"Tater Tot Thursday"
"Hannah, slow down!"
The school cafeteria was packed with enough bodies to make air conditioning necessary, even though the December weather was frigid. Ignoring her friend's plea, Hannah Ayers didn't slow down as she elbowed her way through, trying to make it to the front of the line. It was Thursday. Every Thursday, tater tots were served at Butler High School, and every Thursday, there was a war over them. Although the general population of students also tried hard to get to the tater tots, two individuals were the main soldiers of the war: Hannah Ayers and Jake Allen.
"Excuse me…sorry about that…oh hey, excuse me…" The murmurs kept escaping Hannah's mouth as she shoved through, getting a fair share of dirty looks from her peers, but Hannah didn't mind. She was seconds away from reaching the tater tot bin and shrieking out joyfully when Jake Allen stomped on her foot. With five separate lunch periods, one would think that Hannah and Jake wouldn't have to eat together, but no, they shared the period. Hannah faced him furiously, taking in his familiar green eyes and brown hair. "Ouch! Must you be so immature, Jacob?"
He smiled, but Hannah could tell that it was a fake smile. "This coming from the girl who cut in front of the entire line?" He scoffed and pointed into the bin. "And you still lose."
Hannah's blue eyes narrowed as she peeked where he was pointing to discover that there were no tater tots remaining. Before she could scream at him, Hannah looked at Jake's tray, something that she hadn't even bothered to get for herself. "You're tater tot-less too, jerk," she smirked. "I don't know why you're acting so damn proud of yourself. Sheer habit?"
"Look." Callously, Jake laughed and pointed out a door toward the large lunch table that he and his friends always sat at. Two of his friends held up a tray heaping with bags of tater tots, both of them laughing. "Better luck next week, Ayers."
"You're unbelievable," Hannah snapped. He had to be the most insufferable male in all of Ohio! People moved around her and Jake as though they were used to them hashing it out and holding up the line. "Did you seriously buy all of the tater tots just to piss me off?"
A faux-contemplative expression appeared on Jake's tanned face, and then his fake smile was back. "No."
The growing smile on Jake's face told Hannah that he was amused by her. "No, not quite. I did want to piss you off, but you know how much I like tater tots. Pissing you off was just an added bonus."
"I hate you," Hannah spat at him, turning so as to walk around him. However, Jake had other plans as he placed a hand on her shoulder, keeping her in his presence. Since he was a good six inches taller than she was, Hannah had to look up to meet his eyes. "What?"
"You're breaking my heart, Ayers." His tone was light and mocking, instantly arousing suspicion in Hannah. "This is the third week in a row you've gone without tater tots. And I accept—"
"Fourth week, you ass. But go on."
Jake laughed a little, but it was as pretend as his smile. "As I was saying, I accept the credit for your unfavorable situ—"
"Yadda, yadda, yadda." Hannah jerked her shoulder away from his hand, but Jake just rolled his eyes. "Do you have a point, or am I needlessly listening to my brain cells committing suicide because of your voice?"
"You should know I'd never needlessly put you at a disadvantage." Jake's smile almost looked genuine now; there was a certain twinkle in his green eyes. "In fact, you should be proud, Ayers. I'm about to offer you a really good deal here."
Her eyebrows rose. "Great. Do it faster."
"Patience never has been your strong point, huh?" Jake was about to elaborate on Hannah's faults further—she just knew it—but her impatient waving must have prompted him to comply with her demand. "Here's the deal. Are you listening?"
"Yes. I'm listening."
Looking his smuggest, Jake showed the grin that so many girls fell in lust with on a daily basis. "You can have all the tater tots you want, as long as you sit at my table with Sharpe."
Hannah stared at Jake without any emotion on her pale face. Ethan Sharpe was one of Jake's best friends, and for some time now, Ethan had showed a strange attraction to Hannah. It really freaked her out, but for tater tots…
"What do you say, Ayers?"
"I say you've got the wrong girl," Hannah snapped, flicking her strawberry blonde hair over her shoulder. Jake didn't look surprised, so Hannah refused to smirk, which was a hard thing to do in his presence. "I already have a boyfriend. You know that, and so does Ethan."
