The instructions of the English homework I didn’t do hang out from the top of my folder: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both.
Story of my life.
According to my football coach, I chose wrongly on the two crap paths I had to face last week. I just ran into Coach on the way to English, and he ripped into me for my sorry decision-making skills when it came to me choosing to stand up for the Reign of Terror Motorcycle Club instead of a member of my football team.
I didn’t just get my ass chewed out, his tirade made me late for English with no tardy note. Which is great, since my English teacher hates late students like I hate riding my motorcycle in forty-degree weather while it rains.
I round the corner, then peek through the small window in the door of my class. Ms. Whitlock stands in front of her desk in her patented white button-down shirt, gray pencil skirt and dark-rimmed glasses. From the back row, my best friend Razor meets my eyes and shakes his head. Damn. That means she’s in one of her moods where she’s refusing to let anyone in.
I’m not a tail-tucked-between-my-legs type of guy, but this lady is one of the few who can reduce me to begging. If she doesn’t let me in, then she’ll mark me as absent, the front office will think I skipped, and that means I won’t be able to play at tonight’s football game.
The window rattles when I knock. The entire class turns their heads in my direction, but Ms. Whitlock doesn’t. The muscles in my neck tighten. She is one of the hardest core people I know and my grandfather is the president of a motorcycle club. That says something.
She starts for the whiteboard and I knock on the door again. This time Ms. Whitlock does look my way and she grants me the type of glare reserved for people who kick puppies. I got it. I’m late. I’m the scum of humanity, so let my ass in so I can play football.
There’s this guy in my club, Pigpen. He’s about the same age as Ms. Whitlock, late twenties, and he’s a walking hard-on for this woman even though she would never give him the time of day. He practically runs into walls when she’s around because he’s too focused on checking her out. I don’t see gorgeous—all I see is seriously pissed off and the person standing between me and playing.
Ms. Whitlock points at the clock over her desk. She’s telling me I can wait. If I’m lucky, she’ll open the door after the quiz that I’ll receive a zero on. If I’m not so lucky, she won’t open the door at all.
Two pathetic paths and I could only travel one. Nowhere in that stupid poem did it mention there was good and bad to both paths and that sometimes it’s best not to choose, but to set up camp at the fork and do nothing at all.
I slam my hand into the nearest locker, almost relishing the sting.
A glance across the hallway and I freeze. Doesn’t matter how many times I see her in a day, she still manages to take my breath away. Violet leans against the lockers as beautiful as ever. Red silky hair flowing over her shoulders, a pair of ripped jeans that look like they were tailored for her curves and enough bracelets around her wrists that they clank together when she moves.
Do I feel better? Not really, but I nod anyway as I try to judge if being alone with Violet causes more pain than having my balls ripped off. “Didn’t hurt.”
“Yes, I can see how slamming your hand against a locker didn’t hurt at all.”
My lips tilt up because she got me, and on top of that, Violet made a joke. Since she broke up with me last spring, things between us have been tense. On her side and on mine. Some people, like me and Violet, aren’t supposed to break up. Some people, like me and Violet, don’t know how to be near each other when we do part ways. “Are we talking now?”
“I’m locked out of class. You’re locked out of class. I could ignore you if that’s what you want.”
It’s not. Her ignoring me is never what I wanted. “Why are you late?”
Violet presses her lips together and looks away. A sixth sense within me stirs. Something’s wrong. I’ve known her my entire life. We were born only a few weeks apart and we learned to crawl on the sticky floor of the Reign of Terror clubhouse. We were friends, always friends, until one day, we weren’t just friends anymore. We became more until we lost it all.
“Late’s not your thing,” I say. Violet’s unconventional. Marches to her own drummer, but she’s not the type to be late to class. It’s a respect thing for her, something her dad taught her, and Violet may never listen to another living soul, but she listened to her father. “What’s going on?”
She’s silent and frustration rumbles through me. Violet used to tell me everything. Used to see me as someone who could help solve her problems. She doesn’t see me like that anymore and it pisses me off. I’m angry at her for making us this way. Angry at myself for not figuring out how to fix us.
“You being late wouldn’t have anything to do with Stone, would it?” Stone’s her brother and the question’s a shot in the dark, but I don’t want to miss the chance to keep conversation with her going.
