At lunch the following day, I find that the gang's all here. We're playing a bit of catch up, being that everyone has been so busy lately.
The chatter is nice, all of our friends sharing stories, stepping on one another in their excitement. I drop my own share of exploits into the mix, but it's only here and there.
Unable to help it, I notice I'm surrounded by a small cushion of space. While Corbin and Rowen sit next to me, there is about an arms-length's space between them and me. I want to say it's just giving us all appropriate personal space.
But, I can't help wondering if they're still worried I'll lose control, somehow. Even when I've not gotten truly mad since last month. I've not had an outburst since Uncle Tom started me on my latest set of meds. Despite their assurances that they completely support me and understand why I wigged out on that group at the theater, I feel like this is going to haunt our little group for a while.
Mandy sits across from me, which, to be fair, has been the case of late. We're not seeing one another, and we both know she can be my friend from across five feet of space. However, I find myself sighing, because, well, I want more of my normal back, truthfully. Part of that normal is Mandy as my girlfriend.
We've been good together for a long time, as friends first, and yes, as boyfriend/girlfriend. That's comfort level is no longer there, damaged by this year's weirdness.
I know ours was a mutual split. I completely understand and support Mandy's reasons for the decision. But it's been months now. Shouldn't the wound be healed? I really want to get back to how things were before Rowen and Corbin's birthday. I sit on the desire to say something, not wanting to pressure her, or seem needy.
I can tell I've been in my head too long, because I'm just realizing that the conversation, which to point has been loud and friendly, has completely ceased.
Focusing, I notice that everyone is looking behind me at something, and I twist my upper body to see what's so interesting.
Standing stock still behind me on my left, his gaze is fixed in general terms on the group. There's this certain thousand-yard stare he's sporting, one that screams how uncomfortable he is even trying this right now. This is backed up by how his hands are shoved in his pockets. He's got his hands clenched into fists so tight inside the material that I can clearly make out the outlines of his knuckles. His expression is stony and blank, and there's just an edge of red around his earlobes.
I twist further around, giving a tiny nod and an expression I hope is encouraging.
"H… Hey, guys," he stutters, right off the bat. I glance at the rest, who are looking completely shell-shocked by his return. "D… do you mind… if I join you?"
The silence lingers.
I glance back to find all of our friends are now staring at me, like I'm the determining factor if they'll allow him to have a seat. Damn it, I was hoping I didn't have to so overtly advertise we'd spoken yesterday. I shoot my gaze to Mandy, locking eyes with her. I widen my lids and mouth, "Well?"
She blinks rapidly as realization dawns on her. There's a little "OMG" expression before she smooths it over and looks up to Cory where he's standing. "Cory!" She enthuses, sounding completely natural despite the awkward silence of the moment before. "We've been missing your perspective lately! Please! Have a seat. We've missed you!"
"Sure, here," I mutter, in what I hope sounds like my previous grudging concession of last year. I scoot closer to Rowen to give Cory room. As she glances at me, her expression is incredulous.
He stays frozen for one more moment, before unlocking his muscles and lowering himself into the open space next to me.
"Where've you been keeping yourself lately?" Corbin asks.
"Here and there," Cory grumbles, the heat in his face becoming more evident. "Mostly just on my own."
"I don't know why," Corbin says, in a way that says he does know why. I'm sure his why is vastly different from the why I know, but probably just as valid.
There's the way that Cory won't look at Rowen right now. I frown, but tell myself he can't fill in that rut quickly. His overall impression of gemues is too ingrained into his personality to so easily give up his prejudice.
"I…" he pauses and scratches the back of his head. "I had some things I needed to work out. Personal stuff."
"Like?" Corbin presses – too curious for his own good.
"Personal stuff," Cory growls. "Damn you're nosey!"
Corbin throws up warding hands. "Okay, I get it, in your time, man. We're here for you though. We always have been."
"Th… thanks." A grateful expression crosses his face. "I didn't mean to just drop you all like that. I…" He trails off, unable to complete his thought, and probably mentally deferring to the "not ready to talk about it" line.
