“That Matt kid must hate you,” Mason said with a chuckle as we drove back to his house.
“That's the fourth time you've said that,” I told him. “Coach told me to work him, so I did.”
“Yeah, but...Ethan!” he said and burst out laughing.
“But nothing,” I replied. “Coach thinks Mike'll be the guy to fill in for me. He doesn't think Matt's good enough yet, and he said to focus on him. I think Matt can do it. He can handle it, even if he doesn't know it yet.”
“How would you know? You know him from anywhere?”
I shook my head. “Just a gut feeling. He's got skills, but he's rough.”
“Did you see his face when Coach told him he belonged to you?” Mason asked and guffawed.
“He'll be a better player when we're done,” I said, even though I wasn't sure of that. If nothing else he'd be the most in shape person on the team; I planned to work him into a soccer playing weapon. I glanced at Mason. “We're going to need to run on the weekend.”
“Uh, coach told you-”
“That I can't practice with the team. I'm not. I can run on my own time, and both you and Matt need more stamina,” I said firmly, not really sure I could actually run at all.
“Jesus, you been talking to my exes?” he asked, snickering.
We got to his house and he headed up to shower while Mrs. Gerhardt directed me to the spare bedroom they'd allotted me.
“I picked you up a few things today after work,” she said. “I got you the same sizes I get Mason, since you guys seem to share clothes anyway. I wanted to remind you that this room is yours. I put fresh sheets on the bed, so you can have some space away from Mason.”
“Is there – am I spending too much time with him or something?”
She smiled at me. “No. I think everyone needs their own space, though. So you have this when you need it or want it,” she said. She'd gotten me packs of socks and underwear, a few pairs of jeans and several shirts. There was even a pair of pajamas and some lounge clothes.
I looked at her and tried to smile, to show that I was grateful. “Thank you, Mrs. Gerhardt. I hope you won't be offended but...I've never really had my own clothes. Having a twin meant sharing everything, so as long as it was clean, we wore it. Sometimes the clean part was optional,” I admitted. “I say that because I will still be stealing Mason's clothes, and if he likes something in this closet-”
“Your closet,” she corrected.
I paused. “My closet,” I allowed. “Then we'll be swapping. I don't want to sound ungrateful – I appreciate you going out of your way for me. I just don't know how to deal with having clothes that belong just to me.”
She smiled widely, which I thought was an odd reaction. “Well, it makes me feel good that you share with Mason like he was your brother. So, carry on.”
She turned to go, but Mason appeared in the doorway in his underwear, towel around his neck. “Shower is free. Oh, you got new stuff?” He crossed the room to the open closet and flipped through the shirts. He pulled one off, a long sleeved tee and he dropped his towel to pull it on. He stepped over to the mirror and looked at me in the glass.
“What do you think? I look good?”
“You always look good, Mason,” I said in a bored tone. I looked at his mother with an 'I told you so' expression, but she seemed entirely too happy. She departed and I went to grab clean underwear so I could shower.
“Hey, so I know my parents want this big talk tomorrow and then the social worker comes Wednesday, so I'm going to tell you right now – you need to stay here. Okay? Good talk,” Mason said and headed for the door.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, opening the package and pulling out a brightly colored pair of underwear.
He stopped and turned around, wearing a big smile. “I mean you're a stubborn asshole. The social worker will play nice cop like he did at the hospital and try to get you to be cooperative with the DA. The DA will be bad cop, or deputy jackass will be, and you'll want to tell them to go fuck themselves. But I want you to not be stubborn this time and accept some help. Stay here. Graduate.”
I studied him for a moment. He'd obviously been thinking about this situation, though I can't imagine when he'd had the time. “We'll talk after I shower,” I told him and headed for the door. He grabbed my arm as I passed by, holding me in place. I didn't turn but I listened as he spoke in a low tone.
“We can talk, but I'll keep you here if I have to lock you in my trunk.”
