The rolling green lawn of Greenridge Academy spanned both sides of the private high school. I drove down the winding road that led to the large campus of buildings scattered around the property.
“Boy, does this bring back memories,” my brother Kody said from the passenger seat.
Some memories I didn’t care to remember. Kody and I, along with our brother Kelton, had spent our sophomore year at the academy. Everyone at Kensington High thought we’d been shipped off to a military school. Greenridge was far from military, although the atmosphere had sure seemed like it at the time. Regardless, our old man had been furious about all the fights we’d been in at Kensington High during our freshman year. The final straw had been the fight with Kade’s enemy Greg Sullivan. Kody and I had beaten the boy to a pulp.
“So, is this guy good?” Kody thread his fingers through his thick black hair.
“We’ll see.” My boxing coach, Jay Crandall, sent me to Greenridge to check out an up-and-coming boxer who just happened to be a student there. I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down for joy to revisit the place, but I wanted to get paid. While I built my boxing career, I was working for Jay at the gym, helping to train and coach members.
I parked in a visitor’s space, studying the century-old structure that was the anchor of the campus. The graying stone façade reminded me of a castle, complete with two corner towers, red pointed peaks, and a large portico. The beauty of the campus wasn’t the main building but the surrounding mountains, the dense trees, and manicured rolling lawns that seemed to go on for miles, lending a cozy feeling to the property. The environment was a stark contrast to the cold classrooms and sterile halls of the school and dormitories.
The year I’d attended was a time of firsts, lasts, good, bad, and everything in between. But mostly, I’d been angry with my father for disrupting our lives, for separating us from Kade and our barely lived in home in Ashford, Massachusetts, only to move us into a dorm that felt like a prison.
The double wooden doors of the main building burst open, and students filed out as though someone had disrupted a hornet’s nest.
“Best part of this school was being close to Mom,” I said as we watched the throng of students disperse in all directions. Mom had been in a mental health facility not far from the school.
Kody unstrapped his seatbelt. “I thought for you it was Ruby Lewis.”
“I guess.” Back then, Ruby had been a refreshing ray of sunshine. The moment I laid eyes on her, the anger I held firm slipped to the wayside. We bumped into each other after school one day, not paying attention to where we were going. I’d been reading a text from Kade, and she’d been looking for her keys in her purse. I tried to speak, but my tongue wouldn’t move. All I could do was stare at her like a boy who had just discovered girls for the first time. Maybe I had. Up until the tenth grade I hadn’t paid much attention to girls. I didn’t care to. Girls had always chased my brothers and me, probably because they thought triplets were hot or something. They ogled at us and giggled when they passed us in the halls at school. After a while, I got tired of all the attention, especially if the girls interrupted our conversations. That was a norm for girls during lunch in the school cafeterias. But Ruby was different, shy, not to mention beautiful with her shiny auburn hair, porcelain skin, and blue-green eyes. As cheesy as it sounded, I seriously thought I had run into an angel.
“Whatever happened to her?” Kody asked.
I inhaled the air of the truck, which was stinky thanks to Kody’s burps of garlic and onions. “Not sure.”
We’d dated for five months before I had to move back home to Ashford. Then I lost touch with her. Actually, I ignored her repeated calls. I’d gotten spooked when she told me she might be pregnant.
My old man had explained the birds and the bees to all us boys. “Protection,” he’d said. “Not only to prevent pregnancy, but sexually transmitted diseases.”
I’d heard him, but I hadn’t listened. Ruby and I got caught up in the moment. Even though she later conveyed to me that she’d finally gotten her monthly girl thing and wasn’t pregnant, our relationship changed, or rather I changed. It was as if that one incident had been a wake-up call to real life, and I hadn’t been ready to deal.
Kody nudged me. “Are you taking a trip down memory lane?”
I chuckled. “You could say that.” I opened the door of my truck. “Let’s go.” I didn’t need to think about Ruby, although I had wondered over the years, and more lately, how she was doing. Part of me wanted to apologize for being a dick. Another part of me wanted to see her. She had to be more beautiful now.
The cluster of students quickly dispersed as Kody and I started for the path behind the school that led to the gym.
Kody stabbed a thumb toward the main entrance. “Aren’t we supposed to check in at the office?”
