Ten years ago, when he was a senior in high school, Riley’s best friend Glen was catfished on Grindr by the football team, who lured him into a school bathroom and brutally beat him. He was then raped by Tyson, the captain of the football team. The case went to to trial, but Tyson walked away unscathed, leaving Glen hospitalized and broken. Riley had wanted to be an actor, had gone to New York to pursue his dream, but when Glen asked him for help, Riley came back home. Now, Riley’s an English teacher at Five Foxes High School, as well as the drama teacher. And Glen is still drinking, still doing drugs, still going from bed to bed in a spiral of destruction that Riley can’t seem to pull him out of.
Colton Landry was one of the football players involved in what happened to Glen. He didn’t throw a punch or land a kick, and he was the one who pulled Tyson off of Glen when he realized what was happening … but he also corroborated Tyson’s story. Even though Colton came clean and told the police the truth later, it was too little, too late. The team turned against him, his father — thanks to Tyson’s family — lost his job, and Colton got a broken arm courtesy of Tyson. Now, he’s back home as coach for the Girl’s Junior Varsity team. He likes coaching, and he’s looking forward to it until he gets an email regarding the school’s budget cuts. Which include the JV teams. Which means his students, students he hasn’t even met yet.
Colton and Riley, whose drama club has also lost funding, end up at the principal’s office, demanding to know what’s going on, only to be told there’s nothing to be done. There simply isn’t enough money in the budget. If the two of them are really so determined, maybe they should … try a fundraiser or something? The principal isn’t much help, but the idea isn’t a terrible one. If only Riley can put aside the past long enough to work with Colton in the present.
While the adults are fighting their own battles, Oscar — two years away from graduating and getting out of this small, Midwest town — is having his own struggles. He’s gay, and horny, but he’s scared. His best friend and faux girlfriend gets him an account on a local hookup app where he happens to meet someone. They’ve never talked on the phone, have never seen each other’s faces, but Oscar’s already half in love with the mystery man. And so they agree to meet.
This is the first book in the Five Foxes series, and it involves characters with a lot of baggage. Really, they’ve got enough there to go on a five-week vacation. Riley is dealing with his own struggles with Glen — not being able to help him, not being able to save him, and at times, barely able to tolerate him, even as he knows his friend has gone through hell and is still trying to claw his way out. He is also facing his own bitter unhappiness at being stuck in a school where he can watch the heterosexual flirtations between newlywed teachers and know that, even if he did find someone, he’d probably be ostracized if he made out with a male lover/fiance/husband. He’s also single, and that sucks.
And then Colton comes in and it’s as if the universe has decided to give Riley a punching bag to let out his anger. Colton takes every bit of anger, knowing it’s deserved. He knows what he did and, more importantly, what he didn’t do. He was scared, then, and even now it’s hard for him to open up and admit that he’s gay. He lost his friends and had his arm broken just for telling the truth about what happened ten years ago. What would they have done if Tyson knew he was gay, too?
But Colton likes Riley. He’s had a crush on him since high school and he wants a chance to sit with him. Look into his eyes, hold his hand, maybe be friends. Maybe be something else. And Riley, when he’s had a chance to let some steam off and hear Colton’s side of the story, is willing to give them a chance. For a time, it’s great. It’s heated kisses and laughter and jokes … and then it’s Tyson, tracking Colton down one night at a restaurant wanting to talk.
In the meantime, Oscar is slowly flirting with someone on the BeeFriends app, someone he’s never seen more of than a handsome torso. They sext, they flirt, and it’s just too much for Colton, who happens to catch a glimpse of Oscar’s phone. No one was there for Colton when he needed them. No adult came out and said it was okay to be a gay football player, no one was there to be on his side when he was frightened and lost. Colton is determined to be the coach for Oscar that he once needed, just like Riley is there for one of his students. Two men who didn’t have the support system they needed are now determined to be there to help the next generation find their way, and it’s really a sweet, emotionally fulfilling story.
The writing, the pacing, and the characterization were all so well done. For sensitive readers, there are mentions of Glen’s use of drugs, alcohol, and sex to cope with the beating and rape, as well as mentions of bullying and homophobia. There is also mention of a teacher who behaved inappropriately towards female students, but he’s already been fired by the time the book starts. Even with all the heavier issues, this is a book with a happy ending, plucky kids who refuse to be cowed, and adults who use their words to communicate. I honestly can’t wait for the next book in the series.