Taliana Avilla knew she loved Sebastian Phillips from the moment he dropped an ice cream cone on her lap back in preschool. Of course, she never told him that. No, she just picked up the cold vanilla scoop and thrust it in his face instead. He had cried, and she had screamed that he was a poop head.
In kindergarten, he’d stolen her favorite Barbie doll and cut off all its hair. She retaliated by cutting his hair during naptime.
By first grade it was full-on war. He had pushed her off the monkey bars, causing her to fall and scrape her knees. The next day she “accidentally” slammed his forehead into the flagpole. He had a bruise for at least two weeks.
Second grade was the year of rumors and secrets. Sebastian had spread a particularly vicious one about how she still slept with a teddy bear, like a baby. Taliana returned the favor by telling everyone Sebastian wet his pants when he was nervous. She even proved it by pouring a glass of lemonade on his crotch during snack time when no one was looking.
But it was then that Taliana began to question her love for him. Was it really love she felt? Or was it just an overwhelming amount of hate that felt like love? Whatever it was, it was definitely too hard for a seven-year-old to figure out.
Third grade was more of the same. Whispering, spreading rumors only children could think of, and laughing at the other's misfortune whenever the opportunity arose.
By fourth grade, they had reverted to their ways of violence. In a brief attempt to be civil, they had played a game of Monopoly together during free time over the span of a week. She had won, of course, and he’d thrown the board and his game piece at her head. To this day, she still had a slight scar near her hairline where that damn metal dog had cut her. She had wasted no time getting him back, though. The next week during a game of Twister, she kicked him in a particularly sensitive place, causing him to cry harder than she'd ever thought possible.
Fifth grade wasn’t too different, except that the rivalry had grown. By the end of that year, Taliana had lost track of how many times he’d pushed her down on the blacktop, accused her of cheating on tests, or closed a door on her fingers. She hadn’t been an angel either with all the pencil stabbing, targeted tripping, and book slapping, but she considered her moves to be a bit more honorable.
As usual, the much-needed break from each other came during the summer, but when the start of sixth grade rolled around, it was wartime once again. And it was bound to be the battle to end them all.
“Come on, Stick Girl! You’re up!”
Taliana glared at the makeshift umpire behind home plate as she strode toward the batter’s box. He’d been calling her that stupid nickname since second grade and, unfortunately, he didn't seem to want to give it up.
“Don’t call me that,” she mumbled.
To be honest, she could understand why he and all the other kids called her that. At eleven years old, she was already tall and lanky, all sharp elbows and knees with the grace of a baby giraffe learning how to walk. All the other girls at Georgetown Trinity were so pretty and posh, just like one would expect to find at one of Washington, DC’s finest preparatory schools, but Taliana had never fit in with them. Maybe one day, she thought, I'll finally look like all the others.
“Hurry up! Can’t those twig legs carry you any faster?”
Taliana scowled, sick of the name calling. “Shut up, Sebastian,” she snapped, louder that time.
The umpire, her sworn enemy since preschool, rolled his eyes. “Just move. You’re dragging out our game. I don’t know why we even let you play.”
She pressed her lips together to avoid the argument, knowing it would only get her kicked out of the game, and approached the plate. After picking up the bat lying in the dirt by her feet, she swung it around for a moment to get a feel for its weight, then raised her elbows and pulled her hands back until she could practically brush her ear. A bat in her hands made her feel almost invincible, even if she wasn’t. Softball was her favorite sport—the only sport she was halfway decent at, really—and she was there to remind all the boys just why they let her play.
The only problem with playing in the boys’ recess game was that her normal female teammates were nowhere in sight. Instead, there were boys who’d been playing baseball for just as long as she’d been playing softball, and they weren't about to take it easy on her just because she was a girl. These recess games were brutal, and most people walked away with more cuts and bruises than was strictly necessary. She couldn’t exactly blame the other girls for wanting to stay out of it.
The pitcher smirked, silently taunting her from the mound. She tried not to let it get to her, but Michael Richardson—one of Sebastian’s best friends—never failed to intimidate her.
Within an instant, the ball was flying in her direction, and from the looks of it, it was on a path to hit her. Instinctively, she jumped back, and the large neon-green ball narrowly missed her shoulder.
Taliana’s jaw dropped as she turned to look at the smirking umpire. “Are you serious? That wasn’t even close to being a strike! It almost hit me!”
“But it didn’t,” Sebastian replied smugly. “And it’s not like Michael did it on purpose.” He shifted his gaze to the grinning pitcher. “Isn’t that right, Michael?”
“Right,” Michael called back. “I’d never try to hurt poor little Stick Girl.”
“But if it almost hit me that means it wasn’t even in the strike zone!”
Sebastian shrugged. “I’m the umpire. Deal with it.”
Taliana shook her head in disgust, looking back at the ground. “Whatever.”
The catcher gave her a sympathetic glance as he tossed the ball to Michael and returned to squatting behind home plate. With a heavy exhale, Taliana brought the bat up again and stared narrow-eyed at the pitcher, daring him to pull the same stunt again. Michael cocked an eyebrow before releasing the ball, letting it travel in its almost perfect path.
Taliana couldn’t help but watch with satisfaction as the pitch went wide and missed the plate by a few inches.
Shock and anger hit hard as she spun around to face Sebastian again. “What? It wasn’t close!”
“What I say goes, Stick Girl.” Sebastian looked down at the boy still crouching with the softball in his hand. “Throw the ball back, Marcus. This game is taking too long.”
