The first two chapters of Blurry:
~ Cecelia ~
“Hey,” my best friend Julie hissed, tapping my knee repeatedly, rousing me from my half nap. “Wake up.”
I blinked, forcing the sleep from my eyes, and pushed myself up on my elbows. “Why?”
She turned her head toward me, her voice getting low. “We’ve got company.”
I lifted a hand, sheltering my eyes from the sun’s glare, and followed her stare to where a group of four men had just climbed up the last section of the trail and were headed for the rock ledge where we’d made our home for the day. They were young—older than us but not by much—dressed in board shorts and tees or tank tops, carrying towels and coolers. Laughing and joking until they saw us, then they seemed to grow quiet, nodding in our direction once they realized they weren’t alone.
The third one up paused slightly as he stepped into the clearing. He was tall, at least six foot two, with shaggy, dirty blond hair that I had an unexplainable need to run my fingers through. He walked straight toward us instead of following his friends, tugging his sunglasses off as he did. Jules swore under her breath, but I only narrowed my eyes behind my shades and leaned my head back to meet his stare.
“Ladies.” His voice was low and demanding.
“Coach Knightly,” Julie answered, a tinge of worry in her voice.
He ignored her, his eyes sweeping over me, but I knew he wasn’t seeing the tanned skin glistening under a sheen of sweat from the late afternoon sun any more than he noticed the barely-there bikini top and jean shorts that made most men his age gawk. No, he was checking me over for signs of sickness.
He sank into a squat, milk-chocolate orbs drilling into mine through my glasses. “You look like you’re feeling better, Merrill.”
The bitterness in his tone was almost laughable. One of my eyebrows rose in surprised challenge. “Much.”
His lips pursed, as if there were more he wanted to say. Then he looked over my shoulder, probably at his friends, before nodding once. “Tomorrow morning. I want you there early.”
I snorted. “Your days are messed up. Tomorrow’s Sunday. We don’t have practice.”
“Starting tomorrow, you do.” He stood, sliding his sunglasses back on, hesitating only as he saw my mouth open in argument. “If you want to stay on my team, you practice on Sundays.” He stepped around me, heading for the rest of his group. “See you at seven, Merrill.”
I didn’t watch him leave. Instead, I turned back to my friend, snapping my mouth closed, an annoyed growl on my lips. Jesus, the man was insufferable. I hadn’t missed an important game; I had simply skipped a morning practice. Hell, we were still in the pre-season and didn’t have a scrimmage until next week. It wasn’t like I couldn’t make it up.
Julie gave me a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, Lee. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
“You didn’t, Jules.”
When she had called me crying that morning, I hadn’t thought twice. Julie Samms had been my best friend since we were in the womb; our moms worked together at the town’s apple packing plant and we’d been born two days apart. We’d grown up together, inseparable ever since the first time the daycare teacher put us on the floor to play. She was the sister I never had, my voice of reason, and the devil that corrupted me all rolled into one.
When she needed me, I dropped it all.
I had told her I would be right over, ripped off my sports bra and gym shorts, replacing them with a bathing suit and jean shorts, and grabbed a couple twenties out of the piggy bank I kept hidden in the corner. Neither one of us had our license yet, but her mom always left the keys to her old station wagon. She had told us once that as long as we put on a hat and drove carefully, we could use it whenever we wanted. As long as it wasn’t to school, or to somewhere we’d be recognized, she didn’t care where we went. It got us out of her hair.
Julie was a mess when I finally got to her house, but she’d let me push her into the car and drive us out of town to one of our favorite places—a set of falls where each emptied into the one below it, every pool getting smaller as you climbed the half-mile to the top. It was the only place I thought we’d be able to spend the day in peace, not running into anyone we knew. Plus, I knew the hour-long hike up the mountain and swimming in the arctic water would do us both good.
It had worked. Julie had stopped talking about the silly rumors she’d overheard and started talking about her latest crush and our weekend plans. I had relaxed as soon as she had calmed down, completely forgetting I was missing practice. We’d had a good day.
Until my field hockey coach showed up.
It would figure. While the area was mostly a destination for families during the day, at night it became a popular party spot for the college crowd. In an hour or two, the mountain would be glowing from their bonfires. By the looks of my coach and his friends, they’d come to beat the crowd.
“Knightly hates me. He’s been on a mission to make my life a living hell the last few weeks.” I shrugged. “My luck, he would have given me an extra practice even if I hadn’t played hooky today. Maybe his friends will make him chill out.”
