He pursed his lips and looked as if he were chewing something. “You're angry,” he stated and nodded his head. “When I met your mother, things were not so good at home. She was beautiful and smart. A sparkling star in a very gloomy time. I admit we were foolish. When we found out she was pregnant, she demanded I not leave her to raise you on her own. I couldn't leave my wife,” he said, looking at me with a tired expression. “All I could do was do my best to handle the situation I'd created. So I took out the extra loan, and I bought the house next door to my own so I could see my son grow up. Divorce...it was never an option. But not because I don't care for you or your mother.”
“So adultery was okay, but not divorce?” I snorted. “That's very hypocritical.”
He pursed his lips again, and seemed to visibly chew something. I wondered if that was how he disposed of replying in an angry way.
“When it comes to God, there are some things I understand, and some things I do not. In this, I feel I understand. I could not take back what I had done – and you're a wonderful boy, I wouldn't want to take that back. I understand you're angry. I understand that things look very simple from where you're sitting.” He sighed. “Maybe they are, but they didn't appear to be then.”
I knew I was being a brat, and I bit my tongue on demanding to know why he'd left me with her when she was obviously unstable.
“So what now?” I asked.
He let out a heavy sigh. “Now...things will be uncomfortable.” He lifted his gaze to meet mine. “Tomorrow I will take her back to Dr. Djiantian, and she may have to go away for a little while. She's not a well woman.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What about me?”
He sighed. “You will have meals with us, and I will be checking on you here until we know what has to be done for your mother.”
I turned that over for a minute. I'm glad he didn't suggest or demand I move in with him. I'd have felt extremely uncomfortable around his wife, and she had no desire to see me.
“Fine,” I said.
He nodded. “Okay, then. Try to get some sleep. School tomorrow, eh?”
I didn't reply as he left the room and made his way down the stairs. I went to the bathroom and washed my face, then tried to settle in for my second read through, but had trouble concentrating. My phone buzzed and I pounced on it, desperate for something to grab my attention. It was Cole, which was curious all by itself.
Yeah. What's up?
I watched as the three dots rippled, letting me know he was texting a response. It seemed to go on for a long time so either he was writing a book or he was deleting a lot of things and starting over.
Got into a huge fight with my mom. Reading a book Mr. Rockland loaned me. Wyd?
This time the response was much faster. What book?
'Thief of Always' by Clive Barker.
I jerked my head back. Cole read books? Like, for fun? I couldn't help myself asking. You like to read?
Y. I'm not stupid.
Didn't say u were. Just...unexpected.
Because you think I'm a dumb jock.
I frowned. I barely know you. What are the chances that you'd like to read and like what I do?
I saw the check mark come up that he'd read my message, but he wasn't replying. I decided to let him sit on that for a second, but I went back and verified – he liked to read the same author I was reading now. I wondered what else the guy wrote. My thought shifted when I saw the three dots rippling and I waited anxiously to see what he'd say.
That's fair. Sorry.
Fuck sorry, I wrote, grinning. What else did he write?
Books of Blood – my favorite is Everville. Great and Secret Show was amazing.
Do you own these books?
I want to read one.
Huh. I guessed that made him happy. He started to text again, then the bubbles stopped rippling. Then they moved again, and stopped. What is going through your head, Cole?
Are u a fast reader?
Yes, I replied.
How about I loan you The Hellbound Heart and we can watch the movie? Maybe Fri or Sat?
Something odd swept through my chest. Someone liked something I did and was inviting me to share it with them.
I frowned. Don't you have plans with Haylee this weekend?
Nah. We broke up today.
I'm sorry, Cole. U ok?
Yeah. Long time coming. We good for tomorrow?
Yep. C U after school.
The dots rippled again, paused, and repeated several times. I wondered if he had more to say or was debating for some reason.
Okay. GN, Drew.
I could have just said goodnight. I was legit worn out from a stupid day, but he'd broken up with his girl today. He's reached out. Maybe I could reach back?
Brax came to my job today, applied.
Yeah? He get it?
We texted until my phone started flashing a low battery warning and I realized, much to my surprise, that it was almost three in the morning. Who knew we could have so much to talk about?
“So I'll text you when it's time for dinner?” Alessia asked.
“You could just study at our kitchen table, you know,” she said. “I mean, Haylee's my friend, but I think Cole did the right thing, finally.”
