As his drama queen of a sister later put it, Ken’s fall was Shakespearian.
It was the summer before his senior year of high school, and Ken felt like a king. He was the star of the football team, the most popular guy in school, guaranteed Valedictorian… His only real trouble in life was deciding which college to go to—he was pretty much guaranteed a full ride wherever he wanted to go. It was just a matter of deciding which colors he wanted to wear every day during game season.
And then the accident happened. He remembered a swerving car speeding straight towards him, trying to pull off the road to avoid getting hit only to find himself spinning out of control, a split second of painful impact… He woke up in the hospital with a lot of bruises and a seriously messed-up leg. The doctors said they wouldn’t have to cut it off, but he would have to go through physical therapy followed what could be months of recuperation before he could run again. That meant no more football. No chance for any scouts to see him play. Bye-bye to that free ride to whatever college he wanted.
Most of the football team came in a group to visit him once while he was in the hospital. They offered the usual encouragements, gave him a few pats on the back, and left a few minutes later. Short-Stuff lagged behind as the team filed out the door. “It’s not all bad, Ken,” he said in a voice too timid for someone who played football. “I mean, you’ve still got your grades. You’ll get into a good college.” He scuttled out after the rest of the team.
Ken folded his arms behind his head and stared at the ceiling, smirking. Yeah, there was that. Not that he was some kind of nerd or anything, but being on the football team did give him certain perks with the teachers and the smartest kids in school.
His physical therapist, Dr. Powell, was nice. And a girl. Married, but still a girl helping to stretch his bad leg and support him when he was having trouble walking properly. Still, it was frustrating having to grit his teeth to hold back those groans of pain during the first bout of therapy. It was even more frustrating that when he finally got to use the exercise equipment, he was way behind what he was able to do just a couple of months ago. He felt like an out-of-shape loser.
“Very good work today, Ken,” Dr. Powell said at the end of one of their sessions at the physical therapy center. “You’re really improving.”
Improving or not, he still felt like crap for being so far behind.
By the time he could walk without having to use crutches, football practice had already started. Not like it mattered—there was no way Ken could play with the condition his leg was in. Being able to walk was one thing, but running across the field with eleven other guys trying to stop him? There was no way he’d be able to pull that off.
Dr. Powell recommended that he started with some light jogging and then work his way into more intense sprints. “And more pain does not mean more gain,” she said. “It means you’re pushing yourself too hard and need to slow down.”
“Funny, Coach used to say the exact opposite.”
“You’re not on the football field, Ken. The harder you try to push yourself this early on, the longer it’ll take for you to get back to where you were before. And I’m sure the last thing you want is to lose use of your leg again.” She shrugged. “And if all else fails, just imagine your coach screaming at you to slow down.”
Ken sort of doubted that Coach would ever say something like that, but he told Dr. Powell that he’d try to imagine it, anyway.
He ended up going to the stadium on Monday afternoon a week before school started. Only God knew why he chose to go there instead of just jogging around the neighborhood. “Huh,” he said as he pulled up. Someone was already on the track. It was hard to make out any details from where he was, but the black ponytail flopping about told him that the runner was either a girl or an effeminate guy.
When he got down to the track, the definitely female runner was rounding the bend back to the starting line. A ca-chick sound could be heard with every other step she took, getting louder as she got closer. “Hey,” she said with a wave once she was in earshot. She slowed to a stop in front of Ken. “Don’t usually see anyone around here this time of day.” She was beaming up at him despite the fact that she sounded a bit winded.
Ken barely heard her, too distracted by what he had seen as she came closer: her left leg was missing below the knee and had been replaced by a prosthetic leg with a running blade. He stared at for several seconds with his mouth hanging half-open. The girl put her hands on her hips and bent over so she could look Ken in the eye. “Hello? Earth to guy just standing there.”
“Huh?” Ken finally looked up into the girl’s bright blue eyes. She was grinning even though, by all logic, she should have been at least a little miffed off at Ken staring at her leg. “Oh, hey.” She seemed familiar, but Ken couldn’t quite put his finger on why.
“You’re Ken, right? Ken Johnson?”
Ken smirked and stood to his full height, puffing out his chest. “You’ve heard of me, huh?”
“Who hasn’t after what happened last season against the Tigers?” She walked over to the bench, her artificial leg clicking every time she stepped on it, picked up a red water bottle, and took a slow drink. This girl was no amateur—anyone who was here just to run for fun would have downed the whole bottle in just a few gulps. “Sorry about what happened to your leg, though.”
