Mason appeared and we all headed down to the cars. Ris and Valerie were on their way, and moments later Mason and I were cruising over toward my house.
“Park a block or so away,” I told him. “I want to see if his car is there, first.”
Mason obediently pulled the car to the curb nearly a block away from my house on the opposite side of the street. We both looked at the house, and I didn't see any cars.
“Looks clear,” he said and let his foot off the brake.
“Stop!” I snapped and the car jerked to a halt. He looked at me in confusion and I unbuckled my seat belt. “Stay here. I'll go in and get my stuff. If something weird happens, I don't want you involved any more than you are.”
“Weird? Like that?”
“Like if he stashed his car somewhere so I wouldn't see it,” I said grimly and climbed out. I looked back into the car. “Stay here. I need to know where to run to if I need to.” I stared at his worried expression for a moment until I was sure he'd do as I asked. If anything went wrong I'd have my hands full getting my own ass out without trying to save Mason too. I crossed the street, trying to look everywhere at once. I don't know why I felt so nervous – the damn car wasn't there. It made no difference – the hairs on my neck were standing up, and my nerves got more high strung with each step closer to my house.
The house had always felt like a trap waiting to be sprung. The tension was ramped up to eleven and my skin crawled with the idea of going in. Everything inside me screamed to turn and run, but I had to get my stuff. School was my way out. I also felt a twisted responsibility to set an example of sorts for Mason. I wasn't going to be able to look out for him everywhere, and as much as I love the guy, he needs looking after.
Finally on the stoop, I opened the front door. The familiar stench of cigarettes, pot smoke and stale puke greeted me. I glanced into the living room and spotted my mother, passed out on the couch with a glass just out of her reach on the floor. The glass was on its side, so she'd likely dropped it when she'd passed out. I headed to my room quickly and only glanced over my shoulder when Tina opened her door. I didn't stop to talk.
Inside my room I was irritated to find my bag opened and my books on the floor, as if someone had rifled through it. I set about putting things away quickly, though my hands were shaking. I grabbed one hand with the other and closed my eyes, taking deep breaths as I tried to steady my nerves. Suddenly I felt angry. The loss of control, the mindless fuckery going on because of the toxic history in this building was setting me up to fail here. I gritted my teeth and stuffed my school laptop roughly in the bag. I nearly cried out when my door opened. I whipped my head around, but it was just Tina.
“Jesus, Tina,” I snapped and turned back to my bag.
“Dad told me to text him if you showed up. I'm not stupid enough to defy him, but...you should hurry.” I turned to look at her in horror as she grimaced. “I've never seen him so angry.”
In a panic I shoved the rest of my stuff in the bag, crossed the room to grab my charger and then inexplicably paused to look at my room, which still felt foreign with Jackson's stuff gone. Something I didn't know still lived in me, a little boy, wailed about this not being fair! This was supposed to be my home! With effort, I crossed the room and opened my door just as I heard the front door open. My father! Fear spiked in me and I closed the door and dashed across the room to my window. I grabbed the edge of the metal frame and pulled, but it wouldn't move! Stunned I yanked harder, but the window seemed jammed in the frame. And then it was too late.
My door burst open and I whirled to see my father standing in the doorway, face contorted and body tense with unreleased anger. His eyes promised violence.
“I told you I needed a shotgun.”
I knew better than to tell him my answer was still no. It wouldn't change anything. Even agreeing to go now, right this minute, wouldn't change anything. There would be blood, now. Pain. Something broken, maybe. I doubted there would be a death, but it was small comfort at the moment. It would be an endless cycle, him demanding I go and me saying no until something broke permanently. That was for later, though. I had this to deal with now.
He took two large steps and I tried to dodge around him. His fingers scraped off the back of my bag and I raced for the door, hope blossoming uncontrollably as the door loomed before me. Then his entire weight crashed into me, crushing me into the door. He spun me around and I dropped my bag and raised my hands to defend myself. His first punch glanced off my cheek, but it was the distraction. His other fist balled right into my solar-plexus and my wind rushed out of me. I sagged as he rained blows over my body, but they barely registered. My vision swam and small dots filled my vision as I gasped for breath.
