“What? You look like something just made sense.”
I looked at Mason, but wasn't ready to talk about it yet. “How's your head?”
He frowned, knowing I was putting him off. “Okay, mostly. Little fuzzy, could use some food.”
I brightened for the first time. “Waffles?”
He gave me the stink eye. “You're not even hung over. Why are you suggesting hangover food?”
“I could tell your mom how much you actually drank,” I suggested.
He snorted. “You? Never. Not even a real threat, brother mine.” He paused. “Tell you what, though. I'll make those waffles if you tell me what was going on in your head a second ago.”
I twisted my lips up as I thought. “It's just a theory. I'll tell you, in exchange for waffles, and you putting some damn clothes on.”
He flexed. “Don't you think I look good?”
“You always look good and you know it,” I told him sourly. I picked up my phone and ignored him, turning the power back on. I heard his drawers opening and closing as he selected clothes. I had a text from my mother that my father was looking for me. Great. I wondered when she sobered up, and why.
“Okay, waffles,” Mason said. I looked up, and he'd pulled on sweatpants and a tee, so I nodded and unplugged my phone before hopping off his bed to trail him to the kitchen. Mason's home was an architectural type I didn't know about – having said that, I don't have an expansive knowledge. If I had to guess I'd call it a modern mess. When you walked in the front door there was a sunken living room to your right and to the left a split set of stairs with one going up and the other down. If you took the flight up you reached two bedrooms and a bath, but another flight of stairs doubled back and there was a bedroom at the top of those stairs, which was Mason's room.
Branching off the living room was the kitchen and dining room, and the downstairs flight took you to an office in the back and the garage in the front, which stuck out of the front of the house like a tumor. His mother had moved into the office as a bedroom a year or so ago, not wanting to even be on the same floor as her husband. In the kitchen Mason started to pull out ingredients, and I plopped down on a stool at the breakfast bar. Mason was interested in food. Sometimes he'd get a wild hair going about some recipe he stumbled on, and I was his test subject.
“So,” he said as he worked, “tell me this theory.”
I shifted on the seat, leaning forward to rest my forearms on the counter. “It's more like an odd set of stuff that could be related, but I might be stretching, trying to make something fit.”
“Okay, still sounds interesting. Stop with the qualifications and tell me,” he said. I frowned as he glanced at me. “Hey, I'm making you waffles and I'm not naked. Either you start talking or I start stripping.”
“Okay, so,” I said and he burst out laughing.
“Really, E? The thought of seeing me naked makes you that motivated? Damn.”
I rolled my eyes. “So here's the pieces. We went back to school Tuesday, and that morning Kevin is a douche. Thursday I'm in the library with Ris and Valerie; Kevin shows up and he's a douche, loudly.”
“Loud in a library? Fucking barbarian, man,” Mason said with a shake of his head. “Did he say shit about Jackson again?”
“Yeah. Said I should have died instead.”
A small clatter brought my gaze to where Mason was working. He was looking at me wide eyed, his spoon lying flat on the counter top.
“He did not. That fucking fuck. I'll kill him myself.”
I suppressed the warm feeling at his defense. “So then I get that guy talking to me in the locker room, right?”
“Right,” he said, nodding tightly and picking up his spoon. The tension remained in his shoulders. “Guy said Kevin wouldn't be a problem anymore.”
I nod in agreement. “Then Ris tells me Kevin got attacked Thursday night, that his knee got bashed by someone.”
“Yeah. Wait, so the guy that talked to you probably fucked up Kevin, right?”
“That's kind of where I'm headed,” I said in agreement. The griddle sizzled as he poured batter onto it and closed the top.
“Okay, so what's the light-bulb? You think you figured out who did it?”