“Maybe he needs to get laid.” Julie’s eyes lit up as she looked back at the group of men.
I had seen that look before. “No.” I shook my head, laughing. “Don’t even think about it.”
“What?” she asked with far too much innocence as she glanced at me quickly, her gaze darting right back to them, twirling her recently dyed black hair around her finger. “They’re hot.”
I peeked over my shoulder. They were laughing again, quietly talking amongst themselves as if we weren’t there, getting ready to jump into the freezing falls. Most of them were exactly the type of guys Jules loved—toned, pretty college boys with muscles that went on for days and grins that held wicked promises. I could almost see what she meant, but they weren’t all that and a bag of chips.
Then Coach turned our way, his eyes hidden behind mirrored glasses. I doubted he could see mine, but I felt like he saw more than I wanted him to. It was a feeling I got from him often. Almost as if even my best defenses weren’t enough to keep him out.
I twisted my head back around, sitting all the way up, staring down at the falls. “As if!” I ground out, standing, wiping dirt from my butt as I did. Grabbing my towel, I shook it out and then folded it up. “I’m ready to get out of here. Let’s go get Missy.”
Julie perked up. Saturdays were our sleepover nights. If one of us wasn’t on a date, we were at my house in our pajamas with an armful of junk food. Other kids our age spent their summer weekends partying at camps and boozing it out at bonfires. Not us. And we were okay with that. At least, we pretended to be.
We were halfway over the rocks, almost to the trailhead at the top of the mountain, when a familiar voice called to me. I ignored it. Hurried footsteps crunched on the path behind us, the same voice calling for me again. Jules heard it and turned, even though I tried to stop her.
Coach stepped in front of me, halting our escape. He’d taken off his glasses again, and with his hands on his hips, he glared down at me. “How’d you girls get here?”
I weighed the options as I stared at him. I could’ve lied. It would have been so easy to say an adult had driven us up and was on the way to get us now.
But since we hadn’t seen anyone else there today, I doubted he had, either. Which meant there was only one explanation for the car parked at the bottom of the mountain. I didn’t want Julie getting in trouble for something I had done.
I cleared my throat. “I drove.”
To his credit, he didn’t look a bit surprised. Instead, his jaw tightened in anger. Holding out a palm, he demanded, “Give me the keys.”
His hand didn’t move. “Whether we’re on the field or not, I’m your coach. If you think I’m going to let my unlicensed, unsafe athlete get into a car and drive her underage friend home, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said over the last two weeks.”
Sighing, I dug into the small pocket at my hip and yanked them out. Resisting the urge to throw them at his head, I grasped them in my palm. “I’m a perfectly safe driver! I drive all the time,” I hissed back, pissed at his condescending tone.
His eyes sparked dangerously and his hand moved lightning fast, snatching the keys. “Not anymore you don’t.” His fingers closed around them. “Go wait at the car.”
He dismissed us, walking back to his friends. Anger raced down my spine, hatred for him pooling in my gut. Jules grabbed my hand, dragging me away from where I stood giving him the stink eye.
“Come on,” she insisted. “You’ll only make it worse.”
I glanced over my shoulder one more time, finding three sets of masculine eyes condemning me like the naughty child they saw. Pushing my shoulders back, I bit my tongue and followed my best friend down the path. My dad had been gone a long time, and I sure as hell didn’t need another. Coach had another thing coming if he thought controlling me would be that easy.
~ Craig ~
“You’re not serious.”
“As a heart attack,” I told my friends. “I’m not letting her drive home.”
My buddies nodded, understanding etched in their features. I knew they, of all people, would get it. Hell, we’d all dedicated our lives to helping kids.
Eddie, my roommate, crossed his arms over his chest, sending the girls a nasty look as they headed toward the path. “It’s bullshit you have to babysit on your afternoon off. But there isn’t anything else you can do.”
Al rolled his eyes. “This is why I was surprised you guys wanted to major in secondary education. Little kids are fun. And a shit ton less dramatic.”
Zeb shook his head. “Man, I’d rather deal with bratty mean girls and opinionated entitled asses than listen to snot-nosed brats whine.” Before Al could argue, telling us again why he had chosen to teach elementary school instead of high school like the rest of us, Zeb kept talking. “Just pretend you didn’t see them, CK. It’s not like we didn’t do shit like that when we were their age.”