“Oh. You heard about that, too, huh?” Ken started to slouch like the air was being let out of his torso.
“My boyfriend knows a few guys on the team.” She set her water bottle down and gave Ken a pat on the shoulder. “But, hey, don’t sweat it. You’ll be good as new before you know it! I’m Julia, by the way.” She stuck her hand out. Ken took it and gave it a half-hearted shake. It was still cold from holding the water bottle. “I guess you’re here to run?”
“Jog. Dr. Powell said I need to start slow.”
“Oh, you’re seeing Dr. Powell? She’s great—she really helped me out when I got my new leg.”
“Yeah, that’s great.” There wasn’t a hint of giving a crap in Ken’s voice.
“Come on, I’ll jog with you.” She walked onto the track towards one of the inner lanes. “I need a cool-down, anyway.”
Great. Ken couldn’t even run at full speed, and this one-legged girl was using this as a cool-down? “Unbelievable,” he mumbled as he followed Julia onto the track. She was either hard of hearing or really good at ignoring him.
They started jogging at a slow, steady pace around the track. The sound of their sneakers hitting the polyurethane was punctuated by the rhythmic ca-chick of Julia’s running blade. Ken set his jaw, trying to ignore the dull ache in his leg. After all, he was used to pain—being tackled by guys built like trucks, running across the entire field with his lungs burning, practicing for hours on end until his bones felt like concrete… This was nothing.
“Doing okay?” Julia asked as they rounded the first bend.
“No problem,” Ken said with a confident smirk.
Ken narrowed his eyes and forced himself to look straight ahead. That sound. That damned sound of Julia’s artificial leg hitting the track was all he could hear. From the corner of his eye, he could see the sun reflecting off the running blade. Without realizing it, he started running faster to get that out of his vision.
He ignored her, trying to drown out every sound except that of his heart beating in his chest.
“Hey, Ken, you should probably—”
He forced himself to go faster to get away from that sound. Focus on running. Focus on running. Focus on—
“Gah!” The next thing Ken knew, he was lying on the track with searing pain shooting through his leg.
“Oh, my gosh! Ken!” Julia knelt down next to him. Her running blade was right in his face. “Are you okay?”
Ken rolled over onto his back and sat up. “I’m fine. Just stepped wrong, I guess.” Christ, this was humiliating. He was Ken Johnson, for God’s sake! A little run like that should have been nothing to him.
“Come on, let me help you up.”
“I can get up my—” Ken sucked in a breath through his teeth as he tried to stand with his bad leg. Okay, that was dumb. He resigned himself to letting Julia help him to his feet and helping him limp towards the bench.
“You should really be more careful,” Julia said after Ken had sat down. “You don’t wanna end up in a wheelchair, do you?”
Wheelchair… That’s where Ken had seen Julia before: she was that wheelchair girl who had sat in the front of his English class during their sophomore year. She had been in a couple of classes during his junior year, too, wheelchair-less and sporting an artificial leg. He couldn’t believe he had forgotten about something like that.
Julia didn’t even give Ken a chance to respond before she went on: “Go home and get some rest, okay? I’ll be here tomorrow if you wanna try again. Slowly.” She put her hands on her hips, narrowed her eyes, and pursed her lips into a frown, but she could only hold that face for a few seconds before she giggled.
Ken really didn’t want to call it quits on this pathetic note. He opened his mouth, ready to protest, but his eyes fell on Julia’s running blade for a split second. That ca-chink sound started echoing in his ears again, followed by Dr. Powell’s voice telling him to take it slow. Only she sounded like Coach when he yelled at him. Wow, that trick really did work.
“All right,” he said. He got up and walked towards the gate, stepping gingerly with his sore leg. Julia snatched up her water bottle and jogged over next to him. He really didn’t need her keeping an eye on him like, but he wasn’t going to say no to a cute girl walking so close to him. Even if it was hard as hell to not stare at her leg.
“See you tomorrow,” Julia said with a wave as they walked towards their respective cars.
“See you,” Ken said half-heartedly. After today, he was considering just jogging around the neighborhood instead.
And on Tuesday, he did. He thought he would be relieved to not have to hear that constant ca-chick sound as Julia’s running blade hit the polyurethane, but jogging along a silent, empty street wasn’t much better. After about ten minutes, he turned around, got in his car, and drove to the track.
