Dark Hunger


Page 17



“Good prediction,” he said, nodding slowly.

And then we parted quickly, my ankles wobbling as I shuffled, half ran, to my room, ready to take on the world.

Sam

A huge ball of guilt bowled through my veins, planted there firmly by the image of my father telling me that I was a sinner. He had this funny way of infiltrating my deepest thoughts with just a word, a phrase, or a sentence. Joe Ross had the same ability, except it wasn’t as refined. Dad had it honed. I suppose pastors had to, at least the ones who were hypocrites. Did God really care that I had just kissed Amy? Was there something wrong with an eighteen year old kissing a seventeen year old? But the expectations at home were that I would do whatever Dad told me to do.

Except, he couldn’t control me. He could send me here and tell me that I had to win. I could sit here and think not about the way she tasted like cotton candy and vanilla and lust, but instead about his eyes, hard and black if I came home with anything less than third place. I could think not about how her hands had responded and slid up my chest and around my neck, the tips of her fingers curling into the hair at the nape of my neck, but instead about his shouts and how he would quote Bible verses in a way that made me feel unconditionally flawed. I could think not about the raging hard on—no, wait, I actually couldn’t not think about that, it was too uncomfortable.

Now I had to clear my head, my lips, my fingers, and my body of all the traces of Amy and go in and face my first opponent. How do you do that, though? How do you shift like that, compartmentalizing your life so that, from one minute to the next, you have laser focus on the thing that’s in front of you? I could do it most of the time; it wasn’t even hard. Maybe it was an instinct built into me from birth, but right now that instinct was shattered by her response, by my own boldness.

I mopped the floor with my first opponent that morning, a geeky tenth grader from Cambridge Rindge and Latin. He came in wearing a suit two sizes too big and a nasty snarl of contempt that told me everything I needed to know before he even opened his mouth. Staying slack, loose, respectful, and pleasant was the best weapon against that kind of arrogance. Too bad it didn’t work against my father.By the time the results were processed and my coach came over to tell me, and the next set of pairings were put together in the room where the tournament administrators cooked up their alchemy and produced final results that they taped to the walls, I was a teeming mess on the inside, but a damn fine debater on the outside. Maybe being rattled, maybe being risky, actually helped my performance. Who’d have thought it?

I kept craning my neck, looking around the cafeteria, trying to find Amy’s team. The groups at the tables were all generally segregated by school, although plenty of people crossed over. You made friends when you spent every Saturday together from October to March. I couldn’t find her anywhere though; she wasn’t with her normal group of friends. I decided to go on a walkabout.

This school was like any other in the area. Nashoba Regional, Lincoln-Sudbury, they were all the same, long hallways lined with lockers, the rooms stretched out and uniform. Cubes that held us day in and day out. Our school days, from afar, looking like an ant hive as we ran in and out of each cube according to some sort of large system run by a queen. Amy wasn’t in any of the usually suspected places. Not the cafeteria, not the auditorium where the final ceremonies would take place, and not outside at any of the entrances where some of the competitors went to catch fresh air, or go for a long, pacing walk.

I pretty much had given up and figured I better get back and grab something to eat, when a glimpse of that long, brown hair caught my eye. I swallowed and closed my eyes. This was it, man, time to face my own boldness. Was she...crying? Her back was to me and her shoulders were hunched a little forward. A plume of concern filled me, a protectiveness I didn’t know I could possess, something far deeper than anything I’d felt for my sister when I caught her crying, or even my mom. This was a mix of worry, of evaluation, and of anger, because God help whatever guy may have done this to her.

Why was I even thinking that way? What a weird, random thought. And yet, it filled me, even in the seconds that it took to walk quickly over to her, muscles tight, body resigned, and on fire all the same.

“Amy?” I said, my own voice surprising me, the firmness in it.

She looked up, eyes red rimmed. “Sam,” she said, wiping one eye with the back of her hand.

Compassion, or something close to it, hit me right in the heart. “You were eliminated, huh?” I asked.

“No, um, actually,” she said, smiling a shaky grin that twisted her lips into a funny expression I couldn’t understand. “No...uh, uh, I’m still in...uh, I just...” she stumbled over her words.

The air felt like a giant cotton ball between us, a transparent cotton ball. I didn’t know what to do. I knew sort of what to do, but there weren’t any manuals for this. How do you talk to a girl after you surprise kiss her before going off to be deadly enemies in a debate contest, where your father will practically kill you if you don’t win? It’s not like there is a Dummies Guide for that, or even a Reddit AMA.

“So, why are you crying?” I asked, the question so obvious that I had to hold back rolling my eyes.

“Because of you,” she said, quietly.

If Amy had reached through my skin, and ribs, and cartilage, and grabbed my beating heart with her fingers, and squeezed, she couldn’t have put me in more pain. “Me?” I said. It felt like marbles were in the back of my throat.


