Thank you for it all to:
Di, my editor,
and Paige, Aileen, and Deb, my prereaders.
Stupid Little Game
I tried not to gag as Grandpa Charlie wound a worm around the fishhook. When he stuck the slimy body on the pointy end, I threw myself against the side of the boat and retched.
"It's just a little blood," he said as the strawberry Pop Tart I ate for breakfast came back up. It looked gross, but huh, didn't taste that bad.
The fish must have thought so, too, because they were swimming up to eat the barf floating on top of the water. I flinched away from the boat's edge with a groan, almost losing my fishing hat.
"You know, your mom wasn't any better. I guess you inherited her aversion to blood and worms," Grandpa Charlie said with a grin. Making fun of me, but I guessed I didn't mind if he did. It didn't feel the same as when Craig Sorg did it, anyway.
I hunched a shoulder, wiping my mouth. "It smells weird."
"That's just the dirt you smell. It's natural, nothing wrong with it."
I rolled my eyes. "Tell that to my stomach."
He chuckled, and then it was quiet as the boat gently rocked in the water. It had been cold earlier, but now it was sunny, and I was roasting in the long-sleeved shirt Mom had insisted I wear. I shoved the sleeves up to my elbows, wishing I could take off the life jacket Grandpa Charlie was making me wear.
He passed me my pole, and I gripped it awkwardly as the fishing line with its skewered worm dangled in front of my face.
"Watch me now."
He leaned his pole back, and with a hard flick of his wrist, sent his line with the hooked worm into the water with a small plop.
"Okay, now you try it."
Clumsy and stiff, I swung my pole back and to the side like he did, then gave it a flick. The line sailed past the side of my face and dropped into the water just beyond the boat.
Slumping, I glared at the ripples on top of the water.
"Give 'er another go," he said.
I couldn't see his eyes because he was wearing a pair of sunglasses, but I could tell by looking at his mouth that he was trying not to laugh.
Sighing heavily, I cranked the dial on the fishing pole and drew the line back then up and—ew, the worm—quickly jerked the pole back. Because I was still grossed out, it gave me an extra push when I did the flick move. The end didn't go as far as his, but at least it flew out farther that time.
I flashed Grandpa Charlie a smile of victory.
"Not bad, but we've got to get past your fear of worms," he said as he settled his elbows on his knees. "What do you suggest?"
I shrugged and squinted at the sunlight on the water. "Fake bait. Those don't smell."
"Fake bait," he repeated. "Well, I have been known to catch a bass or two with an artificial lure, but you're eight years old, Tony. Time to learn how to bait your hook with a worm, don't you think?"
"I'm not scared of worms," I huffed. "I just think they're gross."
"Did you know if you cut off a worm's tail, it'll grow back?"
I frowned, thinking about it. Why would anyone want to cut off a worm's tail? "How can you tell which end is which?"
"A worm moves with its head. There's also a thicker ring up near the head."
Propping his fishing pole up between his knees, he bent to dig out another worm from the box. When he twisted around with one in the palm of his hand, I held my breath and leaned in to peer at the thing. Sure enough, there was a thicker band near one of the ends.
"See how one end seems to be more active? That's the head."
Yep, but still gross.
He dumped the worm back into the box, and I let out my breath in relief.
"Should we talk in whispers now?" I whispered. "So the fish don't know we're here?"
He grinned. "Oh, they know we're here. That's what the worm is for. Tasty, tasty bait."
There went my stomach again.
"First time I brought your mom out here, she was a mess," Grandpa Charlie said a few minutes later, and he had the biggest grin on his face. "Got sick all down her shirt the first time she touched a worm."
"But that's not the worst part."
What could be worse than barf on your shirt?
Grandpa Charlie started to do this weird wheeze while trying to talk. At first, his words were clear, but the longer he went on, the more I could barely understand him.