Dimly I realized I had dropped to my knees, but his barrage hadn't slowed, only switched from hands to feet. One of my eyes had narrowed so that my vision was but a slit, and wet warmth burst forth from my nose. My eyes watered and a stinging sensation settled in across the saddle of my nose. Any plans I'd had of fighting him off had curdled, stillborn. I was beaten. I took a breath, and then another, slowly regaining that vital ability. Pain began to register all over my body. He grabbed my chin between his thumb and forefinger, cruelly digging his fingertips and nails in to force my gaze to his face.
“This is how it's going to go, Ethan Andrew,” he said, gasping for breath from his exertions. “You're quitting school. You're going to work for me. I get eighty percent of your take. The next time I have to straighten you out, I'll put you in the dirt. We clear?”
My mind went blank, then things got weird. I heard a voice that sounded like mine saying how wrong all this was, that it couldn't be happening. My own father did not just kick my ass and tell me I was joining his dead-end criminal wannabe-empire. Another voice, that also sounded like me, sneered and said I should have seen this coming and there was no use sniveling about it. I needed to get my ass up and get working before my old man actually did kill my worthless ass, or worse.
I heard two more voices in my head. Mason telling me to run. And Nathaniel, telling me to pick a better weapon.
I was brought back to the present by my father shoving my head back into my door hard enough for my head to break through into the hollow core. My vision swam again.
“We clear?” my father repeated.
“C-clear,” I managed. He grabbed my hair and twisted viciously and I whimpered in pain.
“We better be. I'm going to deal with your mother, then we're leaving.” He tossed my head back and kicked me away from the door as he left the room. I was stunned with pain and indecision, pondering my next move. Should I turtle and hope for the best? No. I'd end up like Jackson. He already thought of me as disposable. I had to leave. I planted my hand on the floor and my arm collapsed, unable to support my weight. I groaned, wondering what had happened to that arm that I couldn't remember. I shifted on my hips and used my other arm to support me as I climbed shakily to my knees. I rested my butt against the wall as I hunched over, unable to fully straighten yet. I lurched and nearly fell as my door opened again, but it was only Tina.
“Shit,” she muttered.
“Fuck you. Get away from me,” I gasped. Jesus it hurt to breathe.
“I had no choice,” she snapped.
I turned my head toward her and she recoiled at the sight. “There's always a choice. Get away from me.”
She backed out and I straightened, groaning as I did so. I gritted my teeth and picked up my bag with the hand that didn't feel so useless. I limped to the window and examined it, and spotted the reason it wouldn't open. Someone had drilled a screw through the frame. I debated for a moment. My father was busy for a few minutes. His euphemism of dealing with my mother meant sex. Rape. She wasn't aware, most of the time, that he'd raped her. Or maybe it was why she drank so much. I never understood why she hadn't ever left, and I resented that she'd never tried to save any of her children. Perhaps she was incapable of saving herself. I had no time to consider it now.
With a grunt I heaved my bag into place, swung it twice in a loop and let it go, letting it sail through the window with a crash. Fear lanced through me at the noise and I climbed unsteadily onto the bed to push large pieces of glass away as fast as I could. I got frustrated and panicked, so I grabbed my pillow to place along the jagged rail and heaved myself out. I bit back a scream as the pressure on my chest became excruciating. I landed awkwardly and pain lanced up from the arm that was already damaged. I grabbed my bag and scrambled to my feet, whimpering in pain as I did.
I heard my door slam open and I lurched away from the house in a painful, shambling gait. There was no time to sit and wait, hoping he'd assume I was gone. He'd know I was hurt, easy prey. Fear pushed adrenaline through my veins and I tried to ignore the pain as best I could and ran for Mason's car. I didn't have it in me to hide out or dodge, nor did I think I had the time. I stayed in the shadows, but that failed me. I heard him yell my name when he spotted me, and his tone promised that I was done.
