The best parts of my day were riding to and from school with Tris. Although I was sweating the anniversary gift, he'd not mentioned anything. Outside of that I appreciated holding his hand in the back seat and listening to him chatter with May and Piper.
It was the time in between the car rides that wore me out.
Brandon was in my first class and he was welcoming in his own thorny way, I suppose. Him I could handle, though.
My second period class with Mrs. Archer was a little uncomfortable. I realize, now, that when someone says you can have a fresh start they are full of shit. Mrs. Archer and I were never going to respect one another but, so that Tris wouldn't be disappointed in me, I tried. But it wasn't easy. The rotten woman went out of her way to single me out with her tone and glares for no reason. There were several times I'd had to bite my tongue and remember that Tris told me the rules would be different but, damn it, it wasn't easy.
The worst was sixth period every other day.
I sat down in the outer office where Eileen Belcher, and someone else whom I didn't know, had their work space. I glanced around the bland area and rolled my eyes at the positive messages that decorated the posters on the wall. Honestly, had anyone ever improved themselves due to a poster? My musing was interrupted by Eileen beckoning me into her office.
For the first time I took in her work space. I'd studiously ignored it beforehand and I had no idea why I'd look now but it seemed to be my mood. My eyes locked on a picture of her and a man I'd met a couple of times. I'd seen him just the day before, actually. My encounters with men like him hadn't been for fun. Just business; survival. Yet, it seemed odd to see him pictured with her. They both smiled, her body turned toward him and her hand on his shoulder as she smiled at the camera. His arms around her waist and he, too, smiled at the lens.
“So! Almost done with two weeks of school. Did you think you'd make it this far?” she asked with a chuckle as she settled into the chair beside me.
“Who is that?” I asked, disregarding her inane chatter.
“That's my husband and I. I like having a part of my home life here with me. Do you keep anything with you?”
My being startled to know this man was her husband didn't last; it was just bad luck. Most of the guys I'd gone with had rings on their fingers. My mind flashed to the pictures on my phone of Tris, Piper and May. I think there was even one of Brandon and Melody. Did I actually have something in common with her? The thought was disturbing though, probably, an inevitability.
She sighed softly. “Ehren. I can understand wanting to protect your privacy but don't you find it a little hypocritical when I've answered a perfectly innocent question from you and you won't answer the same question?”
“I think you misunderstood the reason for my question.” I pushed my tongue against my teeth and chastised myself for that response. To stave her off I decided to answer her question lest she ask me for clarification and set off down that path about her husband. Too many potential land mines in that direction. “I keep pictures of people important to me on my phone.”
I smirked, mentally, at the thought of Brandon being important to me and what he'd say to that.
“I find it a comfort,” she said, taking the bait and steering away from her husband and my curiosity. “I see a lot of kids and for various reasons. It's hard, you know, sitting in my chair and wanting more than anything to help.”
“But you can't,” I said and looked at her fixedly. “You can't change anything. What's done is done. It's lost.”
“In one sense, you're right,” she said with a nod. “But I was speaking with a little bit of whimsy. I'd love to wave a magic wand of something and be able to heal the hurts of the kids I see. The best I can do is help them work toward coping skills that let them come to terms with things.”
“I can cope just fine.”
She leaned back into her chair. “I think that's remarkably true. Yet the world and your place in it are largely a mystery to you. In a way I'd think you'd enjoy that.”
I shot her a dubious look.
“Well, it's something you can investigate, isn't it? You're playing Marlowe, like your books, except the mystery is all about you. Fascinating, isn't it?”
I felt frozen. She'd inadvertently hit on a truth and, worse, made a sort of connection. Yet I couldn't trust her. I knew her husband and him knowing I was no longer safely on the street and away from his life couldn't be a good thing. I doubted she was telling him specifics about her so called counseling sessions but I didn't like the idea of her investigating me. Who knows what sort of trouble I might have if it came out about her husband and the things he'd enjoyed with me in a motel room? I didn't know and that worried me.
“It's my mystery, then. I don't need help to figure out what to do.”
