“Fine!” I yelled as I slammed the door, but it was kind of open to interpretation, I guess. Fine I'd cooperate? Fine I wouldn't call her a bitch? I didn't have the answer. I didn't have any answers to anything. I ran down the stairs two at a time, ignoring the sound of Beth calling me back, muted behind the closed door. I quickly crossed the sales floor of the bookstore I lived over and, with annoyance, paused to lock the door behind me. Then, for the first time that week, I was free.
I grew up on these streets, I know their names and their histories. I know which ones are safe and which ones you only go to if you have to and which ones you never go to. I know which ones I can disappear on and more than anything I wanted to disappear.
Going back to school, I realized, had been a mistake. It was patently stupid to think I could go from a life where I was in charge of myself to completely handing myself over to someone else's control—strangers. People who hadn't earned a lick of trust, people who seemed to think their rules had the strength of divine law. 'Go to the office!' was said with the same conviction as the devout telling you to go to hell, but with more enthusiasm.
After walking aimlessly I found myself in a place I didn't recognize. For a moment, I felt disoriented as if waking from a dream that had felt quite real until just a few seconds ago. Then other things began to slide into place, even though they didn't seem to belong. A manhole cover with green paint, a stop sign missing its bottom bolt that allowed it to bang in fierce wind, a small patch of dead grass with red bricks scattered throughout. I'd often wondered if there had been a decorative patch of brick there at one time and the grass had simply swallowed it up.
With a feeling of unexpected loss, a sense of wrongness, I saw my former home was gone. I began to circle the rubble, walking around the cyclone fence meant to keep the stupid, the adventurous and the stupidly adventurous out, and spotted the area I'd have used to climb up and onto the roof to gain access to my safe space. It was all gone, just a pile of rubble waiting to be taken away.
I put my hands in my pockets and shivered, though the temperature was pleasant. My eyes roamed the remains of the building and I wondered, for just a second, if they'd taken Smokey's body out before they dropped the walls in. Did he merit enough to get taken out of there or did this mess become a temporary tomb for him?
I guessed they took him. Smokey. After all, his body was on the police reports and it was probably part of the case against Carson, the man who's 'employee' had killed Smokey. Carson also had run a local crime group and tried to kill me. Would have killed me, except for a timely intervention by the police. That intervention was because of Tris and Piper, of course, looking for me.
Mournfully I thought back to that time where I made my own choices on a daily basis—when to get up, what I was doing to earn a living for the day, where I would go or if I'd simply stay where I was and read. I felt a pang of longing for my cooler and the books I'd had, ones I hadn't finished reading or been able to return to the bookstore, my own personal lending library.
I was suddenly seized by a nameless energy and launched myself at the fence, climbing it like a drunk monkey as it swayed with my weight. Once over the fence I looked around, trying to get an idea of where my old home had been and then I picked my way over the rubble, nearly falling more than once as I searched. After a few minutes of ranging about, I began to pull up bricks and chunks of mortar and toss them aside as I tried to unearth my old space. It was sort of like digging a hole in sand as pulling up a few bricks was usually followed by a few others falling in to take their place.
Tears began to build in my eyes as I pulled bricks faster, only to have my frantic efforts stalled by larger chunks of brick and mortar that hadn't broken into single bricks tumbling down to fill the space I'd created. I grabbed onto a section and strained to lift it, pulling backward with all my might. My feet slipped and I scrabbled for purchase, resetting my grip and pulling again. With a dry crumbling noise the edge of the brick let go, scraping the skin on my hands as I lost my grip and landed painfully on the protruding bricks beneath me.
Though the pain to my hands was minimal, a mournful cry broke from my mouth and I began to sob. The entire week had been one mess after another and I just didn't know what to do about it.
After Tris had parted with me that morning, giving me his hoodie and his scent as armor, I felt like I could take on the world. After all the bullshit of Carson and that whole mess I felt clean and strong. The feeling of invincibility lasted for two periods and the thing that broke it was having to use the bathroom. Of all the stupid ways to lose your perception of reality, or maybe have reality forced on you, it was because your bladder was full. I had just gotten done with my second period class and I needed to pee. So I looked at the map on the back of my schedule, found my next class and the bathroom nearest it.
