Gladiators of the Gridiron, Book 1
Release Date:

Mar 9, 2020

ISBN:

978-1-951786-22-9

More From C.R.  →

Mouthful

by

C.R. Grissom

Life after high school still blows

Between a judgmental beauty advice columnist mom who sends clothes several sizes too small, and social media sex-shaming her senior year of high school, Faith Lacerna needs a self-confidence boost. Being a freshman at Fortis University in Silicon Valley will be fine, as long as she doesn’t attract attention. Except wearing oversized hoodies in sunny California isn’t the best choice for blending in.

When football jock Caleb St. John shows interest, she recommits to studying anything but the hot tight end. Caleb wants to lose himself in football, avoid his unfaithful ex-girlfriend, and – unlike his cheating dad – live his life with integrity. He knows there’s more to Faith than baggy clothes. Her humor and audacity spark more than Caleb’s competitive nature.

Faith doesn’t want to be interested, but Caleb’s kindness and sense of adventure has her hooked. She soon realizes she needs to confront her hurts and fears if she wants to embrace a relationship with Caleb and not let the past intercept her future.

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THEN

I’m plagued with the attention span of a squirrel. Too many thoughts collide. Impending graduation. Prom. My looming West Coast move.

The decision to road test my gag reflex last Friday night.

Dawn spreads low across the horizon. The smell of cut grass fills my lungs and unseasonable warmth envelops me. Expectation flutters in my belly as one hundred and eighty-three students in my graduating class reach the football stadium and our ultimate destination—the senior wall.

The Wall, a rite of passage on the path to graduation, encloses the venue. For generations, graduating students at Newford High have tagged The Wall with messages for the next class. As long as the urban poetry, rants, and random quotes aren’t deemed inappropriate by administration, the messages live on for one year, until the concrete slabs are painted fresh and the next crop of graduates take part in the ritual.

Kirsty, my best friend, walks beside me. “Slow down, Faith. What’s your hurry?”

“Sorry. I’m nervous.” I adjust my stride. “What will you write?”

“Amicitia vera illuminat.” She shrugs.

I wait a beat and shoot her the look I’ve perfected to convey the fact I have no idea what she means.

Her cheeks turn pink. “Authentic friendship shines.”

Warmth spreads to my numb hands. She’s making a statement about us.

“What about you?” she asks.

“Words have a lasting impact—especially when carved into a soul by repeated use.”

She glances at me as the smile spreads across her face. “Would take you less time to paint the Green Monster at Fenway Park.”

I poke her in the ribs with my elbow. “You’re not supposed to point out the flaws in my plan.”

“I think you should write Fuck all y’all and be done with it.”

Her Georgia roots are showing. The phrase bears consideration, except it wouldn’t make it beyond Principal Collins’s spray can of censorship. Succinct. Satisfying. And something I’d never write.

“I can’t believe we graduate in three weeks,” she says.

My spirits surge right before the weight of leaving my only friend presses against my shoulders. For most of my life I’ve lived in this small town outside of Boston. Soon, I’ll start fresh in Northern California. “Less than two months until Dad and I pack and move from my personal purgatory.”

Her face crumples. “I don’t want to think about your move. I’m still in denial.”

“I’m sorry.” I wrap my arm around her to prod us forward, knocking my hip into hers. She knocks me back. It’s our thing—the hip check. Our way of communicating we’re on the same page. I suppose I’m riding the denial bus about my move, too.

High school acts like a touchstone—or trauma trigger, depending on your state of popularity or infamy. I’m notorious. Not for anything in the realm of my control but for something spawned in third grade when puberty hit and my body betrayed me. By early July, I’ll close this chapter of my life and forget my classmates. Except Kirsty.

And Dimitri Stampulos.

Tall, dark hair, olive skin. Green eyes so clear they’re almost feline. Charming and handsome, he’s an All-League running back for our school’s football team. He transferred to Newford High in September. He’s the only guy who has shown real interest in me. Since the first time he asked me to hang out with him after school a few weeks ago, we’ve met at the library four times. And the deciding factor for me to keep him embedded in my memories of this place? He’s never called me Fat Faith.

I scan the faces around us, hoping to find Dimitri. My stomach free-falls each time I think of him. He insists on privacy. No contact during school to keep our friendship free from public opinion. I’m not sure anyone besides Kirsty knows about us. Or what I did last Friday night.

“Check it out.” She points to the top section of the bleachers, visible from outside the stadium, and the row where graduating football players’ jerseys hang in tribute. A poster taped under Dimitri’s number, reads, “Vote for 33, your best choice for prom king.”

Prom king. My breath stutters. “Why hasn’t he asked anyone?”

Kirsty frowns. “Cutting it pretty close, but boys never think about that. You should just go anyway. Hang out with Will and me. He’ll dance with both of us. A twofer.”

“Thanks, but I don’t need that kind of attention.”