“Are you still obeying school rules? You’re not in high school, dude.” The last thing I wanted to do was run into teachers who might remember us. Kody and I hadn’t been good students that year.
Kody fell into step with me. “Worried about Mrs. Munoz?”
“I made amends with her. Remember? I wrote I was sorry a hundred times for calling her a witch in Spanish. You concerned about Ms. Sharp?”
“I do want to apologize again.”
I raised an eyebrow. Mandy, Kody’s girl, had died a few months before we started at Greenridge. So Kody had more of a chip on his shoulder than I did. “You don’t think she’s forgiven you for breaking her nephew’s nose?”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t if I was her. But I do remember she was hot.” His grin was mischievous. “It’s only been four years. I believe she’s probably, what, twenty-seven now?”
If she were still teaching there, I wouldn’t mind seeing if she was still curvy with long legs and shapely breasts. “Are you into older women?”
“Dude, they know what they want. Besides, they’re not up for a serious relationship.” Most of the girls screaming his name at Rumors when he sang and played the guitar were college age, and most were on the hunt for a steady boyfriend.
“Tell me more, brother,” I said.
He laughed. “Another time. We got company.”
Two high-school-age guys swaggered out of the gym as we approached. One was stocky, and the other was tall and lean.
“Hey, you’re here to see Liam,” the stocky dude said a little excitedly. “You’re Kross Maxwell.”
Kody and I exchanged a surprised look. We expected girls to get all giddy, but not the guys.
The tall and lean dude extended his hand. “I’m Miles. I’ve seen most of your bouts. I hear you’re trying to sign with Gail Freeman. Man, hottest promoter in the country.” He waggled his eyebrows.
I smirked as I shook his hand. Not only was Gail the best boxing promoter around, she was definitely a sexy lady. Her physique aside, she was picky in her selection of boxers to sign. Their records had to be almost perfect. She rarely gave a second look to boxers with several losses.
“You’re a legend, Bro,” Kody said.
Maybe I was a legend at Greenridge, but I had work to do if I wanted to sign with Gail. Out of nine bouts in three years, I’d lost once, and that loss had come last week. My head was up my ass, which was one reason I’d gotten knocked out. However, the main reason was because my footwork had been sloppy. I was still irritated with myself. “Liam inside?”
“He’s in the ring,” Miles said.
“Come on,” Stocky Dude said. “We’re going to be late.”
They walked off as two girls glided toward them.
I pulled opened the side door, which led into a hall. The warm air breezed over me.
“I’ll meet you later.” Kody slapped me on the back. “Wish me luck.”
“Don’t get us thrown out.” Back in our day, the principal had threatened to suspend us and would have done it if it weren’t for my father smoothing things over.
Kody shuffled backward, his blue eyes alight with pleasure or mischief or both. “I’ll be sweet.”
Normally, I wouldn’t be worried. Kody wasn’t Kelton, who would have had the teacher splayed out naked on top of her desk. But after our conversation a minute ago, I was learning a new side of my brother. At twenty years old, Kody was slowly opening up to dating. He sure had his pick of the litter when he sang his brooding songs. Or maybe he had been dating for years. I had never seen Kody with a girl, though. It didn’t matter. We were adults. So what if he got caught with his pants down.
I ducked into the gym, and memory lane came screaming back—in particular, Ruby and I making out behind the bleachers. Actually, this was the place where we had both lost our virginity.
A familiar voice cut through my brain. “Come on, Liam.”
Blinking away the image of Ruby and me naked on a mat, I padded across the hardwood floor. My boots thudded, sounding hollow above the grunts and groans coming from the boxing ring center court.
I sidled up to Coach Scott, who stood a head shorter than me. “Which one is Liam?”
Both boys were the same height and same build. It was hard to decipher the differences since they were wearing helmets. But one did have blood around his bottom lip.
“You’re late,” Coach said without breaking his attention away from the ring. He still had gray hair, although it appeared he’d lost some on top. “The one with the busted lip.”
Coach hated when people were late for anything. He reminded me of my father, who despised the same thing. The pet peeve was a product of both of them being ex-military. Regardless, I would be wasting my breath if I gave him the excuse that traffic out of Boston was brutal. His response would be, “not my problem.”
The two boys in the ring jabbed and punched, dancing around each other, bobbing every now and then.
“Liam reminds me a lot of you. Look how quick he is on his feet.” The gruffness in Coach Scott’s voice changed to a more pleasing tone.
