We brushed and climbed under the light covers. My thoughts were turning toward Nathaniel and what might have stopped him from speaking to me this week when Mason spoke.
“Hey. Um. Can I ask you a serious question? I mean, you were saying the other day about how you wished you'd asked some questions and...I was thinking.”
I glanced at his shadowed form and said, “Sure.”
“Uh. It's something I wanted to ask, but it seemed a little personal.” He paused. “It's just that...when Jackson died...I mean, you don't seem like it affected you very much. I'm kind of...I've been worried about that.”
I hummed a reply and turned my gaze up toward the ceiling. “Jackson and I had a weird relationship. People have always told me about the twin bond and how we must be nearly inseparable and stuff like that. The truth is, though, that he was just...there. We weren't really close. Closer than Tina is or was with either of us, but that's not saying much.” I thought for a moment. “We developed differently, too. He saw our dad as being always that close to making it big, and he bought into it. It's sort of like people who buy lottery tickets and always feel like they are one ticket away from riches.”
“I really didn't know him,” Mason said quietly.
“I didn't want you to,” I admitted. “Jackson was headed bad. Where he saw dad as an eventual winner, I saw a continuous losing streak fueled by laziness, incompetence and stupidity. As far as how I felt after he died...I was angry. Which was new, because I thought I burned out a lot of my feelings.”
“Is that why you don't date?”
I thought for a minute. I didn't see much point in random dating. I was very invested in wanting to be sure. Wanting security. I also didn't see the point in telling him I saw that in him – because he thought I was gay, which I wasn't. Ris gives me just as much loyalty, and I could be sure of myself with her, too. It's just who he is that makes me react, and I could have seen myself with either of them. “Mostly, yeah. I don't see the point,” I decided on for now.
I heard Mason shift, probably lying on his side in a more or less futile attempt to look at me in the near-dark of the room.
Switching back to the previous subject, I said, “I was angry at my father. He got Jackson killed. He filled his head with all his broken promises and dreams of what would never be – spinning them as what could be, if only someone hadn't screwed him over or something equally stupid. Jackson trusted our father, and it got him killed.” I sighed. “I was angry at my father – livid, furious – take your pick. But it was impotent because there was nothing I could do. I'd always hoped Jackson would pull himself out of that life, that he'd wake up. I talked to him about it a little, but it never did any good. Then he started lifting. Pretty sure he got into steroids.” I cleared my throat. “I miss things, but not...I think I mostly miss things that were part of my routine so long I wasn't sure...I knew something was missing. Like, there are these divots on the carpet in my room where his bed used to be. There's space in that room when there never used to be any. It made me feel, and I wasn't sure what to do with that.”
Mason was quiet for a minute and then asked, “How come your mom never stepped in?”
“I don't really know,” I said honestly. “All I've ever known her as is being high one way or another. Drunk, stoned, whatever. She wasn't capable of doing anything. Whatever fight she had in her she gave up on a long time ago. I was always angry at her for sticking us all with our father.”
I felt his hand nudge against my shoulder. “I never knew you were so angry.”
“Why do you think I have such a winning personality?” I asked and snorted. “We always accepted each other's flaws, Mason. You knew I was messed up just like you have your stuff. We don't pretend it doesn't exist. We just...didn't talk about it.”
His hand moved again, but stayed on my shoulder. “I'm trying to change. A little at a time, like you said – because you're the only person that will tell me things like that. Things just for my benefit. I've been doing a lot of thinking. Wondering why I didn't know important things about you when you're my best friend.”
My eyes stung and I tried to take a steady breath. I wasn't all that successful.
I wiped my eyes. “What?”
“Are you okay? I mean, really?”
I took a slower breath, more in control of myself. “I'm dealing the best I can.”
“Anything I can do?”
“You're doing it.”
After a few moments of silence where I thought he was done, he spoke again. “Why do you think my parents can't talk to me without you? I mean...I still feel like they like me more with you around. Don't tell me I'm being stupid – I'm not saying they don't care. I just don't get it.”
I thought it over for a minute to choose my words with care. “I think your parents were so fucked up as a couple, they got paralyzed. Sort of.”
“I don't get that.”
