If it wasn’t already confirmed, I had a screw loose.
“Come on.” He nudged me. “You can ask me anything and either I’ll answer it or I won’t.”
“How very forthcoming of you,” I said, smiling into his shirt.
“We’ve only got a few minutes before the bell rings, so you better get started. I’m not the kind of student that cares about being tardy, but I’m guessing you’re the kind that does.”
In fact, I’d had my fair share of tardies. At my straight-laced, blue blooded private school, I’d been something of a rebel because I wasn’t afraid to wear a mini skirt, or slick on an extra layer of lipstick, or skip class every now and again. However here, at Heathen High, my once rebel ways were going to qualify me for sainthood.
Oh wait, I forgot I’d already been labeled a slut by the student population.
Jude nudged me again, so I tore into it, not easing into the questioning.
“You’ve been to jail before.” It wasn’t a question, I already knew, but I guess I needed him to confirm it.
“Yep,” was his clipped response.
“How many times?”
“Eleven or twelve. I lost count.”
I knew Jude was well known in the police circuit, but I’d underestimated just how well.
“What for?” I asked, working to keep my voice even.
My head lifted as Jude shrugged. “Mostly for getting into fights, and one time for having drugs on me.”
Holy crap. “What kind of drugs?”
He didn’t pause giving his answer. “Meth.”
Holy shit. “Were you using it?” Was it wrong to pray he was giving it to someone else?
“Nah,” he said. “I was trying to sell it. I was a dumb and greedy son of a bitch at thirteen. Didn’t work out well for me, so I quit. I haven’t sold drugs in four years.”
“And you know those three boys because you all live at the same boys’ home?” Other than that first morning after that night of chaos, I hadn’t spoken of them. I’d tried not to even think of them, but I was willing to bust open that locked door to unveil who the real Jude was.
For the first time during our question and answer session, he stiffened. “Yep,” he said, shifting his beanie down lower.
“And Uncle Joe works there?”
Jude laughed one low note. “If you call lounging his fat ass on a couch while a few dozen kids go ape shit, then yeah, he works there.”
“How long have you lived there?” Sitting upright, I looked over at him and he was someplace else. Somewhere dark.
Like a switch had been turned on, he flinched. Giving his head a swift shake, he cleared his throat. “The cops didn’t give you all this information?” he said, working his jaw. “They’re usually chomping at the bit to divulge what a screw up I am.”
This was land mine territory I was tip-toeing through, and I wasn’t sure how much farther I’d get before it’d all blow up. “I kept hoping I’d hear it from you. But someone seemed to have forgotten my telephone number. And my address.” I smiled over at him, and finally, he softened.
“Five years,” he said.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“It’s all right.” Another clipped, nothing-to-write-home about answer, which meant, I guessed, there were a million dark secrets hiding beneath that rock.
“Why did you wind up there?” For as desperate as I’d been to ask him all these questions if I ever got the chance, each one was making me squirm in my seat.
“My mom left. My dad went to jail.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. God I felt like the worst kind of person for thinking bad things about him. “Is your dad getting out anytime soon?”
“Nope.” I was waiting for the wall across from us to burst into flames from the way he was looking at it.
“What did he go to jail for?”
“For the kind of crime that jails were invented for.”
A cold chill tickled up my spine. “And your mom? Why did she leave?”
“Because she hated being a wife and hated being a mom even worse,” he said, the corners of his eyes creasing. “Because she was selfish and wanted her freedom and didn’t have any sense of loyalty.”
I lifted my hand and weaved my fingers through his. “Do you think she’ll ever come back?”
Jude snorted. “Nope. Mom’s long gone,” he said. “Although I’ve got this lovely parting gift she left for me I carry around in my pocket,” he said, sliding a piece of wrinkled old paper from his back pocket. “Well, this, and the ratty old hat on my head she knit or crocheted or some shit for me.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it, in fact I was sure I didn’t, but I couldn’t say no when Jude handed it to me. I couldn’t say no when a person was handing me the only thing they had left someone they’d loved. I took in a breath and unfolded it. “These are the lyrics to Hey, Jude,” I said, puzzled.
“Right you are,” he said, his voice tight.
“This is what your mom gave you before she left?”
“Well, she didn’t give it to me, she left it on my nightstand before bolting off in the middle of the night, but yeah, she was thoughtful enough to write down the lyrics to some crummy song. Not even, an I love you or a Yours Truly, Mom. Nice, right?”
Folding it back up, I handed it to him. “Why do you carry it around with you?”
The tension in his jaw went up a notch. “To remind myself what can happen when you let yourself love someone.” Stuffing the paper back in his pocket, he slammed the back of his head into the locker behind us.