“She could have broken up with him at any time,” I reminded her.
“Yeah, but I have to be on her side,” she said and grinned.
I rolled my eyes as we waited for Teo and Cole to join us at the car. She knew I wanted to limit my time at her house for her mother's sake. Not only that, Mrs. Petrakis and I had never been close, so I wasn't exactly comfortable around her either.
Cole and Teo finally showed up. I sat in the back with Cole, and the ride home was fairly quiet. Once at my house Cole and I kicked off our shoes by the door and I led him up to my room.
“Want a soda or something?” I asked.
After a trip to the kitchen we settled down on my floor side by side and spread out our work. He opened his school laptop and I gave him the Petrakises' wifi password. We were ready to get to work when he let out a sound of surprise.
“I almost forgot,” he said and reached back into his bag. He withdrew a slim book and handed it to me. “You think you can read that before Friday? The movie is based on the book. It's a short book – a novella, really – but the movie is pretty good.”
I studied the cover and smiled a little. “Thanks, I'll start it tonight.”
“I should warn you, this isn't like that one Rockland gave you. Barker wrote that one for kids – this is pretty gory, and the movie is way, way more gory.”
“Cool,” I replied with a grin. I tossed the book up on my bed. “Let's start this.”
Cole moved the laptop with the lab information, and I grabbed my notebook and calculator. When we settled, Cole must have shifted over an inch or two because our knees were touching. I was going to shift over a bit, but it didn't seem to bother him so I just started working. I don't know what was up with him tonight. He was making simple mistakes and bumbling around. It was just odd.
“Hey, are you okay?” I asked.
“Why?” he asked.
“You know this stuff,” I said, pointing to the lab sheet. “Maybe not all, but you're making mistakes on stuff you already know. Is it Haylee? I mean, I'm not trying to be nosy, I just want to know if you're okay.”
He dropped his gaze and looked down at his hands, which he settled into his lap. “Haylee and I...things haven't been good for a long time. I mean...” he sighed. “They never really were. Never right, if that makes any sense.”
I turned my attention fully to him. “Why did you keep it up then?” I asked, gently.
He pursed his lips. “I think I can finish this by myself.” He started to gather his stuff and I frowned.
“I can't. You have the laptop, not me.”
He shuffled his things aimlessly.
“Look, I'm sorry, okay? I wasn't trying to get in your business. I was just...concerned. That's all.”
He turned toward me, but didn't look at me. “You were?”
I pulled my knees up and wrapped my arms around my shins. “Of course. You're my friend. At least, I think you are. We're not enemies, and you don't text 'till three in the morning with a stranger. At least I don't think you do. Do you?”
He snorted and let out a deep breath. He turned to look at me. “I dated her because I'm too much like my father.”
I looked at him curiously as I parsed his words. My jaw unhinged. “Cole. Are you gay?”
His lips drew down into a hard line and unshed tears stood in his eyes.
“It's okay,” I said softly. “It'll be all right.”
A tear streaked down his face. “No, it won't.”
“Of course it will,” I said, not sure if I were being truthful.
He shook his head and wiped his face. “My mother. She hates everything g-gay. It's all about my dad.”
I let out a small sigh.
“I'm sorry. I'll go.”
“No, it's not you, Cole,” I assured him and placed a hand briefly on his knee to still him. “I just know that adults – parents, too – make all kinds of fuck ups. I'd like to say your mom won't see things that way and you have nothing to worry about, but I won't lie to you. I just...can't.” I took a deep breath. “I just found out a few weeks ago that Alessia and Teo are my half siblings. Their dad cheated with my mom. I just realized I've been growing up next door to my dad and siblings my entire life.”
He turned more toward me, and I saw the wet tracks down his face. “Are you kidding me?”
I shook my head. “I had a huge fight with my mom. I told you? She's getting some mental health help, now. See?” I lifted my shirt to show him the scratches. His eyes went wide and then his gaze snapped to my face.
“Are you – how stupid, of course you're okay!”
I let the hem of my shirt drop. “I wasn't. Not last night. Teo talked to me a bit, but I had someone to talk to last night. Maybe I didn't talk about that, but he kept me company until three in the morning.”
He blushed and looked down at his lap. “Is that your way of saying I don't have to talk about it?”
“Why should you have to talk about it if you don't want to?” I demanded. “No one has a right to know anything you don't want them to know.”