“Maybe,” I hedged. “See, Thursday at the library Ris and Valerie were complaining about this guy, Nathaniel. He was sort of stalking our table. He kind of disappeared whenever I looked up. I figured he was perving on the girls, you know?”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“But then last night, he was at the party. I didn't see him until you were grabbed up and I was looking for a weapon to try and break us out.” He remained silent about that, for which I was grateful. Mason frequently got down and would thank me embarrassingly. “When I grabbed a broom handle he berated me for my weapon choice and handed me a frying pan. He grabbed a liquor bottle. He cracked one guy on the knee, and I lost him in the mess after that.”
Mason frowned and looked over at me. “Wait, he just jumped in to help? Why?”
“I wondered that, too,” I replied. “After we'd gotten set up in that house, I went out because...well, I mean it was his choice and all, but I sort of felt obligated to see what had happened to him.”
Mason lifted an eyebrow and smiled, but refrained from comment. He was lucky. I'd slugged him for some of his comments in the past.
“Anyway, I found him – but not back at the party.”
“Wait, where was I?”
“Ethan!” he exclaimed, aghast. “You left me alone and you went out alone? Dude! You broke the rules!”
“I know,” I grumbled, guilt washing over me that I was unable to quash. “Berate me later – you want the story or not?”
His curiosity won out and he nodded at me to continue.
“So he was with a pack of people that were tearing out copper piping and wiring from the houses. Remember the holes in the house we hid out in? How the walls had all the those long, jagged holes in the sheet rock and stuff?”
His eyes grew a bit wider. “Yeah. Huh. There's money in that?”
“Tons. Scrap copper is pretty valuable. So I saw Nathaniel walking with that crew, so he's into some dirty things.” I paused and added, “Also, my father was at the party and with that crew. So Nathaniel is definitely into dirty things.”
“Shit, your father? That's never good,” Mason said as he scooped a waffle onto a plate and poured more batter. “I was hoping this Nathaniel guy was stalking you, man. Maybe all this is about protecting you so he can slip you the big D.”
I stared at him. “You're an idiot, Mase. I ever tell you that?”
“Daily,” he said agreeably. “But think about it – hey, wait. How does Kevin fit into this? I mean, if Nathaniel is the guy who....” He trailed off into thought.
“If it was Nathaniel,” I said slowly. “He's small—he couldn't take Kevin in a straight up fight. Ris said someone came out of hiding with a piece of wood or something like that and swung for the fences. No threats, no anything. If it was Nathaniel, he swung first because he needed the advantage.”
“Okay. Okay,” Mason said, looking up slightly as he thought. “Yeah. So, this Nathaniel guy overhears Kevin saying shit to you, and he fucks him up. I mean, it's overboard and maybe he's lovesick-”
“Mase,” I said in a tone of warning as I glared at him.
Oblivious, he continued, “or maybe just protective. So he eliminates Kevin as a problem for you, I guess, then he reports to you that Kevin won't be giving you problems anymore. Then he steps in that fight last night – not for me, but for you.” Mason looked at me. “So that would mean at the library, he was stalking you, not the girls.”
I stared at him for a few beats. “That's stupid,” I said. “If he was into me, he could just ask. He doesn't need to maim people to impress me.”
“I don't know,” he said as he scooped up the next waffle and poured the last of the batter onto the griddle. “It's kind of hot, knowing someone would go that far for you, right? I'm halfway willing to blow you for last night. I think he deserves some love, Eth.”
“Gimme my waffle,” I growled at him. He grinned and slid a plate over, then placed the syrup and butter crock on the counter. I made up my waffle and dug in. I love waffles, but not the frozen ones. These weren't his best waffles. A few times he's made them from scratch – his own mix, not even store bought mix – and they are like eating slices of heaven. I'm not sure why, but I love Mason cooking for me. Makes the rest of his idiocy easier to forgive. Like his theories about psychotic midgets stalking me, protecting me because they don't have the balls to ask me out. I mean, really?
Mason sat on the stool beside me and started in on his food.
“This is really good, Mase,” I said between bites. I stood. “Want some milk? OJ?”
“Juice,” he said with a bob of his head. I went to the fridge and grabbed milk and OJ – he wasn't that big on dairy – and poured glasses.
