“Why? You love my waffles!”
“The cheerfulness, Mason! It's too early!” I groaned, waiting for my medicine to kick in and my various aches to grow more tolerable, which would leave me sore and stiff – but only when I moved.
“Waffles will make it all better,” he said, in the most irritating tone he could muster, I'm sure.
“Waffles is our weekend thing,” I protested.
“They'll cheer you up,” he said definitively. “I have a dumb question, though. It's been bothering me.”
I kept my snark to myself, pleased he wasn't being cheerful about asking questions. “What is it?”
He turned from the waffle iron to look at me. “Why did we have to go back? I mean, for your school books? The school laptop? Why did you need that stuff so badly?”
I stared at him for a second to see if he was serious. He was. “School is our way out, Mase. I get away from my family and all their criminal bullshit, and you come with me.”
He regarded me for a moment, a smile growing a little wider on his face by the second. Ugh. He tricked me. He slid a plate in front of me, and I buttered and syruped it to my satisfaction. My eyes opened wide when I tasted it.
“You made them from scratch!” I said, after I'd swallowed.
He smiled brightly and went back to cooking, rather than comment. I choked up just a bit knowing he'd gotten up and gone through the trouble just to buck me up. It was irritating to think everyone thought I'd need cheering, but that was Mason. Maybe I should just eat my waffle and be content for now. I didn't have to let him know – no sense getting carried away.
After some careful dressing I climbed gingerly into Mason's car. He'd offered to carry my bag, and I'd hit him with it. He told me that's what any old lady would have done, hit him with her bag. I'm going to kill him one day. Painfully.
I got a few stares as we stood outside waiting for the doors to open, but I ignored them. With the rumor mill in this school there would be at least twelve stories by the end of the day, if not more. I was at my locker before homeroom when I felt a presence. It was like a proximity alert of some kind going off in my head. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as if charged with electricity, and I looked around. Nathaniel was across the hall, but he took one look at my face and strode over to me. Without a word he reached up, took my chin between his forefinger and thumb, and examined my face.
Normally this would irritate me further, but I took the opportunity to get a decent look at this person who was somehow inserted into my life. As I had surmised, he was perhaps five foot two or four, but no more than that. His arms showed some definition where they exited his tee-shirt, and he was proportionally built as far as I could tell. His clothes were baggy, so they hid the rest of his physique a fair bit. His hair was light brown running to blond, though not the color of honey and romance. What made the hair seem darker than I'd have thought were the green eyes underneath them, which were focused on my face. If his eyes were closed I think the hair would look lighter, but the contrast changed him. As he studied my face, I studied his. He had a small scar on his forehead running up into his hair, a somewhat pointed nose, cheekbones that could potentially cut diamonds and full lips, looking abnormally red to me. The counterpoint to all that was his eyes, glittering with intelligence or cunning, I guess. Something about them, his gaze, the sharp notice of his eyes on me made me shiver involuntarily. That was annoying.
Done looking at him I jerked my face out of his grip. “Do you mind?”
He pursed his lips. I raised an eyebrow at him and waited. Tension lined his frame, and knowing that he'd likely been the one to bash Kevin's knee, it made him seem far more dangerous than he might have otherwise. I didn't fear him, though. His aggressive posture wasn't directed at me but seemed more about me. He frowned and then left without a word. Now that was odd. I liked not saying things because it forced the other person to speak. Lots of people just can't help themselves. It was annoying, and intriguing, to have my own tactics turned on me.
I turned Nathaniel over in my head for the rest of the day. All I really knew of him was that he lived in one of the trailer parks, he'd jumped in to help me drag Mason from that fight, and I suspected him of being both the voice in the locker room and the one who'd cracked Kevin's knee so viciously. If I set aside my suspicions, maybe he was trying to help Mason rather than me? He had no reason I could see to help either of us.
What was that assessment of his all about? It was like he was taking inventory of my damage, but for what purpose? What was his interest in all this? Could he have something to do with my father – well, that was stupid. I already knew he had something to do with my father. The question was more would he have anything to gain by watching me for my father? It seemed unlikely. I suppose it was possible, and I'd better not dismiss it out of hand. After all, Tina called hell down on me last night because he said to watch for me. Who knows how far that could go?
