Posted: November 8, 2007

Tongue-Tied

Chapter 1

Normally when I wake up in the morning, it's to the sound of the news, set really loud so dad can hear it over my mother speaking as she bustles around in the kitchen, making breakfast and telling him what her plans for the day are. She feels it's important that our family communicate properly. He thinks knowing the state of the stock market and rising gas prices are even more important.

This morning is different though.

The television is on, yeah, but it's quiet - at a normal volume, even - and there's no smell of pancakes, or eggs, or sausages. Just burnt toast.

I roll onto my back and stare at my ceiling blankly, straining to hear my mother's voice, but there's nothing. Just my dad cursing.

Warily, I roll out of bed and slip on a pair of sweats over my boxers before venturing out to the hall. I sneak a glance into my parents' room, thinking that maybe my mother's sick - so sick that for the first time in my seventeen years she actually can't make breakfast.

She's not in there. And neither is a properly made bed.

I swallow nervously. "Dad?" I ask quietly as I make my way down the hall and to the kitchen, glancing in the bathroom and study on my way. No mother in those rooms either.

He doesn't respond. I stand in the kitchen entrance and think that it's no wonder he didn't reply. Watching dumbly, I wince as he slams the toaster on the counter, cursing some more.

"Dad?" I say again, my eyes scanning the kitchen as I try to overcome my disbelief. He starts, dropping the toaster, and turns around, smiling with just his mouth when he realizes it's me behind him. It unnerves me and my voice shakes when I ask, "Where's Mom?"

He laughs softly and plucks a slice of toast from the counter, holding it out to me. I stare at the charred attempt at a breakfast and wonder how I missed the pile of blackened bread on our counter.

"It's not the best, but I've made breakfast," Dad tells me, shaking the toast emphatically, that fake smile still on his face.

"Um…thanks, Dad." I move forward, taking the toast from him and wincing when it kind of crumbles in my grip, littering the floor in black crumbs. "But I think I'll just have cereal…?"

He looks almost confused as he stares at the toast in my hand. Then, voice wilting, he says, "Ahran, just eat the toast please and get ready for school. Rusna should be here soon."

I don't argue.

-----

"So let me get this straight, you woke up this morning and your mom was awol?" Rusna, my best friend since, well, forever, who somehow adopted the nickname Rusty over the years, looks at me sceptically over the top of her designer sunglasses.

Sheepish, I nod, wishing she would do what she usually does and change the subject so I can quit worrying. She clucks her tongue thoughtfully at my nod and returns her focus to the road, saying, "Well that sucks."

I don't disagree.

"And your dad isn't telling you where she went?" She asks, for what I'm pretty sure is the third time.

"Well, he's not not telling me. He's just kind of avoiding the subject," I clarify, leaning my head against the window and watching her, waiting for the blessed topic change.

"So he's not telling you," she concludes as if I hadn't spoken in the first place.

I wonder if she even hears my frustrated groan and watch her tap her nails on the steering wheel absent-mindedly, looking at me from the corner of her eye. Nah, she's probably just ignoring it.

For the record, I hate it when she does this. Asks me the same questions over and over until I give her the exact answer she wants. I really wish we could just skip to the part where she gives me impractical advice and moves on to talking about herself.

"Rusty," I whine, "Can we just talk about something else now?"

She laughs. "Ahran, I have a tiny little news flash for you: Your mom peaced this morning. There's pretty much nothing else worth talking about, lov- Ooh!" Rusty breaks off, practically cooing as we pull into the parking lot at St. Catherine's Co-Ed Prep School. "Aren't you lovely!"

I roll my eyes, not even bothering to see who she's talking about and get out of the car.

"I'll see you in second," I tell her over the hood of the car as she slowly rises from the driver's side, undoing the first few buttons of her blouse and running her fingers through her thick, dark hair.

"Yeah, sure," she agrees absently while applying a thick coating of gloss to her mouth. Smacking her lips, she tears her eyes away from Lovely to stare at me expectantly. "How do I look?"

My initial instinct is to shrug and ask her why she always needs my opinion on her appearance. Instead, I pretend to look carefully at her dark complexion and say, "Like sex. You're doing your make-up differently aren't you?"

In all honesty, I have no idea if she is or not. To me she looks the same every day: pretty and Indian.

She looks worried. "Yeah, I'm wearing different eyeliner and less blush than usual. It's better, right?"

