1: Hormonal Stupidity
Pain blossoms between my brows.
I rear back and do it again.
The impact with the unforgiving metal is insufficient to knock the knowledge loose from my head. I try again, gripping the top of the locker tighter, pulling my upper body farther from center to gain more momentum.
"Michael?" A horrified voice breaks my concentration.
I jerk upright and spin to face the person intruding on my self-destruction. It's well after school has let out, only a few kids are even about besides myself, and I hadn't heard any of them come near me. I know I wouldn't go near someone trying to bash his head in against his own locker.
"Are you okay?" She glances at what has to be an obvious bruise rising on my forehead.
"Mandy." The name escapes my lips in a hoarse, cracked voice.
Why did it have to be her to find me like this?
The mental pain hits me again and my expression decays. I throw my back into the locker door. The tumbler bites hard into my shoulder blade, while the handle digs into the muscles beneath. I concentrate on the bruising, welcoming them over the mental agony.
"What's wrong?" she asks again, her head tilting to one side as her brown hair slips into her face.
My mouth falls open, but I snap it shut again before something spills out I can't retract. Even when I can feel the confession rising up from the pit of my stomach, threatening to spill out of me like a bad meal, I tell myself I can't tell Mandy. Clenching my jaw tighter, ignoring the pain it causes, I prevent myself from speaking my crime aloud.
Pressing the butts of my palms into my eyes, I slide down the face of the locker bank, adding abrasions to the bruises across my barely protected back. "My dad's going to kill me!" I whine, not even wanting to give her that much of an opening.
I hear Mandy's knees pop as she kneels down next to me, and her slim hand touches my close shoulder. It's all I can do not to shy away from her. I don't want to tell her this… least of all her.
But I have to tell someone. I can't think of someone else who would understand. Hell, I'm not even sure Mandy will – stalwart as she is.
"Why?" she goads me gently. Her voice one I'd learned to trust a long time ago.
I don't drop the pressure from my eyes. I shake my head, finding it hard to get the words out.
"Andrea… thinks…" Just those two words are acid on my tongue.
Still, I've cracked the dam, and my resolve slips further.
If I tell her how stupid I've been, I risk driving Mandy away from me forever. How could she stand to be near me after that? I don't even want to be near me right now.
Finally, I uncover my tear-streaked face, my resistance eroding the longer I have a willing ear. The concern in her expression deepens.
My voice drops to an agonized whisper, as the words finally make it past my lips. "She thinks she might be pregnant."
"What?" Her grip on my shoulder tightens. That single word is shocked, but it's not condescending or damning. Somewhere in the muddle that is my emotions, I'm grateful. "Oh, Michael."
I don't even have to explain it to her. She's always been able to read between the lines with me.
"I'm so stupid!" I elbow the locker behind me, feeling the metal give under the brunt of my full strength. "How many times? I was warned so many times."
Mandy wraps me up in an embrace, more to get me to stop destroying property – and myself – than anything else. Part of me wants to return that embrace, needing her comfort. But, scared that I'll fall into yet another mistake, my hands stay firmly rooted to the floor.
"Calm down," she whispers, her voice neutral, soothing. "I know your upset, but you need to calm down."
She leans away upon finishing those words, meeting my stricken gaze.
I break the stare before she does.
"You must hate me," I moan.
I catch her turning away in my peripheral vision and the expression on her face seems like she's trying for a PC response to that.
How much of a monster must she think me?
A moment later her warm fingers cup my chin, applying gentle force to get me to face her. "Do you want to talk about it?" By the look on her face, she's sincere in her offer, not just trying to seem supportive.
My gut clenches.
"No…" is my knee-jerk reaction. "I mean, yes." I grit my teeth, cursing my inability to make my tangled thoughts understood. "I mean, I don't know." My words descend into a whine. "I don't know how I'm going to fix this!"
Sympathy crawls across her expression. "You sound like you need a semi-objective ear. What're friends for?"
Like a life-ring, she throws the old title out there, and I grasp for it with everything I have.
She stands and pulls my hastily dumped backpack off the ground. Slinging it over her shoulder, on top of her own, Mandy offers me a hand up. "C'mon, let's find a someplace quiet."
We find ourselves in the bleachers of the football stadium – high up where the hot wind cuts across the top and sucks down the risers to the grassy field below. It's dried my tears – but I still feel completely wretched. Mandy sits on an upper bleacher, and I sit on the lower, facing her. The arrangement puts us at eye level. The wind catches her brunette hair, turning the curls to snarls. She doesn't seem to notice, merely lacing her fingers together and clamping those between her knees. In this position, she waits for me to gather my wits – to explain how it all went so wrong.
I can't meet her gaze at first. I can't even fathom how she can find enough understanding to even be in my proximity.
Mandy breaks the silence. "I knew you and Andrea were pretty serious. I hadn't realized it had gone next level." Her voice is even, carefully cultivated to neutrality. I wonder how much magma of emotion she's holding back.