“Oh, even the best detectives don't work in a vacuum, Ehren,” she said and her weird, wiry hair bobbed as she shook her head. “They talk to people, gather evidence and construct a case. Once they do that they have to test that theory for accuracy. It's quite the process and very rarely goes without input from outside the detective themselves.”
I frowned. She was right. Even Marlowe, one of the loneliest characters I'd read, still had to arrange to gain information. Yet he only revealed what he knew at the end, tying things together. I couldn't afford to wait until the end to figure out how to navigate the rules I was, as yet, unaware of.
“Do you have a favorite detective?” she asked with a smile as she crossed her legs. “Mine is Miss. Marple. Are you familiar with that one?”
I gave her a dour look. “Agatha Christie isn't exactly an unknown writer, you know.”
She pursed her lips. “True. But, even though I know you enjoy a good mystery, I have no way to know what you've read and haven't, do I?”
I reluctantly agreed.
“Even Miss Marple conferred with the Tuesday Night Club, didn't she?” she asked, a smile crossing her face. She thought she had me.
“I guess you aren't very familiar with your favorite,” I replied. “Miss Marple listened to the stories being told and figured them out based on the story, not based on the discussion that came afterward. She works very much alone.”
Oddly, her smile grew wider. “You know, I like that you're so well read. You're right, of course, that she puzzled things out for herself. She's my favorite because she's a woman in a field usually dominated by men.”
I waited, not seeing a need to respond.
“Do you have a favorite detective?”
“Who is it?”
I looked at her warily. “Why are we discussing this? It's far afield from the juicy details your kind are so interested in.”
I felt a fierce sense of pleasure at the tightening of her face as she took offense.
“Maybe I'll tell you why,” I said to her. “You're trying to establish a rapport through a commonality. It's something plenty of policemen do when interrogating a suspect. They give them a sense that the police understand the poor fellow's position, perhaps even sympathize. It won't work.”
She leaned back. She uncrossed her legs and smoothed her skirt. “And why is that?”
“Because I don't want you in my head. I don't need you. I don't like you.” I kept my voice steady and calm and tried to school my features to boredom.
“Let's set aside the first two. Why do you not like me?”
I couldn't help but smile. “You know, you just reminded me of a line from one of Miss Marple's books.”
“Oh?” she asked, perking up. “Which line is that?”
Poor thing. She thought I was about to compliment her. “An actress has just said something entirely dumb. And the quote is '...it was borne upon her audience that the outside of Jane's head was distinctly superior to the inside.'”
She sighed. “You're enjoying insulting me.”
“Am,” I agreed.
“Is there some reason why you won't explain why you dislike me so? Not for clinical reasons, just for plain politeness.”
“Do you give anniversary gifts?” I asked, suddenly wondering about her husband.
Here eyes narrowed at my sudden change of subject. “With my husband? Oh yes. It's something to look forward to.”
Shit. Tris still hadn't said anything, but what did my not giving him a gift mean to him? I stood and she tilted her head.
“Our time isn't up yet, Ehren.”
I tilted my head toward her picture. “The reason I dislike you? I don't trust you. The reason I don't trust you? Your job is to get into my head and clean it up. But,” I said tilting my head at her photo. “You're own house is out of order.”
She frowned deeply and glanced at the picture on her desk. I stood and walked out, with her saying not a word.
With the dawn of the weekend my time grew less structured which, as I mentioned, was both good and bad. I liked not getting up by the damn alarm but liked less the laundry and room straightening to follow. The day only got better when Tris showed up.
“It takes two buses to get here. I still can't believe you walked all the way to my house,” he said with a smile as he referred to my flight from the streets I'd known and into his suburban area the previous summer.
“Well, running for your life gives you energy, I guess,” I told him and lifted a corner of my mouth in pleasure at seeing him.
We ascended the stairs from the bookstore below and settled in on the couch. He lay back and rested his head on my thigh and looked up at me. “Bran says you met Tim, huh?”
I became still. I sensed the change in his voice and wondered exactly what...shit. Brandon had likely implied I was cheating or said it outright.
“He sat down at my lunch table. I didn't know who he was,” I said defensively.
“Dial it back, tough guy,” he said with a curling of his lips. “What did you think of my ex?”