Corbin reaches over and squeezes Cory's shoulder. "It's okay! We all need breaks once in a while."
Cory smiles over at him, before saying, "Thanks, man, that means a lot."
Once that initial stilted exchange is complete, things go smoother. I drop a heavy sigh when the others start including Cory in the previous conversation by giving a recap of the various opinions. We start into another round of friendly debate, and I be sure that I aim some questions and answers at the returned member of our group, so show that even I've accepted his return without rancor.
I can see by the sidelong looks I'm getting from Corbin and Rowen, they're going to be following up with me on the change of heart. I've been schooling myself on what to say, because Cory's long kept secret is not mine to share first.
Mandy's expression is also curious, but more knowing than our other two friends. She gives me a little smile and mouths, "Thank you."
It isn't long before lunch is rolling to a close and we all excuse ourselves to go get our things for the next classes. As I get up, I give Cory one clap on the back and say, "Welcome back."
He doesn't say anything, but the grateful expression he looks up at me with is all the thanks I need. The idea that I don't have to worry about our bad blood anymore takes some of the pressure away from the year.
Being his friend is going to be difficult and somewhat awkward for both of us, especially after what he confessed to me, but I'm glad we – both of us, are giving that a shot.
As I move away from the group, I notice Mandy pull alongside me. "So, you guys managed to patch it up."
I stop and wait for Mandy to face me. "How long have you known about his whole 'crush on me' thing?"
She glances down at her folded arms, before she meets my gaze once again. "He told me at the end of last year. As both of your friends, I got on him pretty hard for what he did to you last year. As he was trying to defend his actions, he just… said it. I don't think he meant to, even then. He was so embarrassed he made me swear not to tell a single soul."
I sigh through my nose. "I got that impression, but I don't get that. Why's he so embarrassed by it? Corbin's been openly bi-sexual since eight grade. No one's given him grief over it."
She grimaces. "It's Cory's folks."
I stand up straighter.
"It's not my place to fill in the details." Her face pinches as if to ask me not to inquire further.
I don't really need to, actually. I can guess pretty easily. Like gemuphobes, there are factions of people who still believe that the Community shouldn't exist either. Sounds as if his parents are haters all the way around. Frowning, I mutter under my breath, "I guess we have more in common than I thought."
"So yeah, Cory's in need of a support system." She glances my way shooting me a relieved smile. "I'm glad you and he finally got to talk and patch things up."
"Don't expect miracles," I say, flinging out a hand and returning her smile with a crooked grin.
"No, of course not." She elbows me lightly and then falls silence.
In that void of conversation, I find myself back to my train of thought from earlier. I muster my courage and say, "Speaking of patching things up..." I stop, shoving my hands in my jean's pockets. "Where do we stand?"
She remains mute and her expression has fallen. "We?" she repeats, and it's obvious it's a stall.
"Well, I mean the new meds are working." I shrug, feeling heat come into my cheeks. I'm aware that they're necessary for me to stabilize but it still feels a bit like a cop-out that I couldn't work through it on my own. "I haven't come close to losing it in over a month. Isn't that what we agreed? I sort it out, and we work it out?"
Mandy leans one shoulder on the locker and a hurt expression crosses her face. "Oh, Michael…" she starts, unable to keep my gaze. "I don't know."
My brows furrow and I find myself swallowing. "You… don't know what?" I run a hand into my hair in frustration. Still, she's all eye avoidance, glancing anywhere but into my face.
"I'm not sure I'm ready." She shoots me a look that says she's waiting for me to blow up.
I clear my throat getting directly to the point by asking, "Are you… afraid of me still?"
It's been something I've worried about, considering her lack of proximity to me since the incident.
"Yes or no, Mandy? You never have lied to me before. Please don't start now," I manage to say this without even raising my voice. My heart is still thumping more heavily against my ribcage in anxiety, but I'm not seeing red.
Thank you, meds.
"A little," she utters in a shrill, "worried I'm going to get angry with her over it", voice. She tucks one curly strand behind her ear at the same time.
I swallow once again and drop my gaze to the ground. There are emotions working for sure, anger is there, but dull. Mostly it's disappointment, tinged with sadness.