“I can’t.” Annoyance practically seeped from my pores. I was pissed my day with my friends, one we’d been planning for weeks to work around everyone’s busy schedules, was being ruined. Yet I was even angrier one of my athletes was doing something so stupid. “If she gets caught, it’s on me.”
No one argued. I had just gotten the job. If I wanted to graduate in May, with them, and have any chance of getting hired in a decent school district, I needed to keep it. It would only take Lia getting pulled over, telling the cops I had seen her and hadn’t taken her keys, and I would be out on my ass.
“Just be careful,” Eddie warned, his voice low.
I laughed. “I’ll drive safe, Dad.”
“With those girls,” Zeb pointed out. “He means be careful with girls like that.”
I paused, turning to my best friend, confused. “Girls like what?”
Eddie snorted as if I were stupid, sliding his eyes toward the space where the girls had been. “Trouble. Girls like that are nothin’ but trouble.”
My nose wrinkled in disgust. “They’re just kids. Stupid kids.” I lifted my hand in goodbye and told them I would see them later.
My trip down the mountain did little to cool the agitation brewing inside me. I moved fast, practically running over the familiar trail, hoping endorphins would release and my runner’s high would hit. It didn’t. By the time I reached the late-model station wagon, I was fuming.
They were already in the car, and I could see a flash of deep auburn hair through the back window. Opening the driver’s door, I slid in behind the wheel, silence greeting me. The girl next to me lifted a hand in an awkward wave, as if she didn’t know how to act.
Hell, I didn’t know how to act. The protocol for spending an hour and a half trapped in a car with two pain-in-the-ass students had never been covered in any of my classes. It was awkward as hell.
I forced myself to relax. There wasn’t any reason we should all be on edge. I offered her a smile. “Hi. I’m—”
“We’ve met, Coach Knightly.” She laughed, interrupting. “I’m Julie Samms. I come to watch practice sometimes.”
I knew I had seen her sitting on the bleachers, cheering on her friend, but I hadn’t remembered her name. I probably still wouldn’t remember. There were twenty girls on my field hockey team, another sixteen on JV, and I’d only had a few weeks to try to learn them all.
I didn’t tell her any of that, though. “Julie, I’m going to drive your car to the high school, if that’s okay with you.”
She shrugged, lifting her hand toward the road. “Knock yourself out.”
I adjusted the rearview mirror, catching the eye of a seething redhead, and started the car. As soon as we hit the main road, I turned on the radio to fill the uncomfortable silence that had settled around us. Keeping one eye on the pavement, I fiddled with the buttons, trying to find something we could all listen to.
A small hand slapped at mine, and Julie chuckled. “In this car, Coach, passenger picks the tunes.” She twisted the knob, stopping on Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” In seconds, she was singing, bopping her head to the music, and pretending I was anyone other than myself.
I was in hell.
I glanced at the road behind me, finding Lia instead. Unlike her friend, she wasn’t lost in the music. Her arms were crossed over her chest, staring sullenly out the window, lips twisted into a scowl. As if feeling my eyes on her, she adjusted her gaze. For a split second, she held my stare before she lifted a finger and flipped me off.
I almost laughed.
Every team had one—the player who had a chip on their shoulder the size of Texas, the one who didn’t care about making friends or being Coach’s pet, they just wanted to play the game. Usually, it went hand in hand with natural talent others would kill for.
On my team, that player was Lia. Virtually no respect for anyone until the whistle blew. Once it did, she brought it like no one else on that field: she ran faster, pushed harder, and played better than girls who’d been on the varsity team for years. She was our star.
I heard the other girls talk about her, though. Words like “slut” and “bitch” made it to my ears more times than I could remember. I was quick to step in. That shit wouldn’t happen on my team. I didn’t care if they liked each other. They didn’t have to. They did, however, have to be a team and work together. Which meant there would be no derogatory terms used in my locker rooms or on my field.
Lia didn’t make that easy. For anyone. She was just, in no other terms, a brat.
Her dislike for me had been clear from the day I met her. When Coach Kearly and I had stepped onto the field for tryouts, the other girls had been happy to see me. Some were coy, others outright flirtatious, but not Lia. She had hopped off the bleachers, given me a look that made it clear I wasn’t welcome on her field, and proceeded to ignore me.
When I had given her a spot on my Varsity team, she’d gone straight to Kearly. I had overheard them talking in the office he and I shared.
