Forced to return to his estranged family, John discovers how hard it is to truly go home.
It’s been a year since John lost his girlfriend, Leah, to suicide. Living with his uncle keeps his mind from the tragedy and his screwed up family—until he gets into trouble and a judge sends him back home. With a neglectful mother and abusive brother, John’s homecoming is far from happy.
As he tries to navigate and repair the relationships he abandoned years ago, Emily, the girl next door, is the only bright spot. She’s sweet and smart and makes him think his heart may finally be healing. But tragedy isn’t far away, and John must soon face an impossible decision: save his family or save himself.
About the Author
Stacie Ramey attended the University of Florida where she majored in communication sciences and Penn State where she received a Master of Science degree in speech pathology. She lives in Wellington, Florida, with her husband, three children, and two rescue dogs. Visit www.stacieramey.com.
Social Media Links:
Hit the Jump for an Exclusive Excerpt
Standing on the high school’s lacrosse field in the town I never thought I’d go back to, I wait for my turn to do suicides. The sun blazes, and I take a drink from my water bottle and try not to chew myself out for landing here instead of getting to stay in Chicago with Uncle Dave. What would Leah think if she saw me now?
“Strickland!” Coach calls. “Line up.”
It’s not my turn to run again, and the unfairness starts a flame in my stomach, but I line up anyway. No way I’m gonna let Coach see he’s getting to me. Or let the team know how out of shape I really am.
“Get your legs up!” Coach Gibson screams, and I think he’s talking to me, but I can’t be sure, because six of us are racing, and I’m losing. Bad. Guess the last few years of smoking weed hasn’t helped my stamina.
Matt, a guy from my neighborhood who I used to play lacrosse with and one of two people Mom fought like hell to keep me away from, yells from the sidelines, “Wheels, Strickland, wheels.” But he laughs as he says it, and I know he’s just giving me shit.
I knew they’d go hard on me. Payback for moving away. For not playing lacrosse since fifth grade. For hanging with the druggies instead of the jocks. I’m one of the new guys on the team. An honor not usually given to seniors. So I’m treated to Hell Week like the freshmen and sophomores. I don’t mind. That’s just the way it is.
Coach Gibson points to me. “Just Strickland this time.”
Bodies collapse around me, and I hear their sighs of relief as I crouch in the ready position, sweat pouring off my chest and arms and legs while I wait for Coach’s whistle to launch me like a bullet from a gun. I run from the end line to goal line. Goal line to end line. End line to box line. Box line to half field.
“Push, push, push,” Coach yells.
I do what he says, push my body. Pump my legs. It sucks, but I do it, because with each stride, I feel my body taking over and my mind being left far behind. Maybe this time, Dad was right. Lacrosse is just what I need.
“Again.” Coach points to me. He clicks his stopwatch, and I race again. He shakes his head as he documents my time. Like I don’t know how bad I suck. Like I don’t get how much persuading Dad must have had to do to get me on the team. Thinking of Dad fires me up to tap into my beast. I bend over. Try not to puke. Take a drink of my water and hit the line to run again.
I don’t actually mind this part. Whenever I run full out, push my body past its limit, those are the times I’m not thinking of Leah.
“Again.” I run my route one more time, my body failing a little more with each step. When I’m sure I’m going to fall to the ground, I make myself think of Leah. How I was supposed to save her. How I didn’t. And that’s enough to propel me forward. At the end of the run, I bend over, spit on the ground.
The other seniors and juniors start their Indian drill. They jog by us freshies, run their rhythmic jogging and even breathing, reminding me that they are warriors, and I am not. Matt yells out, “Damn, Strickland.” Then laughs as I lose this battle and puke on the ground.
Brandon, another guy from the old team, joins in the hilarity. “We got a puker!”
I look at each exercise as a brick in some mythical wall I have to build before I can earn my walking papers. That makes it easier to face. One step. One drill. One minute. One hour. One week. One month. More than one year since my girlfriend Leah died. (Killed herself, I remind myself, careful to make the memory hurt as much as possible.)
Probably thirty minutes left in practice. Nine weeks till my first report card. Nine months of probation, ten months till I can graduate and move on with my life to California. The farthest place from my family I can go without getting a passport. Where I can cash in on my one and only talent: growing and selling weed. Legally there.
Finally, Coach calls us in. The juniors and seniors have already been sent to the locker room ahead of us, so he’s only addressing us wannabes. “You guys didn’t totally disappoint me today, so tomorrow, you can bring your sticks.”
Some of the guys pump their fists. I don’t even have the energy to do that.
“Now hit the showers and head home.”
