I missed Wes. It seemed like we hadn't talked in a while. I barely ever had the chance to see him or hang out with him since he and Jane became exclusive. And when I felt like I really needed someone to talk to, it seemed like he was always busy with Jane, or track and field practice.
I wasn't jealous of their relationship. That wasn't the case at all. I just missed my best friend and spending time with him.
With everything that had been happening to me over the week, I just wanted to unwind and talk to my him about it. Unfortunately, his replies to my texts had become far apart and short. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know who to turn to.
"A penny for your thoughts?"
I whipped my head around from staring off into space to lock eyes with Shane. "W-what are you doing here?" I asked him, taken by surprise.
"You know what?" He said as he grabbed the seat next to me on the wooden square table and sat himself down. "I have no idea. I think I came to check out a book for some project but I don't even remember the name of it."
"Oh." I said looking back down at the book I meant to be reading before my thoughts drifted off.
"What are you doing here?" Shane asked me with a glint of curiosity in his eyes, and as if he knew that I hated the library. "Shouldn't you be in the cafeteria eating lunch?"
I shrugged, not really wanting to get into the details. "Just not hungry, I guess."
"Really," He said as if he didn't believe me. "Guess you haven't been that hungry for the past three days either."
I had hoped no one had noticed my absence from the cafeteria during the week, but obviously I was wrong. There were many people in there and with that, too many stares. "Yeah, I've just been having a big breakfast lately." I lied to Shane, pretending to be getting back into my book.
Before I could grasp what was happening, my book was snatched away from my hands and I was forced to stare at Shane with a scowl on my face. "What are you doing?"
"Why are you hiding in here, Natalie?"
"I'm not hiding." I denied, before letting out a sigh. "I just want to be alone."
"If that's a hint for me to get lost, I didn't catch it." He said with a bland tone. "Not until you tell me what's wrong."
I looked away, not wanting to involve him in my problems. Why would he care anyway? He barely even knew me. Why did he want to know? "Nothing's wrong."
There was a pause.
"Is that why you're crying right now?"
I looked at him before bringing my fingers against my face and felt that my cheeks were wet. I shook my head and wiped them away, not understanding what was going on with me and why I was acting so emotional. "I just had something in my eyes."
He shook his head, aware that I wasn't being truthful. The sniffles must have given me away anyway. "Natalie, if you don't want talk to me, that's fine. Maybe...maybe you should talk to Alex-,"
I quickly shook my head. "No."
"People have been saying things, Shane. They're saying things about me." I finally confessed, although I was already positive that he knew.
"What kind of things?"
"I..." I shook my head again, willing the tears in my eyes to stay back. I never cried at school. It wasn't like me. I was good at holding myself together. Why was I acting weak all of a sudden? "I didn't want any of this." I looked at him, wanting him to understand. "I can't do this."
"Are you saying you don't want to dance?"
"No...I do, but why does it have to be this way? How can they say...those things, they don't even know me!"
"You're right, they don't. So, don't let them upset you."
"I know, but I'm not even trying to...seduce Alex or anything like that, and I'm not a slut-,"
"I believe you."
At first, it was just assumptions. People would come to me and ask if Alex and I were a couple. I would tell them that we weren't and that we were just friends. Unfortunately, not everyone took my words and believed that was the case, especially Kristi, Kira's friend. I've never been told to stay away from someone or else I would regret it. Kristi had been the first but she hadn't been the last. The rumors that continued were obviously started by her, particularly after the dance try outs.
I had completely forgotten who the dance team consisted of. It slipped my mind, that was, until I showed up for auditions. It was no secret that Yvette was president but I didn't know that Jane was the vice-president. Kira was a member as well and Kristi just happened to be treasurer. Nadia, Mitch's girlfriend was the secretary. They were all surprised to see me there but Kira was the most excited at seeing me there.
They were even more astonished after they saw what I could do, how I could dance. Yvette was the one who brought me the news about the team. I wasn't sure whether to consider it good news or not. It was after the audition process that she came up to me in the locker rooms as I tied my shoes.
"Are you dating Alex?" She bluntly asked me.
"No." I told her, looking up at her face.
"Are you planning to?" She raised an eyebrow.
I frowned but answered anyway. "No."
"Good," She said before smirking at me. "You don't stand a chance anyway." I just gaped at her.
"Oh, by the way, you made the team. Congrats." She then smiled before sashaying away.
