Thursday I trudged into the locker room. Coach insisted I change out even if I couldn't participate in order to get class credit. He also wanted me in team uniform for tonight's game. I was nervous about the game in a way I had never been. Matt was sort of my creation at this point, and I hoped he didn't fall on his face and embarrass us both. I didn't think he would – in fact I expected him to blow coach and the team away with how much progress he'd made.
I plopped down on the bench to change, wincing as I jarred my body. It was really annoying how uncomfortable I could make myself, let alone dealing with what someone else could do. I hated being so vulnerable.
I glanced up, taking a moment to realize the voice was from the corner again. “Nathaniel?”
“Don't get back into Mason's car,” he said. “It's being watched. Can you get a ride home from the game for the both of you?”
“I could,” I said slowly. “But wouldn't they just see which car I got into?”
“No. They are looking specifically at Mason's car so they can follow you. It wouldn't hurt to be careful and get into a different car out in front of the school or something, though. Can you ask Marissa or Valerie? Will they be there?”
I sighed. “Maybe you can ask them yourself since you know so much about me.”
“I'm keeping you safe,” he said a little indignantly.
“Can't you do that to my face?” I asked. Mason sat down beside me and caught on right away that I was having another corner discussion.
There was a pause, long enough that I wondered if he'd left. “No. I don't think I can,” Nathaniel said, but it sounded more like an admission that an attempt to be difficult.
I modulated my tone, keeping any aggravation from it. “But why?” This time he didn't answer, and I knew he'd left.
“What did he say?” Mason asked.
“I think...he's been spying. He was passing a warning.” I looked down at the floor as I turned that over. It seemed to make sense on the surface, but why? I always came back to that one question. Could this be a set-up? Maybe I'd walk out the front of the school where no one should be, and I'd get snapped up by my father and whomever else he could round up? This was getting out of hand, and Mason would be with me – he could get hurt. That was intolerable.
“A warning about what?”
I glanced over at him and worked the puzzle aloud. “If my dad saw your car long enough to recognize it the other night, when you almost splattered him on the lawn, then he might be smart enough to have someone looking for it here at the game tonight. He might expect me to ride with you, or to catch whoever had such a car and question them about where I am.”
Mason's eyes went wide. “Shit. That makes a scary amount of sense.”
I nodded slowly. “So Nathaniel thinks we should ask Ris or Valerie for a lift home to avoid that, since they’ll be looking for the car and not the person.”
“Why would they do that? It kind of makes sense to watch the person.”
“Maybe they'd be afraid of me spotting them? Losing me in a crowd?” I asked, thinking it was possible, but not sure. “There's also the possibility this is some kind of a set-up.”
Mason stood and glanced down at me. “That doesn't figure. Nathaniel has been helping every step of the way, so I don't know why he'd change that now.”
I frowned. “Unless the wrong person noticed that he'd helped or figured he was their best chance to set me up. What's he going to do against adults?”
Mason snorted and smirked at me. “Hit them in the knee with a liquor bottle? Crack their balls into ballettes? I'm not too worried about Nathaniel and his deciding to tell someone not to fuck with him.”
That made a certain amount of sense, and I turned that over as I walked the track while the rest of the kids engaged in whatever class called for that day. I thought about Nathaniel and wondered why he didn't think he could speak to me face to face. Was he unable to lie face-to-face to lay the groundwork for a set-up? That made a certain amount of sense. When I had spoken to him directly he'd been cool, uninterested. His only real slip up was when I caught him out that he was the one speaking to me in the corner. But when he wasn't looking at me, speaking from that corner, he wasn't direct – especially today. So what was it that made it a...what? Bad idea to speak to me face to face? Was he afraid of the wrong person seeing? Was he in danger himself?
For the millionth time I wished that Jackson had come home instead of my father.
I was on a precipice. In fact I'd been there for a while, but I was like a sleepwalker who wakes to find himself on a cliff and has to decide to either walk back down to the familiar, the known, or to take a leap of faith.
I'm not big on faith.
