Excellent timing,” Ellis said. He stuck out his hand and shook Sam’s. “Welcome to the McDaniel College soccer team. I hope you enjoy playing with us. Team, say hello to our new player, Sam Garber.”

Sam smiled and said, “Hi.”

Unlike when they’d greeted Rob, the team was more enthusiastic toward Sam, with pats on the back and smiles all around. As each player introduced himself to Sam, Chris leaned in and whispered in my ear, “I understand your confusion. Sam is very pretty. If I saw him in a dress and makeup, with those lips and long lashes, I’d probably think he was a girl too.”

I didn’t need to be reminded, but I knew Chris was only trying to make me feel better about my mistake. “Thanks,” I muttered back.

After a few minutes, Coach addressed everyone in a strong voice. “All right. Eyes back on me. Before we get started, Sam, do you have anything to say to the team?”

Sam grinned. “I don’t know. Um, thank you. I’ll do my best to help the team.”

I couldn’t believe how Sam’s voice washed over me the same as it had the very first time I’d heard it—sweet, light, and melodious. I wanted to put my hands over my ears and block it out. It wasn’t fair.

Sam continued, “I appreciate how accommodating the school has been, and I look forward to helping your team win. I guess that’s all.” It was the pitch and tone of his voice that got to me. Shit! How was I supposed to be near him and not be angry or hurt? I clenched my fist to steady my emotions. The end of practice could not come quick enough.

As he made eye contact with each player around the circle, his face flushed when his eyes landed on me. Fear? Regret? Embarrassment? Something made his smile vanish and his gaze drop to the grass.

Coach called out some instructions right away, so I didn’t think anyone picked up on Sam’s discomfort but me. Maybe Cullen. Coach told us to break up into groups as we always did, and it didn’t surprise me when Sam turned away and sought another group to join. He couldn’t even look at me.

Maybe he was pretending to be my friend, and that’s why he hadn’t texted.

I kicked the ball to Chris, who passed it to Cullen, who passed it to Cedric, but when it returned to me, I missed.

“Dude,” Cedric yelled. “Stop looking over at the new guy and concentrate on the drill. I heard he’s fast, but that doesn’t mean he’ll replace you. Marshall should be the one to worry.”

“I heard that,” Marshall said from the group next to ours.

Cedric grinned and continued the drill.

I caught the next pass and sent it on, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to be here. I felt betrayed, angry, hurt, confused, and probably another twenty hundred adjectives. I missed another one, and Chris ran after it. He kicked it to Cullen and then came up to me.

He put his arm across my shoulders, familiar and comfortable. “Doug, are you all right? You don’t look good. I thought you said you’d be okay? Don’t let Sam’s presence get to you.”

I whispered, “Do you think Cullen didn’t warn me on purpose?”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “I don’t think so. We’ll grill him later, okay? Right now, we need to practice.”

“Okay.”

Cullen must’ve suspected what was going on because he joined our semihuddle. “Are you okay, Doug?” he asked.

I lied, “I’m fine.” I wasn’t fine. I was far from it. As soon as Sam spoke to the team, I’d felt something strong spark to life and take root deep inside, reminding me of our kiss. What did that mean? Was I really gay after kissing a guy and liking it more than any other kiss? It had only been a brush of lips, yet I could still remember the taste.

Cullen didn’t buy it. “What’s going on?”

“I was about to asked the same thing,” Cedric added, completing our powwow. I guess he got tired of waiting for us to stop talking and resume practice. “You guys are off, and I’m not talking about missing a pass. Chris, I understand. Dude was over the moon, and soccer got ignored for a spell. But you, Doug? Man, you look two seconds from puking. Maybe you need to sit down.”

He wasn’t wrong. I felt awful: dizzy and nauseated. I’d casually considered liking boys in the past, but now the subject was right up in my face again and standing firm. Did I really like a boy? That boy?

Chris agreed, “Cedric’s got a point. Maybe you should go back to our room. I’ll tell Coach.”

I nodded. “Grab my bag from the bench?”

“Sure,” Chris said.

Chris grabbed my stuff for me and hustled it back to where I stood. I turned and trudged off the field, and I heard Chris answering the coach as he questioned my departure. I didn’t know what else to do.