“Move me back to JV!” she had insisted. “He’s a distraction for a bunch of stupid girls who care more about playing with his balls than hitting the one on the field!”
If she had said that to me, her ass would’ve been running stairs until she puked. He didn’t punish her, and instead tried to switch her back to his team. I argued, refusing to let her go. I won simply because her skills were far too advanced for the JV team.
Now I was stuck with the mouthy kid and she was stuck with me. In our time together, she’d run more laps than anyone, yet never seemed to learn. She would, though. If it took me all season, that girl would learn to hold her tongue.
By the time we pulled into the school, the sky glowed in hues of deep pink. I drove straight to the faculty lot, not stopping until we were next to my truck. Shifting the car into park, I turned to Julie. “Where do you live?”
Her dark eyebrows rose. “Like five minutes from here.”
“If I let you go, you’ll drive straight home? Not go anywhere else?”
She nodded. Trusting her, I got out, leaving the engine running. Walking in front of the car as Julie ran around the back, I headed for the passenger side and jerked open the rear door before the teenagers could rush away. Bracing one hand on the open door, the other on the roof, I looked down into Lia’s glaring face. “Out. Now.”
“What?” She scoffed, reaching for the door. “No.”
I didn’t budge. “I’m taking you home.”
“The hell you are.”
“You have five seconds to get out of the car,” I snapped. There was no way I was going to let her drive away with Julie after I had canceled my plans and ruined my afternoon. My day was not going to be made a thousand times worse by the two of them getting hurt in an accident as they left the school.
“Or what?” Her eyes widened in anger.
Her mouth fell slightly. “Are you for real?”
“Oh my God!” Julie cried from the front. She’d twisted in her seat, watching us, worry written all over her face. “Just go with him.”
Lia shook her head at her friend. “No! What for? You can take me home.”
“Two,” I warned, my voice hard.
“Lee!” Julie grasped the headrest so tightly her knuckles turned white. “Please?”
“Fine!” Lia threw her hands in the air, sending me a look that would’ve made the devil cower in fear. “I’ll see you later, Jules.” Grabbing her towel and a small purse, she slid from the car, shoving me out of the way in the process.
I could only grit my teeth. I had a lot to say, but Julie didn’t need to hear it. “Drive straight home. Nowhere else,” I warned the girl in the car once more.
Julie nodded. “Yes, sir.” I stood, starting to shut the door when she called my name. Leaning back down into the car, I met her eyes. “She only skipped for me. I needed her. She’s that kind of friend.” It took me a second to realize she was talking about Lia skipping practice. I nodded, closed the door, and turned back to my truck, ready to face the wrath of the pint-sized fury.
Instead, Lia was eerily calm. Leaning against the bed of my Chevy, her hands tucked in her pockets, her shoulders slouched forward, staring at her feet. She shivered as I stepped toward her. “Are you cold?”
I unlocked my door, snatching the sweatshirt I kept behind my seat. She didn’t reach for it as I held it out to her, shaking her head instead. Her eyes moved from the ground to my hoodie.
“Look,” she mumbled with a sigh. “I’m sorry I skipped practice. I’d tell you I won’t do it again, but that’s not true. I probably will.” One shoulder lifted in a shrug. “And I’m sorry you felt you had to bring us home. We do it all the time, really. It’s no big deal. Ms. Samms doesn’t give a shit—”
“Well, I do,” I interrupted, tossing the heavy cotton shirt back onto my bench seat. “Until one of you has a license, I don’t want either of you driving.”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
“Lia.” I made my tone as authoritative as I could. “I find out you’ve driven that car, or ridden with any of your unlicensed friends, and I’ll kick you off the team.”
The words sank in and she jerked her face toward mine in surprise. “What?” she hissed. “Why? It’s not a team problem.”
“Let me guess, you were Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes and never did anything wrong when you were my age.”
“We’re not talking about me, are we?” I stepped back, ignoring the daggers her eyes shot in my direction, and motioned to the open door. “Get in.”
Her face fell again, all color disappearing as if she had remembered I was taking her home. The light-brown flecks splattered across the tops of her nose and cheeks stood out even more, and for a brief moment, she looked younger, more vulnerable, than I had ever seen her. Almond-shaped, dark-navy eyes that were almost too big for her thin face, but somehow didn’t look out of place, peered up at me, filled with sincerity. Her nose was long, leading right to a set of pink lips she was now twisting.
