Chapter 1

Let me preface the story I'm about to tell by saying this: Eric Rawlings is one of the smartest and nicest guys I know, and he deserved a lot better than a lot of the stuff he has had to put up with since high school. By that I don't mean Eric has gotten the short of of the stick his entire life, but he has had to put up with a lot of stupid shit—things that would make almost any reasonable person question why bad things seem to happen to good people.

My name is Andrew Gilmer, and I've been Eric's best friend since we were in the eighth grade. We've known each other much longer than that, considering the fact that we were born on the same day in the same hospital on an unseasonably cool June morning, and we've lived on the same street our entire lives. That sounds like the sort of combination that would more or less force us to be lifetime friends, but that was far from the truth.

Before I get too deep into my story, I guess I need to tell how Eric and I went from not even knowing the other existed, to hating each other, to being best friends.

My family has lived in the small town of Bethel Hill for four generations. The house I live in is the house my parents moved into on their wedding day, when they got married at St. Thomas Roman Catholic church ten minutes down the street, despite neither one of them being Roman Catholic (my mom is Southern Baptist and my dad an inactive Episcopalian; don't ask too many questions). Our home was a gift from my grandfather, my father's father, who until his death with Bethel Hill's only pediatrician for thirty years. Eventually there were two, but only when my dad graduated from medical school. His entire life he knew that he would one day take over his father's medical practice and, hopefully, maintain the medical monopoly in Bethel Hill. That sounds bad, but when you learn that at least a dozen doctors have come to town to establish a new practice, and promptly been run off by people not related to me, it's not quite as evil-sounding.

My mother, a pretty woman from a much more modest South Carolina background, has spent my entire life at home taking care of me and my younger brother Devin. When I said our family has lived in Bethel Hill for four generations, that's only a half-truth, and by that I mean that's only true on my father's side. My mother ended up in town when she moved here for college. Her family still lives in Charleston, which is close enough that it's not a terribly annoying drive, but far enough away that she's draggin us down the road every weekend. Her father spent his entire working life as an air traffic controller for a regional airport about an hour outside of Charleston. My grandmother was a work-at-home interior designer or, as my grandfather half-jokingly called her, a professional nuisance. For a long time I wondered why my grandfather didn't retire until his body essentially forced him to, but when I turned sixteen I finally learned exactly how overbearing my well-intentioned grandmother is. That was when I understood why my mom left home to go to school instead of going to the College of Charleston. But that's another story entirely.

My parents met in an intro to political science class spring semester of their senior year, and were married twenty four months later. My dad, a biology major, and my mom, a psychology major, had both managed to be just three hours short of graduation their last semester. My dad needed the freshman-filled class to graduate, while my mom just wanted a GPA boosting elective. They ended up in the same class, which happened to be taught by a Russian national who spoke English as a fourth language. My dad frequently tells me it was the hardest-earned D he ever got, most recently when I took Biology 1010 with a Korean professor who taught with a translator on retainer.

I was born at Bethel Hill General Hospital on a forty degree June 8th morning, the same hospital where my future best friend and also bullying victim was born. We lived on the same street from that day until we graduated high school, but for the first ten years, we hardly knew of each others existence.

Eric lived in the same neighborhood that I did, but it was like we lived in two different worlds. My dad made enough money on his own to support our family so that my mom could stay at home with me and my brother, and that doesn't even include the inheritance my grandfather left us. Eric's dad, on the other hand, worked seventy hour weeks as the general manager of a barbecue joint that was constantly teetering on the brink of collapse, while his mother was a middle school science teacher. His parents worked incredibly hard to maintain the same standard of living that, from my perspective, my dad provided seemingly without effort.

I was enrolled in private school from kindergarten until the fourth grade. I only went to the public Stewart Elementary School when my mom decided the private school I was at, fulled of ninety children belonging to the town's wealthiest residents, was not "preparing me for reality." I'm pretty sure the breaking point was the day she told me to clean my room, and I told her to hire someone. Funny thing is, we already had a housekeeper.

On the first day of fifth grade, I was in Mrs. Shelby's class at Stewart Elementary. Sitting diagonally from me was a boy with freckles, buck teeth, and thick-rimmed glasses that he absolutely could not have thought looked in any way fashionably acceptable. His black and red Godzilla t-shirt was faded and he was wearing denim cargo shorts. I remember walking into the classroom and sitting down at about ten minutes to 8:00. This kid, who I immediately assumed was from one of the poorer families in town, shot me a grin that desperately needed orthodontic work. I don't remember my exact reaction to his gesture of good will, but I'm pretty sure I just frowned.

"I'm Eric," he said, his smile refusing to fade even when I refused to smile back at him. He held his hand out and I shook it. It was probably the worst handshake in the history of greetings, two ten-year-old boys, one enthusiastic and one less so, simply doing what they had seen their fathers do dozens of times.

"Drew," I responded. I remember that being the first time I introduced myself as that during the short year and a half I attempted to shorten the name my mother gave me.

"Are you new?" Eric asked, despite my best efforts to telepathically prevent him from opening his mouth.

