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Sons, Saints and Sinners: Broken Bonds

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SONS, SAINTS, AND SINNERS

Part One:  Broken Bonds

Chapter 1:  I Didn't See That Coming

 

1977:  Louisville, Kentucky

           

       Smack.

       “What?” I snapped as I rubbed the back of my head and scowled at my brother.  My t-shirt rode up with the motion, exposing my stomach to the cold wet air of March. “I didn’t say anything.” I protested the blow which was too hard to be playful.

       “You were thinking it,” Spooky replied.

       I grumbled something about ‘mind police’ and ‘Professor X’, earning myself another swat from Spook which I easily dodged this time, sticking my tongue out at my twin as I danced out of reach.

       Smack.  That one came from Cowboy.  “Behave yourself.”  A flash of white teeth proved he knew how much those words grated on me, so he was prepared when I attempted to wipe the grin off his face.  Spooky attacked while my back was turned, and Mickey-D merrily chanted the lyrics to Beat on the Brat before joining the fray himself.  This was my idea of fun.

       The front door of the house opened just then, the burst of noise and light bringing an abrupt end to our horseplay.  “Someone calls the cops or – heaven forbid – my parents ‘cause you jokers can’t keep your hands off each other, you’re gonna regret it.  Now get your asses inside.” 

       We were still exchanging random verbal and physical jabs as we walked past the older teen and into the blessed heat, but the air between the four of us began to turn chilly as we crossed the threshold.  The camaraderie we shared on the front lawn was gone.  I watched as the others followed the older boy’s directions deeper into the house, but the way he stared down his nose at me made it clear my invitation didn’t extend that far.  No problem.  I happily glared back at my host.  “Behave yourself,” Darrin ordered.  There was no teasing to his tone.

       “I ain’t gonna pee on the carpets.”

       “You would if you thought it would piss off the right people,” he muttered as he left in the same direction as my companions.

       True.  I satisfied myself with a rude hand gesture and took the stairs to the basement where the real party was underway.  

       Call me immature – my brother already had a half-dozen times that afternoon – but I didn’t want to be at the Sons’ party in the first place.  Every weekend was the same thing, only the location changed depending upon whose parents were out of town.  This time we were at Darrin’s.  I was there because I wanted to hang out with my brother and this was where Spooky wanted to be.  Cowboy and Mickey-D were just as excited about the party as Spook, so I was outvoted.  Not that there was anything else to do on a Friday night, when a harsh winter hadn’t yet given way to spring. 

       When we first started hanging out with the Sons the idea of a perpetual party with a never-ending supply of booze, drugs and girls was like a city of gold or the Elysium Fields, something too good to be true.  It was.  Even paradise can get boring.  In spite of my Catholic upbringing and the scapular medal I’d worn around my neck since the second grade, that inner fear - that heaven was likely to be a drag - was why I spent a lot of time on my knees after my monthly confession. 

       I met a friend as I made my way downstairs.  I couldn’t hear Brian over the noise from the party and the latest hit from Kansas blaring from the hi-fi.  “What?” I yelled cupping my hand to my ear.

       “Thought you were with your brother tonight?  Where’s the rest of your crew?” the older boy shouted.

       I pointed to the ceiling above me to indicate their whereabouts as I rolled my eyes.  The main floor of the house wasn’t my style.  That’s not where the fun was.  I craned my neck to see the room Brian was leaving.

       “Looking for someone?”

       “No,” I lied, though Brian was one of the few who knew better.  Over the last few months I’d spent more time with him than anyone else. 

       “Good.  Come on then.”  He jerked his head, wanting me to follow him back upstairs.  “There’s a bottle of bourbon with your name on it,” he promised.

       “I’ll be there in a sec.”

       My friend gave me a no-nonsense look.  “Five minutes or I’ll come lookin’ for you.”  He could read my thoughts as easily as everyone else.  I’m a rotten poker player.

       I flashed Brian the okay signal before moving past him down the stairs.

       Smack.  “Shit,” I cursed as Brian gave me another whack on the back of the head.  He knew me too well to feel guilty, even after I gave him the wounded puppy look that often got me out of hot water.

       “I mean it,” he warned and I nodded obediently even as I made a face at him that was anything but serious.  Brian tried to keep me out of trouble.  The key word being tried.  It was a difficult job on any given day, but especially in my current mood.  The Sons had a rather strict hierarchy and I have a problem with authority.  I also struggle to regulate the brain to mouth highway.  Random smartass comments and inappropriate grumblings come down the central nervous system and out of my mouth before the safety patrol of good judgment can intervene.  Needless to say, I spent so much time in the hot seat in the principal’s office that the faded brown pleather cushion had molded itself to the shape of my ass.  Not to mention any encounter with my father lasting longer than ten minutes usually resulted in a red handprint across my face.  Thankfully, my father and I rarely had ten minutes to spend harassing one another.   

       Every weekend and often through the week, the Sons partied.  If you were looking for excitement, they could arrange that too.  The Sons called themselves a social club, a fraternity, a secret society.  They were a gang.  They got away with the deception because they didn’t fit your typical image of a gang.  In 1977, that word conjured up images of Hell’s Angels or poor kids from a bad neighborhood a la the Jets and the Sharks or S. E. Hinton’s Outsiders; thugs who wore dirty denim and leather proudly emblazoned with the name of their organization; boys who came across so tough you crossed the street to avoid crossing paths.  On the contrary, the Sons weren’t from one neighborhood or even one school, though most lived and attended schools in the affluent east end of town.  They weren’t the outcasts, they were the rock stars.  From outward appearances they were polite, upper middle class, intelligent young men who had successfully navigated the horrors of high school and adolescence.  Every guy wanted to be one, every girl wanted to date one.  It was how they lured you in.  I was in, though Darrin wasn’t the only Son to seemingly regret that decision.

       The privilege of membership came with a price, you see.  Eventually, there came a time when you were expected to pay it.  Nothing unreasonable, just gotta help keep the party going, man.  A few guys were able to cough up that kind of cash.  Some made deals with the devil.  If you had access to pills or booze at home, you took them.  If your Dad was a pharmacist, you took a lot more.  If your Dad was a doctor, you stole a prescription pad and you forged his signature.  Your family had a business?  Electronics, clothing, a restaurant…what could you get your hands on?  If you were teacher’s pet and had access to test questions you gave them up; if you were school smart, you provided homework and term papers or you acted as bookie taking bets and setting odds on fights and ball games; if you were good in a fight, they could put that skill to use too.  If you came through with the goods or the money, if you fulfilled your missions, if you had something good to offer, or you were just plain crazy enough:  then you could stay.

       Despite all my current reticence, I’d wanted in and I’d done what I had to do to stay.  Mostly fighting.  While the Sons were no different from any other teen-aged males filled with raging hormones and belief in their own invincibility, few had ever been battle-tested against a worthy opponent.  Shoving some unfortunate, concave-chested, wheezing schmuck on the lowest rung of the high school social ladder into a locker…sure they could do that.  Posturing and bumping chests in the cafeteria until a teacher came to break it up, yeah, that was their speed.  But real fighting – picking on someone your own size until one of you gives or can’t get up anymore; not many Sons possessed the talent or even the desire to venture there.  On the other hand, my friends and I began training to fight when we were six.  Martial Arts.  Boxing.  Wrestling.  I even attended fencing lessons for a year, believe it or not.  We earned the price of membership to the club by competing in a variation of the ever popular Boxing Night at the Explorer’s Club, a private traditional men’s club where my Dad and most of the other Sons’ fathers held membership.  When Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay he’d battled other young hotshots on Boxing Night for the viewing pleasure of the city’s elite.  The Sons’ gladiator fights were held in an old tobacco barn off highway 22 beyond city lights and traffic, nosy neighbors, and meddlesome cops.  While other Sons, wannabes and invitees placed bets on the outcome, we fought anyone stupid enough to volunteer for the punishment of a no-holds-barred contest.  The stupid got educated real fast.  We hadn’t played gladiator for awhile though.  The reprieve wasn’t permanent.  It would last only until the winter faded away and someone further up the hierarchy decided we once again needed to earn our keep.

       A fight would at least be some excitement, a scratch for the itch tingling just below the surface of my skin.  That thought was probably the subconscious force that kept me from following Brian, luring me on down the stairs like Evel Kneivel to the edge of a canyon.   

       A door slammed as a girl emerged from Darrin’s basement bedroom, and a guy followed quickly behind her fastening his pants as he rushed to catch her.  The girl’s dark blond hair was a rat’s nest of sexed-up tangles and she clutched her unbuttoned shirt around her.  The boy’s shirt was off, exposing the tattoo on his right shoulder that marked him as a member of the Inner Circle.  If the Sons were local gods, the Inner Circle was Mount Olympus, the ruling elite.  This guy wasn’t Jupiter, but he was one of the big ones:  Barry Adams, the vice president of the Sons, who was expected to take over when the current prez left for college in the fall.  A gray haze of smoke drifted over the scene like cheap special effects in a b-movie.  He caught up to the girl, grabbing her arm.  She spun around and I heard the slap she gave him, louder than even the cranked up guitar solo of Carry On My Wayward Son.  Before I could get there, he slammed her head into the wall.  The grey and navy plaid of her box-pleated skirt identified her as a student from the all-girl St. Catherine’s high school, the sister institution to St. Joseph’s, the boys’ school where I was a sophomore.  Her name was Ashton Mayfair.  She was Barry’s age, a junior, and, though girls were only accessories to the party, she’d been with the Sons longer than Barry.  Her brother Jason had founded the Sons with his best friend eight years before.  Growing up with the Sons hadn’t made Ashton a princess, quite the opposite.  Her nickname, spoken behind her back and occasionally to her face, was Gang Bang.  It was widely rumored that she had slept with every member of the Inner Circle since the club began – including her brother.  Of course, it was also rumored that the Sons didn’t always bother with little things like consent; they took what they wanted, a perk of being who they were.  She and Clay, the current president of the Sons, began dating when they were thirteen and had an on-again/off-again, love/hate relationship.   They were currently off, but it was hard to tell for sure and subject to change from day to day.  Believe me, I knew; I was the other guy.

       The blow didn’t stop her from struggling against Barry who gave up trying to get her back into the bedroom and settled for shoving her over the padded arm of a sofa in the rec room.  The couple who’d been making out on that end gave Barry an aggrieved look, but they moved rather than defy him.  Ashton’s face was as red as Barry’s and she cursed him even as he raised her skirt and peeled down her panties to bare her bottom.  Whether it was due to who he was or who she was or some combination of both:  no one moved to stop him.  Except me.  It wasn’t in my nature to stand by where there was a bully or a damsel in distress.  Call it a side effect of reading too many comic books at an impressionable age. 

       I didn’t bother with the niceties of a cease and desist request followed by a formal challenge.  I just hit him.  Three times to be exact.  That was enough to leave him on the floor spewing curses and bleeding from his mouth and nose.  I resisted the urge to kick him for good measure.  Ashton wasn’t so forgiving.  Though she shot me a look that said she’d make me pay later, she kicked Barry in the ribs after she straightened her skirt.

       The music still played, but without the underlying chatter and laughter of the party I could hear the crackle of static over the speakers.  From the hush that had fallen over the party, you’d have thought I’d knocked out Pope Paul or Ali himself.  Maybe I was slightly smaller than the other boy, but they’d seen me fight.  Barry played tennis.  The outcome of the brief battle shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone with half a brain.  Still, I’m always amazed how many people walk through life more than three cans shy of a six pack.  Unfortunately, I was often one of them.   

       A dull rumble began to swell as more people pushed into the room, drawn like sharks to the smell of blood.  So much for a quick escape.  Ashton and I weren’t leaving unless I started throwing more punches to clear a path.  Even I knew that was a bad idea.  The fug of smoke, hormones, body heat and anticipation was suffocating.  I could sense Spooky, Cowboy and Mickey-D appearing like wraiths from thin air and getting into position for a battle.  We were four points of a compass.

       The four of us called ourselves the Saints long before we were Sons.  Two sets of brothers.  Lifelong friends.  None of us had any memories of life without the others.  They were every bit as tough as I was.  We’d been in enough fights by now that I’m sure our parents regretted all the money they spent to teach us those skills, but it had started innocently enough.  When I was five or six, after all else had failed, someone with a lot of letters behind his name gave my parents the idea that martial arts might break me from breath-holding when I was mad or upset.  I was signed up for lessons the summer before I started school.  Spooky took the lessons too.  The Mastersons sent Cowboy and Mickey-D soon afterwards.  Whether it was kung-fu that cured me, or whether I just grew out of it, I stopped holding my breath.  Hailed as a success, the martial arts lessons continued, followed by all the rest.  We practiced what we learned in grand clashes of juvenile imagination, playing out superhero fantasies in the Masterson’s backyard with our own tree house headquarters, our Justice League, Avenger’s Tower or Sanctum Sanctorum, depending upon whether you favored DC or Marvel.  I myself am not a purist. 

       Around sixth grade, football and homework began to occupy so many of our waking hours we began sneaking out of our bedrooms at night to play our games.  While our parents slept, we would spar and make plans to save the world.  A year later, following a series of graffiti attacks upon our school, St. Joseph’s Latin, and St. Joseph’s High School next door, we stopped playing and started patrolling our turf, the same neighborhoods Hunter S. Thompson roamed in his childhood days.  We rode our bikes through Cherokee and Seneca Parks and hung out at Hogan’s Fountain and the nearby picnic pavilion which looked like the Jetson’s idea of a teepee, or we hitched rides down Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway to the streets near our school.  We became real life superheroes…well, at least we thought so.  Preteen vigilantes at night:  beating the crap out of teenaged vandals and pushers, and acquiring a taste for the bourbon we swiped from our parents and the pot we confiscated from the ‘criminals’ we defeated.  Latin school brats by day: swilling chocolate milk and listening to our nannies.  Our parents, thankfully, never caught on.  The few times they actually noticed the bruises or our empty beds, their assumptions of what we had been doing were much more tame than the truth. 

       The Sons came looking to recruit us.

       “I hear I missed the excitement,” Clay’s sudden descent from the main floor into the crowded rec room silenced the building storm but you could still feel the electricity in the air.  Clay was accompanied by Sean, his best friend and a soothing influence over him…usually.  “So…  Anyone want to tell me what happened?”  He looked around the room, noting Barry still on the floor and my arm wrapped protectively around Ashton.  “Which Doublemint twin are you?  Red or blue?” 

       I held up my wrist with the twist of red thread.  I was red and Spooky was blue.  The housekeeper’s idea.  It was how our parents distinguished us before we could tell them which freckled, green-eyed and sandy haired twin belonged to which name.  Though the doc had said we were fraternal twins, very few people could tell us apart without them.  Even Dad cast a glance at our wrists before calling either of us by name.  “It’s Waxer.”

       “Spartacus?  I should have known.”  His expression became liquid, shifting quickly from dismay to excitement to delight, but not the kid at Christmas with a pony kind of happiness…more like a vampire catching the scent of a bloody human steak.  Then the shadow of emotion passed, leaving his cold blue eyes and my deep green ones locked together as a half smile turned up the right side of his mouth. 

       I grinned in response, “Awww.  You remembered.  I feel all warm and fuzzy.”  My voice was a nauseating simper and I batted my long lashes at him.  Ashton dug her nails into the meat of my fist as a warning.  Now wasn’t a good time for Clay to remember my little rebellion that brought an early end to the season for the highly profitable and entertaining gladiator games. 

       I had been challenged more than all the other Saints combined.  It might have had something to do with my big mouth and then there was this prank I’d pulled on St. Joe’s basketball team…but that’s another story.  After months of fighting at the Son’s bidding, I wasn’t having fun anymore and there were fewer challengers.  I’d been fighting a scared wannabe who’d been compelled to join the fight to earn his keep, the same as me.  He was a big kid, bigger than me, but he didn’t have the talent or the stomach for battle.  He was terrified.  That’s not my kind of fight.  I dodged his weak attacks for the requisite three minutes, never throwing a single punch myself, as the onlookers booed and jeered; they’d paid for blood.  Next fight, Darrin, who organized the matches, thought he’d teach me a lesson – he let my opponent bring in a knife.  Tommy was a friend of Darrin’s and a member of the Inner Circle who thought he was a tough guy.  Some tough guy he turned out to be.  He squealed like a little girl when I dislocated his shoulder after I disarmed him.  I used his knife to cut my own hand open while the bloodthirsty audience watched in a silence that rang in my ears louder than the old dinner bell that was rung at the end of each match.  I smeared a streak of red on Tommy’s chest shouting out “I am not an animal!” before taking a bow, flipping the bird to the powers that be, and walking away.  Obviously not a fan of the classics, Clay had me hauled back by Sean, Barry and Darrin who were all larger and older than me.  Brian had refused Clay’s order to help him and his minions, so my original opponent was given the chance to redeem himself from humiliation.  I was disciplined in front of the crowd.  Even without Brian’s muscle, the mob got their blood and I got my ass kicked.  Even worse was the bitching out I got from the other Saints.    

       Here I was, in trouble again.  With a single gesture, like a medieval king, Clay summoned me to him.  I obeyed though, like any peasant brought before the king, I knew there would be consequences.  I wasn’t just your average peasant, though, I was fucking Robin Hood, predecessor of the Green Arrow, and I didn’t tolerate tyrants.  Ashton came forward with me as I hadn’t released her.  I kept my eyes on the king and trusted the Saints to watch my back.  “Is that your doing?” Clay waved a hand towards Barry.

       I nodded.  The less I said, the better.  Someone had turned off the stereo so our conversation could be heard by the crowd.

       He didn’t ask why I had done it:  he knew Barry, saw Ashton’s disheveled state, and could deduce the rest.  Clay usually operated with the full six pack.  “How many times did you hit him?”

       “Three.”  A slight widening of his eyes was the only sign he was impressed I’d dropped his vice-president so quickly.  I rethought my opinion of his intelligence, or at least his sobriety.

       “Who threw the first punch?”

       “I did.”

       Clay silenced the sudden stirring among our audience with just a glance.  He’d been President for two years and he knew how to wield his power.  His blue eyes were shrewd and calculating.  My offensive strike upon a much higher ranking Son required punishment no matter what my justification.  If it hadn’t been me, but a member of the Inner Circle who stepped in to stop Barry…  If it hadn’t been Barry, but some wannabe or rank and file Son no better than me who roughed up Ashton…  Oh, well.  I didn’t regret what I’d done, and the good Lord knew I could take a beating as well as dish one out.   

