Bring Down the Stars (Beautiful Hearts Duet #1)(3)

That’s another thing I did when I got mad. I got into fights. I was mad a lot.

I jerked my chin out of her grip. “What if some other kid gives me hell first?”

“Let it go. You think the administration is going to listen to your side over one of them trust fund babies? Those parents donate.” Ma lit a cigarette, and shook her head of bleached blonde hair. She squinted through a haze of smoke and pointed her cigarette at me. “You fight with one of their kids, you’re going to lose even if you win. Especially if you win.”

It was still dark out when Ma smacked a smoky-smelling kiss on my cheek and told me to “scoot” so she could go back to bed. My sisters were both still sleeping in the other bedroom. They were both old enough to move out and get jobs, but instead they took the big room. I had the tiny room off the kitchen. Ma had the couch. She fell asleep on it surrounded by empty beer cans and the TV on every night, and kept her clothes in the hall closet.

By the time it reached downtown, the 38 bus had cleared out and I had a window seat as we rolled up to Sinclair Prep. All cement and statues—one of the old historical buildings since the time of the Revolution, not far from Trinity Church. I was twenty minutes early for first bell when I climbed the few cement steps to the heavy front door. I slipped down the quiet corridors where teachers worked to get their classrooms ready, careful to keep my Chucks from squeaking on the polished floors.

The library at the end of the main hall was silent. Cool. All gleaming brown wood—tables, chairs, floors, bookshelves. I couldn’t believe this was a middle school. I had to remind myself that the library also served Sinclair Academy. Even so, you wouldn’t think it was any kind of school library to see the books they had.

My fingers trailed over the spines. Grown-up books. Books I had to badger my sisters to check out for me at the public library. Books with sex and bad words and grown-up problems. I liked those better than the kiddie books. My problems didn’t feel like kid problems. When your dad leaves you behind like a forgotten sock, a piece of your childhood rots away—the part where you can just be a kid without worrying so much.

I worried all the time. About Ma and how she drank a lot of beer most nights, and ranted to my sisters that all men were trash and would always end up hurting the women they were supposed to love. She didn’t know I was listening, but I was.

I worried about the parade of scummy boyfriends that went in and out of our apartment over the years. Trash, just like Ma said. Maybe she was right about all men. I worried I would grow up to be trash too, and would hurt any woman I might someday love, so I vowed not to love anyone.

I worried about money. Not for me, I could get by. But Ma had an ulcer from worrying about bills, and chugged almost as much Pepto as she did Michelob. They shut off the water last month for three days until Uncle Phil paid the bill.

Getting this scholarship was going to help my family. I’d get into a good college, get a good job, and maybe cut out the worrying for a little while.

In the library, I looked for one of my favorites, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. They didn’t have it. It was very grown-up. I’d read it twice, and certain parts of it more than twice, under the covers in my bedroom with either my notebook, or a fistful of Kleenex at the ready. Or both.

Henry Miller wrote about lice-ridden beds in Paris flats (a flat was a kind of apartment, not a woman’s shoe; I looked it up) and about being hungry. Always hungry.

I was hungry a lot too.

Miller also wrote about ‘crawling up’ a woman in bed, and used bad words for her body parts. His writing made me want to grab my notebook and pen to write down my own words. I shouldn’t love a woman, but I could write about the sex I would someday have, or admire her beauty from a safe distance. I’d write poems instead of books, where you choose only the words that mattered most, and you didn’t have to say who it was about. It was just a poem, and poems can be about anyone or no one.

And anyway, writing helped. I stopped worrying when I wrote or when I jerked off.

Ha! I should’ve put that in my essay.

They found me at lunch, where I was reading Kerouac’s On the Road, and eating spaghetti and green beans from Sinclair’s gourmet cafeteria.

One hot meal a day: check.

“Look here, it’s the charity case.”

Jason Kingsley. I’d already heard all about him and it was barely noon. He slid onto the bench directly in front of me, while his richie friends sat at my empty table, boxing me in.

“What did you call me?” I asked, my heart pounding a slow, heavy beat of dread.

“You’re the contest winner, right?” Jason asked. “The one who wrote that essay about your dad abandoning your family?”

I slowly lowered my book, amazed my hands weren’t shaking as a rush of humiliation swept through me like a wild fire, making my skin hot.

“Yep,” I said. “That’s me.”

How the hell…?

“They posted your essay on the Sinclair website,” said a redheaded guy with bad skin, who’d crowded in next to me. “Did you know that?”

“He totally did not know that,” Jason said, watching me.

A couple of guys snickered.

Fuck everything, everywhere.

I’d forgotten that when I entered the contest, one of the stipulations was Sinclair could publish the winning essay wherever they wanted. When I submitted the damn thing, I didn’t think I had a prayer of winning. It hadn’t mattered.

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