I do understand trust, however, and I understand the faith built on evidence. Nathaniel had been supportive from the shadows, even risked himself. You don't turn your back on something like that. Based on that reasoning, and a feeling of loyalty in return to him, I decided to trust Nathaniel. I didn't have solid reasons for it, but there was a certain amount of this that was going to be guesswork no matter what. I didn't like trusting people I didn't know, and something about Nathaniel didn't add up – more than one thing. But jumping into a fight that wasn't his and setting me up seemed to be headed in opposite directions. I didn't buy his casual dismissal about having been bored or drunk – he hadn't appeared to be either.
I rejoined Mason in the locker room to change out for the game and decided to float my plan by him.
“Mase, I think we should take Nathaniel at his word,” I said.
He bobbed his head in response, then added, “Yeah. I agree. What do you think we should do?”
“Two things to start with. One is to get a ride home with Ris or Valerie, then we need to swap cars with one of your folks. They can pick up your car from school tomorrow, and then we'll have to play it by ear. Being seen in your car could be dangerous right now.”
He winced. “My car? Shit. We'll get stuck with my mom's Ford, you know that, right?”
“Dead or in a Ford?” I asked.
“Is there a difference?” he deadpanned. I pushed him hard enough that he almost fell off the bench, but it was some needed levity with all the crap going on. “Why not just have my mom pick us up?”
“I don't know. She might want to take your car home now instead of leaving it for tomorrow. I don't think your folks completely get how much these guys don't follow the rules.”
“Okay,” he agreed and made a few phone calls.
Back out on the field I kept my track pants on to stave off a cool breeze that would have been great had I been on the field. I stayed on Matt to keep me focused. I'm not sure why he took all I had to dish out in terms of working him, but he did what I said. He bitched mightily, but he did it. I'm not sure it had occurred to him that he could tell me to go fuck myself, but he didn't. I was conscious of not killing him before the game, but making sure he was loose and ready to shine.
The other team arrived. They were a nearby school and were normally a tough fight for us. They'd lost their coach the previous year when he'd moved on to a bigger school. After warm-ups coach got everyone together, handed out starting assignments and sent people out on the field. Matt was scowling and plopped down on the bench. Since he was my project, I walked over and asked what his deal was.
“For fuck...I thought I'd start is all. I've worked harder than Mike,” he said, his voice laced with disappointment.
I sat beside him and pitched my voice low. “That's a problem. Focus on getting better; the starts will come. Mike was second on the depth chart, and coach doesn't know how hard you've been working, because Mike has been in front of him, not you. Once you swap in – if you do what I've told you and play the way you can – Mike won't start again.”
Matt looked at me with some surprise, probably because I hadn't offered him much in the way of praise or positive reinforcement. “Thanks, Ethan.”
“Don't thank me. Work hard. Remember what I said.”
Neither team was sharp at the outset, which wasn't surprising for the first game. Spirits were high, and the idea of actually competing hadn't really set in yet. It didn't take me long to see that the quality of our opponent had gone down. Previously their passes had been pretty crisp, people moved well without the ball and their old coach was quick to call changes. I noticed some people becoming winded, players were being led into poor passes by becoming trapped and the coach was wandering the sidelines with a grim look, saying nothing.
Despite all that, our mid-field players were proving porous, and the other team was pushing the ball consistently onto our side of the field. Then they scored from a wing that Mike had misread and allowed too much separation. Five minutes later Mike gambled on a steal and lost, leaving his man alone with the ball and just our goalie. Fortunately our goalie is pretty damn good and he saved the goal, but Mike was clearly not picking things up.
“Matt, in for Mike,” Coach snapped. After the swap my shoulders felt tense. I kept my eye on Matt as he moved. Unlike Mike, he seemed prepared and serious. He watched his man, yet was aware of the ball. A pass crossed the field and he broke it up. Then another came back down his side and he missed, but recovered smartly to contest his opponent and didn't allow him a clean shot. We got to the end of the first half down 2-0. Matt was playing very well and coach had left him in place. Mike got swapped in on the opposite side of the defense and seemed to have pulled his head out of his ass far enough to see, if not remove his head completely.
I handed Matt a cup of water and ignored Mason whining about why I didn't have one for him.
“You have to play inside more,” I told Matt as he hydrated. “Keep pushing them to the outside so they have more limited options.”
He nodded and continued to drink.
The second half was intense. Matt had used the first half to get his feet; in the second he got into a one-on-two situation, and every drill I'd forced him to run with one defender and two forwards paid off. He not only got the ball away but made a spectacular clearing pass that led to Mason getting a goal.