He ran with Julia every day for the rest of the week, using the annoying ca-chick sound to motivate him and starting up conversations to try to drown it out when it got on his nerves. He usually talked about football, namely some of his greatest plays, and Julia usually talked about things that happened on the track team.
“You’re on the track team?” he asked.
Julia giggled breathlessly. “What, did you think I just came down here for fun?”
Ken shrugged. She seemed like she knew what she was doing when she ran, missing leg or not, but he didn’t think she actually ran track with that running blade. Maybe she was trying to imitate Oscar Pistorius. Hopefully minus the “killing his girlfriend” part.
“You should totally join next semester,” Julia said. “I bet you’d make a great sprinter.”
Ken smirked. “Yeah? Maybe I will.” He was a damn good sprinter, after all: his average 40-yard dash time was 4.8 seconds. It wasn’t football, but it would be a great way to show everyone that he was still the best runner the school had, and since track season didn’t start until January, his leg had plenty of time to fully recover.
It only took a few days for all of Ken’s teachers to assign him a bunch of homework all at once. But he wasn’t worried. While he was lying on the couch in the TV-lit living room with his legs propped up, he pulled out his cell phone and scrolled through his contact list until he found Keith Connor’s number.
“Hello?” Keith said. He always sounded like he hadn’t slept the night before.
“I’ve got work for you,” Ken said. “I’ve got this stack of—”
“Oh, Ken.” Keith sounded like he hadn’t expected it to be him. What, did he not check his caller ID? “Actually, I’m not available this year. I told Chris I’d help him out so his grades don’t slip, and—”
“Wait, Chris? Chris Pearson?” The new QB?
“Yeah. Anyway, I’ve gotta go.” A little jingle in Ken’s ear told him that Keith had hung up on him.
“That little fag,” Ken mumbled as he set his phone on the couch. He looked at the papers sitting on the end table and reached for the one at the top of the little pile. It was a worksheet with a bunch of measurement conversion exercises. “I don’t know what any of this crap means.” He slapped the paper back onto the pile and picked up his phone to call his girlfriend, Taylor. Maybe she knew a chemistry geek or two.
The line rang three times. “Hey, it’s Taylor. Leave a message, and I’ll get right b—”
Ken hit the end call button on the touchscreen. Three rings meant that Taylor had rejected the call. What the hell was going on?
He reached over and grabbed the worksheet again. He thought about calling Julia since they ended up in the same class, but he didn’t have her number. Besides, why would she do his homework for him? Only one thing left to do now: look up the answers on the internet.
Someone was whispering and poking Ken’s arm while he slept on his desk. He turned his head and opened an eye to see Julia looking down at him with her eyebrows arched towards her forehead. She whispered something else that Ken didn’t quite catch. He closed his eye again.
“Ken,” Julia whispered through her teeth, louder now. She started shaking his arm. Why was she trying to wake him up? The bell hadn’t rung yet.
Someone cleared his throat above him. Ken sat up and blinked a few times, letting the fuzzy image of his teacher, Mr. Morrison, come into focus. There was a stack of papers in the crook of his arm, and with his other hand he held up a single sheet. He slapped the homework paper from the first day of class onto Ken’s desk. It had a big red “0” written on it, followed by “Show your work!” and “See me after class” in progressively smaller writing.
“What the hell?” Ken mumbled.
Mr. Morrison handed Julia her “100” paper and continued down the aisle. Julia opened her binder so quickly that Ken’s paper got blown into the air. He caught it as Julia put her paper into the pocket and slammed the binder shut, creating another gust of wind. “Sorry,” she whispered.
The rest of the students stampeded out of the room as soon as the bell rang, as if they had been sitting on the edges of their seats and waiting for the sound of the bell. Which they probably had been, actually. Ken wanted to blend into the crowd and get out of the “See me after class” note, but he felt Mr. Morrison’s glare on his back. He hated teachers who could do it. Even for a guy like Ken, it was still creepy. Ken picked up his backpack, which was mostly empty, and slung it over one shoulder.
“Hey, meet me in the cafeteria when you’re done,” Julia whispered before she scampered out the door.
Mr. Morrison was already sitting at his desk when Ken trudged to the back of the room. “What’d you need to see me for?” Ken asked.
Mr. Morrison folded his hands together and rested his chin on them with a closed-eyed sigh. “Ken,” he said, “as a teacher, I expect a certain level of respect from my students. I expect them to call me ‘Mr. Morrison’ or ‘sir’ when they address me.” He opened his eyes so he could look right into Ken’s with a frown. “But more than that, I expect them to at least put some effort into my class.”
