As I approached the final turn to head for the front gate, I realized I'd been outmaneuvered. Lights ahead suggested there were cars blocking the exit, so I turned and shut off the headlights while I crept through the darkened, curving streets, wracking my brain for a way out of this mess. There was always the possibility that those lights hadn't been from cars filled with people that wanted to beat us to bloody pulps, but male egos had been bruised and alcohol was a factor. That was a recipe I wanted to avoid, so I wasn't going near the entrance. In fact I was wracking my brain to come up with a second way out of the development, but I just didn't know it that well. After a few street changes I saw an opportunity in a garage door that wasn't entirely closed. I pulled up the short drive and hopped out of the car, racing to the garage. I braced my hands underneath it and pushed with a strength fueled by fear.
It gave once, twice and then wouldn't budge – but it was enough. I got back in and pulled the car into the darkened space, killing the engine and racing back to unhook the emergency release and let the door thump back to the ground. My heart started to slow, and for that I was grateful. I leaned my head against the door and listened, wondering if the door was thin enough for me to hear if they yelled out or drove by – or if I'd hear anything over the pounding of my heart. A minute or so later, I walked on unsteady feet back to the car to check on Mason. He looked up at me, his face white. I grabbed his chin and looked at his face. There was a red spot on his right cheekbone, but I didn't think it'd bruise.
“Are we safe?” he asked as I let his chin go.
“For the moment,” I replied and glanced at the garage door. “I'm hoping they'll be looking for the car, but we're probably stuck here – unless we try to get out on foot.” I paused. “I think that's a bad idea, and I'm going to need your help to get the door back up, later.”
He nodded and blinked owlishly. “I really fucked us this time. I'm sorry.”
I looked away. “Don't tell me you're sorry when you'll just go out and do it again.”
He sighed. “Why do you even put up with me?”
I didn't want to be a jackass to Mason, but I was stressed out. He gets in jams sometimes, but never like this. We've climbed out a few windows in our day, but this was absolute insanity. Doubt plagued me as to whether those cars were there for us, or maybe a deal of some kind was going down – either way, we'd not have been welcome. I glanced at Mase, and despite my attempts to feel as little as possible, I still felt a pang for him. I knew what I was signing up for when I agreed to drive him tonight, this was just more than it had ever been before. But, we were safe for the moment.
I went back over to the garage door to listen. Behind me and to my left was a window letting in weak light through a cracked, dirty pane. Hearing nothing I went to the window and looked out, but the angle didn't let me see much besides the neighboring house. I heard Mason climb out of the car and lean against the door once it closed more loudly than I'd have liked.
“Should we see if there's anything we can sleep on in the house?”
I glanced at him. I felt vulnerable, right or wrong, and checking out the house would let me move and get more information. “We should check the house and make sure we have an escape route if they find us. I have no idea how long they will hunt for us.” If they are, I added to myself. I was too scared to find out.
He nodded and followed me out of the garage and into the house. The interior was a wreck, and not just from simple abandonment. Thieves had ransacked the structure for copper pipe and wire, evidenced by jagged lines through the sheetrock. It gave the place a more sinister look than I'd have thought, but maybe that was just the weight of the last hour settling in around my consciousness. We went to the living room and I peeked from the corner of the large front window, which was in surprisingly good shape. There was no movement on the street, so I thought our little fake out had worked. We explored the rest of the house, just to wear Mason out so he'd sleep.
“Come on, back to the car,” I said.
“Shouldn't we sleep in the house?”
I debated telling him he was being stupid again, but decided against it. “No. Car.”
We headed back to the garage and settled into the front seats, leaning back and trying to get as comfortable as possible.
“Stop calling me that,” I snapped.
“Sorry,” he said, his voice dropping. He was quiet for a moment and then said, “Why do you keep me as a friend?”
“Don't do this, Mase.”
I heard him shift. “I'm a fuckup. We both know it. My parents do, how else do you-”
“Mason,” I barked and he fell silent. I sighed. Mason was one of only a couple of people I cared about. As tense as I felt, I didn't want to hurt him unintentionally. “You make mistakes, yeah. You have your shit, and your parents are no picnic – but it's not as bad as it could be, either. Look at what I have for parents.”
He let out a slow breath. “Right. You're right. I should remember that.”
I let out a sigh as well. Mason wasn't a bad person, he just developed differently – just like Jackson and I developed differently, and we shared a womb for Christ's sake. Besides, Mason was still under the influence. “Mason. Do you like Ris?”
He wiggled a little in his seat to look at me. “She's hot.”
I frowned lightly. “But do you think she's funny? Do you like hanging out with her?”