Matt glanced over at me and I clutched my hand in a fist at him before pointing. He grinned and pointed back at me.
The game ended in a two all tie, but I was pleased with Matt's progress and sure coach would be starting him. Matt walked over to me after the game and nodded.
“You're a bastard, for sure. But you're also right, and you have no idea how much it hurts me to say that,” he said with a grin.
I smiled lightly. “Just remember that when I'm working you next week. And we're running this weekend to build stamina.”
He grimaced lightly, probably at the thought of not having his weekend to himself. “Yeah. Maybe it won't be as bad, since I can see you're not just picking on me.”
I stepped closer. “Coach decided to keep me on the team once it was clear I couldn't play for whatever reason – I won't second guess him. But he thought I was done, and he didn't think you could be trained enough for him to integrate this year – not in any meaningful sense. I have a chip on my shoulder to prove them wrong – both in me being useless and you not being ready, because you are. It was never about picking; it's all about proving a point. You did that today, but you can't make a point like that just once. You keep proving it until there's no doubt.”
Matt smiled, almost as if in wonder. “Hell, yeah. Sign me up.”
The girls were waiting for us as we left the field. Ris was asking me about Matt, likely because I'd been talking to him, and Mason jumped in to explain how he was supposed to be my keep-busy project from coach. Everyone agreed he was closer to a finished product than a project, but I argued he wasn't there yet.
“He's kind of hot,” Valerie said.
“Not bad,” Ris agreed. “What do you think, Ethan?”
“What do I think of what?” I asked.
“The relative hotness of Matt?”
I snorted but made no other reply. Snugging my hoodie to hide my face, I glanced across the lot at Mason's car. There were plenty of people that had attended the game since it was a little later in the day, and people from both teams were flooding the parking area. No one stood out to me as out of place, obviously watching the car or what-have-you. I shivered at that. Thinking, I started glancing at parked cars. If they weren't standing around, it made more sense to sit in a car and watch, right? Even then, I didn't spot anything. We climbed into Valerie's car, and on the way out of the lot I spotted two men sitting in a shabby car watching the traffic leave. I slid down in the seat unconsciously, just in case they happened to spot my face.
Thank you, Nathaniel.
The girls dropped us off and Mason invited them to another movie night the following evening. We showered and ate before settling in for homework, which Mason grumbled about. That evening he fell asleep on the bed in the room they'd given me. It was what we were doing right now. It was annoying because it made me feel needy; we hadn't slept apart since I'd practically moved into his home.
That night I woke in a sweat. Panic clutched at my heart as the remnants of the nightmare melted away from my conscious mind. I rolled my head and spotted Mason, a lump in the dimly lit room. I moved my hand up to my forehead, rubbing between my eyes. I nearly screamed when Mason spoke.
One where he'd been dead, so yeah. Pretty bad. “I don't remember,” I said.
He shuffled a little closer and yawned, dropping his hand near mine on the top of the blanket. It was an invitation, and I despised my weakness as I placed my hand beside his. Pinky fingers pressed together. Reassurance that he was there filled me, and I roiled in self-loathing for needing the touch. I didn't move my hand, though.
Friday we had a light practice, and that evening the lawyer, Cathy, called. She let us know the hearing had been as much of a shit-show as she'd expected and that the DA's office was willing to have a conversation, so Cathy would be by to talk to me at my convenience the following week before scheduling anything with the DA.
Mrs. Gerhardt filled Cathy in on the warning I'd received and how we'd handled it, which Cathy took note of and said she'd speak to me more about it when we got together. I respected that, assuming my conversation with her would be one-on-one. She was keeping information tight and not involving the Gerhardts any more than she had to.
Dinner was without Mr. Gerhardt; he had a late meeting at his office. I suspected it was a euphemism, but kept my mouth shut. Mrs. Gerhardt seemed happier with her husband absent and joined us for dinner.
“When is your next game? I feel like I haven't seen one in ages,” she asked as we were seated together at the table. It was nice to sit with other people to eat a meal. Also weird – I wasn't used to it and wasn't really sure how that worked, but here we were. Making it work.
“Tuesday, right, Eth?” Mason asked.
