Game Changer by Alley Ciz

 

#Chapter1

“This was a mistake.”

Replaying the words in my head does nothing to dilute the painful memory of them.

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,”I implored. The irony of it all…the campus playboy, Mr. Casanova, accusing me of being a cheater.

“No. I mean this.”

Tears fall again at how callously he classified us.

“This is the reason I don’t do relationships.”

More tears, so many more.

Oof. What the?”

Dimly I’m aware of being stepped on…neither the pain nor the sound of a body stumbling to the ground next to me really registering, lost inside my head…

“Are you breaking up with me?”

Even now I cringe at how pathetic I sounded.

“Yes.”

One word. One syllable. One finite answer and he was gone.

“Kay?”

Wait…

That was said out loud. I heard that with my ears, right?

“Kay?”

I know that voice.

“Kay?”

Why is JT calling me Kay? He barely ever calls me that, not since he coined my PF nickname.

PF.

Thinking of the name makes me scowl.

“Why don’t you tell me, P. F.” Mason spits out each letter of my nickname like it offends him.

How could two letters be the catalyst for destroying such a vital part of me?

“Kay, what’s wrong?”

Everything.

“Oh my god, Kay.” Em crouches down at my side.

“Why is she in the hallway? Is she hurt?” Q drops down on my other side.

I’m still in the hallway?

Hmm…

I wonder how long I’ve been here. If they’re here, it must mean the game is over, so I guess it’s been a few hours. Have I really been sitting in this spot the whole time?

It’s happening again—the breakdown, the foggy haze, the complete loss of time, the inability to speak, the shutting down. It’s like an old habit I can’t break.

The breakup, though debilitating in the moment, isn’t even the worst of it. That’s the biggest blow. I thought I’d grown stronger, thought I’d learned ways to cope, ways to never fall victim to the crushing weight of my emotions again.

“Kay, talk to me.” Strong hands grip my shoulders but, again, I barely register the touch, like a ghost floating, taking in the scene from above.

“Kayla, what the fuck is going on?”

Fingers pinch my chin and lift until I’m no longer staring at the floor. Instead, as my vision clears, the haze dissipates and a new stream of tears starts to fall down my cheeks as I meet a concerned set of whiskey-colored eyes.

I watch as those same eyes track the drip of tears onto my chest, like a leaky faucet I can’t turn off.

“Why are you crying?”

Because…

I don’t answer. I can’t even think it; how am I supposed to voice it?

“Em, check the Gram,” JT instructs, doing his best to piece together what happened without having the puzzle pieces.

“Were you even bullied? Or is that just some lie you used to get me to stop pushing the issue of posting about us on my social media?”

“Nothing since they figured out she’s PF Dennings from NJA.”

I flinch at the name, my body having a Pavlovian response. I close my eyes to shut out the pain but then force them open again, anchoring myself back in the present by locking them onto my oldest friend.

“This doesn’t make sense.” JT runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “She wouldn’t just be like this. Something happened.”

Just my heart being broken.

“Should we call Mason?” Q asks.

I jerk in JT’s hold. Why am I fighting the numbness? I should give in, let it take me away again so I can just stop hurting.

“He didn’t answer.” Q’s voice sounds like it’s coming from inside a tunnel, but I still manage to be conscious of her relaying the information to JT.

Of course he wouldn’t answer.

“Try again,” JT instructs.

I should tell them not to bother; the result isn’t going to change. Mase—no! He’s not Mase; it’s Mason now—won’t answer. He’s done with me.

“Are you breaking up with me?”

“Yes.”

“Kayla, I swear to god, if you don’t open your mouth and use your words right now, I’m calling E.”

The threat is enough to pop the last of the bubble of gloom surrounding me.

“Can we stop with the Kay/Kayla stuff? It freaks me out.”

JT sags like a deflated balloon, his body falling forward, his head pressing into my lower belly as puffs of air ripple the fabric of my sweatpants.

“JT is just a friend. He’s as much a brother to me as E.”

“Yeah, and in Biz Markie’s song, that’s exactly what the bitch says when she’s actually hooking up with the other guy.”

“Fuck, Kay.” JT’s arms band around my hips and he holds on to me like he’s the one in need of the lifeline and not me.

