I shuffled through the thinning crowd, glancing down at the watch on my wrist anxiously. I had been late to class the past couple of days, and the last thing I needed was detention. My first detention, too. I didn't even want to think about it. I gripped my French book tighter to my chest as I slid through the door just as the bell rang out. I let out a sigh of relief as I slid into my seat and began to inspect the speckled tile floor; I was well aware that most of the class was staring at me and whispering.

I had never exactly flown under the radar, with my last name and everything, but in the past week, I had made major headlines. Unlike usual, though, it had nothing to do with my father’s business or what clothes I decided to wear. In a school as small as Roseno, word spread quickly, whether people knew the entire story or not. My decision to leave Honors Choir had not gone unnoticed by my classmates, to say the least. There were vicious rumors swirling throughout the brick building about the reason behind it. As I pulled my notebook out, I heard my name being strung along in a sentence with ‘drug’ and ‘addict.’ Normally, it would have been ridiculous, but given my zombie-like appearance lately, I couldn't blame them.

My eyes flickered up involuntarily as I heard my name whispered somewhere in the room and met with a cyan pair across the buzzing room. Brent opened and closed his mouth, trying to figure out words to say, but none came out. I quickly looked away, gnawing on my bottom lip. I hadn't exactly talked to him since my meltdown in the hallway; I was so embarrassed, and he hadn't exactly got the chance since I wouldn't answer my phone. I swore I heard him sigh as Madame Blanc demanded the attention of the class.

I rested my elbow on the wooden desktop, allowing my chin to sink into the palm of my hand. My eyelids felt as if they weighed a ton each, and as hard as I tried, they continuously drooped closed. Me actually sleeping had become a rarity with my thoughts eating me alive every time I had a chance to think. In the middle of the class, though, sleep was winning out over learning French verbs. It was only when Vera elbowed me sharply in the ribcage that I shot up. I ran a hand through my loose waves and eyed her warily. Conversation wasn't exactly something I had the energy for.

“What’s going on with you?” she whispered, pretending to be flipping through her rainbow colored flashcards.

“Aven’s still driving me crazy,” I blurted out lamely, giving my shoulders a half-hearted shrug. God, I sucked at excuses. I wasn't used to having to make them, though. In my world, you did your best, and slipping up or failure wasn't even an option. Vera narrowed her eyes to inspect me, almost as if sensing the lie.

I tried to widen my eyes and feign innocence like I had seen Vera and Cam do so many times over the years. I hadn’t worked up the courage to tell Vera and Cam about my mom's condition yet, and it wasn't something I wanted to talk about in the middle of class. The only people outside of the family and doctors that knew were Brent and his parents; it wasn't exactly easy to bring up in casual conversation, and I still hadn't come to terms with it yet. From my peripheral vision, I could see Brent watching us.

“Rylan, I—“

The shrill blast of the bell announced the end of the period, and just in time. I let all the air gush from my lungs in relief as I gathered my things as quickly as possible. For once, time was on my side. Vera looked defeated as she walked toward Brent, and I could still feel her eyes on me as I struggled to collect my flashcards.

“Mademoiselle Gallagher, may I speak to you for a moment?” Madame Blanc called from behind her desk.

I cursed under my breath, but turned with a smile plastered on my face. I had almost been out the door.

“What’s going on?” I asked cautiously, dragging myself to the corner of the classroom. I could feel my palms start to sweat and my heart beat a little faster in my chest. The last thing I needed was to get in trouble. I hadn't meant to fall asleep, honest! And in the spirit of honesty, I hadn't thought she noticed. But my eyes were shut...

Madame Blanc was young for a teacher, but excelled at what she did. She had emigrated from France when she was just a girl, and still spoke with a bit of an accent. None of the students dared to say a thing about it though, for she was quick to hand out detentions or trips to the office. Her white-blond hair was pulled into a tight knot, and she smoothed it back as she watched me approach.

“Rylan, is everything all right with you?” I could feel my expression falter as I watched the concern flicker through the older woman’s powder blue eyes.

“Yeah, everything’s fine. Why?”

I could feel the panic building in my frame, not just because of the image of my mother flickering through my head, but also because I had never once been called back to see a teacher. Ever. I always took notes worthy of publishing, answered questions in class, never passed notes. I was in unfamiliar water, as I seemed to be with everything the past few weeks.

“Well, within the past week or so, your assignments have been,” she paused, pursing her lips in thought and my heart stopped. “Much below your usual standard.”

I would be lying if I said I was shocked. I knew what Madame Blanc meant behind the thoughtfully chosen words. My homework and quizzes had been complete and utter crap. My mind was having a hard time wrapping itself around anything other than the daunting outlook of Mom's condition. After school, I had found myself driving her to chemotherapy appointments or taking care of her. My father was busy at work, and Aven, as expected, was nowhere to be found. Seeing my mom so weak all of the time like that scared me, and it was the only thing I could see, even when I was alone in my bedroom.

“How bad is it?” My voice wavered as a new worry fluttered in my chest, and I felt the sting deep within me as Madame Blanc cleared her throat and shuffled papers.

