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To read Part I of this story, click here.

“Well, there’s your problem,” Asher says as he beats his red-striped Adidas against the aluminum bleachers. The step above him, the incessant metallic clanging grates against Isaac’s nerves like a pebble pressing into the sole of his foot—irritating and painful. He squeezes his eyes shut, willing the sound to disappear, and if possible, himself. It’s why he chose this location to pick at his lunch—the privacy from the judging eyes and the ones that can’t meet his own.

Of course, Asher’s leg jitter defeats that purpose, surely drawing attention each time the bang reverberates across the football field. The only benefit is that it does muffle their conversation listing all the ways that Isaac has screwed up in the past four days.

Maybe if they trace it all the way back to childhood, they’ll be able to understand why he makes such shitty decisions in the first place.

“You think I’m not aware of what my problem is?” Isaac says, massaging his eyes. The asshole who runs the Westford Word of Mouth ensured that. And himself. He can turn off his phone, throw it in the drainage pond on the other side of the senior lot, but he can’t undo his actions or erase them from his mind. If he could, he wouldn’t have to keep seeing the betrayal in the eyes of his girlfriend, Carly, when he told her the rumor was true. Or the flash of hurt that crosses his best friend Winnie’s face each and every time their classmates do what he can only describe as slut-shaming. Or the way both of them are now avoiding him like he’s dripping in radioactivity.

The chicken patty lurches in Isaac’s stomach, and he lays down on the bleacher to try to settle it, yanking his hood over his head to form a makeshift pillow that is as much of a cushion as his blonde curls. In other words, not much of one.

“I mean, yeah, but the bigger problem, I meant,” Asher says.

“What’s bigger than this?”

Isaac’s life is obliterated—in relationships and reputation.

After all, he’s a cheater, or at least that’s what people will probably aptly and accurately describe him as now—the nice people that is.

“The fact that kissing Winnie wasn’t an accident.”

“What? I didn’t set out to kiss her.” Isaac whips his head towards Asher, his eyebrows drawing together like his grandma’s do whenever she’s pissed at him. However, it doesn’t seem to strike the same fear in Asher, who’s only reaction is to lift his head just enough so his red hair peeks over the top of the laptop he’s balancing on his knees.

“I’m not saying that,” he sighs. “What I’m saying is that if it was just an accident, no feelings, no anything, you would’ve called it what it was and told Carly about it and said that it meant nothing. But you didn’t.”

Now, his expression turns wary, which makes Isaac again want to plug his ears to avoid whatever is about to come out next.

“I think that’s because maybe it did mean something, because at some level you did want to kiss Winnie, and you liked it when it happened.” He slowly pushes the laptop closed with his finger, the tip stained black for the grease of shop class, and stares at his friend. “Am I right?”

Isaac doesn’t need to answer. His inability to hold Asher’s gaze for more than five seconds says it all. Asher waves his arm at him in response in a “told you so.”

Isaac had known Winnie since fifth grade, before crushes were anything more than teasing a girl on the playground and receiving a note asking you to check yes or no to being her boyfriend. They’d seen each other on the peaks and in the valleys, and whenever he needed to rant, he could count on her to be his void to shout into, and, when he also needed it, be his echo back with a reality check.

So, it would’ve been weird to Isaac if he didn’t consider at least once what it would be like if they crossed the platonic threshold. But that’s all it was: just thoughts. He hadn’t intended to act on them, especially not when he was dating Carly, who could make him bust a rib laughing and riff on her guitar like she was in a professional rock band. Beautiful as a goddess Carly.

Until he did.

Ever since his lips left Winnie’s, his mind has been wrapped up in them, in her, in how right they felt together physically and emotionally. It didn’t feel like a first kiss—in anticipation yes, but not in execution. They moved like making out in alleys was their pastime, and, he couldn’t deny that now more than ever he wanted it to become one. Which is a really shitty thing to think when you’re holding someone else’s heart in your hands.

Each time the thought appeared, each time the lip-lock replayed, it was as if a cement truck was dumping an entire mixer of guilt onto him, encasing him in a block of his own selfish creation. For years, he had hated his mom for leaving his dad to become a single parent while she ran off with Rando Rick, and here he was, kicking down the first domino to start an all-too-similar chain of events. So much for not being like her.

Isaac considered telling Carly, but how could he explain what it meant to him if he had no idea what it was or where he wanted it to go? How could he talk to Winnie about it without having the same answers? The answer, he now realizes, was not the silence he chose, but much more simple:

Don’t hide behind excuses, be honest rather than a liar, have courage instead of fear.

Thus far, he’s zero for three, and as far as he can see, it’s too late to change the score.

“What would you do?” Isaac asks Asher, tucking his hands under his arms as if it can keep the cold at bay. He hadn’t thought to grab a coat after he announced to Asher he was making a mad dash for the door with his lunch tray. “If you were me? If I even have any options that is. I’m pretty sure I’m royally screwed.”

If he knows anything about Carly and Winnie, it’s that they share this quality: They weren’t going to wait around for him to bestow a crown of selection atop one of their heads. His is not the only choice to make. If they’re tired of bullshit, they won’t hold their nose and bear it. They’ll walk away, and he reckons that it’s far more likely that they will than they won’t.

Asher shrugs. “If I were you, I think I’d wait until things calmed down a bit, and The Westford Word of Mouth gets lost in some new gossip. Then, I’d tried to make amends, and if I have a chance, go where my feelings are the strongest and try to hurt as few people as possible in the process.”

Pressing his palms against the ridges of the risers, Isaac pushes himself up and looks across the field to the school that he’ll have to return to, the school that within a matter of four hours has transformed from a place of education to his own hell.

While Asher usually just states the obvious, he’s also observant, plucking truths from obscurity and holding them up for people—particularly Isaac—to see when they otherwise can’t. This, Isaac knows, is one of those times, and he can’t be blind to it, just like he can’t be blind to the feelings eating at his core, the ones he knows he needs to follow.

“Yeah,” he says, and grabs his tray to head back into the flames.

Sarah Razner

Sarah Razner is a reporter of real-life Wisconsin by day, and a writer of fictional lives throughout the world by night.

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