To date, that was probably the saddest thing I’d ever heard.
“And the hat?” I understood why it was so thread bare and worn—he’d worn it every day for the past five years.
“Same reason,” he answered, sliding it over his eyebrows.
“Well that’s just all kinds of depressing,” I said, trying to think of some way to steer the conversation another direction. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Lord I hoped there wouldn’t be any heart wrenching answers to this one.
Jude shook his head. “Just me. Thank god dear old mom and dad stopped at one,” he said, looking over at me. “What about you?”
I froze. That wasn’t the dark alley I wanted the conversation to go down. “I had an older brother.”
I closed my eyes, trying to discuss this as neutrally as I could. “He died a few years back.”
Jude paused. “What happened?”
I bit my lip, looking up at him. “I’m not ready to dive into that one yet,” I said, trying not to sound as sad as I felt. “Especially given the whole your-mom-left-you-and-your-dad’s-in-prison thing. My depression tolerance has officially been reached.” I tried on a smile, but it didn’t fit.
“Sorry, Luce. Life is shit sometimes,” he said, giving me a squeeze. “I’m sure he was a great guy.”
“The best,” I said, studying him. “You know? Sometimes you remind me of him.”
He grinned that honest one of his. “He must have been a phenomenal guy then.”
I tried another smile, and this one worked. “He was.”
“Now we’ve got our shitty pasts out of the way, do you have anything else you’re dying to ask me?” There was a tinge of hope in his voice, hope I was done with the inquisition most likely.
No such luck.
“Tell me the real reason you didn’t call,” I said, playing with the hem of my skirt. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I didn’t know who she was or could be, but I already hated her.
Jude’s relief at the turn in questioning was visible on every plane of his face. Grinning over at me, he said, “Hell, no.”
“You don’t want one,” I stated, remembering our very first conversation.
“That used to be my MO,” he began, looking so long at my lips I felt them start to quiver, “but now I’m not so sure.”
“Okay, so you didn’t call me, not because you have a girlfriend,” I said, checking off probable explanation number one, moving on to number two. “So you decided you’re not all that into me?” I swallowed, bracing myself for whatever answer came out of his mouth.
“Luce, for such an intelligent species, you women can be really dumb sometimes.” He laughed, lifting his index finger to my chin and turning it to him. “I didn’t call because I told you, there’s nothing good that will come out of you being with me. I might not mean it to happen, but things have a way of going all to shit around me.”
“Because you’re a cancer,” I said, repeating his words, but not believing them.
I blew out a sigh of pure frustration. “Who told you that?”
Another far off look. “Someone who used to be important.”
It seemed like all these answers should be ticking off the questions in my mind; instead they were only adding more. “Here’s the thing, Jude, everyone already thinks I’m a slut because of you, so how much worse can it get if we keep hanging out?”
“Much worse,” he muttered before his head snapped back towards me. That look of unbridled anger was back in his eyes. “Wait. You’re telling me they’re calling you a slut?”
“Um,” I stalled, familiar with Jude’s short fuse temper. “Apparently.”
Jude punched the closest locker so hard the metal caved beneath his fist. “Judgmental bastards,” he hissed, jumping up. “I’ll catch up with you soon, Luce.” He looked back at me. “I need to do something.”
“Jude,” I warned. “It’s not worth it.” Because it really wasn’t. I’d never let what others thought of me dictate what I was and I certainly wasn’t going to start now.
“Like hell it isn’t,” he answered, already striding down the hall.
A couple of guys greeted him in passing. His reply was another fist slammed into a locker.
I had fifth period PE and was next to ecstatic when Coach Ramstein told us we didn’t need to suit up because there was some sort of first day of school assembly going on. My elevated mood took a nose dive as soon as I stepped onto the shiny gym floors. I knew everyone wasn’t staring at me, but it felt like that. Row after packed row, I was met with knowing eyes and smiles. A few were brazen enough to whisper the “s” word just loud enough so I could hear it.
Dammit, now I was getting pissed. I didn’t want to make enemies of everyone here at Southpointe, but I wasn’t ruling it out if they didn’t start shutting their traps. It didn’t seem fair a title had been forced on me without even partaking in the fun to earn such a name.
I walked to the end of the gym and sat in the bottom row of the last section of bleachers. I had the entire bench to myself.
Straightening my back, I looked up, making a point to meet every single stare pointed my way.
“Attention, please!” a tired voice spoke through a microphone. Judging from the decade old suit and shadows under his eyes, he must have been the principal. The roar in the gym didn’t lower a decibel. “Attention, please!” he repeated in an even more tired voice. This poor guy was going to have a rough year if he was already this exhausted on the first day.