“Yes.” I nodded. “East Hills, away.”
“Oh, that's near my office,” she said. “I'll grab the camera that morning.”
“You can see Ethan's protege,” Mason said with a grin. “He took this kid and totally turned him into a beast on the field, Mom.”
“I'm not surprised,” she said with a trace of smugness. It was the tone that got my attention more than the comment.
“Why is that?” I asked.
A shrewd look settled on her face. “You're a planner. You see the landscape and adjust accordingly. I have no doubt you're a good player, but I would bet my last dollar you're a very effective coach.”
I grunted and then thanked her, more for the observation than anything else. Was she right? My methods were harsh with Matt because of my own frustration, but my results were pretty hard to argue with.
Mrs. Gerhardt interrupted my thoughts. “You both look like it's been a year since you got your hair cut. What do you say I take you two ragamuffins to get a trim?”
Mason preened a little under the idea, and I nodded with a little smile. I didn't care much about the haircut, but she was right – my hair was getting long and that meant someone could grab hold and detain me with it.
“You know, you guys don't usually play a winter sport. What do you think about a part-time job?” she asked.
“A job?” Mason asked, a whine entering his voice.
“I like the idea,” I said. “I like making my own money. Getting out of my house was always high on my priority list.” I smiled at Mason and he rolled his eyes. He whines, but he goes where I go.
“Great!” his mom said with a pleased expression. “I have just the place for you guys!”
I became suspicious.
The girls showed up around seven-thirty and Mason had decided this would be a horror film night. We settled in and fifteen minutes into the first movie, Mason started to talk.
“Oh, he's after her. Where could she be hiding?” He jumped higher than anyone at the film’s cheap scare tactics, but I noted that when things got tense, he'd start to talk. He was trying to defuse his own feelings of dread! I started to chuckle when I realized, but didn't tell them why. Ris picked up on it, though.
“Shut up, Mase! You ruin the tense scenes!” she admonished him. He wilted a little, but then squealed at the dramatic increase of volume and someone screaming on the screen.
The girls offered to protect him and he huffily turned the movie off. We teased him a little and he gradually came around. Why put in movies you know are going to scare you? More to the point, these movies are mindless gore-fests anyway. What is there to really get frightened about? The acting stinks, the premise is usually laughable and the story? Please.
We separated to get drinks and hit the bathrooms between movies and I wandered downstairs. The light was off and I was crossing the room when movement outside caught my eye. I stopped, sure I wasn't seen or seen well from outside when I was in the darkened room. I glanced out the window and then waited. I was just thinking it had been my imagination when I saw movement again. This time I thought I recognized the small shadow as Nathaniel.
I headed out the front door, then glanced around in the darkness as my eyes adjusted. Casually I crossed the driveway to the small stand of decorative trees and shrubs where I knew him to be.
“Spying, Nathaniel?” I asked, pitching my voice low.
He stood, giving up the pretense. “Following up, more like,” he said calmly.
I studied him in the dim light of a distant streetlight. “You're quite the puzzle.”
He shifted on his feet, but made no reply.
“I haven't decided if you're helping my father or not,” I said, more to poke him than out of any real sense of him harboring ill-will.
“That's stupid. You're not stupid,” he said flatly.
Interesting line of defense. “It's not too half-baked, if you think for a second. I saw you with my father's group, carting copper to sell for scrap.”
“That's...you shouldn't know that,” he said, sounding uncertain. “When did you see this, supposedly?”
“Last Friday, when you stepped in to help two strangers. Nice swing with the bottle, by the way.” I waited as he processed what I'd said, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I studied him. He was wearing a light coat and jeans, from what I could tell. His eyes were like two bits of shiny metal in the night, and his jaw worked as he considered his reply. It struck me that he looked out of place, that casually attractive face with those captivating eyes standing alone in the dark.
“You left the house. How could you have seen me?” he challenged, and my thoughts were pulled back to the events of that evening.
I took a step closer to him and lowered my voice further. “I went back. To see if you were okay, or if you needed help. I lost you in the melee.”
“You didn't lose me,” he said, his voice catching. He spoke again, his tone firmer. “They never really noticed me, not in that mess. I hit my guy from behind – you were more front and center.”
I nodded slowly. “In any case, I saw you and your...crew. Carting a load of stolen copper.”