Jake scoffed. "I'm surprised you know that. When's the last time Hudson got his nose out of a book to actually talk to you?" Hannah opened her mouth to retort, but Jake clamped his hand over her mouth, succeeding in infuriating her more. "But hey, it's cool. Sharpe could do a lot better than you, that's for sure."
Jerking her head away from Jake's hand, Hannah stepped away from him, but, naturally, Jake was only a step behind her. Ignoring him, Hannah grabbed a Hershey chocolate bar and a bag of Fritos. Oh, the foods she had to stoop to, just because Jake liked to piss her off. Even now, she was pretty sure she could feel his breath on the back of her neck, a reminder that he was lurking everywhere she could ever go, even at home. There was no escaping him; there never had been.
Hannah's mother and Jake's mother had been good friends in high school, and when they'd gone to the same college, they'd become best friends. Somehow even after Diane Allen had spent seventeen years raising Jake as a single mother and after Patricia Ayers had been married for eighteen years with two kids, they were still best friends, despite their differences. How convenient for them that they were also neighbors, which had been planned since college, or so Hannah thought she had been told. Hannah tended to tune out everything that could even potentially involve Jake.
After Hannah paid for her unhealthy lunch, she walked toward the Dasani vending machine for a bottled water and thought about how she and Jake had always hated each other. She'd sat through hours of home videos with her mom, Jake's mom, and Jake one rainy Saturday and saw that she and Jake hadn't even gotten along in infancy. In the video, which had been filmed when they were about two years old, Jake had snatched Hannah's Barbie and promptly torn off her head. In retaliation, Hannah had hit him in the face with his own toy fire truck, leaving a gash behind.
Watching that video was probably the only time that Jake and Hannah had given each other authentic smiles.
It was downhill from there though. When the kids were four, Diane and Patricia had taken them trick-or-treating together, and Jake had purposely torn Hannah's princess costume when no one was looking. Of course, Hannah had taken her orange plastic pumpkin and beat Jake over the head with it until the mothers broke them apart.
Since their birthdays were unluckily a mere fourteen days apart, Jake and Hannah had often celebrated their birthdays together as children. At their fifth birthday, Hannah had insulted Jake somehow, and he'd reacted by slamming her head into the cake. Thus, the cake fight. Following punishment for their naughty behavior, the mothers had eventually laughed, and since then, there was a cake fight at every birthday.
The traditions that she shared with Jake made Hannah fume.
As the years had passed, the feuds became more and more serious. At the tender age of nine, Hannah's special piano recital for her grandparents had been sabotaged by Jake. So when he got that new dirt bike a month later, she'd deflated the tires.
When they were thirteen, Jake started a vicious tale—forget that it was truthful—that Hannah peed her pants when a clown approached her during a shared vacation. To get back at him, Hannah had snuck up on Jake when he was flirting with a girl that Hannah knew he had a crush on. Much to Jake's disbelief, Hannah had sacrificed her own first kiss to give Jake his in front of his crush. Revengefully, Jake had tried to drown her in a bathtub, but Hannah had given him a bloody nose in the struggle. The sight of blood, unfortunately, made Hannah pass out, so Jake took the opportunity to cut a gap of hair from the back of her head.
That wasn't the half of it, but Hannah's thoughts were interrupted when she plunked her tray down beside her friends'. Tisha Wilson was glaring at Libby Heatherly viciously. Hannah had ignored Tisha's pleas to slow down earlier and expected a lecture about it, but clearly Libby was the one Tisha had issues with.
"I can't believe you kissed Brent," Tisha griped.
Ah, Hannah thought. It was about Brent Riggs, who was, coincidentally, Jake's other best friend. Tisha fantasized daily about how if Hannah would break up with Greg Hudson to date Ethan, Hannah could get Brent to date Tisha. Not caring for the conversation, Hannah tore open her bag of Fritos and started munching.
"It was just a little peck," Libby insisted, stabbing her fork into a salad. She was probably the prettiest of Hannah's friends, what with her long, sleek dark brown hair. Big blue eyes, framed by the darkest of lashes, stood out against Libby's perma-tan complexion. Of course she was a cheerleader. "Barely anything."
