Hi readers! This week’s first chapter is Susan’s pick because...
RUNNING WITH LIONS is a charming and sweet debut filled with a diverse ensemble cast, wonderfully real friendships and relationships, and a queer positive perspective that is worth celebrating! Will it be love at first chapter for you?
Bloomington High School Lions’ star goalie Sebastian Hughes should be excited about his senior year: His teammates are amazing, and he’s got a coach who doesn’t ask anyone to hide their sexuality. But when his estranged childhood-best-friend Emir Shah shows up at summer training camp, Sebastian realizes the team’s success may end up in the hands of the one guy who hates him. Determined to reconnect with Emir for the sake of the Lions, he sets out to regain Emir’s trust. But to Sebastian’s surprise, sweaty days on the pitch, wandering the town’s streets, and bonding on the weekends spark more than just friendship between them.
“Are you certain you’ve packed everything?”
Sebastian grins at his mom from the bottom step outside their modest two-story house. “Of course, Mom,” he replies. The faded paint on the cedar fence behind her catches his eye. A streak of bright sun gives the fresh dew on the grass a glitter effect. Summer is in full bloom, weaving a heavy blanket of heat around them.
“I just don’t want you to forget anything,” she whispers. Sunlight accentuates the soft wrinkles around her eyes and her graying blonde hair. Lily Hughes’s smile still has a hint of youth when she fixes the zippers of his duffel—for the fifth time this morning.
“Like a toothbrush, or a sweater in case it gets cold.”
The growth spurt Sebastian experienced in freshman year makes him a giant when he’s facing her. Three years later, he has a good six inches on her. She stands on her tiptoes to hug him, for the third time in ten minutes.
Sebastian rolls his pale brown eyes but squeezes her tight.
“Did you pack lots of underwear? I can’t have you going butt naked for a month—”
Sebastian groans, unable to hide how mortified he is.
“I’ve got it all, Mom,” he insists.
“Extra pairs of socks? Your shorts for the lake?”
“We won’t have time—”
“Hush, now,” she says, swatting at his chest. “Every year you swear you won’t have time for fun. But then you come home with a gorgeous tan. You grow all these muscles and recite every lyric from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack.”
“That’s not true.”
Sebastian only knows the words to those songs because of his older sister Carly’s obsession with corny ‘80s movies.
“And you’re at that age where—” Lily pauses with a perceptive expression. “If you need condoms…”
He chokes; his features immediately morph into that mortified look that comes with talks about sex with your parents.
Who invented sex talks with parents, anyway? Sebastian thinks. They should be burned, buried, dug up, and lit on fire again.
“Jesus, Mom.” Sebastian drags the toe of his scuffed Converse on the sidewalk. He’s suffocating from humiliation, his hot neck, and his tight collar.
“Don’t start with me, Bastian.”
Sebastian tenses when she squints accusingly at him. It’s as bad as that time she caught him kissing Julie Hammonds in eighth grade. He won’t win this argument.
Avoid, avoid, avoid.
His fingers comb through his hair; it’s usually a tree-bark-brown, but hours of mowing the lawn in the sun have brightened it to a tawny hue, like a lion’s mane. “Mom,” he says with a sigh. She smirks back. “I’m not going off to the war. It’s just soccer camp. Me and the team and lots of practicing.”
It’s more than that. Ever since Willie dragged him to soccer tryouts their freshman year, it’s been so much more.
Every summer, after making the team, he skipped the teenage glory days promised to him in every punk song since the existence of Blink-182. Year after year, he traveled to the school’s training camp just north of Bloomington. He learned to love the sweet stain of green on everything he owns and a second skin made of pure sweat.
Sebastian honestly loves it: a month away from family and existence and freedom, sore muscles after hours of running drills, his skin baking under the haloing sun, smelly socks and unwashed practice jerseys, the symbolism of being with his boys for weeks.
“Of course, Bastian. You have no time for girls, right?” Lily’s not condescending. “It’s all soccer and homework, ever since Samantha left for college.”
Sebastian tries not to flinch. Sam, not Samantha. She liked when boys called her that. Sam was spunky and gorgeous and an almost happily-ever-after for him—an “almost” that came with an asterisk and a footnote and a pile of disappointment when she left for college last year. Two months in, she ditched him for a physics teaching assistant. She was majoring in dance. Go figure.
“Sure, Mom.” He grins, but he’s dying to get away from this conversation.