Finally, I lift my gaze, unable to help how glassy my eyes have gotten over her admission. "Is this you saying that, or does this have something to do with your dad?"
Mutely she nods.
"Both?" She practically cringes. "I'm sorry, Michael. Truly. I know it's not fair to you, but I can't help it."
Pursing my lips and trying hard not to break down into a full-on bawl, I watch her. Damn if she's not sincere about it, and that makes it hurt worse. Like she should be giving me the benefit of the doubt, not convicting me of a violence that may never come about.
I take a deep breath, let it out slowly, only to take another. Finally, I manage, "You're friend-zoning me, and you're sorry?" My brows lift to reflect my incredulity. I shake my head in the negative. "Not nearly as sorry as I am."
With that I walk away.
There is an ember of anger burning in my chest the rest of the afternoon, and the only thing keeping it on slow simmer are my prescriptions. Fourth and Fifth periods are blurs of inattention, my brain focusing on what Mandy said to me, how that is making me feel, and in turn employing some of those techniques my Uncles have been helping me with to pick up where the meds leave off on my emotional balance.
They are barely under control when I get to PE. I'm in luck when coach gives us a free day so she can prepare for a meet this afternoon. I strip down to my swim trunks and head for one of the two lanes for those who want to do laps. I'm the only one who tries, actually. The others are just horsing around in the shallow end: splashing each other, having breath-holding contests, and flirting with one another as they see fit.
Good by me. I need no one to slow me down or get in my way.
I don't hesitate as I approach the lane, pushing off the edge and diving into the clear aqua-blue water. I hold nothing back, not an ounce of my strength or talent. I'm making the length of the pool in seconds, underwater, without using my hands or coming up for air. While, I don't like the feel of the chlorine across my gills, the pool's got enough oxygenation that I'm not worried about blacking out.
After about fifteen minutes of this, I finally surface and slow down. I do feel better for the exertion, but those negative emotions are still lingering in the back of my head. I do another ten minutes at this slower pace, falling back into my routine of swim strokes, letting my mind blank as the automatic responses kick in.
I finally pause in the deep end just as it starts to rise to the shallow end of the pool. Treading water, I can't help but noticed the shocked expressions on most of my compatriots. I wonder a moment over that, then remind myself, none of them have seen my true speed yet.
A snort escapes me. "Well now they know," I utter. I can't even begin to care how this has affected their perception of me.
When I feel back under control and on a more even keel, I swim to the deep end where there are less people gawking at me. Just as I grab the rim of the pool and coil to pull myself free, I glance up to find my coach standing there. From this angle she towers over me, her tablet in one hand and her fist on her hip.
"You okay there, Michael?" She asks, a grin twisting one corner of her mouth up. "I mean I know you said you'd show me what you could really do, but next time give me the head's up so I can see the full show." She backs up and give me the personal space to get out of the water.
"Heh," escapes me, despite my want to remain stoic and silent.
Taking her hint, I pull myself free of the pool, standing on the edge and dripping and staring at her. "Not really," I admit finally.
She lifts my towel as a reason to keep me nearby. "Care to talk about it?" She tilts her head.
While I initially want nothing to do with pulling that scab off the wound, I realize that I need to vent, verbally with someone. My next scheduled meeting with Uncle Steve isn't until tomorrow and I'm not sure I want to try waiting that long.
Still I shrug with a single shoulder, unsure I know Coach well enough to lay it all out there. "I guess I'm just frustrated with the whole idea that I did one thing – granted a pretty bad thing – but now everyone who gets around me acts like I'm a bomb with a slow burning fuse. They all seem to be waiting for me to go off.
She nods a moment without saying anything.
"And I understand." I add before she can form some reply. "I scared myself with that whole thing. But, really, when do I earn the trust back?"
I fall silent twisting the house arrest band clearly visible on my wrist.
"I don't have an easy answer for that one, Michael. Broken trust is hard to repair, even for friends." She shrugs, and I find myself a little frustrated with her because she doesn't have some words of comfort ready for my raw ego. "But they will get over it. At least, the ones who are truly your friends. If they don't, probably weren't your friends in the first place."
