6 | Not My Decision
I don’t know how I finished out the school year. Aside from when Ashton died, those last two weeks of school were the hardest of my life.
Kevan sat with me at lunch every day, but even him sitting there didn’t stop the looks and comments I got from people.
I didn’t even understand why people were treating me this way. I understood if they didn’t want to be associated with me, but that didn’t mean they had to treat me like I’d ruined their life. They were just being plain mean.
I started having nightmares and not being able to sleep again.
When Ashton died, I’d had nightmares just about every night for several months. It was always the same dream: I was tied up in the middle of the desert and Ashton was coming to save me, but I knew it was a trap, there was an IED. I tried to tell him, but he didn’t hear me, and it went off, killing him.
I usually woke up at that point, sobbing, but now, it went on and on, Dad, Demi, and everyone at school just standing there and laughing while I cried.
When the school year finally did end, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The coffee shop by my house where I’d gotten the job had rescinded their offer before I even started working.
Matt Diego had emailed the day after we’d met, apologizing, but saying that he was being called back to UCLA. I didn’t care. I hadn’t touched a soccer ball since my last practice with Coach.
Soccer was something Dad had gotten me into. And then I had shared it with Demi. I couldn’t keep playing a sport that brought back so many memories of them.
The media had stopped coming around after a few weeks, but the story was still all over the internet.
Mom was filing for a divorce and Dad was out on bail, awaiting his hearing. I didn’t know where he was staying, and I didn’t care. I was glad they Mom was divorcing him because I never wanted to speak to him again.
I didn’t have any friends to hang out with except Kevan, who had started working full-time.
So, I spent my time in my room, watching movies and messing around on my guitar, and in the garage, practicing martial arts.
One Saturday, in the middle of July, Mom came into the garage while I was training.
She went over and turned off the music. Turning to me, she took a deep breath. “Hayden, I’m sending you to Portland to live with Damen.”
I froze mid-punch and looked at her. “What?!”
Mom sat down. “I said I’m sending you to live with Damen.”
Damen was her younger brother. There was a sixteen-year age gap between them, so he was only nine years older than me. He’d lived in Bellvue all my life and was really more like a brother to me. He was in the Navy Reserves and had been one of the ones who’d really encouraged Ashton to join the Marines.
When Ashton had died, Damen took it almost as hard as I had. He’d become more and more reserved and then last year, he’d suddenly moved to Portland, Oregon and we hadn’t seen him since.
“Why? I’m fine here.” I picked up my water bottle and took a drink.
“No, you’re not.” She shifted uncomfortably and sighed. “Hayden, you can’t like it here. You lost all your friends and you’ve spent the entire summer at home by yourself. That’s not healthy. You need friends.”
I bit my lip. She hadn’t said anything before, so I’d thought she’d hadn’t noticed. “I don’t want to go.” I told her.
She pursed her lips. “It’s not up for debate. I already talked to Damen and bought your plane ticket.”
“Why didn’t you talk to me about it?” I asked, upset. I tossed my water bottle back on the floor. “I don’t want to go!”
Mom closed her eyes and sighed. “I knew you would react like this. That’s why. Can’t you see that I’m trying to do what’s best for you?”
“How is sending me across the country to Damen’s best?” I practically yelled.
Mom winced. “I don’t want you here during your Dad’s hearing.” She said softly.
I hesitated. I actually understood that. I didn’t even want to be around for it. Everything would be messy, and it would be like revisiting it all over again.
I turned back to the bag and started punching again. I guess a little vacation wouldn’t be so awful.
“When would I be leaving?” I asked between punches.
“What?” I furiously punched the bag one last time and turned back to her. “Mom! That’s two days from now! Why are you just now telling me this?”
Mom rubbed her face with her hands. “I was planning to tell you sooner, but there were a few things that didn’t fall into place until today.”
“Like what?” I went back to punching.
Mom didn’t say anything for a moment. “Like making sure Damen could enroll you in school there.”
I blinked in surprise and stopped. School? School was over a month away. “How long were you thinking I was going to be there?”
Mom rubbed the back of her head. “Hayden, you’re not coming back.”
“What?” My heart literally stopped. “What do you mean I’m not coming back?”
She had a pained look on her face. “Hayden, as soon as the divorce is finalized and I can sell the house, I’ll join you and Damen in Portland.”
My mouth opened in surprise. We were moving?
“What the heck Mom!” I clenched my jaw. “Why don’t I get a say at what happens in my own life?”
Mom stood up and I could tell she was upset. “It’s my job as your mother to do what I think is best for you.” She said. “It doesn’t matter if you like it or not, I’ve made my decision. You’d better start packing.” She stared at me for a moment and then left.
