Emily and Beth were okay with me staying overnight, something I hadn't even considered. The idea of permission was still new to me and it was something I wasn't adapting well to. Tris and I took the two buses he'd mentioned to get back to his end of town and we walked in relative silence, hand in hand. September didn't yet carry the early warning of the colder weather to come. Instead the temperature was pleasant and a light breeze chased loose leaves and pushed our hair about playfully.
I was unhappy about speaking to his parents. I had no idea how I could possibly get past their actions and the events that were triggered. Sure, I could have just been led away by the CPS worker, but what might have happened then? What if I'd been assigned the same worker my dear, dead parents had dealt with? What might have happened to me while that worker tried to protect his little drug business? So, I'd run. In so doing I'd ended up with a gun pointed at my head and had come within moments of having my brains blown out.
“Ehren?” Tris asked, coming to a stop and pulling me around to face him. “Why? How come you just changed your mind?”
Odd that he asked that now, given where my mind had just been. I glanced away from him and said, “When I was kneeling in the sand on that beach with Carson holding a gun to my head...” I paused and swallowed. “He said to me that you and your parents would be safe. See, the other guys – the ones that had been after me? - they wanted to...” I shuddered, unable to say it.
“You never mentioned anything like that,” Tris said softly.
I swallowed and replied in a thick voice. “Anyway, he said you'd be safe.” I lifted my gaze to meet his. “I was okay with that. It wasn't the best outcome, but I could handle letting my story end there if you were okay.”
“Babe,” he said softly and pulled me close.
In his embrace I said softly, just enough to reach his ear, “I'd do anything for you.”
He held me for a few moments and my world felt like it made sense, peace entered me as I took in his scent which had comforted me from the first. He slowly pulled back.
“I don't want you to just do this for me. I appreciate it, but you deserve to be respected and I'm not going to walk all over you. Why don't we head back to your place? Maybe I can stay over there?”
I shook my head. “It's my anniversary gift to you. I don't have any money. I can't get you anything. I can do this, though.”
“First, you don't owe me anything,” he said firmly. “Second, you don't want to do this. You don't think there is anything my parents can say...you know what? I'm going to shut up. My boyfriend, about the best person I know, is offering to try and make peace and spend the night with me. I'm going to shut up and take the win and be grateful.”
“Good idea,” I agreed.
“But I don't have an anniversary gift for you. Now I'm really going to have to think.”
“I don't need anything.”
“Not even books?” he asked mischievously.
“You found my second weak spot,” I told him. “But I live over a bookstore. Why don't we get this thing done with and we can think about it later?”
He pursed his lips and frowned slightly but we resumed walking. The bus stop was only a few blocks from his house. As the home came into view I had mixed emotions. I'd come to Tris and Piper for help when I had nowhere to turn. I'd been protected, felt safe and fallen in love for the first time. Yet that home was also where I'd suffered yet another heartbreak, another betrayal. I understood, in some sense, the loyalty the elder Malones had for their children but in a very real sense I didn't understand because I'd never experienced it. What I did know is they'd turned me in.
With that swirl of emotions, I placed a hand to still Tris on the stoop. He looked back at me, smiling but with a question on his face.
“Trade hoodies with me?” I asked. I wanted the reassurance of his scent close to me for what was likely to be a stressful event. He smiled at me, affectionately and indulgently. He pulled the hoodie off and I copied him, exchanging items and donning the soft hoodie. It was still warm from his body heat and his scent comforted me.
“Ready?” he asked.
“As I'll ever be,” I confirmed.
He opened the front door and we entered. The home looked much as it had the last time I'd been inside, and yet it wasn't as warm as I recalled. I felt a momentary sadness that it would never be as it had once been. It's interesting how places themselves may not change but our perceptions or emotions about them may.
“Ehren!” Piper called as she got up from the couch and crossed to me. She smiled and gave me a hug and I returned it.
“Hi, Piper,” I greeted her and smiled. I'd once helped her out of a bad situation and she'd never wavered in her determination to be there for me, as well. She was a stand up person.
Behind Piper her parents stood, her father pointing the remote and cutting off the TV.
“The prodigal boy returns,” Mrs. Malone said with a little smile. “This calls for pie. Come on everyone.”
I thought that an odd greeting and my nerves only grew more keyed up. Piper pulled me along with Tris trailing behind, complaining in amusement how I belonged to him, not his sister. With a sense of trepidation I sat at the dining room table between Piper and Ehren. It didn't go unnoticed by me that they flanked me like guards. To keep me in place or to protect me, I wondered?
“I happened to find these on sale today and couldn't pass them up,” Mrs. Malone announced as she placed two pies on the table. “Blueberry and Strawberry-Rhubarb. Don't frown, Tris, you can have the Blueberry.”