I hated the helpless feeling that stole over me at the thought.
I was surprised at how concerned my teachers as a whole seemed to be. Several asked after me, most discreetly after class had ended. By lunch I was sick of it. There are only so many times you can tell people that you're fine before you want to scream. I had just set my tray down at the table I shared with Mason, Ris and now Valerie, apparently, when Ris looked at me as if she might cry and hugged me with more strength than I would have thought she possessed. My chest ached, but I put up with it. I shifted my gaze to Mason as I awkwardly patted her back. It was obvious he'd spilled his guts again, just by the look on his face.
Ris stood back and looked at me with concern. “How could you not call me?” she demanded, her eyes wet. Crying is cheating.
“What would you have been able to do?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level. I sat down and she sat beside me, turned fully in her chair to face me.
“Ethan, you don't keep things like this from your friends. I should know if you need help.”
I frowned. “Ris, I didn't post what happened to the world; you didn't miss out. Mason was there, I was in the ER and I mostly slept at his house yesterday. I wasn't exactly calling everyone. Mason was there, why isn't he in trouble?”
“Miss out?” she snapped, then leaned in and got her face close to mine. “I'm just finding out my friend got viciously attacked. I heard this morning, but you're not answering your phone. Now I see someone...your father...Jesus, Eth,” she said, trailing off and tears crawled down her face as she covered her mouth. “Look at you. How could anyone hurt you like that?”
Fuck. I felt stupid, and shame washed through me. I looked down at my tray as I tried to gather something...human to say. “I...keep personal things close. I'm sorry you were worried, but I'm fine.”
“Cracked ribs? Bruised knee? Your face is swollen, and what about your arm? How do you call that fine?” she demanded.
“The arm is fine,” I said sullenly. “Minor wrist sprain, barely worth wrapping up. The knee will heal in a few weeks. The ribs...they'll take longer.”
“Are you in pain?” Ris asked, and her red-rimmed eyes made me feel about an inch tall.
I cleared my throat uncomfortably. “The meds make it a little better. Sore, mostly.”
“And what about that son-of-a-bitch?” Valerie asked with real heat in her voice. I glanced up at her in surprise.
Mason made a derisive snort, but I didn't know what that meant.
“Is he in jail?” Valerie asked.
“He was, over the weekend. Probably out now,” Mason said, and saving me from having to get into it. It occurred to me that the girls had questioned him when he'd arrived and he probably figured he'd spare me most of the retelling. I underestimate him sometimes, and I need to stop doing that. Would it really kill me to show him some gratitude?
“What's the plan?” Ris asked.
Mason answered again. “He's staying with me. My parents are going to get him a lawyer 'cause the DA wants to use Eth against his father, which could be dangerous.”
“Oh my God! Seriously?” Ris demanded and then looked at me. I hesitated, then nodded. It was uncomfortable having so much of my business out there and I was feeling agitated. I tried to tune them out while I ate my food and turned my thoughts back to Nathaniel. What would come of the way he'd looked at my face this morning? What did I expect? Was he going to report I was back in school? Was he going to go after my father? That was assuming Nathaniel was actually the person that cracked up Kevin. That popped a question into my head.
“Hey, Ris? You were saying that Kayla was there when Kevin got attacked, right?”
She turned back to face me, wiping at her wet eyes. “Yeah, that's what she was saying. Why?”
“Just something that stuck with me for some reason. She told you whoever attacked him said something to him after?”
“Yeah. Only she didn't hear what it was because she was screaming.”
“Oh,” I said, unable to keep the dejection from my voice.
“Why?” Valerie asked. I glanced up and Mason was looking at me intently.
I shook my head. “It's stupid.”
“Can we decide that?” Mason asked.
I sighed and leaned forward. “Only if you guys promise to keep it between us. No digging, no asking questions.”
They glanced at each other and then nodded one by one.
I let out a breath, still not thrilled with talking about the whole situation. “So I think it's important to know what the guy said to Kevin. We're sort of piecing these events together, and they don't all fit. I know Nathaniel is kind of a popular idea, but we don't know if he actually did attack Kevin. That's kind of why I was wondering what was said to Kevin.”
Valerie nodded in thought. “I'll text Kayla, have a chat and see if I can get it to come up. I'll let you know – if you'll be answering your phone, that is.”
