Saturday morning had me texting Matt so he could meet up with us. I guess he'd had to finagle a ride, but we met near a jogging trail. I had him and Mason doing sprints away from me and back as I jogged lightly, although I ended up having to stop because the breathing was hurting too much. It made me angry and I took it out on those two, working them hard for more than an hour. Matt was completely different today – not that he was pleased, but he did what I said with a grim determination. Mason bitched, but it seemed to be a point of pride to keep up with Matt.
“Tomorrow,” I said to Matt as we dropped him off. “Go running on your own. No sprints, just a steady pace to work on stamina. Aim for thirty minutes, and if you feel good then go a bit more.”
“Okay,” Matt said with a tired nod. “See you Monday.”
Mason and I headed back to his house and got cleaned up. His mother seemed perky for some reason. She reminded us that she wanted to take us for haircuts and that there was a place at the mall that was hiring and that we should apply.
“I don't want a job,” Mason said to me.
“You won't always have things handed to you, Mase. Besides, it'll be better if we work together.”
He didn't reply right away and I turned to look at him. He was frowning at me and shook his head. “You can be a real asshole sometimes, you know that?”
I squared up to him. “Yeah, I do know that. What did I do?”
“I know I'm lucky my folks provide, but you make me sound like I'm so immature. Reminding me my parents won't pay for things forever, that kind of crap.”
I smiled at him. “Mason. You are immature. You drink till you puke, sleep with any willing hole, and now you're whining about getting a job.”
He pursed his lips and his frown grew more severe. “I drink because I'm unhappy. I sleep with people because it feels good, and for a little while I feel pretty important. God knows my parents only like me when I get packaged with you,” he said, his eyes growing wet.
I was startled, and felt shamed. I'd misjudged him and badly.
“Mase,” I said.
“No. Just, no,” he said and tried to go past me. Instead I grabbed him in a hug that caused me to groan with the discomfort, but I kept my grip. He didn't struggle, but I felt him subtly pulling away from me.
“Mason...I'm sorry.” That shouldn't be so hard to say to him, but it was. It wasn't just to him, but damn. “I thought I understood, and I was wrong. Maybe I should have asked you...about stuff. I don't know. I didn't mean to hurt you.”
He stopped pulling away from me and lifted a hand to wipe his eyes. He patted my shoulder and I released him, but he didn't move away.
“You're really strong, you know?” he said quietly. “I always hoped some of that would rub off on me, but I think it just makes me weaker. I know you'll stand up and yank my ass out of any fire I fall into.”
“Mase,” I said quietly. “I am who I am because I had to be. I give you that because of who you are. Even if I am judging you, I don't mean to...you're loyal. Smart. It's why I always trust you and stick by you, because you give those things back to me. I bring up your drinking because I don't want to lose my best friend. I don't mind you getting laid, I just know it's not beneficial to you long-term. And Mase,” I said gently, ducking my head a bit to look at his face. He turned slightly to look at me. “You're not weak. A weak person would have driven away and let my father beat me senseless. You drove up there like a bat out of hell and nearly turned my old man into a jelly just to get me out. Don't ever think for a second I don't know that.”
He sniffled a little. “I guess it was kind of bad ass.”
“A little,” I said and gave him a small smile.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I guess I-”
“No,” I said firmly. “Don't be sorry for calling me out on shit. I do it to you. We keep each other honest, right? I should be a better friend, knowing why you do some of these self-destructive things...I should have looked harder. Asked more.”
He sniffled and nodded. “Thank you, Eth.”
We parted shortly afterward to get dressed, but for the first time I could remember I was filled with self-recrimination. Mason was smart enough, self-aware enough, to have figured out why he was doing the things he did. Was he also wanting the attention? He kind of alluded to that when he brought up the sex. If I thought it would help I'd sleep with him, but I knew it would only make things worse. My God, when did I become such a self-absorbed asshole?
His mom took us to a barbecue place for lunch and it was really good. As it happens, it was also the place she'd chosen to have a serious talk with us.
“Mason, I owe you a huge apology,” she said kind of randomly.
“What? Why?” he asked.
She swallowed and set her fork down before looking at him. “Your father and I have been unhappy for years. It's taken a terrible toll on you, and I wasn't...I was too apathetic to handle it, because of my own issues. Because of the issues between your father and me. I was...I think....” She took a shuddering breath.
“Mom?” Mason asked in concern.
“The...other night, your father and I sat down with Ethan to talk. One thing Ethan has always been good at is being very direct.” She let out a cheerless laugh. “You always know what he thinks.”