I agreed with him. Liam’s footwork was smooth, which would please Jay all the more. “His partner doesn’t look too bad.” The boy knew how to keep up with Liam, throwing some direct jabs to Liam’s face.
“So, what happened at your last fight? You rarely get knocked out.” Coach Scott crossed his arms over his chest. “Liam,” he shouted. “Don’t let Chip ruin that pretty face of yours.”
Liam was tiring, which wasn’t surprising for his boxing style. He was what the industry called an out-fighter. Out-fighters, like the famous Muhammad Ali, were regarded as the best boxing strategists since they knew how to control the fight. Liam was still learning, and therefore, tired easily from all the footwork, much like I had when I first started.
“Bad night,” I replied. I hadn’t been sleeping well. It had all started several months ago when Kelton had gotten the scare of his life. He’d thought he was the father of Chloe’s baby, an ex-girlfriend of his. It was then that my sophomore year reared its ugly head, hence the reason Ruby was in my thoughts nonstop. Kody wanted to make amends with a teacher. I had the urge to do the same with Ruby, and maybe more.
After about thirty minutes of making mental notes on Liam’s style, I said good-bye to Coach Scott. I had to get back to Boston to train a client. I also wanted to make one stop before Kody and I got on the road.
“You don’t want to chat with him?” Coach Scott asked.
“I don’t need to. Liam looks good. His footwork is quick, and his style will appease Jay.”
Frankly, it was a wasted trip in my book. Jay could’ve brought him down to the gym in Boston if it weren’t for the meeting he had with Gail Freeman. Jay also didn’t want to get the kid excited until he knew for sure.
After a few more minutes of chatting with Coach Scott, I made my way out, texting Kody and told him it was time to go. When I got to my truck, Kody was waiting for me with a shit-eating grin on his face.
I pressed the key fob, and two beeps sounded. “I take it you found Ms. Sharp.”
“I gave her my number,” Kody said as he climbed in. “My image of her was spot on. She’s curvy, stacked, and sexy as hell.”
I choked as I slid behind the wheel and started the engine. “Maybe I should be hanging out with you more often.” I could get into dating a woman who didn’t want to sink her claws into me, like the girl I was dating seemed to be doing. Penelope wanted my nuts in her hand at every turn. The sex was great, but I was building my career and didn’t have the time or the interest in a steady relationship. I’d already lost one fight because my thoughts were on a girl.
I wheeled out of the parking lot.
“You get plenty of attention at your fights,” Kody said. “Besides, Penelope isn’t doing it for you?”
“I’m not ready to settle down with the picket fence, wife, and kids.” I wanted someone who didn’t complain about a broken nail or whine about having to watch a football game.
“I feel you, Bro.” He fiddled with the radio, tuning into a country station before he sat back. “Wait. The highway is the other way.”
“I have to do something first.” Since I was in the area, maybe I could catch Ruby at home, or at least get her number from her parents. Not to mention, I needed to get her out of my head, especially with an upcoming fight. I couldn’t lose another one. Not with a signing deal with Gail Freeman looming.
Orange and red colored leaves floated to the ground along the tree-lined street. Fall was in high gear. Before long the branches would be bare and covered in snow.
“Care to share?” Kody asked.
After I’d told Kelton my little secret months ago, I tossed it aside. I didn’t see a need to blast the news that I’d almost gotten Ruby pregnant to Kade or Kody. But every time I saw Chloe, who was now almost nine months pregnant, I thought of Ruby.
I glanced from left to right, looking for a yellow house among the variety of two-story colonial homes that dotted the street. “Don’t freak. Two weeks before we moved back to Ashford, Ruby told me she thought she was pregnant.” I counted to three.
Kody lowered the volume of the radio on my second count. On three, he said, “What the fuck! You’re just telling me this now.”
“Chill. I didn’t see a need to bring up the subject. But since you’re with me, you should know just in case she bolts out of her house and attacks me.” I braked at a stop sign. “And she wasn’t pregnant. It was a false alarm.”
“God, Kross. That’s good news. So why do I get the feeling you’re not happy? Did you want her to be pregnant?”
“Fuck no.” I wasn’t happy because I might come face-to-face with the woman I’d left hanging. A woman who’d called me several times sounding frantic, and whose calls I’d ignored. A woman who probably wanted my balls between a nutcracker.