“I think he's a stupid, mean person,” I said with a snort.
He frowned. “Really? Was he a jerk to you?”
I looked down at him in confusion. “No. He was stupid to have let you go and mean in how he did it.”
“Oh,” he said, dragging the word out and letting his smile grow. “A little protective are we?”
Finally the light went on in my head – he was teasing.
“Maybe a little,” I conceded as I poked him and he squirmed and let out a little laugh. I felt foolish and at the same time didn't want to feeling to end.
He schooled his features to neutrality and looked up at me. “So. My parents are wondering when you will come visit at my house.”
My brow furrowed immediately and I looked away from him. His parents were good people, on the whole — except they'd betrayed me. My final encounter with Carson, which had nearly ended with my death, was precipitated by my running from the Malone residence when I realized they'd called CPS. The same agency that had left me to rot with my drug addicted parents so that the worker could make a buck off the stuff my parents cooked up.
“Ehren,” he said quietly. I kept my gaze on the far wall and he sighed and took my hand. “I know you disagree—”
“Disagree?” I asked sharply as I glanced down at him and then away. “They called a nightmare from my past to come get me. How can you call that a disagreement?”
He fumbled and pulled my hand to his chest, clasped between his own palms. His fingers tightened over my hands and brought my fingers to his lips, briefly.
“Please don't get mad at me.”
I wilted at his tone. “I'm not mad at you. I just don't see how I can pretend nothing happened.”
“I know. They thought they were doing right by you. Most people our age probably couldn't make it out there. Not like you. They were afraid for all of us because of the trouble you were in and they wanted to get everyone protected.”
I turned my gaze away from the wall and to the opposite side of the room where a window looked out at the buildings across the street. I spoke in a low voice, calmly I think. It's hard to be sure.
“Your parents only knew what you'd said. I'd been in your home continuously for over a month, even though they weren't always aware.” I licked my lips and pressed on. “It wasn't as if I were a complete stranger. I'd slept under their roof and eaten their food. I'd done chores and been left without supervision with their things. Why wouldn't they have spoken to me first? What does that say that they chose to call CPS first?”
His fingers moved slowly over my knuckles, stroking their length and back again. “I asked them. The answer isn't elegant but honest.”
I looked down at his face and he looked back steadily. “They were afraid. In retrospect, yeah, they might have spoken to you first but...they were afraid the violent people that were after you would hurt their kids.”
“But you and Piper had explained why you took the risk, why you helped me. Did that carry no weight?”
He let out a long sigh. “Sometimes I think people just react. It's instinct to want to protect your kids and, maybe, they didn't stop to think things through. I think they would have called someone no matter what. Let's be honest, there was no way to deal with the Carson problem without calling someone.”
I shook my head. I'd rather talk about almost anything else.
“Would you just think about it? Please?” He folded my fingers over his and pressed lightly. “They're my parents, Ehren. I love you both and it hurts me. So please? Think about it?”
I sighed and nodded. “I will.”
“Thank you,” he replied and kissed my fingers again. “So, onto more cheerful topics. Brandon wants to hang out.”
I snorted. “Jesus, you call that cheerful?”
“Well, it's just an afternoon out.” He lifted his head and dropped it back to my thigh and I looked down at him, smiling indulgently. “Come on, Bran's not so bad.”
“Compared to what?” I asked and laughed as he twisted his face in mock consideration.
“I think Bran likes you. I know Melody does.”
I snorted again. “Yes, Brandon likes me so much that he accused me of cheating on you with Tim. You're right, he just loves me!”
He laughed and it was infectious. “Well, we'll really know he's turned a corner with you if he accuses me of cheating on you.”
The idea was absurd but we both chuckled. We were interrupted by footsteps on the stairs coming up from the bookstore. The treads were heavy – clogs, likely, so it must be Emily. Moments later she appeared and smiled at us.
“There is something cosmically weird that two lesbians find two gay boys so cute. What are you guys up to?” she asked as she crossed the room toward the tiny kitchen.
“I'm trying to talk Ehren into coming to my house at some point,” Tris replied promptly. I frowned down at him, knowing he was trying to draw Emily over to his side.