Mason and I looked at each other and back to her.
She had looked down at her hands and now lifted her gaze to meet her son's. “I'm ashamed I needed a teenage boy to point some things out, but Ethan really took your father and me to the woodshed. Your father and I have talked and we finally decided to divorce.”
I glanced at Mason, but he seemed okay.
“How will that work?” Mason asked slowly.
“Your father and his...girlfriend,” she said, bitterly grinding out the words, “will move into her apartment for now. You're old enough to decide how you want your relationship with us to work, but we both want to repair our relationship with you.” She smiled wanly at him. “Your father is many things, but he does love you, Mason. As do I. It's just that...I guess I needed a kick in the pants to stop lamenting and start doing.”
Mason frowned lightly. “So I have to choose who to live with? Is that it?”
“Eventually, you'll have that option,” she said. “Right now, your father's living arrangements don't have space.”
“What about our house?” Mason asked, concern laced through his voice.
“We're going to keep the home to limit the amount of change. I'll be there with you. And Ethan.”
Mason glanced at me and then looked back at his mother. “He cheated, didn't he.”
Her face screwed up and she fought off the emotions warring inside her. “Yes,” she whispered. “But that's between him and me.”
“How do I just let that go?” he demanded.
“You...can choose to work it out with him as you see fit, but it's really between him and me.”
“No,” he said firmly, “it's not. It's made our house screwed up for years, and now it's changing our family for good.”
She nodded slowly, still unwilling to assail her husband in front of their son. I could respect that. Mason got up and hugged her, and I could respect that, too. I was glad to have played a part in pushing them in what turned out to be the right direction. Maybe Mason would get some of the love and attention from his parents he deserved.
We finished lunch without more emotional trauma. Mason brought up Matt again and how I was working them both into the ground, and his mother grinned at his jovial complaining. Then, of course, he stepped in it and brought up Nathaniel spying on the house and how I'd gone out to see him. She looked at me with concern while Mason prattled on that he thought Nathaniel was just angling for a date.
“Who is this boy, Ethan?” she asked.
“He's a guy from school. He warned us about my father looking for Mason's car,” I told her, unwilling to spill everything. Mason opened his mouth and I kicked him under the table.
“He's helping you? But that sounds like he's working in a dangerous spot,” she replied.
“He thinks he owes me something, but I don't know for what,” I admitted. “He's smart, though. He's okay.” At least I hoped he was.
“Is this something you're going to bring up to Cathy?”
“Yes. With respect to some of these things, I think it's better if fewer people know,” I replied.
“Ordinarily I'd agree,” she said. “However, my son knows and I'm deeply involved in this. I don't want information screened from me.”
I nodded, but she kept up her look. “I understand,” I told her.
Satisfied for the moment, we finished up and went for haircuts. I thought haircuts were a waste of money. Jackson and I would snip our hair at home, but I had to admit having someone wash my hair was a singular pleasure. I was quite disappointed when it was over.
“Damn, Ethan!” Mason said enthusiastically. “Wait till the girls see you!”
“What?” I asked, suddenly self-conscious. I glanced at the mirror, but didn't quite recognize myself. “Huh.”
“Yeah, huh. You look good, buddy!”
“You both look very handsome,” his mother interjected.
“Mason always looks good,” I grumbled, dragging my eyes away from the mirror.
“Well, I think you both look presentable for job applications!” she announced and Mason winced. She walked us to a place call Cuppa Joe's and greeted a man by name.
“Hi, Steve. I'd like you to meet my son, Mason,” she said with pride in her voice. “And this is his best friend, Ethan.” Odd. She still sounded proud.
Steve was a heavy-set man with a short cut beard shot through with gray and closely trimmed hair that featured a retreating hairline. He smiled and walked around the counter, revealing what a great bear of a man he was now that we could see him completely.
“Hello, Mason. Ethan,” he said, shaking our hands in turn. “So I hear you guys are looking for weekend jobs, maybe a few nights during the week? Both sixteen?”
Mason glanced at me, and before I could answer he took the lead. “Yep! We're both sixteen, but he doesn't have a car so I kind of drive him everywhere.”
“Like crazy,” I supplied.
Steve grinned widely. “Okay. Let me get you applications. I don't suppose either of you have your working papers on you?”
“I do,” I said, reaching for my wallet.
“I have Mason's,” his mom said, reaching into her purse.
Steve nodded happily and went to get the applications. “Margot? I have two interviews. Holler if you get swamped,” he said to the young black woman behind the counter.