“Well, start from the basic idea that people are stupid,” I said. “Then add the stress of a bad relationship and maybe they forget how to talk to their son, because so much of what goes on in the house would lead them right back to the spouse that they are cheating on or fighting with. I don't know why people think they should stay together for the sake of a kid if they are miserable. Your mom is clearly happier with your dad gone, and she's doing her best to make up for lost time with you.”
He grunted. “You're right. People are stupid.”
“We done with our feelings?” I asked, trying to sound like I was teasing but also feeling like I'd left part of myself exposed.
He was quiet for a few beats, then said, “For now. This is going to be, like, a new thing for us. After seeing what your dad did to you, well, it's made me think. A lot.”
“You know,” I said thoughtfully. “I wonder if your mom asking me about you – like if you were okay – was because they were afraid to approach you. Like they'd fucked up too much already and you wouldn't accept them.”
“Huh. You think?”
I shrugged. “It's possible. Guilt makes people do weird things.”
The next morning we went running again with Matt at the school. Well, they ran. I crossed the internal part of the track and verbally abused them. Matt had brought two other defensive guys with him, which surprised me. When I thought about it I realized it shouldn't. They could see the progress Matt was making, so they were willing to commit, and Matt was developing into a leader. They would follow his successful path, for now.
We ran some drills with me as a forward who didn't move all that much, but Mason was able to give them a workout. It was also good for Mason, though he likely thought he was just helping me out. He has a surprisingly moderate ego. By noon we called it and I told them all to do distance running the next day at an easy pace, but not to stop for at least thirty minutes.
I looked up into the stands, hoping to see Nathaniel watching, but he wasn't there, just like he hadn’t been there the other hundred times I'd looked since we'd been at the field. I'd vacillated between being worried that I hadn't heard from him the past week, to annoyed at my worry, to irritated that he'd blown me off to more annoyance. He'd taken up a lot of my time that week. I looked over at the second parking lot just visible past the other end of the school and spotted a car that looked vaguely familiar. I wracked my brain trying to identify it, then realized it was the car Nathaniel was in the night I saw him outside Mason's house.
“Mase?” I called.
“Yeah, we can go,” he said, chuckling as he started away from the guys.
“No. Hang on, go back to chatting. I'll be right back.”
He gave me an odd look, but I didn't explain. I set off across the field. I half expected Nathaniel to leave before I got there, but instead he got out, walked around to the front of the car, and leaned against the nose. He was dressed oddly for driving – socks, shorts and a tee shirt. The missing shoes puzzled me. When I was close enough to speak to him I studied his face for a moment, taking in his features in daylight. He didn't appear disinterested like he had that night, but something wasn't adding up for me.
His green eyes were bright, though, and when he blinked his hair looked lighter colored without the glow of his eyes to offset it. What a stupid thought – why am I noticing shit like that?
“I missed you this week,” I said to him.
“I know,” he said quietly. I drew up next to him and sat on the hood of his car.
“I'm pretty disappointed. I trusted you.”
He winced slightly. “I...chickened out.”
My irritation dissipated at his non-confrontational posture and tone. “Why?” I asked, softening my tone.
He let out a long breath. “Nothing important. Just me, I guess.”
This wasn't the dismissive, bored tough guy from the stands a week ago. “Will you tell me now why I should hate you?” I asked softly.
He turned toward me, his green eyes shimmering in the sunlight. Small spots of color on his cheeks and the way he bit his lip briefly sent a lurch though my chest. What the hell was that?
“It's...you know I'm involved in the life. I'm one of them.”
“No,” I said thoughtfully. “You're not. But why would I hate you for that?”
He cleared his throat and leaned back against the car, then shifted so he was sitting beside me.
“My dad ran off when he got my mom pregnant, according to my mom. I think it's more likely that she got knocked up and didn't know who the father was. She had a few guys in her life, almost none of them worth a shit. I did okay until about the year I turned twelve. My uncle...he tried to rent me out to someone in the trailer park.”
“When you say 'rent you out'....”
He pursed his lips and pooched them out slightly. “He tried to whore me.”
Anger bubbled inside me, and a feeling of helplessness that fed my anger. “And then?”
He glanced at me. “I cut the guy up so badly he had to get stitches.”
I smiled savagely. “Damn right.”