“Well, yeah. Sometimes. Until she wants me to...I don't know. Be someone else?”
“Mase...she wants you to treat her like she's more than a place to park your dick,” I said, trying to keep my tone gentle. “Yeah, she wished you were more empathetic or less crass, at least toward her. But...all this shit?” I twirled my finger in the air to indicate our current circumstances. “Gone if you had a steady girl.” I could have told him, he needed to be sure she was who he wanted, but he wasn't there yet.
He blinked. “I think you're about the only steady I can manage. But what about you? Am I the only thing you can manage?”
I broke eye contact. “It's different for me. The last thing I need is to knock up some girl and be anchored to this town.” Not only that, letting someone in was terrifying, and that made me angry. Emotions were messy and dangerous.
He was silent for a moment and then a note of playfulness entered his tone. “Maybe you need a nice boy. No pregnancy worries then!”
I snorted. “Sure, roll over, Mase – head down, ass up.”
He chortled. “I'm not a nice boy. Um. Sounds like you have plans, though. College?”
I looked back over at him. “Yeah, maybe. Something to change my trajectory.” I paused. “I might need to hide at your place a lot, soon.”
“Sure. Mine is yours.”
I looked away and let my head loll on the headrest. “That's why, Mase.”
He grunted in confusion, but I didn't elaborate. Considering the mess we were in, I don't think he needed any pats on the back for his own loyalty right now. I focused on staying silent and still, listening for anything to indicate we'd been found – or that they were still looking. My mind went back and forth, wondering if I was just being paranoid, but in the end there was no other choice to make – safety over everything else. When Mason started snoring loudly beside me, my thoughts turned from our safety and predicament to the guy who'd helped us out.
I felt a rush of guilt that I didn't know what had happened to him. For all I know he took a lot of lumps for us. It was his own fault for getting involved, I told myself. Yet I had a nagging feeling of responsibility. Damn people, anyway. I glanced at Mason, knowing from the noise that he was deeply asleep. He only snored when he drank, and he'd had enough to ensure he'd be sawing wood all night long. I quietly climbed from the car and made my way back through the ruins of the house. I leaned in to look at the damaged walls, trying to figure out the bizarre pattern of jagged lines torn through them. The holes weren't neat, by which I mean it wasn't as if someone had pulled a buried string and just yanked it along. There were larger holes sometimes, places where the wall had been staved in completely. Maybe I'm not enough of a criminal mind to understand – and then something clicked. The tear in the sheet rock arched down to about a foot off the floor where a power outlet would be.
Someone was stealing copper wire. I felt better knowing that. It meant whoever was doing it was done here, and I didn't have to worry as much about leaving Mason alone.
I made my way carefully to the back door of the house and let myself out into the cool, still night. I picked a path to the front of the house and looked around carefully, trying to get my bearings. With appropriate caution I crept from house to house and street to street so I could find my way back to the house where Mason had nearly gotten beaten to a pulp, carefully making a mental map from my starting point.
I thought I was within a street or two when I heard muffled voices. Fear spiked through me and I moved to an overgrown shrub in front of one of the abandoned structures and squatted. The leaves on the plant were sparse, probably due to the poisoned soil, but the shadows made hiding easy enough. I had to wait several minutes before the muffled voices resolved themselves, and in that time I conjured up any number of terrible fates if I were spotted – and by whom I could be spotted. I heard rhythmic squeaking and a hollow metallic racket that got louder the closer they got. As they approached I could see the noises were from a rolling cart pulled down the sidewalk by someone, a group of five or six shadows walking with them. One of the shadows was short and slight. My heart rate sped up and I began wondering if they were taking him somewhere quiet to get rid of him. Immediately I felt stupid – he wasn't in the middle; he wasn't a prisoner.
“We can start the next block tomorrow. You bringing help tomorrow?” one shadow asked another.
My blood ran cold as I heard my father's voice. “I was going to snag him tonight, but the little bastard nipped off somewhere. Kids.”
“Better he not come if he's squirrely,” the first one warned.
“He knows better,” my father said with a grunt.
The group passed closer by and I saw they had scavenged copper pipe stacked on the cart. My guess was they got it from the abandoned houses. Remembering the jagged holes in the house Mason was stashed in, I realized they'd been tearing out scrap in the night for some time now. Fear spiked through me, but then I reminded myself they wouldn't find Mason since they'd already stripped that house. My thinking was a little jittery, and I hated that.
“Let's get this stacked and go back for one more load, yeah?” the shadow said.
“Sounds good. Maybe see if there's any booze left at that party? Lost a lot of time drinking, but hey – we work hard, right?” my father said with a laugh.
