Black and blue did not make a pretty color combination against Alison's soft, lightly tanned skin. She'd skipped Math that afternoon to get her shoulder checked by the school nurse, who immediately began asking her uncomfortable questions about her classmates. It wasn't every day a student would get knocked over in Phys Ed and end up with a bruise that big and serious, so it didn't surprise Alison that Ms. Merrick had jumped to the bullying conclusion. She tried not to give the woman an attitude as she applied ice to Alison's shoulder and continued to question her, because she knew it was just standard procedure, but she couldn't pretend that she wasn't annoyed.

"If someone in this school is giving you a hard time, I don't want you to be afraid to tell me," the nurse told her.

Alison gave her a half-smile. "It's just a soccer injury."

Ms. Merrick lowered the icepack from Alison's shoulder, and set it on the bed beside her. "Are you sure that's what really happened? I don't mean to pry, but I've been hearing other things."

She furrowed her eyebrows. "Things like what?"

"Like some of your teammates haven't exactly been nice to you this season." The woman folded her arms across her chest, her expression stern. "Bullying is a serious issue in high school these days, and if you're being subjected to violence from other students, I can assure you Rosewood's staff will do everything they can to put an end to it."

Alison wasn't sure what was worse—the fact that Ms. Merrick wouldn't just take her word, or that she was still trying to get Alison to confess to being bullied, when most students in Rosewood would honestly say it was the other way around. She didn't mean to be mean to people, but some of her classmates just rubbed her the wrong way, and she didn't always have a filter when it came to telling them how she felt. It wasn't easy living day after day wondering what everyone else thought about her, and sometimes, that insecurity would cause her to act out in ways that weren't always considered socially acceptable. Even so, there was no way she was ever going to admit to being picked-on by Paige or anyone else on her soccer team. As far as she was concerned, all of her problems with bullies were going to be gone soon enough, anyway.

The nurse walked over to her desk as Alison stayed where she was, sitting on the edge of the exam table, and she watched as the other woman wrote something down on a yellow sheet of paper. When she returned to Alison, she picked up the icepack, and handed her the slip. "I'm giving you permission to sit out of gym class for the rest of the week. If your shoulder is still badly hurting by Monday, have your parents set up an appointment with your doctor, in case of any internal damage."

"Thanks." She stuck the slip inside her notebook, and stood up. She started across the room, turning on her heel as she reached the door, and she gave Ms. Merrick one of her signature grins. "And don't worry, if I ever find myself in some kind of trouble with another student, you'll be the first to hear about it."


After school that day, Alison hung out with Emily on the Fields's front porch, and watched as Toby Cavanaugh mowed his parents' lawn across the street. It was unusually hot that afternoon for March, and Toby had taken off his shirt, so it was hard not to notice his beautifully toned six-pack, even from a distance. Alison never would have admitted that she found Toby slightly attractive, though, because he was such a creep otherwise. Sometimes, as much as she hated Jenna Marshall, she felt bad that the girl had to eat dinner with Toby and his family every night.

Emily hardly even seemed to notice Toby, though, as she was too busy talking about the things she was going to do when her dad came home that weekend. "Sorry I'm missing the sleepover at Spencer's," she said. "But there's no way I'm ditching my dad."

"Don't worry about it," Alison told her. "You probably won't be missing much, anyway." She sighed, and leaned back against the bench, rolling her eyes toward Emily. She'd had a long day, and for the first time in a long time, she didn't know what to say.

Her friend gave her a curious look. "I don't think I saw you in Math today. Did you leave school early?"

Alison blinked, forgetting for a moment that neither of friends knew about her incident with Pigskin the day before. "No, I, uh, had to take care of something."

"Oh." Emily straightened her back, and looked out across her yard. There was a strange expression on her face, as if she was hiding something, but was either too afraid or too ashamed to say what it was.

I've been hearing things, the school nurse had told Alison earlier that day. If word had spread to Rosewood's staff about her incident in soccer practice the other day, there was no doubt some of the students were talking about it, too. She turned to Emily, already regretting what she was about to ask, but she knew that if she were going to get a straight answer from anyone, it would be her. "Are people talking about me?"

Emily glanced at her. "Do you want the honest answer, or the kind one?"

"Just tell me what you know," Alison said.

Her friend bit her lip. "People are saying one of your teammates beat you up."

Alison could feel her stomach clench. The way Emily put it, it sounded like Ali was being used as Paige's personal punching bag. Of course, none of the rumors she'd heard had actually mentioned Paige's name directly, but she knew everyone on her soccer team already had a pretty good idea of who they were all talking about.

"So is it true?" Emily asked her after she hesitated to give her friend an answer.

She gave the brunette a half-smile. "Of course not. I fell during practice, and someone thought it would be funny to kick me while I was still on the ground."

But the horrified look on Emily's face made it clear to Alison that she'd still said the wrong thing. "Who was it?"

Alison let out a tight laugh. "Why, are you going to start fighting my battles for me, Em?"

Her friend scowled. "That's not funny. If you don't tell someone about this, you could really end up in a dangerous situation."

"I'm taking care of it," she insisted. "Don't worry about me. And don't tell the other girls I told you, either. If they want to know, they'll come to me themselves."

Emily nodded. "Okay…. But it still doesn't make it right."

Alison had to sympathize with the girl. She was always such a sweetheart, but sometimes, she was just too naïve for her own good. If everything was as easy as Emily seemed to think it was, then just maybe, Alison's life would be a little more bearable. "It happens," she said to her, because there wasn't really much else she could say. Someday, her friend would understand what it was like to feel judged by everyone around her. She didn't want to live to see that day, of course, because if anyone deserved a conflict-free life, it was Emily, but Alison knew it was only a matter of time before that had to change, too.