Alex and I were inside his car again, as he drove me home. We hadn't said anything to each other since leaving the restaurant and parting ways with Rich and Jane. Something had happened between the four of us back there. Maybe we finally understood why each of us behaved the way we did; why we were the people that we were. I was still processing everybody's tale, trying to make sense of them. It seemed like Alex had shut down a little bit as we left. He hadn't looked at me nor said a word to me after his revelation. I wasn't sure how to act either, so I just allowed the silence to lull over us as he drove. After some time, the silence between us was becoming uncomfortable.
"Do you want to go home?" Alex suddenly piped up.
I looked at him. "What?"
He glanced at the clock on his dashboard. "It's only 9."
Was that a way of asking me out again? Or was I reading too much into it?
"Um, what did you have in mind?" I asked him.
"Well, I could really go for a bacon cheeseburger right now," he returned.
I gaped at him. "A cheeseburger?"
A slight smile was tugging on the corner of his lips. He eyed me sideways. "Don't get me wrong, Rogers. The food at the restaurant was really good but...I guess it just wasn't all that filling."
I knew what he meant. I tried holding in the laughter that was bubbling inside of me, but I couldn't. A small laugh escaped my lips.
I didn't fail to see the small smile plastered on his face as well. He glanced at me once more. "So?"
"Sure, a cheeseburger would be nice...I think." I was still laughing. It was just so...random, especially after the serious conversation we were just a part of.
He drove up to a well-known local diner a few blocks away, and we got out and found a table. The brightly colored joint seemed to clash with our evening wear. The stares plastered to several faces were evident, but I didn't let it bother me. It was obvious that Alex couldn't care less. The waitress came and took our orders as soon as we got comfortable, and we sat there for a while, quietly sipping on our cups of water.
All of a sudden, nervous tingles were spreading through me. Earlier, the banter had been easier with the four of us. Now, it was just Alex and me, and I was hyper-aware of that fact. Even though the setting was less formal, it did nothing to quell my apprehension. Especially with the way Saunders was currently looking at me.
"You used to dance," he stated, his eyes studying me curiously.
I nodded slightly, looking away even though I had no reason to be embarrassed about it. I just never talked about why I stopped dancing. Of course, only Wes and my family knew what had happened.
"What kind of dance?"
I looked back at him, surprised by his interest. "A little bit of everything. Mostly contemporary, jazz and pointe."
"I never would have imagined..." he cut himself off.
I shrugged to let him know that I wasn't offended. "A lot of people wouldn't."
"Corina loves to dance, too. She always makes me watch videos with her."
I smiled, imagining him and Corina gathered in front of a computer screen, watching videos on YouTube. It was too sweet for words. The relationship he had with his little sister...I could tell it was very important to him and he cherished it.
"Why didn't you continue dancing?" He suddenly asked me after a moment. I'd expected that question ever since I brought it up. It was only a matter of time. "I mean, you said you got sick, but...it seems like you got better."
"I am better, but I don't know," I shrugged, staring down at the bottle of ketchup, and the salt and pepper on the table. "Things just changed."
"Like meeting your mother?"
I looked up and met Alex's gaze. He looked curious and interested. He was a smart guy. Based on the facts that we already knew about each other; it wasn't hard for him to put two and two together.
"And Prince?" He continued.
Again, I just nodded, wondering how he was able to piece it all together so fast. He must have figured out that the time period I dated Chris coincided with the events going on in my life at the time.
"He dumped you, didn't he?" He asked.
I never really wanted to believe that had Chris dumped me. I never put it in that context and chose to believe that we had decided to break up. However, in the back of my mind, I knew the truth. Alex speaking the fact aloud just reaffirmed my thoughts and I couldn't lie to myself anymore.
Alex didn't wait for me to answer and continued. "That must have been about the time you got sick, and then you met your mother."
"She didn't want to meet me," I told him, something I had never told anyone else except for Wes. "My kidneys were failing. I would have needed dialysis for life, but Maureen and David wanted to try a kidney transplant. You know how long it takes to find a compatible donor?"
