Chapter One

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Billy Stratton was my high school nemesis.

I didn’t know why he singled me out for torment, but starting in my junior year, he made my life miserable. He knocked books out of my arms, he kicked the back of my chair, he called me names. Once, my friend Sarah told me, he was about to bash my head in with a rock when she caught him. What would make someone want to do a thing like that?

I didn’t know. Didn’t care, either. All I wanted to do was put my junior year behind me, then get through my senior year, go to college, and get out of Athens, this podunk little St. Louis suburb, and never come back if I could help it.

Billy seemed determined to make sure that didn’t happen. Which was how I wound up lying on the sidewalk between classes. My nose was bleeding. Billy stood over me, fists balled. We were behind the main building. I’d been walking to the annex where all the math classes were held.

“Get up, you little shit,” he said. Our cold war had suddenly heated up. I had no idea why.

It wasn’t a fair fight. Billy was a football player. He was almost six inches taller than me. My dad always said that’s the way with bullies: They never fight fair. It’s fine for him to say that, of course. He wasn’t the one on his back in the dirt with some psycho freak going red in the face because he wouldn’t get up and take some more beating.

“Get up!” Billy bobbed forward, fists up now. A crowd had gathered. Why wasn’t there ever a teacher around when you needed one?

“Why, so you can hit me again?” I was speaking more calmly than I felt. The veins in Billy’s forehead were starting to pulse. Behind him, a couple of other football players looked like they couldn’t decide whether they should restrain Billy or join in the abuse. My nose throbbed and my right eye started to water. He’d gotten me good, just walked right up to me and wham.

Speaking to him so calmly, and refusing to get up, seemed to be enough to drive him further out of his mind. I bet it was a short trip.

“Get up!”

I wanted to say something about his mother—or rather, stepmother—but she was kind of nice, and I knew when to keep my mouth shut anyway. I slowly shook my head. I didn’t think I could even say the word “no” without stuttering.

This just seemed to enrage him more. I thought he might kick me, but soon he had someone else to worry about: specifically, my friend Sarah. She leaped over me and shoved Billy hard enough to knock him on his rear end. He bounced back up and got right in her face.

“Being a girl isn’t gonna save your ass, Sarah,” he said.

“I wouldn’t expect anything in the way of civilized behavior from you, Billy.” Sarah had a way of making his name sound like the girliest name ever. For the most part they’d just circled each other this year screeching like cats in an alley. He’d shoved me or thrown things at me in the past, but this was the first time he’d drawn blood. For Sarah, this apparently meant the gloves were off.

Billy sneered and turned away, the crowd of other students parting behind him. Where was a single teacher while all this was going on?

As he walked away, he muttered to one of his friends, “Fucking fag.”

The next thing I knew—the next thing Billy knew, for that matter—he was on the ground with Sarah on his back. She gripped his hair (a challenge, considering how short it was) and smashed his face repeatedly into the dirt. Lucky for him the force of her impact propelled them into the grass. If they’d landed on the sidewalk, his face would have been even more of a mess. While Sarah straddled his back and basically made him eat dirt, she pummeled him in the back with her other fist and kneed him in the flanks, looking for all the world like she was riding a legless horse.

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