The catcher let out a soft sigh and tossed the ball back to Michael, who was once again brimming with glee. Glaring, Taliana waited for the next pitch to come. Her grip on the bat was tighter than it should have been, and her stance was off as well; she would have been surprised if she could even swing the stupid bat at that point. But when the time came to do so, there wasn't any need. The pitch had come in a foot over her head.
She grinned as she dropped the bat to her side and turned to face Sebastian, who didn't look too pleased about the situation.
“Don’t even think about calling that a strike.”
When the boy’s dark blue eyes narrowed, Taliana knew she shouldn't have opened her mouth.
“Strike three,” he drawled, his sneer turning into a satisfied smirk. “You’re out.”
For a moment, all she could do was gape at him. “No way!” she shouted upon finding her voice again. “It was above my head, you idiot!”
Sebastian took a step closer. “No, it wasn’t. Anybody will tell you that.”
She placed her hands on her narrow hips. “I’d like to see that happen.”
“Fine.” He lifted his gaze to the first baseman, who was staring dazedly off into space. “Jacob!”
The boy snapped to attention, eyes wide. “Yeah?”
“You saw that pitch, right?”
Jacob nodded, head bouncing like a bobble-head doll. “Uh huh.”
“What do you think it was? Ball or a strike?”
The boy paused for a long while. “Uh...a strike?”
A grin immediately sprang to Sebastian’s lips as he looked back at Taliana. “Told you. I’m sure everyone else out there would agree.” He once again turned his attention to the field, raising his voice so they could all hear. “Right, guys?”
A collective murmur of “yes” came from all sides, which was no surprise. Few people dared go against Sebastian Phillips, undoubtedly the most popular boy in their grade, especially if they wanted to stay on his good side.
With an angry huff, Taliana threw her hands up. “You’re so stupid!”
Sebastian laughed and took yet another step closer to her. “Say whatever you want, Talia. It’s not going to change the fact that you suck at softball.”
“I do not!” All she knew was that if he kept this up, she was either going to burst into tears or go up in flames. “Stop being such an ass!”
The grin on Sebastian’s face only grew with every word that came out of her mouth.
“Go home and cry to your mommy about it,” he taunted, moving around the catcher so only a foot of space separated him from Taliana. “Oh, that’s right. Your mom doesn’t even live around here anymore. Guess she didn’t like you enough to stay. Poor little Stick Girl, not even your slutty mom loves you!”
In an instant, Taliana was seeing red.
It was no secret that her parents had divorced just before she was born, and while her father had quickly remarried, her mother had remained single. Gossip had recently begun circulating that Taliana’s mother was now involved with a very married, very conservative senator, whose wife was hellbent on destroying them both.
The scandal had been the icing on the cake for Andrea Colton, who always seemed to be the main conversation topic of DC’s wealthy social scene, and she had moved to Los Angeles to avoid the drama. She had also decided not to take her only daughter with her, leaving Taliana to live with her father, stepmother, and two half-sisters.
“The schools are better out here, darling,” had been Andrea’s excuse, but hard as Taliana tried, there was no convincing her mother to take her to LA.
A few months had passed since then, but for Taliana, it was still a touchy subject.
Rage bubbled in her stomach, leading to an outburst of, “Don't talk about my mom like that!” And then her hands were on Sebastian’s shoulders, shoving him back—hard.
Shocked gasps came from the bleachers. But Taliana wasn’t paying attention to them—she was too busy staring down Sebastian. The snarl on his face should have been a warning, but she wasn’t about to back down.
Sebastian’s hands shot out before Taliana could move out of his reach, connecting with her shoulders and pushing her back with enough force that she nearly stumbled. She somehow kept her footing and shoved him again.
“Piss off, Sebastian!”
The gasps from the onlookers were louder this time, but Taliana didn’t care. She was going to win this fight, no matter what it took.
“What did you say?” he asked, a quiet rage to his words.
“You heard me,” she answered, smirking as she drew herself up to her full height. “What are you gonna do about it?”
The moment the words left her lips, she regretted it. Less than half a second later, there were fireworks exploding behind her eyes as Sebastian’s fist connected with her cheekbone, and she went crashing to the ground.
A stunned silence fell around the pair, the only sound in the vicinity that of the recess monitors and teachers running across the field to break up the fight.
If Taliana had any good sense, she would have continued to sit on the ground until the teachers arrived to help, but when it came to Sebastian, she didn’t have an ounce of it. That was why when she felt the baseball bat under her fingertips, she knew exactly what she had to do.
Without rising to her feet, she closed her eyes, lifted the bat, and swung with all her might.
A scream told her she had made contact with something, and she cracked open an eye to find Sebastian on the ground, sobbing as he cradled his arm. It took a moment before she opened the other eye, but as she took in the sight before her, Taliana couldn’t help smiling.
However, her joy didn’t last long. A few seconds after she’d taken her lucky swing, the teachers rushed over, most of them going to the cry baby sitting on the ground across from her. When someone finally came to her side, it was none other than Georgetown Trinity’s headmaster.
"Explain yourself!" he thundered, grabbing her by the arm and yanking her to her feet.
Her eyes widened as she looked up at the man, his face turning red and leaning toward purple.
“You might want to calm down, Headmaster Hawthorne,” she whispered. “You’re starting to look like an eggplant.”
The headmaster darkened yet another shade. “This is your last day at my school, Miss Avilla!”
He wasted no time dragging her off the field and back toward the main school building, but as she stumbled along behind him, Taliana glanced back to catch one last look at the damage she’d done, and the sight made her grin again.
By then, Headmaster Hawthorne had pulled her into the building, but before the doors could close behind her, she murmured something no one else could hear.
“Who sucks at softball now?”