“Left it at Mason's,” I said guiltily.
“You may as well say you left it at home,” Mason said matter-of-factly. Ris looked at him approvingly and I rolled my eyes.
“So what difference does it make what the person said to Kevin?” Ris asked.
“Well...I'm not entirely sure,” I said. I glanced at Mason and he was frowning. I felt guilty again, as if he knew I was holding back. Gratitude. Give him something. “It's just that...this morning Nathaniel saw me at my locker and he...seemed angry about my face. Maybe.”
Mason's eyes narrowed.
“So...if he did tune up Kevin, then maybe what he said to him was to leave you alone?” Valerie asked, her words coming slowly as if speaking as she puzzled things through. Mason glanced at her and his frown disappeared as he looked at me consideringly.
“Well, that's one way to settle it, yeah. If it was something unrelated, then that means what happened with Kevin had nothing to do with me and kind of knocks down the Nathaniel theory a peg or three.”
“A mystery. I like it,” Valerie said with a little grin.
I trudged through the rest of my day, avoiding questions where possible and trying to be gracious with people wishing me well, even though they couldn't have cared less about me the day before. No one was more surprised than I was when Kayla Morrison, Kevin's cousin, stopped by my locker between classes.
“Wow. I heard the rumor but... What is going on around here?” she asked, her face a mask of shock. “Did you get ambushed too?”
This was a fortunate turn of events. Of all the people to ask me about my shit show of a weekend, this one was actually welcome. Kayla was dark haired in contrast to her cousin's fair hair, darker skinned than he was as well. She was also nicer than he was, though that was a low threshold.
“No, no ambush,” I said, trying to smile. “But I heard Kevin was?”
“Ohmigod, it was terrible!” she said, but also seemed oddly excited. I suppose it was the opportunity to tell a story – no doubt she was feeling rather popular these days. “We were coming out of the Quicki Stop, and just as we passed the dumpster this guy jumped out – no threats, no asking for money – we didn't even know he was there until Kevin staggered from the hit, you know? He swung a baseball bat and I heard Kevin's knee make this wet popping noise.” She paused and looked at me intently. “It. Was. Horrible.” Her facial expression made it seem like it wasn't entirely horrible to her. “Kevin started to scream, and I was like in shock, you know?”
Huh. I could have sworn the story Valerie and Ris got was that Kayla was screaming, and so couldn't hear the threat or whatever was said to Kevin.
“Wow, that's crazy,” I said. “I probably would have screamed a little too, you know?”
“I'm sure I did, but Kevin was so much louder! I mean, he was in pain, so, you know.” She paused and I jumped in.
“Why did the guy attack Kevin?”
“That's the freaky part!” she said dramatically. “Kevin won't say. The guy leaned over and said something real close to Kevin's ear and all I heard was Kevin saying 'Okay, I won't touch him' over and over. Weird, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Weird. Was Kevin fighting with someone recently? Who would he need to leave alone?”
“I don't know,” she said and wrinkled her nose. “Kevin's kind of a jerk, so I'm not surprised, really.”
“Is he?” I asked innocently. “Why would you hang around with him then?”
“Family, you know? Can't pick 'em.” Time drew short as the warning bell rang so we parted quickly, though I was in no hurry to get to class. I could just tell the next teacher I was late because I was moving slowly, and it hurt to get bumped in the hallways. In the meantime I thought about what Kayla had said. It didn't really change anything, except I now knew that the attacker had warned Kevin away from someone. If I believed Mason, that someone was me. The problem was that still made no sense, given the facts I had to work with.
I was uncharacteristically distracted in my next class as I thought over and over, trying to understand why Nathaniel would do any of this – assuming he was the one that had attacked Kevin and spoken to me in the locker room. Neither of those was a given, but it made for an interesting and frustrating puzzle. I thought of his eyes, bright and focused on my face. My throat tightened slightly and I felt warm. Fuck this – I need a hobby.
I reached my gym class and went to my locker to change out. I sat down beside Mason as he got ready a few doors down from me. He was asking me if I was getting through the day all right and if he should ask to carry my stuff. I shoved him into his locker.
“Ethan Miller,” the voice said. I held a finger up to still Mason and turned my attention to the corner. Mason slid up against me to listen in.
