Chapter 1

I'm going to puke. The chandeliers above my head are twirling, and the smiling faces around me are beginning to blur. Their mouths are moving animatedly, but their words are meshing together.

How was your internship at the Capital One Arena?

Are you still teaching lessons at the rec center?

Are you excited about your position as student body President?

When are you going to start applying for college? You're going to apply to Ivy Leagues, right?

When are you going to be named official MVP of the basketball team? You're the only reason they've been making it to the champions!

What happened to that lovely girl you were seeing over the summer?

Their questions hit my ears like bullets. I didn't have time to recover from any of them. Question here. Answer there. Smile now. Laugh then. Fuck, it's hot in here.

I tugged at the collar of my shirt. This tie was choking me. I couldn't breathe. It was too tight. This room was so small. There were too many people. It's so loud. I can't hear what Mr. Goldberg said. Something about basketball again?

He's staring at me with his expectant smile and folded hands. Why is he staring at me like that? I don't like it.

I glanced at my father only to be met with a similar expression. His eyebrow is raised, and his smile is rigid. I'm taking too long to answer. I need to reply. But what was the question?

Oh no. Now everyone at the table is staring at me. They're all waiting. Why? What about his question was so damn important?

I nearly flinch at the touch of my mother's hand on mine.

"Daniel, are you okay?"

I looked away from the blurring faces, the deafening chatter, and the blatant stares. Blinking, I met the concerned frown on my mother's face.

"Yes," I replied. "I just need to use the bathroom." I rose from my seat. "I'll be right back."

My father's eyes bore into my back as I raced into the bathroom. Thankfully, it was empty. I lock the door behind me and stumble towards the sinks. My shaking hands slammed onto the marble counters. The trembles climbed from my hands to my arms, and then ascended to my shoulders. My knees turned into jelly. I held onto the counter for dear life.

"Breathe," I whispered. "Just breathe."

I caught a big breath and held it. One, two, three… The air released in a shaky breath. I silently counted backwards as I took a few more deep breaths. Ten, nine, eight…

Gradually, the trembles in my bones subsided. My tie loosened, and the waterfalls of sweat began to cease. Unfortunately, my nausea doesn't vanish. I still had to go back out there.

At least the night was almost over. Only a half an hour was left of this stupid dinner party. I could do that, right?

I straightened my tie and rolled out my shoulders. Sighing, I painted my signature grin on my lips. The new man in the mirror looked much better than one I saw moments ago. He could take on the abundance of questions and stares and conversations and expectations with ease. I handed him the baton and took a backseat. Slumping into my cozy spot, I watched him stride out of the bathroom and resume the conversation as if he'd never left.

Time seemed to speed up whenever I was on auto-pilot. One moment, I was cracking jokes some of my father's colleagues. The next, I was wrapped in the warm covers of my bed. Sleep didn't wait to take me. At the acknowledgement of the soft cushion under my back, my eyes shut, and my brain wandered off into a world much quieter than the one I'd been consumed by.

But, this world's time moved a lot quicker than the mortal one. After what seemed like a few minutes of blissful peace, I was awakened by a sudden bouncing.

"Wake up, wake up," my younger brother's voice sang. He jumped around my bed, careful not to land on me.

I groaned and threw the covers over my head. "Five more minutes, Donny," I mumbled into my pillow.

The force in my brother's bounces grew stronger. My whole bed began to rattle from his weight. "Diving elbow drop," he exclaimed between one of his bounces.

I didn't have time to roll out of the way.

My brother's tiny elbow collided into my back.

Glaring at the little menace, I pushed the covers away from my face and hauled myself up.

Donny's sheepish smile met my gaze. "Bye!" He prepared another bounce to launch himself towards the floor.

I caught him in mid-air, wrapping my arms around his tiny torso. With a smile, I gently tossed him onto the mattress. "Body slam," I exclaimed.

He giggles. He lunged for me again and fell captive in my arms.

I held him still with one arm and used my other to rub my fist into his freshly cut hair. "Didn't I tell you to stop waking me up this early in the damn morning?"

He wiggled in my grasp. "Mom told me to." He slipped out from my arm and shoved me. "It's the first day of school."

I almost grimaced at the reminder.

His innocent, dimpled smile prevented me from doing so. He nearly dragged me out of bed with the little bit of strength he has.

We followed the scent of pancakes into the kitchen. There, my mother hovered over the stove. To my surprise, she's still in her pajamas.

She turned to us with a smile. "Good morning, honey!"

I raised an eyebrow. "You're cooking breakfast?"

Her smile dimmed. "Well, it's your last first day of high school. I thought you'd appreciate a nice, hot meal before you leave."

"I do appreciate it, mom." I smiled. "Thank you."

My mother's smile returned. She turned back to the stove, this time humming to the song on the radio.