“Some of us do,” a third voice grumbled. They passed on the street right in front of me and the pale light confirmed to me that Nathaniel was the small shadow in the group. He looked physically fine, no limping or labored breathing I could hear. Somehow, I guessed, he'd avoided being collateral damage at the house.
Their voices grew indistinct as they passed, but I'd learned a lot. Nathaniel was indeed the small shadow, and he was safe. I'm not sure how he managed, but he seemed to be part of this crew. Curious, and a little disappointing, which was also curious. Maybe not. I felt some conflict over his possible motivation for helping us out and the people he kept company with. I waited until they turned the corner at the end of the street before creeping from my hiding place, and with a few false starts I made my way back to where Mason was snoring the night away.
I slept fitfully, between the car seat and Mason's snoring. About five in the morning I couldn't take it anymore. I made a thorough inspection of the house and the outside, at least from the safety of the window. I wanted to be as sure as I could that we were alone. I figured the guys who were after us – should they be – would still hold a grudge, but they might not be any more awake than we were, so now was the time.
“Mase. Mason.” I shook his shoulder and he woke, blinking his eyes and looking around blearily.
“Yeah. I'm awake. What? Oh, my fucking head,” he groaned.
“Help me get the garage door up.” I didn't bother explaining that I expected the door to go up easily without the dead electric opener stopping it. It was a large door, though, so I'd need him to help out a little. He climbed from the car and stretched, and together we lifted the door open. In minutes we were on the road, passing through the still streets of our town on a Saturday morning. Mason sat in his seat zombie-like and didn't say anything. Once at his home we grabbed water from the kitchen before slipping away to his room, where he stripped and crawled under his covers. I kicked off my shoes and stretched out on his futon, intending to get some real rest.
I sighed gently. “What?”
“Do you think I'm a bad person?”
“No. Go to sleep.”
I heard him shift on his bed. “How come you need to hide out for a while?”
“I'll tell you later. I need some sleep.”
He fell silent and I closed my eyes, only to be distracted by hearing him get up a few minutes later. His feet whispered across the carpeted floor, but I kept my eyes closed. I felt the push of air a moment before a light blanket covered me, and I opened my eyes. Mason had a pillow in his hands and he looked a little abashed.
“I wasn't sure how to give this to you without waking you.”
I took the pillow from him. “Thanks.”
He looked like he wanted to say something else, but then he retreated, and shortly I heard his steady breathing. I settled in, thinking that Mason wasn't a bad person – he was just as fucked up as the rest of us, is all. He was loyal, though, and that fucking counted more than anything else. It's why I gave my loyalty to Mason as well. Speaking of loyal, what was up with Nathaniel? What was his game? Every thought I had about him sent me in logic circles – nothing with him added up. Setting that aside, my tired brain asked one last futile question before drifting to sleep: what to do about my father.
My phone was buzzing in my pocket, irritating me as it shook against my leg. Rather than answer I pulled it out and dumped it on Mason's carpet. I stretched the kind of stretch that feels like every part of your body is checking in and feels better for it. Letting out a big yawn I slowly sat up. Mason was sitting on his bed, propped up against his headboard and focused on his phone. I rubbed my eyes and got up, heading out to use the bathroom. When done I listened for his parents, then stealthily made my way to the kitchen for bottled water.
“Is he up?”
So much for being stealthy. I turned to face his mother, dressed in a blouse and jeans. She was pretty, probably where Mason had gotten most of his looks.
“I'm not sure,” I lied. “I just got up to hit the bathroom and get some water.”
“How much did he drink?” she asked, leaning against the counter.
“Not that much,” I said, lying through my teeth. “He's got a little red spot on his face, chatting up the wrong girl.”
She snorted. “Hasn't met a skirt he didn't like. Just like his father.”
I didn't answer. Instead I pulled two bottles of water from the fridge.
“Ethan,” she said, and I stopped, looking over my shoulder at her. “Is he okay?”
I nodded. “He's okay.” That could cover a wide range of things. I smiled at her and she returned it, wanly. I went back to his room and tossed the bottle toward him, knocking the phone from his hand.
“Dick. Thanks.” He picked up the bottle and swigged from it before picking up his phone again.
“So your mom was asking if you're okay,” I told him.
“Every time they feel guilty, they ask you how I am. Isn't that nice? Maybe they’re afraid of what I'd tell them?”
I shrugged, not knowing what to say. “What's got you on the phone?”
His face went a little red, which was very curious. “I was just thinking. About what you said.”
“What thing I said?”
“About Ris. I guess I have been kind of a douche to her.” He looked up at me.
I pointed at him. “No. Do not get into a relationship because you think that's what I'm telling you.”