“You’re still doing it.” I bring a hand up and start to run it through the short dark auburn hair on the back of his head. The action soothes him, but I do it more to reaffirm to myself that he’s real. As close as E and I are, JT has always been my anchor.

Our friendship may not be the most conventional, but it is purely platonic. JT is legit my bloodless brother.

Mason isn’t the first person to think there’s more to my relationship with JT than there is. It’s one thing to think it; it’s entirely another to believe it. I know there are parts of me, things I still haven’t told him, about how bad things got after my dad died and the events that led to the deletion of my Instagram…but, seriously, after all the stories he’s heard about JT and me growing up…how? How did he come to such an incorrect conclusion?

“—you didn’t want things posted of us because you were worried about your other boyfriend finding out.”

I’m not a liar, and I’m certainly not a cheat. For Mason to accuse me of being both those things is what hurts the most. Yes, I’ve kept parts of my past secret. It was a way to protect myself, to shed the veil of being a victim, to keep my heart safe.

Fat lot of good that did.

“What happened?” JT tries again.

Both Em and Q fidget, unsure what to do. I don’t blame them. Being aware of the fact that I fell apart in high school is tough enough, but witnessing it is a whole other level. For as bad as this scene is coming across, it isn’t anywhere near me at my worst.

“J.” I choke out the single letter, giving away my desperation. It’s as rare for me to drop the T in his name as it is for him to call me Kay.

With a muttered curse, I’m lifted from the floor and cradled in JT’s lap. My nose brushes along the skin bared by the V of his cheer uniform’s collar and sweatshirt, the familiar scent of sweat and eucalyptus keeping me from the brink of total collapse.

“What can I do? What do you need?” he asks in a distressed plea, taking on the anguish bleeding off me.

“Home,” I sob.

I can’t be here, in the place where I first started to fall for Mason, surrounded by memories that are mundane but still hold weighted significance.

“Okay.” With the ease only a person used to tossing girls over his head can exude, JT rises from the ground, still holding me in his arms, and follows Em’s directions to my bedroom.

The welcome relief of the soft goose down duvet on my tailbone after hours spent on a hard floor doesn’t last long as those memories smack me in the face.

Mase—fuck! Mason—and me studying.

M-A-S-O-N asking me to be his girlfriend.

Our first sleepover.

Our first time.

Fuck! I need to get out of here.

Em and Q both hover in the doorway, their concerned gazes bouncing between me on the bed and JT shuffling around the room, gathering an overnight bag, my purse, and my keys before slipping my classic black and white Chucks onto my feet.

A screechy pained whine escapes when he tries to pull Mason’s hoodie over my head. I can see the questions swimming in his eyes, but blessedly he doesn’t ask, instead pulling my own U of J sweatshirt from the wardrobe.

Adjusting the hood to hide my face, he tugs on the strings to tighten the fit. Tucking me tight to his side, he drapes both my bags over his shoulder as well as his own, which he dropped by the door before, and leads us out of the apartment.

I vaguely recall him promising to call the girls later, but that’s the last thing I’m cognizant of. The walk to the car and the almost-hour-long drive home aren’t even a blur, just another void of time in my memories.

A hand squeezing mine brings me back to the present, and my eyes blink until the Taylor home comes into focus. My head lolls to the side on the headrest and I attempt to meet JT’s encouraging smile with a grateful one. I couldn’t tell you if I’m successful or not, but this is just one of the many things that show how well he knows me. I haven’t uttered a word about the demise of my relationship with Mason, but still he sensed I couldn’t be at my house a few blocks away.

Pinky idles in the driveway, the heat from the vents ruffling the curls hanging limply around my face as JT waits for me to be ready to move.

I give an almost indistinguishable nod, and he grabs our bags out of the back seat then rounds the Jeep, pulling my door open for me to hop down.

He holds his arms open and I fall into them, sinking into the hug, the back of his blue Kentucky sweatshirt clutched in my hands. God love him, he doesn’t even flinch at the fabric getting covered in tears and snot.

The shudders racking my body eventually subside in his hold. Once I’m calm enough, he lets me go with a pat on the back.

The sound of the front door opening brings attention to our arrival, and Pops steps into the foyer a few seconds after us.