My gut squirrels at that, because I hope Mandy doesn't fall into the latter category. I don't know if I'll recover if she decides she can't ever trust me anymore.
"I'm sorry I don't have more comforting advice," she says next as if she'd read my previous thoughts. "All I can say is continue to prove you're worth trusting and the rest will take care of itself."
I start running the towel she handed me over my hair, as much a show of my anxiety as anything I could possibly say about it.
At the sight of my frown, she says, "Why don't you stay and watch the meet? It might take your mind off of things for a while?"
I pause, and then lift my wrist prominently displaying the band that tethers me to a very tight schedule. "I'd love to but the Juvenille detention system might get upset when I don't go home on time."
She grimaces in sympathy. "I forgot about that."
"Heh, you're the only one," I laugh.
"What would it take to get special dispensation?" She asks next. "I can vouch for you if you'd like."
"You… you'd do that?" I ask, unable to help my incredulity.
"Sure, who would I talk to?" She smiles.
"Uh," I think quickly, because I suddenly want to stay and watch the team compete. A solution dawns on my a moment later. "My counselor might allow it. Let me ask."
I dash over to my things, rooting through my gym bag to find my net-phone. I have Uncle Steve on my contact list so I make a quick phone call as I'm walking back over to my coach's side. It connects just as I stop in front of her once more. "Mr. Martin?" It feels weird saying that, but I'm not keen on letting my Coach know my counselor is also a close family friend.
"Mr. Martin?" Uncle Steve says.
"Uh, yeah, my swim coach invited me to watch the meet this afternoon? I was wondering if you'd allow the change in my schedule?" I ask.
He's silent for a few moments. "Uh… you know you really should be talking to your probation officer, not me."
"Please?" I don't like having to beg, but it's suddenly important that I get this little break in routine.
"Put your Coach on, so I can verify."
I hold out the net set to her. "My counselor wants to speak with you."
"Coach Palmer," she says into the receiver. She listens to him for a few moments. "The meet should be done around seven."
"I can do that." She listens again, and each pause makes me more nervous.
"Okay he'll be awaiting your text then."
Tilting my head to the side I wonder what she means by that.
"Uh, huh. Thank you."
She hangs up the call and hands me my net-set back. "He's going to contact your parents to get their approval, if they say it's alright, he will text you and say so. If not, he'll tell you, you have to go home directly after this period."
"Oh," I nod, "okay, thanks."
Go ahead and put that away and get to your spot, I'll be blowing the whistle shortly.
"Thanks Coach!" I beam, jogging over to my stuff and shoving the net set into the bottom again. I then jog over to the staging area and stand on my spot.
Sure enough, Coach blows the whistle to clear the pool. The noise level rises as all the group get out of the pool grab from the stacked towels on the bench near the shallow end of the pool before straggling over to the staging area.
Coach give last minute instructions for the non-team members and releases them to the showers. I get up with that group, but I walk slowly, heading back for my bag while I listen to what's happening still behind me. Those still left are given separate instructions. Twenty minutes to get a snack and hydrate before coming back for stretches and warm-ups. The opposing team's arrival time as well as changes to the team's roster based on the strengths and weaknesses of the other team.
I get to my bag just in time to hear it vibrate, and more quickly unzip the bag and dig the device back out. I log in and open my text messages. Sure enough Uncle Steve has texted me back. Hopefully it's good news.
"Your folks say yeah. The leash tightens at 9pm, be sure your coach gets you home before then, Cinderella." My heart leaps at the message.
"Thanks, Unc," I respond. "You're the best counselor ever."
He's quick to reply, "Don't make me regret it, kiddo."
I bound back over to Coach Palmer and show her the text. When she meets my gaze again, she smiles. "It'll be the back seat, and you'll have to help with clean up so we get out of here faster."
"Sure," I say, my joy growing simply because I get to do something revolving around the team.
A/N: So here we go! I am on a ROLL! I actually have plans on how the next two (final) chapters are going to go AAAAAAAA! So Close! So So close!
They will setting up story elements for the third book (There are four planned books yes)