“You seem to know what you're talking about,” he said, trying to aggravate me.
“I'm not talking to you anymore,” I said and sat on his futon and kicked my phone, which I'd forgotten. I picked it up, noting it only had about five percent charge left. I thumbed over to my missed calls log and groaned when I saw Ris's name.
“Mason...why is Ris calling me?”
“Probably to ask your advice on me,” he said, and I heard him climb from his bed and drape himself over the back of the futon. “Doesn't she usually come to you for advice?”
“What do you usually tell her?”
I looked at him. “To go out with you if she wants to get laid.”
He frowned. “That's it?”
“Mase. I'm not going to lie to her any more than I would you.”
“That's disturbing. You're mine.”
I snorted, then jumped when the phone rang in my hand. “Hey, Ris.” I couldn't keep the dread from my voice.
“Perk up, you drunk bastard,” she said gleefully. “The Karma wagon just ran someone over!”
“Uh, what? And speak fast, my phone is dying.”
“Kevin Haskins,” she said smugly.
“What about him?” I asked, with a sigh.
“I heard someone messed him up Thursday night. Turns out someone almost broke his knee. Vicious, right?”
I frowned hard. “Someone nearly broke – what?”
“Yeah,” she said, and I could picture her nodding her head. “I heard from his cousin Kayla that he was down at the little market on Ramsay – you know, where they lost their liquor license for selling to underage people?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Right, so I guess he was a dick to the clerk – big shock,” she said.
“Who said he was a jerk?”
“What? Oh, Kayla. I guess she was with him. So anyway, he tried to buy some of those little cigars for his weed, right? The clerk was all 'give me your ID' and 'we don't sell to underage people.' So I guess Kevin was pissed it was going to cost him more money than it used to from this guy, and so he says a few nasty things – Kayla said she was totally embarrassed.”
“Oh, right! Anyway, they left, and when they walked past the dumpster someone attacked him. Didn't say a word until after beating Kevin like he owed him money. He had a piece of wood – a bat or something – and they didn't even know he was there until Kevin was falling down!”
I grunted in response. My phone beeped in my ear, indicating the battery was about done – then it just shut off and the call was lost. Mason flopped next to me on the futon and I glanced at him, clad only in his underwear. His hair was mussed, but as usual he was annoyingly put together despite what should have been a shortcoming.
“Put some clothes on, nerd,” I said as I got up to borrow his charger.
“What was Ris saying?” he asked, more than his average curiosity in his voice.
I let him wait a minute as I searched for his charging cable, letting him twist himself into angsty knots. “Remember how that voice at school said Kevin wouldn't be talking like a douche to me anymore?”
“Right, from the locker room,” he said, turning and sitting on his knees, but ignoring my request for him to dress. I sighed.
“Yeah, well, Ris said someone smashed him with a bat or something on Thursday night. Like, on the knee.”
Mason's eyes went appropriately wide. “No shit? Fucked him up?”
“Yeah,” I said, plugging my phone in. “I mean, I guess so. Getting hit in the knee with a Louisville Slugger usually doesn't end well for the knee.” I sat on his bed and pulled up one leg, resting my head on my knee as I thought. Why would anyone attack Kevin? Okay, well, maybe the question should be who was strong enough to attack Kevin? He was a multi-purpose douche, so I was sure I wasn’t the only one he pissed off. I thought for another moment, something just out of reach....
“So, why are you going to need to hide out?” Mason asked.
Just like that I lost whatever I was so close to remembering. Instead my mind was filled with the fear of dealing with my father, which would have to come eventually. I had more than a couple of scars from him, as did my siblings. It's odd that we didn't band together. His brand of parenting separated us rather than uniting us against him. Jackson had bought into our father's 'way of life', Tina was on the fringes, and I had turned my back to it. My mother...was just another casualty, perhaps. Knowing he was looking for me, though, sent a chill down my spine. I gave Mason a black look, and he shrugged at me.
“You said you'd tell me.”
I sighed. “Dad's looking for someone to shotgun with him. For obvious reasons I'm against that.”
“Fuuuck. You can stay here as long as you need, man. I can't believe that,” he said with a shake of his head.
I didn't reply. I could have told him I'd seen my father last night at that party, and again later when – Nathaniel. Like a bolt of lighting it hit me. It all fit. I'd been seeing him around more than I could ever recall. He'd been in the library when Kevin had been a monumental douche. More importantly, he'd inserted himself in last night's debacle with nothing to gain, it seemed. He'd been vicious with that bottle to the knee. If Nathaniel were to try to take out Kevin, he'd have to ambush the bigger guy to get the upper hand, so hiding behind a dumpster and swinging from behind totally made sense. But why?