"She somehow managed to get the hook into her hair," he said, his hand motioning to the back of his neck. "And was s-s-so suh-prised nshe st-stood and fell over bah-ackwards off the bo-oat!"
He raised his head, saw the look on my face, and started slapping his knee.
"Mom fell into the water?"
"Backwards!" He gasped, and his sunglasses slid halfway down his nose.
I broke out into laughter with him as I imagined it. Mom, always so calm and cool and well dressed, with a hooked worm in her hair, going over backwards into lake water. I couldn't believe it!
Our laughter gradually slowed, and then we were staring silently at the water again. I tugged at my pole to make the line dance a little, but nothing was biting. Part of me didn't want to catch anything, because Grandpa Charlie said I'd have to learn how to descale and debone my fish. I wasn't sure if he was kidding, though.
I hoped he was kidding.
"So how's school?"
My mood went sour. School sucked right now because Craig Sorg and his best friend, Tommy Toulson, wouldn't leave me alone. They called me "ant man" because I was so little. And somehow, Craig knew I liked Bree Tanner. Anytime Bree and I were in the same place, that was when he came over and pulled his crap about our height differences.
"Fine." I shrugged.
I could feel him looking at me. He didn't like my answer any more than Mom or Dad did.
"What, uh, what's your favorite subject?"
"Math," I said with a sigh. "We're learning 'bout polygon perimeters."
"Sounds . . . horrible."
I grinned. "It's not so bad."
"Yeah, next to having to spell a word out loud, it's not so bad."
"Spelling is awful," I agreed, even though I was pretty good at that, too.
"I could never get a word right, not when everyone in the class was staring at me. They called me C.H.A.S. because of it."
I frowned. "They called you letters?"
He resettled the hat on his head and scratched at his nose.
"Yeah. They spelled out my nickname when they talked to me. It was embarrassing. Made me feel stupid."
But Grandpa Charlie knew the statistics of almost every Mariners game ever played. He did crossword puzzles. He sometimes carried a gun because he was a cop.
"But you're not stupid," I protested.
"Thanks, kid. No, I'm not stupid. But it made me feel stupid. So one day, I asked them to race me across the schoolyard. Told them if I won, they'd have to call me 'Lightning' instead."
I blinked at the smile on his face.
"Wore my lucky blue suede shoes that day, and kicked their butts."
It gave me an idea. Maybe I could race Craig and Tommy. I might be short, but I was fast.
"Did they call you 'Lightning' after that?"
"They did. Oh, they might have spelled lightning out a time or two, but it was different. I could tell it was just in good fun after that."
But what if . . . what if . . .
"What if you hadn't won?"
He turned and lowered his head, peering at me above his sunglasses.
"I'd have tried again and again until I did win."
I thought about it. Just the idea was scary. If I didn't make it, Craig would be extra mean. It would give him something else to tease me about—as if being short and liking Bree Tanner wasn't enough. But what if I won? Then, everyone would see. Everyone would know I was faster than him.
"You won't always be short, you know," Grandpa Charlie said. "You've got your dad's long legs. You're going to shoot up one day."
I jerked upright. "When?"
"When your body decides it's time."
"But when'll that be?"
"It's different for everyone. I can't tell you when. I just know it'll happen."
I was about to ask him when it happened to him when my pole jumped. Just beyond the line in the water, a ring started to form. Then, I felt another movement.
"Hey! I've got something!"
"Hah! Snap it up, snap the pole up," he said in an urgent tone, and I pulled up and back on my pole. It was heavier than I thought it would be.
"Don't fight him, give him slack now. Then . . . reel it back a little."
I did, but the line was tight and I almost lost the pole.
"You've got a big one! Let him run. Let him fight so we tire him out."
My pole started to bend as the fish pulled against the line. The water kicked up and I caught a glimpse of gray. He was really strong, this fish. Suddenly my line went slack and I fell back a little, which tugged at the fish again. I felt like I was playing tug-of-war and was about to lose.