“So, I was thinking I'd invite Ris to hang out with us tonight,” he said hesitantly.
As I put the milk and OJ back in the fridge I glanced at him. “Cool. Why though?”
“Well. Maybe I'll ask her out. I'll go cold turkey on my fuck ups and-”
“No. Just...no,” I said, placing his glass beside his plate and plopping down beside him. “Cold turkey might work for a single thing. Like quitting smoking or drinking. Sometimes you have to do it that way. We're talking changing the way you think. You want to take my advice and treat her like a person? Good. Do that. Invite her to hang. Talk to her without the goal of sex. Take that step and stick with it, see if you like talking to her and hanging with her. Don't try to transform into someone you're not, or someone you're not ready to be yet. It'll hurt you both.”
His wide eyed look had calmed and he nodded slowly. “Hey, Eth. If you were going to change one thing about me – what would it be?”
I glanced at him and raised an eyebrow.
“Seriously. My intelligence? My looks? My attitude? What would you do to fix me? Make me better?”
I studied him for a moment, then looked down at my plate. I picked up my fork and cut a piece of waffle. I heard him scrape his plate as he went back to eating, assuming I wouldn't answer. The truth was Mason is a good person. His attempts to sleep around and his drinking were symptoms, not indicative of overall rot. I forked my next piece and said, in a low voice, “I'd ask you to quit drinking. It's going to kill you, one day. At the least, it's not helping you.” I pushed the food into my mouth and focused on the taste, the syrup mixed with the waffle and the buttery flavor trapped in each dimple of the waffle.
“You know what they call these holes in the waffle? Alveoli,” I said, not completely sure why.
“You know what I'd change about you?” he asked. Shit, that was why I was filling the silence, otherwise Mason would talk. “I'd change you not being able to take a compliment.”
“Like that,” he said.
“Ethan, you're awesome.”
I shoved him off his stool, and he crashed to the floor with a grunt, and then he started to laugh. “Okay, never mind – you're an asshole!”
“What was that noise – oh. I didn't know you boys were out here,” his mother said. Having spotted us she walked to the coffee maker and poured a cup from the pot, then slipped the cup into the microwave.
“Mason was being a jerk,” I reported.
“I was not!” he protested as he retook his seat.
She looked at us in amusement. “Thick as thieves, you two. Don't dent my house, okay?”
The microwave dinged and she took her cup, leaving us alone again.
“What do you want to do?” Mason asked.
“I need a shower,” I said. I glanced at him. “So do you.”
“Want to conserve water?” he teased.
“Want me to push you over again?” I challenged.
He chuckled. “We should seriously invite Ris to come hang with us. We can do a movie night – themed movie night, maybe.”
“Okay. I need to get my school bag from my house, maybe a few other things.”
“Okay. We can go after we get cleaned up.”
“Yeah, no,” I said, thinking it over. “I'm going to have to go late, after my dad is gone. He's got copper to steal tonight, so I need to wait until he's busy.”
“Yeah, good idea.”
After we put the stuff in the dishwasher, we headed up to his room. He let me go first, so he tossed me a clean pair of underwear and I headed down to the hall closet for a towel. The bathroom isn't crazy, despite being in a nice end of town, but it doesn't have the rust stains or the encroaching mold mine has so I like it better. After I cleaned up I pulled out the toothbrush that was kept for me under the sink and then I felt a bit more human. I headed back up, still damp in spots. Mason was ready to take my place.
“I invited Ris over. She's going to bring her friend Valerie – I guess they were hanging when I called, so....”
“Yeah, okay. Sounds fine.” He was looking at me, and I tilted my head. “Did you just shut off or something?”
“No. I was just...thinking. Is Valerie supposed to be here to hit on you or me?”
“My guess is she'll be here to watch a movie, because her friend wouldn't dump her to come hang with you,” I said dryly.