It was a rhetorical question. Alex didn't respond and continued to regard me expectantly, so I continued. "Years. But I didn't have years and I didn't have any other family...except her—someone who was a suitable match. Maureen and David did everything to track her down. She agreed to come for the tests, and we found out that she was a true match.
"Imagine meeting your mother because she was your last hope, and then having her tell you that this was the last thing that she would ever sacrifice for you," I chuckled even though there was no humor my words. I resented her. Despite receiving the kidney from her, I still resented her. Because even after she had told me straight up that she didn't care about me, and that giving me up was the best thing she ever did, I still wondered about her. I still thought about her.
Why? Why wasn't I good enough? What had I done wrong? Why couldn't we at least stay in contact? It hurt so much. Thinking about it—talking about it…it just hurt.
I gave Alex a dry smile, shrugging in the process. "Well, at least I survived. I'm just stuck taking immunosuppressants for the rest of my life. But better than the alternative, right?"
He just nodded a bit, his face contemplative. A silence ensued.
"Looks like we both had a rough past," I said softly. "You with your parents…"
He nodded but didn't add anything, so I continued. I knew that it was something he didn't talk about much either. The regret in his eyes…the way he acted...it was all starting to make sense to me. The burden he must carry. "Alex…" I paused before continuing, "You know it's not your fault, right?"
"They loved to see me play. They were so proud that I made the varsity team and they made it to all my games. That day, Dean was at school, Martin was working, and Corina had a babysitter. We were on our way to my game. I was only 14 then, and I couldn't drive myself. We were already running late, and I was rushing them. I needed to get there fast. It was raining badly. You could hardly see the roads and next thing I knew, I was lying in a hospital bed, my brothers telling me that my parents didn't make it."
Something tightened in my chest as the emotions played across his face. He looked remorseful and sad while retelling the details. I felt for him.
"That's why I stopped playing," he looked down, shaking his head. "Losing them that way...It just didn't feel the same anymore. Nothing felt the same, especially after—"
"Corina," I guessed. "She's sick, isn't she?"
He nodded, his features still brimming with sadness. "It's a type of congenital immune system disorder. There's really no cure for it right now. Just experimental drugs and treatments. She tends to get sick easily."
"But she's so young," my voice cracked at the end of the phrase. How could he...how did they go through all of this and still be okay? Was he okay?
He looked up; a sudden and slight smile crossed his face. Now I was having a hard time believing it was genuine. "She's strong; and I know she'll make it."
I wasn't sure what to say. I admired the faith he had. My head lifted in a small nod, swallowing the lump in my throat. There was a moment of silence again as I tried to control my bursting emotions. His story, my own, even Jane and Rich…it was all just too much. It was just so...heavy. I felt like if I didn't cry or scream, I would suffocate.
"Bet you didn't expect all of this when you got out of bed this morning," he remarked suddenly.
I laughed at his statement, but a few tears managed to trail down my face.
Alex just stared at me as I wiped them away, sniffling a little and ruining my makeup. He unrolled the napkin wrapped around his silverware and handed it to me.
"Thanks," I gratefully took it, dabbing my eyes. "I'm sorry...it's just—"
"I know," he quietly spoke. And I knew he understood.
I quickly tried to get myself under control, but everything was still too fresh for me to just...get over.
"I want to make a deal with you, Rogers," he said after another moment.
I raised my eyebrows, curious to know what he had to say this time.
"Shit happens. That's life. It goes on," he said as if it was the most natural thing in the world. "So, we should too."
"How?" I frowned.
"Well, seeing as I'm going to play again, I think you have to start dancing again, too," he said. "You should try out for the dance team."
I was surprised, but I took a minute to consider his suggestion. After so long, could I start dancing again? I loved dancing; it had always been my passion. Vanessa had been begging me to start again. But at this point, I just didn't think I could be good again.
"What do you have to lose?" Alex added.
I shook my head, unable to convince myself that I should. I got so weak...I couldn't even finish a routine before running out of breath...
"You don't have to decide right now, but at least think about it," he told me. This time I nodded and promised him that I would.
