Although he’s a star athlete at his high school, Sam has been secretly bullied and threatened by his neighbor and teammate Ace Quinn for years. When the harassment begins to involve Marnie, the girl Sam likes, his determination to stop Ace turns becomes an obsession.
|Publisher:||Whitman, Albert & Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 17 Years|
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Until I Break
By Kara Bietz
Albert Whitman & CompanyCopyright © 2016 Kara Bietz
All rights reserved.
The barrel of the gun is warm against my temple.
I can hear the frantic fwump-fwump-fwump of my heart slamming against my ribs in the chaotic hallway.
A tiny voice inside is fighting its way up my throat. No. No, no, no, it's saying. The sound never makes it past my teeth.
Loud, quick footfalls echo through the marble hallway. The sun streams through the thick-paned windows and glints off the trophy case, throwing golden stripes of light across the green lockers.
Ace's breathing is labored. His eyes are wide and wild.
I sink to the floor.
Twelve Months Before
My tie is choking me, my shoes are pinching my toes, and we've only been here for five minutes. Mom is fidgeting next to me, looking over the heads of everyone in the ballroom and wringing her hands. I can see her pulse thrumming on the side of her neck.
"You okay?" I ask her, nudging her foot with mine.
She nods too quickly, like a bobblehead doll. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. It's just ... crowded," she says with a one-sided smile. "Are you nervous?"
"Crowds don't make me nervous, Mom. Plus, this is mostly people we know," I answer, pulling at my collar. I swallow my own feelings about tonight while a thousand things go unspoken between us.
"That's not what I meant, and you know it," she says. "This is a big night for you."
I curl my toes in my too-tight shoes and look at the napkin in front of me. It's folded in the shape of a swan.
"So are you nervous?" Mom asks again. I notice that she isn't fidgeting quite as much as she was when we first got here. Her eyes aren't darting around the room like they were before either.
The tension in my own chest releases, and I smile at her. "I don't think so. I guess I'm trying not to think about it."
She pats my knee. "I'm proud of you," she says close to my ear. "No matter what the outcome."
I look at the banner over the podium at the front of the room. EASTHAVEN DAILY CHRONICLE STUDENT ATHLETE AWARDS is spelled out in block letters. A whole bunch of square-shaped glass awards are on a table behind the podium. When I got the letter two weeks ago that I had been nominated for Student Athlete of the Year, Mom hung it on the refrigerator with four magnets instead of one.
"See that? All of your hard work has paid off! So proud of you, Sammy," she said.
The response card for the awards banquet sat on the counter until the day before it was due to be mailed back. There were four blank lines under the heading "Attending."
Mom scribbled her name on the second line and my name on the third line and handed the card to me. "Take this," she said, barely disguising the edge in her voice.
I glanced down at it, fully aware of the empty line at the top. A knot formed in my chest, and I tried to swallow it down. Little reminders that Dad was gone snuck up on us like that. Most of the time we could sense it coming and avoid a direct hit, but sometimes it smacked Mom and me right where it hurt.
I held the card in my hand and wanted to say something to her. It's okay. We're going to be all right. We've made it through worse. I'm proud of you for being strong about this.
"I'll go put this in the mailbox," I said, running my fingers over that blank line at the top.
Mom and I find our table in the ballroom, and I'm about to pick up the place card near us to see whom we'll be sharing a table with when I hear a high-pitched voice carry across the room.
"Well, look who it is," the voice singsongs.
"Susan! How nice to see you here," Mom says, standing up and giving the woman a quick hug.
Susan Quinn is our next-door neighbor. Her son, Ace, and I, we're not exactly buds. In trying to keep Mom calm, I had almost managed to forget that Ace would be here tonight too.
"Ms. North, Samuel, what luck that we're sitting together!" I hear behind Mrs. Quinn.
Of course we're sitting together. Of course we are. Double shit.