I pulled slightly and he let me go. I was filled with an odd mix of emotions as I dialed up the water temperature. Mason and I had always been close, but now we were under a lot of pressure. He was changing. He was saying things he wouldn't normally say, making plain things I think we both had just assumed – maybe because none of this was normal. I always assumed we both knew what we meant to the other, but maybe he's reconsidering how much I know. I'd been putting off thinking about that part of my situation while I busied myself with the mystery of Nathaniel. One thing Mason was right about was that I did have to decide what to do. Going back to my father wasn't an option – I had no doubt he'd beat me, maybe worse. The DA wouldn't mind, because they might actually be able to nail him, and if he killed me it would eliminate me as a future criminal, in their estimation.
The problem was that I didn't know a great deal about his 'business'. The only way to find out more would be to go back, and that was hideously dangerous. So what would they want from me? How would they react when they realized I didn't know much? Or did I know more than I realized? Would that be revealed through their questioning?
Setting that aside, I focused on lathering up and cleaning my hair. I had always preferred showering at Mason's. They had great water pressure and a hot water tank that wouldn't quit. Once clean I stood outside the tub drying off, and my mind turned back to my choices. The Gerhardts were making it clear they'd keep me. Was that a danger to them, because of my dad? Was he stupid or crazy enough to attack me in their home? That would be more violent than he was on average about work.
Still, I had to consider it. Any risk to them was intolerable. Yet, I wanted to stay. Mason was...probably the best friend I'd ever had. He accepted my eccentricities as a matter of course, just as I did his. Admittedly his were minor, I guess. The drinking. Sleeping around. I'd drawn the line when someone had offered him some powder, threatening to break his nose to stop him. He'd never tried that again. I swear he just wants attention, sometimes. I felt a pang of guilt. Maybe if I paid him more attention some of these behaviors would get dialed back?
Was there any chance my father's ego wouldn't demand he come after me, wherever I was? Virtually none. If I were to stay here, I'd have to cooperate with the DA. The only other option was to run, and if I did that I was guaranteeing myself a life like the one I was trying to avoid. I finger combed my hair in the mirror and looked into my own tired eyes.
“This is bullshit,” I whispered to my reflection. I left the bathroom, returning to the room I'd been given, and Mason was sitting on the bed, never having gone upstairs to his own room.
“Are you supposed to sleep here?” he asked, wrinkling his nose.
“It has a bed,” I pointed out as I pulled on the new sweatpants. I flipped through the shirts and settled on a short-sleeved tee. Odd to hang tee-shirts.
“Yeah, but...you're not healed yet. What if you need help in the night? What if you have a nightmare?”
“I won't need help, and I'm not having nightmares,” I said stiffly. He looked at me critically. I held his gaze, but annoyance flashed through me; I felt like he could nearly see through me and read my thoughts.“I may have had some trouble sleeping,” I finally allowed.
“I'd feel better if you were closer, for now,” he told me.
I glanced at the bed. “I'm fine with that.”
“Good. You're staying?” He moved to stand in front of me and I brought my gaze up to meet his. Maybe it was some kind of cosmic balance that Mason got so physically blessed but had parents that didn't seem to know what to do with him. But I was right, it's not all on the outside. He's a good soul, and I'm lucky to have him. I should remember that more often.
“That's a discussion, but yeah. It's the goal.”
“Talk all you want,” he said firmly. “You're staying.”
“You don't know all the facts.” I swallowed, thinking of my father breaking into their home.
“I know the ones that matter.” He crossed his arms defiantly.
“My father is dangerous.”
“I can be too, about what's mine.”
I snorted and he smirked, thinking he'd won. Maybe he had at that.
“Put some pants on, nerd. I'm hungry.”
“Dad told me there are plates for us downstairs,” he said, running from the room and up the short flight to his room. My phone was still in his room, but I elected to leave it for now. It was filled with messages from Ris from this morning, and likely nothing else.
Mason bounded back down his stairs, and I went with him to the kitchen for dinner. His dad was a decent cook, and we sat down to eat with gusto.
“At practice I saw you walk over to the stands to talk to someone. Was that Nathaniel?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“And?” he asked, his fork frozen on its journey to his mouth.
“I'm reasonably certain he's the guy talking from the corner,” I said. “I still haven't figured out why.”
“Outside of he wants you,” Mason said as if it were obvious.