“Why are you late?” she replies as a nonanswer, and my head snaps up. Guess sometimes blind shots do hit their mark. Violet was late because of Stone.
“What happened?” I push.
“I’m not talking about it.”
She cuts me off. “I told you how to help me and my brother six months ago and you told me no.”
By running away? No again to that insane solution.
“Tell me why you’re late,” she says. “If you don’t, then you need to stop talking, because the last thing either of us needs right now beyond missing a quiz or possibly being marked as absent is detention for getting into a shouting match. At least it’s the last thing I need, okay?”
I back up to the lockers across from her and lightly hit my head against the metal. Yeah, I don’t want to talk about why I’m late either. I shove a hand into my pocket and try to think of a change in subject. Telling Violet I’m late because my football coach tore into me for hitting a guy who was causing problems for the Terror, a guy who had been causing problems for her, won’t help me and Violet stay civil. She’s mad at the club, which makes her mad at me.
Violet’s watching me, and her expression is a lot like someone trying to figure out a word problem for math. Unfortunately, she knows me as well as I know her.
“Being late is going to cost you, isn’t it?” she asks. “You can’t play tonight if she marks you absent, can you?”
I meet her blue eyes, and my chest hurts at the sympathy I find there. I’d willingly miss tonight’s game if I could rewind back to a time where I could talk to Violet with ease and that’s not the type of trade I’d normally make.
Football is my life. So is the motorcycle club. The Reign of Terror are my family—the blood kind and the bonds of brotherhood kind. I don’t know who I am without the Terror, but to be honest, I don’t know who I am without football either.
Lately, I’ve been torn between the two, just like that poem, and everyone in my life has chosen a side. Violet used to be the person I could talk to, but then she walked.
Six months ago, Violet asked me to run away with her. She was driven by grief, driven by something she wouldn’t tell me about. When I told her no, that we needed to stay home, to be near our family, to be near the club, Violet returned the next night and announced I was choosing the club over her and that we were done.
Being a running back, I’ve taken more than my fair share of hits over the years, but I’ve never been as blindsided as I was that night. Never experienced the type of pain her leaving me created.
The door to the classroom opens and a sense of relief washes over me. I’ll have to bust my ass to bring up my grade thanks to that zero on the quiz, but at least I’ll be able to play tonight.
Ms. Whitlock steps out and sizes me up, then Violet. “I’m only letting you in if you have a note, otherwise you can head to the office and hope they give you one.”
Screw me. There’s no way I’ll make it to the office, get a note and return in time. Right as I’m about to kick the hell out of the locker, Violet glides past me and hands in her note. “This is Chevy’s.”
My head whips in her direction. “It’s what?”
“Yours.” Violet meets my eyes. “Thanks for offering it to me, but it’s not right for me to take it. I’m the one who didn’t have a note, and I’m the one who needs to make it right.”
She begins walking backward, and my short-circuited brain sparks back to life. I can’t let her do this. “Violet—”
“Have a good game tonight,” she says, then disappears down the stairs.
“Are you joining us, Mr. McKinley, or not?” Ms. Whitlock demands. Never met a person I hate as much as this lady and it takes everything I have to force one foot in front of the other.
Everyone watches me as I stalk down the aisle, then drop into the last seat in the row, the one next to Razor. He’s calm, cool, blond hair, blue eyes, and he’s watching me like an owl who’s considering whether it wants that unsuspecting mouse for a snack now or later.
Ms. Whitlock is lost in her own world as she continues babbling about poem interpretations and people who died too long ago. I can do little more than open my folder and stare at the top of my homework.
“Chevy,” Razor whispers, and I glance over at him. He points to the paper on his desk and in his messy handwriting is You okay?
Yes, because I get to play football tonight. No, because Violet sacrificed herself for it to happen. Hell no, because the world’s messed up and I don’t know how to fix it. Worse no, because I don’t know if I should read more into what Violet did—if it means somewhere deep inside she still thinks we have a chance.
I shake my head, Razor nods and the two of us stare at the whiteboard. Two roads. One path. Can’t take both. The guy who wrote it acts like the choice should be easy. It’s not. And he also didn’t mention what happens when people like Violet shove you onto a path regardless of your thoughts.
“So how many of you liked the poem?” Ms. Whitlock asks.