"Hi, Ace," I murmur, holding my hand out. He shakes it, squeezing my knuckles and looking right in my eye. He doesn't smile.
"I didn't know you were nominated for anything, Sam. Congratulations!" Mr. Quinn shakes my hand and claps me on the shoulder. "Ace here is getting a passing-yards leader award for football, and he's going to be the next Student Athlete of the Year. Isn't that right, Ace?"
Ace's eyes twitch ever so slightly, but he turns on a giant smile. "That's right. What about you, Sam?" he asks.
"Point guard assists for basketball. And I'm up for Student Athlete too."
The table falls quiet for a beat longer than is comfortable. Finally Mr. Quinn clears his throat. "Well, good luck to both of you, then," he says, raising his water glass and quickly bringing it to his lips. I see the muscles in his jaw flex as he shoots a pointed look at his son.
Ace avoids his father's cold glance.
Mrs. Quinn and my mother chatter about some new app my mother has been using. Mr. Quinn is full engrossed in his phone, frantically typing a message with his thumbs. Ace sits next to me, his leg bouncing up and down.
"I guess I'm a shoo-in, then," he whispers.
I swallow hard but don't answer.
"Cat got your tongue, Samantha?"
I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from answering. It's not worth it. The longer I can ignore him, the better. Like a toddler, he eventually gets bored and turns his attention elsewhere.
He smirks. "If you're my competition, I'll be sure to win. Faggot," he whispers.
I can't pinpoint when the trouble began with Ace. My mom has pictures of the two of us playing together as preschoolers, when the nickname Ace hadn't yet stuck and everyone still called him Dean Junior. There are tons of those pictures of us together and smiling, drawing in the street with chalk, digging in the sand at the neighborhood beach. I don't feel like I know that smiling kid next to me in those pictures.
I do know this Ace. The asshole with the smart mouth. The slimy son of a bitch who is sure to turn the charm up to eleven when adults are listening.
I remember him in kindergarten, pouring water on my chair and telling the class that I had wet my pants.
And in fifth grade, when he stole my jeans from my PE locker, forcing me to wear tight PE shorts for the rest of the day in mid-February. Later he drew penises all over those jeans with a red Sharpie. The next day he wrote my name inside the waistband and shoved them in the lost-and-found box at school.
And I remember Ace when we were twelve. A rock forms in my throat at the thought.
The ballroom is getting crowded, and almost all of the tables are full of high-school athletes from around the area and their parents.
"Whose name is on the place card over there, Susan?" my mom asks, taking a bite of the salad that has just been put down in front of us.
"It says Keaton," Susan says, holding it up for the rest of us to see. "Oh, Mary and Neil's daughter, I'm sure. That cute little sweetheart you boys used to play with when you were little? I can never remember her name. What is it again, Ace?"
"Marnie," I answer before Ace can.
Ace turns to face me, and his smile widens slowly. "Yes, Marnie," he says, kicking my shoe under the table. His face never loses the smile.
"Where's your father, Jenny? Shouldn't he be here?" Susan asks Mom, looking around the ballroom.
"He's up front with the rest of the coaches," my mom answers, pointing out Grandpa Carl at the big, long table at the front of the room. "He's so proud of Sam," she adds.
"Of course he is! As he should be," Ace says, another slick smile pulling on his stupid face. The heel of his shoe digs into my foot so hard I feel the knuckles of my toes crack.
"I know he's proud of you too, Ace. His star quarterback," my mom says, smiling at Ace and patting his hand across the table.
Ace makes his best "aw, shucks" face, then glances quickly at his dad with wide eyes. Mr. Quinn is scrolling through emails on his phone. Ace's lips tighten, and he looks down at his lap.
From my spot at the table, I see Marnie come through the ballroom doors in a purple dress, her hair pulled away from her face. She's knitting her eyebrows, and worry lines appear on her forehead. She pulls at the hem of her dress, fidgets with her watch, and looks around the ballroom slowly. She spots our table and waves to her parents behind her. I see her take a deep breath and plaster a big smile on her face before she walks over, all bubbles and sunshine. Her parents follow.
