The Smile Has Left Your Eyes

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Chapter Nine

Aspen

Although it wasn’t the first time Rafe had been away, it felt odd not seeing him. Just six days had me recognizing my unhealthy dependency, but I had no one else. I didn’t really have any other friends, especially not now. I missed Rafe, and I craved a type of comfort from him I knew I’d never be able to get, even just as friends. I needed someone to tell me it’d all be okay; I wouldn’t believe them, but hearing it would still be nice. But more than that, I needed to know where he stood. Was he still mad at me from after the game last Tuesday? What did he mean when he’d said those things on Devin’s story? And what about the fact that I was gay? What would he do with that? He probably didn’t know yet since his phone was broken and he’d left before I accidentally outed myself. I wondered how he was going to figure it out. Or who else knew. Just Isabella? The entire baseball team? The whole school, perhaps?

I switched into a different long-sleeved shirt; the white fabric was tighter than I would’ve preferred, but my options were limited. I pulled out grey sweatpants and slid on the black hoodie and Vans. I was counting on the dark wardrobe to conceal the nearly-as-dark bruises on my face.

I hadn’t planned on going to school today, since my ribs had begun to feel worse over the past couple of days, but I received a call from the assistant coach this morning telling me that Coach Gale wanted to have a brief conversation with me. He sounded pessimistic and unhappy. Maybe I was in trouble for skipping three days’ worth of classes last week and hadn’t bothered showing up today either.

I didn’t leave until the last block period had finished to avoid running into as many people as I could.

I paid the manager, adding another twenty-four hours to my stay. I was already low on cash between scattered and sparse meals on top of the motel cost.

It took over an hour to walk to school. I was awkwardly hunched over the entire time, wheezing with every breath.

Here we go.

I hobbled through the front double doors with my hood up and covering a large portion of my face. Expecting students to turn to me and peer in disgust, confusion swept over me when everyone kept their eyes down, most scurrying out the doors. It was a Monday after all, and those who didn’t have after-school activities tended to leave as quickly as they could. I avoided the spot where my friends met up after classes, just to be safe.

Not sure if Coach Gale was on the baseball field or in his office, I decided to call him so I wouldn’t have to walk the extra mile. I held my phone to my ear as I awkwardly leaned against a random student’s locker before he finally picked up. “Coach Gale?”

“Ah, yes. Hi, Aspen. Could you come see me in my office? We need to talk about something.” His voice was serious and caused a slight panic in my mind.

“Right… what’s going on?”

“Let’s discuss this matter in person.” The line went dead.

I struggled to pull myself off the wall, my right hand firmly placed near the bottom of my rib cage and my back hunched. I stumbled a bit, trying to take my first step. The world was fuzzy and a little dark. I focused on the ground and shook my head back and forth in hopes that I wouldn’t faint. I blew out a puff of air and plodded my way to the back of the gym. My pace was excruciatingly slow and anyone walking the same direction passed me.

“Aspen!” My head shot up when Amelia shouted my name.

“Heyyy,” I drew my words out. I’d hoped I could avoid her.

“Have you talked to Rafe yet?” she asked. The way her soft waves framed her face complemented her large green eyes; she looked rather bright for someone who just went through a breakup.

Maybe they got back together...

“No… I haven’t seen him since last week. He’s out of town right now.”

“Really?” Surprise was etched on her face and she rubbed a hand over the side of her neck. “There’s something important he needs to tell you. I told him he should do it sooner rather than later.”

I raised an eyebrow, clueless as to what she was talking about. I’d already gotten an apology from him, even though it was indirect.

“Well, I hope he builds up the courage to say it when he gets back.” She gave me a tight-lipped, indifferent smile, as if she wasn’t happy or upset regarding whatever she was talking about. I craned my head to watch her as she left. It didn’t seem like she knew about me, so what the fuck was that about?

I shook the thoughts from my head. I already had a headache and didn’t need more unanswered questions cluttering my mind. I shoved my hands into my pockets and attempted to walk through the empty hallways to Coach Gale’s makeshift office.

