Chapter One: Blame it on the Alcohol

When I was a teenager, growing up in one of the shadier neighborhoods of Chicago, I never really had any plans for myself. I would live my life without a care in the world, waiting for opportunities to come to me rather than going out searching for them.

Looking back now, I realize my father was the one responsible for my lack of self-confidence. He was a drunk. He couldn't hold down a job to save his life, forcing my mother to take the reins, working three jobs to support us. I guess I strongly believed I would end up like him; alone, sad, stuck in the past, recalling memories of better days. Like father, like son, right? Well, in High School, basketball was the one thing that helped me through the tougher times. An outlet, enabling me to forget for a little while. In a way, the sport saved my life, and although years have gone by since my High School days, I know for a fact that I will never forget what the Lincoln Heights Jaguars did for me. When I was on that court, proudly dressed in that blue and gold jersey, the number fourteen etched upon it, I was at home. Seeing the crowd of people in the bleachers as they cheered us on toward the State championship, feeling the adrenaline soaring through my veins as I scored the winning goal, tasting the sweet taste of victory as we won those games night after night, traveling back home in that school bus, yelling and cheering in a full on rave as our coach attempted to tune us all out in one of the front seats. For once in my life I'd felt as though I meant something, and let me tell you, for a guy who grew up the way I had to grow up, that feels pretty damn good.

Upon graduating, I would never have expected to be back here at Lincoln Heights. The idea of teaching only came around in my junior year at New York University, where I'd been majoring in English literature. To be honest, I would probably never have gotten the chance to go to college if it wasn't for that scholarship. My family could barely afford food on the table, let alone the tuition to attend such a prestigious school. I made it though, and as cheesy as it may seem, I will forever have my coach to thank for that. I guess I also have him to thank for indirectly making me realize my passion for teaching. If there was one thing that I was certain of at the time, it was that I wanted to make a difference, the way my coach had made a difference in my life.

At twenty-seven years of age though, things had changed since College. Life is funny that way. For a few years, I taught creative writing in a small High School in Staten Island, New York, but after some years I had decided to come back to my roots. I was beginning my third year as a teacher here at Lincoln Heights, having filled the position of a teacher who'd retired two years ago. Last year I'd also grabbed at the opportunity of coaching. It was going to be my second year as the coach for the same team I'd been a part of for two whole years, replacing my old coach, who was now coaching the Houston Rockets.

As yet another September rolled in, bringing forth the start of another school year, things were going well for me, I had to admit that much.

"Don't you ever go home, Montgomery?"

I was so caught up in my own thoughts, my tired bluish gray eyes staring at the blank computer screen, that I hadn't even noticed my best friend and fellow teacher standing in the threshold of my classroom, a goofy grin on his lips as he witnessed me jump, my heart seeming to have skipped a beat. Sighing, I glanced up at Martin Fletcher's face, a smirk creeping onto my lips as his words registered into my brain. It was then that I caught sight of the clock on the off-white wall at the far end of the class; 8:06pm. Shit, I thought.

"Don't you know me by now, Marty?" I called out, simultaneously gesturing for him to come in, which he did. "The school is my home." I added as though he needed clarification. Besides, I had a lot of work to do before the start of the semester next week.

"It's Friday, dude! Even us teachers need to let loose a little!" Marty argued, a mischievous look in his eyes that I knew would ultimately mean the death of me. "You're going to be tagging along with me and Vic tonight, and don't you dare squirm your way out of it." he said, his decision final. I felt my entire life flash before my eyes.

Martin Fletcher was still a teenager at heart, with a love of parties and women. He was rarely ever serious. Sometimes, I could hardly believe I'd ever been like him back in High School. We'd been best friends since fourth grade, our story having initially began one spring day when we'd played basketball together for the first time during recess. In our Freshman year of High School, Victor McCall had joined us, making our duo a rather mischievous trio.

"Whatever you say." I chuckled. "Who knows, maybe something good will come out of this..." I said sarcastically, evidently not enthused.

Half an hour later, the three of us were drinking up a few shots sitting at the bar, quickly getting in the groove of things. Soon enough we'd be slowing down some to enjoy the night on the dance floor, but not just yet. Victor was going on about his two year old son and how he was finally beginning to speak, but I could barely hear a word, what with the music booming so loudly inside the busy club. To the right of the bar, many sweaty bodies were dancing close on the dance floor while others spoke animatedly at tables behind us and to our right. A few people were ordering more drinks while one guy in particular, standing a few feet away from me, was actually attempting to pick up a girl and failing miserably at it. I couldn't help but chuckle, grabbing Marty and Victor's attention – they were always amused by hopeless tools.