Family was everything to me. I wanted my own one day, but at sixteen, no way. Even now at twenty years old, I was still too young to start a family. “But I was a dick. I didn’t return her repeated calls after we moved back home.” I gave my truck some gas.
“Come on, man. We were sixteen. How were you supposed to act? You were scared.”
Maybe I was scared, but I was also confused. Too much had changed—my sister Karen’s death, Mom moving into a mental health facility, moving from Texas to Massachusetts. Then no sooner had we gotten used to a new school in Ashford before we were plucked from it and forced into Greenridge Academy. Ruby had been my escape, and I’d used her. At least looking back on the situation, that was how I felt now.
“So, why the apology?”
“We were friends, and I let her down.” Truth be told, she’d said she loved me. My response to her had been, “No, you don’t. You think you do, but the feelings we shared won’t last.” It had been wrong of me to say that. I’d learned from Kelton recently that young love could stand the test of time.
“Did you love her?” Kody asked.
“I don’t know. I was so confused. All I could think about when she told me she loved me were Mom’s words to Kelton: ‘It’s infatuation. You don’t love Lizzie.’”
Kody chuckled. “But that didn’t stop Kelton now, did it?”
“Kelton proved all of us wrong.” His childhood sweetheart had shown up in Boston several months ago, and now Lizzie and Kelton were madly in love and living together. Not that I was here to confess my love to Ruby, although I was curious how I would react to seeing her again. She had always made me feel lightheaded in a good way.
Kody scratched his head. “I sense you’re not telling me everything. Do you think if you see her again, she might stir up old feelings?”
I pressed on the gas pedal. “What? No. But every time I see Chloe, I’m reminded of how much of a dick I was to Ruby. She kept calling me after we left the academy. The messages she left sounded like she needed my help. I should’ve at least responded to her, but the pregnancy scare and her telling me she loved me kind of freaked me out. I really just want to apologize.”
A weathered, worn yellow house came into view on our right. I wheeled into a spot across the street.
“Seems to me that no one lives there,” Kody said.
Compared to the meticulous manicured lawns of the surrounding homes, Ruby’s home gave off an ominous vibe in the daylight. The grass was overgrown. The bushes lining both sides of the tiny porch needed a trim, and the black shutters were chipping.
I opened my door. “You want to wait here?”
“I’ll stretch my legs.”
As Kody and I strode up to the house, a Jetta zipped into the driveway next door. The bass of the music pounded as the driver screeched to a stop. Once the engine died, a young girl hopped out, dressed in workout gear. She caught sight of us as she hitched her sport bag over her shoulder.
“We have a looker,” I whispered.
“If you two are here to rob that house, it’s empty.” The teenage girl raised her voice as she tucked her shiny black hair behind her ears.
“Do we look like thieves?” Kody asked.
She sashayed her curvy hips through the weeds. “Kind of.” She giggled. “I’m Tasha.”
Okay, maybe we did. Kody and I were both dressed in jeans, boots, hooded sweatshirts, and knit caps. Normal attire for us.
“I’m Kross,” I said. “This is Kody. I’m looking for Ruby Lewis.”
She eyed Kody for a beat before settling her gaze on me. “I’m sorry I can’t help you. Shortly after the cops arrested her father four years ago, Ruby and her mom left.”
I wracked my brain, trying to remember what her father did for living, but I wasn’t sure Ruby had told me. I’d only met him once at one of her ballet recitals.
“Why did he go to jail?” Kody asked.
She lifted a shoulder. “Dealing drugs.”
Kody and I exchanged a what-the-fuck look.
Ruby’s messages toward the end had sounded desperate. “Kross, why won’t you call me back? I thought we were friends. I need you. I need to talk to you.”
“Any idea where Ruby might be?” I asked.
“Sorry, I don’t.” Her gaze lingered on Kody, who eyed me with a look that said he wanted to get out of there.
“Thanks for the info.” I started for my truck, feeling more like a dick. Ruby had wanted my help, and all I’d done was hit ignore on my phone.
Kody caught up to me. “Kross, did you know her old man dealt drugs?”
“No idea. Our family had our own problems back then. And Ruby didn’t talk too much about her parents. All I knew was her mom didn’t work.”
“Kross,” the girl called. “Are you Kross Maxwell?”