“Um.” She bit her top lip, showing me a quick flash of metal braces on her teeth. “I said I was sorry, and I really am.” For the first time, I actually believed her. “I don’t live that far away, I can walk.”
Unease crept up my spine. There was a reason she didn’t want me to take her home. I had never seen any bruises on her, but that didn’t mean they weren’t carefully hidden. It took me a few seconds to choose my words carefully. “I won’t say a word about today, okay? This”—I moved my hand in a circle around the parking lot—“is between us. But I do need to talk to a parent about your practice tomorrow.”
She shook her head slightly, swallowing, and for the first time, I realized the tough exterior she projected to the world was meant to cover something else. I didn’t know much about the girl in front of me, but I recognized fear and trepidation when I saw it. Lia was consumed with both.
“Coach,” Lia started slowly, “my mom doesn’t care when I have practice. I promise, I’ll be here first thing in the morning.”
She was hiding something. That much was obvious. Part of me wanted to back down, tell her I would see her in the morning, and let her off the hook. I could spend the next couple of months earning her trust and then try to help her through whatever was weighing on her so heavily.
Instead, I nodded. “Good. She can tell me herself. When I drop you off. Get in the truck.”
Lia’s face hardened, eyes narrowed, anger clear. The innocence was still there, the worry present under her fierce hatred for me, yet her mask had come up and she hid it well. Jerking her things off the ground where she’d thrown them, she lifted herself in, sliding as far away from me as possible.
I pushed the key into the ignition. “I need directions.”
“Do you know where Two Lanes is?”
I nodded. When she didn’t say anything else, I turned to her. “That’s not directions.”
“No,” she snapped. “But it’s where I live. If you know how to get there, you don’t need directions.”
“Buckle up,” I ground out, irritated. Not five minutes before she’d told me she didn’t live that far away from the school and could walk home. Two Lanes Mobile Home Park was a good fifteen-minute drive. She wasn’t walking there alone this time of night.
We spent the ride in silence. I was too irritated to talk, and she was too busy wringing her hands in an uncharacteristic way. When I finally pulled through the gate, she gave me directions, and a few minutes later, I rolled to a stop in front of a little brown trailer at the end of the line. There wasn’t a single light on inside. Or out.
“Doesn’t look like anyone’s home.”
“Thanks for that, Captain Obvious,” Miss Attitude snapped. “My mom works a lot. Okay?”
“When will she be home? I need to speak to her.”
Lia stared at her trailer, looking completely lost. I hated how sad she looked. “I don’t know.” She glanced back at me, and I knew she was telling me the truth. “She spends a lot of time with her friends.”
I had somehow known before I had asked. I just needed to hear her confirm it. A million questions raced through my mind.
“How do you get to practices?”
Lia sagged against the seat, defeated, but her tone was firm as steel. “I walk. Or hitch a ride with friends.”
Friends who didn’t have licenses. I didn’t think twice. “Go.” I lifted my chin at her door. “I’ll see you at six thirty.”
She had started to reach for her door when I dismissed her but paused with her hand mid-air. “What?”
“You have a make-up practice tomorrow at seven, Merrill. I’ll pick you up at six-thirty.”
Her hand dropped, and she turned her entire body my way, lifting her knee on the seat between us. “I’m not a fucking charity case, Coach K. You see where I live and find out my mom is never home, and suddenly you think I’m some poor little sob story who needs your help? I’m not. I can get to practice just fine.”
Just like that, the sass returned. I laughed at her, knowing it would piss her off even more. “Think what you want. I’m only making sure you don’t waste my time by not showing up. Now get the hell out of my truck.”
Lia at least had the dignity to look ashamed of herself. Taking a deep breath, she pushed open her door and slid out. “Sorry.”
“Six thirty,” I told her before she could slam it shut. “I suggest you hit the hay. It’s going to be miserable. Think run-until-you-puke hell.”
I waited until she’d made it up the steps and into the house, turning on lights as she did. It was almost pitch black outside, and I gripped the steering wheel in anger when I realized she still wouldn’t be home if she had walked. She’d been right; as soon as I saw the hovel where she lived and heard her mom was never around, I had felt sorry for her.
I had decided to become a teacher because I knew firsthand how cruel and dick-headed kids could be. I also knew all it took was one teacher, just one, to turn a life around. Lia hadn’t realized it, but she needed help, even if it was just an adult to listen when she talked. As I drove away from the rundown trailer park, I decided I was just as good a choice as anyone else. I was going to do whatever I could to help that lost girl find her way.