As I walked I grumbled to myself that this whole business of being where people wanted me to be on their schedule was wearing thin pretty quickly. I didn't exactly enjoy getting up at a certain time, getting ready at a hurried pace and then marching from one stifling box of a room to another. I paused at my classroom, dropped my bag into a vacant seat, and turned for the door as the bell rang.
“Take your seats, people,” the lady at the front of the room stated. I quickened my step toward the door, but there was really no question in my mind when she sharply called out, “I said take your seat, Mr...who is that?”
I turned, still walking but backward now, and replied, “Ehren Robertson. I have to use the bathroom.”
“Well, you should have done that on your time. This is my time. Have a seat.”
She had that irritable tone of someone who was used to telling people what she wanted done, even though it should be obvious to them. I considered doing what she'd said but decided that my business wouldn't wait so I continued on to the bathroom. I heard the clack of her shoes in the room behind me, a smattering of 'oh's' echoing from the room nearly drowning out the sharp taps. I didn't care. I was old enough to know when I needed to use the bathroom and no one was going to tell me I couldn't.
I located the bathroom and took care of my problem. As I washed my hands I thought about what sort of person enjoys making people hold their water. I'll bet some people become teachers for the same reason some people become cops: they get to tell people what to do. Exiting the room I found a man in an ill-fitting suit waiting in the hallway.
“Mm, Ehren Robertson? Come with me, Mm.”
“I have class right now,” I said, wondering who this fellow was but deciding it wasn't any of my business. Not yet, anyway.
He had been turning from me, expecting me to follow his instruction, and he fixed his watery eyes on me. “Mm, you walked out of class. We'll have your backpack sent down.”
“No,” I replied and struck out for the classroom. “No one touches my things.” Was he an idiot? It had been near madness to leave my things in the classroom to begin with, but it was getting heavy already with new books and all the things I'd been required to bring with me for my first day. I should have been able to store some of it securely in my locker, but the dial was missing and I hadn't even had a chance to tell whoever might take care of things like that.
Behind me he made some protests, adding in a threat or two, but I was ignoring him. You don't leave your stuff behind or someone will take it. I pushed the door open to the classroom, ignored the squawk of protest from the teacher and retrieved my bag. Then, and only then, did I walk to the office with whomever this fellow was. He grumped along the way and told me all about how this wasn't the way to start a new school year but I recognized it for what it was; an attempt to force me to see this his way.
He talked all the way down the stairs before trailing off and muttering to himself. I tuned it out. I didn't really care what he thought or what anyone thought, except Tris. He wasn't going to be happy with me. Once in the office, I was directed to a chair. I sat and pulled a paperback out of my bag and lost myself in my book, shutting out the world and my impending trouble. Beth had tried to get me into some things she liked, but I couldn't lose myself in science fiction. I felt like it was just a step beyond reality and I couldn't quite buy into it. It was one thing to be imaginative, but another entirely to enter the world of fantasy and the impossible. Emily recognized that and handed me a set of Raymond Chandler novels and I easily slipped into that world. I could understand the prejudice, the grit and the solitary nature of the protagonist. I'd seen a lot of it before, maybe even lived it.
I'm not sure how long I sat there, I'm still not very good with time. Besides, when I read I tend to shut the world out, which is sort of the point. So I was a little startled when the mumbly fellow called my name rather loudly, as if it weren't the first time, and hooked his finger in a 'come with me' gesture. I marked my spot in the book, replaced it in the bag deliberately and then stood to follow him.
One problem I had with the world Tris and Piper lived in was that I didn't know the rules. Frequently, especially in social situations, I was floundering. When it came to officials like CPS or the school I had no real fear because I could disappear anytime I wanted to. Granted, Tris was largely what was holding me in place—Emily and Beth deserve some credit or blame, depending on your point of view, and while I was grateful to them I knew I could give up the things they had given me: clothes, backpack, a room. Those things could be replaced, even though it went against my grain to admit it. Tris, though, couldn't.
Mumbly seated himself behind a desk and I glanced around the smallish room, skimming his diplomas without actually reading them and glancing at the pictures scattered here and there. He cleared his throat and I turned my head where he was affixing a glare that I'm sure intimidated some. I realized then that he was a fellow used to getting his way because of who he was in the system here at the school. He expected to be obeyed by most, except for the few hard cases who'd rebel openly, that was my guess. Idly I wondered if my behavior or attitude was considered openly rebellious?