“Tris,” she chided. “Ehren has a right to his feelings, too. Though,” she said contemplatively, “you can't fix anything if you never talk. Still, can't force it. Ehren will talk to them when he's ready and not a second before. You should know how hard it is to get Ehr to do anything he doesn't want to!”
“He is stubborn,” Tris said with a laugh as I scowled at him.
“Are you two done?” I asked a little testily.
“Sorry, babe,” Tris replied with a look of contrition on his face. I was still a little put out, though.
“Why is no one looking at this from my point of view? Why am I asked so often to see things from someone else's perspective yet I don't get the same courtesy?” I demanded. “Does anyone think for one second I don't wish this were different? Does either of you think I enjoy thinking of my boyfriend's parents in terms of people who...” I looked down at Tris whose face was a mask of hurt. I closed my mouth and swallowed my words. I softened my tone as I asked, “Don't you think I'd want things to be different just because they're your parents? The single most important person in the world to me?”
He sighed though his face still wore a pained expression. “You're right. You're right and I should have thought about that, too.”
Emily circled around the couch and sat down lightly on the coffee table and looked at me in sympathy. “I don't mean to imply it means nothing to you, sweetheart. All I'm saying is this takes action from both sides. Tris's parents have obviously made the first move – their daughter is giving you rides to school and their son is here with you. What they did was from the best of intentions and that means...?”
I sighed and looked away. “That it's my move,” I admitted sullenly.
Emily stood and slipped her fingers through my hair quickly. “Stubborn but exceedingly smart.” With that she walked back to the kitchen counter for whatever snack she'd been arranging and made her way back down the stairs to the store. As she did so I looked down at Tris and tried to swallow the emotional block of concrete I felt at the idea of speaking to the elder Malones. I needed to think about a plan of action. Just not right now.
We joined Brandon and Melody at a roller skating rink later that afternoon. I don't understand the point of roller skating and I'm not sure why it's so funny seeing people fall down. Well, I understand why it's funny to see Brandon fall, but outside of that. The food was terrible and the dining area was dirty; amusing if you consider some places I'd called home once upon a time. Since my flight to the Malones some four months ago I'd taken an affinity to being clean. They had video games in one room that was darkened with neon lighting that was a bit more fun and a dance floor with the name 'Secrets' lit up in pink.
My legs were a little sore after the skating and I avoided the so-called nachos Tris was eating in favor of a bottle of water.
“Mel, that necklace is pretty. Is it new?” Tris asked.
Melody smiled broadly and lifted the charm away from her bosom so we could see it better. “Thank you! Isn't it gorgeous? Brandon bought it for our nine month anniversary.”
“Bran? You picked that out?” Tris asked skeptically and Brandon threw a chip at him. I, meanwhile, was back to worrying about how I'd afford something to show Tris what an anniversary with him meant to me. The problem was money, or the fact I didn't have any. I had no way to judge what something like a necklace would cost and, thus, how many cans I'd need to collect. I briefly thought of going down to a certain part of town where I was sure to make some money, but I felt dubious about the idea for some reason. There was always the coach to consider, but if I take into account who he's married to, that might not be so smart.
Perhaps I should do what would mean the most to Tris, which was to make up with his parents.
I was pulled from my thoughts by Tris tugging on me and we entered the dancing area which was crowded and loud with sparkling lights and unusual colors. Tris dragged me to the dance floor and I awkwardly copied him while Melody and Brandon did the same nearby. I couldn't be sure but it seemed like Brandon actually knew what he was doing. The music changed to a slow rhythm and Tris put his arms around my waist and I copied him.
“Having fun?” he asked as we swayed to the music.
“I'm with you,” I told him.
“Sweet talker,” he said with a laugh.
I bit my lip for a moment and then spoke to him in earnest. “I'll speak to your parents. Tomorrow.”
His eyes widened and he smiled. “Really?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Why don't we do it tonight? Then you can stay over!” he said excitedly.
I cleared my throat and nodded. He hugged me tightly and kept swaying while I wondered exactly how to clear the air with his parents.Next Chapter Previous Chapter