He looked away and said nothing.
“So why betray your crew? I had a thought you were trying to drive me to the front of the school so my father could get his hands on me.” I'd said it deliberately and found it interesting to see his posture tense as I finished my statement.
His gaze swung back toward me. “So it was your father. The one that hurt you.”
I studied his eyes, as much as I could see of them. Fiery. I shivered, more from the temperature and my thin tee shirt than his gaze. I think. Should have put shoes on, too.
His lips pursed.
I gambled. “What did you say to Kevin?”
His gaze locked with mine. We stood like that for untold moments, each feeling as if it were squeezing something vital from me. The tension was ratcheting up with each passing second. I was on the cusp of something, of some understanding and I desperately wanted to know. I wanted him to be on my side. I wanted to believe. To be sure.
“I told him if he so much as looked at you again, I'd kill him.”
I don't know what I'd expected him to say, but that wasn't it. It was a direct answer, but spawned more questions. “Why?” I gasped.
“Because he had plans for you,” he said dismissively. He held my gaze, his expression of stone. “You're in for the night?”
I tilted my head, off balance from this exchange. “Yeah.”
“Good. I'm tired.” He turned and walked away from me. I suddenly realized I was losing an opportunity and unfroze, moving after him quickly. I just wanted to understand. His walk was brisk as he headed into the darker corners of the night and I sped up to catch him. He reached for a car door and I slapped my hand on the glass to keep it shut.
His hand dropped down to his side and he froze, body ready to fight. I frowned and asked, “What, do you have a knife down there or something?”
He was silent for a beat, then said, “Or something.”
I watched him for a moment and then took my hand away from the glass. His posture relaxed a tad and he moved his hand slowly away from whatever was along the side of his leg. I didn't take a step back because he might interpret that as it being okay to leave, and I also didn't want him to think I was afraid of him – which I wasn't. Odd, but there it was. I didn't know him, not really – but I felt sure he wasn't a threat to me. We stood for a minute at least, staring at each other. It may have been longer, but I was kind of lost in seeing what would happen next.
“I need to leave,” he said quietly.
“I need some answers,” I replied, matching his tone.
He shook his head. “I can't talk to you.”
“But why? Nathaniel,” I said gently and was surprised as he closed his eyes. I thought it might be tied to me saying his name. “I don't know you, but you've maimed someone for insulting me, you helped me get my friend out of a seriously bad spot, and you seem to be spying on people who'd like to whip my ass.”
“Kill you,” he said quietly and opened his eyes. “Ethan, your father wants you dead.”
I digested that for a moment. “That seems extreme, even for him.”
He shook his head. “He's answering to stronger people. He's into the Double-A.” He gritted his teeth and said, “Your best option is to disappear. Otherwise he's going to end up finding you.”
I shook my head slightly. “I'm not in the habit of running, and I pay my debts. I owe you more than once.”
He winced visibly. In a very small, almost fearful voice he said, “No. I owe you.”
I narrowed my eyes slightly, but came up empty for reasons his statement could be true. “How is that?”
He looked up at me, his eyes wet, but fierce. “I can't. Not right now.”
I could push the issue right now. I could force him; he was close to breaking. I did want to know. The temptation was nearly overwhelming. It also seemed wrong. His methods were crude but effective, and he was on my side. I was sure of that. For tonight, maybe that was enough. Besides, no one likes being pushed too far. His good will might evaporate, no matter the reason it existed to begin with.
“Okay. Not tonight,” I said. He looked relieved, and tired. “But soon, Nathaniel.”
He gave me a considering look. “Will you think about running?”
“Not while you're still in the middle of this. Not a chance.”
“You can't do that.”
“Watch me. What's the Double A?”
He frowned, debating the wisdom of an argument he couldn't win that minute and shifted gears. “Aryan Army. White supremacist group. The copper is going through one of their businesses to finance the stuff they are into.”
“You're...okay with that?”
He sighed. “What choice do I have?”
“A lot more than you might think,” I said. “We need to talk, soon. Sometime this week?”
He nodded reluctantly. “In the locker room.”
“Because,” he said quietly and licked his lips. “You're going to hate me.” His expression was one of utter misery. It was intriguing, but also intensified the protective feeling I was starting to experience toward him. Loyalty is one thing I don't joke about – it's worth more than anything else I've ever encountered.