“I did the homework.” A long pause followed. Ken shifted his gaze to the side and sighed through his nose. “Sir.”
“No, what you did was copy the answers from somewhere—or somebody—and put them onto the worksheet.” He lowered his hands onto his desk. “I’ve been teaching for a long time, Ken. I know your type. You think because you used to be the star of the football team that you can get away with anything, that the teachers will give you whatever grade you want because you’re too good to study. I don’t play that game, Ken. If you don’t do the work for my class, I’ll be more than happy to fail you. And I’m sure that you don’t want to deal with me again in summer school, do you?” His face hadn’t changed at all. This guy was not screwing around.
“No, sir.” Ken didn’t wait for the pause this time. Somehow, Mr. Morrison’s silence was worse than his lecture.
A smile finally appeared on Mr. Morrison’s face, but Ken couldn’t tell if it was sincere or one of those “I’m going to make your life hell” teacher smiles. “So we have an understanding, then. As long as you do the work for my class, you’ll pass. That sounds like a fair deal, doesn’t it?”
It sounded like a crappy deal. Ken could always find some way to get around doing the homework, but he was screwed if he couldn’t copy off someone else’s tests without the teacher caring. Mr. Morrison continued watching him with a steady, smiling expression.
“Yea—Yes, sir.” It was all Ken could say at that point. He’d just have to figure something out later.
Ken had forgotten about Julia by the time he got to the cafeteria. His usual group was already sitting at their table, and—Ken’s eyes went wide. He walked over to the table with long, determined strides, his fists clenched.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he asked above the usual chatter in the cafeteria.
Taylor untangled her arms from around Chris Pearson’s shoulders and turned around to look at Ken with wide blue eyes. “Ken!” she said. “I didn’t—I didn’t think you were coming.”
“What—?” He turned on Chris and grabbed the back of his shirt. “What the hell are you doing with my girlfriend, you asshole?”
Chris raised his hands to shoulder level. “Hey, she told me you guys broke up.”
“Yeah, man, lay off,” Tyrone, one of the linebackers, said as he grabbed Ken’s wrist and pulled it away from Chris’s shirt. Despite Tyrone’s relaxed tone of voice, Ken felt enough pressure in his grip to know that Tyrone would gladly beat the crap out of him if he tried anything.
“Well, she never bothered telling me,” Ken said, turning his glare to Taylor. He wrenched his hand free from Tyrone’s grip.
“Ken—” Taylor started to say.
“Shut up,” Ken said. “What, did you think you could just not tell me? That I wouldn’t find out, you slut?”
Taylor’s jaw fell open. Ken looked to the rest of the group for agreement, but they were all just staring at him. A few of the girls were looking at him with disgust, but the rest of the faces were blank. And then Taylor started crying. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed in the fakest way that Ken had ever heard. Yet Chris’s arms were immediately around her, comforting her. The students at the tables around them went silent as they watched.
“What is your problem?” one of the girls asked. She nudged her boyfriend’s shoulder. “He just made Taylor cry!”
A few people started mumbling things like “Yeah, he did” and “What a jerk,” and one girl even said “I bet he broke up with her, and now he’s just jealous.”
“What?” Ken asked, though he wasn’t quite sure about what. “Come on, she’s just faking it! You guys aren’t seriously—”
“Dude,” Chris said, “just get out of here.”
Ken looked at all the faces staring at him. The ones that had looked confused or apathetic before had turned to glaring, shaking their heads, or both. What was this, some kind of screwed-up nightmare? These guys were supposed to be defending Ken, not ganging up on him! Why were they taking Taylor’s side?
“Fuck you guys.” Ken turned from the table and went to the dwindling food line. There was a lot more he wanted to say, a lot more yelling he wanted to do at Taylor, but the words were caught in his throat at the thought of the guys deciding to beat him up after school or something. It wasn’t like Ken wouldn’t be able to fight back—he’d been in his fair share of fights, but he’d always had at least a few members of the team to back him up. Now they were all suddenly against him. Christ, this was a nightmare.
“Hey,” a familiar female voice said from a nearby table. Julia got up and stood next to Ken in line. “What happened?” She glanced over at Ken’s usual table.
“My girlfriend cheated on me,” Ken said, “and now she’s trying to act all innocent.” He wasn’t sure why he was telling her that. What made him think she would believe him with everyone else ganging up on him?