“Yeah, you.” Her face was tipped down, her eyes looked up at me.

I had never seen a girl more sensual, more open and raw. Were we really having this conversation in a classroom painted that puke-green institutional color, with boring gray tiles that were supposed to look like fake marble, and plastic chairs attached to little pseudo-desks? Was this where the most intense romantic encounter of my life was about to happen? And then, Amy did something that would be branded in my brain for the rest of my life. Confident and alluring, her hips moving as if her entire body were one long, luscious thread of ribbon, she took three steps toward me, planted her palms on either side of my face and not-so-gently pulled me down to her.

A kiss. A fiery unleashing of a girl I wanted to know. Her tongue pressed between my lips and mine didn’t need to be asked twice to do the same. My arms slid around her, taking a chance at cupping one breast while her hands wrapped around me. Her body pressed against mine, our abdomens pushing into each other, as if trying to introduce ourselves that way. Her mouth said so many things to me that I couldn’t even comprehend because all of the words spilled out of my head and down into my raging hard on. And then, just as fast as she had kissed me, she pulled back, breaking the contact. My mouth felt cold and abandoned.

Her eyes were wild. “Go to prom with me,” she demanded. It felt like a cross examination.

“Hell, yes,” I said, “especially if you kiss me again.”

“You guys want Joe Ross to win?” Erin hissed, skittering in on weak ankles, her stilettos skating on the linoleum. She moved her wrist in a circle and flashed wide, wild eyes at me. “You can make out any time. Right now you’re late!”

She wobbled out, only to be replaced by my coach, Mr. Feehan. “Sam!” he barked, eyes flitting to Amy. Mr. Feehan looked like a barrel-chested wrestling coach, with red-Irish hair and pale skin freckled in every place possible. “Get to your assignment! They’re looking for you! You too, Amy.”

And with that, my future began and ended, though I didn’t know it.

Amy

I once added up how many debates I had done so far, and it came to about 200. You do four debates in an average tournament. I’m in sixteen or so tournaments a year, and you multiply that by three and you get...well, my brain was scrambled, and the math didn’t much matter, but it was more than 200. Here I stood as the affirmative, which meant that I had to defend the resolution. In Lincoln-Douglas debate everyone debates the same topic, which changes throughout the year, and it tends to be a value proposition. Our topic was “When in conflict, the rights of the majority ought to supersede those of the minority.”

Typical debate fare.

It sounds about as boring as watching paint dry, right? Except for us, this was pure joy. If you were assigned the affirmative, you had to defend that proposition. My job was to go in there like a shark and say that no matter what, when in conflict, the rights of the majority ought to supersede the rights of the minority. Majority rule should prevail. Period. End of story. And defend that point to the death, like a pundit on Fox News or MSNBC who sticks to his guns no matter what the evidence.

My opponent had to defend the negative, meaning he had to disprove that statement. He or she had to convince the judge that majority rights weren’t always more important that minority rights.

Sounds easy, except that you had to convince yourself, to the core, that whichever side you argued was absolutely true. And in another debate, you would have to totally convince yourself of the opposite.

For weeks I had sat down with my coach after school, every day, sometimes in the morning, too, before school, banging out value propositions, finding philosophers and political scientists and theorists who supported the idea. Of course, I had to create a negative case, too, because I never knew which side I would defend. You typically go in and defend either side twice in a tournament.

The tournament to go to national competition was different. I didn’t know what I would end up defending and I didn’t know how many debates I would be engaged in that day because they took us all the way to the top until they had three winners. And that was that. It was like a Geek Celebrity Death Match except the stakes were higher.

At least they were to us.

I felt great at the end of this first debate, but the problem was that I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think, because the steady drumbeat of Sam’s name was behind every word that came out of my mouth. Cutting myself off emotionally was the only option I had—because otherwise I was a whirling dervish of feeling, and in debate, that was like a gazelle getting a deep scratch and bleeding around a pack of lions.

Had I really asked him to go to prom? Had he really said yes? How was that possible? I came out of the round after shaking hands with my opponent, reading his defeat in his eyes, and shifted all of my attention to that thumping roar inside me. I needed to find Sam, I needed to know that the kiss we had just shared was real—that it wasn’t going away, that it wasn’t ephemeral or something he’d done on a whim.

Finding truth in everything had become my singular pursuit over the past few years, and that included that kiss.

Sam

The blood pumped through my body like the most intense beat ever. It never varied. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Loud and hard, like a bass drum, with a searing edge of a snare, right around the fringe of the sound. It made me win—until it didn’t. The best debater in the entire region, the girl we knew would end up being number one, was Talia Sheridan. So far, she was undefeated, the only person in the entire tournament undefeated, and everyone had just assumed that of course she’d be number one and the rest of us would fight for the table scraps.

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