Read When We Were Us (Keeping Score, #1) Online
Authors: Tawdra Kandle
Tags: #New Adult, #new adult love story, #new adult contemporary romance, #contemporary romance novel, #contemporary love story
When We Were Us (Keeping Score, #1)
Chapter 1: Jesse
I knew fifth grade was going to be different the minute I stepped onto the playground that first day.
In our town, there are two huge elementary schools. The kids go to Marian Johnson Primary School from pre-k through fourth grade and then move onto Herbert Andrews Elementary from fifth through seventh grade. It’s cool, you know, but in a way, it means we all start over three times before we graduate from high school, because there’s also a junior high. We go from being the big men on campus back to the bottom of the barrel three times.
So when I stepped onto the newly recovered asphalt at Herbert Andrews—everyone calls it the HA school—I have to admit, I was a little nervous. At MJ Primary, I was a pretty popular kid. At least I had a lot of friends, and the teachers liked me. I don’t know how it happened, but I was able to get good grades and not be labeled as some kind of dork. I think it was mostly because we hadn’t really gotten to the point of labeling each other. We’d all been together since kindergarten—or pre-k, for some of us—and there was a kind of sweet acceptance that was doomed to end.
I saw it ending almost right away on the first day of fifth grade. I was still standing on the edge of the playground, kind of taking everything in, when I noticed a cluster of kids over to my left, standing just beyond the swings. They weren’t just hanging out; I saw a few glancing carefully over their shoulders, watching out for teachers or other adults just the same way my dog looked when he was getting into the trash.
I was curious, and I wandered over that way. I recognized a couple of classmates from fourth grade. But as I got closer, my heart sank. In the middle of the crowd, looking more confused and frightened than I ever saw him, was Nathan.
Nat had always been smaller than me. His arms were thin and gangly, and his face had a pointed look that had been cute during kindergarten, but now only had the effect of making him seem hunted. His hunched shoulders only made it worse.
He was surrounded by five boys who all towered at least two heads above him. They were grinning, but not in a ‘hey, let’s all go play ball’ way. I saw one of them reach out and shove against Nat’s shoulder. Always just a little unsteady, he teetered for a moment, but to my relief, kept his feet.
I was close enough now to hear their voices, the jeering. And for just a minute, less time than it took me to realize I was thinking it, I was tempted to just turn around. Turn my back and pretend that I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t seen Nat in the middle of that mess.
I wouldn’t have done. I’m really sure about that. But before I could prove it—to myself or anyone else, I guess—a blue tornado streaked past me.
“Hey! Get away from him. What are you doing?” Her voice ringing with the righteous indignation of the young, Abby pushed through the little knot of boys and stood in front of Nat. With hands on her hips and curly brown hair flying in every direction, she stood only a little taller than Nat, but she stared up at the boys with fury and challenge.
The biggest of them looked at her with a mixture of disbelief and annoyance. “Leave it alone. Go back and play with the little girls. We’re just welcoming our new buddy to HA.”
“You’re bullies.” Abby always did cut right to the chase. “You’re mean, and you’re stupid and you want to hurt Nat just because he’s different from you. Go away. Leave him alone, or I’ll go get a teacher.”
I held my breath, waiting to see what the boys would do. I saw them exchange glances, and then the leader shrugged. “Whatever. You’re not going to be around all the time. We’ll catch up with him later.” Turning, he stalked off, pushing through the swings and sending them flying.
The other boys melted off, leaving Abby and Nat standing together, alone. I stalked over, ready to yell at Abby for getting in the middle of that, when she turned and spotted me.
“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. “Didn’t you see what was happening? They were going to hurt Nat!”
“I—I was—“ I looked at Nat, my eyes pleading for some back up, but he was just staring off into the distance, beyond Abby, beyond me.
“I was heading over there,” I finished lamely.
“Yeah, by the time you got there, they would have pushed him down and gotten in some good punches. What were you waiting for?”
“I don’t know.” I pushed a hand through the hair my mom had so carefully combed an hour ago. “It just happened so fast. I saw it was Nat, and then before I could even get in there, you ran past me.”
“It shouldn’t have mattered who it was. They were big kids, picking on someone smaller. You should have stopped them no matter who it was. But then when you saw it was your friend—“ Abby glared at me meaningfully—“your
friend since before you were born, you should have run to stop them.”
Like I did
. She didn’t say it, but I could read it loud and clear in her eyes.
“Nat.” I could see I wasn’t going to get anywhere with Abby, so I turned to the small boy hunched between us. “What happened? Why were they ganged up on you?”
He shrugged, still not meeting our eyes. “Mom dropped me off early,” he finally answered, softly. “I asked her to. I thought I could get in here and look around, be ready when you guys got here. I was just sitting on the bars over there.” He jerked his chin toward the rainbow climber, now covered with kids. “But then I saw there was an empty swing, and I thought I would grab it for Abby.” At last he looked up at her. “I know you like to swing.”
Abby sighed, the merest breath. “I do like to swing. Thanks for thinking of me, Nat.”
He nodded and continued. “I was just trying to get across the playground to them, and then this one kid grabbed me, and the next thing I knew, they were all standing around.” He swung his eyes up to me. “Matt was there, too. Did you see that, Jesse?”
I nodded but didn’t say anything else. Matt Lambert had been in our class last year, and he had hung around with Nat and me. I would’ve said we were friends. I hadn’t seen him over the summer, but that wasn’t unusual; his family lived on the other side of town and belonged to the community pool, which was where he spent most of his days between school years.
“Why do kids act like that?” Abby stomped her foot against the concrete and winced. I tried to hide a smile, but she looked at me and rolled her eyes. Abby had a tendency to strike out physically, forgetting that hitting hard surfaces hurt.