I leaned my head against the bag and punched it in frustration. It wasn’t fair. It was my life and I should be able to decide what’s best for myself.
Once again, my life had been turned upside down in a matter of minutes by someone else’s decision. Why did it seem like everyone had control over my life but me?
I went back to training, punching and kicking my frustration out. After close to an hour, I grabbed my phone and called Kevan.
“Hayden!” Kevan sounded surprised. I didn’t blame him. We texted a bit, but never talked on the phone.
“Are you busy?” I asked.
“No.” He paused. “Do you want to talk about something?”
“My mom just told me we’re moving.” I told him.
“Ohh.” Kevan sighed. “Where are you?”
I frowned. “Home, why?”
“I’ll be right there.” He said and hung up.
Four minutes later, he pulled up in front of my house. I didn’t bother asking how he knew where I lived. We’d ridden the same bus all through middle school.
“Get in!” He called through the open window.
I glanced up the street. I hadn’t been out of my neighborhood since school ended. Swallowing, I climbed in his car.
“Where are we going?” I asked as he drove off.
He grinned. “You’ll see.”
A few minutes later, he pulled into the Little Caesars parking lot and stopped.
I gave him a look. “Pizza?”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” He grinned and climbed out of the car.
“I think I’ll stay here.” I told him, spying some other teens inside.
“Okay, I’ll be right back.” Kevan shut his door and headed in.
Shortly after he entered the building, the teens came out and headed to their car. I instinctively wanted to slide down so they wouldn’t see me, but I didn’t. Instead, I pretended to be doing something on my phone.
They walked past without noticing me and I let out a small breath of relief.
In that moment, I realized my mom was right. I wasn’t fine here. Things would never go back to the way they were. People would always treat me poorly and I would never stop trying to avoid them.
Kevan came back out to the car with the pizza and drove me to the school soccer field.
“What are we doing here?” I asked apprehensively as we pulled in the parking lot.
Kevan parked the car and climbed out. “Eating.” He gave me a look that said “duh”.
I followed him into the top of the bleachers and sat down.
He handed me a piece of pizza. “So, you’re moving?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I guess. My mom is sending me to Oregon to live with her brother. She doesn’t want me around for my Dad’s hearing.”
Kevan nodded thoughtfully. “I get that. I’m sure it’ll be a real mess, digging up things you’d rather have forgotten.”
“I know that. I’m just mad she didn’t ask me what I wanted.” I paused. “She told me I’m leaving Monday!”
“Well when are you coming back?” Kevan asked.
I gave a sour laugh. “That’s the thing. I’m not. We’re moving there.”
“Oh.” Kevan leaned back against the pole. “Well, it’s probably for the best, you know? People here will always look at you differently than before, but there you can have a fresh start. Be who you want to be.” He grinned at me. “It was working for you here.”
I thought about it for a minute. What he said about it working here was true. I guess before the scandal I had been a likeable person. But I wasn’t that Hayden Starr anymore.
The whole scandal thing had opened up something dark inside of me. I was no longer the innocent girl who’d saw the best in everyone and believed whatever she was told. I was something very different.
“Have you told Coach White?” Kevan asked.
I hadn’t even thought of that. I shook my head. “I wouldn’t know what to say. I haven’t touched a soccer ball since I last saw him, and I’m not planning on starting again. He’d put so much effort into making me great, I can’t tell him I quit.”
I knew I had to tell Coach I was done with soccer, so the next morning, I called him and asked if I could meet him at school. I knew it would be so much harder to tell him in person, but he didn’t deserve to hear it over the phone, and I wanted to say goodbye.
When I did tell him, he was calmer than I thought he’d be. He didn’t yell at me or tell me how I was wasting so much potential. He just nodded and said he understood.
For some reason, it was a bit of a let-down. Like part of me wanted him to yell at me and tell me I couldn’t quit.
We talked for a while and finally he hugged me and told me goodbye. But when I was walking away, he stopped me.
“Just a minute.” He said. He went back into his office and a minute later, he came back out. He handed me something. It was our team picture from the championship. “Don’t lose yourself.” He said softly.
I didn’t know what he meant but I nodded and left.
On Monday morning the sky was overcast as we drove to the airport. The gloomy skies accurately depicted how I was feeling. It wasn’t that I was extremely sad about leaving, Mom was right in that I didn’t have anything here anymore, well, except for my grandparents and Kevan, but all the unspoken things and reasons behind why we were leaving weighed heavily on me.
My grandparents had come to see me off that morning and Kevan and I had said goodbye the night before. We’d promised to keep in touch, but I knew how that went. I’d probably never see him again.