“Mm have a seat,” he said, pointing to one of the two chairs in front of his desk. I sat, placing my bookbag in front of me and between my feet.
“So, Mrs. Perkins says you left her class without permission.”
I sat quietly given that his words a statement rather than a question. He tented his hands, joining them at the fingertips.
“Is that true?”
He hummed in that odd way he started so many sentences and then leaned back in his chair. “Why did you do that?”
“I had to pee.”
“You can't leave a classroom without permission. No student can just wander the halls between classes.” He leaned forward, placing his hands on the desktop flat as if in prayer but fingertips pointing toward me. “We have liability and responsibility for you while you are in the building. We have to know where you are at all times.”
“I told her I had to go to the bathroom and she told me to go on my own time, that I was on hers,” I replied, as if explaining things to a stoner who was currently sky high. “I've been going to the bathroom—in fact, knowing I when I have to go—for at least fourteen of my sixteen years. If I have to go, I'm going to go. Also, by your logic, it would be known where I was.”
His began to tap his fingertips together in a rhythmic motion as his lips moved, not quite ready to push words out. A knock came from the door and, at a loud grunt from him, opened to admit a middle aged woman in a pantsuit with hair that had been, somehow, arranged to poof around her head as if on wires. I was reasonably convinced that small insects could have flown between the strands of hair as they looped and curved about her head. In her hand was a leather case that was open to reveal a pad of paper for writing notes.
“Sorry I'm late,” she said as she took the seat next to me. “I got stuck on the phone. You must be Ehren!”
“Excellent deduction,” I replied. I decided not to ask her name; I wasn't all that interested. In fact my mind conjured up an image of Tris frowning at me and that was far more important. I guess I needed to wrap up whatever this was.
“Eileen Belcher, school social worker. I'll be meeting with you a few times a week to help you settle into this new environment,” she said with a smile. “We were supposed to meet later today, but it seems there is something pressing now?”
This last was directed at Mumbles and he nodded his head once in sharp agreement. “Mr. Robertson walked out of Mrs. Perkins class to use the restroom without first obtaining permission, Mm.”
An icy trickle had run up my spine at the words 'social worker'. The urge to bolt from my seat and, shortly afterward, the building was strong. Thinking of Tris I ducked my head down and took courage from his scent on the hoodie I'd borrowed from him that morning.
“Oh, well that seems easy to address, right Ehren? I'm sure you're not used to asking permission to do a lot of things, given how independent you must have become, is that right?”
I turned to face her and said, as calmly as I could, “I know how to go to the bathroom and when I need to do it. I also didn't agree to meet with you.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, her tone losing some of it's perkiness and settling into something that I wasn't familiar with, but that I didn't trust. “Well, I can understand why you might feel that way, I do. Unfortunately, you have a lot of work to do and you're going to need some help to understand what the rules are, right? Around here, that's kind of my job.”
“Look, I don't know how to be clearer,” I said firmly. “If I have to go to the bathroom, I'm going. I'm not talking to you.”
She leaned back and let a hurt expression come across her face. “You seem very upset, Ehren. I don't understand why you're mad at me, though. What have I done?”
I glanced at Mumbles, who was staying quiet, and then back to her. I felt nearly certain that she was faking having her feelings hurt, but I decided I had to dial back on my attitude a touch, even if I had no intention of cooperating with these inane demands. I studied her for a moment, taking in her make-up and too-bright lipstick, the way her smile didn't reach her eyes and her ramrod straight posture. Given my recent reading it was easy to pause and think like Philip Marlowe and I realized that I was getting the 'good cop, bad cop' treatment. I frowned.
“You're in here trying to manipulate my emotions,” I said calmly. “I don't like social workers, it's because of a social worker I ended up living with meth addicts until they nearly killed me and then ended up on the streets. I don't like you people.”
“Oh. Oh, yes, I can see your point of view,” she said, and her voice became gentle. “Did a lot of social workers take advantage of you on the street?”
“What?” I asked, my frustration creeping into my tone. “No. What kind of question is that?”
“Well,” she said, shifting forward subtly, “I'm just trying to get a feel for how many other social workers have treated you poorly. I can understand that you got burned and feel mistrust, goodness knows I do. But...well, how is the new county social worker you have?”