I shake my head. "I didn't mean…" I'm pinching the webbing between thumb and forefinger so hard that a bruise starts to rise. At this rate, I might as well have gotten into a fight.
"Stop it." Mandy's hands still the nervous habit. "It isn't worth hurting yourself over."
She brushes the bangs away from my forehead, her fingers cool on the heated skin and damaged flesh beneath.
"Isn't it?" I utter, ducking back from the contact.
"No," she contradicts firmly.
I draw a breath and let it out with a weary, nervous sigh. The longer I linger, the more I want to just get up and walk away – let Mandy forget that I ever told her this horrible little secret.
"Michael, talk to me. Tell me what happened. You can trust me… can't you?"
She has me with the last one, because I know implicitly that she's trustworthy, despite everything between our break up and now. I close my eyes for a moment. "I got caught up in the idea that she didn't question me, didn't challenge me. Andrea accepted everything about me, without fail."
I peer over at Mandy to see what, if any, reaction she has to that. There is a taint of pain there – a taint of frustration and envy as well. I don't try to ponder what all that means.
More haltingly, I continue. "She was always there, always happy to see me and ready to talk. Her family practically adopted me. And I've always found her attractive."
I wince at the admission and feel my shoulders curling in an unconscious, defensive move. However, I see no sign of jealousy or betrayal in Mandy's expression.
"It happened a couple weeks back. She met me after work and we went to one of those secluded coves at the beach. One thing led to another." My face tightens. the heat in my cheeks is unbearable – embarrassment, guilt, fear – all wadded up together. I can't quite believe I'm spilling all this to a former girlfriend. "In the heat of the moment nothing else mattered – just like Dad said. Just like Mom warned me."
I pick up a pebble lying on the bench next to me and hurl it over the top of the stadium wall in frustration. It sails a long way before it loses momentum. Mandy watches it fly for a moment before returning her attention to me.
I shake my head and growl, "It felt right at the time. It felt like what we both wanted. Even after, it was just… euphoria. It felt special."
I glance up to find Mandy's face just as neutral as before, but a bit of red has crept into her cheeks. A small frown appears, but once more, she adds nothing.
"She cornered me in the parking lot this morning as I arrived. She said – she's late." I shove my head into my hands, wishing for the opportunity to bash my head into something again.
"Is that why you've been so distant today? Is that why Andrea wasn't coming around the group?"
I nod without lifting my head from my hands.
Silences falls and then stretches further until I find myself glancing up at her.
She looks concerned, and finally shakes her head and sighs, "You're right, you're normally smarter than that."
Somehow, getting admonishment makes my chest loosen a little. "You weren't supposed to agree so readily," I huff.
There was supposed to be some humor in there, but my throat is too tight to allow it through.
Mandy sits straighter giving me a somewhat cross glance. "If you were looking for someone to condone what you've done, you wouldn't have told me. You know me better than that! I'm not going to just tell you what you want to hear."
"Touché," I mutter.
"I do sympathize, however," she adds, feeling the need to clarify.
My hands curl into tight fists. "I'm scared, Mandy."
"If you weren't scared, I'd call you heartless. I mean, some of the boys brag about their conquests – they wash their hands of their indiscretions. It's disgusting. It's good that you care about the consequences."
She lets out a frustrated little sigh. Whether its attached to her latest statement or another topic, I can't be sure.
"What about Andrea?" she asks next.
I blanch, swallowing around a lump that doesn't want to go away. I stutter, "She's... terrified. I can't blame her!"
Mandy blinks. "She's…"
I clap my hands together repeatedly, not able to look at her. "She hardly knew how to tell me her suspicion. She's scared of being disowned when her family finds out."
"You aren't?" Mandy interjects.
"No, I'm scared of dying," I respond, not really kidding about it. "Whichever set of parents get to me first."
A grimace clouds Mandy's expression. "Yeah. That's going to be a tough one."
In the pause, I quickly defend, "She's not sure about this."
"And if she does confirm it?" she says, doing nothing to spare my feelings.
My eyes grow watery again. "Then… I'll take responsibility for it. It's only right. I'll face her parents and mine. I'll do what needs to be done, whatever form that support takes."
"Good to hear. Hopefully you've let Andrea hear it."
I nod violently.
Another uncomfortable silence falls over us, the mournful wind the only sound to be heard. It cuts through the seats, wending its way down to torture the grass in the field once again.
"Please." It probably goes without saying, but it comes across my lips anyway. "No one else knows yet. Until she's – we're certain…"
She gives me that funny look. "I know how to keep secrets, Michael, remember?"
The way she says it manages to draw a laugh out of me. Still, she leans in, wrapping up my trembling hands and whispering, "Not a soul."
I stare at the gesture for long moments, my hand enveloping her fingers in an unconscious motion. "I'd appreciate it. I just don't want to… feed the rumor mill."
She and I both know how quickly that will get around – how quickly it will get out of hand. Mom's story of her best friend suddenly replays in my ears. Andrea does not need that kind of derision aimed at her.