It was no surprise when Natalie approached me on Monday morning and agreed to the deal I proposed. I knew she would accept even though she tried to act like dancing wasn't a part of her anymore. I could tell how much she loved it just by looking at her. A longing would cross her face when she talked about it. I guess the same passion she had for dance was just like the one I had for the game.
"It doesn't mean I'll make it," she said nervously. "The other girls on the team are all really good."
I smirked, slamming my locker shut. "You will."
"How do you know? You've never even seen me dance," she pointed out.
I shrugged, facing her with my book bag over my shoulder. "I just have a feeling."
"Well, I'm not holding my breath."
"Holding your breath for what?" Hearst suddenly appeared behind her and asked. Kira, as always, was hanging onto his arm. Obviously, they had become exclusive since Delano's approval.
Kira wrapped her arms around Natalie in a hug before she had the chance to answer Hearst.
"How was your weekend? I heard Alex took you out," Kira intoned, before looking at me knowingly.
I shot my best friend a look for never being able to shut his mouth. Hearst just grinned, foolishly.
"Oh, it was just dinner that we won for doing a project." Natalie shrugged it off, avoiding my gaze.
Hearst stared at her, still with a mug look on his face, before looking at me with an eyebrow raised. "How did this 'dinner' go, anyway?" He crossed his arms as if he was an interrogator investigating a case.
"Fucking fantastic. Can we go before the bell rings?" I quickly said, starting to walk toward my first class.
The three of them followed suit, Kira insisting that Natalie tell her about the "date". I just rolled my eyes and tried not to get mad.
It was not a date.
"So, it was a date," Hearst stated. He was walking next to me while the girls were a few feet behind us, quietly gossiping. Well, Kira kept yapping and Natalie was just listening. I mumbled, "Whatever."
It wasn't a date. We didn't even like each other like that. Sure, things were changing between us, especially after everything we knew about each other. But we were just becoming friends. What was wrong with that?
"I like her, Saunders. So does Kira, the guys, and the rest of your family. She's nice; so, don't hurt her."
I looked at her Hearst incredulously. "Are you seriously threatening me right now?"
He patted me on the back, a slight smile on his face. "Of course not, just a small piece of advice from a friend. Don't fuck it up."
"Right, 'cause you're the expert now."
"No, but I can see she's starting to like you. It's only a matter of time before she falls for you...and even though you're going to deny it, I know you and there's something there. So, let it happen."
I clenched my jaw. "Nothing's going to happen."
"Right," Hearst continued to smile knowingly.
Nothing was going to happen. It didn't matter what I felt. Heck, I didn't feel a thing. We barely even knew each other. Sure, hanging out with her at the diner was cool, even after her tear fest, but that's all if was; just hanging out. It just seemed that lately she was everywhere I turned and... well, people might start getting ideas if that kept up. Maybe that was a problem. I didn't want people to get ideas and for rumors to spread. If I hung out with her too much, people would start to talk.
Maybe it was time that I backed off a bit.
I was too fucking late.
It seemed like everyone had heard that Rogers and I had become friends. However, since we were in high school, rumors went around that it was more than just friendship. Someone had seen us together at the diner. I wasn't surprised when the guys questioned me about it, not just at lunch, but at practice as well.
I told them all to shut up and mind their own business. It was annoying.
"Hey, I know most of the time I can't shut up, but this time it wasn't me," Hearst insists as we returned to the dressing room after practice to change.
"That would be a first," Kyle threw in as he passed by us.
"I don't get why everyone's so interested, anyway. I'm not fucking dating her."
Hearst just smirked, "Might as well be."
I gave him a look.
He holds his hands up in surrender. "Just saying. And as for why everyone's so interested… Come on, man, you're Alex-fucking-Saunders. Your name is like gold around here."
I frowned, grabbing my clothes from the locker before turning to face Hearst again. "I thought your captain was the golden boy here." I jerked my head toward the aisle as Prince walked by, shooting us a weird look.
"Well, he was, and then you came along. Everyone still asks why you stopped playing freshmen year, and now that you're getting back on track, the curiosity just got bumped up a notch."
"Right, the public wants to know all your moves. What you're up to...Who you're fucking..."