The entire class raises their hands. Almost everyone, except for me and Razor.
Quick—what do you get when a dentist marries a seamstress?
Answer: A badass man who joins a motorcycle club.
Don’t get it?
It’s okay, neither do I.
I’m completely lost as to why my father joined a motorcycle club. He wasn’t born into the lifestyle like so many members are. My grandparents were as middle class as they come. My grandfather was a dentist with a struggling practice and my grandmother was a dressmaker.
They got married and had my dad and he lived a very normal, boring life. Even grew up in a modest two-story house with a finished basement, white picket fence, MTV playing on the Zenith, and chalk drawings on the sidewalks.
As Dad got older, he played football, dated the cheerleader (my mom) and landed a partial scholarship to college. He went on to become an accountant. Happy middle class—that was my dad. Joining an MC didn’t make sense, but he did join and because of that decision he died.
As I watch the others standing in line laughing and chatting with their happy middle-class families, all I keep thinking is, that could have been me. I could have been the girl in the fuzzy blue sweater giggling with her jeans-on-dress-down-Friday-wearing father.
But it’s not me, and I doubt I’ll ever understand why.
The crowd on the bleachers erupts into cheers, and an air siren wails into the cool mid-October evening. The home team, my high school team, scored a touchdown. Standing in line beside me at the ticket booth, my brother, Brandon, bounces on his toes while shoving his hands into his jeans pockets as he strains to see the football field.
He’s one of the many people I love so much that it’s painful. He’s also one of several people in my life I can’t seem to stop hurting.
“Do you think that was Chevy who scored?” It’s the first words he’s said to me since we left school this afternoon. He’s mad I dragged him into the school’s office and showed the vice principal the bruise and cut on his arm caused by some jerk at lunch. My brother is a joke to most of the boys at our school, and Brandon can never understand why I can’t leave it alone.
It’s because of what happened at lunch that I was late to English today. Brandon was bleeding and I took him to the nurses’ office. The nurse gave him the option of calling Mom and going home, but I talked him into returning to class because Brandon has to learn how to keep his head high. Guys like the ones who hurt him will keep causing problems if they believe they’re getting to him. But guys like that also deserve to be punished, hence why I dragged Brandon into the vice principal’s office after school.
“I asked if you think it was Chevy who scored,” Brandon repeats.
“I don’t know.” I breathe out the ache Chevy’s name creates. Chevy used to be my boyfriend. He used to be one of my best friends. He’s also one of the people it hurts to love.
“I couldn’t hear who they said scored,” my brother continues. “Everyone was cheering. Do you think we can find out once we get in? Do you think someone will tell us? Can you ask?” Brandon scratches his chin twice, and his cheeks turn red against his naturally pale skin.
The line is long, and he’s flustered we’re late. The late part is my fault. Part of it on purpose, part of it beyond my control. Either way, Brandon’s angry at me. It’s not new. Brandon’s natural state of emotion with me is anger. I’m the one who sets rules and boundaries, while everyone else in his life is bent on either babying him or having fun.
Life is not fun and no one is doing either him or me a favor by trying to act differently.
Still, I love Brandon, and I hate that he’s mad at me, so we’re here to watch my ex-boyfriend play football. As I said, life isn’t fun. But Brandon deserves a moment of happiness, especially since there are so many people at school determined to make him sad.
It’s midway through football season, and tonight our small-town team is playing a big-city school. Two powerhouses battling for dominance. Though I seem to be immune, the excitement around us appears to be contagious. A sea of blue sweatshirts, smiles and high fives.
We move up in line, and seeing we’re two people away from the ticket window, I pull money out of my back pocket and offer Brandon a five-dollar bill while keeping a five for myself.
Brandon’s eyes widen, and he pushes the glasses sliding down his nose back up. “What’s the money for?”
“To buy your ticket.” I flash a smile, hoping he’ll see I’m calm and then he’ll remain calm. My brother is fourteen, a little over three years younger than me. I’m a senior and he’s a freshman. While there are many things we have in common, like our pale skin with freckles, our crazy bright red hair and our father’s blue eyes, there are also so many ways we’re different.
Our minds tinker differently. Not better. Just differently. Brandon’s a little slower on some things, a lot faster on others, and he’s often very anxious around people and in social situations.