I ran my tongue along the edge of my teeth. “I don't think so.”
We spent another moment looking at each other, then I realized I couldn't feel my toes anymore. Mostly. I turned from him and walked back up to the Gerhardts’, not looking back. I felt his eyes on me, and my mind swirled with reasons why he might think he owed me – yet I kept coming back to the way the dim light bounced off his eyes. What a stupid thing to think about.
I walked back in to find the girls and Mason in the kitchen, and they rounded on me as a group.
“Where were you?”
“We couldn't find you!”
“You had us worried!”
Christ. “I went out front for some cool air, that's all,” I said with as bored a tone as I could fake.
“Eth, buddy, things aren't safe. I can't drive my own car right now because it's not safe. Can you maybe let me know if you're going out? Just so I don't freak out and think you got kidnapped and call 911? I mean, they don't really like people calling back and saying 'Oops, my bad!' you know?”
“Sorry!” I said and raised my hands.
I glanced at Ris, who had fixed me with an appraising expression. “You were gone a long time for just some air. I didn't see you from the window, so you went kind of far, didn't you?”
“Wouldn't have to go far to not be able to see me through the window,” I said. “I just have to be on the front porch by the door.”
“Except you weren't,” Valerie said. “I checked.”
I hadn't heard the front door open.
“Where did you go?” Ris asked.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Nowhere. It's not a big deal.”
“You fucker,” Ris said in a low tone. “We're all worried because we're your friends. We're willing to go to the wall for you, and you're still holding out?” She threw her hands up in the air and glared at me.
I glared back. “I'm not sure what to make of it yet, and I'm not ready to just blurt it all over, okay?”
“Not okay!” Mason said, joining the fight on the wrong side. “I want every damn detail, Eth! Don't you hold out on me!”
Fuck. I rubbed my face with the palms of my hands and let out a sigh. “I saw something outside, I thought it might be Nathaniel. So I went to look.”
“Okay, so first that was stupid because you're supposed to be hiding out, basically,” Ris said. “Second, none of us knows much about this kid except he might be some homicidal midget. Why would you go see if a shadow was him?”
I covered my eyes with my hand and said, “He's helping me because he thinks he owes me, but I don't know why.” I glanced up at them. “Anyone know why he'd think he owes me? I mean enough to maim someone and risk himself to help me out more than once?”
“What do you mean, more than once?” Valerie asked.
I ticked them off my fingers. “Kevin, who had some unnamed plans for me. Last Friday when Mase and I were at a party.”
“Some guys were going to pound me into paste,” Mason chimed in.
I nodded in his direction and then held up a third finger. “The warning that Mason's car was being watched at school. I guess you can add a fourth – he says my father wants me dead.”
That set off a round of demands, exclamations and protests. I explained what Nathaniel had said about the Double-A and two of them whipped out their phones to do searches and see if this organization had appeared in any recent news articles. I felt tired, like we were just spinning our wheels, and begged them – something I never do – to drop it for now. It took a good ten minutes of back and forth, but finally we grabbed some snacks and went back up for a second movie.
The girls decided we should watch a thriller instead of a horror flick since Mason the chicken heart couldn't handle the gory ones. He protested and they overruled him. They put on something called Identity and I found it kind of fascinating. The characters were all splinters of a personality and were being killed off one by one as a doctor worked to try and fold the fragmented personalities back into a single person. The things was, you didn't find out they were just personalities until the very end.
I was wiped out by the end, and the girls departed. They each hugged me, and that was weird. Slightly uncomfortable with my ribs, but they didn't need to know that. Mason was in line and was going to hug me too, but I stiff-armed the clown. I went down, got comfortable for bed and brushed my teeth. Mason joined me moments later, without so much as asking if we were sleeping in that room tonight.
I lay awake for a while, thinking over Nathaniel's words. Wondering what he thought he owed me. Wondering how my idiot father had gotten tangled up with people like this, but that was the easier one to figure out by far. No doubt he'd thought he was getting in on the ground floor of a great partnership. I had no illusions – my father was disposable to these people – and it occurred to me that if I was missing long enough, they might take my father out for me just to cut their losses. Huh.