Donny sat with me at the marble island. He contently rocked to the beat of the music while I scrolled through my phone. Although the day has barely started, I was already being bombarded by my friends' excitement to reunite. Texts flooded through our group chat with emojis and exclamation points and stupid jokes. Even through texts, they are boisterous and obnoxious. How could they be this energetic at such an early hour? I have no idea. All I know is that they better not start screaming and hollering once I see them.

My mother set the steaming hot plates in front of Donny and me. We share a smile before she disappears in the hallway. I listened to her footsteps rush up the steps.

In a few minutes, she re-appeared in the kitchen. This time, she looks more like the mother I know. Button up shirt. Blazer. Pencil skirt. Heels. Steel eyes. Stern, glossed lips. She strutted around the kitchen as if she's already in the courtroom.

She poured coffee into a Yeti mug. "Can you get your brother ready for school, and then drop him off," she asked without looking up from her task.

There's only one answer to that question. "Sure."

Beside me, Donny deflated. His fork picked aimlessly around his plate, clinking around the pieces of leftover pancake.

My mother finished gathering the rest of her breakfast-to-go. Before she left, she pecked a kiss at both of our cheeks. "Have a good day at school."

At the close of the front door, Donny pushed his plate away. "I'm finished."

I glanced at the abundance of food on his plate. "No, you're not."

He crossed his arms. "I'm not hungry."

"Take three more bites."

Donny opened his mouth to protest.

"Eat," I demanded.

Huffing, he stabbed another piece of the pancake and shoved it into his mouth.

As promised, I let my brother go after three bites. I frowned after him as he stomped out of the kitchen and up the stairs.

Quietly, I finished eating and clean up the mess my mother left behind.

I took a quick shower and pulled on my dreaded uniform. Words couldn't explain how much I hated the plaid ties and embroidered blazers. For now, we could forfeit the blazers, but the tie was still mandatory.

My hands created a neat knot as I recited my welcoming speech for the morning announcements. "Good morning, West Brook High. This is Daniel Crawford, your new student body president, here to welcome you to the first day of a new school year. I'm very excited to serve as your president this year There are so many fantastic activities that I and the rest of the student council executive board have planned for you all. The first being Back to School night on September 15th…" Shit, I wasn't smiling.

I shook away my words. This time, I made sure to smile at myself in the mirror. Much better. Now, I looked like I cared about this stupid position. I was not planning to waste my senior year in the student council office listening to my co-execs argue over what colored paper we should use for flyers, but my parents had other plans. I could still hear their voices in my head.

It'll look good on your resume!

Being president and captain of the basketball team will show colleges how well rounded you are!

You've got the leadership skills for it! Everyone in the school loves you!

You'll make history! You'll be West Brook High's first African-American student body president!

It'd taken them three weeks to push me into submitting my name for the ballet. From there, my friends took over running the campaign. All I had to do was smile and spew bullshit. That's all I ever do.

Donny was waiting downstairs, clad in his own uniform. His hands were fumbling with his tiny tie. He looked up at me as he let out an exasperated sigh. "I tried to do it by myself," he muttered.

I smiled. "It's alright, bud." I inspected his work. "You've got the first few steps down."

His eyes lit up. "Really?"

I nodded. "It gets tricky after that." I verbalized the last few steps to him as I finished the knot. "There you go."

"Thanks, Danny." He frowned. "I'm sorry for earlier."

I shook my head. "Don't apologize. I understand. I thought she was going to stay too." I held out my hand. "Come on. We're already running a little late."

Donny's grip on my hand is tight during the short walk to my Mazda. He's quiet throughout the entire ride to his elementary school.

I sorted through my brain for something to cheer him up, but I continuously come up blank. At times like this, I thought it might be best to let him process his feelings on his own. There was once a time when I had to do the same thing. Only I didn't have a big brother who could empathize and take my mind off to happier places.

As I did every school morning, I walked Donny towards his school's courtyard. Students dressed identically to Donny climbed around the playground and raced around the small field. Other young kids approached the playground with their hands intertwined with their parents. Donny and I watched a boy kiss his father goodbye.

His tiny fingers squeezed mine so tightly, I thought there may be a chance he could break them.

I leaned down to my brother's height and straightened his tie. "I'll pick you up after school."

His voice was small. "Okay."

I offered him a smile. "If you're good, I'll play wrestling with you on the trampoline later."

A smile conquered his face. "Okay!" His arms flew around my neck and squeezed.

I hugged him tight. "Have a good day." I rubbed his back. "I love you."

"I love you too, Danny." He let go. "Bye!"

I waved as I watched him dart off towards the playground. Sighing, I turned and retreated to my car. To get to school on time, I pressed the accelerator to the floor and flew through yellow lights.

I didn't have time to meet up with my friends in the cafeteria by the time I arrived. Instead, I hurried towards the broadcasting room. Mr. Bronston met my sheepish grin with a stern frown. I wasn't late, but I was close. That was enough. If I wasn't ahead of the game, then I'd always be behind.

Thankfully, Mr. Bronston doesn't have time to comment. The broadcast workers grabbed my arms and dragged me towards my designated spot.

