2020 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards
2nd Place Winner
2014 Rosemary YA Romance Writers of America
writing contest (contemporary category)
Top 20 Finalist
2015 Serendipty Young Adult Discovery Contest
16-year-old Ryan Rojas would do anything to please his dad, including give up what he loves most: music. But the pressure of living up to his parents’ expectations is too much to bear. After getting suspended for doing drugs on campus, Ryan is determined to prove himself and get back into school—no matter the cost.
Like Ryan, Penny Tate has also put her dreams on hold for someone she loves. She’s been offered a basketball scholarship to the nation’s top academy for young athletes, but as long as her troubled older brother needs her, she refuses to enroll. Once Ryan and Penny’s paths cross, things start looking up for both of them. But when tragedy strikes, they must find the courage to pursue their dreams and grow their friendship into something more.Laurisa White Reyes, Spark Award-winning author of The Storytellers & Petals, delivers a tender story about loyalty, love, and second chances.
For ages 14 & up
Chapter One: Ryan
Three stupid little pills, and now my entire future is screwed.
“We have a no-tolerance policy here at Middleton,” says Commander Norton, tapping the eraser end of a pencil against his desk. “You knew that coming in, Ryan. You signed the agreement like everyone else, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I mumble.
“Speak up, son.”
Norton is big. Like weight-lifter big. I keep my eyes down because I don’t want to look at him, and I sure as hell don’t want him looking at me. Still, I do my best to say something that sounds compliant.
I’ve never been in Norton’s office before. It’s smaller than I expected, with a wooden desk and floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books that look like they’ve never been read. Only troublemakers end up in here, losers who don’t give a damn how much money their parents shell out for private school tuition.
I am not one of those. At least I wasn’t before today.
Norton claims he won’t bring in the cops if I answer some questions “in light of the situation.” I see the situation through the office window—paramedics wheeling Cadet Jenn Bonner out on a gurney, an oxygen mask strapped to her face.
My buzz is starting to wear off, but the room wobbles, and is the heat cranked up in here?
The window blinds rattle as the office door opens and someone else enters the room. I hear the labored limp of my dad’s prosthetic leg. Of course he’d come instead of Mom. I slump lower in my chair. Dad shoots me a hard look before fixing his gaze on Norton, who acts like he’s consoling a funeral-goer instead of a concerned parent.
“Thanks for coming, Major Rojas.” Norton stands. They salute, then shake hands. “Sorry I had to call you under these circumstances.”
He offers Dad a chair. Dad lowers himself into it and crosses his arms. Dad is big too, with muscles sculpted from sixteen years in the Marines. Despite losing his left leg in Afghanistan, he still works out every day.
“What happened?” Dad asks.
Commander Norton leans back in his chair, that pencil of his still tapping away. “Go ahead, cadet.”
Me? He wants me to tell him? I’m not afraid of my dad, but he’s always trusted me. I’ve never given him a reason not to. How do I tell him things have changed? That I’m not the perfect son he thinks I am—that I should be?
“I, uh, I took some pills. A girl took some, too.”
What else am I supposed to say? With quarter-terms coming up, I needed to get my mind off the stress. So, I took half a bar. A bunch of us did. Wasn’t the first time. But Jenn took a full one and blacked out in chemistry class, hit her head on a desk on the way down.
Part of me wants to tell Dad everything, about the pressure I’ve been under trying to keep up at school, about not wanting to let him and Mom down. But another part of me wants to deny all of it, to say what happened to Jenn was a mistake and that I had nothing to do with it.
I can’t bring myself to do either.
Norton drops a plastic baggie with a few bars of Xanax onto the table. An hour ago, that baggie was in my pocket.
“Alprazolam. Anxiety meds,” says Norton. “Students take them for their sedative effects. Xanax is one of the most abused drugs on high school campuses because it’s so easy to acquire. They get them from friends or even parents who have prescriptions.”
Dad fingers the tablets through the plastic. His eyes narrow, peering into mine. I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes open, but I force myself to meet his gaze.
“We don’t have these at home,” he says. “Where did you get them?”
“I bought them,” I answer, and that much is true, though not from any store. But I can’t say that with Dad’s eyes drilling a hole through me. He’s probably thinking what a disappointment I am, that’s he’s literally given everything to make things good for me—and this is how I repay him. I wish I could melt into the floor and disappear.
“How long has this been going on, Ryan?” Dad asks.
How long has what been going on? Popping pills at school? Off and on for a couple weeks. But the booze and the weed? Since Dad came home in pieces almost two years ago.
It’s not like I do it every day, but sometimes I just need to escape. Maybe I should just get this over with, confess everything. Tell Norton to call in the cops and slam on the cuffs. That’s what someone brave would do, someone like my dad. But I’m not like my dad. I’m a coward.
I shrug limply. “I dunno.”
Norton rests his elbows on the desk. The fabric of his uniform rustles stiffly. “This is very serious,” he says.
“A cadet is on her way to the hospital with a head injury, though that’s not our biggest concern right now.”