       I was still holding hands with Ashton.  Clay’s glance drifted down to our clasped hands, a crease in his brow as he wondered why.  Almost imperceptibly she leaned into me.  Almost.  Clay’s eyes suddenly opened wide in understanding.  “Him?”  He was speaking to Ash.  “This is who you’ve been sneakin’ around with?”  His composure was gone. 

       With an exasperated sigh she shook her hand loose from mine.  “It’s not any of your business, Clay, but it’s not like we’ve been hiding.”

       True.  But we hadn’t been very open about it either.  My friends knew we’d been together, but I doubted that even they knew how often.  We weren’t one of the couples you’d find making out on the couch.

       “When did you get a taste for jail bait, Babe?”  Clay’s gaze raked over me like I was dog shit on the bottom of his shoe. 

       Before I could respond Ashton’s eyes narrowed in malice and a smile stretched her mouth.  Ashton didn’t do the giddy school-girl in love routine, she’d outgrown that with her training bra, the smile she flashed Clay was the tight-lipped smile of a fighter who saw an opponent’s weakness:  Clay was jealous.  “He just laid out Barry in three punches, Babe,” she spat the word back to him.  “You already know he doesn’t fight like a little kid.”  Her evil smirk widened as she leaned forward to whisper in Clay’s ear:  “He doesn’t fuck like one either.”

       Oh shit…  “Uh…I’m right here y’all.”  The blush didn’t stop at my cheeks, I swear I could feel the heat in my toes.  My dick began to swell with pride even as I was sure my dinner was going to make a reappearance splashed across Clay’s shoes.

       The revelation had an equally powerful effect on my rival.  Noblesse oblige was forgotten.  No longer the calm, benevolent king; Clay was Zeus with lightning bolts in his eyes.  He reared away from Ashton’s touch and nearly went for my throat right then, but he caught himself, clearing his head with a shake of his black mane.  “If the kid’s got so much talent, then what were you doing with Barry in the first place?”  He plucked at one of her disorganized curls then let his hand drop to the buttons of her blouse which she’d mismatched in her haste to readjust herself.  His index finger slipped inside her shirt to trace the lacy edge of her bra as his eyes held hers. 

       Ash froze, her whiskey colored eyes wide open as a shudder ran through her body.  I knocked his hand away and put myself between them, a little jealous myself.  Turning my gaze to Ashton’s ex-boyfriend, the president of the Sons, the guy who could snap his fingers and have me beaten to no more than a smear on the carpet, I snarled, “She doesn’t have to answer to you.” 

       “But you do, you little shit.” 

       I shook my head with a smirk and an apparent good humor I certainly wasn’t feeling.  “Who made you the dick police?  You sure as hell don’t get a say over my love life, Dear Abby.”

       The crowd may have wanted my blood – they’d developed a taste for it by now after all, but they appreciated a good show.  There was laughter.

       Clay wasn’t used to disrespect.  Not in public.  And not from some punk kid so far below him in rank I wasn’t even on the ladder.  He looked at me like I’d spit on him.  His face was as red as the wax seal on the bottle of bourbon I could have been drinking if I’d just followed Brian, but there was a gleam in his eye that surprised me.  Like a little piece of him had been just as bored as me and was actually enjoying the break from routine. 

       He got himself back on track.  “You’re not Ashton’s first playmate, Waxer, but she always comes back to me.”  He glanced at her over my shoulder, “Don’t you, Babe?”

       I didn’t wait to hear her answer.  “Well then, what’s the problem here?” 

       He closed the space between us and poked me hard in the chest.  “Look, I don’t care who you screw, this is about who you hit.  You’re the guest at our party; you don’t get to decide who’s out of line.”

       I wasn’t slouching, but I straightened to my full height, my invisible hero’s cape unfurling in an imaginary breeze.  I was still a couple inches shorter than Clay.  I knew I was gonna get the crap knocked out of me, but at least I was gonna make it worthwhile.  “I’m a Son.  Same as you, and same as Barry.  And I didn’t sign on to the Sons to beat up girls or to stand by and let someone else get away with it, no matter who he is.”

       “I think you misread the situation.  You oughtta know Ash likes it rough, and if you don’t…  Man, you’re missin’ out.”

       The words just came out over Ashton’s own protest…“Let’s bare your ass, Clay.  See how you like bein’ Barry’s bitch?  He seems to like it rough too.  Should be right up your alley.  Or should I say right up your…”  Clay’s face erupted in flames and he lunged for me.

       Clay lacked my formal education in the art of violence, but he had me by more than two years, three inches, and twenty pounds, plus he was no stranger to a fight.  In my mind I arrogantly figured we were even.  We rolled on the floor trading punches until Sean and Cowboy pulled us apart.  “I think it’s time you called it a night,” Cowboy advised me.

       “I’m not leavin’ Ashton here.”  She’d stepped back from the fight and I caught sight of her near Brian.  I took that as a good sign.  She was on my side. 

       Clay raised a hand to his nose and studied the blood in disbelief.  “It’s her choice.”  His eyes flashed as he searched the crowd for her too. 

       “Maybe you ought to give Barry that advice if you don’t want me teachin’ him another lesson.”  Damn.  Did I just threaten Mount Olympus?  The klaxon alarm echoed in my head:  Danger, Will Robinson!  As I waited for the hounds of hell to be unleashed on my ass I could hear my own heavy breathing and the moist sounds of Clay’s breath through his busted nose.

       Clay’s eyes flicked to points around the room.  A slight shake of his head kept the other Sons at bay and he diffused the tension with a grin.  The humor didn’t reach his eyes.  “Go cool your jets, little big man.  I’ll be in touch.  Cowboy, you got him?” 

       My friend put a firm hand on my shoulder, squeezing a bit too hard.  His voice was soft and flavored with the drawl that earned him his name: “I say now’s a good time to get out of here, before you get us all in trouble.” 

       I complied, not caring that the king noted the familiar way his lady-love came to my side and my arm circled her waist.  “I guess she made her choice,” I couldn’t keep the shit-eating grin off my face.  “Come on, sweetheart,” I kept Ashton moving up the stairs and out the front door before Clay could call us back again.  We shivered in the cold as we waited for my friends beside Cowboy’s car.  Remnants of tape from the sales sticker still clung to the window of the bright blue ’77 Mustang.  He’d turned sixteen in December, but the rough winter had delayed his driver’s test.  He and his parents had just come to an agreement about the car a few weeks ago. 

       “You okay?” I asked, tucking a curl behind her ear as she nodded.  I may have been younger than Ash, but I was taller.  Barely.  I tilted her face up to mine and examined it.  There was a pink scratch on her left cheek, likely from the signet ring Barry wore, but I didn’t ask, knowing she wouldn’t tell.  That seemed to be the worst of it.  I kissed the mark.  “You didn’t have to come with me.” 

       “How else would I get you alone?” she purred.  “Gonna give you what you deserve, baby boy.”

       My tongue flicked out over my suddenly dry lips.  “Yeah?” 

       “Umm-Hmm.”  She turned her head to the side, nuzzling into my hand.  My jeans were quickly becoming too tight.  She pressed her lips to my palm…before she bit me.  We went from tender to explosive as easy as flicking a switch.  I jerked my hand back with a curse which she matched.  “Damnit, Waxer!  That was so stupid!  What were you thinkin’?”

       “I’m thinkin’ Barry’s lucky I didn’t kill him.”  My voice got softer as hers got louder, but I was no less angry.  I gave my hand a fleeting inspection to make sure I wasn’t bleeding.

       She tossed her head, slinging blond curls away from her face.  “I’ve known Barry a lot longer than I‘ve known you.  I can handle him.”

       “When was that going to happen?  Before or after he fucked you.  Or did he already?”

       That observation got me slapped.  In the cold night air, the sting of her palm took my breath away.  She stuck her chin out defensively.  “So?” she demanded.  “Are you going to ask why I was with Barry in the first place?”

       I rubbed my cheek briskly.  “Not my place,” I growled.  “You really want to have that conversation?”

       Apparently she did.  “You think I wanted that?” she shouted.

       “No!” I shouted back.  “Why the hell do you think I hit him?”

       She calmed slightly, but her shoulders were still stiff and the stubborn little point of a chin on her heart shaped face aimed itself threateningly at me.  “I didn’t ask you to come to my rescue!”

       “You didn’t have to ask me!  That wasn’t about you; it was about right and wrong.  Though I was hopin’ I’d be on the recievin’ end of some other kind of gratitude.”  I smiled bitterly, my hand returning to rub the sting from my cheek.  That wasn’t the reward a superhero expected from a rescued damsel.

       “You’re not gonna get away with this!  They’re not gonna let you!”  She was shaking.  

       I’d grabbed my jacket on the way out and I draped it over her shoulders, then wrapped my arms around her and she let me pull her to my chest.  “I’m not afraid of them.  Anyone comes after me is gonna get what Barry got.  Anyone comes after you will get what Barry should’ve gotten.  It’s not okay for them to treat you that way.”

       We both took deep breaths in the silence that followed, our anger fading into the night air like the puffs of white mist we exhaled.  She shook her head and looked at me with large golden eyes in a way that made me feel like a little kid instead of her hero.  Her hand now soothed the red mark she’d made when she slapped my face.  “Waxer, the Sons don’t play fair.  Believe me, baby, I know and you oughta know it by now too.  You’ll never see them coming.”

       My friends left the party a few minutes later, making their way across the silver-frosted grass towards us.  They were all frowning.  Spooky muttered hatefully under his breath as I pulled my mouth away from Ashton’s, licking the taste of cherry chapstick from my lips. 

       Smack. 

       Yeah, I should have been expecting that one.  I glared at him as he stuck out his fist with the middle finger prominent and threatening.

       Surrendering his usual spot as shotgun, Mickey-D allowed me to take the seat holding Ashton on my lap.  I breathed a little easier as we turned the corner at the end of the street.  It was over. 

       “Where can we drop you off?”  Cowboy asked Ashton.  I scowled, it was too early to call it a night.  Cowboy accepted the beer Spooky passed him, taking a drink and resting the can between his legs.

       “Ash stays with me,” I answered, tightening my arms around the girl sitting on top of me as Cowboy continued to drive.

       “The hell she does!”  Spooky’s shout filled the car.  “You’ve been screwin’ the Sons’ whore, then you rub it in their faces and pick a fight with Clay?  What were you thinkin’?  How could you possibly think that was okay?”

       “You need to watch your language, Spook,” I warned as I gave Ashton a squeeze.  She hadn’t even flinched.  She’d heard the words so often they’d lost their sting…or she’d become an expert at hiding the hurt behind attitude.  I caught her eyeballing my brother in the rear view mirror as she wiggled her rump against my crotch, turning her head slightly to lick her way into my mouth which I readily accepted.

       “He was thinking with his dick,” Cowboy answered Spooky, ignoring my glare.  He pulled to the side of the road, where there were no houses in sight.  “Let’s get this over with.”

       I followed the others out of the car willingly; Ashton didn’t need to listen to our fight.  I didn’t catch what she said to Cowboy.  “You’ve done enough,” he snapped at her before slamming the door. 

       Ash knew what was going to happen before I did.  “I’m sorry,” I read her lips through the car window seconds before Cowboy put me in a chokehold and dragged me away from the car.  I still didn’t realize what was going on.  Cowboy let me go and I spun around to face him.  It took a moment to adjust to the darkness, but the dark shadows took the form of my brother and my two best friends surrounding me.  “What’s going on?”

       “Did you really think you could knock out Barry, start a fight with Clay and stroll off into the sunset with the girl?” Cowboy asked.  “Clay’s girl!”

       “I think I just did.”  A corner of my mouth turned up.  “And she ain’t Clay’s girl.  Not tonight,” I smirked.   

       “You never think about us before you pull this crap!”  Spooky shoved me into Mickey-D, wiping the grin off my face as I slipped in the mud and barely kept from sprawling in the slush.  “Clay’s promised Cowboy a spot with the Inner Circle!”

       “What’s that got to do with me?”

       “You keep causin’ trouble, Waxer,” Cowboy explained wiping his hand down his face like a harried parent dealing with a problem child.  “We’re tired of cleanin’ up your messes.”

       “So that means I’m supposed to stand by and let Barry do whatever he wants?  We’re the good guys, remember?  Even if that wasn’t my girlfriend he had his hands on, I would have done something!”

       “Girlfriend?  Wake up, Bro!” Spooky had made it clear since the beginning that he didn’t approve of my interest in Ashton.  “Her top wasn’t ripped, it was unbuttoned!  This ain't the first time she and Barry have fucked, and you know it.  You’re so stupid!  You’re nothin’, man.  You’re the consolation prize.”  Spooky gestured towards the car, stabbing at the air.  “This is Ashton, Waxer, the Gang Bang herself.  What’s she doin’ with you?”

       Cowboy was holding me back so Spooky could finish his tirade.

       Mickey-D tried to be the voice of reason.  He shushed Spooky and did his best not to yell at me as I still struggled to break free from Cowboy’s arms.  “We’re supposed to be in this together, Waxer, but you keep stirrin’ shit up and expectin’ us to bail you out.”

       I finally shook myself loose and took a deep breath, the cold air slicing into my lungs.  My bare arms were already bright red from the cold.  “That’s what you think happened tonight?  Have you listened to anything I’ve said?”  Even to my own ears it sounded like I was whining.

       “You were lookin’ for a fight the minute you walked through the door,” Spooky insisted.  “I think you saw what you wanted to see, especially if that gave you the chance to put on a show.”

       “What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded.  

       “Just forget it, Waxer.  You wanta go back to playing superhero in the back yard?  Don’t drag us with you.”

       Mickey-D nodded.  “We could all be in the Inner Circle before football season starts.  Clay and Sean are leavin’ for college.  Barry’s takin’ over president with Darrin as his right hand.  We’re in tight with them.  If you don’t screw this up for us, Waxer, then Cowboy could be vice-president next year.  He could take over the Sons after Barry graduates.”

       I snorted and rolled my eyes.  When had they become that close to Barry?  Barry was a junior at Weston, the same public school Clay and Sean attended.  His Dad developed real estate and owned shopping malls in three states.  He made large contributions to popular charities and key politicians, and had his name in the paper more often than the mayor - whose job he was expected to seek next election cycle according to the gossip I heard from Cowboy’s and Brian’s parents.  Barry was an entrepreneur like his father, but he dealt in drugs.  Nearly a year before John Travolta made the look famous in Saturday Night Fever, Barry was a blond haired blue-eyed disco god in bell bottoms, open necked shirts and gold chains.  He kept a sneer on his face, a gun in the glove compartment of his Corvette Stingray, and a tightly rolled hundred dollar bill for snorting coke in a little black leather book that listed his many sexual conquests and drug connections.  He made my skin crawl and my fists itch even before he laid hands on Ash.  “Look, I paid my dues.  I joined the Sons for the party, not the power.  I’m done kowtowin’ to those Inner Circle assholes and I sure as hell don’t wanta become one myself.”

       “Then don’t.  But don’t ruin our chances ‘cause you’re jealous!”  Mickey-D made the announcement like he was surprised of his own accusation.

       “What?”

       “We’re hangin’ out with Clay and Barry and the Inner Circle.  We’re movin’ on and you’re not.  You’re not even trying!  You’re not the quarterback in this game, Waxer.  You’re not callin’ the shots and it’s killin’ you.”

       “I’m kissin’ a girl and you guys are kissin’ ass.  I’m not the one who’s jealous.”

       “Growin’ up means more than getting’ laid, Waxer!  The Sons are the big league.”  Even Cowboy was losing patience.

       The cold was already making my muscles stiff and I was regretting leaving my letter jacket with Ashton in the car.  “Look, guys, it’s freezin’ out here.  Can we fight about this tomorrow?  Drop me and Ash off at Hooper’s and y’all can go back to the party.”

       Cowboy looked sick, but he put out a hand and stopped me from walking past him.  “You still don’t know what’s happenin’, do you?”  It was the same look he’d worn when he told me and Spooky he’d overheard his parents say our Mom was dying of cancer.  We’d just thought she was in the nut house again.

       A stabbing pain was the metaphorical knife twisting in my back.  “Y’all weren’t gonna help me tonight were you?  You were gonna take me out?”

       “We were doin’ you a favor!”  Spooky shoved me again.  “If Clay had snapped his fingers there would have been Sons crawlin’ all over you!”

       “And what’s goin’ on right now?”  I accused them.  “Did the king snap his fingers and make you jump?”

       “Really?”  Spooky was just inches from me.  “You’re accusin’ us of bein’ lapdogs when that bitch has you so whipped…!”

       “Stop it!” Cowboy’s roar broke up our fight.  In the frigid air the steam rolled off our bodies.  He held Spook by the shoulders until my brother stopped glaring at me and met his eyes.  I didn’t see the look that passed between them, but Spooky stepped back obediently.  The oldest Saint then turned to face me.  Cowboy looked like his father, lantern-jawed with hair the color of buckskin.  Spooky and I would likely be taller than him by the end of the school year in just a few months, but Cowboy was built solid, like The Thing from Fantastic Four.  The expression on his face at the moment was one I’d seen on Mr. Masterson several times through the years…usually followed by a lecture and one of the creative punishments he tailored to fit the crime.  “You’ve got to know a punishment is coming, man.”

       “From them,” I spit on the ground in disgust.  “Not from y’all.”

       “There is no us and them, Waxer.  We’re Sons,” Mickey-D announced as he took his own jacket off.  “And so are you.  You gotta face the consequences, man.”

       “You don’t have to look so damn smug about it.”  I hid behind false bravado.  “Get on with it or is the plan to have me die of frostbite first?”

       The punishment was more than the beating, it was the end of the Saints.  Spooky and I had been at odds since I dragged him along when I pranked the basketball team.  Cowboy and Mickey-D had taken his side in the skirmish that followed.  We were on the varsity football team.  The basketball team had always been fair game in the past.  Dusting their jock straps with gentian violet and thereby semi-permanently staining their dicks and balls a vibrant shade of blue had been a brilliant plan.  I hadn’t cared that the captain and several star players were fellow Sons.  I wasn’t sorry.  Going rogue at the gladiator games had put us on opposite sides again.   Now that I thought about it, I should have known this showdown was inevitable.  It was bigger than Ashton and the events of the night:  to me the Sons were just another notch on the gun barrel of our accomplishments, a door we had opened through which we could come and go as we pleased; to the others, the Sons were the new reality and breaking into the Inner Circle and the leadership of the club was the next step.  I was holding them back.  They made me pay for it.

       Ashton was right, I hadn’t seen it coming.    

