First and Goal
Keep your head down. Keep your head down. Just stay unseen and keep quiet.
Fear hangs heavily in the air of the freshman hallway—a scent that is undoubtedly absent in the upperclassman wings of the high school. Frantic students rush to their classes, struggling to navigate the labyrinth of the building. We resemble rats in a maze. The hallway lined with navy blue lockers blurs in my periphery as I elbow my way through the crowd to make it to class on time.
It’s both a blessing and a curse to be so unnoticed that bodies bump into me from every direction. At least they’re all too busy today to make time to harass me the way they did in middle school. My preference is to fade into the white noise. As luck would have it, that’s hardly ever been the case. My poor cat is more knowledgeable of the inner workings of teenage torture techniques than any therapist on the planet. If I can just make it through this first day, Gatoula will be waiting for me when I get home. I’ll pour my heart out to him without any judgment. He knows exactly how my classmates have made my life a living hell since I can remember. I barely made it through the tweenage jungle.
Survival until now has been based on two very simple concepts: protection and distraction. In middle school, the protection was provided by my buddy Mike, who’s more like my brother than my friend. He’s a big dude, but inside he’s really just a teddy bear. I’ve cried on his shoulder about my tormentors more times than I’d like to admit. The distraction came in the form of my best friend, Jess. She’s pretty and bubbly, and no one seems to notice me when she’s around, which is exactly why I stuck by her like glue when Mike couldn’t be near.
Mike is a football player and Jess is popular and social. Our paths have been diverging for the past few years, but this year is a clean break. And I’m terrified of being on my own.
Middle school had been a special brand of awkward torture when neither of them were around. I’d like to think that high school will be a tad different since we’re all a year older, but I’m not getting my hopes up. Having my hair pulled, my glasses stolen, and being taunted with every mean nickname in the book for the past three years has taught me to keep my expectations low.
What I expect is kind of an oxymoron. It’s weird to be invisible while still being the target of verbal and physical harassment. At least I got contacts over the summer, so I don’t have to worry about not being able to see all day because some jerk decides to play hide and seek with my glasses. I just wish my tormentors would pick a side of the fence already, so I would know what to anticipate on any given day. Either don’t notice me at all and leave me alone or treat me like an actual human.
Preferably the former.
I mean, I get that my last name is ripe for the picking. I couldn’t even spell it in kindergarten, and most of my classmates still can’t pronounce it. There’s even been a movie made about my crazy heritage. Believe me, I’ve heard that stupid “moose kaka” joke more times than I can count. Sadly, that seems to be the only thing people know about Greek Americans. It was a parody, people! Not real life! Well...mostly not.
I’m nothing special to look at, but I’m not hideous, either. The idea that my classmates feel the need to tease me about my appearance baffles me. My clothes might not be super trendy, but they’re clean and fit well. I don’t have a supermodel figure, but I’m neither overweight nor overly waif-like. My mom always says I look exotic thanks to my year-round tan skin. My hair is such a dark brown it’s nearly black, and the tight curls can be frizzy, but my eyes are a pretty shade of blue. I’m just...average.
Except in my studies. There I excel. It’s not that everything comes easily to me, no. Rather, I work my tail off for my grades to make sure I can escape this backwards town to a bigger and brighter future when I graduate.
My first block of the day is Algebra II. I registered for all of the highest-level courses available to a freshman. Mike and Jess weren’t as ambitious, but my other friend Alyssa will be in there at least. We shared almost all the same advanced-placement classes in middle school.
According to my map, my classroom and a friendly face should just be down the next hall to the right. As I round the corner, I smash into another student with such force that the full frontal impact flings me back until my butt meets the linoleum with a resounding thud.
I blink the stars from my vision and focus on two sets of texts and notebooks scattered all over the floor. A vulnerable feeling creeps up my neck without my books to shield me, and a few people in the hall stop and laugh. Trying to ignore them, I scramble around to collect my things. After all, the bell waits for no one, and I don’t want to be late for my first class on my first day of high school. Even if my classmates don’t like me, I still need to make a good impression on my teachers.
“Shit, shit, shit,” a male voice mutters.
He moves quickly to collect his stuff first, then helps me get my things together before offering his hand to help me up before I’m crushed under the throng of other anxious freshmen. I refuse his unspoken offer and rise slowly to my feet on my own.
“I should’ve been watching where I was going.” Tears well in my eyes against my will as I brace for his reaction.
My apology is met with silence. I sniffle and straighten up, expecting to face the wrath of someone who already knows what a clumsy idiot I am. Instead, I find myself looking into a pair of empathetic blue eyes which remind me of sparkling sapphires. My plain blue irises have nothing on these gems.
The boy towers over me. He’s all arms and legs, a basketball player maybe, but definitely not a bulky football player like Mike. His face flushes a bright shade of red, and he averts his gaze as soon as our eyes meet.
It feels like my brain forgot how to speak as I stare at him, so my voice comes out in a mere whisper. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to run into you.”
“My fault. Are you okay? Did I hurt you?” His voice is soft and timid, but it’s his question that floors me.