"Uh-huh," Tisha remarked dryly. Her appearance was plainer with light brown waves and blue-green eyes, but she had the best fashion sense. Everyone, particularly Tisha, knew it too. She also had a prominent role on the Kickline, Butler's dance team. "That's why he keeps looking over here. Because you didn't do diddly-squat with him."
"I actually don't think he's looking at Lib," the fourth and final girl pointed out. Morgan Owens was the smart one, so when she said it, the other girls believed it. "If you notice, all of those guys keep looking over here."
Hannah, Libby, and Tisha glanced at Morgan briefly and then turned their heads simultaneously toward the table the guys were sitting at. Jake, Ethan, and Brent were talking softly together, casually glancing at the table full of girls. Several other guys were sitting at their table, munching on tater tots (to Hannah's annoyance), but all of them were engaging in other conversations.
"Is my hair okay?" Tisha hissed, beginning to panic. Her eyes went to Hannah. "Do I have anything in my teeth? What if they come over here? I don't want to look bad. Do I look all right?"
"You look fine," Morgan soothed, not even taking a minute to smooth her straight blonde hair. She shot a glance at Hannah's tray. "It's Han who's going to have to worry about looking all right."
Both Tisha and Libby glanced at Hannah's lunch immediately. Tisha clucked her tongue in disapproving horror, but Libby grinned widely. "Junk food diet yet again, Hannah?"
"You'd better believe it," Hannah answered proudly. She broke a square of chocolate from the Hershey bar and raised it in a salute to Libby. "I thrive on calories. If they're accompanied by carbs and fat…even better."
Libby laughed and then made a face. "I wish I had your metabolism."
Hannah shrugged and devoured a handful of Fritos in what had to be record time. Libby and Tisha were talking about Brent again, but Hannah was thinking about her metabolism. Thanks for that, Libby, she thought. Libby had a point though; Hannah could eat whatever she wanted, but everything that went into her mouth fanned out in her five-feet, five-inch body, leaving no evidence of excessive eating. It was a pretty good thing too, since Hannah ate more junk food than was healthy for her. As Libby once said, if there were justice in the world, Hannah would weigh three hundred pounds.
"Oh great," Morgan groaned suddenly, putting her ham and cheese sandwich down on her tray. Surprised, Hannah followed Morgan's brown eyes and saw what she was talking about. Jake, Ethan, and Brent were on their way over. "Can I run away? I'm sure there's something in the library that I haven't read yet."
Tisha scoffed. "Doubt it."
"Hello, ladies," Ethan Sharpe greeted, the first of his friends to speak. In Hannah's opinion, Jake looked bored already. "How are we doing on this lovely, lovely day? A day that is, in fact, so lovely because of you ladies."
Libby rolled her bright eyes to the heavens and sighed deeply. "Just fine, thank you," she answered crisply. She plays so hard to get, Hannah noted mentally. "How are you, Ethan? Brent? Jake?"
Brent didn't make eye contact when he talked. "Fine too."
Tisha shot Libby a dirty look, but it went mostly unnoticed. The only ones who saw were Libby herself and Hannah. Clearly, Tisha blamed Libby's kiss for Brent's uncharacteristic quietness.
"And how are you, Miss Hannah?" Ethan asked, majestically depositing a bag of tater tots in front of her. Hannah's eyes widened with surprise. "I trust that you're well."
Morgan poked the bag of tater tots critically. "Oh but she won't be. What are you trying to do, Ethan? Clog her arteries? I can practically see the grease collecting in the bottom of that bag."
Libby grinned. "That's just the way Han likes it. What do you say, Hannah?"
Rolling her eyes, Hannah picked up the bag and held it back out to Ethan. "I say no thanks. I don't accept pity tots." She glanced at Jake and saw him roll his eyes and mutter something at Brent, who smiled. "Actually, scratch that."