I heard the scream of tires and I looked up in a panic. Headlights put a spotlight on my father, yet he veered away from the front of the vehicle as it crossed two lawns and slid to a halt a few feet away from me. Mason! I threw myself forward the final few feet and jerked the door open. He didn't wait for me, just punched the gas and the engine roared as his tires dug into the dirt. Forward motion made my door slam shut, then the tires caught on pavement and we accelerated away from my father.
I glanced behind us to see if there were headlights from a pursuing vehicle, but I didn't see anything yet.
“Ethan! Your...face. Fuck,” Mason groaned.
I let my head drop against the cushioned rest and mumbled, “Just watch in case...he follows.” Then everything went dark for a moment, but that was okay. Mason would look out for me.
Mason did not look out for me. I glared at that spineless fuck as his parents stood in the corner while a nurse checked me over and a guy from Social Services waited patiently next to a Sheriff's Deputy. I'd tried to fight him off as he'd dragged me into the Emergency Room, but my father had gotten more than his fair share of shots in, and I hadn't been able to get Mason off me.
The nurse looked down at me and spoke levelly. “Doctor wants x-rays of the arm and chest, although he's pretty sure the ribs are cracked at the least. That wrist will probably improve over the next few days, but we'll make sure it's just a bruise. We'll also MRI the knee to be sure there is no other damage but a bruise, though you may need something to assist you with walking for a short time. ”
“Make it something heavy I can swing,” I snarled while shooting deadly looks at Mason. The nurse, probably tired of my attitude, stood while pursing her lips and left. She was replaced by the deputy and social worker, both of whom had made minor introductions on their arrival but had stood aside during the exam. They had both spoken to the assembled Gerhardts in the meantime, where I'm sure Mason had spilt his guts. It was disturbing to see the Gerhardts together; the parents couldn't stand each other, and I couldn't imagine what would have brought them both here.
I glared at the social worker and the deputy.
“Well, quite a night,” the social worker said, placing a bound folio on the small bedside table and opening it to display a legal pad. He pulled a pen out and glanced at me. “Ethan Andrew Miller, sixteen of,” he glanced at the other side of his folio, “4418 Grand Parkway Drive.” He snorted and looked at me. “Pretentious name.”
“Ethan and Andrew are about as normal as you can get, not to mention the commonality of Miller,” I replied stonily.
“I meant the street,” he said, smiling slightly. “My friend Deputy Winchell is here to work with me, considering the nature of your injuries, your status as a minor and the...fate of your twin.”
I glared harder, willing his head to cave in at best, or for him to go away at the least.
“Let me lay out a few things for you,” Deputy Winchell said, his tone bored. “We're pressing charges against your father for what he did to you. We don't need you for that. He has ties that run a bit deeper, so the more you help us, the more we can help you.”
“I got hit in the head. I don't remember anything,” I said and smiled at him.
He fixed me with his gaze. I realized the bored look wasn't being faked. He knew – or believed – that this was a lost cause. “The district attorney can help you. You may want to think about it over the next few days. I know the son of a criminal would rather protect the criminals than the innocent people they hurt, but that's the message I was told to give you.”
“You. Know. Nothing.”
He lifted his chin a little. “I doubt that. I'll give you some time, but the DA won't hold forever. I think he should toss your ass in juvie rather than letting you bunk with your little buddy,” he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the Gerhardts. “A few days of you siding with the criminals will help me get my way. You have a good night, now.”
The deputy left and I glared a hole in his back the whole way.
The social worker cleared his throat politely and I looked at him. “The doctors will get you patched up tonight. Given the Gerhardts are...family friends, you will be in their custody for the short term.” He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “May I level with you, Mr. Miller?”
I looked at him steadily, then gave him a sharp nod.
He sighed. “From my perspective, your family has a long history of being on the wrong side of the law. On my way here I called your principal, because I think it's my responsibility to deal with each child in my charge as an individual. You may not be able to imagine my surprise when she told me what an asset to the school she feels you are.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Well, maybe you can imagine,” he said, a weak smile flitting across his mouth. He compressed his lips and sighed. “You are in a difficult spot, I know. The police still have an open file on your brother – and I'm sorry for you to have lost him. I don't think that could have been easy.”
I glanced away from him.