A smile flashed across his face and then he looked away. “He got better. He got even. A lot. Until I killed him.”
I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I stared at him and willed him to take it back, but I knew better. He was furtive. Angry. Struck overwhelmingly if he struck at all because he had to make damn sure it counted. I'd grown up in a toxic environment, but this? My father hadn't ever...wait. What about Tina? She was also angry, sneaky and...holy shit. How did I not see this before?
“Fuck. I'm glad you ended that son of a bitch,” I said, a growl in my voice.
He bobbed his head slowly. “Yeah. I wasn't happy. Just...relieved. Anyway, my uncle decided I had other uses and started taking me on jobs so I could go through small spaces that he couldn't fit through. Fences, duct work, even a sewer line once. He was always real careful around me because he thought I was psycho and would kill him if I got the chance.” He looked at me, squinting one eye. “He wasn't wrong.”
“I wondered if you were a little crazy after what you did to Kevin,” I admitted.
He blew out a dismissive breath and looked back toward the fields. “Kevin and Jackson had a little side thing going on at school. They were breaking into houses to steal pills and resell them. Kevin had some weird idea that...you owed him. That Jackson was somehow your fault. His dying, I mean. Because Jackson went with your dad and not you, since you had no interest.” Interesting that he knew that about me. He looked slightly more toward me, possibly seeing me in his peripheral vision. “He was fixing to break your knee so you'd lose soccer. Somehow he thought that was fair.”
I let out a low whistle. “I guess I owe you thanks for keeping him away from me.”
He shook his head. He took in a deep breath and let it out. “I killed Jackson.”
I was momentarily dumbfounded. His shoulders had tensed and he was sitting still, waiting for my reaction. My mind raced. I'd never known the details of what went wrong the night Jackson died, but it hadn't mattered a great deal. Nothing was going to change the outcome. Besides, Jackson and my father had put him in whatever situation had ended him.
“I don't believe you're correct,” I said to him.
He looked toward me and frowned. “I was there. I should know.”
“Then explain it to me,” I said calmly.
He fumbled with his hands and looked away from me again. “There was a deal for some guns going on. I was going with my uncle, and he said he had a few guys coming, too. There was an argument. People started shooting, and when it was over your dad, Jackson, me and my uncle were the ones left standing. Dumb luck more than skill, believe me,” he said. He lightly cleared his throat and said, “Your brother all of a sudden points a gun at my uncle and basically says the guns were more valuable if he didn't have to split the profits. Your father told him he was crazy, but he was smiling as he said it. I think he was proud. There was more gunfire. I'm pretty sure I hit Jackson. My uncle died. I got away.”
I digested that. His version of events rang true to me. I could see Jackson double dealing, and I could see my father being proud of it. Encouraging it.
“One question,” I said. Nathaniel turned his head toward me a fraction, letting me know he'd heard and was listening. “How is it you're working with my dad if you guys were in a shootout against each other?”
“The Double-A. They don't tolerate fighting in the ranks, and your dad was warned if I went missing they'd bury him just to be sure.” He paused, then in a quieter voice said, “Plus I think your dad takes one look at me and figures I'm not that dangerous.”
I nodded slowly. I was relieved to know the story, in a way. It was good to have the details. It had always felt like an inevitable, if sad outcome for Jackson. I'd hoped he'd turn away from that crap and smarten up, but hopes were nothing to pin your life on. I didn't relive the sadness of Jackson's death, nor did I feel some sort of blame toward Nathaniel. We were all victims here. This nutcase had latched onto me for some reason, and someone had to look out for him. He was loyal and...something else. Someone had to be on his side.
He may have pulled the trigger, and I had no reason not to believe him, but it seemed like self defense. Not only that, my father had signed Jackson's death certificate years ago. I'd just been waiting with a dreadful certainty for it to be fulfilled. I looked down and my gaze drifted down his legs to the dingy socks on his feet.
“Why aren't you wearing shoes?” I asked.
He turned and looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. “I tell you I murdered your brother and you ask about my shoes?”