I knew there was a reason I didn't fully like or trust her.
At least Kira was happy that I made it and kept gushing about how exciting it was to be on the same dance team. Her best friend Kristi, however, didn't see eye to eye. She made sure no one was around before she cornered me one day after practice. "You should know that making the team doesn't change anything." She said to me.
"Excuse me?" I was confused and hoped she would explain herself.
"Alex," She stated plainly. "Everyone knows who he's going to end up with and it's not you."
I frowned, not understanding why everyone was suddenly threatened by me just because Alex Saunders had become my friend. "I'm assuming you're talking about yourself." It was half a statement and half a question.
She smirked. "That's right. So, it would be best for you to stay away from him."
"He's just a friend."
"Oh, sure he is. First, it was Christian Prince, and now Alex Saunders?" She chuckled, as she shook her head. "Can you be any more desperate?"
I opened my mouth to say something but nothing came out. I was shocked.
"If you don't want the whole school to know what a slut you are and how desperate you're trying to get on top of the social ladder, you'd listen to me and stay away from him." She then smiled before walking away, leaving me there to wonder how she knew about me and Chris.
It didn't take long to figure it out how. I was pretty sure Yvette and Jane knew. Either one of them had told her or more people from junior high remembered about us. I was proven positive later that week as I started to overhear conversations in the hallway from random people as they pointed at me.
"Did you know that she went out with Christian Prince?"
"Natalie Rogers? No way!"
"So, she's the new Yvette?
"New? More like old Yvette, didn't you hear? She had Prince before Yvette. Better yet, before anyone else."
"No wonder she and Alex are an item now."
"Saunders wants his throne back, and it's obvious he wants Natalie by his side."
"Good, I've never liked Yvette anyway, especially after what she did to Alex."
"Well, if you ask me. They're all sluts, Yvette, Jane, and even Natalie here. She's not fooling anyone with her innocent looks." "I wonder what Johnny has to say about all of this."
The talks continued on. All week. I would get stared at and whispered about and some girls would even glare at me. Guys I never met would suddenly pay attention to me. It was getting to the point where I didn't feel comfortable in the halls by myself. The one I did not understand at all was the mention of a guy named Johnny. Who was he? I knew we had some Johnnies around in school but no one jumped in mind when that name was brought up.
I didn't want that kind of attention. Everyone suddenly knew who I was and about my past. But what I hated the most was to be called something I was not. I had never spread my legs for anyone so slut was not even close to describing me. The only thing I ever did with the opposite sex was kiss and it had only been with Chris.
Now all of a sudden everyone assumed that I was sleeping my way to the top of the social ladder. They were assuming that somehow Alex and I wanted to get back at Yvette and Chris and planned to take over their statuses, which was a bunch of bull. I did not care about that kind of stuff. It was not me. I knew where I did not belong, and I was starting to feel like deciding to try out was the worst decision I had made in a while.
"Why do you believe me?" I asked Shane, holding his gaze back in the library. "You don't even know me."
"I believe you because it's been a while since I'm seen my best friend genuinely smile so much, Natalie...and believe it or not that's because of you."
"We're just friends, Shane." Even though I spoke those words, I wasn't sure if it was the truth. Lately, Alex had been a little closed off with me. I knew he heard about the rumors, but he was acting strange with me, almost as if he was avoiding me. I wasn't sure why.
Shane nodded, with a smile on his lips. "I know. He needs a friend like you. Besides, Alex doesn't care about the rumors."
"And I'm not even...queen material or whatever." I mumbled, feeling my cheeks getting flushed.
"Good thing he's not looking for a queen then."
I just looked at him with a frown, still in awe that he was being nice to me and understanding of the entire situation. He winked, before getting up from the seat. "Come on, I can hear your stomach growling. Let's go get some lunch."
I had a feeling that I could trust him. I wasn't completely exactly sure what he was saying about Alex, but I think I understood a bit. So, I nodded and followed as he led us toward the cafeteria.
I didn't think I would be this nervous. I was used to this. I did this all of the time...or at least used to. Even though it had been over year since I've been on the team, I had never gotten nervous before a game before, not since elementary school when I first started playing.
So the nervousness I was feeling as the team huddled around coach was anew to me. It must have been the crowd.
I took a peek at the bleachers and felt my pulse quickened even more.
Yeah, it must have been the crowd. It was our first home game of the season. The gym was packed, and the excitement was deafening. It seemed like the entire school was there, including faculty members and staff.