“The facts are if you don't help them out, they will get a judge to put you into juvenile detention. It's a warping of the system, but I believe their argument will be that you are in fact part of the criminal element rather than a victim of it, as I happen to think.”
“I'm no one's victim,” I snapped.
He nodded slowly. “As you say.” He paused. “I urge you to consider helping them. They may be able to free you far more effectively than you could on your own.” He pulled a card from his folio, laid it on the tabletop and closed his folio. “I'm not going to push you tonight. I think you've been through enough – been threatened enough – even if you don't think so. I can see you're a very resilient young man. I admire that, and I think you'll need it in the days to come.” He paused, then pushed the business card closer to me. “My name is Gerald Feeny. Here is my card. You may contact me at any time. I will visit you at the Gerhardt residence Wednesday evening. I hope you feel better.”
He stood and collected his things before walking over to Mason's parents. He'd left me with mixed feelings, if nothing else because he'd been respectful. Was he the good cop to the Deputy? Mason slipped into view and I frowned.
“I'm not sorry,” he stated firmly. “I know how you feel about other people knowing, getting involved – I get it, but I made the call when you passed out. You want to be pissed, fine. But I'll take alive, pissed off Ethan over dead Ethan.”
“I wouldn't have died,” I said with a snort and winced as my nose flared in pain. “Drama queen,” I muttered.
He touched my shoulder, but I didn't look at him. “You're my best friend. Mine. Be cranky. I'm good with it.”
My retort was cut off as a nurse strode in purposefully and smiled at me. “I think you're my x-ray patient. Ethan Miller?”
“Yeah,” I grumbled. He was unaffected by my tone and proceeded to take the brake off my bed and tell the Gerhardts that I'd be back in a bit. He wheeled me down busy corridors, following a blue line on the floor that took us to the imaging department. It took about ten minutes to get me to the machine and it was interminable as I had to wiggle into positions for them to get 'good pictures'. I was taken to an MRI next, but had to wait about twenty minutes for whoever was working that machine to come back from a break. The machine was weird – like being put in a big tube, and it kept banging repeatedly. I was tired, though, and the pain meds must have started to kick in, because I nodded off twice.
By the time I got out of the hospital it was after three in the morning, probably closer to four. I went to the Gerhardts’ and shrugged off Mason's attempts to help me up the stairs. “I can manage,” I growled.
“Take the bed,” Mason said.
“I can sleep-”
“On the fucking bed is where you can sleep,” Mason snarled at me. “Get comfortable, get in there and I'll get some water for your pain meds. Most ungrateful best friend ever,” he grumbled as he walked away. I scowled, but decided it wasn't worth it. I pulled off my clothes and left them to fall to the floor, although it was neither a quick process nor a comfortable one. I rolled onto the bed and lay on my back, looking up at the ceiling. I must have nodded off again because I didn't hear Mason come back into the room. It wasn't until he sat down beside me, making the mattress move, that I stirred.
“It's just me,” he said, his voice pitched low.
I looked at him, too tired to fight. “What?” I asked in a scratchy voice.
“I brought your pills. I didn't want you to wake up in pain. Do you want to take them now, or take them when you wake up?”
I sighed. “Now,” I croaked. “I want to be able to sleep.”
“Okay.” He handed me the pills and I struggled to sit up enough to pop them in my mouth and sip from the bottle he offered me. I lay back down, sore, and groaned a little.
“I'll be on the futon, okay? Just holler if you need anything.”
I felt bad. I wasn't happy with his decision, but I couldn't change that now. Much as I disliked the circumstances, he'd done what he thought was best to care for me. Loyalty. “Stay. Until I sleep.”
“Yeah. Okay,” he said and stretched out beside me. His arm was close enough for me to feel his body heat, or so I imagined. I didn't turn to look, but closed my eyes instead.
“I'm sorry,” I whispered.
I may have stunned him into silence. I don't remember the last time I apologized to anyone, not outside of something commonplace like bumping into someone. He'd been in a bad spot with me banged up. He didn't come from my mentality of keeping people out. I wanted to look, but I was too tired and something would hurt if I did.