Chapter Text

Chapter 2:  Beaten, But Not Beat

 

       The banshee howling in my ears was a fire truck on its way to some emergency.  Thankfully I hadn’t been out long.  My thoughts were as sluggish as my body as I rubbed at my frozen eyelids with fists that were like blocks of ice.  With superhuman effort, I got to my feet and moved towards the road, trudging through the filthy sludge of snowstorms past and eventually hitching my way home in the bed of a stranger’s truck while the winter wind scratched my face with claws of sleet.    

       I woke up alone in the bedroom I’d shared with Spooky since we were two weeks old.  Like the bracelets on our wrists, the room was decorated in red and blue.  Two desks.  Two dressers.  Two twin beds, the blue one still neat and empty.  That had become a common sight over the last six months as Spooky and I found it increasingly difficult to get along.  I wrinkled my nose at the smell of some dead thing trapped in the walls, but then groaned when I realized the stench was coming from me.  My clothes from Friday night, torn and covered with mud, blood and sick, were stuck to my body.  At seven a.m. I was too sore and stiff from the beating to care, but eventually the urge to piss overcame the urge to lay in bed and pretend the night before never happened.

       “Fuuuuuck!”  I raised my head and slammed it back into the pillow before wrapping the pillow around my head in a futile attempt to smother myself.  With the pillow over my head I bellowed out a few more choice words.  I could rage as loud as I wanted, the house was empty:  Mom had died the summer before we started high school, nearly two years ago; Dad spent weekends managing the farm two counties over where his family had raised tobacco and race horses since the dawn of time; and Sally, the third generation of her family to cook for and clean up after the Pikes, never set foot in the house on a Saturday unless there was a dinner party or she had to care for the sick.      

       Still cursing, I made it to my feet and staggered into the Jack and Jill bathroom connecting our bedroom with the guest room.  There was no Jill; Spooky and I were the only children and we were one more than our parents intended.  I stripped slowly and showered even more carefully, assessing my injuries:  a few tender ribs, some teeth felt loose, my face was swollen and blooming with color, and my body was covered in red and violet hued contusions.  To look at me, no one would think they’d held back, but it actually wasn’t bad.  Not that I wasn’t in pain, mind you, but they could have hurt me a lot worse.  There were no broken ribs, no concussions, no bruised kidneys or spleen, and only one shot taken below the belt (courtesy of Spooky).  I’d feel better in a day or so.  In contrast, I’d passed blood for days after the Spartacus uprising.  The Saints may have been merciful, but that didn’t mean I was happy.  My visions of glorious revenge were gradually replaced by something darker, a broken record of the night before playing over and over, complete with commentary pointing out all the ways I’d fucked up and all the reasons I deserved every ache, pain and hurt I’d been dealt.

       After pulling on sweatpants and a soft hooded sweatshirt, I limped down the hall and the curving staircase towards Dad’s study.  Dad drank scotch, a preference he picked up after Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II nearly decimated the bourbon industry.  Not many people were aware of this character flaw.  However, he kept bourbon to cater to company, and he himself was frequently gifted bottles of bourbon by colleagues, acquaintances and business partners.  He didn’t notice when bottles went missing.  I pulled the stopper from a bottle of the amber liquid and set about silencing the voices in my head that I couldn’t ignore in the solitude of the empty house.

       Dad’s study was a book-lined, wood-paneled retreat that smelled of leather, tobacco and bay rum aftershave.  Military and equestrian memorabilia and vanity shots with political muckety-mucks were artfully placed throughout the room.  Behind his desk was a formal family portrait where we all managed to look uncomfortably constipated.  It was so old Spooky and I were still tow-headed and not the dark dirty dishwater shade of blond we had possessed for several years now.  During the week, the sounds of opera or public radio could be heard behind the double French doors.  Sometimes, it was the sound of laughter and conversation as Dad spoke on the phone with his nephews, my Uncle Jack’s sons, in Louisiana.  Snapshots of my cousins, some containing my father with tousled hair and a boyish grin, were tucked here and there.  For those of us who lived in the house, entry into the study was gained by stealth or invitation.  Invitations were extended rarely and never meant good news.  Before her final illness, the study was the scene of fierce battles between my otherwise tight-lipped father and my mother whose mood swings were worthy of a circus routine.  Such arguments usually preceded her disappearance for a few weeks of “vacation”.  Spooky and I used to think she went to Disneyworld.  For us, being called into Dad’s study meant a royal screw-up had occurred:  something bad enough that he couldn’t help but notice.

       I sat behind Dad’s desk while I drank from the bottle of bourbon.  The desk, like much of the other furniture and shit around the house, was a relic from some long-dead ancestor of ages past whose accomplishments I neither knew nor cared to know though they were supposedly what made our family better than others if you believed crap like that.  I was careful not to disrupt the various newspapers and periodicals Dad read from every evening.  A picture of my mother in her wedding dress occupied a corner of the large desk.  The woman in the black and white photograph was as confident, poised and graceful as a silver screen movie star, a secret smile just barely raising up one corner of her mouth.  Amelia Christina Eden was an auburn-haired New England debutante with a fiery temper to match.  She had just turned twenty when she met my father, Glen Michael Pike, a recent graduate of Harvard law school and a veteran of World War II where he had served as an aide to General Patton.  They were married within the year.

       Mom came from an era that predated Wonder Woman, Gloria Steinem and women’s lib.  She was born to grace the arm of a powerful man; to host parties where intellectual chit-chat would be exchanged over martini cocktails; and to be a benefactor of the arts and charities, attending galas draped in mink stoles and self-righteousness.  She taught Spooky and me the waltz, foxtrot and Lindy hop; she dragged us to museums and symphonies and plays; she read us Shakespeare instead of Mother Goose; and she let us crawl under the baby grand piano to press the pedals as she played.  But to cope with the more mundane daily tasks of raising energetic twin boys, she had required Valium, a nanny and a series of cooks and housekeepers in addition to Sally, Valium, frequent vacations away from Spooky and me, more Valium, a retinue of doctors and therapists, and a plethora of colorful pills and cocktails between the hours of noon and nine p.m.  There were periods of time when she rarely left her heavily curtained and cushioned bedroom, imagining she was the title character from the old movie Camille languishing on death’s door from some mysterious illness.  Then she really was.

       I used the leather-wrapped riding crop from hanging from a hook on the bookcase behind the desk to scratch my back and my ass for good measure.  An attempted salute at a snapshot of my father standing with General Patton, resulted in me smacking myself in the eye and knocking over a few trinkets on the desk, but I was too numb from the whiskey to do anything but laugh.  Mission accomplished, sir!  

       An hour later I made my leave somewhat unsteady on my feet, but pleasantly warm.  The nagging voice of doubt and self-flagellation was now subdued and humming softly to itself.  It never shut up completely.  I swallowed a handful of aspirin and crawled into Spooky’s unused and much cleaner bed.  When I woke again it was late afternoon.  The last of the sunset was rapidly fading and the phone was ringing persistently.  I ignored it, knowing the caller would likely give up before I could reach the nearest phone in my crippled condition.

       I was in the kitchen violating Sally’s cardinal rule by drinking milk straight from the bottle when the doorbell began to chime accompanied by the muffled pounding of a fist.  As I got closer I could hear shouting:  “Christian Pike, if this door doesn’t open in the next thirty seconds I’m breaking it down!”

       Ashton.  I didn’t doubt she’d try; she was fired up if she was using my proper name.  I was named after my mother.  Christian resulted from a simple rearranging of the last two letters of her middle name, Christina.  Only parents and teachers called me Christian… and angry not-girlfriends, I guess.  I hated being called Christian; it implied a moral code of conduct I obviously wasn’t living up to.

       I unlocked the heavy oak doors and pulled one open.  Cold air and the smell of Ashton’s perfume swirled around me as she hesitated in the doorway.  She was wearing my letter jacket.  “If you’re sellin’ Girl Scout cookies, you’re gonna have to work on your sales pitch.”

       “Damnit, Waxer…!”  She cut short her tirade when she saw me, clapping her hands over her mouth.

       I reached out my hand and brought her inside.  “I’m lookin’ that good, huh?”  

       “I went back to that field last night and you were gone!  I thought maybe I had the wrong spot but your so-called friends weren’t worried.  I know it wasn’t freezing, but it was cold.  I was scared to call last night and get you in trouble, and I’ve been trying to call all day and no one answered…” The words flew from her mouth almost faster than I could follow.

       I blinked at her in surprise; she’d been worried about me.  Ashton Mayfair.  Clay’s girl.  She’d really worried about me?  I pulled her into a hug before she decided to hit me.  “I’m sorry.  I heard the phone a coupl’a times, but getting out of bed was too much work.  I didn’t think it’d be for me.”

       “Why couldn’t you just keep your mouth shut?” she whispered the words onto my neck in a tickle of warm mint-scented breath then burrowed closer, knowing my weak spot.  Goosebumps prickled on my arms, but other extremities began to feel deliciously warm as her teeth nipped at the skin at the corner of my jaw. 

       “That’s not me.  You know it and the Sons know it.  They can’t beat that out of me.”

       “They sure as hell tried.  You caused a scene.  Half the Sons think you’re a hero.  Half think you’re a trouble maker.  Half just think you’re crazy.”

       I didn’t correct her math; instead I released a gasp as her teeth latched on hard…that was going to leave a mark.  “Let’s forget the Sons for tonight.  There should be a new movie on HBO an’ Sally went to the grocery yesterday so I know we’ve got Oreos an’ popcorn.”

       She put a few inches of air between our bodies, biting at her lips.  “You know your black grandmother’s gonna be over here in ten minutes to protect your lilywhite virtue.”  Sally did seem to have a sixth sense that alerted her when Ashton was in the house. 

       “With the way you were carryin’ on outside, I’d say she’s probably already on her way over.”

       I might as well have doused the girl with a bucket of ice water.  “That’s my cue to go unless you’re finally gonna stand up to the old witch and tell her to mind her own business.”

       “I am her business.”

       “Exactly.  She works for you.”

       “She works for my Dad,” I pointed out what should have been an obvious distinction, even to Ashton.  “I do what she says, not the other way around, so be nice.”

       Ashton huffed.  She didn’t have fond memories of Sally chasing us out of my bedroom where we’d been doing homework - fully clothed, in case you were wondering.  Since that unpleasant afternoon, Ashton had only come over on three other occasions; each time Sally’s face contorted like she was sucking on a lemon, Ashton was bitchier and bossier than usual, and I ended up with a bologna sandwich dinner (a sure indication of Sally’s disapproval) and sore knees (from my efforts to regain Ashton’s good will). 

       All thoughts of Sally were forgotten when Ashton tilted her head downwards causing a cascade of curls to fall into her face.  She shook loose from me completely and stepped away when I moved to push her hair back.  I’d already seen the bruises on her cheek, three violet stripes that weren’t there the night before.  I knew firsthand what the aftermath of a pretty vicious slap looked like.

       “Who did it?” A different kind of heat began coursing through my veins.  I was ready for another fight.

       “Drop it, Waxer.”  She took another step back.

       “Hittin’ me is one thing.  Which one of those chicken shit Sons…”

       “I said, drop it!”

       “Like hell!”

       “Fuck you!  You’re not my boyfriend or my big brother!”

       Oh yeah, I was the consolation prize.  “So what are we, Ash?  I’m getting’ tired of limbo.”  I wasn’t shouting anymore.  It was time to ask the question I’d avoided the night before.  “Did you want to be with Barry?  You told me last night you didn’t want him to hit you.  But before that.”

       She sighed and her mouth twisted.  “I was stupid.  I’ve dated Barry before.  I know his lies and I know how he gets, but sometimes I still fall for it.”  Her voice was flat and her expression resigned.  “Things got out of hand.  He’s a mean drunk.  Do the details matter?”

       “I guess not if we’re not…  I thought that we could…”  I released a burst of hot frustration from my lungs.  “What are we, Ash?”

       “We’re friends.” 

       I knew I should be grateful.  I mean, hey, sex without strings.  Without expectations.  Without feelings.  “Ouch.”  I clutched my chest and staggered back a step in jest, but the wound was real.

       She shook her head with a twitch of a smile, her eyes giving a melodramatic roll.  “Not like that.  You and me…  We hang out when we want to, because we want to.  You don’t have to if you don’t want to and I don’t have to if I don’t.”

       “But we seem to want to…a lot.  And you’re wearing my football jacket.”  I tugged gently on the sleeve.  “How does that not make you my girlfriend?”

       “You’d give your jacket to Barry if he needed it.  You’re not as tough as you think you are.”

       It was my turn to huff in disagreement.

       Ashton seemed to find that amusing if the curve of her mouth was any indication.  “You gave me your jacket because I was cold, not to lay any kind of claim on me.  I’m wearing it tonight to make Clay mad, not to make you happy.  We don’t owe each other anything,” she insisted, her brutal honesty hitting me in the gut again.

       “What?  Meaning I didn’t have to save your ass?” I snapped.

       “Yes.”

       “And you didn’t have to come lookin’ for me after I got my butt kicked?”  I arched an eyebrow to prove my point even though the small motion hurt like hell.  I wanted this argument to be over.

       “I didn’t have to,” she protested, her lips pursed together.

       “But you did.  And I did too.”  Reassured, my broken heart gave a powerful thud and began beating again.  “And you are wearing my jacket.  Even if you don’t mean it, everyone who sees it is gonna think we’re together.  You know that.”  I pulled her back up and to me, more than halfway certain she wouldn’t bite, but with Ashton there was always that chance.  “I think you like me,” I teased in a sing-song voice, moving closer to nuzzle her neck.  “You just don’t want to admit it.”

       She braced her arms against my chest until I wiped the lovesick look off my face and met her eyes.  “I like you a lot more than I thought I would,” she confessed, her forehead crinkling as she obviously couldn’t understand why.  “But.  I’m.  Not.  Your.  Girlfriend.”  She met my eyes and emphasized each word, treating me like I rode the fucking short bus.  “Some guys read way too much into the g-word in my experience.”

       Hurt, I took a step back, running my hands through my unfashionably short hair.  “You’ve got a twisted view of relationships, Ash.  Does Clay get the same lecture or is he the reason you’re giving it to me?”

       “That’s not any of your business.  We’re not in a relationship, Waxer.”

       Bullshit.  But I kept it to myself.  “So it’s not my business who hit you either?  Even if I want it to be?”

       She chewed her lip, and for a moment I thought I'd won.  “How well did that work for you last night?”  She cocked her head while she waited for my brilliant comeback, her eyes angry and impatient.

       A shrug was all I could come up with.  “I’ll find out who did it.” 

       Her stare was as fierce as Clay’s and I didn’t hesitate to stand my ground against her just as I had him.  She stomped her foot at me, but she started laughing nonetheless, even if the joy didn't make it to her eyes.  "God, you're such a brat."  She pulled me into her arms once again, and I went eagerly.  The heat was back on full force.  She smiled as she tugged on the back of my neck, pulling my head down to her lips for a lingering and surprisingly gentle kiss.  I touched my lips to the bruise on her cheek, each eyelid and the tip of her nose before kissing her mouth and sliding the jacket off her shoulders. 

       “Come on, let’s go upstairs and get comfortable.  Sally hasn’t come swooping in so maybe you slipped in under her radar.”

       Ash leaned into the kiss before giving my lower lip a sharp nip and pulling away.  The pain was softened by her brief grin, but then her hands covered mine and halted the progress I was making.  Her shoulders curled inward in an uncharacteristic cringe.  “She probably doesn’t recognize the car.”  She looked up at me, one eyebrow creased by a lopsided frown.  “I’m driving Clay’s Camaro.  I’m supposed to bring you back to Darrin’s.”

       Groaning, I shook my head.  “I’m not in the mood to return to the scene of the crime.”

       Ashton pulled the jacket back to cover her shoulders, and shoved her hands in the pockets.  “Clay’s not asking, he’s telling, and Barry’s backing him up.  They want to make sure the other Saints did what they were supposed to do, and…” she hesitated.

       I finished her sentence.  I knew how Mount Olympus worked.  “And they want everyone to see me lookin’ like a squashed grape so no one gets the bright idea to challenge them again anytime soon?”

       Her tongue swiped over her lips as she nodded.  “It’s really for Brian’s benefit.  They can’t touch Brian easily, but they can get to him though you.  Barry’s convinced Brian put you up to everything.”

       “Why would he think that?”

       She looked at me like I must have been knocked too hard in the head.  “They’ve been at odds since Clay announced Barry was going to take over the Sons.  Brian thinks Clay should have opened the position to candidates and a vote.  That’s how Clay got the job.”  Putting her hands on her hips she gave me a squinty-eyed gaze of suspicion.  “Seriously?  As much time as you and Brian spend together and you don’t know this?”  I shrugged.  I knew more than I was letting on, but this was a good way to maybe learn more.  “The Sons are on the verge of civil war and you’re Brian’s little buddy and an easy target.  Where have you been?”

       “Here,” I pointed to her lips.  “And here,” I indicated her breasts.  “And definitely here,” my index finger drew a line down to the button of her jeans which I popped open.  “Not to mention all the time I spent trying to get there and then enjoyin’ the view once I arrived.”  She stopped my hands once again and I sighed as I rested my forehead against hers.  “Brian warned me not to start trouble last night, but I wasn’t going to watch anyone hurt you.”

       She gave an involuntary snort in a most unladylike fashion.  “You really have been thinking with your dick.”

       “Dick’s been quite the happy camper.”  It was easier to make jokes than to tell Ashton I thought she was worth saving.

       “Take a look in the mirror and remind yourself what the little one-eyed bastard got you into last night.  It sure as hell wasn’t my pants.”

       “Little?”  That wiped the smile off my face.

       She laughed out loud, the sound echoing throughout the empty house.  “God, you’re adorable when you pout!”

       “Adorable?”  That wasn’t an improvement.  She laughed again.  That was one of the things I first noticed about her.  Ashton laughed, she didn’t giggle…unless I tickled her right where…  I shook myself to sober up.  “What happens if I don’t go?”  I hadn’t missed her comment about following Clay’s orders.

       The laughter died abruptly and she gave a tiny shrug.  “Don’t tempt fate, baby boy.  Wouldn’t you rather spend the evening with me instead of hiding out here by your lonesome?  Trouble’s going to find you either way.”