"He's getting away," I yelped as the line suddenly spun out the other way.
"Yeah, he's putting up quite a fight. Snap it!"
I snapped the pole up again, feeling the drag, then reeled the fish in a bit more. It arched back, jerking at the line, and my feet scrabbled on the bottom of the boat. Grandpa Charlie didn't say this was going to be so hard.
"You've got him, Tony. You've got him."
It didn't feel like I had him, but I didn't let go of the pole. Eventually, the tugging weakened, and I was able to reel the fish in closer. Suddenly, it leaped out of the water with a splash, making me scream like a girl. It was big!
Grandpa Charlie scooted to the side of the boat with a net.
"Reel him in slowly now."
Slowly was all I could do anyway. The fish was so heavy that I kept expecting the line to snap and break.
Feet braced against the side of the boat, I . . . forced . . . the . . . reel.
Grandpa Charlie hah-hahed again and dipped the net into the water. The weight I'd been pulling against abruptly lessened, making me fall back and off my seat.
"Look at this one," he cried as he held it up.
The fish was long and scaly, with a hook poking through its gaping mouth. Grandpa Charlie hauled it over the side as it flipped and flopped furiously, flinging water everywhere.
My smile was so wide that my face hurt.
"I did it! I caught one!"
"It's a two footer! A big ole bass. We'll call him Oscar," he said and nodded at me. "Not bad for your first time, not bad at all."
I winced as he yanked the hook out of the gaping mouth.
"We'll get a photo once he stops twitching."
And wasn't that fun? Holding the fish up by the mouth felt weird, and kind of scary, especially since he had little teeth.
"Hold 'em up high and proud, kid. And smile."
I'd caught a fish!
Later, when we'd returned to Grandpa Charlie's cabin, Mom wrinkled her nose when she caught a whiff of us.
"I guess you two were successful," she said.
I threw myself into her arms. The way her pregnant stomach stuck out made hugging kind of awkward, but she somehow managed it, squeezing me tight against her body.
"I caught a two foot bass," I bragged. "Bigger than anything Grandpa Charlie caught, and he's grumpy about it. And Grandpa Charlie told me all about the time you got a worm in your hair and barfed and fell backwards into the water."
She cupped my face with her hands, kissed my nose, then gave me a look of amusement.
"One of my finer moments."
"I wish I coulda seen it."
She nodded, smirking at me. "I'm sure you do."
I pulled on the end of her long hair, tugging her down to my mouth.
"Please don't let Grandpa Charlie make me debone a fish," I whispered.
Mom could do this thing with her face—sometimes when she smiled, she did it with her whole face. Like she was doing now. She was even prettier when she did it.
"Go shower. I'll take care of him."
I hopped a few times. "Thanks!"
When I got to the bathroom, I frowned at myself in the mirror. I couldn't see anything past my neck. Nope, I didn't look any different. Still had Dad's orange hair, still had Mom's eyes, still too short.
When would my body know it was time to grow up? If not now, when? Because I was tired of being teased about it.
After I showered and changed into jeans and a sweater, I headed for the kitchen.
"—did Anthony some good. He lit right up when that fish bit his line."
"He's been so withdrawn lately."
Mom's worried voice made me skid to a stop.
She was always worrying about me.
"Were you able to find out what's been bothering him?"
"I think . . . he's being teased at school," Grandpa Charlie said.
Mom gasped, and I heard rustling. Pressing myself against the wall, I peeked around the edge. Mom's face was pressed against Dad's chest, and Dad had a weird look on his face. Almost like something was hurting him.
This was why I didn't want to tell them.
I felt sick.
"Now wait a minute, you two," Grandpa Charlie said. "We don't know what's going on yet because he hasn't told us. Don't jump to the worst conclusion."
Mom looked up at Dad, and I could see she was on the verge of tears. "No, it makes sense," she whispered, and I drew back to rest my forehead against the wall. "Someone is hurting my little boy. Tell me what to do."