“They’re just. . I don’t know. Stupid, like you said, I guess.” Nat still seemed far away, and I gave him a light punch on the shoulder to get his attention. He turned his bright blue eyes to me, and I flinched at the pain there.
“You okay, Nat?” Abby stole my line and laid a tentative hand on his arm. To my surprise, he shrugged it off. I hadn’t ever seen Nat rebuff Abby’s affection—not ever.
“You shouldn’t have gotten in the middle of it,” he said in a low voice. “Now it’s only going to be worse. They’re going to think I’m a wimp, that I have to count on a
to protect me.”
Abby raised her eyes to mine. She was surprised and not a little hurt. “I’m sorry, Nat. I thought. . .I didn’t want you to get hurt.” She bit her lip and added, “I know if it had been me they were picking on, you would have stopped it.”
“That’s different. I’m a boy. I’m supposed to do the defending.”
Abby stepped back, looking even more lost. “Since when does that matter? I thought friends stuck up for each other, no matter what.”
“We’re not babies anymore, Ab,” Nat said, more gently. Whatever angst he had been dealing with was passing, and he looked more himself. “I can take care of myself.” He hesitated and then added, “Besides, if it had been Jesse in the middle of those boys, would you have run to save him?”
Abby flushed pink. I stared down at my feet, kicking at the line of white paint on the bumpy asphalt. This was a total Nat thing. Whatever crossed his mind was pretty much what he said. Abby and I were used to it, but lately, it was making both of us more uncomfortable. Sometimes we didn’t know how to answer him.
Now Abby’s mouth twisted as she tried to say the right thing. “Of course I would. You’re both my friends, and I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you if I could help it.”
“Maybe,” Nat said bleakly. “But Jesse wouldn’t need your help. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”
The bell rang at that moment, and we all automatically turned toward the school building. Nat began moving in his normal jerky gait. Abby didn’t follow him right away. I couldn’t read the expression on her face, but I could tell that she wasn’t happy.
“C’mon, Ab,” I said finally. “We don’t be the last ones in. Do you know where to line up?”
She shrugged and started walking. Nat was far enough ahead of us that I didn’t think he could hear our conversation.
“Do you think he’s right?” Abby asked me. “Was I wrong? Should I have let them beat him up?”
“No. I don’t know. I don’t think they were going to be beat him up, they were just being, you know, trying to be cool or whatever. They were mostly teasing.”
“What if it
been you?” she persisted. “What would you have done?”
This was harder question. No one had ever bullied me in school. I slid a sideways glance at Abby, wondering how much she really wanted to know.
“I guess I would have just talked to them. Tried to get them to cool it. They’d probably stop if someone stood up to them.”
Other kids were forming lines that snaked out along the brick walls. Abby and I caught up with Nat, and we paused, trying to figure out which line we were supposed join.
“Fifth graders on the far left!” A pretty young teacher was standing on the concrete steps, calling out instructions to the milling crowd. The three of us walked to the left, keeping our steps slower to match Nat’s.
For the first time, we were all three in different classes. At Marian Johnson, there were only two classes per grade, so every year at least two of us were together. We separated into our assigned lines. Nat never looked back at us. He stood in the back of his line, his eyes fixed on the back of the girl who stood in front of him. Abby looked from him to me and back again. She was still worried.
I caught her eye and shrugged. There wasn’t any mid-morning recess at Herbert Andrews Elementary, so we’d have to wait for lunch to see each other again. Abby’s class was the first to go into the building, followed by Nat’s line. I watched them leave me behind.
Chapter 2: Abby
When Nat, Jesse and I say we’ve been friends since before we were born, it’s true. Everyone thinks we’re exaggerating or being funny, but we’re not. See, our moms all went to the same birth class, where people go to learn what it’s like to have a baby. For my mom and Nat’s, it was their first time having a baby, so they really needed the class. But Jesse’s mom already had two boys, so she always says she was just there for a refresher course. I guess she had forgotten how to do it, which sounds weird, but why else would she go back to a class?
Anyway, it sounds like a movie, but our moms got talking and sort of became friends. They went out for coffee or whatever pregnant women drink (because I think they’re not supposed to drink coffee), and they were going to do it again, like every week, but then Nat’s mom ended up having him early. Not just a few weeks early either; my mom told me once that at first they weren’t sure Nat was going to live. He was in NICU, which is a really scary place for babies, my mom said, for like two months. So all during that time, while my mom and Jesse’s were waiting for us to finally be born, they helped out Nat’s parents. My mom used to make food for his family and drive his mom to the hospital to sit with Nat.
That’s why Nat is different from Jesse and me. Something happened when he was born that early, and it left him with a lot of health problems. I can actually remember when Nat started walking. His legs were weak, something to do with the muscles, and we were four by the time he could really move around by himself without this walker he used to have. He was always smaller than us, too, even though he’s the oldest.
I didn’t realize how different Nat was until we started pre-k. Nat had been in special schools when we were younger, but by the time we were four, he was able to come to school with us. I was glad we were all going to be together, and I was really happy that Jesse and I were finally going to school. I had been a little jealous of Nat up to then, because he would talk about people he knew and stuff he did at school. It sounded like a fun place, even though Nat didn’t always want to go.
In pre-k, though, it was easy to see that Nat wasn’t like the rest of the kids. It wasn’t just his special way of walking, which in those days was a lot worse than it is now. He would almost throw himself from one leg to the other. Jesse and I were used to it, and we always walked on either side of him, at just the same speed he did. The other kids in pre-k definitely noticed that. They also saw that Nat was smaller than the rest of us. But what really made him stand out was his way of talking.