"You could have car oil on your face and you'd still be pretty," I tell her, thinking 'why car oil?' and wondering why I'm even talking because she's not paying attention to me anymore. I snap my fingers over the hood of the car, trying to get her attention. "I'll see you in second?"

Rusty looks away from Lovely and back at me, irritated. "Yeah, meet me out here, got it?"

Translation: I feel like skipping today.

I don't bother to respond because I barely have time to consider her orders and she's already gone, sauntering towards Lovely with a smirk and a handful charm. I feel a familiar pang of jealousy as Lovely eyes Rusty up and makes his way toward her, taking her hand and kissing it suavely. But it's me she wants to skip second with with, I remind myself, not Lovely, or Gorgeous, or Tall, Dark, and Handsome. Me.

When I finally turn and head to first period, I'm not surprised that this thought doesn't really placate me all that much. Because, and I should know this, everywhere we go, even skipping, there will always be another Lovely to steal her away.

-----

When I get home the first sound I hear is my mother shouting. This surprises me for many reasons, the first being that my mother was 'awol' this morning, as Rusty put it, and the second being that my mother never raises her voice. Ever.

Well, except for that one time just after I had learned my first four-letter word and told her to "fuck off".

"Don't you try to pin this on me, Marcus! There is no appreciation in this househol-" I can tell she's super furious. Her Indian accent is always thicker when she's angry and right now it's to the point that I can barely understand her words. And she called my dad 'Marcus'. She never calls him 'Marcus'. Come to think of it, she never calls him anything except 'priye', whatever that means.

"Where is there no appreciation?" My dad booms so loud I think I feel the house quake. Or maybe that's just my hand shaking. "I love you! Your son loves you!"

"Well you both do a mighty job of showing i-"

Without thinking, I slam the front door as hard as I can, unable to hear my mother finish her sentence - even more unable to know what my dad's response will be. This is a reality, I remind myself, all the while wondering if they heard the door slam and if they're going to come - apologize and show their humiliation at the fact that I actually heard them fighting.

So I stand on my front porch, staring steadfastly at the door. I pretend I can't hear pieces of their voices through the door and walls and windows that once seemed so safe, and I pretend like I have an idea where all this anger is coming from.

But I don't.

When it becomes clear they aren't coming for me, I leave.

I walk the fifteen minutes it takes to get to Goldsquare Mall and make my way from store to store, not really caring that I don't have my wallet with me. It's not like I want to spend any money. I just want to look.

I want to pretend like my mother didn't almost insinuate that I don't love her or appreciate her because that's a stupid idea and she's an idiot for even thinking that. I feel my cheeks heat up and my steps grow heavier as I walk into a dimly lighted shop with stylish clothing and trendy music.

The place smells familiar - probably somewhere Rusty loves to drag me - like beach and perfume. A small smile, maybe the first one all day, tugs at my lips and I stop walking aimlessly throughout the store and actually look at it.

I'm sure the clothes all smell just as nice - familiar - and I'm suddenly overcome by this urge to try something on. Maybe I can imprint the normality and nostalgia of whatever store this is onto myself.

It's worth a try, I tell myself as I pick up the first small shirt I see and head toward the dressing room. A tiny girl with no curves and more make-up than Rusty ever wears looks up at me from a shirt she's folding and raises an eyebrow.

"How many items?" she asks in this dry, bored tone.

I look down at my hands then back at her. She's staring at the shirt in my hand. "Um, one." I wonder why she asked when it's blaringly obvious.

The girl sighs dramatically and moves to the first dressing room, opening the door for me.

"Thanks," I say as I step passed her and into the small cubicle.

"Whatever."

My eyes widen as the door to the room closes. Girl packs a lot of sass.

Now that I'm in the dressing room, I find that I really don't even like the shirt I grabbed. It's brown: a colour that looks really bland on me. Being a quarter Indian, I'm kind of already dominated with browns. My hair is brown, my eyes are brown, and my skin… isn't quite brown, but definitely tan enough that it's obvious I'm not completely Caucasian.

Slipping the shirt I'm wearing over my head, I wonder if that's what the problem is. Maybe Dad's just too American for my mother, who moved here from India by herself when she was twenty-three. I mean when they were younger the cultural differences were probably no big deal, exciting even, but now that she's older and missing her family…

I drop my shirt to the floor and don't bother putting on the brown one. I know it'll look like crap and I'm not in the mood to stare at myself from three different angles and know I look like shit from every single one of them.

I hear a noise outside the dressing room and turn, wondering what's happening.