It wasn't hard to spot Corina in the midst of the crowd, and I couldn't help but smile when my eyes landed on her. She was holding a sign that had my name and shirt number on it, announcing to everyone that I was her brother.
Dean, Denise and Martin were also there, and right by them was David, Maureen and Vanessa. I looked down at the first row of the bleachers and my eyes caught Natalie's for a brief second.
It took Shane, who had walked up to me and smacked me upside the head the day before, to get me to see the error that I had committed. I had been ready to retaliate and smack him back, when he said something that stopped me.
"I told you not to fuck it up, Saunders." He hissed at me. "Now go and talk to her and fix this shit."
I knew immediately what, and who he was talking about. I knew it was wrong, and I hated to admit it but I had been avoiding Rogers for the past couple of days. In my defense, I thought staying away from her would stop some of these rumors that had spread to keep circulating, and get people to leave her alone. It didn't.
She had skipped lunch in the cafeteria for a few days, and every time I saw her, there was a look of sadness in her face. I had caught up to her after school by her locker, right before practice.
She had looked up at me with a look of surprise. "Hey,"
"You alright?" There was still a small look of melancholy in her eyes and I hoped to God it wasn't because of me.
She nodded, but there was a hesitant look on her face. "Are you mad at me?"
I frowned, wondering where that was coming from. "What? No, why would I be?"
"You know, because of the rumors..." There was a look of embarrassment on her face as she explained. "People think you and I are together and you've been...I don't know, distant I guess."
Oh, that. Of course, she had noticed. I pretty much ignored her, hoping things would calm down but Hearst was right. What I needed, and should have done was talk to her days ago.
"I've just been busy with practice and all," I scratched the back of my head, not even able to bring myself to apologize directly.
"I understand." She nodded, turning back to her locker and avoiding my gaze. Fuck.
Damn, I'm bad at this shit.
I sighed. "And the rumors...let them think what they want to think. I really don't give a shit. We're friends, right?"
"Yeah," She agreed softly, but still wouldn't meet my eyes.
"So, fuck the rumors, Rogers." I stated as my hand rose up and gently grabbed her chin, turning her face to me, and locking our eyes together. "You and I are cool."
I noticed the color creep up on her cheeks, and she stared at me in shock, her mouth lightly open. I slowly let my hand drop, and smiled.
She smiled back a second later, that sadness in her eyes suddenly gone. Satisfied, I told her I would see her later, before making my way to practice.
Back to the current game on the court, I gave her another smile and she instantly smiled back, waving a bit. I suddenly felt like I had stopped breathing.
"Saunders, are you listening?"
I turned my head toward coach, as the rest of my teammates all unexpectedly looked at me. "Yes, Coach."
"Good, keep your head in the game, all of you! Now, let's show them what we got this season and win this."
Everyone nodded and cheered, slapping hands and tapping each other on the shoulder. I looked around the circle again, my eyes landing on each individual starter. The substitutes, and the rest of the team were around us. Hearst was next to me, Grant followed and then Kyle, and on the other side of me was none other than our captain himself, Prince.
The good thing was, we had all played together before and we knew each other's abilities and strength. We knew how to work as a team. I was fine with Prince being point guard; shooting guard was fine with me. I was good at it, probably better than the former.
As the starting lineup was called, the crowd started to quiet down and I knew all differences and conflicts between the team members were put on hold. On the court, we were a team and we would play like one. And as soon as the whistle blew, that was exactly how we played.
By the time halftime came around, it was getting pretty clear what the result would be, but we knew better. The game could always turn around, and our strategy for second half was to play more defensively than the first, even though we were in the lead.
Since we were in the locker room, we didn't get to see the halftime performance from the dance team. I didn't get to see Natalie dance, but hearing the music and by the cheers coming from the crowd I was sure the group had done a good job. Yvette was president after all, and she knew how to put on a show.
I made sure to find Natalie once we jogged back out inside the gym. She was smiling, and glowing as she chatted with some of her team members. Her eyes however turned just in time to see as I ran past her, slightly nodding at her and positive that she had loved every second of dancing on that court.
The second half was over before I knew it, as I shot the last three points just as fourth quarter came to an end. It easily went in, raising our lead to 85-62.
The cheering and congratulations soon followed after. It seemed like everyone was down on the court, and this was only our first game. I couldn't help but smile when my favorite person in the world ran up to me, and wrapped her tiny arms around my neck while I scooped her off the ground.