Throughout the morning, I played my part. I smiled. I greeted people in the hallways. I held conversations with acquaintances I hadn't seen all summer. I even managed to answer questions in class and volunteer to help with little jobs. I was the Daniel West Brook High expected me to be. Being that Daniel was easy. It was Basketball Captain Daniel that got a little tricky.

At lunch, I was joined by my friends, all of whom were on the basketball team. That's how we'd all met – on the basketball courts in elementary school. They greeted me with whoops and hollers in the lunchroom as I approached them. I slapped hands and exchanged special handshakes.

"What's up, dude," Justin asked as we exchange a fist bump. "I haven't heard from you all summer."

I shrugged. "I was busy."

He waved his finger. "You had that internship at the Capital One Arena, right?"

"Yeah, and I was working at a basketball camp."

Justin waved off my comment. "Did you meet anyone famous at the arena? Are you getting free tickets to the Wizards' games for working there?"

In truth, my boss had given me a free season pass for the Wizards' games, and I'd met with some of the coaches and the players. We'd gotten along so well that they'd given me floor seats for whatever games I attended. But I didn't want my basketball friends to know that. They'd want in on those privileges. Those experiences were reserved for Donny and me.

"How was your summer, Justin," Conner interjected. He saved me from answering the question.

Justin shrugged. "It was okay. Spent a lot of time in Cancun with a lot of beautiful ladies." He smiled. "It was a summer well-spent."

Conner and I shared an eye-roll, and the other boys gave him cheerful salutes.

Justin narrowed his eyes. "Aren't you dating that brunette from St. Mary's?"

"Not anymore," I replied.

"Why not? She had a nice rack and a cute little ass to match." He smirked. "Did you at least get a chance to hit?"

My stomach rolled at the thought. "No. We didn't hook up. We broke up because we're both going to have busy schedules this semester. We'd barely see each other."

Justin shook his head. "If I were you, I'd make time. Girls who look like that are professionals at utilizing a good time."

"Then you can go date her," I said a bit more harshly than I meant.

Justin's smirk took a malicious turn. "Maybe I will. I'm sure she'd love to be satisfied after a summer of disappointment."

The other boys looked between us with raised brows. This wasn't the worst of Justin's comments, but it was enough to irritate me. I may not have had sex with Melissa, but I did care about her. Our summer outings weren't a complete waste of time. We still had fun…didn't we?

Conner noticed the frown blossoming on my face. Smiling, he turned to another one of our friends and sparked a new topic of conversation.

My afternoon classes were bearable. Once again, I put on my mask and pretend to be the perfect classmate.

When I reached eighth period, I was exhausted. Feigning this persona was hard after such a long break. Still, I smiled at my classmates and my teacher. Somehow, I managed to suffer through her introduction statements that were full of God-awful jokes. The worst was when she called our partners "Lit Buddies." I couldn't contain my eye-roll.

Once her spiel finally ended, she began assigning us our partners. I refuse to say, "Lit Buddies." I may be an ass-kisser, but I'm not that bad.

I moved to my seat when she directed me. My eyebrow raised as she calls out my partner's name.

"Jayden Delgado."

I turned my gaze to the boy approaching the desk beside mine.

His dark curls flop over his forehead. Wrinkles bombard his white button-up. His tie knot hangs low. Earbud wires peek out from the collar of his shirt. Sitting beside him, I could hear the beats of the music playing in his ear.

My feigned smile quickly appeared. "Hello," I greeted him.

He continued chewing his gum and staring at the front of the room.

"Hi," I said a bit louder. "I'm Daniel."

He doesn't glance in my direction.

I grit my teeth. "Nice to meet you too."

"What," he asked.

I noticed the music has stopped. My comment had gotten stuck between the moment of silence between songs. I held his gaze as he took out an earbud. "Hi," I repeat.

"Oh. Hi."

"I'm Daniel."

He glanced at my outstretched hand. "Jayden," he replied.

I lowered my hand when he doesn't shake it. "Are you new? I don't think I've seen you around before."

"I've been going here since freshman year."

Well, shit. "Oh. Sorry, I guess we've just never had classes together before."

"Yes, we have," he retorted. "And in each one, you've always sat in front of me."

Dammit. I didn't remember him. "Sorry. It's been a long day. I…I do remember you. You sat behind me last year in…social studies, right?"

Jayden stared at me for a long moment.

My nerves rattled under his piercing gaze. It's only the first day of school, and I've already fucked up my persona. I'm supposed to be the perfect classmate. I talk to everyone in my classes. I should know him. Why couldn't I remember him? I know my other classmates. Like… Like… Oh shit. Do I know them?

"Chemistry," he finally spoke. "I sat behind you in chemistry and math last year." He put his ear bud back in before I could try another attempt to fix my mistake.

Sighing, I sunk into my seat. It was only the first day, and my dumb ass already made a crack in my mask.