I think I’m in shock. This might be the first time in my school career that anyone has asked about my welfare, let alone helped me. No one’s ever given a crap before.
“Are you new here?” The first thing that pops into my head slips past my lips. He wouldn’t be so nice if he actually knew who I was.
Moments stretch into an eternity as I wait for his response.
He finally glances up at me. “Yeah…?”
“I’m sorry.” My tongue trips over my teeth as I back pedal. “That was stupid. Of course, you’re new here. We all are. What I meant was, I don’t remember you from middle school. Crap, I shouldn’t have assumed you’re a freshman. You’re really tall, so maybe you’re not. But I am. A freshman, I mean.”
He laughs softly and looks down again, shuffling his feet a bit. “I’m a freshman, too.”
A furious, hot blush steals across my face. I’m a bumbling idiot all of a sudden. “Oh, okay. Are you new to the district or something?”
God, why can’t I shut up?
He shrugs as he continues to study the linoleum under his feet. “Kind of, yeah.”
A sigh of relief escapes me, and I’m not sure why. “Oh. Um, well... I’m Eva Papageorgiou, but my friends call me Evie. It’s nice to meet you. Sorry it was because I plowed into you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too... Evie.”
He says my name as if he’s testing it out to see if he likes the way it sounds. I definitely like the way it rolls off his tongue, and that realization sobers me up. I usually avoid boys like the plague. If there’s one thing I learned early and well, it’s that no guy—no relationship—is worth the heartache which comes along with it. My parents taught me that lesson. This new boy’s softly spoken words and entrancing eyes have put me under some sort of spell. I absolutely can’t have that.
“I’m sorry, again, but I really have to get to Algebra.” I sidestep him in an effort to scurry off to safety, but after a few steps down the hallway, I can’t resist looking back over my shoulder.
He’s frozen to the same spot, frowning at a piece of paper in his hand.
The halls empty out. I’m running out of time. I know I should just leave well enough alone, but I can’t. No one’s ever stopped to help me before. The least I can do is treat him with the same kindness he showed me. I sigh, because I’ll definitely be late, but I walk back to where him.
“Hey, do you need some help or something? Where’s your first class?”
Instead of answering, he holds out his schedule. It’s almost identical to mine—all advanced-placement classes. Despite the fact he obviously has no clue where he’s going, he must be smart.
“Okay, we have first block together. You’re going the wrong way. Come on, follow me.” I hand back his schedule and turn toward our classroom.
He remains stubbornly still, watching me with a curious expression. Maybe he’s not sure whether he can trust me to help him. I totally empathize with that.
His books are resting in one arm, so I grab his free hand to lead him down the hallway. He lets out a rush of air, but doesn’t pull away. His hand is massive compared with my own; his fingers warm and calloused. He never returns my grip for which I’m grateful. The enjoyment rushing through me at this skin-to-skin contact is jarring enough.
I try to wipe my mind clean of those dangerous thoughts. “Didn’t you come over the summer for orientation, so you could have a tour of the building and get a map?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him shake his head.
“Well, why not? Did you move here right before school started?”
“No. I missed orientation. My dad made me go to a football combine across the country instead. It was the same week.”
In spite of his bitter tone, his voice is once again low and soft. What the heck was he doing at a national football camp? He’s not a shrimp, but he doesn’t look like he’d last a minute on the gridiron, either. And I know sports. I’ve been an avid fan since I was little, courtesy of my grandfather.
“Okay.” I genuinely have no clue how else to respond to that, so subject change it is. “Well, it seems we have almost all the same classes. I would give you my map, but I kind of need it. We can stick together if you want, though. At least until you know where you’re going.”
I can’t believe those words just came out of my mouth. What in the hell am I doing? It’s like I can’t even help myself.
His face takes on a strange expression, but he nods his assent. “Yeah, definitely. I’d love to follow you around all day.”
He winces as soon as the words leave his mouth. Cutting my gaze to the side, I can see his face is beet red again.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that how it sounded. I meant... I just…” He sighs and closes his eyes briefly as I drag him toward our destination. “Thanks. That would be a big help.”
We make it to Algebra just as the bell rings, and I drop his hand as we spill into the classroom along with several other students. Apparently, we’re not the only two having trouble getting to class on time this first day.
Alyssa sits on the other side of the room, waving at me and gesturing to an empty desk beside her. Her bright smile, brown sugar eyes, and artsy purple-tipped blonde hair are a shot of familiar in this already weird day. She gives me a raised eyebrow in silent question when she sees my new shadow following dutifully behind me. Not sure how to respond, I shrug and take my seat. She rolls her eyes in response. Silent conversations are kind of our thing.
He takes the empty seat behind me. I’m glad I won’t have to see him during class. Math has never been my strongest subject, and I really need to be able to concentrate. I can’t afford to act like a stupid teenager, allowing myself to get distracted by his gorgeous eyes.
“Thank you for the help today, Evie,” he whispers from behind me. His warm breath fans over my hair as he leans forward. “I really do appreciate it.”
Goosebumps spread from my neck down my back, and an involuntary shudder rolls through me. Oh, shit. I am in so much trouble.