“What do you mean?”
There was a moment of hesitation, then, “He won't be talking to you like that anymore. That's all.”
“What do you mean?” I asked again, curious.
“Who are you talking to?” Mason asked, his shirt dangling from his fingertips. I looked up at him.
“Someone in the other corner was talking to me,” I said, pointing to the whispering arch.
“Yeah? Get a number or something?” he teased.
“Yeah. I'll give it to you later,” I told him with a snort. He laughed and slipped the shirt on, covering his golden tan. Kid had good genes and went on nice vacations, that was for sure.
“Was texting Ris last night. Hope to glaze her donut again,” he said, pantomiming sex by throwing his hips wildly back and forth.
I rolled my eyes, but said nothing. I put my jeans on the hook in the locker and pulled on my shorts and a tee quickly. Mason and I hung out together for the class, which seemed to be more of a free for all than anything with any real direction. After class we swapped into our cleats, cups and shin guards. Coach Kincaide barked out his instructions and we started stretching with the captains.
“Oh. I almost forgot,” Mason said. “What were you talking to that guy about?”
“In the locker room. The arch,” he prompted.
“Oh. He said something about Kevin not talking to me like that anymore.”
“Haskins, probably,” I replied with a shrug.
“He say something else?”
He glanced at me and I shrugged. I thought back to the morning Kevin had been a douche to me, but I couldn't remember anything out of the ordinary. He'd been a douche Thursday, but I had no real concrete reason why other than him being an asshole. I had no idea who the voice belonged to or why they were suddenly doing anything about Kevin being a dick toward me. I knew I'd find an opening to stick it to Kevin at some point, but it puzzled me that someone else was getting involved. I found it interesting and let my mind wander down the various paths and dead-ends of possibilities for just why someone would do that.
Coach ran us hard that afternoon, and I was happy about it. The more worn out I was, the better I'd sleep – the longer I'd sleep. I could probably count on getting out of the house with Mason or Ris at some point over the weekend, but neither was the type to make many plans in advance. When practice was called we stumbled off the field, sore and spent. I grabbed my water and upended it, drinking the whole thing in one go and still feeling thirsty afterward.
Mase flopped down beside me, arms over his eyes, and the hem of his shirt rode up to expose his stomach. My water bottle was coated in condensation, so I laid it on his exposed skin and laughed as he bolted up at the cold, wet touch.
“Fucker,” he muttered.
“Payback, bitch,” I snickered.
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, but the corners of his mouth turned up in amusement. Anything he might have said was cut off as coach began his dissection of our practice. He did a lot of hand waving and making points that would have been easier for me to see if they were on a white board or something. I had a hard time picturing things the way he was describing them. Eventually he ran down and let us go. I groaned as I gained my feet and grabbed my bag.
“You know,” Mase said as we walked to his car, “I think the problem with Ris is that she wants to bang you.”
I tossed my bag in his car and flopped into the passenger seat. “What weird train of thought took you there?” I asked.
“Eats, she'd totally bang you. She says you're hot.”
“So?” I asked, disinterested.
“She's good looking. You never noticed?” he pressed.
“I noticed. You driving or are we going to make out?” I asked.
“Driving. I'm not that hard up,” he said with a grin. We cruised through the town, and the open window was a real blessing.
“Want to get drunk tonight?” Mason asked as he pulled up in front of my house.
I glanced at him. “You need me to drive?”
“Sure. Pick me up later or want to wait for me to get cleaned up?”
“Pick you up at seven-thirty.”
“Cool.” I climbed from the car and headed for my front door. Mason was a drinker, probably trying to numb his home life. I didn't pry, but then I didn't have to. Observation had taught me he didn't trust to sleeping at other people's houses. He had no problem with strange places, it was the people he didn't trust, so no matter how much he drank he wanted to sleep in his own bed. He also knew I wasn't much of a drinker and he could trust me to drive his car and get him home safe. This was old hat by now.
Jackson had hated Mason. Jackson would always get angry and wonder what Mason had to worry about, considering his parents had money and spent it on him as well as themselves. In many ways Jackson and I had been opposites, and this was just another example. Where he was loud, I was quiet. Where he was angry, I was contemplative. Where he was oblivious, I was observant. Where he was passionate, I was dead inside.