He didn’t love Sam. Sebastian isn’t sure what love looks, feels, or sounds like. Lately, he’s been imagining it’s something stupid, ridiculous, and utterly confusing—like Katy Perry songs. He’s not ready to venture to the dark side of comparing his feelings to Katy Perry music.
What happened with Sam is another talk he hasn’t had with his parents, along with: “Hey, Mom and Dad, I like boys, too” and “I get a chubby watching Chris Evans in anything,” though he’s pretty sure he’s gonna keep that last one to himself—not that who he is or whom he falls in love with matters lately. Sebastian Hughes is nothing but soccer and pleasing everyone else, and not always in that order.
Lily stares as if she’s already read his mind. Before he can get the courage to say anything, a cheap sound system blaring the synth-heavy, raucous drumming of Imagine Dragons grabs their attention.
Mason pulls to the curb in a vintage Ford Mustang painted a flaking candy apple red. Its bumper is rusted. The canvas roof is peeled back, the white leather seats age-stained.
“Well, Mrs. Hughes!” Mason’s mouth curls mischievously. Leaning over Willie in the passenger seat, he cuts off the radio. “You’re looking lovely this morning,” he says. His coffee-brown hair falls into blue-green eyes.
“Oh, Mason, be quiet,” she says with a giggle. “You’re such a tease.”
“Loser,” Sebastian coughs into his knuckles.
Willie doubles over laughing. He has cool blue eyes, pale skin, and white-blond hair. He seems exotic and intimidating, but he’s always happy, and that, of course, makes him Sebastian’s favorite. Willie’s cheap neon sunglasses fall down his nose as he croons, “Smooth,” at Mason.
Mason’s too busy wiggling his eyebrows at Lily to notice.
“I’ve told you a dozen times to please, call me Lily,” she tells Mason.
He grins. “Lily.”
Sebastian prefers Mason Riley as an ally rather than an enemy. It’s been that way since they were twelve, after Mason’s dad left his mom. Mason never admitted it, but he needed a friend. Enter Sebastian Hughes. They were two complete opposites that clicked.
“Ready, Hughes?” Mason asks, sinking back into the driver’s seat. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “The road is calling.”
Sebastian nods. He tosses his duffel bag into the back seat where Willie has crawled. It’s a privilege if Willie offers you the passenger seat.
“Boys,” Lily says in the overprotective voice Sebastian’s heard for three summers now, “Please take care of my sweet Bumble—”
“Mom,” Sebastian whines.
Lily snorts, ruffling his hair. Usually, Sebastian wears his hair in a buzz cut, but he’s grown it out into a faux-hawk. He thinks it’s epic. Mason calls it a douchebag ‘do, but Mason’s worn the same longish, constantly-pushing-hair-out-of-his-face style since middle school, so whatever.
Sam used to love his buzzed hair. That was the best reason for a change.
“Sorry.” Lily’s nervous smile reminds him of being a five-year-old, marching off to his first day of kindergarten. “You know I worry.”
“I know,” he mumbles and flashes her his best “I’ll be good” grin.
“Call me every day.”
“Every weekend,” Sebastian says.
“Every other day. And FaceTime us on Sundays.”
“Three times a week and a quick text after practices,” Sebastian bargains. She concedes with a small nod and a motherly kiss to his forehead.
“Oh, my heart,” Mason teases under his breath.
Sebastian waits until Lily is distracted by Willie promising to call too before punching Mason in the shoulder. “Asshole.”
Mason cranks the radio; Fall Out Boy’s pop-punk-chanting blares from the speakers as the car edges from the curb. He says, “Ready, boys?”
Sebastian grins as though he can taste it—freedom. Nothing stands in the way of a perfect summer getaway with his teammates, nothing except that gnarly little rumor from a few days ago: “Did you hear? Emir Shah joined the soccer team. The coaches gave him an invite to the training camp.”
He has no idea how that’s going to go. Will Emir speak to him? Punch him? Violence has never been Emir’s thing, but Sebastian doesn’t know him anymore. It’s not as if he’s hung around Emir, not since they were kids.
If there’s one person who can turn his summer upside down, it’s an ex-best friend Sebastian hasn’t gotten over.
Sebastian slouches, concealing his scrunched face from Mason and Willie. Perfect summer? No such thing exists for Sebastian Hughes.
Sebastian takes in the dirt roads and greenery on the drive. It’s an hour from Bloomington to Oakville. He rolls his eyes when Mason complains, “I’m gonna hurl,” with a cigarette hanging from his lips. Mason fails to appreciate nature. He’s a city guy, a lover of tall buildings, muggy weather, and the smell of ozone.
“You’ll be fine.”