“Oh, man, I’m really sorry,” Julia said. “That sucks. Hey, you should come sit with us. I’ve still got something to ask you about, too.”
Oh, yeah, she’d wanted Ken to meet her here. Well, it wasn’t like he had much of a choice now, anyway. There was no way he could sit in his usual spot after what had just happened. “Sure,” he said.
Ken was the last person through the line, so he got stuck with a chicken strip that was almost completely burnt on one side, a little blob of mashed potatoes that had been scraped from the bottom and sides of the container, the last of the corn, and a carton of skim milk. At least the fruit didn’t look terrible. He sat down between Julia and a tall blonde girl with a slim, athletic build. Actually, just about everyone at the table had similar builds, although a few of them had more muscle than the rest.
“Everyone, this is Ken,” Julia said as he sat down. “Ken, this is everyone.” She started pointing to the people sitting around the table starting with the blonde next to him: “Amanda, Tara, Joel, Sarah, Cody, and my boyfriend, James.”
James, who seemed to be a few inches shorter than Ken and had a head of curly brown hair, smiled and gave Ken a short wave. “Hey.”
“James is awesome at chemistry,” Julia said before Ken could return the greeting. “He got an A in AP last year.”
James shrugged. “Only because they bump you up if you take the AP exam.”
Ken took a bite out of his chicken, trying to pretend that it didn’t taste terrible. “Hm,” he said with his mouth closed.
“Still, you did awesome.” She punched James playfully on the arm and turned back to Ken. “Anyway, he helped me with my homework the other night—that’s the only reason I got a hundred—so if you need any help…”
Was she seriously doing this in front of all of her friends? Sure, she sounded sincere about her offer, but anyone could sound sincere and still be making fun of someone. Ken scanned the faces of the other six people at the table, but they all seemed to be occupied by their food. Sarah leaned around Joel and said “Oh, yeah. Tara, can I see your homework for history? I couldn’t find the answer to number six.”
If Julia was trying to make fun of Ken, nobody else cared. Well, this would be a way to get Mr. Morrison off his back, at least. All he had to do was get James to show him how to show his work, and he could fake the rest. “Sure,” Ken said. “I could use some help, I guess.”
“All right,” James said, still smiling. It wasn’t hard to see why he and Julia were dating. “When’s your free period?”
“Really? I don’t remember seeing you in the library.”
“I don’t usually go to the library for free period,” he said after he swallowed a bite of corn. He didn’t mention that that was because he snuck off campus to get home early. “But I can.”
“Okay, good. We usually sit at the back near the beanbag chairs.”
“Cool.” Ken took another bite of his corn. That was one class down, at least. Maybe James would be able to “help” him with some of his other classes, too.
For a while, Ken’s plan worked. Whenever he got chemistry homework that he couldn’t just Google the answers to, he asked James to show him how to do a few problems so he knew how to show his work. Then, all he had to do was sneak a few peeks at Julia’s worksheet or get the answers online, and Ken was walking out of class with As and Bs on his homework. James was too busy with his advanced classes to help Ken with any of his other classes, but he recommended a few tutors that Ken could go to if he needed help.
Ken sat in the library during free period the Monday before his first chemistry test with his homework in front of him. Normally, he would be texting his friends right now, but nobody on the team had talked to him since the whole thing with Taylor, and everybody from his new group was either sitting at the same table or in class. Instead, he thought about how he was going to handle the test on Friday. He could always copy off Julia, but Mr. Morrison would probably be watching him the entire time just to make sure he didn’t.
He started writing the work for the first problem on his homework, figuring he might as well get a head start while he waited for James. Without anyone to text and with Mr. Morrison on his ass about not sleeping in class, he didn’t have much to do in class except pretend to pay attention, so for once he actually had an idea of how to do this, which made it a lot easier to make his work look convincing.
He was a few problems in when he realized that he had been writing the answers down, too. The right answers, from the looks of it. Ken stared at his paper for a few seconds. He actually felt… good about being able to do this on his own. Like he was actually accomplishing something besides being able to run with his bad leg again. He started working on the rest of the page.
“Hey,” James said when he came in a few minutes later, “looks like you’ve already got the hang of this.”
Ken smirked. “Easy stuff.”
He didn’t let James check his answers when he was done, but when he got home and checked online, he had gotten most of them right. He corrected the wrong ones and leaned back in his chair, soaking in his accomplishment.