"Oh Becky, love!" some really cheerful guy says. Actually, I think I recognize his voice.

"What?" the girl with lots of sass, Becky, practically demands. I hear a clatter of hangers and Cheerful Guy letting out a disheartened groan.

"Your shift's done, love, I'm taking over." The hangers slide around the floor and I feel myself smiling as Cheerful Guy makes another pathetic noise, this time in protest. "You could not kick them around…"

"Whatever. Have fun cleaning up this mess."

I hear the sound of heels clacking on the floor then Cheerful Guy calling out, "Oh, by the way, you didn't see a purse in any of the dressing rooms? Some girl just called saying she may have forgotten it her-"

"Check yourself, I'm leaving."

My jaw kind of drops. Becky's a real bitch.

"Thanks for the help Becky dearest, don't get hit by a car on your way home. Bitch."

My eyes widen in surprise. So Cheerful Guy's a fake, huh? I'm actually quite impressed with how well he handled Becky. She seems like a real task.

"Or maybe you'll trip over those tacky ass heels and, I don't know, fall down a well. I really hope Lassie's around," Cheerful Guy mumbles sarcastically, his voice barely carrying over the sound of hangers scraping along the floor and being replaced upon a rack.

He keeps talking, coming up with ways Becky can get hurt, and with every word I'm more and more convinced that I know his voice from somewhere.

After just standing and listening for at least a few minutes, I decide I might as well get out of the dressing room. Maybe even go home. That'll kill two birds with one stone. It's probably been about an hour and my parents are probably freaking because they've noticed I'm missing by now and I'll be able to see who Cheerful Guy is.

I'm just about to retrieve my shirt from the floor when the dressing room door swings open and I'm greeted by Cheerful Guy, who looks just as stunned to see me as I feel to see him.

I gape a moment. Then I blink. He stares. First at my face, then my chest, then my stomach and finally my-

Oh god. I blush and reach for the brown shirt hanging from the wall, all too aware that Cheerful Guy hasn't said a word yet. Feeling almost harried, I tug the shirt on and stare dumbly at Cheerful Guy, whom I suddenly realize has a name. And is in the same grade as me at St. Catherine's Co-Ed Prep School.

"Ahran Fowler!" he chirps, moving closer and grinning at me in a way that makes me all too uncomfortable.

"Garrick Papadopulos," I squeak, my voice catching in my throat and stumbling over his completely impractical last name as he takes another step toward me, invading my personal bubble.

I swallow and step back. The grin on his face I can kind of handle, but the smirk in his eyes is setting off warning signals.

I take another step away from him just for good measure as he lets out a small laugh.

"You said my last name right," he informs me in such a way that I think I should be feeling proud or something.

"Uh..." I nod unsurely and try offering him a smile, but I can't get much of one out because I'm sure he'll eat it right up. The part of me that actually listens to Rusty's gossip takes a moment to inform me that Garrick is very gay, which is fine. Except for the fact that his face is directly in front of mi-

Sneaky bastard! He moved in while I wasn't paying attention because we were definitely not this close two seconds ago. He's smiling at me in what I think is supposed to be a seductive fashion…

…Let me rephrase that. He's smiling at my lips in what I think is supposed to be a seductive fashion. And it's really creeping me out.

The hand that he's running lightly over my arm, coaxing out goose bumps and making my breath hitch, isn't making me feel any more comfortable.

"Nice shirt," he comments casually, his other hand sliding under said shirt to lay a series of gentle caresses upon my hipbone as he completely ignores the 'please go away' vibes I'm trying so hard to emit. "But I liked it better off." Hot breath washes over my ear and I shudder. If I had the ability to speak, I would be telling him that I'm straight.

…At least I think I would be…

"Um," I say dumbly, my eyes starting to fall closed as the hand on my hip slowly moves up my side, lightly dragging across my skin. I'm positive he can feel my heartbeat hammering against my chest, making my whole body quiver.

"Yes?" he asks in a husky tone that makes my skin positively crawl.

"Garrick?" This time my voice comes out breathless and the hand on my side tightens. Ew. I think I'm turning him on. I twitch under the touch and will my body to pull away but it seems to be awol, just like my mother was this morning.

Garrick chuckles softly, the laugh falling in little huffs of pleasure upon my ear, making me shive-

Wait. Did I say 'little huffs of pleasure?' because I meant to say air.

If I could get out a proper sentence, that would be awesome, I think to myself as I will whatever I can passed my lips.