“Then...why did you just tell me your personal stuff?”
I nodded, making a decision. “Because I can trust you. I'm not ashamed, exactly, but it's embarrassing knowing how stupid my parents were – and they aren't all that much better, now.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I watched him. The blush in his cheeks was slowly fading, but it still gave him a pretty look. He wiped his tears and sniffled a little. So wrong of me to say, but he looked damn beautiful all upset like this. I stood up and went to get him a box of tissues, then settled back down beside him, making sure our knees were pressed together. Just so he knew I was there. He blew his nose and cleared his throat, but clearly didn't know where to go from here. I wasn't sure either, but then was struck with an idea.
“Hey, so how did you first get into Clive Barker?”
He blinked a few times and looked at me. “Oh. Um, my dad used to take me to the library a lot. I was getting books about sports players and stuff, and I was walking by a rack of books and I saw the cover for Everville. It had a foil cover – you know, kind of shiny and almost looked like it could move?”
“I like those. They look really cool.”
“That's what I thought. So I took it home and I was reading through it and...the guy who was, like, the villain was..gay.” He licked his lips, blushed a bit and glanced at me. “But there was this one scene where he...had sex..and that was how I figured it out. Then I thought, maybe gay was actually bad. But I kept...rereading that scene.”
I could tell it had aroused him, and I was starting to feel the same way. I began to just want to keep him talking. “I'm looking forward to reading that book. Do you own it, too?”
He looked at me for a second and then nodded. “Yeah. I have all his books, I think.”
“Is that how you got into reading his stuff then? One random book cover in the library?” I asked and chuckled. “So much for not judging a book by its cover, huh?”
“I guess...random things can lead to other stuff. Or something.”
I smiled. “I said something like that to Brax just yesterday. He was telling me how you guys met. How he had forgotten his Gatorade and you gave him one of yours. Then kept bringing an extra for your new buddy.”
He snorted and smiled. “Brax can be clueless sometimes.” He paused and in a lower tone said, “He's a good friend, though.”
He looked down and shook his head. “I can't believe I'm sitting here talking about all this with you.”
“Yeah. Funny, that.”
He looked at me and pursed his lips, pushing them off to one side and bobbed his head. “I was thinking about asking my dad if I could live with him.”
He nodded again. “I'm not sure I want to tell him about me, yet. I figure...I should ask him, though, before my mom finds out anything.”
I nodded slowly. “Am I the only one that knows?”
He shook his head. “Brax.”
I nodded. “Of course. Did he promise to defend you?”
He chuckled. “Yeah. Said he had my back.”
I cleared my throat and looked away from him. “Um. Feel free to tell me to fuck off, but...I heard you and Haylee had...sex. A lot.”
He sighed. I wasn't sure if he was going to answer me, but we were both startled by my phone ringing. I frowned and crawled over to my phone. Alessia.
“Hey, Allie, can I...oh, really? Um. Yeah, we'll be right over.” I hung up and then glanced at my messages. Wow. Seven missed texts going from 'dinner is ready' to 'get your ass over here, we're hungry.'
“So I guess-”
“We have to go eat,” I said. I turned and looked at him. “Alessia was texting me while we were talking and she's pissed. Worse, hungry and pissed. Don't bail on me, now, Thomas.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “You're afraid of Alessia?”
“If you were smart, you would be, too,” I told him and snickered. He laughed and I joined him. He stood awkwardly – we both looked funny for having sat for too long. “Listen, though. If you're up for talking after, I'm totally willing.” Wait, I just told him I was willing. Should I clarify that was just to listen?
“Brax said I should tell you,” he said. “Um, yeah. After dinner.”
We went next door and had dinner, with Alessia bitching for the first ten minutes how Cole better watch himself with distracting me because she expected me to answer her if he was there or not.
“We were doing homework,” I told her.
“He's a bad influence,” she said, pouting. “Plus I've seen how fast you can do those labs. You can't tell me you're not done.”
“Actually, we didn't finish,” Cole said.
“That's right,” I said honestly. “We have to finish it.” I looked at Cole and he gave me a subtle nod.
“Seriously? Do I need to tutor you both?”
“I'm good,” Cole said quietly. Since no one else was speaking it actually seemed pretty loud, and Teo and I laughed. Cole smiled, embarrassed and Alessia shook her head.
“So. Harvest Ball.” Alessia raised an eyebrow at me.