The others at the table watched as Hannah tore into the bag, poured the contents onto a napkin, and popped a tater tot into her mouth. She chewed slowly, unsure of why everyone had taken such an interest in watching her eat. For a second, Hannah thought she saw a look pass between the guys and nearly spat the food out of her mouth. Jake probably spit on it.
"How do you like them?" Ethan's voice was particularly charming, and if he'd been Jake, Hannah would have known that something was up. "Crispy enough for you, my darling?"
"Yes, thank you," Hannah answered, scooting her chair backward so she could get up. "Just needs some ketchup."
Without waiting for anyone to say anything or saying anything herself, Hannah sped away from the table and went to the condiment counter. Large pumps held ketchup, mayonnaise, barbeque sauce, and ranch dressing. Plucking a tiny white bowl from a stack, Hannah pumped it full of ketchup and hurried back across the cafeteria. When her blue eyes landed on the table, she groaned. Jake had, naturally, taken her seat.
"Move," she spat him, gouging his shoulder intensely with a finger. He just looked up at her and offered a smile. "Jake, I'm serious. Get out of my chair."
Ethan patted his lap, as he and Brent had pulled up chairs. "You can take this seat, doll," Ethan promised, grinning. "I don't bite unless you tell me upfront that you like it."
The guys laughed, and even Tisha and Libby shared a giggle. That didn't help Hannah's mood at all, which seemed to be depreciating quicker by the minute. She glared at Ethan irately and was about to reply when she noticed Jake's hand. The jerk had just swiped a tater tot from her napkin, and it apparently wasn't the first one either, given that the majority of them had disappeared.
"Jacob Allen!" she screeched, smacking his hand ferociously. To anger Hannah further, Jake just laughed and snatched another tater tot with his other hand. "You're revolting! I wish you'd just get hit by a bus!"
"And if I had my way, Ayers, darling, you'd be attacked by wolves," Jake drawled, earning him another laugh from Brent. Hannah's eyes narrowed, but Jake didn't pay her any attention. "Too bad that's just wishful thinking."
Enraged, Hannah gathered her belongings in a quick motion and looked directly at Tisha. "I'll see you in Strauss's class." A mouthful of protests erupted from the girls and from Ethan, but Hannah ignored them. She left the cafeteria quickly and retreated to the library, thankful for some peace and quiet.
- - - - - -
Hannah's mood hadn't improved by the time she got home after school. In fact, she positively slammed the door of her white Jeep and stomped through an inch of snow to her house, a hefty two-story cabin-themed home across the street from the Allens' smaller white house. She stopped inside at the door to remove her shoes, as her mother would freak out if Hannah tracked wet snow throughout the place. Light laughter floated into the living room, where Hannah was removing her coat, and she knew where the source had to be. She also knew who the source had to be. Even so, Hannah made her way into the kitchen.
"Hannah!" Diane Allen's voice was filled with warmth, and it instantly brightened Hannah's foul mood. She'd always liked Jake's mom, even if he was a prick. "We were just talking about you."
Stifling a knowing groan, Hannah's blue eyes flitted to her mother, a woman who Hannah didn't favor very much. Patricia's hair was a golden blond, but the two did share big blue eyes. "Hi, sweetie," Patricia greeted innocently from where she was stirring something at the stovetop. "Did you have a good day?"
"Don't try to distract me." Hannah sat down at the table beside Diane and grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from a platter at the center of the table. Her mother was cooking on the other side of the room, but Hannah was starving more than usual because of her measly lunch. "What were you gossiping about? Or should I even ask?"
Liveliness always lit up Diane's emerald eyes, but they were particularly shining now. "Oh, we were just remembering the time that you and Jake had chicken pox, that's all." Hannah winced, but Diane went on. "Those oatmeal baths were so cute, weren't they, Patty?"
"Please don't say anything," Hannah moaned, burying her face in her hands. The toddler baths were enough to make Hannah blush and lose her appetite over, which was a huge feat. "The last thing I want to hear right now is how you two betrothed Jake and me at birth or whatever. No stories."
"Are you that pissed at me over the tater tots?"