I was pulled from these thoughts by the front door opening and Tina stepping out. She drew up short for a moment at seeing me, but regained her poise right away.
“I'd disappear tonight if I were you, pussy,” she scoffed. “Dear old Dad will be looking for someone to ride shotgun.”
I lifted my chin in understanding. She pursed her lips, sneered slightly, and went on her way. I glanced over my shoulder as she walked quickly down the walk and headed toward the end of the road. My sister and I had never been close, but I appreciated what she'd just done. It may have saved my life. I went inside to the familiar scents of tobacco, old food and pot. The tang from the previous night was absent, thankfully.
I tossed my bag in my room, then pulled my phone out. I sent a message to Mason asking if he could pick me up sooner, otherwise I'd have to meet him out of the house. I grabbed clean underwear and headed to the shower. I glanced into the living room as I passed, but didn't see anyone which was a relief. I showered quickly, finger combed my short brown hair and met my brown eyes in the mirror. It was an odd feeling, looking into my own eyes. In many ways it should have been like looking at Jackson, but he'd tended toward football rather than soccer, weightlifting rather than basketball and so on. It made him much more muscular than I was, to the point that his face was fuller than my own – but that may have been from steroids I suspected he'd been using.
As small kids we'd been mirror images. Our personalities had been anything but. Jackson enjoyed fooling people into trying to figure out which twin we were. I wanted to be an individual instead of half of a set. I've read accounts of twins being so close as to have physically felt things the other did, but we weren't like that. I often wondered if there was something wrong with us, something genetically off.
I brushed my teeth and went back to my room to dress. I had a few nice shirts, ones I'd lifted from Mason's closet. He had more than he needed and didn't mind. I pulled on comfortable jeans and a long sleeved tee that hugged my frame. After pulling on my sneakers I was ready to leave, but pulled up short at the sound of the front door closing hard. I glanced at my window and debated how quickly I could get out, but realized I'd dithered too long when my door opened.
“Good, you're here.” He hooked his thumb. “I need a shotgun tonight.”
I kept my expression neutral. “No.” My heart rate jumped and my mind flipped like a broken movie reel, exposing the bruises and scars my father had gifted me.
He cocked his head and leaned toward me, shifting his weight and moving his left shoulder to the front, his right arm behind him. “I know I must have heard you wrong.”
My breathing was becoming shallow and I struggled to control my mounting tension and fear. Perhaps foolishly, I decided to be clear. “You already got one of us killed. I won't be the second.”
He swung then, a blow I knew was coming, but I still wasn't fast enough to completely avoid it. I threw myself backward, and his fist connected just to the side of my right eye. He'd held his right hand back behind him because he was right handed, so he had been preparing to swing at me no matter what I'd said. He moved in on me, and I blocked and dodged as fast as I could, fear thrumming through my veins. I threw a punch, glancing off his shoulder weakly, then followed it up with a feint of a kick, and then a shot that banged off his collarbone.
The room was small and he outweighed me, so it didn't last long before he got a hold on me and knocked my nose hard. My eyes watered and a stinging sensation spread across the middle of my face as I backed away, stumbling but staying upright. He shoved me, and I bounced lightly off the wall, but he stopped his pursuit as I wiped my eyes. His phone was ringing and he glared at me as he answered.
“Yeah.” He left my room and I ran my fingers under my nose to check for blood. None, so that was good. I grabbed my phone and scrambled out of my window, pulling the pane shut behind me and crouching down. My breathing was still ragged and I was trembling from the altercation.
“Ethan? E? Damn it!” My father was calling out my name and I cowered under my window. I clenched my teeth, willing them to stop trying to clack together. It was a little paranoid, but I thought he'd hear them. I heard the door to my room close and I broke from my cover, jumping the fence beside our house. The last thing I needed was to go over the back fence and have him see me from the kitchen window or something. This side of the house had me well blocked from potential view.
I hustled down the street, checking frequently that he hadn't come out front to look for me or decided to leave and recruit someone else – either way, I didn't want him to see me. I didn't get far, before my paranoia dug in hard and I ducked into someone's back yard, behind their storage shed. I pulled my phone out and checked to see if Mason had replied. Instead I saw one from Ris.