“Whatever,” Mason grumbles. He takes another drag, savoring it. Oakville has only one decent market, so they stopped for supplies. Mason used a fake ID to buy his favorite brand of cigarettes and bought cheese puffs for Willie. A short stretch of road awaits. “It’s our last year, boys!”
Willie howls into the wind. His hands drum against Sebastian’s headrest to Mason’s latest addiction, The 1975.
Sebastian taps his foot along with the muted bass. It’s better than the constant hum of club beats and Bruno Mars songs they’ve heard too many times. Ahead, pools of dandelions drift by; clouds tumble in a cornflower sky. “Still thinking about traveling?” he asks over whipping winds.
Mason nods before he says, “How about it, Will? Next summer, overseas?” He checks Willie out in the rearview mirror. “Catch a few Real Madrid games?”
Willie laughs. “Hook up with a few babes over in Barcelona.”
Smoke fogs around Mason’s mouth when he says, “Damn right!”
“You two will never score,” Sebastian jokes.
Mason rolls his eyes. “We could bum around Greece, right, Will?”
“Live it up like kings?”
“More like peasants,” Sebastian mumbles, but his smirk belies his words.
“What about you, Bastian?” Mason asks. “Still gonna stick around the city? Work for your pops?”
Sebastian shrugs. Oliver Hughes works in construction. It’s not exactly Sebastian’s dream career. He slumps, closes his eyes, and kicks a foot up on the dash. “Haven’t thought about it,” he replies, but it’s a lie.
Life after high school is every teenager’s dream, Sebastian’s too: being out of his parents’ house, doing things his way. And this big world is ready to swallow him whole.
“Is it the money?” Willie asks.
“Not exactly,” he says.
Sebastian’s parents can’t afford an Ivy League school with a good athletic program where he can strengthen his soccer skills. And Sebastian isn’t the best in the field; that’s Mason, by far. Athletic scholarships don’t come easy. It’s not as if talent scouts pack the stands to take notes on him. All those hopes of playing in the Premier League and wearing the jersey of Manchester United, Oliver’s favorite team, are just pipe dreams. Those are the fantasies you have as a kid, not when you’re a goalie in a small city. The headlines of the school newspaper never asked: “Who is Sebastian Hughes?”
“I hear Sebastian’s getting captain this year.”
Sebastian elbows Willie. “It’s not happening, dude.”
“It’s true, bro,” Mason says; the corners of his mouth lift while smoke seeps out. “I’ve overheard people talking—”
“No one talks about me.”
“—and they say that you, Hughes, are going to be—”
“They’ll pick you,” Sebastian interrupts quickly.
“No way.” Mason flicks his head to get hair out of his eyes. It falls right back. “The coaches love you, man. I’m reckless.”
He is, but Sebastian says, “You’re not,” to humor him.
“Dude, I’ve got a rep.” Mason chuckles.
“You’d have better focus if you’d stop chasing all those girls.”
“Hey!” Mason scowls. “I’ve expanded my horizons. The guys on the swim team…”
Okay, so Mason flirted and got one guy on the swim team’s number.
“And Willie’s friend—”
“Miguel.” Willie sighs, nose wrinkling.
“Miguel!” Mason releases a pleased grin. “I hooked up with him at Carl’s last party.”
Willie tosses cheese puffs in Mason’s hair. They bicker like kid brothers constantly; Sebastian plays mediator. In less than a year, he won’t be pulling them apart anymore.
When Mason veers the car down a long stretch of familiar road, giddiness thrums inside of Sebastian. Clean countryside air fills his lungs. He can’t wait to fall into his cabin bed, run around the pitch, and hang with his teammates.
But this Emir rumor is a zombie feasting on his brains. The chance of Emir Shah turning up at his training camp in any alternate universe is zero. Why would he? Emir is a loner who doesn’t play any sport, including soccer.
“You haven’t thought about it?” Willie asks.
Sebastian startles. Haven’t thought about what? Emir being at camp? The fact that their childhood friendship was unceremoniously flushed down the drain when they became teenagers?
“Being captain,” Willie says, face contorted.
He has. Sometimes he daydreams about being the leader who gets the team a trophy. It’d be incredible. But it’s an awesome responsibility too. It’s like floating on the ocean, being weightless and consumed at the same time. “I don’t know,” he finally says.
Sebastian closes his eyes. The sun burns pretty colors behind his eyelids: the cornflower of the sky mixes with the pink in Willie’s cheeks and a wash of green from the passing grass. The easiness of summer drowns out everything else.
Was it Love at First Chapter?
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