I’m turning to leave when Coach calls me over. “Hey, John, I wanted to say I’m sorry about your brother. And your girl.”
The dragon roars. Flames engulf me. People just can’t let an accident like Ryan’s go, even after all these years. But Leah? That’s too much. They didn’t even know her. I don’t want to share her tragedy, her life, her memory with anyone.
“You’ve had some tough breaks for sure.”
Dad and his stupid mouth.
Coach shifts his stance, crosses his arms—his clipboard with all my times now clutched to his chest. Numbers that for sure say I’m not good enough to be on any lacrosse team—definitely not the varsity team at East Coast High. “I don’t want you to get discouraged. Coach Stallworth told me about you. Said you used to be a hell of an athlete. You can be again, I’m sure.”
His stare feels like he’s trying to figure out what I’m made of. I want to tell him not to waste his time. I’m happy to tell him exactly who I am. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t mind taking whatever physical punishment he wants to dish out. But when it comes to my emotions? Coach is going to have to understand that that shit’s off-limits. Emotions are for idiots. Feeling crap doesn’t change what happened. Good weed works so much better. Hell, even bad weed beats feeling any day.
I gulp more water. Spit on the ground. Look him square in the eye. “Thanks, Coach. That all?”
I guess Coach picks up on my noncommunicative status, because his eyes go back to his clipboard. “See you tomorrow.”
I give him a nod and jog to the locker room so Coach’ll see I’ve still got a little juice in me, even after everything.
Last one in the locker room also means last one out. I sit on the bench, lean over to close my locker as Matt and Brandon head for the parking lot.
“Later,” Matt throws over his shoulder, the er reverberating as the door shuts behind him.
Matt and I’ve got some history to get over. It was his big brother, Pete, who hit Ryan. and that still hangs between us. Not that it was Pete’s fault exactly. When it comes to those things, fault hardly even matters. It’s called an accident for a reason.
Besides, Pete hasn’t exactly gotten off scot-free either. Some people might think becoming a high school dropout, working pizza delivery while feeding a major drug and drinking problem is not as bad as Ryan’s deal, but I say that nobody has a right to judge. I stayed in touch with Pete even after I moved away. Nobody understands that, but it was like he was the only one who got the nuclear fallout of that accident.
I’m stuffing my sweaty clothes into my bag and zipping it up when I hear my cell chirp. I grab it, hoping it’s one of Pete’s connections I reached out to today. Someone who can help me with my little sobriety problem.
But it’s not Pete’s connection. It’s Uncle Dave. Hey, just checking in. Hope you’re settling in OK.
I text back. Yeah. Fine.
How was practice?
Somehow, that kills me. That he’s still checking on me. Uncle Dave. Not Dad or Mom. Him. This warm spot inside me lights a little every time he calls or texts.
He texts again. When someone you love dies, it changes you. Remember that.
He means Leah for me. My perfect big brother for Mom.
After Ryan’s accident, Mom didn’t change so much as reduce, like the sauce that Uncle Dave made for my filet the last night I was living with him. He explained how a little fire under you can intensify whatever’s inside you. After the accident, Mom got more intense for sure. Driven. Focused only on Ryan. With me, I just got more angry. Just the way I am, I guess.
Uncle Dave always tries to turn simple moments into lessons. Not preachy ones, just different ways to look at life. His texts aren’t meant to pry or annoy, but I can’t help wishing he hadn’t. I screwed up the best living arrangement of my life, the one Dad said I needed after I told him about Leah. But I killed the whole deal by hanging with a bunch of thugs and acting like a punk.
There’s a mass of activity around me in the locker room that doesn’t include me. Kids banging fists. Giving each other shit. Nodding when the others ask if they’ve got a ride. Then it hits me: I’m completely ride-less.
The guys on the team have picked up on my not so subtle I want to be left alone signal. I know teammates are supposed to male bond or some shit like that, but that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to finish probation. Live according to Mom’s rules. Then get out and go away. And never come back.
I text Uncle Dave. I’m exactly the same jerk I used to be.
He texts. Nice try.
As the door bangs shut for the last time, I realize my being a selfish ass and ignoring everyone means I’ll have to walk home. Great work, Johnny. I almost laugh out loud at what an idiot I can be.
The phone chirps again. This time it’s Dad. Picked up your Jeep from the compound. Cost me a fortune. Show me you’ve earned it and I’ll bring it to you.
Always pushing. Uncle Dave is so much cooler than Dad is that it’s hard to believe they’re even brothers.
The door opens, and a janitor leans in. “You done?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” I look around the locker room one more time. I am completely alone, even on a team of thirty kids. Classic me.