Mason is a jackass.
I sighed, not needing this right now – or maybe I did. Anything to try and sluice off some of the feelings I had that left me so out of control. Okay.
He told you, didn't he?
I thought for a moment, allowing me to fool my body into thinking I was safe and it was okay to ratchet down on the galloping heart thing. I decided playing dumb was the best option. Mason wouldn't care, but I didn't like repeating what people said to me one-on-one, much less in confidence.
Just like last night, she fell silent. I assumed this had to do with Mason stating she'd like to sleep with me, but that would be a whole other mess if I were wrong. Mason may have said it just to see what I'd say. I'm reasonably certain what she'd said wasn't true, but just a gambit to make him jealous. They were idiots. Instead of pushing her, I flipped back to my text to Mason.
Out of the house. Walking to store on Gardner.
The mini-mart on Gardner was a familiar meeting place for us. I'd snuck out of my window on several occasions – in fact it was one of the few things Jackson and I had both done that didn't annoy me. As a rule I cultivated interests that were separate from his so they could be mine. Sneaking out facilitated a lot of things, though, so I went with it. He'd sneak to friends’ houses, sometimes to drink or maybe get stoned. I'm not sure our father would have cared, but I think both of us were unwilling to risk his erratic judgment. My desire for individuality pulled me away from things like drinking and drugs, just as Jackson was drawn to them.
I'd snuck out many times to hang with Ris and Mason, the only people I trusted. I'd camped out at one home or the other enough times while bad situations at home worked themselves out. I waited a few more minutes, long enough that Mason replied in the affirmative, and then I cautiously struck out again. As I walked I turned my thoughts back to the mysterious voice from the locker room rather than dwell on my father. What could he have meant, that Kevin wouldn't be talking to me like that again? Why would anyone care how he'd spoken to me? I let my mind wander down that path for a moment, but was pulled from it by a loud crack of thunder from overhead. I glanced up and noticed the dark clouds for the first time.
I hurried along, still looking out for the ever smaller chance that my father would spot me. Once under the canopy of the mini-mart, my thoughts turned again to Mason and Ris. Ris was a good person, even if she could be thorny. She was looking for tender things in places inside Mason that she shouldn't; places that didn't yet exist but may, given time. She was right that Mason was good looking, and together they made an appealing couple – at least aesthetically. Ris was tall, and while people had given her a hard time when she'd sprouted up, she had eventually realized what an asset her height was. She could wear things shorter girls couldn't and get guys like Mason to notice. Of course, Mason wasn't a relationship kind of guy, at least not yet, so that was a mixed bag.
I think Mason's biggest problem was that he was better than he realized. His parents were focused on their own fucked relationship, and their clear affection was the only thing he really lacked, I think. He made up for that hole by throwing himself away on any girl willing to spread her legs, and of course me. Not that I spread my legs, but I gave him the same things he gave me. Loyalty. Stability. Unflinching friendship. It's how I knew what he was really capable of, given time. If he could do that with me, there was no limit to him.
Mason's car pulled into the lot twenty minutes later, and I hopped in quickly. He never asked why I wanted to be picked up early – he knew. I liked that he didn't ask. In a way, it was nice that Mason knew me well enough. I looked in the side mirror at my face, but I must not have gotten popped that hard since there wasn't anything I could see on my face. He thumped his thumbs on the steering wheel in time to the beat of the music, but other than that the car ride was quiet. We went back to his house and he started to get ready, but then got distracted texting.
His house was a large architectural mess. It had a red front door with small decorative side panels and curving overhead, but that's where any resemblance to a colonial stopped. I can't even decide what sort of style you'd call it, except maybe early wino. A TV blared somewhere, and behind a door his father was yelling. It sounded like it was into a phone since no one was yelling back. Mason's room is large, with a full-sized bed, TV and games with a futon couch to sit on while someone played.
I switched on a video game and settled in to wait things out.
“I don't get it. Ris said she liked the sex. Why is she being so...whatever this is.” He frowned down at his phone. I didn't think he'd addressed the question to me, rather that it was rhetorical, so I ignored him.