“How did you get your parents to sign off on your working papers?” Mason asked.
“Same way I got signatures for sports physicals, school lunch and field trips – I forged it.” He stared at me for a second and then smiled, shaking his head and laughing lightly. I smiled back, enjoying the secret with him.
We each filled out our applications and Steve 'interviewed' us, although it felt like the jobs were ours to lose. He gave us a tour of the business, described the drinks we could make and showed us how to mix a couple of basic items.
“As part of training you'll have to make up a bunch of drinks. Because they are for training, we usually give them away so they don't go to waste, since no one ordered them,” he explained. He walked through presentation of food and beverages, customer service and cleanliness as being his top priorities. All told we were there for about an hour and had a grasp of the basics.
“So what do you guys think?” Steve asked.
“I like it,” I said, and glanced at Mason.
“I can do this,” Mason said with more enthusiasm than I expected. Steve told us to be there at ten the next morning for training.
“My working men,” his mom said with a smile and placed hands on both our shoulders. Mason was pleased with the attention, and I felt weird. Not bad, but weird. We headed back to his house, but he was babbling the whole way about what we could do that night. The only thing was, they weren't exactly Mason-like Saturday night things to do. Bowling was out due to my injuries, and no movies because we'd done that the night before.
“I know! There's that place that just opened, they have laser tag! What do you think?”
I thought he was just trying to sound innocent about his plans for the evening in front of his mother. With that in mind, I said, “Sure.”
I was kind of shocked when he called the girls while we were in the car and invited them to join us. Once we got to his house, we took his mother's car and he headed toward this place on the edge of town that hosted laser tag and had a trampoline park next door along with some old school video games.
“You were serious?” I asked, still shocked.
“Yeah. Why? You don't want to?” He glanced at me and said, “I asked if you wanted to.”
“I know, but...I thought you were just covering in front of your mom and you wanted to go get drunk.”
“The girls are waiting,” he said and we went inside. We played several rounds, both as a team and against each other. The girls were pretty vindictive if you got them and would stop at nothing to get you back. I did go a little too hard and paid for it with some soreness in my chest, but I had a lot of fun. We grabbed snacks afterward and watched some little kids who were having a birthday party bounce around on the trampolines. We'd laugh as they fell over each other, and at some point they realized they had an audience and started trying to show off for us. We cheered them and had an oddly fun time.
Mason told the girls about our new jobs and how we'd be training and making sample drinks for free the next day, so they happily agreed to swing by.
“That was fun,” Mason said in the car on the way home. I had to agree. Odd, but true. “So listen, I've been wondering about something.”
I glanced at him, on edge just from his tone. Was this going to be about the nightmares I was denying having again? My father? Maybe he wanted to talk about the divorce, but that didn't make sense – what was there to wonder about?
“So what if I'm right and Nathaniel has a thing for you,” he said and I groaned.
“Really? You need better things to focus on,” I told him.
“Seriously. What would you think?”
“I don't, Mase. That's insane. Why wouldn't he just say something?”
“I've been thinking about that, too,” he said. “He thinks he owes you, right? So maybe he doesn't feel like, you know, he's on your level.”
“Jesus, Mase,” I said and snorted out a laugh. “I don't think someone would think I was out of their league. I mean, come on!”
“Hey, these things are all in people's heads – and there are a lot of people that aren't in your league.”
I sighed. “I appreciate your high opinion of me, but this is silly.”
“I'm just wondering...how would you feel if he was? Interested in you, I mean.”
I sighed again. I didn't know. I'd blocked all ideas of relationships out for so long that I didn't care who looked good and who didn't, who might be interested and who I could be interested in. None of it mattered, not right now. He didn't push the question, but that was for the best as I didn't know how to answer.
In the morning we headed over to the mall. It's kind of an empty place first thing in the business day. Steve was on hand, and he welcomed us, had us put on aprons with the store logo and started showing us how to set the store up for the day's business. We quickly got lost in the details as we learned the register, then where the recipes for each item were kept in case we needed them – but he assured us we'd memorize the drinks quickly.
Customers began to appear sporadically. Most were easy going enough while we learned how to make their drinks. Around noon we got a rush, and I started to see what he meant by us memorizing the drinks quickly, because we were making the same ones over and over. Around one the girls showed up, but they weren't what caught my attention. Looking completely uncomfortable in his surroundings was Nathaniel. My guess was that he was checking up on me again, though he was damn uncanny at finding me and more dedicated than an old hound dog. The girls had spotted him.