“Am I supposed to dance between you and Brax or are we sharing him?” I asked, laughing at her.
“You can't dance with him – you'd leave a hickey. I'm watching you,” she said, pointing to her eyes and back to me a few times.
I laughed and glanced at Cole, who was blushing a little. “I think Brax would have a hard time letting go of you,” Cole said to Alessia.
“He better. My dress is going to knock his socks off.”
“I thought you were aiming for his pants?” Teo asked.
“That's you,” she tartly replied. “Speaking of, how's Hector?”
“Ugh,” he said and slapped his forehead with an open palm. “I have to just cut him loose. We have nothing in common.”
I looked at him innocently. “He's not gay anymore?”
He pointed at me. “I told you gay and smoking hot.”
Widened my eyes. “I thought you were joking.”
Teo turned and pointed at Cole. “I agree with my sister, you're a bad influence.”
“What?” Cole asked, confused.
“My little brother did not lip me before you got here.”
“Well....” Alessia smiled sweetly.
“You shut up when you're talking to me,” Teo said firmly. “And not in front of C.O.L.E.”
“I can spell,” Cole said sarcastically.
Teo looked at me with a shocked expression. “You said he was a dumb jock!”
“I did not!” I protested loudly.
Cole's jaw dropped. “You called me dumb?”
“I didn't! Cole!” He cracked a smile and I narrowed my eyes. “You joined the dark side?”
“Just making sure I get invited back, that's all,” he said demurely. That sneaky...!
“Ah, Andrew. I need to see you before you go home, eh? In the front room.” Mr. Petrakis waved quickly to the room and departed. That was unusual. Normally he'd stay and make small talk and dad jokes.
I glanced at my brother and sister. “Figure that's about my mom, huh? Did he tell you guys anything?”
They shook their heads. Alessia said, “I don't think he went to work today. Maybe he took her to the doctor? Was she at home when you got home?”
“I didn't look,” I told her, frowning.
“Party at Drew's,” Teo said with a grin.
“Fuck that,” I said with a snort.
“So. Cole is fully read in, huh?” Teo asked.
I glanced at Cole and then back to Teo. “Yeah. I told him everything.”
Teo folded one hand over the other and let his fork dangle from his fingers. “My, my. Where did you come from, Cole.”
Cole squirmed a little and frowned.
“Teo, behave,” I said firmly. I looked at Cole. “I'm going to see what Mr. Petrakis has to tell me, then we can go finish. Cool?”
“Yeah,” he said, bobbing his head.
I stood up and pointed at my siblings. “Be nice to him.” I moved my finger from one to the next and back before departing for the front room. Mr. Petrakis was sitting on his couch with his tablet. He read all his news rather than watching the TV. He used to get newspapers every day, but he cut back to digital subscriptions. He saw me and put his tablet down, and then slipped his glasses off.
“Andrew, sit, sit,” he said, patting the couch. I sat down, looking at him expectantly. “How was school today?”
“I actually have homework to finish. Cole and I work on the labs together for science, and since I'm working tomorrow night, we're trying to get it all done tonight.”
“Oh, that's good, that's good. Well, I thought we should discuss what has happened with your mother and where we go from here.” He looked at me seriously. “I took her to the doctor this morning as I promised. It wasn't easy. You know going outside is a real problem for her.”
“Yeah. What did the doctor say?”
He frowned. “He didn't have a diagnosis, yet. But she became very agitated in his office, enough that he had to call for help. They decided she needs to stay there for a little bit. Do you know...have you seen her take any medicine?”
I wrinkled my brow in thought. “No. I haven't even seen her take an aspirin. I spend most of my time upstairs, if I'm home.”
He nodded tiredly. “Yes, you may not have been in the best position to see if she was taking her medicine. She has not, as it seems.” He looked at me and carefully said, “She is not a well woman.”
“Yes. I know. She's been terrorizing me my entire life.”
He winced and nodded. He rubbed his hands along the tops of his thighs. “Until we know more, you should come here for meals. If you are going somewhere, please let me know just in case something happens. I think you and I agree living here would be a bad idea. So this would be best for now. Eh?”
I nodded. “Sure, I can do that.”
He smiled. “Good boy. I won't keep you from the homework. Do you have much to do?”
“No,” I said as I stood. “We'll be done, soon.”
“Okay. Goodnight, then.”