       “Then let’s go.”  I conceded.  “But I don’t think Clay’s gonna be happy to see me.  I’ve been beaten, but I ain’t beat.”  I squeezed her hand.  “Listen, I can’t push through crowds and leap over furniture tonight.  I can’t keep you safe unless you stay beside me…not that you have to…but…”  She chucked my chin to get me to look in her eyes and I sighed with enough force my battered ribs ached.  “I’m not tellin’ you what to do.  I’m just tellin’ you the limits of my awesome powers.”  I ventured a shy smile.

       “I bet you still sleep in Superman pajamas.”

       “No,” I responded with wounded dignity before cracking a smile, “Superman sleeps in the nude, everyone knows that.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3:  There’s a Fine Line Between Desperado and Dumbass

 

       It was still early when we arrived at Darrin’s for the third and final day of the latest party.  His parents were due back in town Sunday afternoon.  Our timing was a good thing; I didn’t want to create a scene when I entered and an early arrival meant fewer people to deal with.  Hopefully, with his parents due back soon, Darrin wouldn’t be inclined to allow much of a fight either.  Of course, he didn’t really care about the mess because there were plenty of hangers-on to do the cleaning for him. 

       I found an isolated seat at a game table on the main floor instead of retreating to the basement where I knew the noise would quickly get inside my already aching head and stomp on my brain with steel-toed boots.  Not that the ground floor was better.  Sure there was less noise, but the lights were brighter and the stakes were higher.  I hurt too much to think that hard, but there I was.  The ground floor was for talking, for being seen, for hard alcohol and the good shit, for negotiations and politics.  The other Saints liked it there.  Except for the bourbon, I generally had no business on this floor no matter who was playing host.  So what the hell was I doing?  I should have stayed home and stayed out of trouble.  A bottle of bourbon sat in front of me as I watched the crowd slowly grow.  Most gave me a wide berth in order to avoid guilt by association, but all of them stared.  Squashed grapes attracted attention.  I wasn’t surprised that Ashton abandoned me shortly after our arrival, she was driving Clay’s car after all, but I was pleased when she came back, and downright giddy when her hand lingered on the nape of my neck then moved to wander up my thigh.

       “You’re blushing, baby boy.”  She wasn’t.  She couldn’t contain her amusement at my reaction, delight spreading into laugh lines at the corners of her eyes.  Her hand continued to stroke my thigh and crotch.

       “That’s not all I’m doing,” I hissed, squirming in my seat as excitement gave way to apprehension.  “What’s with the public display of affection?”

       “You’re not my dirty little secret anymore.”  Her touch had me noisily sucking in a breath which made her laugh softly.  “Too many hungry eyes are watching you.  So I’m staking my claim to the happy camper.”  She gave me a wicked smile that made my stomach flip and my toes curl.  Everyone had to see what she was doing to me.  My face was burning like a supernova, I was fidgeting as if a small rodent had taken up residence inside my pants, and the noises I was making were worthy of a movie rating I was still too young to see.  Her next touch had me begging.

       “Ash!  Please…”  Please what?  Please stop?  Please more?  My hand hovered over hers uncertainly. 

       “Do you want me to stop?”  Coming from Ash it sounded like a threat.  Far from stopping, she became more aggressive.  “I thought you wanted me, baby boy?  I thought you wanted everyone to know we're together?  Are you sending me back to Clay?”

       I shook my head.  “No.”  It came out as an unmanly squeak.  I cleared my throat and tried again.  “No, but…Jesus, Ash,” I gasped and let my head fall back.  Not one to waste an opportunity, Ashton moved forward to straddle my lap as she began to mark my neck.  She wasn’t gentle.  The happy camper loved it, but… “Oww!”

       “You’re pouting again,” she chided me as if it wasn’t exactly the reaction she wanted.  She renewed her efforts, rolling her hips to tease me.

       “You…think I’m…ahhh shit…adorable wh-when I pout.  Re…oohhh!  Remember?” 

       “Yeah, but you’re sexy as hell when you put those pouty lips to good use."  She traced my swollen lips with a fingertip.  "You gonna do that for me later, Waxer?”

       I made an incomprehensible noise as I nodded.  “Any…gah…thing…”  I think I actually whimpered.  My hands gripped the edge of the table so tightly they hurt.  “’M close, Ash…  Ash!  Please…”  Oh, damn, she was really gonna make me come right there in front of everyone, and I was too far gone, or too whipped to tell her no.  Too late I realized I was rocking my hips into her touch, desperate for friction to finish me off.  I clamped my jaws together in the hope I could be quiet.

       “You’re so easy for me, baby,” she cooed.  A shudder worked its way through my body.  I opened myself up to her, moving my legs to opposite sides of the chair and giving her more room to work.  My conscience was screaming in disbelief at my eager obedience.  Squeezing my eyes shut, I blocked it all out.  If I couldn’t see the audience we had surely attracted, they couldn’t see me, I reasoned with the logic of a two-year old, once again thinking with my downstairs brain.  The happy camper wasn’t a deep thinker.

       I jumped when a deep voice cut the strings that bound me to Ashton.  “Jesus Christ, Ash, show him some mercy.”  

       “Brian!”  I didn’t know if I was relieved or disappointed by the interruption, but I swatted Ashton’s hand away from me and she returned to her own chair.  I put my head down on the table until my breathing returned to normal.  Ashton slid her fingers through my hair, scratching my scalp gently with her nails.

       Raising my head, I saw Brian was now sitting at the small table in my darkened corner with a salt shaker, a bottle of tequila, a couple shot glasses, and a disapproving look.  I put my head back down.  “I don’t know if I should thank you or punch you,” I groaned. 

       When I peeked back up, Brian flashed me a look of sympathy with all the sincerity of Richard Nixon.  “We’ve got business to discuss, kiddo, and you’re not gonna be listening to me with your underoos full of baby batter.”  The argument I began to sputter died on my lips, quelled by Brian’s furious glare.

       “Sorry,” I mumbled.  Now Ash was pissed.  I could almost smell her anger like sparks in the air, but neither she nor Brian surrendered their position or their claim to me.

       After a tense moment Brian nudged my knee with his own.  His voice was softer as he teased: “How do you drink that crap?”  He frowned, eyeing the nectar of the gods with distaste.

       “You’re one to talk,” I responded, giving his tequila an equally suspicious glare.

       He took the bourbon out of my hand and gave me a shot glass.  “Here.  If you’re gonna play with the big boys…and girls,” he sent Ashton a withering glance, “you need some hair on your balls.” 

       “I have hair on my balls.”

       “Not unless something’s changed since football season…?”  Brian looked to Ash for confirmation.  She rolled her eyes.

       Nodding, Brian filled my shot glass.  “Thought so.”  He gave Ashton the whiskey.  “You drink the sweet stuff, Sweet Stuff.”  He raised his glass and we joined him.  “To the hairless hero.  His balls may be bare, but they sure are big.”

       “And blue, thanks to you,” Ashton scolded him in a tone that made me shiver.

       I tried to glare at each of them from a separate eye.  “If you’re waiting for me to say something clever you’ll have to wait for the blood to start flowin’ to my brain again.”

       “Can’t wait that long or we’ll all die of thirst,” Brian grinned.  Smug bastard.

       “Amen,” agreed the harlot who sent the blood to my southern region in the first place.

       I licked the salt off the back of my hand and downed the shot.  Brian refilled my glass.  Brian was a senior at Holy Joe, an all-state center on the varsity football team, a member of the Inner Circle, and an Old School Son - which meant he’d joined the “club” back when Ashton’s brother, Jason, still ran the show.  Before the Sons, he’d known me from school and football.  However, it wasn’t football or the Sons, but music, where we’d really connected over the last two years.  On more than one occasion we both found ourselves listening to bands at the Iroquois Hideaway, or looking over the same albums at Karma Records; we both had tickets to the Led Zeppelin concert at Freedom Hall in April, and we were likely the only kids at Holy Joe who knew who the Sex Pistols were (though we both admitted we felt dirty every time Johnny Rotten declared himself the antichrist).  The music suited my personality, but its appeal to Brian had surprised me.  Brian was popular, he came from a good family in every sense of the word, he was rarely in trouble at school, and  reliably easy-going though he seemed to enjoy stepping on Clay’s toes.  

       He didn’t look so laid back at the moment: his jaw was locked and there was violence waiting to be unleashed behind his fake smile.  “Ash, can you give us a minute?”  She agreed though I could tell she wasn’t happy about it.  Placing a kiss on top of my head she left me with Brian.  My mentor had been watching me closely, deep lines furrowing his forehead and either side of his mouth.  His dark look had grown even more menacing every time he observed me tense up as another Son approached our table.  “Relax, Waxer.  Not everyone is against you.  Lots of guys have been wantin’ to see Barry knocked on his ass.”  I hadn’t needed Ash to tell me that Brian despised Barry and his business deals which turned younger Sons into his pushers and bill collectors. 

       I snorted.  “I wasn’t feelin’ the love last night.”

       “You weren’t the only one caught off guard.  Nobody saw that comin’.  No matter what you did, no one expected the other Saints to deliver your punishment.  That was a whole new level of shitty.”

       I shrugged.  “Guess they couldn’t tell Clay to fuck off if he gave them a direct order.”

       The dark haired teen clenched his jaw as if he were trying to hold something back.

       “You gonna puke?  Thought you sucked tequila from yer Momma’s breast?”

       He grimaced.  “I wasn’t sick, but I am now.  Man, I need brain bleach after that image, ya little punk.”  I grinned and gulped down another shot with a shudder.  I still preferred bourbon.  I wiped my watering eyes, wincing as I forgot my bruises.  Brian was staring at me again.  This time I just raised an eyebrow and waited for him.  He glanced around us uncomfortably, still looking like he might toss his cookies.  It wasn’t the tequila.  He threw back another shot and slammed his glass down on the table before gathering the courage to spit out the news: “The Saints didn’t get an order from Clay, Waxer.  Not that he’s pissed about it.  Word is they went to Barry and offered to put you in your place.  A trade to keep Cowboy on the fast track for the Inner Circle in case you jeopardized his chances.”  Brian winced as if he regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth.  “I just thought you should know.”

       “What?”  I shook my head, sending the world tottering madly.  There was no way.  They wouldn’t.  Would they…?  I let out the breath I’d sucked in.  Yeah, they would.  Man, I had really pissed them off.

       “Just be careful, kiddo.”  Brian looked up and I followed his eyes to Ashton.  “And watch your back.  She plays her own game by her own rules.” 

       A few other Old School Sons joined us as they arrived.  Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of Mickey-D.  That meant Spooky and Cowboy were somewhere close by, but the Saints avoided me and my little corner of the kingdom.  It took several more shots of tequila to get the feelings caused by Brian’s revelation under some tiny bit of control.  I had to be prepared for what I knew was coming.

       On my way back from a trip to the bathroom, Clay shouted, calling me to him.  He should have left well enough alone, but it wasn’t in him.  I should have backed down, but it wasn’t in me.  Maybe it was in my head, but it seemed the crowd parted for me and the music died down.  The party collectively held its breath in anticipation of the confrontation.  I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a bell toll high noon and see a tumbleweed roll across the living room. 

       I made my way to the sectional sofa where Clay was holding court.  Sean winced at my appearance, but looked at me pleadingly, encouraging me to keep the peace, so I knew his arguments to Clay had already fallen on deaf ears.  Barry, Darrin and Tommy were with the president…so were Spooky, Cowboy and Mickey-D.  I guess congratulations were in order if they were sittin’ on Mount Olympus.  Spooky wouldn’t meet my swollen eyes as I stared him down, but the two other Saints admired their handiwork without emotion. 

       Clay whistled.  “What happened to you?”

       If he wanted to play dumb, heaven knows I could play that game too.  I turned my evil eye from the Saints to the leader of the Sons.  His eyes weren’t on mine, but on my neck where…  “You did warn me that Ashton likes it rough.  You should see this place on my…”  I began to pull out my shirttail.  There were some smothered grins among the watching crowd.  “On second thought, I guess I oughta keep that to myself.”  As I tucked my shirttail back in, I took the knife out of my pocket, keeping it hidden from view.

       Darrin’s smile was as greasy and fake as the musk body oil he used to make the expanse of flesh underneath his open collar shine.  That alone was enough to make me hate the guy.  “At least we can tell them apart now.”

       Barry barked out a rough laugh in agreement.  “Hey, Spooky, stand up there beside him.  Give us the before and after effect.”

       Putting us on display like animals in a zoo while onlookers tried to tell us apart or find some birthmark or dimple that only one twin possessed; there was no more sure-fire way to piss us off.  I waited for Spooky to rip Barry a new asshole to unleash some of the shit that flowed through his veins.  My brother smiled weakly, his eyes never leaving the coffee table where a razorblade, lemmons, black beauties and a few lines of coke lay next to the rolled hundred-dollar bill from Barry’s black book.  More than taking part in my beating, Spooky’s silent tolerance of such a bad joke made me realize how important his new friends were to him.  The tequila in my gut started to burn.

       I spoke up before Barry made him do it.  “I’m the pretty one.”

       “You’re sure not the smart one.”  Clay moved the scene along and I was grudgingly grateful to him.  “I thought you might be in the mood for an apology tonight?”

       “Sure,” I readily agreed.  The drugs must have already been in his system, because he walked right into that one without hesitation.

       The seconds ticked past.  “We’re waiting,” Clay gestured to the assembly.

       “So am I.  I figure Barry should go first.  You next.  Then the three sell-outs.”  That brought Spooky to his feet, but Cowboy grabbed his arm and jerked him back onto the couch.  I could sense the crowd was growing larger.

       “Looks like somebody still hasn’t learned his lesson.”  Barry’s growl was more of a purr.  I may have beaten him the night before, but the look on his face at this moment was confident and predatory.  His eyes raked over my body as if he could see every bruise and mark hidden under my clothes.  I suppose he expected me to be intimidated when he began cracking his knuckles.  I cringed all right, my shoulders drawing up painfully; popping knuckles grate on my nerves worse than nails on a blackboard. 

       I wanted to knock him out again to silence the irritating sounds.  Instead, I opened my mouth.  “I had crappy teachers.  What’s your excuse?”  Knowing they’d taken it easy on me, the Saints expected gratitude, not attitude.  And I’d expected loyalty.  There was enough disappointment to go around.  Cowboy’s knuckles went white as he tightened his grip on Spooky whose jaw was working behind his tightly sealed lips as if he was barely stopping himself from unleashing a verbal beat down as well.  I glanced down meaningfully at the drugs laid out in front of my friends, “So this is what thirty pieces of silver looks like?”

       “You self-righteous prick,” Spooky growled.  None of the Saints liked the reference to Judas, but they clenched their teeth and their fists and shifted uncomfortably like hunting dogs waiting for a signal as they looked to Clay for direction.  He held out a hand to keep them off me.  I directed my laser vision back to him while Sean winced, the prospect of a peaceful evening lost.  The crowd obviously missed the public fighting of our gladiator days and they shuddered in near orgasmic ecstasy like Romans in the coliseum waiting for the show to begin.

       Clay rose to his feet.  I was ready for the slap that set my ears ringing and stung Clay’s own hand. “You don’t know when to shut up, do you?”  He winced and stretched his fingers. 

       “Then stop askin’ me questions!”  I thought I saw the tiniest flicker of grudging amusement on the older boy’s face.  I could taste the warm salty tang of blood in my mouth as injuries from the night before opened once again.  “So are we done here?  Can I go back to my corner now like a bad little boy?”

       That wasn’t going to happen.  The king had to keep the nobles happy, and they weren’t singing kumbayah.  Clay stepped aside and gave a slight nod of his head to Barry.  “He’s yours.  You get three punches.”

       I was expecting something like that.  Barry wasn’t.  “Three?”

       “That’s all it took him.  You need more?”  The look Clay gave his vice president was almost worth the punishment I was about to take. 

       Barry spun me around and drew back his fist.  The first blow was to my face.  He paused to watch as crimson began to trickle from my nose and over my lips, his nostrils flared like he was trying to pull the scent of my blood into his lungs.  I’d have been worried if the guy knew more about fighting than he did.  The second punch buried his fist in my gut.  He didn’t stop to admire his work this time.  He moved fast to land his final blow.  The third was a knee to the groin that I couldn’t help but deflect once I realized it was coming.  Technically we’d both broken the rules.  Barry pulled back to give me another…but not before I clicked open the blade I held in my hand.  “That was three.  I don’t hafta take any more crap from you.”  

       He moved aside, but he spat curses and threats of revenge all the way while he looked at Clay expectantly, waiting for him to order me taken down.  The order didn’t come.

       “He got his beating,” Clay reminded Barry with a shrug, dismissing my insolence this time, to my surprise, and earning himself Barry’s evil eye. 

       I tsk-ed at Barry reprovingly as I closed the blade and returned it to my pocket.  I cast a sneer at the three Saints for good measure, wiping the blood from my face.  “Don’t sweat it, dude.  Looks like my friends ain’t cheap, but they’ll do your dirty work for the right price.” 

      There’s a reason tequila isn’t my drink of choice.  The heat from a swallow of bourbon was pancakes and syrup, a warm blanket fresh from the dryer, the smell of wood smoke on an autumn day.  Tequila was poison in my belly that tasted bitter and sour.  It was rage and loathing, knotted fists and barbed wire, and plain old meanness.  I was looking for a fight.  Again. 

       “You ain’t been hit nearly hard enough, bro,” Spooky snarled.  He was seconds from throwing off Cowboy’s restraining grip and coming after me. 

       “Whose fault is that?”  I had the knife ready to flash open again; wondering if I could use it against my brother, wondering if he would put me in that position.  I didn’t have to do more than wonder.

       Barry settled himself next to Spooky.  He slung an arm over my brother’s shoulders and passed him the rolled Ben Franklin all the while keeping his eyes on mine.  “I didn’t buy the Saints, Waxer.  I bought your ass and they delivered.  You should show me some respect.”

       I didn’t.

       Brian put himself between us to the disappointment of the crowd.  It was his presence and that of a handful of his Old School allies that saved Barry’s butt.  Probably saved mine too since I was in no shape to win the fight I wanted so much. 

       “There’s a line between desperado and dumbass, Waxer.  You’re about to cross it,” Brian whispered in my ear.  “Get out of here before you get yourself in more trouble.”  I nodded; I was ready to walk away while I still could.  My mentor gave me a noisy smack of a kiss on my forehead in approval as I tried to escape his clutches.  He could work a crowd, and the release of tension in the air was palpable.  I played along, making a face and a big to-do as I wiped his ‘kiss’ off my skin.  “Show’s over, folks!” he advised the audience.  “Ash, take the bad boy home, an’ put him to bed.”  That was unexpected. 