I threw my towel at Kyle, who just crunched over laughing. My friends were assholes.
I let out a sigh, knowing that what they were both saying was right. I mumbled, "I guess."
Freshman year, I took Prince's spot. I had the spotlight. I was the popular guy. I had it all. But after what happened with the accident, I lost it all. I stopped coming to school for months and I had to quit the team. Prince just did a good job of picking himself back up and taking my ex-girlfriend in the process.
"Since you're back on the market, girls want to know who your new girl is going to be. By the looks of it, it seems like you picked Natalie."
"I didn't fucking pick her," I told him. "And I'm not looking for a new—ah, never mind." I shook my head as I got done dressing and started walking toward the exit with my bag over my shoulder. I knew what was going on, but I didn't understand it. I knew it was going to happen, but I don't think I wanted it. The attention, the gossip, the popularity…it was all in the past for me. I didn't care for it anymore.
Hearst and Kyle followed soon after. "People are going to talk no matter what, Saunders. But I think you got the easy end of the bargain."
I looked over at both of them. "What the hell are you talking about now?"
Kyle just shrugged, looking away. I frowned at the serious and thoughtful look on Hearst's face. "I mean, you've gone through this experience before, but Natalie...wonder how she's going to take it."
"You're talking like she and I are a couple or something, Hearst. Don't make me repeat myself again."
"Couple, friends…It doesn't fucking matter, Alex," he told me, looking slightly frustrated. "Look, I got to go meet up with Kira, but you seriously should talk to her, make sure she's okay. She probably had a rough day."
Before I had the chance to ask Hearst more about it, he was jogging toward his car.
"Kyle?" I asked my other friend.
"Well, I might have heard from Nadia that some of the girls in our class aren't really...taking the news well."
"Come on, Alex. You don't talk or even look at another girl since Yvette, and then all of a sudden, you and Natalie are best buds. It's not sitting well with all the other girls you've blown off."
I scowled, frustrated at what I was hearing. Were they fucking serious?
"I got to go, man," Kyle gave me a pat on my shoulder. "But Hearst is right for once. I would seriously talk to her about it if I were you."
I nodded and he retreated in the direction of his car. Maybe they were right. Even if the rumors weren't true, I should probably still check up on her. I wasn't the only one this affected. I walked toward my own car, only to be stopped by none other than Christian Prince himself.
"Saunders," he stood in front of me.
"Captain," I curtly nodded at him.
"You got a minute?"
I shrugged, "Sure."
Several seconds passed before he finally opened his mouth. He blurted, "Do you like her?"
I blinked. "What?"
I didn't know whether to laugh or get mad. At this point, I didn't give a fuck anymore. "No offense, Prince, but you should be the last person asking me about her. You know you fucked her up, right?"
He just nodded, "I know."
"Do you?" I cocked an eyebrow.
We had a staring contest until he broke it and glanced down at his shoes. When he looked back up, I just shook my head.
"Look, I'm not proud of what I did—"
I interrupted him. "You shouldn't be. You dumped her when she needed you the most. "
"She didn't deserve it," he ignored me and continued anyway. "But I tried to fix it. After I found out she got sick, I went to see her."
I stared at him for a while. "Why are you telling me this?"
"So you won't make the same mistake I did."
"I would never...do that." I would never abandon a friend who needed me.
He scoffed. "That's what I told myself."
"So why didn't you fix it?" I insisted.
"Should have fucking tried harder." I didn't know why he was pissing me off so much, but I was holding myself back from punching him across the face.
He nodded, "I should have."
I sighed, unsure if he was being honest or not. All he had to do was apologize. How much harder could he have tried? I asked, "Why didn't you?"
"Ask Delano," he told me. "He always has all the answers."
"Johnny?" I repeated. What could he possibly have to do with Natalie?
"I'm not the only one he has a leash on."
What was it with everyone sounding ambiguous? Before I even got the chance to further question Prince, he was already walking away. I stopped myself from going after him and demanding he explain himself better. I was just fed up with all the information swimming in my head.
Containing a frustrated growl, I jumped inside my car and drove off.