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Beautiful and Terrible Things
Author: Riley Hart

PART ONE

 


Who We Were

 

 

PROLOGUE

 


Joey


Six Years Old

“Why are you so small? Even the girls are bigger than you.”

“And quiet. You’re super-duper quiet.”

“Dunno.” I shrugged. It was the first week of school. There were three of them, standing in front of me and waiting for an answer about why I was the way I was. How was I supposed to know?

“You’re a shrimp,” one of them said.

“His arms are like twigs,” another added.

They laughed. I tried not to cry. If I did, that’d really make me a baby. That was what Dad always said. “How’d I end up with such a little baby for a son? You’re too soft, too weak. I sure hope you grow out of this shit.” I guessed if Dad and these guys thought something was wrong with me, they must be right, so I just stood there and took it the way I took it with Dad.

They started laughing harder, and I tried to make myself even smaller, hoped I could shrink in on myself until there was nothing there. Wished I was up in the sky—not like dead or anything; I just liked the stars.

“Leave him alone.” I turned toward the new voice. His name was Gage. He was in my class. He had dark, messy hair and holes in his shoes. You could tell his clothes weren’t new like everyone else’s. “You’re just jealous ’cuz he’s smarter than all three of you put together.”

The guys grumbled. “Nuh-uh. You’re stupid,” one of them replied.

“Whatever. Just leave him alone. His daddy is a police officer, and he’ll arrest you!”

Oh…why hadn’t I thought of that? To use who my dad was that way, but then, I wouldn’t have wanted it to get back to him. I wanted to be strong like he was.

All three boys’ eyes widened. “Whatever. We don’t care about him anyway.”

“You’ll have to deal with me if you do,” Gage replied, making my pulse shoot up to the sun.

The guys mumbled another whatever and walked away.

Without a word, Gage turned to go the other direction, so I said, “Wait.”

He stopped, turned, and looked at me. “Yeah?”

“Um…thanks.”

His cheeks turned a pretty shade of pink, as if he was embarrassed I thanked him.

I liked pink. I didn’t know why more boys didn’t seem to like it, why they called it girlie or made fun of boys who wore it.

“I don’t like mean people,” he replied.

I didn’t like mean people either, but I still wouldn’t have said anything to them. He gave me a shy smile. I only knew it was shy because mine always were, and it reminded me of that—the way my eyes darted away when I did it. I bet all my smiles at him would be that way.

He started to walk away again. “Hey!” jumped out of my mouth. Courage seemed to rise in me out of nowhere. Maybe somehow, I was taking it from him, like it radiated off him and penetrated my skin, my muscles, my bones. “Do you wanna be friends?” I asked just as the teacher said it was time to go in from recess.

His cheeks turning that pretty shade of pink again, Gage shrugged. “Yeah, all right.”

Butterflies danced around in my belly, tickling me. Maybe that was something weird about me too, so I tried to shoo them away as I walked over to him.

We went into the school together, and later that day when we got to work with partners, Gage came right over to work with me.

 

Ten Years Old

“Mr. Beaumont, if you expect to pass fifth grade, you need to be working a lot harder,” I heard Gage’s teacher tell him as I waited for him. “You don’t turn in any of your homework.” We weren’t in the same class this year, and it sucked. Still, we spent all our time together. We walked to the bus together at the end of the day, and sat together until my stop, which was before his. Gage lived farther out of town. The biggest stretch of time we spent away from each other was during baseball season. Gage was really good. My dad liked that about him. It was the only thing he liked about Gage. Most of the time he said he was a hoodlum with a criminal for a dad.

“Is there anything you want to tell me?” the teacher asked Gage. “Are there problems at home?”

People always thought Gage’s dad was up to no good. While he drank too much, he never did anything bad that I knew of. He didn’t say the kind of things to Gage that my dad sometimes said to me. He did get arrested a lot, though. Sometimes he let Gage stay at home by himself all night, or even longer, but Gage said I couldn’t tell anyone about that, especially not my dad.

“No. Everything’s fine. I gotta go so I don’t miss the bus.” He didn’t wait for her reply, rushing toward the door, where I waited.

He didn’t say a word as we ran to the bus, as we climbed on, as he stood back so I could get into the seat first because Gage knew I liked to look out the window or rest my forehead against the glass. It felt good against my skin.

I sat down, and he slid into the seat beside me. I almost asked him if he was okay, but I knew he wouldn’t answer, not with so many people around. Gage was protective. He was also really good at going through life pretending nothing was wrong, unless he was talking to me.

When my stop came, he asked, “Can I come over?”

I frowned, not because I didn’t want him there, but because I thought he might be sad. I hated it when Gage was sad. It always felt as if his pain lived inside me as well. I wondered if it was like that for him with me, but probably not. Butterflies still danced in my belly around Gage, and I was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to do that—that my dad would hate it, and everyone would tease me, and maybe Gage would hate me too if he knew.

As I hesitated, he said, “What? Are you too cool to hang out with me?”

“Yes, but I’ll make an exception.”

He rolled his eyes but smiled. Gage’s smiles were like having all the chocolate cupcakes I could eat.

We got off the bus. I checked the mail, and then we started walking down the long, gravel driveway toward the house I lived in with my dad. My mom had died when I was still a baby. When Dad got in one of his mean moods, he liked to tell me it was my fault. That she wasn’t right after she had me, that something about me made her sad, so she took her own life. He said it was the most embarrassing thing to happen to him, followed by me. Luckily, he wasn’t always in those mean moods.

“What’s going on at school?” I asked Gage. He’d never gotten the best grades, but the older we got, the more he seemed to struggle. His mom had left when he was young, and his dad never asked him about school, never even cared if Gage went.

“Nothing. It’s stupid, is all. Like, when will we use all that shit?”

“That’s our ticket out of here.”

“That’s your ticket out of here.”

“My ticket is your ticket.” My cheeks flamed. I said stuff like that to Gage sometimes, when it was just the two of us, but he never made me feel stupid over it, never made me feel weird or anything—though that might have been different if he’d known about the butterflies. Besides, it was true. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for him.

“You’re such a dork,” he said playfully. “Race you.”

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