       “My pleasure,” she gave a leer that was clearly meant for Clay.

       I scowled and flashed them both a good look at my middle finger which Brian waved off with a grin.  He walked us to the door where his expression turned serious and his voice dropped so that only Ashton and I could hear.  “Take my car.  Take him straight home.  If they catch him out…”

       “I ain’t worried…” I tried to interject.  Leaving the party was one thing, hiding was another.

       “That’s the tequila talkin’, Superman,” Ash pinched my earlobe hard enough for me to feel it over the blanketing numbness of the alcohol.

       “I’m not sorry for anything,” I growled, crossing my arms over my chest. 

       “Good.  I’m not mad at you,” Brian mussed my hair playfully.  “You got plenty more fights comin’, Waxer, I promise.  Too many.  But let’s get you home safe tonight.”

       “Oreos and popcorn?” I asked Ash hopefully, seeing an upside to leaving the party.

       Brian shoved us out the door.  “I don’t want to know.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 4:  A Bigger Problem Than I Thought

 

       Sally was waiting for me when I came home from Mass on Sunday.  She took one look at my face and shook her head before lecturing me about the ruined sheets in my room, but she let it go after that.  I got in a lot of fights, so black eyes were nothing new.  She was mad about the sheets though. 

       Spooky finally came home late Sunday night.  He didn’t speak to me and he sure as hell didn’t apologize.  He didn’t sleep in his bed either, opting instead for a guest bedroom down the hall.  The situation didn’t improve Monday morning.  When the radio alarm went off and the 6 a.m. theme to Rocky shattered the stillness, I hit snooze and debated my options for a minute before padding down the hall to Spooky.  This would be the real test of how things stood.  We were both sober, we were both home and there was no one else around to impress.  “Hey!”  I switched on the bedside lamp.  “Alarm went off.  Are you coming?”  I jostled him out of the fog of sleep only to receive a curse and a shove before my brother jerked the cord to the lamp out of the socket and pulled the covers over his head.  He didn’t join me for our usual weekday morning run.  In spite of sharing a bathroom, he easily avoided me the rest of the morning as well.  As I ate breakfast, he showered.  When I showered, he went downstairs to eat.  When I heard Cowboy pull into the driveway and honk as usual, I grabbed my books and ran out the door as I stuffed another slice of bacon in my mouth; but only Spooky got in the car.  Tommy was sitting in my spot.  Tommy.  The same Tommy whose shoulder I dislocated in my final gladiator match.  The guy who had pulled a knife on me and then cost me the worst beating of my life.  He was a sophomore like us though he was even older than Cowboy – held back somewhere along the line.  He’d transferred to Holy Joe that year along with dozens of other non-Catholic guys whose parents removed them from the public schools to protest the forced busing policy the city instituted.  Tommy was a football player (a mediocre one at best), a Son, and a member of the Inner Circle.  He’d earned his way into the hierarchy working for Barry, and the two of them were tight.  He didn’t live in our neighborhood which meant he’d slept over at the Masterson’s house.  Despite the silent treatment, I got the message loud and clear.  I had been replaced.  As they pulled out of the driveway, Tommy kept his eyes on me, his mouth stretched wide as he wiggled his fingers in a mocking wave.  I responded by raising both hands, palms facing me and fingers pointing up and wriggling.  It was supposed to symbolize a whole flock of fucks…  You know, if your raised middle finger is a bird, then raising all your fingers…  Yeah…Tommy didn’t get it either.  It was something me and Spooky did when we thought Sally might be watching.  An inside joke that wasn’t funny anymore.    

       I was screwed.  Dad had left for work early that morning.  He would be working out of town for the next few days.  Sally’s husband, James, was gone on some errand; and Sally didn’t drive.  I started walking.  By the time I got myself to school I’d missed most of first period which earned me detention.  I slid into my desk as the other Saints looked through me.  I couldn’t say the same for everyone else.  God, I’d never liked being stared at, but my busted face combined with my late arrival and the obvious shunning by my brother and best friends made me the focus of unwanted attention.  Gossip began traveling through the halls faster than a stomach bug.  I hid out in the library during lunch rather than face the humiliation of sitting by myself in the cafeteria.  I hated the silent treatment far more than any ass kicking.  My friends knew it. 

       When I left detention that afternoon, the sun was setting and I went to the public library, avoiding the usual hangouts for fear of meeting up with any Saints or Sons.  It was nightfall by the time I skulked into the warm kitchen which still smelled of Sally’s cooking.

       The ancient but ageless woman pulled her hands out of the dishwater and dried them on the towel draped over her shoulder.  “Not so fast!” Like a hand grabbing me by the scruff of my neck, her voice stopped me in my tracks as I tried to scurry up the back stairs undetected. 

       “Yes, ma’am.”  I slunk back down the steps into her domain with my tail between my legs.    

       “Michael said you caught detention.”  After checking the plate of food she’d saved for me, Sally shut the microwave door.  Standing as far back from the contraption as she could, she turned the knob to set the timer to warm my dinner.  I sat dutifully at the kitchen table.  At least Sally’s lectures were accompanied by food.

       “Is he here?”  Michael was Spooky’s real name:  Glen Michael Pike, III, my father’s namesake.  Cowboy and Mickey-D were Logan and Michael Donovan Masterson.

       She shook her head.  “He came in with the Masterson brothers and that other boy who’s been here a few times with them when you’re not around.”

       “Tommy Vinson?”

       “About yay high,” she held out her hand to demonstrate.  “Mousy hair.  Shifty eyes.”  Sally had good instincts.

       I grimaced.  “That’s him.”

       “They ate like a plague of locusts then thumped about upstairs for awhile before they left.  Your brother said he’d be sleeping over at the Masterson’s tonight.” 

       I tried to look like I wasn’t bothered, but Sally knew better and I couldn’t stop myself from complaining even if I had wanted to.  “I gotta think he only came home last night so they could rub it in about Tommy this morning.”

       Sally nodded, humming deep in her throat, it was her ‘um-hm, I knew something was up’ noise.  “I told Logan that was a low-down stunt he pulled leaving you without a ride this morning.”

       “Awwww, Sally, tell me you didn’t!”  I’d hoped she hadn’t seen that, but I should have known better.  Nothing escaped Sally’s attention.

       “I most certainly did,” she huffed.  “He doesn’t have to give you a ride if he don’t want to, but he should at least tell you ahead.  I asked him about tomorrow.  I can’t have you late to school and gettin’ sent to Penance Hall every day, can I?”  Penance Hall was Holy Joe slang for detention.

       I knew the answer, but I asked anyway.  “What did he say?”

       She set the steaming plate of food and a glass of tea in front of me.  “Your father’s staying out of town tonight.  Go on an’ eat ‘fore I have ta fry it in that death box again.”  Sally did not get along with the microwave.

       “What did Logan say, Sally?” I pressed.

       She wiped the already spotless counter with her towel as she answered me.  “James’ll take you to school.”  Sally and James lived in the apartment over the garage.  Like his wife, James had worked for the Pike family since he was a kid.  James took care of the yard and repairs, keeping up appearances outside the house while Sally maintained the inside.  And us.  “He can pick you up most days too, but you might have to walk or bike some until you boys get this sorted out.” 

       “Yes, ma’am.”  I lowered my head to bless the meal, while she stood beside me with her arms akimbo, ready to resume her meddling.  Seated, I no longer towered over her.  Not that Sally was the least bit intimidated by me; she’d raised my father and my uncles and her own children long before Spooky and I came along.  She’d changed my diapers and wiped my nose; kissed and bandaged my scraped knees; sat up with me when I was sick; taught me colors, shapes and ABC’s; made sure I knew right from wrong, and she’d still rap my head with her wooden spoon if she thought I didn’t know the difference.  She was the parent when my own parents couldn’t be bothered.  They had rarely bothered.    

       Her gnarled Palmolive scented fingers were still damp.  She took my chin and looked in my eyes.  “What’s goin’ on?”

       I turned my head out of her grasp.  “We just had a fight.”

       She narrowed her eyes, the crow's feet at the corners disappearing as any trace of a smile left her face.  "They beat you up like this?"  Sppoky was likely to get konked on the head with Sally's wooden spoon the next time she caught him.  "Was that Tommy-boy part of it?"

       "Not Tommy, just the others.  It’s no big deal, Sally.  We’ve fought before.  I was just on the receivin’ end this time.”

       “You usually are,” my surrogate grandmother muttered under her breath.

       “It looks worse than it is.  I promise.”  I picked up my fork, hoping she would change the subject.

       “Looks pretty bad.  ‘Specially if they’re still schemin’ to get you in more trouble.”  By the tone of her voice, Spooky better stay gone for a few days.  She opened the fridge and poured me a glass of milk to add to the meal.  “I handled the call from school this morning.  Has your father laid eyes on you yet?”

       “No, ma’am.”

       She leaned back, casting an appraising eye upon me.  “I can treat your bruises with vinegar.  Fade ‘em up a bit.  That’ll help some.  You thought about what you’re gonna tell him?”

       I shrugged.  “Sometimes he lets it go.  It’s not like he hasn’t seen me beat up plenty of times before.  Unless he brings it up I don’t plan on tellin’ him anything.  ‘M not gonna rat out Spooky.  ‘Sides Dad givin’ a lecture on brotherly love might just trigger the Apocalypse.”

       It was the wrong thing to say.  Sally moved quickly and squeezed my chin firmly until I looked up, and once I did I couldn’t escape her eyes that blazed with both worry and reprimand.  “You know better’n to pop off like that, Christian Pike.  Your father would skin you alive.”

       This time her fingers tightened when I tried to escape.  “Yes, ma’am.  I’m sorry.”  She released me and I rubbed my chin.  “You know I’m not dumb enough to say anything like that to Dad,” I assured her even though we both knew that wasn’t true because, of course, I’d done it before.   

       My Dad was the eldest of three brothers.  Stuart died during World War II.  Jack had been the youngest brother.  He fell in love with a girl he’d known since childhood and got her pregnant.  According to Sally the girl was sweet as spring rain and poor as sharecropper’s dirt.  Her estranged father was in prison for murder; and her mother was a stranger, a French speaking Cajun who raised bees and chickens on a small piece of land near my grandfather’s farm.  Uncle Jack ran away and married his sweetheart before the baby was born, eventually settling in Louisiana where Aunt Rachel had family.  After he left, my grandfather cut Jack out of the will and never uttered his name again (or so I was told).  I never knew Uncle Jack and Aunt Rachel.  They died in a car accident when I was eight.  At the time they died, my father, like his father before him, hadn’t spoken to Uncle Jack in years.  Dad didn’t like to talk about his brothers, though he’d become very close with his three nephews since their parents’ funeral.  He talked about them a lot.

       Sally returned to the sink.  “You gonna tell me what happened?”

       “We were at a party and I saw a guy hit a girl.  I rescued her.  End of story.” 

       “MmmHmm.”  That was her ‘I know that ain’t the end of the story, so get on with it’ sound.  She waited for me to continue.

       “I did the right thing.”

       “I’m waitin’ to hear where this became a fight.”

       I swirled peas through my mashed potatoes.  “I hit the guy a couple times.”

       “It wasn’t…”

       “No, ma’am!”  I was quick to assure her the Saints were innocent of that offense at least before she charged over to the Masterson’s with her wooden spoon.  “It was a friend of theirs.  They didn’t see it happen.”  I dragged my fork through the potatoes again, this time adding a swirl of the red ketchup I’d used to smother the slices of meatloaf.

       Sally returned her focus to the dirty dishes…but I wasn’t off the proverbial hook.  “I’m still missin’ a big chunk of story.  That usually means there’s something you’re not wantin’ to own up to.”  She let her words hang in the silence that was broken only by the soft splashes of water and the scrape of my fork against the plate.  “Stop playin’ with yer dinner.”  I froze in the midst of creating a mashed potato mountain.  I always knew the woman had eyes in the back of her head.  “There are starvin’ children in China who need that food.”

       “I’m sorry, Sally.” I said again.

       She plunged her hands back into the dishwater with enough force to wet the front of her apron.  “Start talkin’.”

       I growled, but the sound died in my throat when Sally whipped her head around.  I dropped my eyes, but I could still feel the weight of the housekeeper’s gaze on my shoulders.  “Maybe I started another fight too.  With another one of their friends.”

       “These aren’t your friends too?”

       “No, ma’am.  Not really.”

       She had no response to that, but I could tell she had filed it away as a mystery to be solved later.  She didn’t turn back to the sink which kept the pressure on me to keep talking.  After awhile I began to squirm in my seat.  I risked a glance at Sally.  She still faced my way, but she was looking through me, her thoughts wandering, until the movement caught her attention and she was suddenly back in the moment.  “Go on.”

       “’S all there is.  They didn’t like me causin’ trouble with their friends so they decided to teach me a lesson.”

       “Did you apologize?”

       “To Michael?”  I pushed my plate away.  “He should be apologizin’ to me,” I muttered, not quite under my breath. 

       She put her hands back into the dishwater.  “A fight takes two people, Christian.  Yer brother ain’t the only one to blame, I’m sure."  She knew me too well.  This was a conversation we’d had many times before.  I made a halfhearted noise of disagreement which caused Sally to pull the potato masher out of the dishwater and brandish it menacingly.  “You know as well as I do y’all will make peace as soon as you say ‘sorry’.”

       “Why does it always have to be me?” I grumbled.  “It’s not even my fault.” 

       She tossed the utensil back into the water and crossed over to me, pulling another kitchen chair close.  She cupped her palm to my cheek.  “Now tuck that lower lip back in ‘fore you trip on it, sugar.”  That was Sally’s way of telling me to stop pouting.    

       I obeyed. 

       “It’s gonna get better.  Your brother holds a grudge like only a Pike can, but he’ll forgive you.  He always does.  Sooner you say yer sorry, the sooner this ends.”

       “I don’t think so.  Not this time.”  My biggest fear escaped in a whisper.  The urge to tuck my head under her chin and breathe in her scent of lavender, Oil of Olay and bacon grease was overpowering.  I always felt better when I emerged from the cocoon of her arms, like Superman drawing strength from the sun when his superpowers needed recharging.  But I was too old for hugs from my nanny anymore.  Though they lived nearly a thousand miles away, Sally’s hugs belonged to her real grandchildren now, not some imposter.

       A wrinkled thumb rubbed across my cheek.  I momentarily leaned into her touch, taking a few deep even breaths before I pulled away, my face hot and an ache in my chest.  Sally dropped her hand.  “Give it a few days fer everyone to cool off.  I know you, baby, yer temper will get the best of you if you try talkin’ to them now.”  In response to the slight twitch in my shoulders Sally hummed knowingly.  “Too late for that advice I take it?”

       “Kinda.”

       She leaned back in her chair waiting for another story I didn’t want to tell.  “I swear, Christian, tryin’ to get all the truth outta you would drive Job to drink.”

       The swirl of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas stared up at me accusingly.  Sally had used that starving children in China guilt trip so often that I was in second grade before I realized China wasn’t a colony in my stomach populated by tiny Dr. Seuss-like creatures who went hungry if I didn’t clean my plate.  I was a sucker for guilt trips. 

       “Make peace with your brother and I’ll make fried chicken and gravy.”  Bribery worked too.

       “And macaroni and cheese?” I grinned.

       “And macaroni and cheese,” Sally agreed.

       “Okay.”  I gave in.  “I’ll talk to Michael.”

       “And…”  Sally held my gaze.

       My stomach growled and I gave up on being stubborn.  “And I’ll try not to start another fight when I do.”

       “And…”

       I made a noise of frustration.  “And I’ll apologize…but not for everything.  It’s not all my fault, I swear.”

       Sally patted my face.  “I don’t doubt that, baby.  I know yer brother as well as I know you.” 

       Once I finished dinner Sally took my dirty plate and sat a bowl full of peach cobbler and melting vanilla ice cream in its place.  I accepted the peace offering and even managed a smile when she smoothed my mussed hair.  Long, unruly hair was the fashion, even on guys, but St. Joseph’s dress code kept my dark blond mop above my ears and off my neck. 

       As I headed up the steps again, Sally gave me a warning.  “Those boys made a gosh-awful racket upstairs this afternoon.  I haven’t been up there yet to inspect so who knows what kind of mess they left.”

       “I’ll try and make peace, but I’m not cleanin’ his side of the room.”  I offered Sally a smile.

       I didn’t have to worry.  Spooky’s side of the room wasn’t just clean, it was cleaned out.  He’d taken our television, the hi-fi system and all the music, and the Atari Pong.  The shelves on our walls were empty but for comic books, the only things that were truly mine alone.  I sank down on my bed to find my breath which was trapped painfully in my chest. 

       Even our worst arguments had always resolved themselves after one of us spent a couple nights with the Masterson’s.  Though there were spare bedrooms throughout our house, neither of us had ever thought to permanently claim our own space.  At least I hadn’t. 

       I knew Spooky had never fully forgiven me for dragging him into the prank on the basketball team, and I’d given him his space to cool off while I chased Ashton and hung out at the record store or sneaked into clubs and college frat parties with Brian.  Still…separate rooms?  My brother had just severed the bond that had united us since we were in the womb.

       This would take more than an apology to fix.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: 

A Challenge Written in Ink

 

       After a week spent dodging social interaction, Friday afternoon Brian caught me at my locker.  “You look worse than you did the morning after we waited in line all night for those Zep tickets.  Life as a social pariah not all it’s cracked up to be, huh?”

       “Go away,” I glowered, squinting from the brightness of his smile.  Brian was radiating more happy vibes than my sour mood could tolerate.  The fading bruises from my last beating were accentuated by dark circles from lack of sleep.  I was still getting the cold shoulder from the Saints, my few attempts at conversation and even apology for Christ’s sake (Yeah, I gave in just like Sally knew I would) had been rebuffed.  Though we were only four sophomores, we were four sophomores with reputations any upperclassman would envy, and we were known for sticking together; therefore, the seismic and seemingly irreparable shift in our relationship resulted in aftershocks throughout the school as our classmates took sides.  The general population had no idea what I had done to deserve such treatment, but they knew it had to be bad.  The gossip was fueled by my cheerful demeanor. 

       That was sarcasm. 

       I was in a bad mood and I made sure everyone around me knew it.

       Apparently, Brian had decided that I’d been stewing long enough.  “Way to endear yourself to the guy who’s offerin’ you a ride to the party tonight.”

       I peeked around my locker door to see the look on his face.  “You’re serious?”  He was.  “Am I not in enough trouble with the Sons?  I doubt they’ll even let me through the door.”