I want to go to prom with a date. But I keep picturing the school newspaper headline: Prom King-elect Asks Fat Faith to Prom. Classmates Call for Boycott! To say my wish out loud, even to Kirsty, makes me sound childish—a city girl praying for a pony. My shoulder blades pinch and pain spreads. I need to arrange my face into a mask of apathy and fake it. For the next ten hours until prom ticket sales end, anyway.

I manage my breathing while we walk. Anxiety gives me the hiccups, and I don’t want my vocal cords slamming shut to provide a soundtrack for my nerves. Not today.

Kirsty asks, “If he asks you to prom, you’ll have to buy a dress.”

It’s been nine years since I’ve worn anything other than hoodies large enough to hit my knees. For the first time, I believe Dimitri might be worth the risk. For him, I’ll fight my fears. “I’ll wear a dress. I’ll find something I can live with.”

Kirsty pumps her fist in the air. “About time. I can make an appointment with Colleen for an updo. With your dark curly hair, you’ll look like a Disney princess.”

“Please.” Bad comparison. I’m no princess. “Not even close.” Hic. Damn hiccups.

Kirsty rolls her eyes at me, well aware of my nervous reaction and poor self-opinion.

“See what you did?” Hic.

She laughs. “Hold your breath.” She gestures at the jeans and top she’s wearing. “You didn’t say anything about the outfit. I love it. But you could have sold it on BlueStar and donated the money.”

I sell most of the designer outfits Mom sends me, and then donate the proceeds to a teen shelter in Boston. Kirsty was with me when I opened the gift Mom sent me for my birthday. I haven’t seen Mom in four years, but she still insists on sending me clothing that is too small, hoping I’ll take the hint and lose weight to fit her vision of a perfect daughter.

She thinks of it as incentive. I know it’s a remote type of passive-aggression.

“The outfit looks perfect on you,” I say.

“You say the same about everything you pass along to me.”

“Well, it’s true.”

We reach the area where paints and brushes are stacked. Choices are restricted to school colors. Kirsty chooses a can of black. I pick red. Supplies in hand, we walk toward the scoreboard.

The sky softens to a lighter shade of purple. Dimitri stands with his teammates in the semidarkness under the goalpost. I wish I could wrap my arms around him, but he’s adamant about avoiding attention from the gossip squads. Packs of girls surround the team, drawn like magnets by the inexplicable polarity of their popularity. I want to claim him, mark him indelibly as mine, but reject the reckless thought.

Kirsty says, “End zone.”

I allow my gaze to track in that direction. “What’s in his hands?”

“A poster?”

Dimitri laughs. The sound makes my pulse scramble. He’s never acknowledged me at school, remaining polite, but aloof. I haven’t seen him since last weekend when I told him I didn’t want to be felt up. He wanted to know why, and I couldn’t explain my suffocating panic at the thought of allowing anyone to touch my breasts.

I blame anxiety and a need to make up for the awkwardness for what happened next. He unfastened his zipper, and I went down on him. An out-of-character compromise I’ve regretted ever since.

I assumed it would bring us closer, and he’d ask me to be his girlfriend, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe I suck at giving head? A nervous snort escapes at my unintentional double entendre.

Dimitri motions me to join him.

“Don’t go.” Kirsty grabs my arm. “Something’s off.”

The stupid spark of hope about prom flashes in my brain. The urge to read the poster compels me toward his group. My heart skitters against my ribs. For the past week, guys have been asking girls to prom in creative ways, each trying to outdo the next. Promposal.

“I’m going.”

His teammates and his cousin, Markos Stampulos, surround Dimitri. Markos is a sadist who specializes in probing a person’s weaknesses then applying pressure until they bleed. Not literally, but close enough. They are polar opposites.

Kirsty wraps her fingers around my elbow.

A few classmates point in my direction. They’re an avid audience. I’m one of two performers, but I don’t have the script. I focus on Dimitri’s face. His smile awakens the marathon in my belly. When I’m two feet away from him, I tug my arm from Kirsty’s grip. Markos steps forward and blocks her from moving closer.

She glares at Markos, who puckers his lips and blows her a kiss. His smug expression telegraphs malicious intent. Dimitri turns the poster around.

It reads, I have faith—check KickBack to see and believe.

What does that mean? It’s not an invitation to prom. The sign makes no sense.

Kirsty pushes past Markos and shows me her phone open to the KickBack app. A picture posted by Dimitri fills her phone screen. It takes three beats of my heart to process the image and make the switch from the dazzling hope of a dream prom date to the reality of what Dimitri uploaded for everyone to see.

Chills start at my scalp and chase down my spine. It’s a picture taken of us, without my knowledge, Friday night. The last time we were together. The photo is dark enough not to show specifics. Still, the pose tells the tale.

My mind screams, NO.

It’s not difficult to recognize the participants. Dimitri’s face is cropped out, but there’s enough ambient light to read the letters on the back of my brown M&Ms hoodie: iconic candy characters on the front, Melts in your mouth, not in your hand on the back.

The perfect caption to my downfall.

Blood drains from my face. My hands go slack. The can of paint slips from my fingertips.