"You going to be okay?" Again, the sincerity in her words warms my gut.
"As can be expected," I sigh. "Thanks – for listening, I mean."
"I keep telling you," she utters, squeezing my hands a bit harder. "You're my friend. Long before we dated. Long before I broke it off. That will never, ever change. You got that?"
I swallow, wanting to cry again for how understanding and forgiving Mandy has always been. I don't deserve her right now, not even as a friend.
I make sure to tell her so.
"Perhaps not, but you got me anyway." She smiles and rises, turning into the wind to try and tame her flyaway hair. The point is moot when she faces me again.
I rise as well, reclaiming my backpack from her and slinging it across my chest. I don't feel nearly as awkward when she hugs me once more.
"It'll work out one way or another, Michael," she pronounces. "I know you'll do what's right. I'll be here for you, no matter what."
I back out of the embrace once more, still holding onto her hands. I nod and try to smile.
As we drop contact, I look at my watch, realizing we've been talking to one another for the better part of an hour.
"Damn," I utter, pulling out my net-phone and texting my mom and dad. "I should get going. I was supposed to be home about half an hour ago."
"You won't be in trouble, will you?" she asks, and I glance up to see her concern.
"No, not if I tell them it's about my internship," I say hoarsely. I hate having to lie on top of keeping a huge, ugly secret, but I don't have a better way to keep from getting skinned alive one step in my front door.
"Wait, you got an internship?" She pulls her chin into her chest.
"The only bright moment of my day," I sigh. "Unfortunately, it's been rather eclipsed by my other big news bomb."
She nods. "Who're you interning with?"
"Coach Palmer." I grin, finishing up my announcement of it to my folks. I send it and, without a word, start down the bleachers. Mandy falls in beside me.
Despite the feeling of time pressing in on me, we move slowly. After all, I need as much time as possible to get my breakdown off my face.
"Oh, so the swim team?"
I acknowledge that. "Actually, water polo is first. Coach thinks I've got some pointers to give on that as well, even when I've never played it. I think she said she wants me to help with strength training. But yeah, mid-winter/spring, I'll hopefully be coaching part of the team."
It feels good to be focusing on something more positive. My head and my chest are lighter. For that, I'm glad Mandy intercepted me in the hall.
It's not that Andrea's news is completely pushed aside, but I know at this point it's a waiting game, and dwelling on the possible outcome will only drive me crazy.
As my brain comes back around to things again, I sigh. A thrill of nerves rolls through my gut again. "I'm not ready to be a father," I utter, but evidently it was louder than I intended.
"My mom and dad say no first-time parent is," she adds. "But, I do hope it's a false alarm and your turn at it is a way off."
I stay mum, even when I want to be selfish and say I hope it's all a false alarm as well. I made my bed, now I have lie in it, no matter how messy it is.
As we get down to the parking lot, I say, "By the way, what were you doing here so late?"
"Oh," she waves her hand through the air. "I was just getting some stuff set up for my extracurricular activities."
"Oh?" I can't help the curiosity on my face. My brain evidently slides the complete wrong direction.
"ACA-DECA, doofus," she teases me. "You know that club you were supposed to join too, and didn't."
"I've had way bigger things on my brain lately."
A slightly derisive snort escapes her. "Anyway, today was the first practice."
"Ah." I glance around the parking lot not seeing any vehicles that look familiar. "Do you have a way to get home?"
"My mom's on her way, actually." She shrugs.
I wonder at what point she'd texted them that she was done. Now we've both lied to our parents about why we were so late.
I've got to stop that habit, soon.
There's just no way I could explain away being alone with Mandy for the past hour without it.
"Well, would it be alright for me to wait with you? I kept you here later than planned. I would feel terrible if something happened because I left you here alone."
"You have to ask?" Mandy laughs. "Please?"
"Cool." I rock back on my heels a moment. "I mean I'd give you a lift if my folks wouldn't string me up for having someone under the age of eighteen in the car with me."
"Ahaha, thanks, but I don't think that's going to be necessary."
It's not a long wait. We're only talking a few minutes longer when headlights sweep across the two of us on the sidewalk, making both of us wince and shade our eyes.
"Thanks for waiting with me, Michael. See you tomorrow?" She starts to head off toward the vehicle.
I nod. "Thanks again for listening, Mandy."
"Always. Anytime!" She sketches a wave and then skips down the sidewalk to meet the car about ten yards down the way.
I slip across their path and head to my car.
I don't feel perfect right now, I probably won't for a while. But I'm no longer going to explode holding the secret in.
A/N: Another rescued piece of work off the ORIGINAL iteration of Michael! In a way it made it easy to get drafted, what was harder was trying to tweak it to fit the new vision and still keep what I really liked about it in the first place.
I am almost down writing eggshells, which is why I'm posting this chapter because that keeps me three chapter ahead and allows ample time for clean up before posting!