I tapped my lips with the tines of my fork. “I think it's something else. I think...his family likely runs in the same circles my father does. That Jackson did.” I met Mason's gaze. “That could mean he's a whole lot more dangerous than I thought before.”
Mason frowned. “He's a little guy. What damage could he do?”
Thinking of the liquor bottle Nathaniel had wielded against that fellow's knee, I said, “Everyone has knees. Don't have to be tall to reach them. Gonads, too.”
Mason nodded in acceptance of that. “I like my theory better.”
“Why?” I asked, but before he could continue I did. “Why do you keep trying to link me up with people? Telling me Ris says I'm hot, implying I think you're hot, trying to make Nathaniel gay and implying I'd like that. What is up with you?”
He frowned. “Is it so bad to want you to be happy?”
“I'm fucking ecstatic!” I snapped.
“Yeah, how did I not see that?” he asked sarcastically. I picked up my pork chop and threatened him with it, but he just laughed.
“You're lucky I'm hungry, or you'd be wearing this chop,” I said and went back to eating.
“I don't know why you're so dead set on thinking you're unattractive or something,” Mason prattled on. “Nathaniel would be lucky to get you. Just sayin'.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Why do you assume this is about my self-perception?”
He looked at me guilelessly. “I'm not stupid, even if I do some dumb things. I think I'm pretty good looking.” I snorted, but he continued. “Maybe I get more reinforcement than other people – like you tell me I always look good even if I look like a truck. You always discount appearance when it's about you. Nathaniel is a nice looking guy. So are you. If Ris thinks you're hot, why would you fight that?”
I shrugged. “Because I'm not. Can we change the subject?”
“It's all perception and preference, though. Some people are attracted to blond hair and blue eyes,” he said, waving at himself.
“Others are attracted to plain people? Yes, thanks. Moving on.”
“Ethan! You're not plain, buddy,” he said and chuckled.
“Shut up. Change the subject or I'll change your religion with my butter knife,” I said calmly.
He shook his head and laughed at me, but he dropped it. “So what did you get out of Nathaniel?”
I waited to see if he'd be unwise enough to use that as a feint, then replied, “Not much. He was cagey. Staying quiet or giving short responses to get me to talk.”
“Ouch. How'd that feel? Having your tactics turned against you?” he said and grinned.
I shrugged and kept my mouth shut. We finished in silence and then put our stuff in the dishwasher. He grabbed us each bottled water from the fridge, but before he handed one to me he said, “Okay, okay. What did he say?”
I took the bottle from him and sipped before replying. “I asked him what he would study in college.”
Mason frowned and lifted an eyebrow, but sipped from his bottle rather than speaking. Smart boy.
“He said engineering or architecture.”
Mason's eyes went wide. “You bring up the whispering arch in the locker room?”
“Yep. Cinched it for me he's the voice from the corner,” I said as we turned and headed upstairs.
“Want to go a few rounds on the console?” he asked.
“No. You're going to get your books, and we're going to do our homework.”
“But I'm tired!” he whined.
“Get your stuff, Mase.”
Our homework took less than an hour. There was a movement on to have less homework in our school, and I was for that. Once done Mason and I stretched out across the bed in the room I was using, and he started musing aloud, wondering why else Nathaniel would be talking to me the way he was if he weren't attracted. I didn't really participate, and eventually we just climbed under the covers and let the TV drone.
I pictured Nathaniel, his boy-next-door good looks. His eyes that sparkled, with what I had no idea. A shiver ran down my spine and I let out a small sigh. What was his game?
“Why the fuck am I stuck with you again?” Matt asked me as I told him to repeat the exercise.
“Because you're third on the depth chart and I'm out,” I said. “If Mike needs to come out, you go in, and you can't suck.”
“Hey! Fuck you!”
“Not in your wildest dreams. Three more, then kicking drills. I'm going to borrow Mason. Finish up.”
Matt Heron was a good player, but he could be very, very good. I'd been studying him as I worked him; he was agile and smart but lacked experience. He also had some sports sense, which is something you can't teach, like coach had said to me. I guess I must have some, because he thought I'd recognize it in Matt. It's instinctual – and Mike didn't have it, but Matt? I thought he just might. Since coach wouldn't let me play, never mind that I'd be in constant pain, I was taking out my frustrations on Matt. I had him run more conditioning drills than anyone else, then borrowed random forwards to force him into defensive drills that weren't scripted. He was already better than he had been at the beginning of the week, and when I was healthy enough to return Matt would be near impossible to move off the field.