“I'm going to assume that was the drugs,” he said softly. “Don't worry, you can go back to being grouchy when you wake up. I won't hold it against you.”
Now I was irritated so I rolled my head toward him. He was stretched out with his head on his hand, looking down on me with what could only be called a fond expression.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I demanded, rather than repeat myself.
“I can't remember ever getting to pay you back for every time you've dragged my ass out of the fire.”
I snorted. Ow!
“Plus, I better make sure you're okay or Nathaniel might bash my kneecaps or something,” he said and chuckled.
“Dick.” I held my nose for a moment, as if it would help ease the sharp bite of pain from my snorting a moment ago.
He chuckled some more and I cracked a smile. Abruptly he said, “I hope he is your stalker. You need someone like that who is completely, fanatically loyal. Someone you know will have your back every step.”
“I have you,” I said quietly.
“Yeah but...I'm never going to swing that way. I'd give you a kidney, Eth, but I can't ever lie to you. You know that.” I didn't like the look he was giving me. The expression was embarrassingly open. It wasn't just fondness. The fucker truly cared for me. Shit, are we going to share feelings now?
I looked back up at the ceiling. “What makes you think I'd want that?”
“I'm not your best friend for nothing, that's why.”
As he so often did, he ignored me. “That was fucking scary, Ethan. I've never seen anyone look at another person the way he looked at you. He was going to end you. There was blood all over your face.”
I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my breathing, but instead I was focused on his. Not wanting him to leave. My father couldn't get to me, not right now. I still felt safer...better with Mason close. Closer than the goddamn futon. Mason was also lying between me and the door, something I know wasn't an accident. Fucked up as it was, I was sure about Mason. I was reasonably sure about Ris, as well. It wouldn't work, especially with Mason.
“Get changed. Stay with me.”
He was quiet for a moment then rolled off the bed. I heard cloth sliding over skin as he dressed down, then the bed shifted again as he climbed back in. “I want to get under the blanket.”
I shifted slowly as he tugged the sheet and blanket until we were both covered. I started slightly when one of his fingers brushed next to mine, and then he laid his hand beside my own – touching, but not holding.
“I'm right here.”
“I know where you are,” I said, feeling needy and crabby.
“My parents want to talk to you tomorrow. They want you here. They're talking about getting you a lawyer.” He paused and huffed out a laugh. “I think they like me better with you here.”
“Don't be stupid,” I told him harshly. “Your parents love you; they're just shit about handling it. They like me because I turn into a conduit they don't know how to make with you. They fucking love you.”
“Yeah. They love me more with you here.”
“They're going to try and keep you. I hope you know that.”
I stayed quiet, not sure what to say and not being happy about not knowing. Mason fell blessedly silent, though it took me a long time to sleep because of my injuries. My chest was sore from the cracked ribs, which needed time to heal and nothing more. My right knee was bruised, but no more serious than that. I had cuts and bruises, though thankfully my nose hadn't broken, even if it felt like it had. My wrist was just sore. I suppose I'd looked pretty scary when I'd tumbled into Mason's car. I hated the extra mess, but maybe it would have happened regardless. Either way this ride was just getting started.
I was startled when Mason spoke in the darkness, very low and obviously thinking I'd fallen asleep.
“I love you, Eth. I hope you'll let us help you.”
I pushed my hand against his, but didn't speak. I didn't know what to say. That, too, was annoying. Later that night I woke with a lingering nightmare nibbling at my sluggish mind. My father had not only caught me, but he'd caught Mason. I knew then decisions were going to be made for me and I was going to have to play things very smart in order to survive.
“More or less we want to give you some food for thought, Ethan,” Mr. Gerhardt said, his wife seated beside him. “We always assumed your home life was much better. Now that we know, and of course with you and Mason being so close, we feel compelled to step up.”
“We think that-” Mrs. Gerhardt began, but I couldn't stomach them.
“Stop.” I was glad Mason wasn't in the room, because he'd be completely against what I was about to say. “If we're going to talk, let's get everything on the table. You want me here because you don't know how to talk to your own son.”