“Can’t you do it for me, Vi?” Of course I’m Vi to him now, meaning I’m officially out of the doghouse, and I almost consider folding.
Almost. My brother needs to learn how to handle simple situations on his own.
“You can do it,” I encourage. “Just hand her the money, ask her for one student ticket, and then she’ll hand you your change along with the ticket. The whole exchange will take seconds.”
Brandon shrinks, and even though he’s as tall as me, he reminds me of when we were children and I held his hand as we rode the elementary bus because he was scared.
“I don’t like the way the lady at the ticket booth looks at us. I’ve seen her around town and she makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong when I haven’t.”
My heart sinks, and my fingers play with the bracelets on my wrist. “Any dirty look she gives is for me, not you.”
That’s only partially true. The woman working the ticket counter enjoys giving both of us her evil eye. I could claim that’s her resting bitch face, but when she doesn’t notice me or my brother, she actually smiles.
We live in a small town. Brandon’s the weird kid, and after a picture of me making out with a guy made the rounds on social media, I’m the town whore.
Before the infamous picture, I had forever been labeled a child of the Reign of Terror Motorcycle Club because my father was a member. I can’t decide if in the ticket taker’s eyes whore is better than Terror spawn. She probably assumes the two are related.
“Vi,” he starts again, but my muscles tense as my patience wears thin.
“It’s just a ticket.” This time the calm in my voice is forced and so is the smile. “I need you to be able to buy a ticket.”
Brandon’s shoulders slump forward, and I hate that I snapped, but if he can’t buy a ticket to a football game, how can he buy himself food when he grows older?
There are months remaining until I graduate from high school, and even if I figure out how to take him with me when I leave, I won’t be around to take care of him forever. He needs to learn to take care of himself. It’s what we all have to learn.
The people in front of us walk off with tickets. A mom, a dad, a brother, a sister. Middle class and grinning from ear to ear. I seriously hate each and every one of them for being happy. I know, that makes me bitter, but sometimes bitter happens.
“You can do this.” I take Brandon’s hand in mine and give a reassuring squeeze. “I know you can.”
Brandon swallows hard, but nods. A combination of nervous energy and pride rushes through my veins as he grasps my hand in return and fists the cash in his other hand. He’s going to face his fears. The lift of my lips is genuine now. My brother believes in himself, and I believe in him and maybe we’re both going to be okay.
Right as Brandon takes a courageous step forward, two black leather vests slip in front of us and staring back at me is a half skull with fire blazing out of its eye sockets.
The world surrounding me turns red, and my blood begins to boil. “There’s a line and you just cut.”
Eli, one of my father’s once best friends, glances over his shoulder and winks at us as he pulls out his wallet. Like always, he has dark hair cut close to his head, plugs in his ears and a huge grin like we should be glad to see him. “I got you covered.”
Fabulous. Here comes the Reign of Terror Motorcycle Club riding in on their black Harleys determined to save the day of people who really need to learn how to save themselves.
“No, really, we got this,” I insist.
I try to muscle my way past to pay, but Eli’s right-hand man, Pigpen, plants himself in front of me like the towering sack of testosterone and annoyance that he is. Then he’s on the move and I somehow find myself away from the ticket booth.
“Surprised to see you here, Violet.” Pigpen is in his late twenties and thinks he’s all handsome with his blond hair and big muscles. Because he was a Navy SEAL or Army Ranger or something outrageous like that, he also thinks he’s awesome, but he doesn’t impress me. “Surprised you’re here, but happy to see you. You haven’t been at a game all year.”
“I’ve been busy,” I say.
“Is that what you call avoiding anyone from the Terror? Busy?”
“Works for me.”
“Hi, Pigpen!” Brandon is lit up like a firefly who was convinced the rest of his species was extinct. Eli, of course, enjoying the role of savior, has his arm around Brandon’s shoulders as they join us.
“Hey, Stone.” Pigpen calls my brother by the stupid nickname the club created for him. “How’s it going?”
“Good. They bought our tickets, Vi!”
“Yep, they sure did, because little ol’ me couldn’t handle the big ol’ ticket booth on my own.” Heavy on the sarcasm and then a hard glare at Eli. “Brandon was going to buy his own ticket.”