I made sure to look him in the eyes. “Nathaniel, Jackson was headed down the wrong road. I'm sorry for what happened to him, but it was going to be that way because of the choices he made. Between him and my father, who was happily leading him down the path to throwing his life away, they made sure Jackson would die young.” I wet my lips. “I can't hate you for defending yourself. Do I wish Jackson hadn't died? Sure. But mostly because I carried a little hope that he'd pull his head from his ass. We weren't close.”
He let out a long, ragged breath and then took an equally ragged inhalation. He seemed to be trying to control his breathing. I realized he was still stressed, maybe in shock from my not wanting to kill him. Far from it. I was now trying to analyze him based on this new information. He had a conscience, which seemed a rare commodity in my experience. That was worth knowing, and keeping close. He was honorable, seeking to pay his imagined debts – at least to me.
“Is that why you thought you owed me? For Jackson?” I asked, trying to keep him talking. To keep him breathing. What would I do if he hyperventilated or something?
He nodded slowly, his breath steadying. Then his hands wrestled each other in his lap. Unconsciously I reached out and laid my hand over his to still them. He froze.
“Why don't you have shoes?” I asked softly.
He turned his gaze to me. His eyes glistened, and I watched his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. Something inside of me stretched, cracked and expanded to fill me and push boundaries. I have no words to describe the process, not completely. It was confusing. A bit scary. Exhilarating. Something that maybe I found hard to believe, but hope.
“I was there because of you.” His voice was resigned, heavy with anticipation of a blow to come.
I frowned lightly and released his hands. “I'm sorry?”
“My uncle...he said Wayne Miller was bringing his son to the gun deal. I thought it was you, so I went. He’d’a made me go, but I went for my own reasons.”
I tilted my head to one side. “Why did you go there for me?” I looked into his eyes and he looked back at me. His lower lip trembled and his eyes were suddenly full of liquid, transforming those green chips into pools fit to mesmerize.
He sniffled and wiped his eyes, breaking the visual contact. Looking down he said, “Because I'm gay. And I...liked you.”
I wasn't sure what to do with that. My mind exploded in several different directions. What should have been the reasoning for joining a club, sport or something to get near a crush had turned into a nightmare for him. He'd actually gone to a gun deal just to see me. Bashed someone's knee for threatening me, to protect me. Put himself in mortal danger to warn me. Now he was wracked with guilt and protecting me out of a misguided sense of debt. Was that all, though?
“So. I mean. You don't really know me.”
“I do,” he said softly. “You're smart. That project we all had to do for the science fair? The wind-power thing you did with Mason? That was super interesting.”
“Yeah. I really liked the model you guys set up,” he said and sniffled. “Mason has gotten into more shit than any one guy I know, outside of the ones who get in trouble with the law. You pull his ass out of every jam and get him home safe. You don't drink, not more than a glass. Ever. I heard Marissa Caracala had an abortion last year, and you went with her.”
“Not Marissa, her sister, but yeah, I went,” I said quietly. I was amazed he'd been appraising me from afar for so long and I'd never noticed. In a way it was concerning, but not because he was doing it. I'd sealed myself off from other people and it hadn't ever occurred to me that someone would surveil me in such a way – I mean, why? Undeterred, Nathaniel continued bolstering his claim to know me.
“Your best friends are Mason and Marissa. I don't know where Valerie fits in, but I'm guessing she's Marissa's friend first, and someone who is interested in you second. You're sixteen, haven't failed a class since you got into middle school and...and....” He looked far from happy to have told me all this. In fact he looked beat down and ready to break. My poorly described emotions became physical as something fluttered hard inside my chest. I pulled my phone out in a rush of poorly examined emotions and called Mason.
“Yo,” he answered in a goofy tone.
“Mase. I got a ride. Meet you at your house,” I said and hung up.
I looked across the field as I slid off the hood and saw Mason looking at me. I waved and he waved back.
“What are you doing? What the heck?” Nathaniel spluttered as I moved to the passenger side of his car. I opened the door and saw what I was afraid I'd find. Clothes. Blankets and a pillow. A bottle of water and some junk food, plus a tiny cooler in the passenger foot well. I shifted a few things and sat down, pulling the seat belt over me.
“Hey! Get out of my car!” he growled.
I looked at him blandly. “Nathaniel. You know so much about me – so you know how stubborn I am, right?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Drive me home, Nathaniel.”