Monica Dublin, my social worker, popped into my head. Being fair, she was okay, but I still didn't trust her as far as I could throw her. I decided not to answer, though, as I didn't want to give this woman any more information.
“I'm guessing Monica isn't too bad, right? So would you say that that maybe that means not all social workers are bad?”
I clamped my jaw tightly and stared hard at her. Plainly people were passing information on me without my knowledge. Exactly when had I become an object of interest and speculation?
“I see, I see,” she said and leaned back again. “That puts us all in a hard place, Ehren. I'm not trying to make your life difficult, I'm surely not. But—can I just give you some information? You don't have to talk to me, right now, okay?”
Even though I had no intention of talking to her later, I nodded just to move this little drama along.
“Okay, so, when kids grow up in difficult circumstances they learn different ways to deal with the world. Coping skills we call them,” she said, nodding her head as if she were imparting positive news. “Sometimes those coping skills don't work very well with society in general, does that make sense when I say that? Maybe an example would help?”
“So, we had this boy a few counties over. His parents, like yours, were into illegal substances and they would lock the kids out of the bathroom while they...shot up.
“Well, with the kids unable to access the bathroom, they'd go wherever they could. But this particular child, the only thing he really had control of in his life was being able to go to the bathroom. So, when he got stressed out, he'd hold it and hold it until he couldn't physically do it anymore and then he'd go, wherever he was.”
I wrinkled my nose with distaste and wondered what point she was trying to make.
“Now, as you can imagine, that wasn't going to work out. Other kids could be very mean, even some adults didn't do very well with this poor young man. Now, you're probably wondering what this has to do with you—clear as mud, right? Here it is, kiddo: walking out of a classroom the way you did is a coping mechanism. This went from needing to go to the bathroom to someone telling you no. On the street, you didn't have to hear no very much—in the real world, it happens all the time.”
My frown deepened and, despite my reticence, I opened my mouth. “I had to go, she said—her words implied strongly that she owned me for a set length of time and my needs didn't matter. That won't work.”
“Mm, well that—”
“If I may?” she interrupted Mumbles and turned to me. “Teachers have a tough job, Ehren. They have a lot of kids to teach and a lot of information to get through in a set amount of time. There are a lot of teachers who don't like a child to miss any of that, but at the same time you may have gotten a better result had you asked to use the bathroom rather than simply leaving.”
I turned that over in my mind. I could see her point, but I didn't think it invalidated mine, not completely. I also wasn't thrilled about considering the teacher's perspective; her bladder hadn't been full, after all, mine had.
“Now, I can speak with Mrs. Perkins on your behalf to get you a fresh start for tomorrow's class and you can put this thing behind you. We can chalk it up to first day misunderstandings. How would that be?”
I weighed this in my mind. Mumbles hadn't implied any kind of consequence yet, however if he did and I refused to comply, the issue would be compounded. How far did I want to take this right now? How upset with me would Tris be if I stick to my guns, or would he understand? The last thing I wanted to do was have Tris upset with me. The very last thing.
“Ehren?” she asked. “What do you say?”
She smiled. “Well, that's good then. There's going to be a lot of these things to work through and I can explain them all for you. We're supposed to meet during your sixth period study hall—”
“I don't want to talk to you, I have nothing to say.”
Her face fell in disappointment. Or, apparent disappointment. “May I ask why?”
I debated a moment, my eyes flitting between the two of them. Giving her information was like handing her a weapon to use against me. Social workers must learn that on their first day in social worker school. On the other hand, I had a feeling that this woman wasn't going to go away and I was going to have to figure out a way to deal with her. I leaned forward. “You have a file on me. You think you know me. That file? That's personal. None of you have any right to it. None of you have any right to me. That's why.”
“Oh, I understand your concerns, I sure do!” she said in a tone that almost made her sound relieved. “But I can assure you all I know came from the news articles after that man was arrested and a few conversations with Monica Dublin on the phone. In fact, how about if I show you the file I have? I certainly don't want you to feel like I'm spying on you.”
I stared at her, stolidly refusing to be drawn into any further discussion. Suddenly she chuckled and that threw me for a moment and I tilted my head in curiosity, my hard boiled Marlowe persona sliding off like a mask.