He pauses to rub his hand across his mouth. “You do realize that mixing Xanax and other drugs can potentially cause brain damage or even death, and we don’t know what other substances the girl took.”
“Christ,” Dad mutters.
Death? No—no, I’m okay. I’m okay. At least I didn’t drink today. I’m already straightening up, though it still feels hot as hell in here. But Jenn. Jenn can't die—can she? I think of her crumpled on the classroom floor, the gash on her forehead leaking blood onto the carpet.
God, I’m going to be sick.
“You’ve been a good student here, Ryan,” continues Norton. “You’ve maintained a 4.0 since freshman year, and I hear the music department is still trying to convince you to come back.”
I wince. Music is the last thing I want to hear about right now.
“In any case, I hate to see something like what’s happened today damage your chances of getting into Kings Point. That is where you’re planning to apply next year, isn’t it?”
Kings Point, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Dad’s alma mater. My parents’ dream is for me to follow in his footsteps.
“The fact is,” continues Norton, “one of your fellow cadets claims he saw you give the girl those pills.”
I look up sharply. “What?”
Norton picks up his pencil and starts tapping his desk again. “Someone’s been bringing prescription meds to school and selling them.”
It takes me a second to realize what he’s saying. He thinks I’m behind all this.
“I never sold anything to Jenn or anyone else,” I tell him. “I swear it.”
“Then who did?”
That’s when it hits me. Why I’m really in Commander Norton’s office. He doesn’t believe I’m responsible, but I know who is.
A sudden shriek from outside makes me jump. I look out the office window and see the ambulance speeding away—with Jenn Bonner inside. Even when I can’t see it anymore, I still hear the fading siren, like a bad dream that sticks with you long after waking up.
The only way out of this mess is to snitch on my friends. If I give Norton what he wants, I won’t have any friends at all. Ryan the Rat. That’s who I’ll be. But if I say nothing, and Jenn ends up dead…
I’ll lie, tell Norton I don’t know where Jenn got the stuff and that I got mine from her. Her word against mine, right? But this is Jenn Bonner—straight ‘A’, nice to everyone Jenn. She deserves for me to tell the truth, that she’s a good kid who just veered off course a little. It’s not like we’re close or anything, but from what I hear she’s got a good shot at getting into West Point. Now she’s on her way to the hospital—and she might not make it home again. I just can’t betray her like that, but no way am I taking the fall for this. Like I said, I’m a coward.
“We both got our stuff from Chris Segarra,” I say, clutching at the ache in my stomach. “And he’s been dealing a lot more than Xanax.” Unlike Jenn, Chris isn’t the ace student, but we used to be tight a couple years back. After this, he’ll be expelled for sure, maybe worse.
Better him than me.
I dare a glance at Dad. His jaw is clenched tight.
“Thank you, Ryan,” says Commander Norton.
I stand on shaky legs and wipe my sweaty hands down the front of my pants. “Sure,” I say, trying to sound like this was no big deal. “Can I go now? I’ve missed most of American History, and it’s last period.”
Norton points his pencil toward my chair. I sit again.
“As I was reminding Ryan before you came in,” Norton says to Dad, “our school has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs of any kind on campus. Middleton will not press charges against Ryan since he’s been cooperative. However, consequences are in order. At this point, Mr. Rojas, you have two options. Either voluntarily withdraw Ryan from the school, or we can expel him.”
Did I just hear what I think I heard?
Norton slides a blank withdrawal form across his desk. Then he hands my dad a pen. This can’t be happening.
“But I gave you Chris’s name.”
“Yes, you did,” says Norton, smoothing down the front of his uniform. “And I appreciate the courage it took for you to do that. But school policy is firm on this. You’ve left us no choice, I’m afraid.”
“But you can’t expel me! I’m one of your best students!”
“I understand what you’re saying, but our policy—”
“Screw the policy!”
“Ryan!” Dad’s voice shuts me up. I know I’ve been shouting, but no one’s listening to me. I try to pull myself together, to talk calmly.
“This is crazy. I can’t leave here. Where else would I go?”
“I’m sure Kennedy High would be happy to take you,” says Norton with a placating grin.
“You don’t understand,” I try again. “I want—I need to stay at Middleton. My mom—” I avoid Dad’s eyes, ashamed I’m bringing this up. “My mom works really hard to keep me here.”
And if you kick me out, my chances of going to Kings Point are shot.
I can’t bear to look at Dad, but I have to keep going. “I know I screwed up.” I’m begging now, but I don’t care. “I’m sorry. I’ll do anything to fix this—anything. I’ll do KP duty for a year.”
“Ryan—” Norton sighs like he’s embarrassed for me.
“I’ll clean the bathrooms. Pick up trash!”
“Just please. Please don’t expel me.”
Silence drops into the room like a delayed-action bomb. Norton leans back in his chair, tents his fingers, and stares at the clock on the wall. He sits like that for a full minute before he finally nods, like he’s come to a decision.
“There is one possible alternative.” He studies me as if wondering whether what he’s about to say is really worth it. Waiting for his final verdict about kills me.
Finally, he opens his file drawer and pulls out another form. “Let’s discuss independent study.”