I stand up and pull her chair out for her, as well as her mom's. Ace's top lip curls in a sneer as he watches me.
"Mr. and Mrs. Keaton, it's so nice to see you again. And Marnie, you're looking as beautiful as ever," Ace says, standing up from the table and shaking hands with the Keatons. When Marnie reaches her hand out for Ace to shake, he brings it to his lips and kisses it instead. Marnie giggles.
"Sorry we're running a little late," Mr. Keaton says, his eyes darting over to his wife.
Mrs. Keaton lowers her eyes and wipes her brow. "Yes, sorry," she mumbles.
"You didn't miss anything important. Just a limp salad," my mom says, and everyone laughs. I'm happy to see that she's relaxing a little bit.
I glance at Marnie, and she gives me a little nod. "Hi," she mouths with a soft smile. Her eyes dance in the light.
"Hi," I mouth back, my stomach fluttery.
Ace digs the heel of his shoe into my ankle hard enough to leave a bruise.
"Headed out on any hunting trips this summer, Dean?" Marnie's dad asks Mr. Quinn.
"Ace and I have got a little trip to Louisiana planned ... a little handgun hog hunting," he says. "My boy's got a real eye with a .357."
"Is that right?" Mr. Keaton says, his eyebrows rising in admiration.
"Yes, sir. I never miss," Ace says.
"How about you, Neil? Got plans this season?" Mr. Keaton slowly shakes his head. "No time anymore. Though I have to admit I do miss it."
"You ought to come with us to Louisiana," Mr. Quinn says. "Just like the old days when the kids were younger."
"It's definitely something to think about," Mr. Keaton answers. "Though I don't know that I could convince Marnie to haul out her old camouflage and come with me anymore," he adds, laughing.
"No way," she says, shaking her head emphatically. "Barbaric," she says with a disgusted look on her face.
"Look at the three of you sitting there in your fancy outfits," Mrs. Quinn says. "I've got to get a picture of this. Scoot your chair closer to Sam, Ace. Marnie, you stand behind the boys. Lean in and smile, now!" She points her phone at us and beams. "Seems like last week you were headed to kindergarten together."
Marnie makes her way back to her seat, but Ace doesn't scoot his chair away from mine. I move my chair a few inches over, but Ace just scoots closer again.
"Where you going, buddy?" he whispers.
A man has made his way to the podium and is clearing his throat into the microphone.
"I'd like to take a moment to welcome you all to the Easthaven Daily Chronicle Student Athlete Awards," he says, stepping back from the microphone and clapping to the side. The audience takes the cue, and we all politely clap too. Mr. Quinn lets out a loud wolf whistle.
"I am William Lynch, the editor in chief of the Chronicle. Here in Easthaven, we are fortunate to have three top-notch high schools. Whitlow, Gadsden, and Broadmeadow High Schools have produced a staggering number of outstanding college and professional athletes as well as great thinkers ..."
Mr. Lynch drones on and on while we scrape our dessert plates. I eye the number of awards on the table behind the podium. There have to be fifty of them. The biggest one, Student Athlete of the Year, will be the last one they hand out. I lean back in my chair and adjust my tie a little bit. I contemplate taking off my shoes under the table, but decide that's probably a horrible idea.
I glance at Marnie again. She's turned her seat around to watch the speech, but I can still see a bit of the side of her face. Soft cheek, eyelash, and the corner of her mouth. My eyes trace the curve of her neck down to her shoulder. She fidgets with her watch again, her fingers twisting the dial back and forth, back and forth.
"Keep dreaming, Samantha," Ace whispers in my ear.
I narrow my eyes at him.
"Marnie Keaton. There's no fucking way," he says, snorting.