"We love him. We be here for him. We listen to him," Dad said in his soothing voice, and I winced.
"That's not good enough!" She hissed. "Especially since he's not talking."
"We can't make him talk," Dad replied. "You never did, remember? You hid your pain."
My mouth gaped. Mom said a bad word.
And then I wondered about the pain Dad was talking about.
Had Mom . . . had she been teased when she was a kid, too?
"—thing we can do is to be here for him," Dad was saying. "He already knows he can tell us anything. He knows we love him."
"That doesn't matter when you're being picked on at school!"
I was hot all over again. This was so embarrassing.
"It does matter. Let's just see if he'll talk to us about it."
When I heard that, I spun around and ran back to the room that was mine when we stayed here.
I didn't stop for Mom's voice. When I got to my room, I slammed the door closed and then threw myself onto the bed.
How had Grandpa Charlie guessed my secret?
And then he had to go and tell Mom and Dad.
It was so unfair.
Someone knocked on the door.
"Anthony? It's Dad. Can I come in?"
"I don't wanna talk about it!"
The door opened, and I rolled over and planted my face into a pillow.
"I'm not going to make you talk about it," Dad said in his smooth and calm voice, the one he used to make me do something when I really didn't want to. "I do have something I want to tell you, though."
It was a little hard to breathe with my face smooshed into the pillow, so I just turned to face the window.
I felt the bed dip behind my back as he sat.
"When I was your age, I used to tease other kids. I used to say mean things to make them cry."
It was the last thing I'd expected him to say.
It had me rolling over to face him in surprise.
He looked . . . ashamed.
"I was sad. Angry. And I wanted to make them feel that way, too."
I couldn't imagine him being that way. Dad never got angry, and I'd rarely seen him sad. He was always in a good mood.
"But why were you sad and angry?"
"For a lot of reasons." He sighed, and I knew he wasn't going to explain them. "What I really needed was a friend, though."
I snorted. "Craig already has a friend. Neither of them wanna be mine."
Crap, I hadn't meant to say that.
His face tightened, and I saw a flash of something before it was gone.
"Have you ever asked them to stop?"
"Have you ever asked them to stop calling you names? To stop pushing you around?"
"Like that'll help," I snapped.
"Tony, ask Craig to stop," he said firmly. "Let him know you're aware that what he's doing is wrong. Stand up to him. Sometimes that's all it takes."
I shook my head and glared up at the ceiling.
"I'll sound stupid. And weak."
"It's not stupid or weak to say stop calling me names. And maybe after you say that, you could ask if he wanted to play a game. Like tag, or hide-and-seek, or whatever you kids do at recess. You know, kill him with kindness, and get him focused on something else."
I scowled at him. He didn't understand.
"He doesn't wanna play with me. He calls me 'ant man'," I confessed in a whisper. "Says I'm so little, I should be in kindergarten."
"You are small for your age, but you won't always be small. What Craig is teasing you about isn't a lasting curse. And Ant Man is a superhero . . . okay, I can see you don't like that, either," he said while rubbing at his eyebrow. "I'm still suggesting that you try to turn things around, though. That you ask Craig to play. Try to make him a friend. What's wrong with trying?"
I huffed. "I don't know."
"Well, you definitely won't unless you try."
He sounded so certain it would work, but he didn't know Craig, didn't know how he seemed to hate me. Craig was having fun being mean to me.
"If someone had told me to stop what I was doing, and then asked me to play, it definitely would've taken me by surprise."
"But would you have?"
Dad looked sad again. "No one ever asked me to, so I don't know. I was pretty angry. Is Craig angry when he teases you?"
I shook my head. He was always just laughing.
"He likes teasing me," I said. "I don't think he'll just stop."
"He doesn't like teasing you. Trust me. He'd rather have you as a friend."
I stared at him.
"How do you know?"
Dad raised an eyebrow at me. "Because I've been in his shoes. I know."