“Eats. What sort of girl do you think is perfect for me?”
I glanced at him. “The kind that accepts credit cards?”
He closed one eye and glared at me with the other. “Come on. Am I seriously that bad?”
I tilted my head and ran through the mental list of girls he'd been entangled with to one degree or another. “Yep, pretty sure.”
“You could lie to me once in a while, you know. Say something nice.”
“It's not what you pay me for, boss,” I told him and he threw a pillow at me.
“Dick. Who else will tell me the truth though, right?”
I set the pillow aside. “About this? Any girl you've messed around with.”
“Then why do I need you for a best friend, huh?” he asked, placing a hand on his hip.
“Simple. No one else will take the job,” I told him. My game was interrupted by him sitting on me, then pushing me and we wrestled a little, calling each other names and generally being sort-of normal. It was as close to normal as I ever felt, anyway. I finally pushed him off, and he ran a hand through his hair to resettle it.
“I think she's trying to get under my skin by saying you're hot,” he said to me and wandered back to where he'd left his phone
I grunted, the thought being one I'd had myself. The last thing I wanted was to start up the conversation about their pseudo-relationship. I could have pushed it and asked him if he thought I was hot, but I wasn't in the mood. Mason went to shower and I went back to my video game. Before long he returned and I played until he was dressed and ready to leave.
“So Gabby Hernandez invited me to this tonight. I guess it's at her cousin Manny's house, and his parents just moved to a night-shift so we got a nice place to crash and get liquored up.”
“Nice place? Manny Gutierrez lives in the Gables, Mase.” The Gables was a housing development that had gone tits up. Half the homes were abandoned, and half the others weren't occupied legally. When it came out that the houses were built over some kind of toxic burial or something like that and people living there had started to get sick, the company that built the houses went bankrupt and walked away. The entire thing was still buried in some kind of litigation or other and there was enough finger pointing going on that the whole area was some kind of squatters’ paradise.
“Like anyone would call the cops there, right?”
I grunted. The cops got called, but it was a waste of time. People could disappear in that warren of empty homes, and it wasn't worth their time to go hunting house to house. Not for the kinds of things that the cops get called to the Gables for. Trespassing? There was almost no one to complain. Noise? They'd be back right after the cops left. I imagined it was something like the lawless old west towns you hear stories of, except there was no handsome sheriff to ride into town and help the beleaguered townsfolk. Instead it was a reminder we have a court of law and not one of justice, because there was none to be had in the Gables. It was still safer than going anywhere with my dad.
We headed out, Mason looking sharp as ever, and me looking better than normal since I was wearing his clothes, essentially. He toked up on the way over, and I put my window down to limit the smell. I'm not against getting stoned in principle, but the smell was just too familiar and carried too many crappy memories. We passed the nicer homes where Mason lived, the moderate developments, and then the downtown businesses with their loft apartments and that kind of 'reclaimed' shit. We passed nice but not great homes, then crappy homes, which was my end of town. It didn't get really bad until you passed the water tower and crossed the rail lines. Beyond that was the trailer parks, the illegal shacks and the Gables. I could be wrong. Maybe the bad part started in my area and I was wrong to think I was above that.
We turned into the development, passing a sign for the Gables that was missing a few letters. Idly I wondered how angry the people who'd gotten shafted by these homes were and if any were left. I'm sure the banks had ruined them financially, and the company who'd built it all had gotten away scot-free. It was further proof that if you had money you got one form of the law, and if you didn't, another. Nothing was equal.
We passed the dark, empty houses, looking for one with working lights, since that would be where the party was. I wasn't sure if there was still power in the defunct development, if they'd jury-rigged something that would burn the whole shit hole down, or if they'd have a generator of some kind.
“This place seems like somewhere after a zombie apocalypse,” I said.
“Oh, man! You're right. And we're unarmed! Shit. Should we go back for baseball bats or something?” Mase asked, being silly.
“Sure. Why stop there? How about a tank? I never understood how the things beat guys in tanks.”
“They move too slow,” Mase said with authority.
“The zombies? They move fast in some of the stories.”
“Not them, dumbass. The tanks! Slow rate of fire. You blow away half a dozen zombies, but then they swarm the tank like ants on a grasshopper.”
