Fighting Solitude (On the Ropes #3)(3) by Aly Martinez

My childhood had gone much like my birth. I’d grown up, kicking and screaming, in a world I was much too young for. My older brothers, Till and Flint, were the only reasons I’d thrived at all. Flint was only five years older than I was, and Till six years older than he was, but they had done everything in their meager powers to keep me fed, clothed, and out of the care of Social Services.

Back then, the concept of stability had felt about as realistic as wizards and mythical beasts.

Insecurity was what I knew.

It wasn’t something to fear.

It just…was.

I was the ripe old age of ten when my mom took off with her piece-of-shit boyfriend. I wished I could have been surprised that she abandoned us like that, but I’d never known Debbie Page to be anything but worthless. If possible, my dad, Clay Page, was actually worse. He was serving time in prison when she left, so the responsibility of caring for Flint and me fell entirely on Till’s shoulders. Already working his ass off at three jobs to make ends meet, he also spent countless hours at the gym to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional boxer. But, Till being Till, he didn’t bat an eye about taking us in.

The excitement I felt knowing that he and his now-wife, Eliza, would be taking care of us permanently was unexplainable. He gave me a comfy bed with clean sheets and more ramen noodles than I would ever be able to choke down. But, honestly, I wouldn’t have given a single damn if I’d had to fall asleep hungry on a cardboard box every night. The only part I could focus on was that I finally belonged somewhere. And, even though we didn’t have a dime in our pockets, each night, as the four of us sat around the dinner table laughing and relentlessly making fun of each other, it felt like the first time I actually had something.

It was a scary realization.

Because, for the first time in my life, I found myself with something to lose.

Cue Liv James.

Liv rocked my entire world the moment I met her. There was something about the mischievous glint in her big, brown doe eyes that spoke to me on a level a ten-year-old couldn’t even begin to understand.

But, somehow, I did.

Or, at least, I desperately wanted to.

She entered my life during a brief period when all the stars had momentarily aligned.

It wasn’t until it all exploded, throwing my entire world out of orbit, that I realized she was the greatest gift I’d ever been given.

After we’d met in that back alley, Liv and I became close—or as close as a fourth-grader and a fifth-grader who lived three hours apart could be. I saw her once every few weeks, and those were the best days of my life.

On the outside, we were the most unlikely of friends, but on the inside, she and I had been cut from the same cloth. Everyone knew I was trouble. I had a good heart, but I kept it buried under layers of attitude and a million curse words. I’d learned years earlier that no one could damage what they didn’t know you had.

My heart became my best-kept secret.

Liv was the exact opposite. She wore her heart on her sleeve and exuded innocence. With straight, brown hair and olive-toned skin, she looked like a tiny Hispanic angel. I knew her better than that though. Liv didn’t have an innocent bone in her body. That girl made my brand of trouble look amateur. And, because of that, she quickly became my best friend and partner in crime.

Together, we pulled off countless pranks at the gym. They were harmless for the most part. Normal kid-type stuff. We both found it utterly fascinating, the havoc we could wreak with a single tube of crazy glue. At the end of the day, it never failed. I always got caught and she always giggled while watching me run punishment laps around the track. I swear my cardio was on point back in those days.

Six months after I’d met Liv, my newfound happiness took a huge hit.

It was easily the worst day of my life…at that point.

“You’re going deaf. Just like me,” Till blurted out.

I froze with my spoon halfway to my mouth.

Tears welled in his eyes, and that alone was scary as fuck. Till was the rock in our family; he didn’t break down.

Ever.

Flint immediately pushed to his feet and began pacing the room. “Oh, God.”

“What?” I asked, thoroughly confused as my eyes bounced between my two older brothers, who were obviously freaking the fuck out.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Those two screwed with me on a daily basis. I was the youngest of three boys—being the butt of their jokes was a way of life. I was far from gullible, but either they had stepped their game up or it wasn’t a joke at all.

My heart pounded in my chest. “Wait. You’re serious?”

“It’s genetic, Q. You and me both have it. Flint, you tested negative,” Till said, but his eyes stayed glued to me.

This little announcement had come completely out of left field. We were supposed to be sitting down for a normal family dinner, and now, all of a sudden, I was deaf?

What the fuck is going on?

I’m a man. I’m a man. I’m a man.

Men don’t cry.

Except the bullshit pooling in my eyes said differently.

“Are you fucking with me?” I asked around the overwhelming emotion lodged in my throat.

Till shook his head, and he didn’t even yell at me for cursing.

He wasn’t fucking with me.

“It’s gonna be okay. I swear to God. I’m going to make this okay,” he said as if it were supposed to be reassuring.

It wasn’t. Not while the word deaf still rang in my soon-to-be useless ears.

“When?” I choked out, fighting down any and every possible emotion. “When am I going…deaf?”

“I don’t know. It’s supposedly degenerative. That means it will happen over time.”

Blinking, I sucked in a deep breath. “You’re full of shit.”

He wasn’t, but I clung to whatever hope I could grasp. I had no real concept of what deaf meant. I knew that it meant you couldn’t hear, but I couldn’t wrap my young mind around the depths of that reality.

And the unknown was the scariest of all.

More insecurity I just couldn’t handle.

I was beyond terrified but refused to show any weakness in front of the two men to whom I owed my life. My feet attempted to flee from the problem, even though it followed me with every step. I didn’t allow Till or Flint a single glance at my devastation as I sprinted from our apartment. I didn’t know where I was going, but I couldn’t stop until I got there.

I raced down the stairs, and I’d barely made it to the edge of the sidewalk when I came to a screeching halt. Reality came crashing down on my shoulders.

There was nowhere else to go.

No one else who cared about me.

My entire life was in that crappy two-bedroom apartment behind me.

My lungs burned as I held my breath for an impossibly long time. I knew that, when I released it, I wouldn’t be able to hold the tears back anymore. That one breath was the only thing that kept me bound together.

I dropped to my knees as my head began to spin.

Don’t breathe. Don’t breathe. Don’t breathe.

Passing out was better than losing my shit in front of Till and Flint.

Suddenly, Eliza’s voice echoed off the building. “Quarry!” Her feet pounded against the pavement as she rushed from her apartment below ours. “What’s going on? Are you okay?” she asked, squatting in front of me.

I wanted to be a man, but I was failing epically.

At least it was only Eliza. I hated when she babied me. But, right then, as my vision began to tunnel and the inferno spread from my lungs to my chest, I was all too willing to put my pride aside for a single second of comfort.

With a loud exhale, I dove into her open arms. Warm streams of useless tears poured from my eyes.

“What’s going on?” she whispered, holding me tight.

I wrenched my eyes shut.

Till would have to fill her in because I wasn’t anywhere near ready to admit my future sentence to anyone yet.

And that included myself.

It was funny. The world didn’t shut down just because I was going deaf. In some ways, I think I would have felt marginally better if it had. Instead, I woke up the next morning and went to school, to the gym, and then home. I had dinner with my brothers, and Eliza dropped off a pan of my favorite twice-baked cheese potatoes. No one discussed my breakdown from the night before, not even to make fun of me for it. But there was definitely a blanket of anxiety dampening all of our spirits. Till had attempted to cover his own nerves with jokes, but forced laughter was all he got in return. Eventually, he disappeared, presumably down to Eliza’s apartment like he usually did when he thought we were asleep.

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