"I'm so proud of you, Alexander! You were amazing!" Her voice and her words meant so much more to me than all the cheers and pats on the back.
"Thanks, Cori. If you weren't here, I probably wouldn't play so well." I told her. It was the truth. She had no idea what kind of motivation she gave me.
"Sure, you would." She said her fingers pressed against my chest. "I will always be in there...like mom and dad." She then grinned at me, not realizing how significant her words really were. I grinned back, and laid a kiss on her temple, making her giggle.
My brothers and Denise all reached us a second later, and wished their congratulations. We stood there in a circle, and I couldn't help but smile as I listened to them gush about how amazingly the team played and how easy it was for us to win. Hearst and Kira also joined in on the conversation along with Wale, Mitch and Nadia.
Around me, I could see my other teammates with their loved ones. Prince had his arm around Yvette and his father, Christian Prince Sr. and her parents' right by them. I could see Ellis and Grant standing with Ellis' family. I didn't expect Grant's parents to be there and by the look on his face, neither did he. I spotted Jane and Wes, not too far from Maureen, David and Vanessa. They were all grinning and staring at Natalie who I noticed couldn't stop grinning back. She was talking with lots of hand movements, and it seemed like Maureen had tears in her eyes. Vanessa was by her sister's side, one arm around her.
"Well, aren't you going to ask?"
I looked at Corina, who was still in my arms and frowned. "Ask what?"
She nodded her tiny head toward the direction I was just staring at. "How Natalie did!"
"Well, how did she do?"
"She was the best!"
"What, better than me?" Kira who overheard asked. She was usually Corina's favorite.
"Sorry, Kira, you're my second favorite now."
"Aw man," Kara whined, though it was obvious she was just playing and probably didn't really care. "That's OK. Natalie is a lot better though."
"Oh, yeah, I never would have known she could dance," Denise added, directing a slight smirk in my direction. "And so well. She did amazing."
"Well, let's go tell her, Alexander!" Corina pushed.
My brothers and the guys all looked at me with knowing looks, and Martin winked. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes as I set Corina back on the ground and took her hand in mine. She started leading me to where Natalie and her family were standing.
Vanessa was the first to notice us, and she signaled Natalie who then looked toward us and decided to meet us halfway with her sister still by her side.
"Natalie, you were so great!" Corina didn't hesitate to let her know as she hugged her. Natalie smiled, as she embraced her back. "Thanks, Corina."
"She was the best," Vanessa added. "She taught me everything I know about dance."
"You dance too?" Corina exclaimed staring at Vanessa incredulously, who gave a nod to her question. "I've always wanted to dance."
"Really? You should come to my dance classes. We have recitals all the time and my sister can help you out too. She knows a lot..."
I tuned the two little girls out, getting the impression that they were probably going to be best friends by the end of the night, before looking back up at Natalie. Her eyes timidly met mine. She was still in her dance outfit, silver sequined shorts with a matching top that stopped midriff.
I cleared my throat. "You did well."
"You didn't even see me, Alex."
"I didn't have to." I told her. "I just know."
"How?" She tilted her head to the side.
"Because...you're pretty much glowing right now. And you look amazing." I let my eyes wander down her form for a second before bring them back to her eyes.
I wasn't surprised at the blush that crept up her face. "Oh, um, thanks."
I slightly chuckled. "You're welcome."
We then spent about a few seconds just staring at each other, not exactly sure why or how I was feeling in that moment. I didn't care about the rumors or anything else at that point. I just wanted to see that smile on her face as the happiness poured out of her pores. What I failed to notice was everyone else' gaze was on us.
I snapped out of it and turned around just in time to see Kira wrap her arms around her brother for a hug. I wasn't the only one. I could already hear the whispers and new rumors going around. But that was Delano for you. He had that air about him, the type that demanded attention and he made sure that he got it.
I looked over at Natalie, suddenly remembering the conversation I had with Prince a week before the game.
Ask Delano. He always has all the answers.
It still didn't make sense to me but I wanted to find out what he was talking about. "Do you know him?" I asked Natalie.
She shook her head, her eyes still on Delano. "No, I've only seen him once. Who is he?" She looked at me.
I looked over a Johnny, just as his eyes met mine across the court and Prince's words rang in my head again.
I'm not the only one he had a leash on.
"Johnny Delano," I told her. "He's the guy who saved my life."