“Yeah, but how do they get inside?” I asked.
“They just have to wait,” he said confidently. “The guys inside will run out of food or water.”
“I think I'd rather eat a bullet than be eaten alive.”
“Eats eats,” he said and snickered. I bit my tongue. “There it is.”
We pulled up in front of a house that had probably looked pretty nice when it was new. Between the run-down neighborhood and the dilapidated state of the house itself, the whole thing looked sketchy. The windows were dirty and a few were heavily cracked. One had duct tape covering the crack, so I guess they cared a little. What there was of the lawn was alternately sparse and overgrown, and patchy in either case.
“You sure about this?” I asked Mase. “Pretty sure the Gutierrez family didn't move in here.”
“You have booze at home.”
“I don't have to share this with my parents,” he said, as if that made any sense. We climbed out and he handed his keys over to me. I tucked them in my pocket, and we walked down a row of parked cars and past the driveway, which was choked with cars – a few even parked on the front lawn. There was loud music coming from inside the house, and there were lights shining though most of the windows. The front door was open, and we walked in. I trailed Mason as he instinctively sniffed out the kitchen, which was the most likely place to find the bar. I scanned the room and registered the faces from our school. Names sometimes eluded me, because I didn't care to know them all. People were sitting or leaning everywhere. I wondered where the liquor had come from, but the thought was pushed from my mind as Mason handed me a cup with some caramel colored liquid in it.
“Cheers, my brother,” he said and touched the edge of his cup to mine. I sipped and winced at the burn of the alcohol. We left the kitchen and wandered through the house. Mason was greeting every pretty girl in sight, and I figured that would be what got us in trouble at some point. I pulled on his sleeve and he leaned in as I spoke into his ear.
“Pro-tip. Don't hit on the girls who have a guy with them.”
He leaned back and smiled, obviously not taking my advice. Spotting a place against the wall I moved over and leaned my back against the plaster between two groups of people, and settled in to keep an eye on Mason. He flitted around the room like a horny butterfly, never alighting long enough to make an impression, which was probably a good thing. I scanned the room, looking for potential trouble – and make no mistake, there would be trouble at some point.
Manny Gutierriez, the host, was with a mixed group of people. I recognized a jock or two from school and a guy who worked down at the grocery store, along with three guys I'd never seen before and...well, fuck. I lifted my cup and held still, avoiding any sudden motion that could attract someone's attention. I sipped the alcohol, hiding my face with the cup and my eyes on the group. One person in the group, to be accurate.
I couldn't think of a single reason for my father to be at a party that was good. He was small-time, and he managed to fuck up just about everything he touched. I wasn’t sure if he'd still be angry at the way I'd spoken to him, but he probably would. I scanned the room but kept returning to my father, waiting to see if he spotted me.
“Hey,” a girl with straight blond hair said to me, brushing a stray lock away from her eyes as she leaned against the wall beside me.
“Hi,” I said, going back to scanning the room.
She waited a beat and then pushed away from the wall with a grunt and left me alone. Mason was leaving the room and heading through an archway, so I broke from the wall and glided away from the trouble my father represented and toward whatever trouble Mason might find. Once through the archway there was a door to the garage standing open, so I wandered in and kept an eye on Mason. There was beer pong going on, so he waved me over and we took on a couple girls who were dressed similarly in short-shorts and shirts short enough to show off their bellies. One was trim, the other wasn't, but they both had matching diamond studs in their belly buttons.
“Damn! So close!” Mason said, turning and leaning into me as he groused over his ball having cleared every one of the cups and bounced off one of the girls' tits. I tossed a ball and it rimmed out, flying off the table. Mason tossed another ball, which missed everything. It was kind of like playing with a loose cannon. I tossed a ball and it landed in a middle cup. The larger girl drained the cup and grinned at me.
“He's too drunk, he won't be helping you any.”
“Good point. Come on, Mason,” I said, clapping my arm around his shoulder.
“No, I drank one already,” she said firmly. “Plus, maybe we can raise the stakes?”
Mason grinned while I internally groaned.
She tossed a ball, landing in the leading cup. Mason cheered lightly and started to gulp the beer down, then pulled a face.