When it lands on his foot, Dimitri yelps and jumps back.

I can’t draw a full breath. Everything my classmates have done to me over the years can’t begin to compare with Dimitri’s straight-armed jab to my heart. I never questioned his intent. I can’t believe I trusted him.

Markos smirks. “You got yourself a mouthful, Fat Faith.”

Blood rushes back to my head, heating the skin on my face. Dimitri spent weeks with me with one goal in mind. I want to press my hands against my ribs to contain the pain radiating from my heart. The need to hurt Dimitri rides along my nerve endings.

“A mouthful? His dick is the size of a baby carrot,” I say, raising my voice loud enough to be heard.

Snickers spread through the gathered crowd. Markos cackles.

Dimitri spins to face his cousin. “What the fuck are you laughing at?”

“Hey, I didn’t say it.” Markos backs away, palms up.

My breathing turns shallow. Black dots float in front of my eyes.

Everyone near me has a cell phone out, faces eerily illuminated by the screens. Fight or flight time. I choose to retreat. Kirsty and I stalk across the field—away from the two cousins, the senior class, and The Wall.

Halfway across the field, I say, “Turn back. You’re not missing out on tagging The Wall because of me.”

“Will you stop for a second?” Kirsty snags my hood to slow my progress.

I twist my shirt from her grasp. It feels like such a bitchy move, but it’s not my intent. I try to explain myself. “You stop. Two days from now you’ll regret walking away. Go. Back.”

Kirsty shakes her head. “Do you even realize how many regrets I’ve racked up? Losing my virginity to Dexter Smallwood tops the list. You know I won’t leave. Stop telling me to abandon you.”

My spirit would have been crushed long ago if it hadn’t been for Kirsty. I don’t want her to miss out, but she’s too stubborn. Once she makes a decision, dynamite won’t alter her course.

I concentrate on my steps, fight the urge to drop to the grass and wail. Why did I allow myself to believe a gorgeous, popular boy like Dimitri could ever want someone like me? I was wrong. He’s exactly like his cousin.

The rising sun highlights the text on multiple flyers taped to the fence that separates the bleachers from the track. The first line reads @DStamp33—Dimitri’s KickBack account name. I change direction and stomp toward them.

I rip the nearest flyer from the fence. A tear lands on the page, smearing my name. He used lowercase spelling to avoid getting in trouble with administration. His misdirection avoids the connection to me as a person; faith will be read as a reference to a belief system, which erases me. I never mattered to him or to anyone other than Kirsty at this damned school.

Bastard.

One more glance at the text to burn it onto my memory, and I crumple the paper and shove it in my pocket. I scrub my face to erase tears leaking from my eyes. I never cry at school. Another humiliation to drape on his shoulders.

Kirsty sprints down the fence line, tearing more fliers off one by one. She drops an f-bomb each time she rips one down and returns with at least a dozen papers in her hands.

“I’ll make him pay for this.” Her eyes are wet, and her voice wobbles.

The energy drink I’d downed before school burns my esophagus. We increase our pace. I try to swallow it back, but I know it’s about to erupt. I clamp my hand over my mouth while searching for the nearest trash can. I’m steps away when I gag and the inevitable happens, dripping the mess right down my hoodie.

Kirsty pulls my hair back to keep it off my soiled shirt front.

I’m still a virgin. My first sexual experience has been uploaded for everyone to see. As I retch into the trash, tears squeeze from my eyes. Never trust a boy again.

“Asshole,” Kirsty says, as she rubs my back. “I’m so sorry. Let’s get you cleaned up. I have a sweatshirt in my locker you can borrow.”

I wipe my face with my sleeve. “I won’t fit into a medium.”

She tucks my ponytail into the hood of my shirt. “Please don’t start. If you wore clothes that fit, you’d make them eat their damn nickname. Those fuckers.”

I shake my head, wordless. Kirsty’s loyalty never fails. When I leave Newford, I’ll be on my own. No longer half of a tag team. I want to get as far from this place as possible, but it means leaving my only friend behind. All quests begin with a sacrifice. It’s the opening line from Dad’s most popular video game. I can relate. My college choice was based on the fact Dad accepted a job in Silicon Valley. He has to relocate and be ready to start working by the middle of July. In order to stay close to Dad, I’ll lose my only friend.

She wraps her arm around my shoulder. “You’re the strongest person I know. You’ve got this. Don’t give them the satisfaction of showing them they hurt you.”

I hunch my shoulders. “Don’t. You’ll end up wearing my puke, too.”

“Shut up.” She reaches up to pull my head down to her shoulder. No small feat considering I’ve got her by a good eight inches in height. But it’s pure Kirsty. Zero fucks given—about second-hand vomit smears or choosing a best friend who turned her into a social pariah by association.

“I can’t stay here today.” My voice falters, and I hate myself for the weakness. “When Dad sees the mess I’ve made of myself, he’ll assume I’m sick.”

I need to regroup in a place where I’m safe. Where no one stares. Where I don’t have to hide in a crowd.

End of Excerpt