“Jimmy, my boy.” Pops automatically pulls JT into a hug, but the jovial mood drops along with his smile as he catches sight of me. “Who do I have to kill?”

The automatic protective response brings the first twitch to my lips.

“Dad,” JT cautions.

“Come here, baby girl.”

Without any hesitation, I go to him, letting him fold me into his fatherly embrace. Growing up as the best friend of my dad, Pops has always been like a second father to me. Their longstanding friendship is how JT and I became CTG BFFs (cradle-to-grave best friends forever).

“You kids want anything to eat?” He starts to lead us to the back of the house where the kitchen is located.

I don’t, the knots in my stomach are more than enough to fill me up, but I follow anyway, taking a seat on one of the stools at the counter. I concentrate all my energy on breathing in and out, anything to not succumb to the depression I feel welling up inside me. I still can’t believe any of this is real.

“Shit, Kay.” Tessa rushes me as soon as she spots me. I really must be in worse shape than I thought if both Taylor children are calling me Kay.

“What am I, chopped liver?” JT asks in response to the Please, I can’t human right now plea I give him over her shoulder. “Don’t I get a hug?”

“You’re an idiot,” T retorts, but she lets go of me to go to him.

Both Taylor siblings are a good mix of their parents. JT got his whiskey-hued eyes from his mom, where on Tessa they tinted the blue eyes inherited from Pops to a deep midnight blue. The deep auburn of JT’s hair comes from a mix of Pops’ once rich brown hair that is now gray at the temples with the same bright strawberry locks Tessa has.

“Come on.” JT releases T and holds out a hand for me to take.

With the Taylors, I don’t have to worry about being seen as rude for not saying anything as I leave to follow JT upstairs.

The path to his bedroom is as familiar as the one to my own, the door still ajar from when I slept over the other night when Pops was on shift at the firehouse. I toe out of my sneakers as I walk to the bed, leaving them scattered in my wake and dropping my hoodie amongst the mess.

I slip under the covers, burying my face in the pillow on my side of the bed. A wall of heat envelops me from behind as JT crawls in next to me and pulls my body in to spoon with his. I couldn’t even count the number of times JT and I have shared a bed during our lives. Most parents keep their babies away from others who are sick, but not our moms. The only way one of us would sleep then was if the other was in the crib too.

Like all those years ago, the feeling of someone reaching inside my chest and squeezing my heart in their fist starts to fade, though it doesn’t stop the little whimpers from slipping out periodically.

“I need to know what happened, Kay.”

Fuck!I hate that he’s still calling me Kay.

“Mason—” My voice breaks, the pain from just uttering his name like a physical blow. “Broke up with me.”

“The fuck?” There’s a faint whistling sound as JT sucks a breath in through his teeth. Guess he wasn’t expecting that answer.

“He thinks the reason I wouldn’t let him post pictures of us on his Instagram is because I was afraid they would get back to you.” The image of Mason’s usually sparking green eyes deadened in anger flashes through my memory and cuts through me like a hot knife.

He was so angry. So mean.

“What?” The incredulity in JT’s voice soothes the sting a little.

“He thinks we’re really a couple and the whole PF and Kay thing was a way to cheat on you both.”

Waves of anger pulse off his body the longer I speak. Even though I’m technically a month older than him, JT has always treated me as his younger sister, exactly the same as E. Honestly, it’s this fact that makes Mason’s kneejerk reaction hurt so much more.

If only he trusted me and came to me instead of jumping to conclusions.

This…

This is what kills me, how he automatically thought the worst without giving me a chance to explain.

Fucking social media. I loathe it. Why does Mason have to be so hung up on it? Will it ever stop being the bane of my existence? Hasn’t it done enough damage to my life?

“He said it was a mistake to date me.” I sniffle, trying to clear some of the snot building up inside my nose so I can breathe. The cotton of the pillowcase is already wet under my face from the tears that started back up the moment I stepped into the safety of the bedroom. “On the plus side, at least this one isn’t using me to get close to E.”

Sonofabitch,” JT curses under his breath. “I’m going to kill him.”

While I can appreciate the instinctive drive to come to my defense, I can’t handle thinking about everything any longer. I close my eyes, my body both numb and screaming in pain simultaneously. I will sleep to come, desperate for a reprieve, even if only for a few hours.