Eli rolls his neck like he’s the one who owns the right to be annoyed. “Most people say thank you.”
“You’re missing the point.”
Eli pats my brother’s back. “Why don’t you head in with Pigpen? I’d like to catch up with Violet.”
Brandon bounces like a damn puppy dog given a treat and then rushes off into the stadium, leaving me with Thing Two. And to think my brother called me Vi. The little traitor.
“Pigpen,” I call out. “Don’t leave him.”
I forced my brother to tattle today, and while the football game will make him smile, I’m also taking a calculated risk that the people he told on won’t be here. If they are here, I’m betting they won’t mess with Brandon as long as I’m around.
“You worry too much,” Pigpen answers without glancing back.
When it comes to my brother, they don’t worry enough about the right problems.
Eli watches as Brandon and Pigpen go into the stadium. Instead of taking a left for the bleachers, they go right for the concession stand, and I’m contemplating how to stab Pigpen in the jugular. Concession food brings my brother into a near state of euphoria, and because of the crappy day my brother and I had, I wanted to be the one who made him happy with a hot dog, nachos and a slushy.
Motorcycle men around the world, as far as I’m concerned, can just plain suck it.
Eli turns to me, and my heart aches. Good God, he reminds me of Chevy. An older version, but still the relation is clear. Like Chevy, Eli’s a McKinley. Chestnut hair, dark eyes, broad shoulders. I’ve often wondered if Chevy will be Eli’s clone when he grows older. Eli is Chevy’s uncle. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if Chevy resembled Eli as he aged, but it’s the fear of Chevy becoming the warrior and convict that Eli is that drove Chevy and me apart.
Eli eyes me warily as he pulls on the plug in his ear. Still, the man has that grin he uses to try to convince people he’s easygoing. But I don’t buy it. Not even God could count all the demons dancing in his soul.
To be fair, Eli used to be one of my favorite people, but he and I haven’t gotten along very well since my father’s death. In fact, I haven’t gotten along with anyone associated with the Terror since Dad died a year ago.
“Brandon was going to buy his own ticket.” I work hard to keep my voice steady. “You can’t keep swooping in and doing things for him. He’s got to learn how to fend for himself.”
“It’s good to see you, too,” Eli says like I never spoke. “I’m glad you brought Stone. I know how much that kid loves to see Chevy play.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me, so I’ll try to be a little more direct,” I say. “Stop butting in with my brother. You don’t help. None of you help.”
“How’s your mom?” Eli continues, once again like the conversation on my end isn’t happening.
“Moping around like always. Know what would help her? A job or a hobby or a purpose. None of which she will get as long as you guys keep popping in and taking care of her.” I’m sensing the theme, but doubt Eli will. Logic complicates his thinking process.
The glint of frustration in Eli’s eyes gives away that he hears me, yet he keeps up the charade. “Tell your mom me and some of the guys from the club will be over to help with the house. Mow the yard. Pay the bills.”
A dangerous anger curls within me. “I’m tired of explaining to you we don’t need the Reign of Terror’s help. In fact, we’d be better off without any of you.”
“Is it impossible for us to talk without fighting?” Eli snaps.
And there it is. Eli finally showing his true colors. “This isn’t a fight. My voice hasn’t risen high enough to draw a crowd, and I have yet to say fuck, so we’re still in the land of civil.”
Eli opens his mouth to respond when his cell buzzes. He reaches for his phone, checks the text, and a shadow falls over his face. I’ve seen that look hundreds of times growing up and that expression means whatever is going on in his precious club is more important than me, more important than staying.
It’s the look my father had right before he left me for the last time.
Why don’t I want the club involved in my life or Brandon’s? Because Brandon doesn’t need people who promise they’re going to stick around to take care of him but then abandon him the moment their cell pings. My brother deserves better than that. I deserve better now, and I deserved better when Dad was alive.
“Gotta go?” The bitterness drips in the singsong sway of my voice.
The black gaze Eli shoots me is his confirmation. “This conversation isn’t over.”
Yes, it is. “I’ve got to take care of my brother while you guys go off and play.”
I walk away from Eli because someone in Brandon’s life has to be responsible. Someone has to be the grown-up, and considering the other people in Brandon’s life are determined to stay irresponsible, the burden falls to me.
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