"Um, you're touching me," I somehow manage to say, looking pointedly at the hand still stroking my arm, then the bump of his other hand straining against the material of the ugly brown shirt I'm wearing.

"Yes, I am," he agrees.

But I don't think I really hear him say this, or at least it doesn't register because as I'm looking down, I happen to notice that he's either on viagra, or is being turned on by what's happening.

"And it's turning you on!" I accuse, my voice rising. Stepping away from him seems like a good plan, but the cubicle is too small and I only manage to hit my back against the wall - mirror, which is showing one of three angles of this gross brown shirt.

I find myself side-glancing inconspicuously at the mirror to my left to see just how hideous it is.

'Do my eyes a favour and change,' the part of me that projects Rusty says and I'm about to agree with that thought when I remember that I'm being molested by the single gayest boy in school!

Definitely not the time to be criticizing my choice of clothing!

"Of course it's turning me on," Garrick presses closer to me - or more accurately, Garrick's erection/hard-on/stiffy/woody/whatever presses closer to me.

I almost gag.

"Yeah… that's kind of the problem?" I say as politely as possible. "Because I'm straight."

Garrick laughs and every ounce of masculinity I possess suddenly deflates and I'm left gaping at him.

"What?" I try to demand, but my voice makes the question sound more like a defeated whimper.

Garrick steps back, taking his precious time removing his hand from under my shirt - bastard brushes my nipple in the process, which definitely does not make me squeak - and eyes me humorously. "You're not straight."

Shock keeps me from saying anything for a good minute or two. But when I fully realize what he just said, I peel myself away from the mirror showing angle number one of the gross brown shirt and glare at Garrick, wholly prepared to make a compelling argument that supports my heterosexuality.

"Yes I am."

Well, I think that was put okay. I could have just said 'Um'.

"You actually think you're straight?" Garrick snorts, moving back and leaning against the door-frame of the dressing room.

"Uh, yeah." What a dumb question. My tone says just as much.

I think.

"You're funny," he tells me, his face still lit up with a bright smile as he crosses his arms over his chest. "Thanks for the laugh, Ahr."

I glower, wondering where he gets off calling me 'Ahr'. Just because we both go to St. Catherine's Co-Ed Prep School does not mean we are friends.

"I need to go…" I try to snap, but the venom needed to make my anger convincing is kind of lacking so I end up sounding whiny.

Garrick doesn't move.

I take a step forward and look passed him pointedly. "Um."

"Not in that shirt you aren't." His eyes flash with amusement and travel over the length of my body.

Over the gross brown shirt.

I blush, not sure which thought horrifies me more. The fact that I almost shop-lifted, will probably have to change again in front of Garrick, or that I almost let someone other than him see me in the gross brown shirt.

There's this long moment where I don't say anything and keep expecting him to move. But he doesn't.

"You're not leaving, are you?" I sigh, my fingers already grasping the hem of the shirt.

"Nope."

If I wasn't so terrified of swearing after the tongue-lashing my mother gave me years ago I would probably tell him what to do (go fuck) and who to do it do (yourself) - but I don't.

Which is kind of predictable, actually.

I pull the shirt off quickly and glare at Garrick, my eyes meeting his, watching to make sure he doesn't try any funny business as I quickly drop the gross brown shirt to the floor and grab the shirt that I had originally arrived in, which, by the way, is a killer red.

When I'm done changing, Garrick is still staring at me and standing in the doorway with his arms crossed.

"I think you need to move," I tell him quietly, not breaking the staring contest he's somehow engaged me in.

He waits a few seconds, then blinks and smiles. "Of course." He moves passed me into the room and picks up the gross brown shirt, folding it and looking at me as if nothing had happened. "Hm, no purse in here! Have a good evening," he calls formally as I leave the changing area, and I almost flash him the bird.

All that over a stupid purse!

On my way out, I run into Rusty who insists that I need to see the cute outfit she's just picked out if I'd only accompany her to the change room.

I pass.

-----

Every night, before I've actually fallen asleep, my mother comes into my room and stands at the end of the bed, watching me a few moments before softly calling for my dad to come too. They both watch as I pretend to sleep and say things, like how thankful they are for each other and me. Usually I try not to puke at how sappy they are.

But tonight it's just my dad and he stands at the end of my bed, watching me with this lost expression, and I'm not pretending to be asleep. I'm just staring at him and he's staring back. I want to ask where mom was this morning - where she is now - but I don't say anything and instead close my eyes and roll over, hoping he'll leave soon.

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