I wasn't much of a drinker anymore, having long ago lost the interest in partying, but the fact that I was spending time with my best friends felt pretty good.

"Hey man, check her out, she's been eying you for the past five minutes." Victor called out to me with a nod of his head, his beer moving around dangerously in his left hand as he gestured to a young lady sitting alone at the other end of the bar.

"You know I'm not..." I attempted to argue, but again my attempts were feeble as Marty began urging me on, telling me I should go for it. I repeat, this would surely mean the death of me, no doubt. Knowing these two men however, they would forever hold it against me if I didn't at least try to speak to this woman. She was definitely attractive though, so what was the harm, right? At least, that was what I asked myself as I took one final drink from my beer, which I then shoved into Marty's hands. I strolled off, a little more confidently than I usually would under sober circumstances, a hint of a smirk playing on my face as I glanced back at the chuckling men that I shamefully called my best friends. They were acting like such teenagers. How could Victor be the first one with a decent wife and an adorable son when he could be such an immature jackass?

Pushing the thoughts away, I concentrated on the woman, taking a seat next to her and smiling sheepishly. She was definitely attractive, with wavy auburn hair hanging down her back and piercing green eyes. She wasn't wearing too much make-up, and the little she was wearing complimented her fair skin and delicate structure. Her strapless black dress was accessorized with a bright red handbag, red high heels and silver jewelry.

"You know," I said with a grin as I met her eyes. "Drinking alone isn't the healthiest thing to be doing." Of course, working in a classroom all by myself on a Friday night wasn't all that healthy either but she didn't have to know that aspect of my life.

"I know. I don't usually drink... alone anyway." she spoke, her tone soft yet with that underlining awkwardness that could only be summed up to her being in the presence of a complete stranger. At least, that was my take on it.

"If it's worth anything, my friends dragged me here. I don't usually hang out in bars." I responded, feeling Marty and Victor eyeballing me from a few ways away. I glanced back at them, annoyed at their obnoxious smiles and prissy attitudes. Damn bastards.

"My friends back home were like that, too." she said with a slight laugh. It was becoming more and more evident that she was on the edge of drunkenness. "I'm starting work for the first time and I'm nervous as hell; that's my excuse... I don't know why I'm nervous though, I mean it's not like I've never worked before, right? I'm probably just being silly." she drifted off, taking a sip of the drink she'd ordered. I was curious as to what she did for a living, but decided not to push it, assuming she'd tell me if she wanted to.

"Well, good luck to you." I said simply, motioning at the bartender to get me yet another drink. The way I was going with all of this alcohol, I could tell I would be hurling chunks in the morning, not to mention groaning about a massive headache. "Name's Liam, by the way. Liam Montgomery." I added as an after-thought, deciding that, since we were drinking together, we might as well be aware of each other's names.

"Oh, uh, Stephanie... Swann." she replied with a slight smile, extending her hand to shake mine, which I gladly took. I noticed the fact that she was a nail biter, which made me smirk slightly. "You can call me Steph, though." she added with a half-smile, bringing her hand back and wrapping it around her half-full glass.

I did the same with my own newly acquired beer, taking a long swig before returning my attention to the nicely dressed nail biter before me. Odd how much you can tell about someone from simply observing them briefly.

"So am I correct by assuming you're new to Chicago?" I wondered, watching as her index finger traced the rim of her glass idly. Chicago was a big city, definitely not New York, but big enough so that it wasn't strange to meet someone new once in a while. With the information about her beginning a new job however, I decided it wouldn't be too horrible to assume that perhaps she had recently moved here.

"Yeah, a few weeks back." she admitted.

As the minutes ticked by, we slowly got into a groove, drinking our drinks, occasionally making small talk. At one point, roughly fifteen minutes later, we decided to go dancing, which quickly escalated to grinding as the alcohol in our systems truly took away all logic, all intuition. I could feel the warmth of her silky skin as she brushed against my body. My hands were lightly pressed against her swaying hips, occasionally moving upward as I pulled her closer to me. At around three in the morning, our bodies sweaty as we staggered around, holding onto each other for dear life, I uttered words I hadn't uttered in a very long time – quite evidently due to the amount of alcohol in my system. I could barely stand, let alone make intelligent decisions.

"Do you want to get out of here?" I mumbled drunkenly, completely oblivious to my friends' whereabouts at that point. She nodded, a flirty grin on her face as she pressed herself closer to me. "I'll call us a cab..." I said, eying her as an intoxicated animal would eye his equally intoxicated prey.

I wasn't usually like this; blame it on the alcohol.