       “Good thing the party’s at my house.”  He grinned and I wondered why Ashton ever even cast me a second glance when she had guys like him to choose from.

       I cast a look skyward, “Thank God!”  My locker closed with a bang.  “What are we waitin’ for?”

       He chuckled.  “That bad, huh?”

       “You have no idea, man.”  Not only was the loneliness taking its toll, but I’d actually been in one fight that week.  The basketball team, excited by the prospect of revenge, saw me as easy prey walking home by my lonesome.  It didn’t help that Stan Gaddis, captain of the basketball team, was also a Son.  He witnessed what had happened at Darrin’s, and he knew any attack on me would result in rewards rather than retribution.  Even alone I was dangerous (and armed), and I gave as good as I got before I found the opportunity to run.  Nope, this boy ain’t above running when the situation doesn’t call for a hero.  I knew the route between Holy Joe and home well enough to know all the hideouts and shortcuts.

       “Tonight then, just cut loose.  Trust me.  I’ll take care of you, kiddo.”  Brian slung an arm around my shoulders as we walked.

**********

        Brian’s parents were at a convention in Florida and his younger sisters were spending the weekend with friends.  We had the house to ourselves.  “Sit if you can find a spot.”  Brian’s bedroom was plastered with rock posters for the Ramones, the New York Dolls, and Led Zeppelin.  His collections of records, 8-tracks and tapes were arranged alphabetically on shelves that filled an entire wall.  In contrast to that oasis of organization, the bed was unmade, clothes hung over the back of chairs, there was a layer of fuzzy gray film skimming the cola in a forgotten glass on his desk, and college brochures littered every surface like autumn leaves, and were wadded into balls that surrounded a trashcan.  I knew he was being recruited by two Division I schools and had his pick of several smaller colleges as well. 

       “You any closer to making a decision?” I asked as he emerged from his closet, tossing me jeans and a t-shirt.  Brian had already changed and I bitterly admired the snug fit of his jeans and the t-shirt which stretched across his broad shoulders and accented the muscles of his biceps.  I knew I shouldn’t be envious, Brian was older than me and I was built better than most guys my age; but his clothes were loose on my frame. 

       I listened raptly as he described a recent campus tour.  He’d attended a party where girls, alcohol, pot and pills were all part of the entertainment provided to entice him to sign on the dotted line.  The student playing host had expected Brian to be awed.  “The only thing that shocked me was the fact that I was expected to be shocked.  You hang out with the Sons for a few years and scenes like that are no big deal.”  He wasn’t bragging.  “It was depressing, realizing that things might be all downhill from high school.  I guess I thought college would be different not more of the same shit.”

       “You were expecting everyone to be wearing tweed jackets with patches on the elbows, smoking pipes and discussing literature in an English accent?”  That earned me a shove and I tumbled onto his unmade bed.  I couldn’t hold back the laughter as I pictured Brian dressed in the stuffy get-up, laughing even harder when he dared to look offended.  I propped myself up on my elbows still fizzing with good humor.

       “No.”  The sour face he wore said otherwise.  “But,” he waved a hand at his neat shelves, “I thought there would be good music at least, a concert, and maybe someone who had a plan for their lives beyond the next beer or easy lay.”

       Flopping back against the mattress, I stared at the white ceiling and took a deep breath to stifle the laughter that threatened to break free once again.  “They just don’t know you, man.  They didn’t realize you’d be such a nerd.”

       “Says the kid who’d rather jack off to a comic book than a Playboy centerfold.”

       “Dude, I have a sophisticated palate.  Wonder Woman is not an easy lay,” I protested.

       “You should know.”  The last word died in his mouth, clearly a statement he hadn’t intended to release.  That didn’t mean I was going to ignore it.

       I sat up quickly as if he’d doused me in ice water.  “What does that mean?”

       He shrugged.  “Forget it.”

       “I thought you liked Ashton?”

       “That’s going a bit far.  Besides…It wasn’t Ashton I was talkin’ about.”

       “Who?”  I was genuinely perplexed.  “I’ve only been with Ashton.  You know that.”

       Brian’s face flushed redder than tomato soup.  “I’m talkin’ about you, damnit!”

       “Me?”  I was still confused.

       “Yeah, you.  Last weekend?  Writhin’ and yowlin’ like a cat in heat.  Lettin’ her rub you off in front of everyone.”  Brian tossed an armload of dirty clothes into his closet in his best attempt to clean up before the party, and slammed the door shut.

       I’m sure my face matched his for redness.  “I’ve seen worse goin’ on every time the Sons get together.”

       “Not on the main floor…greetin’ everyone as they walk through the door.  She was makin’ it damn clear who’s in charge, and it ain’t you, baby boy,” he sneered in disgust as he used Ashton’s pet name for me.

       Brian’s judgment hit me like a sledgehammer to the gut.  I pushed myself back into the corner between the headboard of his bed and the wall, bringing my knees up to my chest, curling my arms around them and resting my chin on top as I regarded Brian warily.  “I mean…I want to, you know, be good at it.  She’s teachin’ me.  She likes that I don’t act like I know it all.  So I’m not an asshole like Barry.  Is that wrong?”  Jesus, I sounded like a six-year-old standing in Dad’s study tryin’ to talk my way out of a butt whippin’.

       Brian’s irritation melted away.  “Did you like it?” he asked gently if hesitantly, back in the mode of big brother and mentor after a few deep breaths. 

       Surprisingly, it was possible to turn a deeper shade of red.  I thought I was going to spontaneously combust.  “Yeah,” I nearly choked on the admission.  “Usually.  I mean…maybe not in front of everyone like that, but...you know...it’s Ashton.”  I could feel myself sweating under the intensity of Brian’s stare.  Man, I was so tired I couldn’t hold myself together.

       The bed dipped as Brian sat on the edge.  For a second it seemed like he would come closer, but he stopped himself when I drew further back into the corner.  His large hands rubbed the denim over his thighs.  “Waxer, I don’t trust her.  She’s using you to make Clay jealous.  And…well, you gotta know you’re not the only one.”  He scratched his neck and turned away from me, clearly uncomfortable.  “We’re takin’ a stand against Mount Olympus, kiddo.  You and me.  You can’t look weak.”

       “You’re leavin’, man,” I snapped.  “Why do you care what happens to the Sons?  Or me?”  Sometimes Brian's attention baffled me as much as Ashton's.

       “I’ve been a Son for almost five years.  We may not be perfect, but we’re a damn stretch better than what we’ll be after a year under Barry Adams.”

       That was the truth.  I nodded in agreement. 

       “I worry about you too,” he griped, turning almost as red as me as he knuckled my head affectionately.  “Somebody has to.  You’ve got no sense of self-preservation.”  His hand slid down to the back of my neck and the warm weight of it felt so good I nearly cried.

       “I know.  I know.  Heard it all before.”  I shrugged off his hand before I gave in to the urge and rubbed my itchy eyes as I unsuccessfully tried to hold back a yawn. 

       Brian gave me an acrobatic eyeroll.  “I’m shuttin’ up."  

       I nodded.  “Okay.”

       He stood and went to his dresser where he rummaged through a drawer, socks and underwear falling to the floor as he piled them up and pushed them aside.  He found what he was looking for and tossed it my way.  A new box of rubbers fell into my hand.  “And be careful, damnit.”

       I rubbed the back of my neck where I could still feel the ghost of Brian's hand, feeling the heat rise in my face once more.  “Yeah.”  Exhaustion rushed in like high tide.  We had a few hours before anyone else showed up.  I unfolded my body and curled into the pillow, whining when it was suddenly snatched from my grasp.

       “That one’s mine.”  There was a spark of humor in his dark eyes.  He tossed the second pillow to the foot of the queen-sized bed as he stretched out head to foot.  I crawled to the opposite end, beating the second pillow into submission and laying with my head at the footboard and my feet pointing up.  I rolled over to get Brian’s feet out of my face.

       “And I wasn’t yowling,” I muttered a belated complaint.  “’S not even a real word.”

       Brian’s knee shoved me in the ass.  “Waxer, every tomcat in the neighborhood was sniffin’ at Darrin’s door.”

       “I ain’t a girl.”

       “Whatever you say, princess.  Now go to sleep, you got a ball to attend later.”

       I made sure my next words were silenced by the pillow, getting a nose full of the Johnson’s Baby Shampoo Brian used.  The scent lulled me into the first decent sleep I’d had all week. 

       Brian shook me awake when the pizzas arrived.  Two other seniors from Holy Joe were in the kitchen and we were soon joined by most of the Inner Circle, even some alumni of the Sons who had graduated high school and were no longer active with the “club.” 

       “I can’t believe no girls have shown up yet,” I complained.  “Ash is comin’, right?”

       “No girls tonight, baby boy.” The frown that hooded his eyes and made them nearly black was chased away nearly as fast as it appeared.  “It’s an initiation ceremony.”

       “New Sons?”  I really was out of the loop.

       “Nah.  For the Inner Circle.”

       I cursed.  “Cowboy?”  I felt my heart rate climbing.  “Damnit, Brian!  Why didn’t you warn me?  I don’t care what kind of hell I pay, when those back-stabbin’ traitors walk through the door I’m gonna…”

       “Be too drunk to start a fight and tear up my house.”  He finished the sentence for me in the tone of voice he used to bark orders on the football field.  I knew that tone meant the matter wasn’t open for debate and Brian would kick my butt himself if I disobeyed.  “My parents don’t know about tonight and I don’t want to explain busted furniture, broken glass and blood on the carpet.”  He shoved me down into a seat at the kitchen table, took the can of beer out of my hand and snapped his fingers.  Instantly he was given a mason jar that seemed to be filled with grape Kool-Aid.  “Shut up.  Drink up.  And trust me.  I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.”

       “Where’s the tequila?”

       He shrugged.  “Dad went back home for a funeral a couple weeks ago.  He always comes back with a few jars of moonshine for his poker night.  Chaz threw in some scoops of Kool-Aid and decided that the grape goes down easiest.”

       I sniffed.  The fumes cleared my sinuses and burned their way into my brain like chemical lightning bolts.  “Can’t this stuff make you go blind?”

       He rolled his eyes, “Toughen up, buttercup.”

       Curiosity won out.  I gave it a tentative sip as Brian taunted me by clucking like a chicken.  I choked on the searing heat.  “Oh, you’re right," I wheezed.  "This stuff tastes like candy.”  I took a larger swig.  "Battery acid and candy."

       “Shut up."  He pushed the jar back to my lips.  "It'll get the job done.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” 

       I remembered nothing else until I woke up with a groan.

       Leprechauns and pink elephants were slam dancing inside my skull.  My tongue felt too big for my mouth.  I parted my lips and began panting as a wave of nausea broke over my head.  My stomach rolled, bringing a flood of saliva to my mouth.  I took a deep breath and held down the sick, but I was in a cold sweat and shaky.  I ached all over.  My right shoulder burned like it had been scraped raw and my scapular medal was trapped under my cheek, leaving an indentation in my face.  The smell of sweat, stale pizza and burnt marijuana tainted the air.  When I raised my head I saw bodies strewn all over Brian’s wood-paneled basement, the relative quiet punctuated by the occasional snore or flatulent rumble.  I tried to lift myself up from the facedown sprawl on the couch, groaning again and pushing down another bout of nausea.  It wasn’t worth the effort.  I surrendered to unconsciousness, letting the waves pull me back under. 

       I still felt like crap when I woke a second time (or at least the second time I remembered).  There was a trashcan beside me, a cold washcloth draped across the back of my neck, and something dead and furry in my mouth.  A few of the bodies were stirring now.  I spotted Brian behind the bar which ran along the wall.  He was mixing his own hangover cure: tomato juice, vodka, beer and a raw egg.  I shuddered and hung my head over the trashcan, quickly realizing this wasn’t the first time as the sickeningly sweet scent and toxic fumes of purple moonshine laced with the acrid stench of bile hit me in the face.  I choked and retched up whatever was left until I was spent.  My head hung limp like a dead flower, my mouth open and a steady trickle of saliva dripping into the pool of vomit. 

       “Easy, Waxer,” Brian crooned to me as he wiped my face with the cold washcloth.  I hadn’t even noticed his approach.  Anything I attempted to say came out as a moan.  “Jesus, kiddo, I’m sorry.”

       “I think he’s got it all up for now,” another male voice assured him.  “You were just as bad when it was your turn.”

       Brian gave a dramatic groan, “I haven’t touched bourbon since then.  Can’t even stand the smell of it.”  He continued to stroke my face with the washcloth while he spoke.

       The stranger laughed softly.  “I doubt the kid here is gonna be fond of grape soda for a long time to come.”  This person moved me so I once again lay completely on the couch with my head in Brian’s lap.  “I’ll empty the trashcan and freshen the washcloth.  You babysit.”

       I moaned again in protest.

       “Shit, is he doing it again?”

       The whiskey rough voice of the other man chuckled, “Un-uh.  He’s arguing with me.  I think you picked the right one for the job if he survives the night.”

       “He’s too stubborn not to, but it’s not gonna be pretty.”  Brian smoothed my hair back one more time and encouraged me to go back to sleep.  I did.

       The third time I remember waking I was snuggling deeper into Brian’s crotch like a cat trying to get attention.  Not that I knew what I was doing.  A fist tightened its grip in my hair.  “Fuck,” I heard the softly spoken curse and felt the muscles of Brian’s thighs clench as he shifted his weight.  Not yet fully awake, I yawned wide, licked my dry lips, moaned at the ache in my skull and attempted to burrow deeper into the warmth that was Brian’s lap.  “Waxer…”  Brian shifting again made it so much easier to hide my face completely from the light that was slicing through my mushy brain cells like a knife through scrambled eggs.  I was dug in like a tick.  There was a gasp that wasn’t mine followed by pressure to the back of my head.  "Get off me."  The hissed command didn't jive with the hand keeping me in place.  The hand clenched in my hair tight enough to hurt.      

       I growled with all the force of a half-drowned puppy as I blinked my eyes open.  “What the hell, man?” I mumbled.  Tilting my head to stare up at my friend through bleary eyes, I couldn’t make out his expression.  With only a slight movement of my head I suddenly had an eyeful of faded denim stretched tight over Brian’s morning wood.  It took a few more seconds for me to realize what was going on and try to move away in a flurry of hands and elbows that had Brian grunting in pain.

       The second guy, the one with the deeper voice was laughing as he grasped my arms and pulled me off Brian who slid out from under me.  We were all three talking at once.  I was apologizing profusely while I waited for a punch that never came.  The handful of revelers who were conscious laughed their asses off and Brian eventually relaxed enough to join them.  Fortunately, the mysterious stranger knew how to interpret my sudden silence and he quickly maneuvered me over the trash can as I convulsed in a round of dry heaves that left me trembling as I continued to whimper apologies all around.

       “For future reference, Bri, no mickies in the moonshine,” the stranger cautioned, for once sounding as if he found the situation less than humorous.

       “Lesson learned.”  Brian’s voice was as weak as mine. 

       I was manhandled once again.  “I'm so gonna puke on you,” I complained.  The washcloth was no longer cold and it smelled sour.  I lifted a hand to take it from whichever of them was wiping my face. 

       “Can you stand up?”

       I made the effort, achieving an upright position with only minimal assistance.  There were fewer people in the room than I last remembered, and I could hear voices from upstairs fighting over cold pizza and Cap’n Crunch.  Just the thought brought to mind the combined scents of peanut butter and garlic and I could hear the unsteady pounding of my heart echoing in my ears as I fought back the urge to sink to my knees and wrap my bare arms around the trashcan in a desperate embrace.  Bare?  “What happened to my shirt?”

       That was cause for concern and celebration.  The last time I caught Spooky passed out I’d stripped off his shirt and used red lipstick to draw a dopey face on his chest.  The last time Cowboy had passed out I got him out of his shirt and shaved stripes into the hair on his chest.  I was hilarious…but I guess that was a matter of perspective.  I glanced down at my chest.  I was still hairless so that was nothing new, and there was no unsanctioned artwork circling my nipples, no inane messages written in permanent marker…  Had Brian stopped them?  I didn’t know how I felt about that.  Not that I wanted to be the butt of any practical jokes, but the fact that the Saints even attempted one on me warranted the start of a smile.  We were going to be okay after all.  Maybe they soaked my shirt and tied it in knots?  Of course the shirt I’d been wearing belonged to Brian…I’d have to apologize to him if they ruined it…

       Fingers were snapped in front of my face, bringing me out of my reverie.  I blinked in confusion at the amber-eyed stranger.  The shirt I had been imagining was in the hand that wasn’t two inches from my eyes.  Oh.  So what was the joke?  I reached behind me to scratch my sore shoulder, but Brian grabbed my hand.  “You don’t want to do that.”  He scanned the room until his eyes found a friend who wasn’t too drunk to respond to simple English, “Hey, Chaz, you want to do the honors?” 

       Chaz was another Holy Joe Senior on the football team and Brian’s best friend.  They’d been nearly as inseparable as Clay and Sean until Chaz found the girl of his dreams and they started going steady. 

       “Hey, Waxer!  Welcome back to the land of the living.  We were startin’ to get worried.”

       “I remember a couple sips of moonshine and then it all gets kinda fuzzy.”  My voice was raspy.  I tried to recall the night before, but it only made my head hurt.

       “We slipped you a mickey,” Brian admitted.

       “What?”  I was shocked.  “Why?” I demanded, too confused to be angry.  For the moment.

       He shrugged, a grin splitting his face as he enjoyed my puzzled expression.  “Tradition.  It’s also the only way to keep you still enough so the artist can get it all done in one night.”

       “I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about,” I grumbled, reaching back again to scratch my shoulder only to be stopped again.  “And where’s my shirt?” I snapped, having lost sight of it.  My head was pounding.

       “Take a look first.  Go get the mirror off Mom’s dresser?”  He directed the order to Chaz who hopped up to comply, his eyes bright with excitement.

       Brian nodded.  Moving me in spite of my protests, the older Son helped Brian walk me behind the bar where there was a large mirror.  “Easy, Tiger,” he responded when I tried to jerk away and assert my independence only to nearly walk into a support column.  As I turned to study the combination of familiar whiskey eyes in a face I was sure I didn’t know, I caught a glimpse of the discoloration on my shoulder in the bar mirror.  “What the hell?”  I craned my neck to try and get a better look.  That wasn’t a bruise.