The drive to the airport was quiet. When we got there, Mom checked in my luggage and walked me to the security checkpoint.
She smiled at me. “I guess this is it. Damen will be waiting for you at the airport in Portland and I’ll get the rest of your things in the mail later today.” Her smile faded and it was replaced by a look of worry.
“I’ll be fine, Mom.” I said. I knew she was thinking of Ashton. Whenever I left for a trip without her, she worried excessively.
“Just be careful.” She pulled me into a hug. “If you can’t find your next flight in Minneapolis, ask someone, okay?”
I hugged her back. “I will.”
“And have Damen call me when you get there.”
I nodded and kissed her cheek. “I will. I love you.”
“I love you too.” She let go of me and I picked up my backpack. “Be safe.” She whispered.
I gave her a smile and got in line for the security check.
“Please remove your shoes and place them in a bin along with all loose items.” The security guard called out.
I slipped off my sneakers and put them in a bin along with my backpack, phone, and ring.
“Miss, you’ll have to remove your necklace.” The guard said to me.
I glanced down at the dog tags hanging around my neck and bit my lip. I hadn’t taken them off since I’d put them on at Ashton’s funeral.
“Miss?” The guard looked at me.
“Sorry.” I pulled them off and placed them in the bin.
“You can go through now.”
I walked through the machine and collected my things on the other side, immediately putting the dog tags back on.
If I ever lost Ashton’s dog tags, it would break my heart.
The rest of the trip was a breeze. I slept for most of the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Minneapolis, and on the three-and-a-half-hour flight to Portland, I listened to music and talked to the guy next to me.
When I arrived in Portland, I saw Damen waiting for me in the terminal and waved. I wasn’t sure what I expected our relationship to be like now. We’d been close back in Virginia, but I hadn’t talked directly to him in over a year and I thought maybe things would be awkward. Even more so because of the reasons for my coming.
But I was wrong. It wasn’t awkward at all. More like a long-lost brother and sister reuniting.
He greeted me with a hug. “How’s my superstar?” He asked.
I grinned and hugged him back. “I’m good.”
“How was your flight?” He asked dutifully.
I laughed. “Fine. The guy next to me told me all about his son and how we would get along so well.” My eyes twinkled. “After about an hour I finally discovered that his ‘son’ is a dog.”
Damen made a face. “Ooh.”
“Yeah.” I grinned again. “By the way, Mom said to have you call her when I got here.”
“Of course.” Damen pulled out his phone and grinned at me. “Let’s go pick up your suitcase and then grab some pizza, okay?”
I pursed my lips into a smile. “You know me too well.”
When we finally got to Damen’s apartment an hour later, he took me to my room.
“Sorry there’s not much here.” He said, opening the door to show that the room was empty aside from a bed and desk. “Gia’s been helping me decorate the rest of the place, but when I found out you were coming, I figured I let you do this room.”
I stopped in the doorway and looked at him, a smile on my face. “Gia?”
Damen tilted his head back and groaned. “Yeah… Did I forgot to mention I’m dating?”
“Uh-huh.” I walked into the room and set my suitcase and backpack on the bed. “So, does she live here or what?”
Damen blushed scarlet and shook his head. “No.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“What?” Damen gave me an innocent look.
“You’re beet red.” I smiled and sat on the edge of the bed.
He rubbed his face with his hand and leaned against the doorpost. “Okay. She’s stayed over a couple of times.”
I nodded my head sincerely. “Right. Just a couple of times.”
Damen grinned at me. “Shut up.”
I laughed. “So when do I get to meet her?”
Damen pulled out his phone. “She said she’d probably come over later tonight.”
“How did you meet?” I asked.
Knowing Damen, he’d probably been the one asked out. He was a good-looking guy and super sweet when he wanted to be, but he’d always been kind of shy with girls. He hadn’t even had a girlfriend in high school although I had no idea why.
He bit his lip and smiled. “Gia’s oldest brother is one of my buddies in the Reserves and he invited me to spend last Christmas with his family. I guess I felt a little sorry for her, since she has four brothers and no sisters…”
I watched him as he told the story. He was so frickin cute with his dimples and dark eyes sparkling. If he wasn’t literally like my brother, I would’ve totally had a crush on him. I couldn’t help grinning.
He stopped. “What?”
I pursed my lips. “Nothing. I’m just glad you’re happy.” I hadn’t seen him this happy since before Ashton died. “Does Mom know you’re dating?” She hadn’t told me, so I guessed Damen hadn’t even told her.
He winced and shook his head. “I kinda forgot about it.”
I gave him a look. “You’re gonna be in trouble.”