“Listen, Ehren,” she said as she chuckled. “My office is on your schedule. Like just about anything else in life, time with me is a tool you can choose to use or not. Getting any benefit from seeing me is up to you—so I'll see you this afternoon and we can talk, or not. Your choice.”
I wasn't quite sure where her amusement was coming from and once more I felt like there was some social standard I was misinterpreting as well as some continued form of manipulation. The bell rang, muted here in this office, and Mumbles pulled a pad close to him and, clicking his ball point pen, scribbled on the paper.
“Did you find your locker this morning?” she asked in an offhand way, clearly just trying to clear the silence that had descended on the room.
“It's broken,” I replied.
“Oh? What's wrong with it?”
I shrugged. “The dial is snapped off. Can't lock it. Can't open it.”
“What's the number? I'll pass it on to maintenance.”
“Okay, got it!” she said, back to her perky self. I let out a deep breath as Mumbles pulled the paper off the pad and held it out to me.
“Time for your next class. I don't want to see you in here again today, got it?”
I bit back a reply about him not dragging me in here and simply nodded. I left the office, not acknowledging Eileen Belcher and her 'See you sixth period!'. Instead I wondered if Tris would somehow know I'd been in trouble with the rules of his world. I wondered how disappointed he'd be with me. I wondered how long I could bear his disappointment. I admit, right then, I felt pretty bleak—something like the way Commissario Brunetti did as he and his wife, Paola, contemplated corruption in their government or the corruption inherent in human nature.
When lunch came I found a table that was unoccupied and sat down with my food. Beth had made lasagna the night before and I had been thrilled to see it being placed in my lunch bag this morning. As I took my first bite I glanced around the room and tried to spot Tris. I saw few familiar faces; most of the ones I recognized were other kids that Piper and Tris worked with but with whom I wasn't well acquainted.
“Hey. Ehren, right?”
I glanced to my left at the boy who'd suddenly appeared. I didn't recognize him, but that wasn't saying much. I nodded toward him in greeting as he sat with his tray and assessed him. He was dressed nicely in khakis and a polo shirt that was somewhere between pink and purple. His face was clear and his brown eyes were laced with curiosity. Although more difficult to be sure, since I'd been sitting as he approached, he seemed to be about average height with straight brown hair.
“That was pretty epic, what you did to Perkins this morning.” He chuckled and took a bite of whatever was on his tray. I searched my memory for a moment and then recalled the teacher who had refused to let me go to the bathroom. I didn't reply, but that didn't seem to bother him.
“Did you get detention or anything? They usually don't do that the first day.” He looked at me with curiosity. Not breaking eye contact he lifted more food to his mouth while I chewed my food and wondered what about him I didn't quite trust. It was a gut feeling, something deep in my intestines that kind of sloshed around, almost like when you had too much grease and will need a toilet or new pants.
“No,” I replied finally.
“I figured,” he replied and finally glanced away.
My vague discomfort lingered as he fell into eating his food wholeheartedly and grew by leaps and bounds when a slightly fleshy girl with long curly brown hair and pretty, sparkling eyes placed her hands on the table and gushed at me. In fact, gushed is the only word that could describe the verbal onslaught that poured forth.
“Hi, I'm Allison. Allison Wilson and I have to tell you how much I love your hair. Did you color it? It's not a straight bleach job, right? I mean, you had to go through a process, right? I saw this video on You Tube where this guy put in this silver hair coloring, but first you had to do this other thing and it made his hair sort of violet for a short time—which looked great, by the way!”
She finally paused and, amazingly, it seemed as though there was a response she expected to elicit—something beyond my staring at her.
“Allie, was there a question or something in there? 'Cause that was a whole lot of words,” the guy said.
Her face colored and it suited her. Abashed she said, “I was just wondering if your hair was natural.”
“It is,” I replied.
“I love it!” she squealed. She hopped a little on her feet, bouncing really, and then stopped dead as if she were some sort of automaton and her battery had simply quit. “Oh, um, before I forget...my friend wants to know if you're single.”
I tilted my head at her in curiosity. It seemed odd to be so forward to start with, especially with a complete stranger. Odder still to be asking personal questions. I realized that, harmless as she might be, she was something of a loose cannon and that presented its own sort of danger.
“He's taken, Allie,” my lunch mate said, chuckling.
“Seriously, Tim?” she said in an exasperated tone. “First day and you hooked him?”