I pivoted on my heel in the middle of the street then angled my head.
She jogged across the lawn and stood on the curb. “Are you the father?”
My mouth fell open. “Come again?”
She looked back at Ruby’s house then at me. “Ruby was pregnant when they left.”
The neighborhood narrowed to nothing—no sound, no light, just a black hole. Kody dragged me out of the street as a car sped past. My heart was beating so fast, it was bruising my ribs. I swung my gaze from a pale-faced Kody to the girl.
Finally, I shook my head. It couldn’t be possible. Ruby had said she wasn’t pregnant. My limbs became weak, my brain became foggy, and my tongue wouldn’t move. Tasha had to be mistaken.
“So, you know this for a fact?” Kody asked.
“Sure as the wind is blowing right now,” she said. “When her and her mom left in the fall of her junior year, her belly was big, and her mom told mine that Ruby was pregnant.”
I thought back to when Ruby and I had had sex, counting the months. We’d had sex in May of our sophomore year. I’d moved back to Ashford in June. So by the fall of that year, she would’ve been at least four months pregnant. The blood drained from my face.
“Bro, maybe it’s not yours.” Kody’s face had turned completely white. No doubt mine had too.
I shoved both hands through my hair. Kody might have been right, but my gut was telling me differently. All I could think back to were Ruby’s messages. She hadn’t been calling me because of her father’s arrest. She’d been calling me because she was pregnant.
“According to my brother, Ruby had told him that the father was a guy by the name of Kross Maxwell.” She flashed her big dark eyes at me. “Is that you?”
Either a sinkhole was beginning to form beneath my feet or the earth was shaking. Kody caught me as I swayed. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I sucked in the late October air, the cold burning a path down my throat. I was a daddy. I was a fucking daddy. I had to sit down. I whipped my head in all directions. But that only served to increase the dizziness. Kody guided me to a fire hydrant. But my body wouldn’t stop listing to one side then the other as though I was on a boat in high seas. Nausea shot up to settle in my throat.
“Is he okay?” Tasha asked.
Kody tapped me on the face. “Bro?” He waved a blurry hand in front of my eyes.
I bent over and heaved. Nothing came out. I heaved again as Kody steadied me. This time, I literally lost my lunch. Sweat coated my forehead as ice sliced through my veins. I shivered. I could handle difficult situations. I’d learned quickly when my sister, Karen, died, and even more so when my mom had fallen into a deep depression. I had to in order to help my father and Kade. While Kade was consoling Kody and Kelton, I tended to my mom, especially when my old man was away on missions. Sure, I cried over my sister’s death. I cried alone in my room at night when no one was around. I wanted to be strong. I’d seen how Kade had struggled with becoming a pseudo parent, and I’d had to help him.
But the news that I could be a father made me feel as though I had just been rammed in the gut by a cement truck.
“Breathe,” Kody said.
I couldn’t get air in my lungs. I couldn’t even form words.
“Here’s a tissue.” Tasha’s voice rose. “I’ll get some water. Be right back.”
“Sit,” Kody ordered.
Wiping my mouth, I dropped down on the curb as the neighborhood spun around me. “I’m a fucking father.” I wished I were numb. But a sharp pain throbbed inside my skull, feeling as though I was getting hit from both sides. Maybe I was taking after Kade and getting a migraine. I turned away from Kody and puked again. Man, I knew now how Kelton felt when he thought he might be the father of Chloe’s baby.
“Fuck,” Kody said. “I don’t know what to do, Bro. Do you want me to call Kade?”
A maniacal laugh escaped me. I didn’t have the first clue what to do, not when my hands were shaking and the nausea wouldn’t settle. “No. This type of news is something that Kade needs to hear in person. Give me a minute. I’ll be fine.” Another crazy laugh broke out, only this time in my head. I was far from fine.
Tasha came back with a bottle of water and handed it to me. “I’m sorry that I told you. I thought you knew.”
I downed the water, the liquid cooling the acidic burn in my throat.
“Does your brother know where Ruby might be?” Kody’s voice cracked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s not home either. He goes to Boston College. I’ll give you his cell before you leave.”
It was time we did. I had to get out of there and away from Ruby’s house. I had to find her. I just didn’t know how yet.
Copyright 2016: S.B. Alexander. All rights reserved.