Hannah jumped, but both older women laughed lightly. Sometime after Hannah had hidden her face, Jake must have slipped in. Even though she'd tried to convince her mother otherwise, Jake—as well as his mother—had a key to her house for emergencies, so there was never a way to know when he'd just show up. Hannah had to be constantly on her guard, but for some stupid reason, she'd let it down. Since Jake should have been at basketball practice, Hannah had assumed she was safe.
"If you're that mad, I'll let you win next week." Jake plopped into a chair across from Hannah and grabbed a cookie, just as she'd done. "Would that make you feel any better?"
"No." Hannah's eyes narrowed as she glared at Jake. "I hate pity. Not that I think you're capable of pity, Allen. You're far too heartless to even pretend."
"Hey, you remember this conversation next week," Jake ordered with his mouth full of a cookie. "I've tried to be nice but no. It has to be your way."
"What are you even doing here?" Hannah asked hatefully. "Shouldn't you be off passing basketballs and gas with the boys?"
"As touched as I am that you keep up with my busy schedule, no," Jake smirked. "We've got a bad weather advisory or something, so practice was canceled." He looked over at Patricia. Hannah stood up and retrieved milk from the refrigerator in fast, easy motions. "Isaac's riding home with Seth though."
Patricia glanced at the clock and frowned. "He's still running behind." Her blue eyes swept to where Hannah was brooding at the table. "Did your brother say anything about being late?"
Hannah snapped to attention, but it took her a few moments to understand the question. Her younger brother always caught a ride home with his best friend when he had practice. Finally, she shrugged. "No. I don't—"
"There was a freshmen class meeting after school," Jake casually spoke up as he reached for another cookie; he took one of the largest ones on the platter. "He said he was staying for it."
Muttering darkly under her breath, Hannah was cursing her brother's friendship with Jake. Fraternizing with the enemy should not have been allowed. She barely had a stable relationship with her brother, but Jake and Isaac hung out frequently. After puberty hit, Hannah wasn't sure that Jake really liked Isaac that much, but when he'd stepped in and tried to help Isaac out of his nerdiness, Hannah knew their friendship was the real deal. Jake had even performed a miracle and gotten Isaac interested in football, and now he was transforming Isaac into a basketball player.
Hannah gave Jake a dirty look, but a light cough to cover a giggle told Hannah that Diane was the only one who had caught it. Both mothers were very well aware of their children's vendettas against each other, but no amount of chiding over the years had helped. If anything, being told to get along only made Hannah and Jake fight more. The adults had finally given up and just chalked it up as something to be amused by.
Eyelashes were only batted if a trip to the emergency room was required, which hadn't happened since the fateful football game during their sophomore year. A rough game had come to pass where Hannah's thumb required three stitches and Jake's ankle needed an x-ray. Then Jake and Hannah had been punished, but when Hannah's stitches were removed, the two were at war again.
"Oh." Patricia added something to the pot she was stirring. She then faced Jake and smiled. "I'm so glad you got Isaac into sports. Why did you quit football again, Jake? You were so good at it."
"I hated the coach last year," Jake explained, glancing at Hannah. They both knew the story was darker than that. She shifted in her seat, unable to stay calm when he was lying. "The new one this year was all right, but since I didn't go to summer workouts, I couldn't play."
Diane's eyebrows lifted, and Hannah wondered if she knew the real story. "I tried to get him to stick it out." Apparently not. "But his mind was made up."
"That's a shame," Patricia commented sadly; she was the more maternal one compared to Diane. Diane was still a teenager at heart.
"No kidding," Hannah agreed, eyeing the platter of cookies; when there was one left, she'd steal it just as Jake reached for it. "He's had more time to hang out here."
Jake rolled his green eyes so that the light caught in them and made his eyes stand out brilliantly. "I've explained this one to you, Ayers. I'm obligated to spend a minimum of twelve hours each week here so that you don't forget what a real man is. Dating Hudson and all, you don't get an example too often."
"Don't talk about Greg." Hannah glowered, filling with hatred. "Just because he's not an insensitive prick like you doesn't mean that you have any right to criticize him. He's smarter and sweeter than you are."
A bright, albeit sarcastic, grin spread across Jake's face as he surveyed Hannah. "It's funny how you compare every guy to me. Am I on your mind that often?"
