Dallas McInnerney is the boy of every girl at Rampart High’s dreams. Only he doesn’t know it yet. He’s one of those guys that slumps down when he sits and tries to make himself as small as possible when he walks the crowded halls. He’s so afraid of bumping into someone and having to mutter an apology for being broad-shouldered and tall. It’s not that he isn’t nice and sincere, he is. It’s that he’s not used to attention of any kind. He played varsity football this year, as a junior, which is probably why he’s on my radar. I find myself leaving school by the exit nearest the weight room and totally out of my way.
Bonus: we have PE together. This quarter we’re learning archery, which is much better for my ego than last quarter’s swimming fiasco. Mr. Johnson pairs up everyone in the class, mostly boy-boy and girl-girl. There are a few mixed-sex pairs. I forget to breathe for a second when he calls out, “McInnerney and West.” West, that’s me, Holly West. Awkward freshman stuck in glasses because my astigmatism doesn’t allow for contacts.
Mr. Johnson shows us how to choose the best bow for our height. Dallas is only slightly taller than me and our hands bump when we reach for the same bow. I feel the heat of a blush on the back of my neck, the electricity of something else between us. He’s blushing too around his Dean Winchester haircut. I try to laugh it off, but it comes out as this slobbery sucking noise that makes me snap my mouth closed and look down at my sneakers. For the first time since I wrote it, I see the “D. I.” I drew in a heart on the tongue. I look up quickly, nervous and relieved that Dallas has already walked over to our target with a different bow in hand.
I try to stop the hummingbird in my chest from bursting out of my ribcage, grab a bow and a quiver full of arrows. Before I join him at the target, I make it a point to pull the cuffs of my jeans over my shoes. Tomorrow I’ll wear a different pair. One that I haven’t doodled all over in a fit of madness.
We stand with one toe against the red line on the floor. Dallas is facing me, and I realize that his eyes aren’t brown at all. They’re aquamarine with flecks of sienna at the center. I don’t think I’ve ever been this close to him. He smells like soap and cotton and a little like the ground after a heavy rain. I can’t help but close my eyes and memorize the smell and this moment.
“I paired you two together because Holly’s a leftie,” says Mr. Johnson, patting me hard on the shoulder. “She could learn a thing or two about aim from our star quarterback.”
I cringe and hope neither of them saw it. Maybe because of the braces and bright pink rubber bands in my mouth they’ll think I’m smiling.
Mr. Johnson takes a few steps back and demonstrates how to fit an arrow in the string, pull it back, take aim, and hope for the best. He didn’t say that last part, but I’m crossing my fingers around the slick wood. The heat on my neck has crept across my cheeks. Who am I kidding? My face is probably the same color as the line we’re supposed to stand behind.
Dallas faces our target, notches his arrow, and lets it fly. It strikes the blue paint two colors out from the bull’s-eye. He sighs, as if not being perfect from the start is some kind of shortcoming.
“Good job,” I say to cheer him up. He shrugs and stares at his feet.
I hold the bow in front of me, trying to imitate what Dallas did, and make a few practice tugs on the string. This bow was definitely not made for a girl like me: tall, but completely devoid of muscle. Maybe I should have been in the weight room working on my arms instead of stalking past it for a glimpse of his. I push down my doubts, notch the arrow and pull as hard as I can. I pretend to be deadly and graceful. The string is taut at my ear, and I feel how the arrow slides against the bow, my finger like a guiding trigger.
Except, when I release the string, something goes wrong. There’s a sharp slap across my nose. I fall hard on my butt, my glasses fly off. I must have bitten my cheek because my mouth is full of that familiar metallic taste. As I brush the back of my hand against my face, it comes away crimson and hot. Bile hits the back of my throat. I’m afraid I might cry in front of the entire class, but more importantly in front of Dallas.
Someone holds out my glasses. I reach with a bloodied hand to grab them and stick them back on my throbbing nose. With jerking movements, I manage to stand up. Someone else pushes a crumpled shirt into my hand. I grab it, pick up my bow and take out another arrow. I can barely see for the unshed tears in my eyes, but I pull the string back to my ear, and release the arrow. It hits the space between the blue and black rings with a decisive plunk.
I don’t remember how I got here, but I’m sitting in the Nurse’s office with a huge ice pack and lump of gauze on my face. She calls my dad and asks if he wants to take me to the hospital or if he’d rather they call an ambulance. I look down at my once-pink hoodie and see it’s stained dark brown with spots of still-wet blood. The stained shirt smells like rain and cotton. In the safety of the office, I roll over and puke.
Twenty stitches later, eight inside my mouth and twelve across the bridge of my nose and under my eye, I return to classes. For a few days I leave the bandage on to cover the mess beneath. Lunchtime turns into a game of not pouring sterile wash all down the front of me, so I stop wearing bandages. The girls and some of the boys stare at me in horror and I hear whispers of “gross” and “makes me sick” as I pass groups of people. I don’t care because for the first time in my life, Dallas is saying “hey” to me in the hallways.
In PE, he makes it a point to test a few bows before handing me one with, as he says, “a lighter touch.” It makes a huge difference too. By the end of the archery section, I’m the second best in the class. Second after Dallas, and if I’m being honest, it’s because I’m letting him win. I know I could hit that center yellow dot every time. If I wanted. All I want is his attention, and maybe his phone number.
Dallas starts to hold his head up in the halls. He gets high-fived from almost everyone. The football season’s long over. The spring rains have brought baseball and a sudden winning streak, thanks to Dallas’s pitching. He doesn’t resort to studying his shoes anymore; only the faintest of color brightens his cheeks. I’m not the only one who’s picked up on his hottie potential. Vanessa Godwin, head cheerleader with legs up to her eyeballs, starts meeting him after PE.
At first they smile and make small talk. I try not to listen. Okay, I don’t try at all. I need to know what she’s saying that makes his eyes light up like that. I imitate the way she holds her books right under her tight sweater with RHS across her chest. I try to bounce the way she does on the balls of her feet. By the end of the day my calves are screaming at me. I’m not made to bounce.
By fourth period the next day she’s sitting in his lap, feeding him grapes and laughing like a Disney princess in the last scene. In PE we’ve moved on from archery to something more mundane like floor hockey. No longer do I get to face Dallas McInnerney and his bottomless eyes of blue. The stitches in my face come out, leaving a nice pale scar that only makes me more self-conscious about people looking at me. My braces are removed, leaving straight teeth in a crooked smile.
Dallas and Vanessa date and date and date. He continues to say hello to me in the hallways, and I continue to wonder what I could have done to be more like Vanessa and less like myself. At least I still have his tee shirt tucked into a drawer at home smelling of copper, rain, and could have been.
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