Matt didn't see it that way. He bitched ferociously, grumbled and swore, but he did everything I told him to. He could bitch all he liked; it didn't matter. Coach was serious about keeping me part of the team, and he'd discounted Matt as needing too much work to be effective this year. I'd show them both.
After practice, and after Matt was done glaring daggers at me, I rode home with Mason. We got cleaned up and had dinner, and then his parents joined us together. It was a shame and goddamn odd that it took me to bring the unhappy couple together.
“So Ethan, Mr. Feeny from social services will be here tomorrow night,” Mr. Gerhardt said. “I think it's very important we talk beforehand. I hate to say this, but I don't think he's on your side.”
I pursed my lips slightly. “I agree.”
He nodded. “Good. Jeannie and I,” he said, tilting his head toward his wife, “think he's going to play loose with the rules to help the Sheriff's department out. More than likely your safety isn't their priority. If you don't cooperate with the social worker, I don’t think he’ll fight to help you when the Sheriff tries to put you into juvenile detention. In fact, I'm almost certain that they'll go that route as a threat just to get you to comply. To deal with that, we need a lawyer.”
Mrs. Gerhardt took over. “I know an excellent family law lawyer who would take your case pro-bono.”
“Free? They'd be doing you a favor?”
“She would be,” she confirmed. “I'd trust her with Mason; I can guarantee you she's on your side, and she's competent.”
I thought about that for a second. “Thank you,” I said. It wasn't any easier to say this time around.
“She will be here when Mr. Feeny is. You should never meet with any of these people without her. With that settled,” she said, glancing at her husband, “Conrad?”
“Our goal is to keep you safe,” he said, picking up the conversation. “We understand your father...may be dangerous. Don't worry, you're safe here and at school. They've been notified of the situation.”
“What about you?” I asked.
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
I blinked a few times, surprised that he didn't see the danger. “My father doesn't respect rules or boundaries. He used to do small time stuff, but I don't know what he's capable of now. If he finds out where I am, any of you could be in danger, too.”
“I see,” he replied slowly. “Well, I'll make the appointment with the security company we talked about. What do you think, Jeannie?”
“Yes. Better safe than sorry,” she replied. I could tell they both were skeptical. Everyone is when they are used to people playing by agreed upon rules like a proper society. My father wasn't proper, and he hadn't agreed to any rules. As long as they moved forward, I wouldn't worry as much about them. More accurately, about Mason, but since they'd affect him, them too. Or maybe them anyway – how heartless can I be? They were stepping up right now, after all. Better late than never?
I hated that I was dealing with emotions now that I used to discard easily, but now they were sticking to me like lint to a nice shirt. After homework, Mase and I played some video games and had a video chat with Ris and Valerie, who were out shopping. Looking at dresses or something through a phone is nearly as boring as doing it in person.
The next day was more of the same, but with less talking to Nathaniel. I worked Matt rigorously; he was beyond frustrated and threatened to quit at least twice. I mostly ignored his complaining, telling him to talk to me about quitting after the first game. I did spot Nathaniel on the bleachers once, but he took off before I could consider walking over to him.
The lawyer came by that night about five. Her name was Cathy Zuwalski. She had a suit that made me think more masculine than feminine, and a curly, springy perm of orange-tinted hair. With facepaint, she could be a clown was my first thought. That was dispelled as soon as she opened her mouth.
“Feeny called me on my way over,” she said with a sneer to her tone. “He canceled.”
I frowned lightly. “That's a good thing?”
“It is,” she confirmed as she took a seat across from me and gestured for me to sit as well. “Feeny is easily manipulated. He means well, but when I called him to let him know you had representation and that he wasn't to see you without counsel present, it probably threw him off his game. No doubt he was going to parrot whatever the D.A. wanted him to say, with all of the focus on advancing his case and little to no regard for you or your rights or safety.” She paused and smiled. “Also, you won't be attending that hearing this Friday.”