       “Here.”  Chaz delivered the hand mirror and Brian passed it to me.  Everyone in the room was awake now and watched me expectantly.  Even the kitchen foragers had returned to the basement for the event.  There seemed to be a sudden lack of air and I licked my lips again to buy myself a moment.  With my back to the larger mirror, I raised the hand mirror to my face and cursed softly in surprise.  “Welcome to the Inner Circle, Waxer.”  The basement erupted into applause, whoops and cheers which I didn’t only hear, but felt inside my skull like so many ice picks.

       I almost dropped the mirror.  I did stagger a few steps as questions and emotions began to overwhelm me.  A tattoo the size of my hand with the fingers spread covered my right shoulder.  It was brilliantly detailed and colored.  The backdrop was the traditional symbol of the Sons, the crossed Revolutionary War flags:  one the classic Betsy Ross design, and the other sporting the coiled rattlesnake with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”  A crucifix was in the foreground.  Several of the Holy Joe’s indoctrinated into the Inner Circle had a crucifix incorporated into their mark.  An armored knight straight out of Prince Valiant, with hair the sandy-brown color of mine, genuflected at the foot of the crucifix.  His shield was a duplicate of Captain America’s (My superhero obsession was apparently no secret).  The knight’s helmet was tucked under his arm, his opposite hand grasped the hilt of his sword, the point of which pierced the ground before him.  I’d never seen that image on any of the Sons’ tattoos.  “That’s yours,” Brian explained.  “Might for right.  Great power/great responsibility.  Chaz made the design.   You pick your motto.”

       “I thought…  We all thought Cowboy…Son of a bitch…”  I wiped my mouth, closing my eyes against another wave of nausea.  I needed fresh air.  I was still in awe and actually a little pissed.  No one had asked me if I wanted this.  I was marked as a Son for life now.  A tattoo?  I was so dead.  The Sons around me, most wearing a similar tattoo under their shirts or desperately wanting one, beamed like proud parents and jealous siblings.  “Cowboy wanted this,” I repeated. 

       “That’s what Clay wanted too,” Brian agreed.  “And Barry, Darrin, Tommy and their loyalists…and Stan Gaddis,” his grin was full of evil delight.  The captain of the Holy Joe basketball team wasn’t one of Brian’s favorite people either and the sparks in my friend’s eyes proved he was quite happy to see Clay’s plans thwarted as well.  “Everyone got to have a say.  But when it comes to the voting, even Clay just gets one ballot.  They were outvoted.  Dude, Sean voted for you, though he’d rather swallow broken glass than admit it to Clay.”  I noticed the three votes Brian left out.

       The stranger’s expression was also fierce.  “Brian stacked the deck for you.  He called in alum who were still in the area.  Clay didn’t like that, but he ain’t gonna tell me I don’t have a say in the Sons and I guess my opinion still carries more weight than his.”

       It clicked.  Holy back story, Batman!  “You’re Jace Mayfair!”

       He laughed again at my starstruck outburst and Brian grinned like a Cheshire cat with a belly full of canaries.  “I called in a few ringers.  Biggest vote ever.”  He clapped a hand down on my unmarked shoulder.  “Don’t think Clay doesn’t realize that.”

       I had to admit there was a bit of justice that my brother and the friends who sold me out for this honor were overlooked while I was making history.  And the tattoo itself was cool.  I still wanted to puke, and to rebel at my exclusion from the decision-making process.  I felt like a horse who’d been branded and I wanted someone to kick.  But there was a thin smile now on my face.  Thin because my lips were pinched tight to hold back the vomit rising into my chest.  Yeah, I was pissed about that too.  The smile was real, however, even though I couldn’t decide if the motivation behind it was smug satisfaction, actual pride, or hope.

       “C’mon, let’s go eat!”  Brian announced to even louder cheers. 

       The noise and the proposition both made me cringe.  I stared at the tattoo again and when I lowered the mirror, Jason was there still holding the t-shirt I’d been wearing.  “You okay?” he asked.

       I nodded, but then shook my head and leaned against the bar.  “Still kinda sick.”

       “And a bit shell shocked?” he guessed.

       “Yeah,” I admitted as I reached behind me, rubbing my neck again since my shoulder was off-limits.

       “So how old are you?”

       “I’ll be sixteen in August.”

       The man cringed.  “And you’re Ashton’s boyfriend?”  He sounded doubtful.

       I held out a hand in disagreement.  “She’d kick my ass if she heard you say that.  I’d like to be though.”  I felt my ears turned red, but I made myself look at Jason’s face.  “I’d treat her right.”  Unlike…well…everyone else, I left that unsaid, but he understood.

       Jason lowered his voice, “Ashton grew up way too fast and I was too drunk and self-absorbed to protect her from herself or anyone else.  I’m not proud of that.”  He held out his hand, “I just want to say thanks for standing up for her.  Not many guys would.  Brian told me the story when he asked me to stop by and cast my vote.”

       Flabbergasted, I nodded dumbly as I shook his hand.

       He surveyed the scene around him as guys pulled on shirts and shoes and ran hands through their sleep-mussed hair.  There were a few others his time with the Sons, but most were teenagers.  “I never thought I’d be hanging out with the Sons again.”  He studied his reflection in the polished wood of the bar.  “You know, the Sons were just for fun.  My best friend had a brother in college up East who was going on about all the fraternities and secret societies, and we thought we’d create our own little cult where we’d be the gods.  It was mostly an excuse to party and a way to get girls.  The Sons aren’t something I bragged about on my law school application.”

       “Law school?”

       He grinned happily, glad to change the subject.  “No other choice if I’m thinkin’ about politics.  And I am.  I went away to college, but I came back here for law school.  I may do JAG when I get out.”

       “My Dad would approve.”  I’d heard the lecture about my future often enough to know Jace had chosen wisely in my father’s opinion.

       “Your Dad is Judge Pike, right?”

       Again, I felt my face turning red.  “Yeah.”  Did I forget to mention that?  Dad’s a federal judge, appointed during the Kennedy administration.

       “Your Dad is a legend,” Jason talked about my Dad like I talked about the Green Arrow or Roger Staubach.  “His rulings on desegregation helped bring this state out of the dark ages and that organized crime trial…”  I’d seen kids in line to see Santa Claus who didn’t look as wide-eyed as Jason.  “Man, I bet he has some great stories to tell.”

       “He does.”  I was sure he did at least.  I wasn’t privy to them.  Dad wasn’t much for storytelling.  I stretched my aching body and somehow managed not to throw up on Ashton’s brother.  “You goin’ to breakfast?”

       The excitement suddenly left his face.  He shook his head.  “No offense, Waxer, but you guys make me feel old.  I don’t belong anymore.  There’s no tellin’ how many crimes I could be charged with just for bein’ here and helpin’ get your little drunk ass into the tattoo parlor last night.  I sure as hell don’t want on your Dad’s bad side.  There is life after the Sons.  Remember that.”  Jason shook my hand again.  A sign the conversation was ending.  “I came out of retirement because Brian told me what you did for Ashton.  I don’t like what the Sons have turned into, and he thinks you can change things.”

       “Yeah?  Well Brian has some explainin’ to do,” I couldn’t keep a hint of bitterness out of my voice.

       Jason laughed, “I’m sure he’ll fill you in on the details once you sober up.  Man, I never knew there could be so much puke inside a person.”  He began to walk away then turned back.  “And, Waxer…” he continued when I raised my eyes, “for what it’s worth, not all the rumors about Ashton are true.”  It wasn’t hard to guess the particular rumor he had in mind.

       As we took over the late morning crowd at Hooper’s, I realized there were several notable absences in the crowd of Sons.  Not everyone had celebrated my initiation, particularly Clay, Sean, Barry, Darrin and Tommy, the Saints, and, of course, Stan Gaddis and his teammates.  I doubted I’d see an end to the cold war any time soon.

**********

       “Why me?”  I asked Brian as he drove me home that afternoon, my fingers twitching as I fought the urge to scratch my back. 

       “To piss off Clay,” he answered sharply.

       “Oh.”  That was humbling, but I knew I was good for it if for nothing else.  It was the same reason Ashton kept me around.  “Were the Saints there?”

       “You don’t remember?”

       “Nah.”

       “They weren’t there long.  It was pretty clear how the vote was gonna go down.  You, Chaz and a couple others were already singin’ We are the Champions.”

       “I knew what was goin’ on?”

       “Vaguely.  I already had you pretty happy since I knew what was gonna happen and I wanted to get that mark on you before Clay could stop it.”

       I stared out the car window as a light drizzle blurred the edges of the world outside and my breath fogged the glass.  My head throbbed in time to Led Zeppelin’s When the Levy Breaks.  My brain wanted to leap from my skull like a scalded cat.  The new tattoo hidden under my clothes itched and stung.  Wincing, I scratched my shoulder and wondered how long I could keep it a secret from Dad.  The closer I got to home the more some invisible fist tightened on my guts, causing me to clench my own fists as well.

       Brian cast me a wary glance from his red-rimmed and bloodshot eyes as the song changed to Black Dog.  “Tell me if you’re gonna throw up again.”

       I nodded tersely, a muscle in my jaw twitching and my white-knuckled fists in my lap.

       “Are you sick or mad?”  Brian wasn’t a fool.

       “Does it matter?” My voice was flat.

       “Mad doesn’t require shampooing the upholstery.”

       In spite of my determination to stay pissed off, a corner of my mouth twitched briefly.

       “So what’s eating you?”

       “I just got drugged, abducted and tattooed.  I’ve spent the morning heaving my guts up thanks to whatever you poisoned me with, and my head hurts so bad I’m thinkin’ of ramming it through the window here.”

       “Water, Tylenol and B-6 for the hangover.  Leave the tattoo alone.  No touching.  No scratching.  Go home and go to bed.  Don’t come out tonight.”

       “That’s all you’ve got to say to say to me?”

       He sighed.  “I knew you didn’t want the Inner Circle.  But it was the right thing to do.  You deserve it and you know it.  Hell, Cowboy deserves it too.  And Spooky.  And Mickey-D.  But I couldn’t let that happen.  And I couldn’t tell you the plan ‘cause I knew you’d fight it.” 

       “So, it’s for the best that everyone’s gonna think I support drug-dealing, girl-beating bullies.  I’ve got their damn mark on my back!  I’m not entirely happy with that, in case you’ve started caring about what I think.”

       “Then stop whining and change things.”

       “Fuck you!  That was supposed to be your job!”  I turned off the painfully loud music with a hard blow.  The windshield wipers squeaked in the silence.  The release of force, coupled with the guilt I felt for yelling at Brian and possibly breaking his car calmed me down.  “What do you want me to do?”

       “Challenge Barry.  Take over the Sons.”  He delivered the punchline in a somber deadpan.

       I snorted and ran my hands over my face.  Brian wasn’t laughing.  “You’re serious?”  As my palms scratched over my cheeks, the movement of each tiny fleck of stubble caused a bright flare of pain in my aching brain.  I wasn’t in the frame of mind to be discussing hostile takeovers.  “Talk about pissin’ people off,” I mumbled.

       Brian grinned, but this wasn’t his happy face.  “That’s why you’re the man for the job.”

       I made a noise of dismissal in the back of my throat.  Brian didn’t approve of my attitude, but at least he didn’t smack me in the head as usual.  “Sorry.  I’m sorry.”  If I closed my eyes I didn’t have to see the disappointment on Brian’s face.    

       “It’s up to you now.  I’m graduating,” Brian explained.  “And most of the younger guys shit themselves whenever Clay looks their way; in part because they’ve seen what he’s done to you.  The ones who think they could stand up to him never have actually done it.  The ones on his good side are no better than Barry.  That leaves you.  As part of the Inner Circle now, you can make a challenge.”

       “Do the Sons even want to be saved?  Why not let Barry have it?  What’s it to me?”

       “You’re too valuable, no one’s gonna let you walk away.  And if you’re a Son, you gotta pay the price.” 

       I opened my eyes and looked at him blankly.  “Are they bringin’ back the gladiator games?” 

       “That’s the least of your worries, man.  Do you know what they’ve got your brother doing?  Cowboy and Mickey-D too?”

       “I know what they’re not doin’; they’re not talkin’ to me.  I have no idea what they’ve been up to since they left me lyin’ on the side of the road,” I complained to myself.  I caught sight of my face in the side view mirror and with a pop, I sucked my lower lip back where it belonged.  I saw Brian’s smirk in my peripheral vision.

       “Ashton’s right.  You’re cute when you pout.”  He teased, pinching my still-bruised cheek as I cursed and smacked at his hand.  His smile disappeared and his sigh was as heavy as the dark clouds spilling down the cold rain.  “The other Saints are Tommy’s protection when he’s running drug deals and collecting money.”

       I started to protest, but I remembered the lines of cocaine and the quaaludes on the table.  “Shit.”  I leaned back in my seat, pressing my palms against my temples to stop the ache in my skull.  The windshield wipers squeaked back and forth across the front window.  “Why did Clay pick Barry anyways?”

       “We’ve talked about this before,” Brian gave a long-suffering grumble.

       “I never gave a damn before.”

       “And now you do?”

       “You kinda took away my choice.”

       "I gave you protection."  But Brian did have the grace to look guilty.  “Clay and Barry are friends.  Clay brought Barry into the Sons and Barry provides the party favors.  He was a bit more discreet before Clay announced he was taking over.”  Brian shrugged.  “I don’t know if it would have made a difference.  The Sons make money even if they’re just selling to the guys at the party, and money keeps the party going.  It’s a vicious cycle.”

       “So what chance do I have to keep Barry from becoming President?”

       “A small one.”  Brain was honest.  “But at least you wouldn’t be sellin’ out without a fight.  Even if you don’t win, you’d make it clear what you stand for.  There are other guys lookin’ for a leader.  The Sons need a conscience.  You don’t have to be president for that.  It’s what I try to do.  You just need a big mouth and a hard head.”

       “I’m overqualified.”  I leaned back in the seat again and closed my eyes, shaking my head.  “Look, there’s a good reason I’m not winning any popularity contests.  My last stupid decision cost me my brother, my best friends, an Atari, television and stereo, my place in the lunchroom, my ride to and from school, and a detention.  I also got my ass kicked and got on the bad side of Clay and the rest of Mount Olympus.”

       “You also got respect.  That’s the real reason you got voted into the Inner Circle, not anything I did.  If nothing else, the Inner Circle gives you a chance to avoid workin' for Barry.  If nothin' else, be grateful for that, but now you’ve got a chance to make a difference.  Or at least cause more trouble.”

       I yawned.  “I don’t need a tattoo to cause trouble.”

       “Think about it.”

       “Man, the only thing I’m thinking of is Tums, Tylenol and bed.”

       “Well then, dream about it,” he snapped then heaved a sigh when the quiet became awkward.  “I’ll give you a ride to school Monday, you’re not far out of my way.”

       I cracked open an eye.  “Seriously?”

       “I’d have done it sooner if you would have asked.  I think you like playing the martyr.”  Brian grinned, “Which is why you’re gonna make the challenge.”

       “Nope.  I’m too big to be a conscience,” I yawned and curled my arms around myself for comfort.  “You need a little guy, like Jiminy Cricket, man.”  By the time we ate a greasy lunch and I got out of Brian’s car the rain was coming down in earnest and we had a twenty-dollar wager going.

       I was halfway out the door when Brian seized my wrist.  “I’m sorry, Christian.  I should have asked.”

       I blinked at the use of my given name, and stood in the downpour trying to figure out what I was going to do long after I watched the red tail lights of Brian’s Charger disappeared down the street.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6:  A Temporary Ceasefire

 

       A week later I lay in bed on bright Sunday morning, a member of the Inner Circle, the master of my domain – an empty bedroom in an empty house.  If I felt different, it was due to the lingering discomfort from the tattoo and the vacant bed next to mine.  As if it wasn’t enough to move out of our room, Spooky spent most of his nights, even school nights, at the Masterson’s.  My promotion to the Inner Circle had only been the wrecking ball to demolish the already burning bridge spanning the distance between us. 

       Dad spent another weekend at the farm, but Sally said he’d be home for dinner.  It was his birthday and birthday meals were special affairs.  It was something my mother had always insisted upon:  flowers, dress clothes, table linens, the good china and crystal and freshly polished silver.

       After church, I sat in the kitchen with Sally, polishing the silver still wearing my church clothes and waiting on my breakfast while my stomach growled impatiently.

       “Will Michael be here for dinner tonight?”  I honestly didn’t know how I wanted her to answer. 

       Sally waved the spatula she was using to turn eggs in the skillet.  “He will be if he knows what’s good for him.”

       I cleared my throat and tried to keep my voice from shaking, more nervous about coming face to face with Spooky than I’d thought.  “What are we havin’?”

       “Beef Wellington, rosemary potatoes, and asparagus.  Your father made a special request.”  Sally was proud of her cooking.  My parents used to host frequent dinner parties featuring her culinary expertise, but anymore there was just Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthday dinners.  Sally Johnson was an artist without a canvas and she was happy to show off her talent, even if it was just for us.

       Dinner parties used to always include the Mastersons, Dad’s former law partner and his wife, and Dad’s longtime law clerk Courtland Douglas and his boyfriend.  Yeah, I said boyfriend.  The Judge’s political views were much more progressive than his parenting style.  Sometimes the crowd had been even larger.  Like little gentlemen, Spooky and I would greet guests at the door and take their coats and bags.  It wasn’t unheard of for us to plant spiders in pockets, switch out the contents of the ladies’ purses, move cars, or, on one memorable occasion, light firecrackers outside the dining room window.  Our pranks became as legendary as the parties themselves.  We still paid dearly for them once the party ended. 

       Despite the finery, birthday dinners were always relaxed affairs.  That changed after Mom died.  This night, it was only the three of us.  Dad was late.  Spooky had called from the Masterson’s and tried to escape altogether.  The echo of Sally’s outrage still rang in my ears and throughout the empty spaces of the house.  So, my brother ended up sulking across the table from me, giving me the occasional kick.  I kicked back.  Eventually Dad slammed a fist down on the table making the china rattle and we both sat up straight.  In the uncomfortable absence of conversation, I stared at the bowl of peonies in front of me, watching an ant crawl in and out among the petals.  Spooky reached out and squashed the small insect between his fingers, smirking at my surprised expression.  I kicked him again and we were back at it.  As Sally served us, we all complimented her repeatedly as it kept us from having to talk to each other.  Mom’s absence was most palpable in these situations.  Unless she was deep in one of her moods, she was in her element at a dinner party.  She could draw anyone, even her formidable husband and rebellious twin sons, into a lively conversation.  In her absence, birthday dinners were strained and somber.  I could hear the scrape of knives and forks on the china, a sound that I thought might even be worse than popping knuckles.

