You would think I'd feel happier now that the guillotine's no longer hanging over my neck. Yet another fear has moved in to take the place of it.
Even when the event is in the past – even when Andrea and I are trying our hardest to put it all behind us and move forward, there are pitfalls all along the way. "In the past" doesn't mean we won't catch hell if word ever gets out about our summer debacle.
Gossip is a staple of any large gathering of people, and high school is where that skill gets perfected.
As I'm joining the group at first break, I perch my tray on my folded legs and start pulling apart the cinnamon roll I picked up in the cafeteria. This effort is sloth-like because my head isn't on my hunger.
Cory's first to call me on that. "Just eat it, Michael! Or is it in your DNA to play with your food?"
I shoot him a withering glare, and catching his smile only softens the blow a little. "Cinnamon rolls are not meant to be eaten straight." I say stuffily, making myself get into the joke. "They're best when unrolled and eaten in sections."
I tear off a one-inch piece and pop it into my mouth to demonstrate the technique, more sucking on it for the flavor before swallowing it. I don't pretend to chew these days. It's useless.
Cory's response is to make a spectacle of taking a huge bite through the middle of his entire roll. "Funny," he mumbles around his chipmunk cheeks, "tastes the same to me!"
I roll my eyes and shake my head.
Corbin thumps him on the arm, admonishing him, "You still go for his throat. Be nice."
Cory shrugs. "Michael makes it easy for me. He always reacts."
"I do," I admit. "Don't want you to get bored or anything."
The group breaks out into laughter at that. I join in, appreciating how it lightens my mood. A few moments later the sound of it dies out. As the conversations spin away from me once more, I go back to deconstructing the pastry. Considering these are cafeteria made, they're not half bad. A little light on the frosting, if you ask me, but the flavor is good and they're quite moist.
I catch myself glancing over at him and Corbin, watching as Cory stretches across Corbin's lap. Corbin then proceeds to feed bits of his leftover pastry to his partner. I try to suppress the frown that tries to crop up as I wonder whether Cory still pines after me in some small way. While he continues to "pick on me," the tone and phrasing is much milder now than middle school – the past two years, for that matter.
He and Corbin seem happy enough together. I just hope Cory's not with Corbin simply to stay in the group and closer to me.
Did he ever tell anyone else about… that? I wonder.
Not sure how Corbin would take if he found out that he might be second fiddle to Cory's lingering feelings for me. Not that I would ever be the one to break that news to him.
Corbin, catching my glance, peers about the group and then frowns. "So… Where's Andrea?"
My gut clenches, and my appetite gets strangled by the feeling. It was coming. I knew it was coming, but getting that hint of inquisition still stings.
I shrug, saying sullenly, "I dunno. Around."
"Oh really?" He gives me an odd look before pushing it further. He shifts, displacing his boyfriend in the process. "First, all the little clandestine meetings during break or lunch, and now she's nowhere to be found? What happened?"
I glare at him. "Nosey, much?"
He's undaunted. "Dude. Really?"
I sit up and lean in, perching my elbows on my knees. "We broke it off," I state without elaborating.
"You two haven't been able to keep your hands off each other for months," Cory chimes in, glancing up at me from where he'd settled again in Corbin's lap. He sits up a moment later, actually looking concerned. "Must have been a hell of a blow out for you to 'break it off.'"
"I don't want to talk about it," I growl.
Before they can needle me some more, I get up with my tray, snatch my backpack of the ground, and move away from the group. I dump the mostly uneaten food into the nearby trash can with more force than necessary.
My exit seems to make my point, because no one follows me.
As I'm wandering aimlessly through the lunch crowd, it feels like everyone's eyes are on me. The whispers I hear trailing me are conspiring and accusatory, and that leads me to think they're gossiping about me – Andrea.
Guilt will do that to a person.
I might get down three lengths of hallway when someone steps into my path. I stop only because there are dainty boat shoes and plaid stockings blocking my view of the scuffed, dusty tile and I don't want to run their owner over. Lifting my gaze, I find Colette standing before me. She's got an exaggerated slant to her hips, and her arms are crossed over her chest. Her expression, almost hidden by the long fall of straight, black hair, is inscrutable, but I can definitely tell it's not a "happy to see me" mien.
"Colette, hey," I utter. "How've you been?"
I haven't seen a lot of her since we all got to high school. She's one of those peripheral acquaintances. I talk to her. She's pleasant enough. But, we don't have enough in common to hang out.
"Uh, huh," she growls. Cutting through any possible pleasantries, she jabs me with, "What did you do to Andrea?"
Except that commonality.
I swallow. Another conversation I knew was coming, but I was hoping it would wait a while longer – let the sting get taken out of the news. Guess that was a pipe dream. It was only a matter of time before one or another of Andrea's friends was going to say something. It's not like she's been acting normal since school started – neither of us have.
"Nothing," I blurt, hoping the heat in my cheeks is mistaken for indignation rather than guilt and embarrassment. "Why? What's she saying?"
I can't help the sudden upwelling of anger at the thought she might be throwing me under the bus so soon. She never struck me as the type to be that way, but my reaction is defensive ever since Trisha was part of my day to day.
"That's just it, she's not saying squat, which isn't like her," Colette answers. Her expression turns contemplative. She rubs her chin thoughtfully as she muses, "She was hanging out with your crowd most of last year. Suddenly she's avoiding you and them like the plague. She's definitely not herself. So, what happened?"
"If you must know," I sigh, with more drama than needed, "we broke up."
She blinks rapidly. Pointing, she inquires, "You called it off? Or her?"
It's phishing, and I know it. If I broke it off, she's going to call me a player. If Andrea called it off, then I did something else to hurt her. It's a catch twenty-two that I want no part of.