Paper plates were handed out and pie was sliced and served. Something was off, though. There was a tension around the table. I knew it was the chasm that lay between myself and the elder Malones. Glancing at Tris I girded myself and turned to address his parents.
“Thank you for the dessert. It's good,” I said.
“You're welcome. Like I said, I couldn't pass it up,” his mother replied.
“How are you settling in with school?” his father asked.
“It's a big adjustment,” I admitted unwillingly.
“I can imagine. When were you last in school? Do you recall?” he asked.
I blinked a few times as I thought. “I'm not sure, actually.”
“We tried to tell Tristan to temper his expectations. Catching up at this point is a tall order for anyone, let alone with the lack of schooling you've had.” His mother forked her pie and I felt like she'd just dismissed me, somehow.
“Ehren is smart. He's doing very well,” Tris stated with a little venom in his voice. I got the feeling this wasn't the first time she'd expressed this opinion.
“Well, no doubt,” his father said. “All the same, you have to look at things realistically. These subjects, like math, they build on each other year after year. If you don't understand what came before it makes what comes after all the more difficult.”
“He's working hard,” Tris said firmly.
“Why are you criticizing?” Piper asked in a hurt tone. “You haven't seen Ehren in forever, can't you be nice?”
Mrs. Malone pursed her lips and put her fork down. Moments later her husband did the same. Mrs. Malone glanced at her kids and then settled her gaze on me. “I guess we should deal with the elephant in the room.”
I set my fork down as well. I hadn't really had much of an appetite, but now it had vanished entirely. In fact my stomach clenched and felt like liquid was sloshing freely around my insides.
Directing his attention to me Mr. Malone spoke in a reasonable, slightly condescending tone. “I know you're been angry with our decision to call CPS when you were here last. My wife and I have talked about that whole situation and I know it wasn't ideal for anyone.”
I drew my brows together. “Ideal?”
“Sure,” he said with a nod. “Ehren, look, we like you. We both do. We're fond of you and I know our kids are, too. As much as that is true, we also have to look at the reality of the situation we find ourselves in.”
“Wait, what situation is that?” Tris asked warily. “He saved Pipes. He's in school, working hard and he's my boyfriend. What is there beside that?”
“Yeah,” Piper chimed in. “Ehren put his life on the line for me. Where is this going?”
Mrs. Malone looked at us all steadily. “We all have different roles to play. We understand and are grieved to know Ehren's parents failed in their role. Our role, however, is still to be the adults and set boundaries and act in our children's best interests.” She paused and fixed her gaze on me. “Piper put herself in a bad situation. A horrible one. I'm forever grateful that you had the strength of character to step in and prevent a...I don't even know what to call it. It's too horrible to think about.”
“However,” her husband said, picking up the conversation. “The reality is that you led a very dangerous life, Ehren. You brought that danger into our home. Our children lied to us to protect you. I know why they did it and, to an extent, I understand. We aren't heartless. But, frankly, we have to look out for our kids and we'd call CPS again if we were in that position. You have to look at this from our point of view.”
“Do I?” I asked in a soft voice. “Even knowing why your children hid the truth and shielded me, that still didn't amount to talking to me first? I'd lived under your roof, eaten your food. You couldn't ask me first?”
“Firstly, we didn't need permission,” Mrs. Malone said and her children groaned aloud at her. She frowned and raised her voice. “Secondly, we were already being lied to. Why should we have trusted that you'd be honest with us? Our kids come first and, while I'm sorry for the way things went, I'll do what I have to to protect my kids from anyone – you included.”
Tears pricked my eyes as Tris stood and screamed at his parents. He was saying something about how I'd come to make peace just for him, but I couldn't process all he was saying. Piper soon joined him and the room was filled with raised voices. It was chaos. It felt like my parent's home and panic rose in me. This was my fault. If I hadn't come, none of this would have happened. Maybe his mother was right and Tris needed protecting from what I represented. Overwhelmed I stood quickly, knocking over my chair as I did so. It made a big cracking noise as the chair back hit the wooden floor and eyes momentarily turned to me.
I couldn't look at his parents. They'd made it clear I wasn't okay. I couldn't stand for them to continue this line of thinking, this argument to it's logical ending; that I wasn't good enough for Tris. I knew that, of course. I'd known all along. My own parents hadn't cared enough to care for me, why should the Malones? I turned my gaze to Tris, whose face was still mildly contorted with anger.
“It's okay,” I said to him, my voice a whisper in contrast with the yelling that had filled the air moments ago. “I'll go.”