I swallowed hard. "If I ask him to stop and he doesn't, then what?"
"Then you go to your teacher."
"That'll make me look like a tattle-tail baby!"
"So . . . try to handle it with him yourself first. Are you afraid of him?"
"No. Yes. I don't know."
"Does he hit you?" Dad asked, weirdly quiet.
"No. He just calls me names and tries to embarrass me."
"So it's all verbal. You can handle this, Tony. You can."
"I don't know," I said, suddenly angry.
"You've got friends in your class, right?"
I gave him a look. "Yes."
"So make sure your friends are with you. They'll help make you brave. Ever hear of moral support?"
"Let's play out a scenario," Dad suggested and stood. "Stand up with me. I'll be Craig and you be you."
I rolled my eyes as I got to my feet. "This is stupid."
"Tell me to stop. Okay?"
"Hey, ant man," Dad said in a rough voice. "Bet you're not tall enough to reach your kitchen counter, are you?"
I took a step back.
How did he know what to say? Because it sounded exactly like something Craig would say.
Dad kept going. "You're not, are you?"
"I . . . uh—"
"Cat got your tongue?"
"Stop WHAT, ant man?"
"Stop being mean. Stop calling me ant man."
"But it's what you are."
Now I was getting mad.
"It's not what I am. My name's Tony. Call me that."
"An-toe-nee the ant man."
I glared at Dad.
"Stop it! I won't always be this short."
"Oh, yes you will."
"No, I won't. And besides, I bet I can beat you in a race to the slide and back!"
Dad made a face and raised an eyebrow. "Hah-hah. You really think you can beat me?"
"Yes. And if I win, you have to stop calling me ant man."
"You won't win, so . . . deal."
I gaped at him.
Dad spread and raised his arms. "See? That wasn't so hard, was it? Now you just have to beat him."
"Yeah, I guess." I shoved my hands into the back of my jeans pockets. "But what if I don't?"
He ruffled my hair. "You get major props for calling him out. Everyone will see it and know you're brave. You've got spunk. Let it out. Try to have some fun. And kick his butt."
I wanted to kick his butt.
"I'm fast," I said. "I've beaten him before in gym class."
"There you go."
We traded smiles, and then he dragged me into a quick hug.
"Want to go and tell Mom? It would make her feel better."
So we went to find Mom. She was hunched over, hugging her stomach, and looked this-close to crying. When she saw me, her mouth curled up into a little smile, but she still looked sad.
"Tony's got a plan, Momma," Dad said gently.
She cried when I told her.
"Mom," I wailed.
"Sorry. I'm just proud of you. I know you're going to beat him."
I let her hug me and give me kisses before I squirmed away. Dad came to take my place, pulling her into his arms with a huge smile on his face.
"You really did it," I heard her whispering to him.
He didn't answer. He just kissed her for a long time on the mouth.
They were always giving each other goo-goo eyes and kissing.
Ugh, so embarrassing.
Grandpa was still in the kitchen cleaning fish.
Maybe helping him wouldn't be so bad after all.
For real this time.
A/N: So there you go, a ten-year, bittersweet peek into their lives. Tony's going to kick Craig's ass and become a big man on campus for a few days, Bella's going to have a little girl (and get her tubes tied), and Esme is going to retire early to take care of the kids when Bella goes back to work for Smith and Devany. Bella's a Marketing Analyst now and Edward is Chief Marketing Officer. And . . . they're still so in love. They always will be, even through life's hiccups.
. . .
In a few weeks, I will be pulling this story to publish it on Kindle Vella. Please don't think I made this decision lightly, because I went three rounds about it—it breaks my heart that I have to pull it. The PDF will be available for anyone who wants in my Facebook Group, Powered by 23 Kicks Fanfiction.
And last, I do have another fic in the works, tentatively titled MASKED. It's about unrequited love between our two favorite characters, and the sexual fantasies they unknowingly fulfill for the other.
Until next time . . .