“That won't make things worse?” Mrs. Gerhardt asked.
“It's not required, and it's theater,” Cathy replied. Turning to me she said, “They want to squeeze you, and Feeny will let them. If no one stood up for you, the judge would take their word and lock you up. Instead,” she said with a vicious grin, “I'll tie those repugnant shits from the DA’s office into knots until they deal fairly.”
“What's a fair deal?” Mason asked. “Like, what does that look like?”
“The first thing will be these threats. That Mr. Miller may have a record and may indeed be a bad individual is no reflection on our friend here.”
“He has a record, and he's very bad. I used to think incompetent, but I think it's both,” I told her.
“Even so,” she said firmly, “that has no bearing on how you are treated. Every child should have the opportunity to outshine their parents.”
After a moment of silence I said, “So. I'm not real big on dealing with the legal system, in general. If it had been up to me, I'd never have been in the hospital or had anyone else involved.”
“I understand,” she said, and looked like she meant that. “You have no reason to, and your experience has been negative. Keep that.”
I gave her a mildly surprised look.
She leaned toward me and a look of focused intent settled on her face. “These people are out to get your father, and they will screw you to do it. This isn't about justice; it's about the law and politics – and you'd be wise to remember that.” She looked at me until I nodded sharply. “The second thing you need to keep in mind is that I am your biggest tool in this fight. I know the rules of this arena and you don't. We have attorney-client privilege, so anything you say to me I cannot legally reveal.” She paused. “Putting that simply, I'm here to defend you.”
“Why?” I asked mildly.
“Because it's wrong,” she said simply. “Because people get screwed by the system like this all the time. I can't help them all, but I do plenty of pro bono work to try and make the system work for people. Jeannie is a friend, and that puts you on my to-do list. So you pick what works for you – that I think it's wrong, that she's my friend and I'll help you for her, or maybe you've won me over with your sparkling wit.” She smiled.
“It's my wit, obviously,” I said with a small smile.
“Now. I need you to think on this. They are going to want your cooperation to take down your father. That means two things – you have to think about what you might know, in case you decide to go that route. And we have to keep you safe. If your father thinks you're a threat, he may try to handle that.”
Finally. Someone who understood the situation. “He will. I don't know how, yet, but he may assume I'm with Mason if he paid any attention to my friends, which he didn't have a lot of opportunity to do. The most likely weakness is at school, but there are crowds.”
She rested her chin on her hand and smiled at me. “Thank God you have a brain to go with those looks, kiddo. Have you discussed these things with the Gerhardts?”
“Yes. Mr. Gerhardt mentioned getting a security system installed, but I don't know what sort of timetable he's looking at,” I said, noting her slight expression of disgust at the mention of his name. “I think the easiest time for him to get to me is in the parking lot, maybe. We get done with practice and there are people being picked up or driving cars home afterward, but it empties out kind of fast.”
“Okay. The school has security, we can use that to our advantage during weak points in the day,” she said, scribbling a note to herself. “In the meantime, be vigilant. We'll talk again after the hearing.”
I paused and then asked her, “What do you think I should do?”
“About your situation?” she asked and I nodded. “Well. If you do nothing, your father is free to come after you at his leisure. He may not know he's not under pressure to stop you from talking, but I can't think he's just going to give up. Seems like some form of cooperation – maybe getting emancipated or something similar – is the way to clear the brush from your future.”
I nodded slowly. “Yes. I was thinking something similar.”
“He's staying here, though,” Mason stated. “Like, this emancipation thing isn't about shipping him off somewhere, right?”
Cathy smiled at him toothily. “No, sweetie. It's a legal term that basically means Ethan becomes an adult a little sooner. Control over his decisions and independent from his parents.”
“Oh. Good. 'Cause he's staying here,” he said more firmly.
I raised an eyebrow at him, but inside I was abuzz with warmth. I didn't know how to handle that. Later that evening, as I tried and failed to fall asleep, I kept turning over how much this situation had changed Mason. Perhaps this was the catalyst he needed to grow. I wish it didn't have to be quite so much at my expense, but it was good to see him becoming the person I suspected was buried deep inside.