“No. No! This isn't right!” Tris said, raising his voice again. Turning to his parents he growled, “Apologize.”
“Excuse me?” His parents voices overlapped.
The shouting resumed and I felt lower than I had at any point since Carson had pointed the gun at me and calmly told me I was about to die. Feeling the grief, the anger, the sense of overwhelming loss crash through me I turned and ran. I ran through the front door and into the street. I pushed myself hard and crashed through back yards and across streets, blindly running. I fell, scraped my hands and then regained my feet and pushed on. I pumped harder and faster, my mind screaming a senseless jabber that I was afraid to interpret.
I finally slowed, my breath coming in heaving gasps. I kept walking, leaving the housing developments behind and crossing into the downtown area. Perhaps by sheer luck I found myself back at the bookstore and climbed the stairs with lead filling my every step. Instead of a place to lick my wounds I found Beth – the one of these two women who was most likely to lean hard on me.
“Ehren? I didn't expect you home. Good timing, though,” she said as she crossed the room from the kitchen. “I just got off the phone with the school counselor. What do you think you're doing with her, exactly?”
Sullenly I put my hands in the pockets of my hoodie – Tristan's hoodie. “I don't like her. She's a nosy bitch.”
Beth's nostrils flared. “Do not call her that. She has a job to do and you have some cooperation to bring to the table.”
It was just more than I could handle. Maybe it is just proof of my weakness, my damage. I crumbled at the Malone's and I just didn't have the strength to argue here, either. Impotent rage coursed through me and I turned from her and slammed the door behind me.
“Fine!” I yelled as I slammed the door, but it was kind of open to interpretation, I guess. Fine I'd cooperate? Fine I wouldn't call her a bitch? I didn't have the answer. I didn't have any answers to anything. I ran down the stairs two at a time, ignoring the sound of Beth calling me back, muted behind the closed door. I quickly crossed the sales floor of the bookstore I lived over and, with annoyance, paused to lock the door behind me. Then, for the first time that week, I was free.
By instinct I went to where I'd last been safe and in control. That's how I found myself at my old home, now a demolished wreck. That was how I'd gone digging for my old life, before the hurt of losing Tristan Malone, before his scent comforted me.
It was only then that the sobbing hit me. A horrible, bottomless canyon of loneliness swallowed me whole. I'd never really grieved for my parents, but now I felt the loss of them and their betrayal keenly. Like a wound reopened the pain of the elder Malones judgment twisted in my side. My heart, never before left unguarded, broke – but not cleanly. Ragged pieces felt as if they were burning and then freezing in my chest.
I'd lost Tristan as surely as if Carson had pulled the trigger. His parents would never let us be together.
It was late by the time I arrived back at Beth and Emily's apartment. I crossed through the darkened bookstore and climbed the steps up to the living area. I was startled as they both cried out at once.
“Ehren! Thank God!
“Where the hell have you been?”
I frowned at them as they both rose from the couch and surrounded me.
“My God, what happened to your hands?” Emily asked as he lifted one of my hands. I pulled back as Beth frowned at me.
“You're filthy. Don't you know how worried we were? What happened to you?”
I looked down at my hands, scratched from digging through the broken concrete blocks of my bulldozed home.
“Tris called. Are you okay, Ehren?” Emily asked.
I looked at her and felt my eyes pricking again. “I went to get my cooler. My books are still inside but...the building it's.” I hesitated. “It's, um, gone. They tore it down. I couldn't get my books.”
“Of all the – Ehren! You live over a bookstore! How could you—” Beth was cut off by Emily.
“Beth.” The one word stilled Beth's tirade and she closed her eyes and let out a long breath. Turning her gaze to me Emily asked gently, “Why did you go for those books now, sweetheart? Why are they so important? You have lots of books, now.”
I put my scratched up hands into the pocket of my hoodie. “I needed them. I wanted my stuff,” I replied. I didn't know why I felt that, but it was true. I'd felt a need to have my stuff.
Emily nodded gently. “Tris said we'd need to give you a ride to school in the morning. I guess his parents took away the car keys from Piper.”
Nodding as if I were in a daze I said, “I tried. I went to them. It didn't go well.”
“Yeah. We know,” Beth said and abruptly hugged me. “Go take a shower and lets get these clothes into the wash. Go to bed, you must be exhausted.”
Part of me bristled and wanted to rebel against her telling me what to do, but it's what I'd planned to do anyway. I didn't have the gumption left to fight anymore so I just headed for the bathroom with out replying or even nodding. Listlessly I undressed and showered. I was disappointed that I felt no better afterward; usually a shower does wonders for me. I brushed my teeth, if only to avoid Beth's admonitions, and went to bed.Next Chapter Previous Chapter