Mrs. Gerhardt's face hardened. “This may not have occurred to you, Ethan, but teenagers rarely seek out their parents unless they are in trouble. Considering the...issues Conrad and I have between us, it hasn't been easy for Mason.” Her gaze stayed strong even as her voice softened. “Do I talk to you to try and know how my son is? Yes. I'll use every avenue I have.”
“How about talking to him?” I snapped. “He thinks you just like him more when I'm around. He's a good – you're going to lose him if you keep this up. Not only that, he'll start to resent me being here because of that.”
“I'm doing the best I can, damn it!” she snapped at me. “It might look simple to you from where you're sitting, but it's not. It's great to be a child and see everything in black and white, but you don't know everything, Ethan.”
“I know how my best friend feels,” I growled.
Mr. Gerhardt covered his mouth with his hand, almost as if he were hiding a smile. I looked at him with an eyebrow raised.
“Ethan,” he said, a little garbled until he moved his hand. Then he took on an icy tone, completely at odds with his behavior. “You've always been a direct young man, so let me spell a few things out for you. This conversation isn't about our marriage or our relationship with our son. This is about getting you through this process. When we come out of the other end we can hear what you have to say, because you're staying here. You're going to contribute to the household. Yes, you're going to facilitate some...communication, and I don't apologize for that.” He sighed. “You have to understand that your issues take priority right now.”
“Not today they don't,” I said evenly. I forestalled them even as they both opened their mouths. “My father is in jail, likely until tomorrow given it's Sunday. I have medication and the only thing for me to do is rest, heal and do homework. I appreciate you sticking your necks out for me, but I don't matter. Not here. He matters. He should be number one here.”
“Sometimes, Ethan, you're a real asshole,” his mother said.
I looked at her, focused like a laser. “He's my best friend. That means everything to me.”
His father cleared his throat. “We'll revisit this Tuesday night. We all need to be on the same page before the social worker comes.”
I nodded and stood up. “Thank you. For this.” It was hard to choke that out. Thanking anyone wasn't something I did often. Not outside of a rote reply. I went upstairs and was annoyed to find Mason sitting on the stairs, out of view but spying easily.
“Stalker,” I muttered as I passed him by.
“No one tells me anything,” he whined, falling in behind me. I was grateful he didn't bring up any of the conversation he'd spied on. Instead we sat down and gamed most of the afternoon away. It wasn't comfortable, by any means; my aches and pains were annoyingly consistent. I napped at one point, pain meds making me blissfully unaware. After dinner I sat down to do my homework, but the elder Gerhardts shuffled me into a vacant bedroom that also had a desk and told me it was my room for the duration. I felt very alone without Mason, which was annoying. It seemed my world was reduced to constant irritation. Rather than admit that, I left the door open so Mason would come to me.
He waited a while, trying to avoid doing his homework – but I'm more patient than he is. I'll drag him to graduation kicking and screaming if I have to. I reflected on that as I waited, given I had nothing better to do than to be annoyed at my situation and be uncomfortable. Provoking his parents had probably been the wrong thing to do, but I already felt the seeds of his discontent stirring when his parents chose to get information on him through me. If need be I'd leave – whatever it took to preserve my friendship with him.
I can't explain his parents any more than I can my own. I don't know why his parents were still together, or why they were unable to carry on a conversation with him one on one – or worse, how they'd gotten that way. My own parents were even worse, though I guess that could be subjective. His were neglectful emotionally, whereas mine were neglectful in many other ways, as well as being physically abusive.
I suppose my difficulty reading people makes me hold them at arm’s length, except Mason and Ris. I don't understand why people are such massive assholes, and all I can think to do is take those that mean anything to me and hide with them. Keep us all safe. Safe, however, is elusive. I was pulled from my brooding by Mason stepping into the room and frowning.
“I don't like this. Come to my room.”
“Homework gets done in either room,” I said mildly.
He frowned some more. “I changed my mind. Stay here.”
I stood and jutted my chin out at him. He sighed, giving up the pretense.
“Fine. You're a pain in the ass, you know.”
“I know.” But he got it done, and he's going to pass, damn it.