“Maybe,” he said, still sounding zoned out. He turned and headed down to the bathroom and I dug through his clothes to find some stuff I liked. I swear his mom has a second job that only finances buying clothes for Mason. He's got a whole closet full of stuff, plus a dresser. I could probably go home with half of it and he'd never miss any of it. I like the stuff his mom buys, too. Today I just snagged jeans and a long-sleeved tee, then rifled through his sock drawer until I found a new pair that he hadn't gotten to yet.
I sat on his futon and flipped the game system on, then noticed the blinking light on my phone. I checked the text message, which was Ris asking what Mason was up to.
Why do you protect him so much? It's like he's your little brother.
God protects fools and small children. He's somewhere in between.
So this is just a movie? Srsly?
Yep. I didn't bother telling her she knew I'd tell her if it was otherwise. Nothing undermines the truth more than pointing it out.
Mason came back in with his towel around his neck. “What should I wear?”
“But I want to look good,” he said, opening his closet.
“You always look good.”
“You're just saying that. Help me out, Eth.”
I sighed and got up. I pushed him out of the way and grabbed a light v-neck sweater in a shade of blue that made his eyes pop and one of his older pairs of jeans that hugged him well. “Think you can pick out socks and underwear?” I asked.
“Got that covered,” he said in a pleased tone. A few moments later he grabbed a controller and flopped down beside me. We gamed for about an hour and a half before the doorbell rang. He went downstairs and I switched the console over to a streaming service. I stood up and stretched before checking my phone again. It was getting low since I hadn't fully charged it before, so I plugged it into Mason's charger.
When the girls entered the room I could tell immediately that they were leaning toward this being a double date of some kind. Ris hadn't overdone it, but she'd definitely spent some extra time on her makeup, and her hair looked amazing, falling in long curls. Valerie had attached some hair extensions since I'd last seen her, and her head sort of looked like she had a dredlocked beehive on it. There was a bit of blond mixed in. It looked nice, but too fancy for what we were doing. I'll never understand folks with that much hair on their head – the weight alone.
Valerie had dolled up her makeup as well, but her clothes looked more comfortable than Ris's.
“I was telling Mason we'd have been here earlier, but he caught us while we were doing our hair,” Ris said to me.
“We went to the mall this afternoon and they were promoting this new makeup line,” Valerie said, taking over the narrative. “We got a full day of fun in. What do you think?”
She and Ris struck a few poses. I debate throwing water on things and making a comment like 'Oh, good, I thought you dressed up for us,' but decided against it.
“Looks pretty darn nice, ladies,” I said. They both smiled, and Mason entered the room with bags of snacks and a six pack of soda. The girls kicked off their shoes, I dragged over the blanket from Mason's bed, and we settled in together on the futon, Valerie to my left, Mason to my right and Ris on the end by Mason. I grew suspicious again. Mason surprised me by announcing a Disney movie marathon, starting with The Little Mermaid.
This led to a discussion about the controversy over a remake with a black actress playing the lead role. That shifted to most of us singing 'Under the Sea' along with the movie, and then moving on to Ris retelling the story about Kevin getting his knee beat on.
“You know what I think is weird about that?” Valerie said. “I hear Kevin wasn't even robbed. Whoever tore him up just said something to him after.”
“What do you mean?” Mason asked and I paid attention, wondering what I might glean.
Ris picked up the story. “Kayla told me that Kevin yelled and grabbed his knee, then she thought she saw blood and she got a little screamy. So then she said the guy that did Kevin, he just leaned in and said something to Kevin, but didn't go for his wallet or his weed or anything.”
I looked at Mason, whose eyes were wide. He opened his mouth and I spoke quickly.
If only that were enough to stop Mason.
“He threatened Kevin, I bet. I bet even more he told him to leave you alone.”
I groaned and threw myself against the back of the futon, which collapsed and dumped us all backward. There was considerable squawking, but not enough to distract the girls from homing in on me for an explanation. Mason, the big mouth, beat me to it.
“Nathaniel Benfield is in love with Ethan,” he said to them as he righted the back end of the futon.
“He is not! Jesus, Mason,” I snapped. “I don't know why you jump to that conclusion!”