“Who...who fucked you up?”
“Why?” I asked, looking at Mason who had a curious expression on his face.
“Just give me a name.”
“Sure. As soon as you give me one.”
We waited and I glanced at Mason, who was staring at the corner as if it were a face. I looked back as well, hoping for the voice to give me a tiny bit of clarity.
“Just give me their name. I'm not important.”
I bit my lower lip and glanced at Mason, who frowned lightly. I decided to gamble with our little theory and turned back to the corner. “Nathaniel. Why are you doing this?”
We waited as patiently as we could, but after a few minutes I was convinced he wasn't going to reply. The coach blew his whistle for everyone to go outside, and we got up to troop out with the rest of the class.
“I guess it wasn't him, huh?” Mason asked. I shrugged, but wasn't so certain. If it was Nathaniel, he wasn't in this gym class. That meant he was sneaking into the locker room and running out to a nearby classroom so he didn't get caught or seen. Or something. Maybe that was far fetched.
“Miller. You're not participating today,” Coach said.
“I can do it, Coach,” I told him.
“Well, congratulations, but I wasn't asking your opinion. Walk around the field. Keep it light. When we have practice this afternoon I expect you to be there to help me teach these slackers – so don't go thinking you’re off the damn hook,” he grumbled at me.
“But, Coach!” I protested.
“Miller,” he said with a long sigh. “Cracked ribs. Ring a bell? One slide tackle and you'll puncture a lung. I'm not taking that chance with any of my kids. Especially not you,” he said, his voice coming close to human emotion – which was not just odd for him; I had no idea I'd endeared myself to him.
“Um. Yes, Coach,” I replied.
“Damn right, yes, Coach,” he grumbled. “You'll work Matt Heron. I don't have the extra time to develop him for this season, anyway,” he said and wandered away.
I walked around the perimeter of the field as the class played soccer. It kind of stunk, because I liked being active. Activity gave me something to do besides think. I spent a good chunk of the class looking over the people in my gym class, considering alternatives to the Nathaniel theory and trying to figure out if any of them had a reason to help me, presuming the point was to help me. The easy way out of my problems would be to live with the Gerhardts. I guess if they used me to get to Mason, there would still be a benefit to Mason. I didn't mind the Gerhardts as people; I just thought they sucked as a couple and as parents. Other than that, they were nice enough. They were certainly doing me a solid just by letting me stay there, and if they actually followed through on a lawyer and stuff, well, I'd owe them.
Mason would be so much better off if even one of them would step forward and engage him. Where I wanted nothing to do with my parents, he craved parental affection. When it showed up, usually in small dollops, he ate it up. It was so infrequent that he spoke poorly of them outside their hearing. If I were there to facilitate, then he would get something from it, and I can do that for him. There wasn't anything I could immediately think of that I wouldn't do for him, but this was easy.
My father made things more complicated, though. I'd avoided his 'job' ever since I realized what he was doing. It explained a lot. Other kids had shied away from me for the most part over the years, and I assumed it was their parents passing their judgment of my family on to the kids. I didn't blame them for it; I'd probably want to keep my kids away from a bunch of losers, too. The trouble from where I was standing was that I wasn't like my father and didn't aspire to be like him.
Jackson, on the other hand, had taken the bad boy label and run with it. He lived up to every negative stereotype save one, and that was that he wasn't a jerk to me. Not most of the time – we just had nothing in common besides our appearance. But when dad started wanting a shotgun with him, a partner for a scam of some kind, he'd take Jackson. The first time was when we were about thirteen. Dad had sabotaged a camera that was supposed to watch an outdoor ATM. So he had Jackson go with him as a lookout while he drilled the lock and pulled the cash box. It netted him about a hundred dollars because the owner, as he later told the news, had been going to refill it the next day.
That was the story of my father's life. One scam after another, always the next big score, and always coming up short. My mother is a mystery to me. My sister did more mothering to us than my mother. I don't even know if she was conscious of the fact she'd given birth to us, given who she was married to. It's a wonder us kids aren't deformed in some way, mentally or physically. When Jackson started going along with our dad regularly, I felt like I had a chance to separate from it all and use school as a way out. Then, this past summer, Jackson had died while out on some job with my dad.