I sit up straighter in my chair and try not to look at Ace or the back of Marnie's head. Her neck. The way the skin on her shoulder pinches just slightly under the tug of her dress strap. The delicate brown curls that dance around her temple.
"She'd never fuck you, dickless," Ace says.
"Shut up, Ace," I mumble, mostly to myself.
The awards seem to drag on and on. Most Improved, Best Defense, Leading Scorer. One by one, kids approach the stage and then have their picture taken with Mr. Lynch while holding their glass award. Football is first, and Ace brings his small glass trophy back to our table to a chorus of oohs and aahs. Marnie is the next to win — a school spirit award. Ace gives her a standing ovation and a loud whistle. She rolls her eyes at him, and her cheeks turn red. She gives him a playful backhand as she sits back down.
"Nice job," I mouth when she looks at me.
"Thank you," she mouths back, the smooth skin above her dimples burning a bright pink.
Basketball is the last sport to be awarded, and by the time I get my small glass trophy, everyone has had just about enough of sitting in this ballroom. There are no more oohs and aahs.
"Good job, Sammy," my mom says, reaching across the table to squeeze my hand. "I can put it in my purse if you'd like," she adds.
I hand it to her and she quietly mouths "Proud of you," while everyone at the table chatters.
"There's just one more award, ladies and gentlemen. The Scholar Athlete Award," Mr. Lynch announces.
I sit up straighter in my chair, clenching my fists against my pant legs. My knee bounces, and I can't make it stop. I swallow a few times, hoping to make my heart stop slamming against my ribs.
It's only an award, Sam. It's only an award. It means nothing. Slow down. Breathe.
"What's up with you, North? You look like you have to take a crap," Ace says in my ear.
I ignore him and try to focus on breathing slowly. My mom reaches over to grab my hand and gives it a squeeze. "I'm proud of you either way, Sammy," she whispers.
"The Easthaven Daily Chronicle Scholar Athlete Award celebrates excellence in the classroom, as well as excellence in the competition arena," Mr. Lynch says.
It has to be me. Please let it be me.
"This year's scholar athlete is a young man who plays two sports and has still managed to earn straight A's in all academic subjects."
Is it me? How many of the other nominees have straight A's?
"He will be a senior at Broadmeadow High School next year, and we are anxious to see what his final year of high school athletics will bring. He's a key member of both the football and basketball teams, and I am pleased to announce that this year's Scholar Athlete Award goes to Mr. Sam North. Come on up here, Sam!" The ballroom erupts again in applause, but my ears tune it out. I turn to my mom and point to my chest. "Me?" I mouth.
Mom wipes a tear and nods. I stand and look toward the stage, where Mr. Lynch is waiting with my award.
I did it. I won.
I turn and look down at Ace sitting next to me, a huge smile pulling on my cheeks. His mouth is set in a straight line, his right hand squeezed into a fist. He looks up at me and shakes his head slowly. The straight line of his lips becomes a snarl.
"Congratulations, Sam!" Marnie comes around the table and hugs me. I try to ignore the dagger eyes I'm getting from Ace. Her hair brushes my nose. Wildflowers and spearmint. She squeezes my arm and pats my back. I touch the soft spot on her shoulder where her dress strap has pulled on her skin and made it pink.
A pat means you're just friends, wanker. That's what my best friend, JC, says. If she rubs your back when you hug her, well ... that's a different story. A pat equals total friend zone.
"Go, silly! Go get your award!" she says, laughing and tapping my shoulder again.
Right. My award. The tips of my fingers tingle where they touched her skin.
I walk up the stairs, my mouth still stretched into a way-too-wide grin, and only trip a little. I don't think anyone notices. I shake hands with Mr. Lynch before accepting my trophy and certificate. I look back into the crowd and find Marnie again, clapping with her hands over her head.
Excerpted from Until I Break by Kara Bietz. Copyright © 2016 Kara Bietz. Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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