Everything about this was foreign to me. My life felt like a nightmare, one that I should have woken up from days, no, weeks ago.

“Well, with the assignments, it had fallen to a B-, but that quiz you took the other day brought it down more than desired.”

“I’m sorry, what does that mean?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.

I could feel my mind spinning as I tried to do the math in my head and figure out exactly what "More than desired" meant. I wished that everyone would stop sugarcoating every little thing. My parents, my teachers, and maybe even my own mind. I just wanted someone to tell me the truth, flat out, no matter how ugly it happened to be.

“It means that at midterm next week, it’s very possible you’ll be receiving a D.”

The wind was knocked out of me as the last word rolled into the air. Before the past month, I had only had that experience once. It was in the third grade when I fell off of the monkey bars at school and landed flat on my back. Now, it seemed as if I was having this reaction weekly, if not more. Hell, I had got the breath knocked right out of me in the living room weeks ago, and it hadn't really come back since.

“There has to be a mistake. There has to be something I can do,” I pleaded desperately. Even to my own ears, the words sounded a bit pathetic.

“If you can ace the test on Friday, and all your homework is in and well done, you’ll be able to achieve a solid B.”

“Thank you,” I croaked out, feeling absolutely defeated. She nodded, and I took it as my cue to leave.

As I walked to my locker, I felt as if I was having an out-of-body experience. Nothing felt real anymore. The numb feeling I had forced on myself to stop from breaking down was eating me alive. It had consumed me. I really wasn’t sure if I could ever feel like Rylan again, and that scared me.

The halls had long ago cleared as students raced to the lunchroom. In the back of my mind, I knew that’s where I should go. My body, however, felt frozen as I slumped against my locker instead. What was I becoming? What were my parents going to say?

The thought echoed around in my brain, and I buried my face in my hands. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want to disappoint myself, the teachers, or Brent. I didn't want to, but I so clearly was. I was failing.

“Ry, there you are! Are you okay?”

I didn’t bother to look up. I would have recognized the voice anywhere, anytime. I wiped the moisture streaming from my eyes and shrugged lightly. A pair of hands clasped my upper arms, steadying me as I slipped further against the cold metal of the lockers.

“I’m sorry, Brent. I shouldn’t have snapped at you last week,” I mumbled, scuffing my boot against the tiles. Brent put a finger under my chin, forcing me to meet his eyes.

“Ry, what’s wrong?” he asked softly, and I felt my eyes watering all over again. “Awe, shit. I didn’t mean to make you cry. I’m so sorry.”

I laughed darkly as he rambled on, apologizing and trying to take back his words. Through my tears, I looked up at his face, which was contorted in concern. I clamped a hand over his mouth, shaking my head at him. His words turned to muffled nothings as he finally caught on and shut up.

“It’s not your fault, so stop apologizing, kay?” I paused long enough to see him nod, then continued on. “I’m failing, Brent. I’m failing you, my parents, myself. Aven’s right, I’m just a mess.”

My breath caught in my throat as it tightened painfully around the words. I looked away, trying to hide the tears rolling effortlessly down my cheeks. A choked sob fell through my parted lips as my body began to tremble. I went to swipe at the salty water painting my face, but Brent grabbed my wrists and looked at me sternly.

“First, I never, ever, wanna hear you say Aven’s right. Not ever again, even as a joke. Aven enjoys making everyone else miserable; she’s possessed or something.” I couldn’t help but crack a smile, even as Brent remained completely serious. “Second, you are not a failure, Rylan. You’re brave, and you’re so incredibly strong.”

“If I’m so strong, then why am I sitting in the hallway bawling my eyes out?” I protested, and he raised an eyebrow.

“Technically, you’re standing.”

It was so typical Brent. I furrowed my eyebrows together and fought the urge to stomp my foot as he gave me that stupid smirk.

“Brent! I’m being serious!”

“So am I! Rylan, you are strong. I don’t know how you manage to come here every day and act like nothing’s going on. I don’t know how you manage to be the rock for your parents. I don’t know how you manage to ever stop crying. I know if I was you, I wouldn’t.”

“You really mean that?” I sniffled, and he gave a soft smile, smudging my tears away with his thumb.

“I do, Ry,” he responded wholeheartedly. I managed to compose myself a little bit and stand without the locker’s assistance.

“And you forgive me for being such a bitch?”

“You’ve been a bitch for basically our whole friendship. I wouldn’t expect any less,” he joked, and I shoved him playfully against the wall.

“Thank you, Brent. I’m really glad you’re my best friend.”

As the words slipped from my lips, I swore that I saw something flash through Brent’s eyes. I couldn’t make it out though, because just as quickly as it had appeared, it was gone. He wrapped his arms securely around me, and his comforting, familiar smell filled my nostrils. I felt him kiss the top of my head and take a breath as I buried my face in his shirt.

“Yeah,” he murmured finally. “Me too.”
♠ ♠ ♠
This took ridiculously long to make an appearance, and I'm so so sorry. I was just trying to get the most out of my last few weeks of summer before senior year, and I've barely been in the house. But big chapter, no?

Thanks for sticking with me guys, it seriously means the world <3

xxxo, Sara