“I don't have the gas,” he said dubiously.
I looked at him steadily. He frowned, hard.
“Fine. I'll drop you off.”
“Oh, you'll do more than that,” I said as he climbed in the driver's side. He looked at me with a combination of hostility and curiosity. “We have a lot to talk about, more than you realize. You're also living in your car and I want to know why. Your clothes are dirty, and you stink. So before we can have a conversation you need to clean up and get clean clothes on. You should properly meet Mason. He's a great cook.”
He spluttered for a moment and then said in a demanding tone, “I don't stink!”
I looked at him and smiled slightly. “You smell like ass left out on a hot sidewalk in July. Now stop fighting with me. We have a lot to talk about.”
“Like what?” he demanded.
“Getting out, for one. Our future for another.” I paused and then added, “And getting you under a roof again.”
We'd sat still for long enough that Mason had pulled up beside us. I put the window down and looked at him. He glanced past me and smiled.
“Hey, Nathaniel,” he said with a shit eating grin. “Ethan, I'm going to call the girls for movie night. We can do rom-coms.”
“Mason, don't make me kill you,” I growled.
“See you at home!” Mason said with a grin and pulled out of the space.
“What's going on?” Nathaniel demanded. “Are you screwing with me?”
“No,” I said with a sigh. “Mason is screwing with me.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Okay, let me lay out a few things for you, because Mason is determined now.”
I heard him shift in his seat, possibly to turn toward me a bit, but I didn't open my eyes to look. This was stupid. I don't know how I ended up here. In a normal world my parents wouldn't be the complete waste that they are, Jackson would be alive – probably – and I'd be less tightly wound, enough that I could comfortably date and expose my heart like so many others. Of course, that would likely mean I'd never have understood Mason and he'd not have wasted his time on me. I don't believe that tripe about everything happening for a reason, but I was foolish enough to feel as if some sort of happenstance was going on.
First, though, I had uncharted territory to deal with. I opened my eyes and dropped my hand to my lap before turning my gaze to him. He was looking at me with some suspicion.
“So I've been trying to figure you out. The messages in the locker room corners, wondering if that was you with Kevin – especially after you helped us out in the Glades.” I sighed. “Mason came up with the theory that you liked me, and he'll be impossible if he finds out he was right. Plus he's under some misguided notion that I have self-image problems. Ris – Marissa – told him I'm hot in a text to try and make him jealous because she's into him. Valerie has been sniffing around, despite the my rule that I don't date. So him inviting the girls is...evil.”
I glanced over at him and saw he was frowning. “How is any of that relevant to me?”
“Well,” I spluttered a little. “Mason will try to tease us both. Valerie will probably get miffed or jealous or something. I don't know about Ris. I just thought I should warn you.”
“I just won't stay.”
“Yes, you fucking will,” I said firmly. His eyes opened wide. “Don't you look so surprised. All this time you've been protecting me, and you're living in a car while I'm sleeping comfortably in a soft bed? Nah. I don't treat loyalty that way. I repay it. And don't bring up Jackson again!”
His mouth, which had opened, closed without a word.
“I get where you're coming from. I do.” I paused, looking away and then back to him before letting out a breath. “Maybe if Jackson and I had been in a different family, different...everything, then maybe. But there's what is and what isn't, and that wasn't. Jackson is dead because of his actions and my father leading him willingly down that path. If he'd died of an overdose I couldn't blame the dealer or the drug – I blame the choices he made that put him in harm’s way.” I paused, studying his face. I knew his mind wouldn't adjust from what he'd believed right away, but I was determined.
“That sounds reasonable. When you care about people – family – reason doesn't usually go very far,” he said, a slight tremor to his voice.
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, that's true.” I looked up at him. “At least for normal people, it's true. Jackson and I didn't have that kind of relationship. We were brothers in name only. I...wish it hadn't been like that. I wish we'd been more like the twins you hear about who know each other's thoughts and are each other's best friend. When he died...I felt the emptiness of his absence, but I struggled to feel bad about it.”
I turned and looked out the window.
I cut in before he could get me any farther off course. “Fact is, you've gone to the wall for me. I can't do any less, even if I didn't ask for you to help me. I may have to ask you to help us both before this is over.”