Diane was watching Hannah and Jake with merriment. "You two are so adorable," she laughed, glancing at Patricia, who shared her amusement. "When are we planning their wedding?"
"When hell freezes over," Jake answered dryly. He stood and helped himself to a glass from the cabinet and milk from the refrigerator, and Hannah snatched another cookie, nodding agreeably. "I'd rather shoot myself in the foot and jump into the ocean as shark bait than marry her."
Hannah snorted. "I'd pull the trigger for you and give you a push into the water."
"Or maybe I'd just shoot you, Ayers, and let you be the shark bait," Jake smirked. "I think I'd cut my own legs off with a butter knife before I willingly spent my whole life with you."
Shrugging, Hannah chewed a bite of her cookie indifferently. "I'd induce physical harm on myself too, jerk. If it came down to marrying you or shutting my head in a car's sunroof, I'd be headless at my funeral."
Jake almost laughed, but he apparently caught himself in time, or else the near laugh was scornful. He did grin though. "Dude, I'd slice my stomach open, nail my small intestine to a tree, and run around in circles to rip all my insides out before I'd marry you."
Patricia and Diane both started to intervene, but Hannah spoke over top of them with no trouble, not a bit affected by his grotesque comment. "That's nothing. I'd roll around in raw meat and then jump in a lion's den to keep from marrying you."
"Not a bad idea, Ayers," Jake remarked as he took a drink from his glass of milk. Amusement was in his eyes. "Put an end to your miserable life."
"My miserable life?" Hannah repeated with raised eyebrows. She polished off her cookie and made a face at Jake. "Who's constantly in my business and eating my food? I think you're jealous of my life, honestly."
"Oh I am," Jake agreed, but his tone was extremely sarcastic. "I'm so jealous of your life that I'd rather take mine than be a part of yours."
"Jake…" Diane shook her head a little, and her chin-length brown hair swayed. She then turned her attention to Hannah. "I heard today that the Rascal Flatts are coming back to Cincinnati. You think you'd want to go see them again?"
Hannah's eyes lit up. She'd once seen the band with Diane before, and it had been amazing, regardless of the fact that Hannah wasn't a country music fan and had hardly heard any of the band's songs. "Absolutely!"
"Great." Diane grinned and stole a glance at her son. "You think you'd want to join us?"
"Not on your life," Jake answered without a moment's hesitation. Patricia laughed, which must have encouraged him. "I'll definitely pass."
"Thank God for that," Hannah mumbled as she stood up and gave Diane a quick hug. "Hey Mom, Greg's picking me up at four-thirty. We're eating and then studying for physics at Morgan's. Okay?"
Patricia looked outside the window and faced her daughter uncertainly. Worry was evident in her eyes. "What about the weather, Han?"
"What about my grade, Mom?" Hannah shot back. Softening quickly, she waved her hand carelessly. "Besides, it's not like the roads won't be salted and all. And Greg's driven in snow before. We're all used to it."
Patricia glanced at Diane, who shrugged. "All right. You'll be home after that?"
"Not if I can convince Greg to get milkshakes afterwards." Hannah's grin was cheeky, and Jake snorted, but Hannah chose to mostly ignore him this time, although she did give him a disdainful glance. "All that studying is going to starve me to death."
"As if you'll do any studying," Jake muttered. Then he smirked. "Oh wait, that's right. You're talking about Greg Hudson, aren't you? Yeah, you won't do anything but study."
Hannah rewarded Jake with a sarcastic laugh. "At least I'll pass the test. You won't do anything but fail."
Jake didn't say anything back, and Hannah was grateful because he very well could have pointed out that his GPA was just as good as hers and was on the borderline of being better. When Hannah accepted that their arguing was over temporarily, she waved politely to her mom and to Diane before going upstairs to get ready.
Jake thought that she'd only be studying tonight? Ha! What did he know? Hannah had just enough time to shower and get all dolled up in her favorite jeans and a pretty sweater. Hopefully Jake would still be around when Hannah went downstairs, just so she could rub her date-like appearance in his face.