As I opened my mouth to reply, sick of both her questions and this fellow's company, Brandon's voice cut through everything like a car accident breaks up a quiet morning.
“Ehren, what the fuck are you sitting with him for?” he demanded, slapping his tray down. Melody trailed behind him with a chagrined look on her lovely face.
“Easy, tough guy. He was here when I got here,” Tim replied.
“I wasn't talking to you, douche,” Brandon growled and fixed his gaze on me. Given that he'd been damn near friendly to me only that morning, I was very concerned with his attitude. Because of that concern, I decided to ignore the shitty attitude he was throwing and simply answer him.
“It's like he said,” I replied, gesturing toward Tim. “I was sitting alone, he just dropped in. Why?”
Brandon fixed me with an unreadable look as Melody moved past him and sat beside me. She placed a hand on my forearm and, with a tilt of her head toward Tim, said, “That's Tim. Tristan's ex.”
I turned my head so fast an audible pop could be heard. I looked at the interloper with new eyes, ones who no longer saw him as just some random, semi-nosy kid. Now, I figured he had some sort of motive, some game he was running. But how would he know who I was to Tris? In order for him to be as nefarious as I suddenly felt he was being, he'd need to know that. Right? And he had; he'd told her I was taken.
Tim, for his part, flashed a sick smile and stood up. Glancing at Brandon he said, “I saw him on Tris's Instagram. I just wondered about my replacement, that's all.”
“He's not a replacement,” Brandon said, his voice completely unwelcoming. “He's an upgrade.”
Tim glanced down at me and a thoughtful look settled on his handsome features. “Yeah, maybe you're right.” With that he picked up his tray and departed. Brandon watched him go, a scornful look on his face before sitting down and giving me a mistrustful look.
“So, you're not dating Tim then?” Allie suddenly piped up. Odd as it may seem, with the almost violently sudden turn of events when Brandon arrived and Tim departed, I'd forgotten about the girl.
“He's dating Tristan Malone, Allie,” Melody supplied in a kind tone. Allie's mouth scrunched off to one side for a moment and then whatever troubled her passed.
“He's adorable, isn't he? Tris I mean? Well, I better go—but I really do love your hair!” With a wave she bounced off, disappearing into the room that was nearly full of people sitting, talking and eating.
“She's harmless,” Melody said to me with a smile. “Really friendly, but you do realize she was hitting on you. Right?”
I lifted an eyebrow in her direction and resumed eating. I thought about my experience with Allie and tried to put together where she may have been hitting on me. She'd complimented my hair, sort of, but had been far more interested in how I'd achieved the color than paying it — me — compliments. She'd inquired about my dating status for her friend...ah, perhaps that was it.
“Was she not asking if I was single for a friend of hers?” I asked Melody. As she smiled in response and opened her mouth to reply, Brandon grunted.
“So, you did know. You better not be flirting back!”
I glanced at Brandon, his angular face marred by one of his frequent frowns, and then I dismissed him and turned my attention back to Melody. She, too, had spared a glance at her boyfriend, but one of tried patience. Brandon wasn't entirely oblivious and demanded to know why she was looking at him like that.
“Because, Bran, Ehren didn't do anything wrong. I know you love Tris, but—”
“Whoa!” he protested.
“But,” she said firmly, speaking over him, “you have to accept that Tris is in a relationship. If you keep treating Ehren like he's cheating every time you turn around, Tris might get a little upset with you. You might want to remember that.”
Brandon's mouth closed and he glanced at me and then back to Melody. “Tris doesn't get angry with me.”
“You've never accused his boyfriend of cheating before, Bran. Look,” she said, speaking as if it were just she and he at the table. “Would it kill you to give Ehren the benefit of the doubt? I don't think he wants to see Tris hurt, either, so cut him some slack. Okay?”
He glanced at me and I kept my expression neutral and continued to eat. He sighed and said in a low, clear voice, “I'm sorry.”
“Apology accepted, Mon Ami,” I replied, doing my best Hercule Poirot.
“What did you call me?” he asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
Melody giggled, “It means 'my friend' in French, silly.”
“Nice benefit of the doubt, Brandon,” I snickered and went back to my lunch while Brandon scowled once before a slightly embarrassed look crossed his face and he remembered his lunch.Next Chapter