“Ugh! What is this?”
“Bud Light. We can play beer pong all night and not – where are you going?”
Mason's lip curled and he turned, heading back into the house. I shrugged and followed him back in, trailing behind as he poked through rooms and flirted here and there. I side-stepped into the bathroom for a minute, and lost him. I headed back to the living room, keeping a sharp eye on my father, though he seemed heavily engaged in whatever he was hip-deep in. A subtle movement behind my father caught my attention, and I thought I saw the short guy from the library shuffle out of view. Guy was everywhere or I was paranoid. Maybe both.
I spotted Mason being led by the hand back into the kitchen. With a glance at my father I pushed through the crowd and made my way into the kitchen as well. I took in the room, no less crowded than the other rooms, but realized right way that Mason was in trouble. The girl slipped her hand from his and slid between a couple of guys. Movement from his right added a third guy to hem him in, and the idea that this was a trap was confirmed.
“You can't keep your dick away from girls who have boyfriends, huh?” one fellow said, a nondescript guy I'd rather not be in a fight with. I glanced at the kitchen counter but didn't see a knife block. There was a broom nearby, though, and I slid toward it. Anyone who saw me would think I was moving toward the booze, or at least I hoped so.
“What do you mean? She took my hand,” Mason said. He was drunk, but his tone of voice suggested he knew something wasn't right. I placed my hand on the shaft of the broom, and jumped when I felt someone else's fingers close gently over mine. I looked over to find the short boy from school that I didn't know – or didn't know well enough to speak to. He was all of five-foot-two maybe, and he had a stressed look on his face.
“Are you nuts?” he asked in a low voice, practically a whisper with all the noise. He looked meaningfully from my hand to the triad that was probably going to rough Mason up.
“It's going to happen one way or another,” I said just as low, flicking my gaze back to Mason. Two of the guys had stepped closer, menacing him. They weren't stacked or anything, but three on one is still three on one.
“Christ. At least do a better job,” the guy replied. I looked back at him and raised an eyebrow. He reached into the sink and plucked a rusted frying pan from it and turned the handle toward me. He then selected a bottle of booze, and I heard Mason yell out as one of the guys grabbed him. I took the pan, not having time to wonder about the why with this guy, and turned. I heard a fist hit flesh and Mase fell back from the plain guy, who reached out lightning quick and grabbed at the front of Mase's shirt, tearing it.
“Fuck,” I snarled.
“I got this one,” the guy said.
I raised an eyebrow at him and wondered how a guy of his stature would do any damage, but he was already moving. Of the three, only one had his back turned and it was the one I planned to clock on the back of the head. My new helper took the bottle and brought it down in a vicious strike that shattered the thick glass on the side of the goon's knee. Well, that answers that, and I needed to pick a new target.
Eyes swiveled and I took advantage, darting forward and swinging the pan, but narrowly missing my target. Mason stumbled to his feet and I struggled to keep him behind me and the douches in front.
“Oh. You're going to get fucked up,” the lead guy said. “I was just going rough him some, but now....” He charged me and I brought the pan down toward his head, but it was a feint. I knew he'd block it with his arm or I'd land it on his back. So as he focused on the pan, I brought my knee up into his groin. There is no such thing as a fair fight – just winners and losers. Unfortunately his forward motion wasn't something I'd calculated, and he crashed into me – and thus into Mason behind me – and we both staggered back through the doorway into the living room. Fortunately, the guy was big enough to block his buddy, and he was torn between helping his friend off the floor and killing us. I grabbed Mason's arm and dragged him as fast as I could through the house, out the front door, and across to the car, where I tossed him bodily into the passenger seat.
I turned to glance around for my helper – Nathaniel – and didn't see him, which wasn't entirely unexpected. I heard a loud 'Kill that motherfucker!' and I scrabbled across the hood of the car and into the driver's seat. I didn't turn on the lights as I pulled away, trying to drive slow enough to see, but fast enough that we wouldn't get caught – or seen, I hoped. I turned the corner just as I spotted light behind us, and I couldn't be sure if the headlights had caught us or not. I flipped the headlights on and gunned the car forward, foregoing changing streets in favor of the shortest route out of the Gables.