They were grinning as they approached the counter, and all I could wonder was how they'd managed to get Nathaniel to come with them.
“Hey,” Mason said, loudly enough for them to hear. “Don't screw up just because you think the customer is cute.”
I flicked an irritated look at Mason, but all three of our visitors reacted differently. Ris just smiled, knowing it was a joke. Valerie preened slightly, though she was quick to clamp down on it. Nathaniel blushed, but oddly looked more pale than ever. Christ. Who can make their face drain of blood yet blush? Guy was full of tricks.
“We have some sample drinks we just made up,” I said to them and gestured to the half-dozen cups we had on the counter. The girls eagerly went through them, picking out something to drink. Nathaniel hung back a bit, but Mason encouraged him to come forward and grab a cup.
His gaze flicked to me and then he moved forward and peered at the assembled cups.
“What kind of drinks do you like?” I asked.
“Um. Are any of them sweet?”
“Here, try this caramel whatchamacalit,” I said to him, sliding a drink his way. He picked up the cup, his fingertips brushing against my hand as I hadn't withdrawn completely. He licked his lips and sipped the drink. His eyes opened slightly wider and a small smile graced his features.
“This is good. Thanks.”
I tilted my head a little and smiled back. “You're welcome.”
We got a few customers then, but for some reason my mind kept circling back to him drinking and the tiny smile on his face. I hadn't seen him smile before. I liked it. It complimented his eyes, and the dimples brought his features to another level. What a stupid thing to think about.
The next week was relatively mundane. We had school, practice and homework. Mrs. Gerhardt was eating with us each night and asking after our days, asking about the job and all sorts of small details about our activities. We worked one night during the week, and then both Friday and Sunday. We won Tuesday's game, and Matt did a very good job. Mrs. Gerhardt showed up as promised and took several pictures. Coach liked what I'd done so much he wanted me to spend more time with the defense in general. They would not be pleased.
We had a game Thursday, and that one we lost. The defense was abysmal and wasn't responding to my coaching as quickly as Matt had, but he was hollering at them and turning into a leader on the field. Each day I'd wait in the locker room for Nathaniel to speak to me, but he didn't show up. I'd seen him here and there in school, but he was fast as a jackrabbit and blended like a sniper when he wanted to. We had no practice Friday, and Cathy met us at the house that afternoon. She had a tired smile on her face as she sat down in the living room and I sat in a wing chair across from her.
“So. Have you done any thinking about what you want to do?”
I let out a slow breath. “I can't stay here like this forever, as much as I'd like to. Sooner or later someone will find out where I am and there will be problems – maybe painful ones. I can't have that.”
She nodded in a resigned fashion. “Okay. So we go to the DA's office. He's going to want to know about your father's business so they can actually arrest him and put him away.”
I thought for a moment, and then committed to my decision. “I don't think it's him they're after.”
“All my life my father has been a common criminal – as common as a cockroach. There isn't anything special about him, he's strictly a small time fuck-up. He's always chasing the latest easy score.” I hesitated and continued. “A few months ago he thought he was onto something bigger and he wanted a shotgun with him.”
“A literal shotgun?”
“No. Someone to ride with him, be his wingman if you like.”
“Okay. Go on.”
“He took my twin brother, Jackson. Um. Something went wrong, I never really knew what, but Jackson was killed.”
“Oh. Oh, God. I'm so sorry.” She looked sincere, but it didn't matter a great deal one way or another.
“Thanks. Anyway, I didn't realize it until a few days ago, but I think that's when my dad got into something much, much bigger than he was used to.” I licked my lips. “He's in with this group called the Double-A. Aryan Army. They're a white supremacist group.”
“Oh. Lovely,” she said and let out a long sigh. “It's never the unicorn league or the marshmallow people. No, it's always the damn Nazis. I'm sorry, go on,” she said, waving her hand at me.
“What I know right now is that they are stripping copper from the Glades development, turning it in for scrap and that money is feeding into the Double-A.”
“Okay. Do you have names, or schedules? Anything they can use to verify or set up an operation to surveil and catch these folks in the act?”
I shook my head slowly. “No. But that kind of brings me to my second...point. Someone has been helping me. Someone who knows all the details. He warned me about people looking for Mason's car. He said...he told me that my father wants me dead.”
She sucked air between her teeth. “Okay so what's your priority? The information or this source? Or are you thinking of walking the edge and trying to keep him from going over?”
Hmm. Good question. “My first priority has to be Mason and his mom. They have to be safe. Secondly...I have to get this person out. He's stepped in for me three times that I know of. I just don't know if he'll cooperate.”