“Wait, Nathaniel? Little guy that was stalking our table last week?” Valerie asked. “He was stalking you, not us?”
“There's no proof of that, just lazy speculation.”
“Tell them the rest,” Mason challenged me. “Let them vote.”
“I'm not a democracy!”
“What other story? Come on, details!” Ris said. I sighed. Knowing Mason would tell them anyway, I laid out the timeline and Nathaniel's admittedly unusual behavior. I even threw in my father and his bullshit as a distraction from this stupid idea of Nathaniel as some kind of psychotic protector.
“I admit, it sounds like a reach,” Ris said forlornly.
“Yeah,” Valerie said. “I mean, it's kind of romantic to think about – someone that would go to any extreme to keep you safe. At the same time, how emotionally stunted does a person have to be to do something like that? What other reason could there be?”
“I don't know, yet,” I admitted. “The thing is, there can be a ton of other factors – there must be – to explain this situation. I just don't have all the information. The fact he's hanging with those copper thieves is enough to make you wonder.”
“Huh.” Mason glanced at me.
“Well, it's not as much fun but...if he knows who your dad is, maybe your dad might use him to keep tabs on you? I mean, he's after you so....”
I frowned. “That doesn't really line up,” I said slowly as I thought it through.
“Yeah, why do that to Kevin, then? I mean, why do that at all?” Valerie asked.
“Simple,” I said absently. “Nathaniel is too small to fight him straight up, so he ambushed him. He could deliver a message or whatever after he'd disabled Kevin. I just can't get over how...vicious it was, though. There's no evidence it was him, really. What could be motivating this kid?”
“Your ass,” Mason deadpanned and I hit him with a Cheeto.
“If he weren't crazy, would you date a guy?” Ris asked.
I looked at her, wishing they'd get off my dating status. “I don't want to date anyone,” I said firmly.
“Anyone,” I said firmly.
“I get it,” Valeria said. “You're ACE.”
I stood up. “I'm not asexual. I have bigger things on my plate. Priorities. Can we get to a new movie or something?”
I left the room to hit the kitchen and find a drink besides soda. I stewed for a minute about the conversation, the prying into my life. I couldn't stay too long or someone well-meaning would come looking for me, but I didn't want to go up yet. No doubt they were all talking about my reaction, guessing about the truth of my words and generally gossiping without any regard for my desire for them to stop. I don't understand people that just jump into dating casually. I need to have a measure of being sure, of who they were inside. I knew who Mason and Ris were, and I knew I could trust them. I felt for them, even if I'd do nothing about it. I grabbed a glass of juice and headed back upstairs.
We watched two more movies, and by the end Valerie was asleep on me. Ris roused her and we all got ready to leave. Ris would drive Valerie home, and Mason would take me to get my bag and charger from my house.
Valerie was wiped out and went straight to the car, but Ris lingered while Mason was still inside.
“Hey, I'll make this short because I know it's not your thing to talk about yourself,” she said. “But I don't care who you love, as long as I'm one of them.”
“Who says I love you?” I asked.
“You do, every time you remind me of the truth about Mason. Speaking of, he seemed a little different tonight,” she said, not rising to my teasing.
Happy to shift away from me, even if relationships still wasn't a favorite topic, I nodded and said, “He's trying.”
“Optimistically? Because I told him to. Pessimistically? Because he wants to get laid. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and it's just that he sees value in trying to improve.”
She shook her head and looked back at the closed door. “I know he must be worth it or you wouldn't be friends with him. I just wish he'd hurry up and bring that good part out for me.”
I stayed silent. I wanted Mason to bring more of his positives to the fore as well. Matter of fact, I wanted him to realize he had positives outside his looks. He was intelligent and loyal underneath all his pain and self-destructive tendencies. I think it makes a difference if your parents hug you enough or say they love you, but I also know everyone is different. I reacted how I did to the way my parents are, and Mason reacts in his. It's allowed. I just wanted him to see the good parts of himself that were clear to me.