"It was mutual, Colette, I promise," I glance away, sitting on the urge to say anything more detailed. "We just realized it wasn't working out."
"Why didn't she just say so?" Colette asks shrilly. "And why is she acting so down?"
"I assure you I can't say," I lie.
Well, it's not really a lie. We agreed no one gets to know about the tryst or the scare. I just hope we can both hold up our ends of the bargain.
"Don't give her a hard time about it," I say, my voice rising. "She needs no grief over a mutual split."
"No," Her expression turns shocked, "no, of course not. That's not what friends do."
"I know she'd appreciate it. I'd certainly appreciate it." I keep my voice even, friendly.
"Of course!" She's all smiles now. "Thanks for filling me in."
Colette waves and bounces away as if she never wanted to rake me over the coals.
I let out a breath I wasn't aware of holding.
By the time the end of the day has rolled through, I've had the same conversation with at least a dozen of our mutual acquaintances and friends. I'm worn thin by repeating myself. Even the ones who talked to someone else who knew, insisted on seeking me out to verify they weren't just being fed a line.
Each of them leaves frustrated when I don't give them fodder for their drama machines. Not that it will stop some from making things up out of whole cloth. Or making up something that hits too close to the mark.
I drag myself to the car, intent to stay awake only long enough to get home safe, and then crawl into bed for a few hours before I do anything else.
When I arrive at the Hovel, without any recollection of moving through traffic between there and here, I get a bit scared.
Swallowing, I shut the car off and lever myself out of the seat. My emotion gets ironed flat again by my fatigue. I lean back in to grab my things before shutting and locking it, and tromp across the gangway to the Hovel's veranda. Just as I'm about to open the front door, there is a metallic knocking sound coming from the other side of the house.
Tilting my head, I find myself skirting the edge to the back. As I clear the corner toward open ocean, I find a familiar figure holding the railing of the veranda.
"Blue?" I query.
She grins up at me as the swells gently push her back and forth. Her long, midnight hair continues to swirl back and forth, making her nakedness much less obvious. That shocked me the first time I met her, it doesn't so much anymore.
My bag drops on the deck with a hollow thrum, and I settle cross-legged in front of her. I'm not about to squander the meet up. After all, it's not every day I see my big sis. Her range through the San Joaquin Sea is pretty large, and she doesn't make it to this side that often.
"Hey sis, how've you been?" I smile and lean in a little, genuinely interested in her adventures.
She lets go of the veranda to sign. *I have been busy. Not anything that would excite you, Michael.*
"That's not true!" I interject, emphasizing through sign language. "The last we talked you'd made it out to open ocean!"
She shrugs to one side, demurring. *It was just another stretch of water.*
"But, the deep trench creature!"
A grin works up on her lips, exposing her large, serrated teeth. The white of them is a huge contrast to her blue and tan skin.
*Okay, that was pretty cool.* she admits, her fingers flying through the signs. She paddles a little closer as the tide starts carrying her further from the Hovel.
She glances past me before meeting my gaze and signing, *Are Mom and Dad home?*
I glance toward the house before sighing, "No, not yet. Probably another hour yet. Will you be hanging out that long?"
*Perhaps? Depends upon if dinner is close by.* Again she shrugs.
"We can feed you, you know."
*Dad is still doing sushi?*
I nod. "Every night."
*Tempting* She tilts her head to one side. *How have you been, little brother?*
My insides clench for a reason I can't explain.
Blue, perceptive as she is, picks up on my trepidation. I can feel the brush of her telepathy against my gray matter, trying to find a more direct line to an answer.
"Don't," I say, leaning further from her – as if that could stop her mental try at getting past my defenses.
I mean she can't, Mom can't, but Blue never stops trying. I'm a mental puzzle she's still trying hard to solve, and I don't want her to prove my mental barrier is breakable. Especially not right now – not with what's swirling around my brain.
She shies back a little, water swirling past her shoulders as she puts the extra distance between us, and I see her sign apology.
I nod in acceptance. "It's okay. Just, yeah, my head's not a pretty place to be right now."
Blue's head tilts to one side in question.
"I… I don't want to talk about it," I insist, glaring down at my laced fingers.
A slap on the water brings my attention back to her. She doesn't like being ignored much, especially when she has no other easy way to talk to me. *Will you be okay?*
I nod and smile, if only for her sake. "Fine. I've been through worse."
She blinks, dipping her nose and mouth under the surface to take another gill-full of water. She lifts her hands higher to compensate and be "heard." *I hope so. I don't like seeing you upset.*
"Heh," I huff, my smile growing more sincere.
Considering our reunion was well into my early double digits, she is particularly protective of my mental health.
I draw a deep breath and let it back out again before regarding her. "Stay for dinner. I'll text Dad and ask him to pick up your favorite sashimi."
I see her expression morph into pleasure at the thought of getting engawa. Halibut are pretty rare in our neck of the woods and so she doesn't get to hunt them often.
*Sold!* She signs emphatically.
"You've been learning euphemisms again haven't you?"
She lifts her head free of the water, grinning from ear to ear and nodding.
I push to my feet grinning back at her. "Why don't you let yourself into the hovel, and I'll meet you down there."
Acknowledging my offer, she slips below the surface with barely a ripple to illustrate her passing. At the same time, I head for the rear entrance of the hovel, because the idea of killing the afternoon talking to my drifter-sister lightens my mood considerably.
I need to hurry up and change so she's not alone down there too long.
A/N: Okay I was trying to wait until I had the newest chapter written, but my muse is suddenly being fickle and you all have waited long enough! So here we go!