“Okay. How do you know him?”
“I don't know him that well,” I confessed. “He goes to my school. He's been keeping tabs on me, and he's frighteningly good at it. He...harmed someone who had some sort of plans for me that I never found out about. He helped Mason and me when some guys were going to take Mase apart and consider reassembling him later. Then he gave us the warning on the car. I...I trust him.”
She pursed her lips and nodded slowly. “Why is he helping you?”
I shrugged helplessly. “He says he owes me for something, but I have no clue what. I was supposed to find out this week, but he's evaded me.”
She tapped her pen against her lips. “Well, he's a wild card. I'll drop a few tidbits to the DA, see if we get a nibble. I can see what they will offer in exchange for you and this other person – male? Female?”
“Male,” I said, keeping his name to myself for now.
“Okay. So it seems then if they get to your father, they can use him to flip people higher up in this organization. That's probably the end game.” She put her pen to her legal pad and started making extensive notes.
“Makes sense to me,” I agreed.
“Does this unnamed male have someplace to go? Obviously he'd be in danger as well.”
I sighed. “He's a bit of an unknown quantity right now. I'll have to get back to you.”
“Okay,” she said and set her pen down. “I want you to know the DA will want both of you, especially because this other person knows more. Now, is he involved in the illegal side of the operation?”
I paused. “I don't think I can answer that. You're not his lawyer and I won't incriminate him.”
She smiled widely at me. “I like you. Let's just agree I'll treat you guys like a package deal on this case, all right?”
“Should I have that in writing?”
“You can if it makes you feel better. The only way this becomes troublesome is if you guys go against each other in court, then you'd both need individual counsel because your goals aren't the same.”
I considered that and nodded at her. “What sort of deal might I – we – get? I mean, they want something from me.”
“Fair question.” She paused and leaned back a bit. “They will try to say that not prosecuting you should be enough. But the fact is, they need you guys to make their case. So what do you want? Emancipation?” She paused as if something just occurred to her. “Ethan, what about your mother?”
“What about her?” I asked warily.
“Well, it's just that with your father doing all these things, where is your mother in this process?”
“Drunk. Stoned. She abdicated her motherly duties a long time ago.” I looked at her steadily, wanting to move on.
“All right,” she said with a nod. “So we might be able to squeeze the DA for living arrangements, emancipation help, possibly tuition help with college. Politics can grease the wheels about a great many things.”
“What about some kind of witness protection? I don't want to be found later, and I don't think my...friend would.” I watched her as she leaned forward.
“Witness Protection is on the federal level, but we could probably make a legal name change to make it harder to find you later. We may be able to hide things, with their help. Does that sound like something we want to aim for?” She regarded me with a patient look while I considered the option.
“I'll have to think about it,” I told her honestly. “Being someone else, going to college – it sounds great. But I have obligations. Relationships. I have to sort that stuff out, first.”
“Sure. Give it some thought.”
She left shortly afterward and Mason and I had to head to work for our evening shift. I liked the work, and the other employees that I'd met so far were nice enough. Mason was actually very good behind the counter, very personable, and I think he helped make it a happy thing for people to come get a drink while they were out shopping. I also thought it was a boost to Mason's self-esteem that he could engage strangers so positively.
After we closed up we drove home in relative silence. After showers we sat in his room and played a few games – nothing special. I was still moving gingerly at times, grumbling about having to wait six weeks or so for my ribs to heal. We hung it up about one in the morning and wandered over to his bed.
“Want me to sleep in the other room?” I asked.
“Uh, no?” he asked, his tone suggesting he thought I was dumb to have asked.
“I just figured, you know, you seem to think I'm gay and we're all dressed down and sharing a bed. People will talk, you know,” I said steadily, trying not to laugh at him.
“You're an idiot,” he said and grinned at me when I cracked a smile, unable to hold it in. “No, I want to be able to keep an eye on you. I don't care if you want to tell everyone else you're fine and that you're not having nightmares – I know you are.” I opened my mouth to protest and he held a hand up to forestall me. “No. No lies. I'm not telling anyone shit about you, but just between us, I know. So I'm staying with you.”
I pushed my tongue against my teeth, running it along while I sucked my lips inward. I nodded rather than reply. I had been having nightmares, but I didn't usually remember them. I thought he was asleep during the times I'd woken up in a sweat and looked around for his reassuring form. I hated the vulnerable feeling, but I was willing to indulge myself if I didn't have to discuss it.