"Yeah," I said, then, "no. Sort of. I used to go to Heritage."

"Oh, that's cool, I guess. I know a few people that go there." He didn't, he later admitted. He told me several years later, when we were reflecting back on the day we met, that he had taken note of my brand new school clothes and, combined with the fact that I was a former private school prick, just wanted me to think that he knew someone in the same social standing as my family.

"Yeah," I said, turning away from him in an attempt to end the conversation. My attention had been grabbed by a girl sitting to my right, a redheaded girl who had obviously done some growing up. I tried to get her attention, but Eric had slid his chair back from his desk and was uncomfortably close to me on my right side, between me and the redhead.

"So where do you live?" he asked, completely oblivious to my contempt-filled glare that I half-hoped would burn a hole in his head so I could continue staring at the present object of my affection.

"Briar street," I shot at him as I slumped back in my chair. I had given up on trying to get the girl's attention and had decided to do my best to get this kid out of my line of sight.

"Me too!" he shouted. The Mrs. Shelby looked up and gave us a look that clearly said shut up, but Eric either didn't see or didn't care. "I've lived there my whole life, 26 Briar Street."

When he said that, I suddenly realized who this kid was. My house was at 49 Briar Street, seven houses down on the opposite side of the road. I had driven past his house every day going to school, the house that'd had the same Ford Explorer and Honda Accord—both obviously driven many more miles than all of my family's vehicles combined—sitting in the driveway for as long as I could remember. I couldn't actually recall ever seeing anyone in the front yard, or leaving the house, or coming home. The cars were either there, or they weren't.

I also realized who his family was. Despite their lack of financial success, the Rawlings family was actually fairly well-known in town. Eric's dad, Thomas, was the manager of one of the five non-fast food restaurants in town, Caroline's, a barbecue place that was, while popular, barely keeping its doors open. His mom Tina was a seventh-grade science teacher at Bethel Hill Middle School and had won state Teacher of the Year three times.

I was surprised to find out that I had lived on the same street as the Rawlings family my entire life. But I wasn't about to let Eric know that.

"That's cool," I said, turning away from him. He seemed to sort of get the message and with a little sigh scooted to the right, but not, as I'd hoped, back to his desk.

"So why aren't you at Heritage anymore?" he asked as he picked at a small hole in his shorts, which I estimated to be about as old as he was.

"Mom just wanted me in public school, I guess. I don't really know."

"What does your mom do?"

"She stays at home with me and my brother."

"Really? That's cool. What about your dad?"

"He's a doctor. Dr. Gilmer, he's..."

"No way!" he exclaimed, once again drawing Mrs. Shelby's attention. She frowned at us and shook her head, but Eric again ignored her. "He's my doctor."

"He's the doctor for a lot of people." Everyone in the school, to be exact. My vain, to that point private school-educated self and all my ego had expected Eric to be in awe in my family history, but I was disappointed.

At that point Mrs. Shelby stood up and walked to the front of the classroom. She was an attractive woman in her early thirties which, in a room full of boys learning for the first time what sort of damage hormones could wreak on their lives, would result in result in several weird moments. But, as we would learn throughout the school year, she was a very patient woman, but also one who would gently teach a bunch of ten and eleven year old boys the definition of the word rejection. One boy was going to learn that lesson very quickly.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," she said softly as she wrote her name on the white board. "My name is Mrs. Shelby, and I'm very excited to have you all in my class this year." I don't remember her generic first day speech beyond that, because I was suddenly reminded of the existence of my redhead next to me. She had dropped her pencil and it had rolled up against my shoe. I picked it up and handed it to her, trying my best to muster and flirty-but-friendly smile. When her eyes caught mine, they shifted a little and she half-frowned, half-grinned, but in my testosterone daze I thought it was the most adorable thing I'd ever seen.

I shifted my gaze to my desktop and turned back toward the front of the room. I was suddenly overcome with a sense of awkwardness, which I thought was because of my ocular encounter with the redhead, but when I looked up realized it was because Eric was up in his chair waving his arm like it was possessed. As far as I could remember from my limited attention paid to Mrs. Shelby, she hadn't asked any questions.

"Yes, Eric?" she asked, pointing at the frantic ten year old. It took me a second to understand how she already knew his name, but then I realized that because of his mom, probably every public school teacher in Bethel county knew him. I felt sorry for them.

"How are you today, Mrs. Shelby?" he asked that stupid crooked grin on his face. Mrs. Shelby seemed a little thrown off.

"I'm... I'm good," she stammered. "Did you have any other questions?"

"No ma'am."

She didn't respond, but continued on with her speech. Eric was in his own little world as he stared at her, paying absolutely zero attention to the looks of scorn being tossed in his direction from many of his classmates, including myself. As I glared at him, I was formulating a plan in my head that, when I think about it today, makes my skin crawl with disgust at myself. I was at a new school full of kids that I needed to impress. I intended to be the king of Stewart Elementary School by Christmas, and I needed a stepping stone. Eric Rawlings was going to be that stepping stone, but for much longer than five months.