“Have a seat.” He gestured toward the chair in front of his desk. There were all kinds of sports equipment stacked behind him, partially blocking the large window that showed the outdoor pool. “Devin came to me this morning with an urgent piece of information. He told me you were hiding a serious injury, and that’s why you haven’t been playing.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “That’s ridiculous, I’m not injured!” I struggled to convince him on account of having to keep my head down and avert my gaze to better hide the bruises and cuts on my face and neck, which I knew was typical behavior you’d see in people when they lied, but I couldn’t help it in these circumstances. And I may have been slightly injured, but I healed fast. Alex-related injuries rarely affected my ability to play baseball, and if they did, well… I hid pain well. This occasion was no different.

“I know you know how Devin is, Aspen. He told me because he’s worried about you. And I won’t sit here and see you develop a permanent injury that could potentially ruin your future and career.” The look on his face made it seem like he was breaking news to an old lady that he’d accidentally run over her cat.

“I’m sorry, but I have to suspend you from playing until you can turn in a doctor’s note stating you are in perfect health and at no risk of furthering any injury.” He was austere, his mind made up with no room for negotiation.

“Okay,” I muttered. I brushed my hand against my nose and sniffed, mentally preparing to stand. I gripped the armrests of the chair and tried to lift myself without wincing or cradling my stomach. I turned on my heels and walked as steadily as I could from the gym. There was no point in trying to convince Coach Gale that Devin lied. I had to assume Isa told Devin, and that was the reason he wanted me off the team. Regardless, I wouldn’t be able to argue against an injury at the moment…

Just as I passed the locker rooms, I caught sight of Devin, Jason, and Jamey striding toward me with their baseball bags in hand. Devin was the first to notice me. He tapped Jason’s shoulder and nodded in my direction. A cruel smile overtook his face; it reminded me of Alex. My body shuddered at the similarity.

“Aspen!” Jason shouted from across the hall as the three got closer. I took a step back when they were right in front of me. “Just the person we wanted to see!” He wrapped his arms roughly around my shoulder. “Let’s have a quick chat.”

They pushed me into the empty locker room, locking the door behind them. My heart thumped in my chest as they cornered me, forcing me backward until I collided with a row of blue lockers.

“So you just weren’t going to tell us you’re a fucking homo?” Devin seethed.

“Wh-what? No-no I—” my eyes jumped around the room, but no one was there.

“Shit, and we even changed in front of you!” Jason spat on the ground. “You thought you were so slick, didn’t ya. Perving on guys while they changed.”

“I didn’t!” My throat went dry.

“Fucking disgusting. We can’t just let this go, Aspen.” Devin said with wide eyes.

“I never looked! I swear!” I sputtered in a shaky voice.

“I can’t believe we’ve been friends with this motherfucker for years,” Devin snarled, raising his fist.

Before I could comprehend what happened, a dull, painful ache exploded on my left cheekbone. My hands flew up to my now squinting eye. My mind paced frantically when my teammates crowded me.

“Jason,” Devin said without turning his gaze away from me, “give me your bat.”

Jason diverted his attention from me to look at the blonde with surprise. “What?”

“Your. Fucking. Bat.” Devin held his hand out impatiently.

Jason glanced at Jamey, unsure of what to do, but he ultimately obeyed the captain and grabbed his bag, rummaging through it until he was able to pull his bat out smoothly. He tossed it around until the aluminum barrel rested in his right hand. Jason placed the handle into Devin’s palm, who tightened his grip and twirled it around in his fingers, trying to find the perfect hold.

A bat? A Fucking bat?? What was he going to do with a—

With two hands firmly placed around the grip just above the knob, Devin turned to me and took a full swing. I dropped to the ground as fast as I could. The bat slammed into the lockers behind me; the sound echoed throughout the room and could undoubtedly be heard from the other side.

My heart rate spiked as I stared up at Devin in disillusion. I had one hand spread out on the locker to keep my balance in the awkward squatting position. My fingers and toes tingled, an intense throbbing sensation radiating throughout my entire body, all stemming from my heart.

Trembling, I turned my head to look at the dent he had made with the bat.

That’s where my head was.

Was he trying to fucking kill me?!

Holy shit! Now way no way no way…

He was actually going to—

“Woah! Devin, what the hell!!” Jason shouted, nearly as startled as I was. Jason grabbed Devin’s shoulder in an attempt to pull him away from me.

I panted in fear, unable to control my breathing.

“Get the fuck off!” Devin screamed, shoving Jason off him, the darker boy falling to the ground.

Devin threw his bat into the air and I cowered underneath him, tucking my head down while my arms formed an X over the top of my hood. I squeezed my eyes as tight as I could, waiting for the blow to strike.

