A Good Guys Novel
My infatuation with Ezra Johnson started how all obsessions begin—with a simple crush. Over the years I silently soaked up every shy smile and random act of kindness, wrestling them away to a secret place in my heart meant for unrequited love.
Because if it wasn’t for the fact that I tutor him once a week, I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t even know I exist.
Then I find his sketchbook.
And it changes everything.
There are two certainties in my life: I’ve been in love with Kayla Reynolds since I was fourteen, and I can’t have her.
I’ve spent years settling for a two-dimensional fantasy world, capturing her beauty with a pencil and paper. She’s kind, smart, gorgeous…
And she belongs to someone else.
Or so I thought.
An interesting turn of events makes me realize things aren’t always how they appear on the outside, and now I’ve got my chance to be the man she deserves.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been called a loser. The cripple. An outcast.
But maybe—just maybe—this time the good guy won’t finish last.
Four Years Ago
In all my fourteen years, she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
She was a new student, and from the teacher’s brief announcement I learned she was originally from Cleveland. When Mr. Marks asked her to stand in front of the class and introduce herself, her hands anxiously twisted together as she quietly let out the name I’d say in my head thousands of times over the next several years.
She was a tiny thing in a gray T-shirt, skinny jeans, and Chucks. Skin the color of coffee with a healthy dose of cream, light green eyes, full lips, and her hair was red. Not fiery-red—a deep auburn that reminded me of my favorite kind of sunset.
The color of the wild ringlets seemed out of place with her caramel skin, and it was like all her features had been put together with a bunch of mismatched pieces.
The unique combination was stunning.
I couldn’t stop staring.
Hushed whispers filled the classroom. I wasn’t the only one studying the new girl. Heyworth, Ohio wasn’t the most diverse town, and Kayla’s distinct characteristics made her stand out like a candle in the dark.
Awkwardly shifting from one foot to the other, she sent a pleading look to our teacher.
“You can take a seat,” he told her, and she shuffled to the empty desk in the front row, just diagonal from me.
Obviously uncomfortable, she quickly glanced around before looking down at her clasped hands.
I felt bad for her.
It was hard enough coming to a new town, but freshman year started two weeks ago. Everyone had already gotten time to get acquainted and, truth be told, most of us had been in the same grade since kindergarten.
And now here she was, unfamiliar and different.
The kind of pretty that made hearts hurt with longing or jealousy. Longing for those who wanted to be with her, and jealousy for the ones who wanted to beher. Both could bring out a darkness we all had somewhere deep inside.
I was in the former category but instead of letting it bring me down, I felt my heart lift a little. Usually school was hell for me, but the thought of seeing her every day made it a little more bearable.
The buzz around us continued as our peers blatantly discussed the most interesting thing to happen in our grade for a long time. I didn’t hear all of what they said, but caught the words “Carrot Top” and “Chia Pet.”
Why did people have to be such dicks? I should’ve known it wouldn’t take long for them to pounce.
Suddenly, I wanted to tell everyone to stop gawking and mind their own fucking business.
Anne’s blond hair almost smacked me in the face as she whipped her head toward the new girl.
“So, what are you?” Leaning to the right, she giggled as she pulled at a strand of Kayla’s hair. “Like, are you Hispanic or something?”
I narrowed my eyes at the rude girl in front of me.
“Um, I don’t know,” Kayla responded, squirming away from the hand petting her head. “I was adopted.”
“I heard she has two dads,” Abby, Anne’s best friend, whispered loudly from somewhere behind me. “Gay dads.”
Snickering broke out among the class. Kayla’s delicate hands balled into fists until her knuckles turned white.
Fury ignited in my chest.
I’d never stood up for anyone before, not even myself. I wasn’t witty in the heat of the moment. I always thought of the best comebacks hours after it would’ve been useful. I didn’t know the first thing about defending someone.
But I couldn’t do nothing.
Just as I started to stand—with zero plan in place—a heavy hand landed on my left thigh and my leg buckled. I dropped back in my seat with a grunt as pain shot through my knee.
“What do you think you’re doing, Slug?” AJ sneered.
I bristled at the awful nickname. Not slug as in slugger, a baseball champ. Slug like the fat, slimy, slow-moving lumps that came out after too much rain.
“Uh—uh—uh,” he mocked with a laugh. Then his tone turned deceptively kind as his hand left my throbbing leg. “Hey, you know what you should do?”
Instead of a response, I gave him a skeptical glare.
There was one word for AJ Nelson: bully. Okay, there were a lot of words for him, but none of them were nice.
“Blush,” he barked out the command, and my cheeks flared against my own will. I knew if I looked in the mirror, I’d see a bright red flush all over my face.
The worst part about being made fun of wasn’t the hit to my self-esteem. It wasn’t feeling unloved or unpopular. It wasn’t even knowing so many of my peers stood by and watched it happen, silent and unwilling to intervene.
It was the humiliation of being put in my place. The degradation of being constantly reminded that my body betrayed me. That I wasn’t in control; they were. And people like AJ took every opportunity to let me know it.
Embarrassed, I dipped my head so no one would see, but it was too late. The new girl had rotated in her seat, looking over her shoulder at me with so much empathy, it only made the heat in my face worse.
She offered a timid, yet brave smile. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“You can call him Slug,” AJ supplied, and she gave him a fierce scowl.
Before I could form a response, a booming voice came from the back of the classroom.
“Yo, Kayla. Come sit next to me.”
I turned to see Gavin, the star linebacker for our football team. Dude was a beast. Freshmen never got put on the varsity team, but the coach had made an exception for the 6’4”, 210-pound giant. He was a nice guy, though. Soft-spoken and polite. He mostly kept to himself, so it was unusual for him to make such an outburst.
Mr. Marks cleared his throat. “That’s not Kayla’s assigned seat, Gavin.”
He gave the teacher a hard stare. “It is now.”
Kayla’s wide eyes bounced back and forth between the two until Mr. Marks waved his hand in permission.
After gathering her books, she trudged to the back row. Gavin gave a gentlemanly bow before pulling out her seat. The frown on her face was replaced with a grin, and a bolt of jealousy shot through me because I couldn’t be the one to protect her.
Even if AJ hadn’t been in my way, I would’ve fumbled over my words. I wasn’t intimidating. I wasn’t commanding.
I was Ezra Johnson, the cripple.
And that was why a girl like Kayla Reynolds would never be interested in a guy like me.
Her gaze briefly met mine before Gavin snagged her attention away. Tipping his head toward her, he whispered something I couldn’t hear, and she giggled.
“Guess we know who’s getting some from the new girl,” AJ remarked crudely, earning a few laughs.
And there was nothing I could do about it. If I told him to shut up, he’d just remind me how powerless I was.
My chest burned with anger as I opened my brand-new sketchbook to the first page and started to draw.
As Mr. Marks droned on about American history, my pencil moved over the paper. I didn’t need to look at my subject to get the details right; the image of her was etched into my mind.
Her heart-shaped face. The slight upturn of her nose. Plump lips. Corkscrew curls.
After I was satisfied with the rough outline of her beautiful features, I wrote the first of many letters she’d never see.
Today is the best and worst day of my life. The best, because I found out love at first sight really does exist. The worst, because I had to watch someone else be your hero.