Jackson and I weren't what you'd call close, which is odd since we were twins. We weren't the cute twins you see all over social media. It's funny in a way – the twins you see on social media are always pretty, with great teeth and a solid hair style, and seem to live like princes because of their twin-cuteness.
Jackson and I were plain. Not like Mason, who was effortlessly good looking. Not like Nathaniel, who was wholesomely attractive even if his background wasn't any better than mine. We didn't have great hair like Ris, or the whiter than white teeth Valerie had. We were brown-haired, brown-eyed, average plain boys who happened to be twins. Jackson had gotten into lifting weights, and I'm sure he'd messed with steroids at some point. I, on the other hand, played sports but didn't lift or do other muscle-building exercises.
Coach blew the whistle to send everyone back to the locker room, and I trailed behind them. When we got back inside I lingered by the front to see who used the locker in the corner opposite mine, but the closest one was Henry Gibson, and he had a unique voice. It definitely wasn't the one I'd heard earlier. The thing was that Nathaniel was just the most obvious answer; that didn't make him the right answer. I did need to find him and ask about Friday night. That might shed some light on things. Coach hooked a finger at me and I followed him into his office, which had a large plate-glass window that looked into the locker room. It had a Venetian blind that was usually down, but I imagined he could draw it up in a big hurry if he needed to.
“Here's the team roster. We have to make sure we document who shows up to practice so they get credit. Make sure you mark yourself off so we can put you back out there once you've healed. Until then we need someone to fill your slot. Mike will start, but Matt might....look, he's got talent, okay? I don't think he's ready, but I also don't want to lose him for next year. I want you to work with Matt one-on-one. You've got a feel for the defensive aspect of the game, and I can't teach that to someone.”
I blinked and looked down at the clipboard. “Uh, yeah, Coach.”
“Little more like you understood what I said?”
“Yes, Coach. No problem.”
“Better. You don't feel right, you say so. Got it?”
“Uh huh,” he said, not sounding for a moment like he believed me. “I want you to treat Matt like he might have to step in at any second. Mold him, break him down, and get him on track.”
I waited with Mason while the rest of the team changed out, then I joined them on the field. Coach wouldn't even let me do stretches or warm-up exercises, and though I'm stubborn, I'm not stupid. Once I tried a stretch behind his back and it nearly took my breath away, so I decided he was right. For now.
“Okay, one mile, hop to it!” Coach called out and the group headed off together to start their way around the field. I turned toward our bench and spotted a lone figure sitting in the short stands. Nathaniel. I started walking toward him purposefully, thinking along the way about what I wanted to ask and how. I mounted the short set of steps up to where he sat and looked down at him. He looked up, completely unconcerned.
“Why'd you help us on Friday night?”
He shrugged. “I was drunk. Bored. Looking for a fight. Take your pick.”
I narrowed my eyes. I shook my head slowly. “I don't think so.”
He leaned back, looking bored. “Okay.”
I hated that. I liked to let people talk; they always did. Now he was playing that same tactic with me. I decided I'd leave him with something to think about rather than give in and start spouting off theories about him.
“I'm onto you,” I said.
He smiled lazily. “I doubt that.”
“You're following me. Just because you helped me out, I'm going to warn you. Cops will probably be watching me. If they see you stalking, they might come see you.” I watched his face as a look of concern crossed his features.
“That it?” he asked.
I half-turned and then glanced back at him thoughtfully. “What do you plan to go to college for?”
“College? Did you forget who I am? Benfields don't go to college.”
I looked at him steadily. “If you were going?”
He shrugged. “Engineering. Maybe architecture.”
I nodded and headed down a few steps and then turned back again at the bottom. “Architecture, huh. You ever hear of Grand Central Terminal in New York City?”
“Yeah,” he said, his tone back to bored.
“They have these things. I bet you've heard of them. Whispering arches.”
He looked at me steadily, eyes wide, and I felt a thrill.
“Gotcha,” I told him before turning and walking back to the team bench. He left shortly thereafter, but now I was convinced that Nathaniel was watching me, and if he hadn't attacked Kevin then he knew who did – and why. It still didn't explain Nathaniel's motivation. But one thing was certain – he was the one whispering from the corner.