But it didn’t happen.

I opened my eyes hesitantly and peeked through my arms. Jamey stood before me with both of his hands holding the barrel of the bat as Devin struggled to force it downward. With Jason behind Devin, he tugged Devin’s right shoulder back to prevent him from swinging at me.

“Devin! Stop it, man! I get it, but you can’t kill him!” Jason screamed in alarm.

“Leave!” Jamey shouted. I didn’t know who his words were directed at, so I stayed still, paralyzed by fear.

“Fuck! Aspen, hurry and leave!!” Jamey grunted as he struggled to keep Devin back.

I scurried to my feet and stumbled past the three boys, glancing back at their internal struggle. I was terrified, limping as fast as I could to the door. While my fingers fumbled with the lock, I turned to see how much longer I had.

Devin was stronger than the other two. A lot stronger. He threw the boys off him, his bat dropping to the ground. He made a beeline straight for me.

My quaking hand finally turned the metal lock to the left. I got it!

Just before I could open the door, Devin’s fist came flying past my face. I barely saw it from my blurred peripheral vision, only able to move my head a single inch to the right to avoid it. His knuckles connected with the door and I jumped backward.

“You’re fucking dead!” Devin fumed.

I looked behind me and Jason and Jamey were just starting to get off the ground.

Devin took a half-second to recover, his curled fingers probably hurting from hitting the door with full force. Startled, I let my reflexes take over and sent a punch into his right cheek.

He stumbled to the side, his hand catching the doorknob and accidentally turning it.

I saw an opportunity. I rammed myself into Devin’s back, forcing the door to swing open. Devin fell to the ground with a heavy thump just outside of the locker room.

I jumped over his body and sprinted down the hallway, ignoring the other students giving me strange looks.

“Aspen! Get your ass back here!” Devin shouted. His voice sounded much closer than I would’ve liked.

I glanced back and saw Devin just feet behind me—so focused on the man on my tail, I didn’t see when I slammed into a firm chest.

“Ugh,” I grunted, craning my head to see who I ran into.

My eyes made contact with a confused-looking Rafe sporting a dark-grey moisture-wicking practice tee with his baseball bag slung over his shoulder.

He must’ve just gotten back.

“Aspen? What are you doing?”

I didn’t reply, gaping at him and gasping for air. Rafe placed his hands on my shoulders to push my weight off him.

My head snapped to the side and I muttered a quick, “Sorry” to Rafe before running past him.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

I ignored the loud voice.

Devin tried to run after me, but Rafe placed his forearm on the blonde’s chest and pushed him back. Rafe’s black eyebrows furrowed as Jason and Jamey caught up, grabbing hold of Devin. Rafe was probably acting on instinct after seeing me running away.

The second I was out the front door, I rushed to the side of the building and my body folded in half, nearly toppling over. My entire being shook and I had no control over my twitching fingers. My legs locked in place and I couldn’t get them to move.

I heaved, trying to breathe, but it was as if I was stuck in a chamber devoid of all oxygen.

What the fuck. What the fuck??

Devin wanted to smash my head in with a bat. He tried to kill me.

My friend tried to kill me…

Was being gay such a bad thing? Was I so disgusting that people would rather see me dead than with another man?! Fuck!

Did that really just happen? The guy that had looked out for me since I met him four years ago was going to murder me. He was willing to commit a hate crime just to get rid of me…

My closest friends’ reactions had resulted in me getting disowned and almost killed. If their reactions were that bad, did that mean Rafe’s would be even worse? Two times? Or three, since I’d known him that much longer? Since I’d been hiding it from him for that much longer?

I knew Rafe… I’d known him nearly my entire life and I was sure he wouldn’t be like Alex or Devin. He wouldn’t hurt me… but then again, the topic of homosexuality wasn’t something we’d ever discussed. I refused to bring it up, to even test the waters. Because I couldn’t be sure that he wouldn’t have a negative reaction, and Rafe was someone I never wanted to lose.

I wished I wasn’t like this… I wished I hadn’t been born different. Why me? Why did I have to go through this? What did I do to deserve it?

Nothing. I hadn’t done anything.

I was so tired of always being hurt, of the constant pain…

My hands dropped to my knees and bile rose in my throat. I choked on my stomach’s contents as they spilled out of my mouth. I coughed and gagged, continuing to spit up until there was nothing left.

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