       I’d only had fleeting contact with Dad over the last two weeks, and I caught him staring at my face with the green eyes he’d passed on to me and Spooky.  There were creases around Dad’s eyes and silver in the steel gray hair at his temples.  “Christian, have you been in another fight?”

       “Yes, sir.”  What else could I say?  The bruises left by Spooky and company were reduced to ghostly shadows around my eyes, especially after Sally’s vinegar poultices which, according to Brian, made me smell like pickles.  But there had been more recent scuffles which left a bruise or two.

       “Was this one at school?”  The Judge wiped his mouth and set down his fork, preparing a lecture for me. 

       “No, sir,” There had been a quick tussle during gym class but the most recent clash had been after school hours.   

       Spooky glared balefully at his plate, waiting to be implicated.  The ungrateful asshole knew me better than that.  I’d have kicked him again if Dad wasn’t already looking at me in reproach.

       You’d have thought I got in fights every day by the weariness that came over Dad’s features.  Until recently, I’d only averaged a couple a month and most of those weren’t at school, so the Judge remained blissfully ignorant of the true extent of my delinquency.  “What’s your excuse for this one?”

       “A girl.”  Not quite a lie, was it?  I bit into my lower lip while I waited for the verdict.

       “I guess that’s to be expected at your age.”  Dad turned his attention back to his meal while Spooky and I exchanged sighs of relief and a moment of solidarity as our eyes met.

       None too soon, Sally brought out a towering coconut cake and lit the pink and blue tapers arranged to form the number 58.  There was a feeble chorus of Happy Birthday and Dad blew out the candles.  On our birthday, the cake was chocolate.  Spooky would blow out the candles first and get the first slice.  Six minutes later the candles would be relit and I would have my turn and the second cut.  Spooky refers to me as his little brother when he really wants to get under my skin.  I actually had a foot out into the world first, but the breach position was too complicated for a natural birth and Mom was rushed into an emergency surgery leading to Spooky becoming the first-born and the Judge’s namesake.  The baby blues complicated her recovery and more than once over the years I heard how she was never the same after bringing Spooky and I into the world. 

       As Sally cleared the dishes, Spooky and I both stood to leave the table.  “You boys have plans tonight?” Dad asked.

       “I’m meeting Logan and Michael Donovan.  We’re just hanging out at their house and playing pool.”

       Dad nodded absentmindedly.  If he noticed that Spooky referred to himself alone and not the two of us, he didn’t mention it.  “Remember tomorrow is a school day.  Don’t stay out too late.”

       “Yes, sir,” we both chorused.

       After a miserable second or two, Dad waved us on in dismissal.  Once we were upstairs, Spooky pushed me into my room, following close behind.  He scanned the hallway as if someone might be spying on us, then shut the door.  “Let me see it,” he demanded as he pulled the knot out of his tie and unbuttoned the collar of his shirt.  Thus, the silent treatment ended, but I couldn’t exactly call the tone of his opening line friendly.

       “Say please.”  If Spook’s tone could be described as less than pleasant, mine was downright hostile.

       “Screw you.”

       “There’s a law against incest, bro,” I smirked, but there was no smile in my eyes.

       “And you wonder why you keep getting the shit beat out of you, smartass,” Spooky snapped back.

       “No.  That mystery’s been solved.  I know about your deal.  Too bad Clay didn’t have the power to follow through with his part of the bargain.” 

       Spook ripped the loose tie from around his neck and began wrapping it around his fist.  “Man, we were gonna teach you a lesson, no matter what.  Clay and Barry didn’t know that, but you should have.  It was Mickey-D’s idea to make it a trade.”

       “I’ll be sure to congratulate him on the colossal failure.”  As much as I wanted to push into his personal space, daring him to take a swing at me, I took a step back, away from my brother.  It wouldn’t go well for either of us to start a fight with Dad downstairs.  “This is my room now, Spook.  You moved out, and I don’t recall inviting you in.”  I pulled off my own tie and draped it over the dresser, turning my back to my brother.

       Spooky didn’t leave.  He sat on my bed.  “They really brought you into the Inner Circle, huh?”

       “I got the pretty picture on my shoulder to prove it.”  I crossed my arms and leaned against the dresser trying to look like I was more than satisfied with the situation.

       Spooky never fell for my bullshit.  “You didn’t even want it.”  He glared at me accusingly, as if I had anything to do with the decision.

       “Maybe that’s why they gave it to me.”      

       He popped back up to his feet, “Get your head out of your ass, Waxer.  Brian gave it to you on a silver platter just to piss off Clay.  This isn’t about you or any of us, it’s a show down between Clay and Brian.”

       “I’m not stupid.”

       “I wouldn’t put that up to a vote if I were you.  Not even a rigged one,” he huffed, kicking back on the bed once more like he hadn’t just insulted me.

       “Which one of us is Inner Circle now, and which one of us is still havin’ to laugh at Barry’s bad jokes?  Riddle me that, Batman?  Looks like kissin’ the girl beat out kissin’ ass.” I forced a chuckle.  It sounded like I was gargling with gravel.

       “Screw you,” he repeated.  Though he had to know I had a comeback ready.  I always did.

       “You already have.”  Green eyes struck against green eyes waiting for the spark to blow the powder keg, but then I sighed.  I really wanted the silent treatment to end for good.  “Spook, you know I didn’t plan this.  I didn’t even know it was comin’ or I would’ve turned it down.  Why do you think Brian got me hammered before the vote?”  I sat down on my bed.  “You think Cowboy knows that?”

       “He knows it.”  Spooky stared up at the ceiling.  “Give him awhile to get over the disappointment.”  He turned his head towards me, a mirror image except for the brush of pale chartreuse around my eyes where the last of the old bruises were fading, and the newer purple mark on my cheek.  “And for God’s sake, Waxer, don’t go ‘round saying you didn’t want it.  I wanted it and so did Mickey-D.  Cowboy didn’t just want it, he thought he had it.  You’re rubbin’ salt in a fresh wound.  It’s not makin’ anyone feel better.”

       “I don’t want to make you feel better!  Any of you!  I ain’t sorry for shit!”  I shoved Spooky’s mattress with my foot, sending it off the box springs and rolling him to the floor.  “You picked the wrong side!  Cowboy didn’t lose the Inner Circle because of me!  I didn’t do anything to y’all!  I didn’t campaign against you!  I just did what was right.  If that means stickin’ up for myself or someone else, I’m gonna do it.  I don’t care who I piss off!”  Spooky’s panicked look at the door reminded me that Dad was home and I lowered my voice to a rough whisper.  “You used to be just like me.” 

       “Are you crazy!  Keep your voice down!  The Judge isn’t deaf!” Spooky hissed as he got to his feet and slid the mattress back in place.  We both listened, but there wasn’t the sound of footsteps or the bellow of our names, and we began to breathe normally again.  “Are you goin’ out?”  He sat back down on the bed as if we were simply having a brotherly chat.

       “I’m meeting Ashton.”  I said it like I was throwing down a gauntlet and waited to see if my brother would pick up the challenge.

       Spooky said nothing, but I could tell it was a struggle; his eyes spoke volumes while his mouth remained clamped shut.

       I rounded on him.  “What do you have against her anyways?  You don’t even know her.”

       He lost the struggle.  “You’re a fool if you think you’re the only guy she’s screwing!”

       “Get out of my room, Spooky.”  I gestured towards the door.

       “I know for a fact she was with Clay Friday night, and he’s not the only one.  You’d be surprised.”

       “I’m not bein’ played.  I’m not her boyfriend.  And I’m not explainin’ myself to you,” I hissed.  I knew I’d promised Sally I’d try to make peace, but it wouldn’t be the first promise I’d broken. 

       “She’s a bitch,” Spooky continued, knowing full well that I wouldn’t do anything with Dad in the house. 

       I grinned unexpectedly though my hands were still balled into fists.  “You think I don’t know that?  I don’t mind.  I’m fifteen, bro, she can boss me around if she wants to; she knows a helluva lot more’n I do.  And at least this boy ain’t gonna die a virgin.”  

       Spooky tossed a pillow at my face and flopped backwards onto the bed with a groan, “Does it have to be this girl, Waxer?”

       “For now.”  I pulled my sports coat off and hung it in the closet.  “I’m not askin’ for your permission.”   I continued to shed the dress clothes.

       Spooky sighed and settled onto his old bed once again.  “I don’t like her.”  I wasn’t the only twin who knew how to pout.

       “I don’t like Tommy.  Does that make us even?” 

       “Are you still holdin’ a grudge over that damn gladiator match?”  Spooky gave an exaggerated roll of his eyes.

       “Don’t talk to me about holdin’ grudges.  You still haven’t forgiven me for the big blue basketballs caper.”  I watched Spooky closely, my hip resting on the edge of my desk. 

       To my surprise, he didn’t disagree.

       “So what now?” I asked.

       “What do you mean?”

       “You kept your end of the deal.  You kicked my butt.  You kissed Clay’s ass.  You sold Barry’s drugs.”  I didn’t miss my brother’s reaction.  His eyes widened slightly, his breath hitched, his freckles stood out more noticeably as he went a bit pale.  “Yeah, I know about that too.”

       “We’re not dealin’ drugs, Waxer.”  Spooky began pulling on his fingers one by one to pop the knuckles.  It was one of his tells when he lied or felt guilty...and it drove me crazy.  

       “What are you doin’?”

       “We just watch Tommy’s back, every now and then.  Maybe a pick-up or delivery.  We’re not out standin’ on street corners.”  Spooky met my eyes briefly then let his glance skitter away.  Another tell.

       “You think there’s a difference?”        

       “It’s not like that,” Spooky argued, but his face was red.

       “How is it then?”  I didn’t let up on the x-ray vision.  He knew I was staring him down, detecting the half-truths and the lies and he avoided my gaze.  “What do you get out of it?”

       “The Inner Circle’s not a one-shot deal, Waxer.  There’s gonna be another vote.  Brian can’t keep us out forever.”

       “How long do you have to wait for that?  Not like they have those votes every week.  This is maybe the third since we’ve been Sons.  That’s been over a year.”

       “Barry said Clay can just make it happen.  He doesn’t even have to wait for a vote if he wants us in.”

       “That’s not how it goes,” I protested.  “That’s not fair.”

       “Fair?  You think how you got in was fair?” Spooky sneered.  “Anyway, what do you care?  You didn’t want it, remember?”

       “And you want it enough to become one of Barry’s pushers?  What the hell happened to you?”

       “Don’t think your shit don’t stink, Captain America!”  That was Spooky’s way of both avoiding the question and telling me I was being a self-righteous prick.  On the attack now, he glared at me freely.  “I don’t notice you drinkin’ water on the weekends.  Clay’s gonna pull the plug on your free ride soon, Waxer.  We’ll see if you just walk away.”

       I focused on my search through the closet so he couldn’t see the worry in my expression.  It had been several months since the gladiator games, since I’d had to earn my keep.  I was due another job.  If Clay wanted to teach me a lesson…  I tugged my jeans over my ass and pulled the heavy turtleneck sweater over my head and my t-shirt.

       “Are you kiddin’ me?” Spooky complained, sitting up on the bed.  “You’re not gonna let me see it?  Not even to rub it in my face?  If they’d tattooed Cowboy he’d be goin’ shirtless every chance he got.”

       My lips uncurled into a wicked Grinch-y smile and I swear I saw the flash of a light bulb hovering above my devious brain.  “I get the hi-fi.”

       “What?”

       “You can keep the t.v. and the Atari, I get the stereo and the music.  Say yes and I’ll let you see the pretty picture.”  I crossed my arms over my chest, still leaning against the desk.  “Deal?”

       Spooky took a deep breath, tasting defeat in the air.  “Deal,” he said at last.

       Static electricity pricked my ears as I tugged the thick sweater back over my head, tossing it in my brother’s face.  He gave a wolf whistle and began to hum a strip tease.  “Forget it.” 

       “You’re shittin’ me?  Mister I’m-Not-A-Virgin is playin’ shy?”  He taunted with a leer on his face and mischief in his eyes. 

       “Screw you!”  This time I was the one who fell for it.

       “No thanks, I like’em a little more experienced, baby boy.”  He pounced.  I was prepared for a fight, but Spooky skritched his fingers into my ribs and I was immediately cursing, yelping, and flailing my arms in an uncoordinated and ineffective effort to dislodge him from my chest where he sat smug and superior, ignoring my desperate pleas for mercy.  It wasn’t hard for him to catch my arms and trap them under his knees before renewing his enthusiastic torture.  Tickling was evil and unfair and…  One of Spooky’s hands clamped firmly over my mouth to shut me up as his other hand dug into my armpit, fingers moving tirelessly.  Tears spilled out of my eyes.  My brother’s face lit up with victory at the sight. 

       Spooky bent forward.  I could smell Sally’s coconut cake on his breath and see the smirk on his lips before he drew so close my vision of him blurred.  I felt his tongue on my face, licking large wet stripes across my cheeks.  I grimaced and fought even harder.  I felt the rumble of an amused chuckle as my brother’s chest pressed against mine.  “Maybe we should renegotiate?”  He swirled his tongue over my face, intentionally leaving me sloppy with his spit as I squirmed.  “I let you go, you show me that tat you don’t deserve, a-nnnd…” he drew out the word in a sing-song voice, “…I keep the hi-fi.”  I tried my best to curse behind his hand.  Damn him!  I could at least be grateful we didn’t have an audience.  Humiliating me in front of Cowboy and Mickey-D was Spook’s favorite form of vengeance.  “Do we have a deal?”  He let the fingertips of his right hand walk down my ribcage.  “Or do I need to tell the Sons how easy it is to shut you up?  Maybe give them a live demonstration next time you get yourself in hot water?”  He laughed as I whined behind his hand.  “God, you should see how scared you look, bro.  I think I’m onto somethin’ here.”

       The threat sent me over the edge.  I took a page from Ashton’s playbook:  the hand covering my mouth had relaxed as Spooky taunted me and I bit down hard.  It was his turn to curse, but the bite hadn’t drawn blood so there was still laughter bubbling behind the threats as he let me free my hands.  “’S not funny, Spook!”  I scrubbed at my face where his licks had already dried onto my skin.  “That’s disgusting, man!”

       “It’s fuckin’ hilarious, Waxer.  Admit it.”  We were a tangle of arms and legs again, each trying to best the other.  “Can’t beat you into submission, but unleash the tickle monster and you’re fuckin’ helpless.”  To prove his point, Spooky did it again.  Once I was breathless and reduced to a quivering puddle of human goo, Spooky flipped me onto my stomach.  He finally succeeded in baring my shoulder, my head and arms captured in the t-shirt. 

       “Holy shit,” he murmured.  “That is so cool.”  He rubbed a hand over the design.  “Did it hurt?”

       I easily pulled the t-shirt the rest of the way off and uncovered my face.  “I was passed out for the whole thing.  It didn’t exactly feel great the next day, but it wasn’t painful.  Least not compared to the bad ass mother-fucker of all hangovers.”

       I let him gawk at the tattoo and ask questions.  When I pulled my shirt and sweater back on, Spooky’s green eyes were flashing with brotherly envy.  “Jason Mayfair was there.  Did you meet him?”

       “Yeah.  He’s not what I expected.  He’s a law student who looked pretty embarrassed to be hangin’ out with a bunch of kids.”

       Spooky lay back on his old bed again in no apparent hurry to leave.  “I guess gettin’ his support is an added perk of screwing Ashton.”  Jealousy made him snarky.

       “It didn’t help Clay, did it?”  I debated kicking him onto the floor again.

       Spooky grunted, unable to come up with a better reply.

       “Do I still need to watch my back?” I growled, warning him to change the subject.

       “From Cowboy?”

       “Cowboy?  Clay?  You?  Barry?”

       Spooky thought, his hand rubbing at his hair that was just getting long enough to kick out a bit in back…mine was likely doing the same thing.  We needed haircuts.  “Cowboy’s mad at everybody right now, not just you.  He’s itchin’ for a fight.  If he’d made Inner Circle…”

       “But he didn’t.”

       “And you did.”  Spooky sighed.  “He’s also the oldest of us, you know,” he quickly defended the guy who controlled his ride to school, his first friend apart from me.  “You know how he is?  He expected to make the Inner Circle first because of that if nothin’ else.  He also expected to be the first of us to get laid.  You beat him there also.  Give him awhile.  I guess you figured out you’re not invited on spring break, but gettin’ away may cool him off.  Sally and Mrs. Masterson are layin’ the guilt trip on thick, but he’s diggin’ in his heels.” 

       I missed Mrs. M almost as much as her sons.  Spooky and I practically lived there during the summers and when Mom had been sick or just sick of us.  I was disappointed about spring break.  Spooky and I had travelled to Florida with the Mastersons for the holiday week since we were seven.  But Spook was right, maybe the separation would do us good. 

       “Mickey-D will hold out as long as Cowboy does,” Spooky continued.  “I think Clay and Barry have Brian in their sights before they get to you…but they will.  You’ve stepped on their toes a few too many times lately…and Tommy and Stan hate you.  Sean might stick up for you, but he can only do so much.”  He watched me closely as I stuffed my feet into a worn pair of black Chucks and tied the laces, before finally deciding to go ahead and say it, “You do bring a lot of this on yourself, bro.  You ain’t always as right as you think you are, and even when you are, you take it too far.”

       I accepted the criticism this time.  “How did we end up on different sides of this?”

       He shrugged.  “I didn’t know we were until it was too late.  You haven’t been around a lot.”  In response to my raised eyebrow he nodded in concession though he rolled his eyes.  “I know, don’t start yellin’ again.  It was me too.  I just wanted some space between us after the basketball prank and the gladiator games.  You were hangin’ out with Brian.  And I didn’t want to know what you were doin’ with Clay’s girlfriend or how often.  Goes back to you askin’ for trouble, Waxer.  Trouble I don’t want any part of, man.  I’m tired of gettin’ my ass whipped because of you.  Tired of no one takin’ me seriously.”

       “Is Tommy part of your revenge too?”

       Spooky huffed and made a sourpuss face, the face he usually wore when he was getting ready to pull the big brother card.  “You were cool with Tommy up to the gladiator games.  He was followin’ orders, same as you.  You dislocated his shoulder!”

       “He pulled a knife on me!”

       “And we both know you weren’t scared, little brother.  You were showin’ off.  Me and Cowboy and Mickey-D would’ve kicked your ass that night if Clay and those guys hadn’t already done it.  I think we told you as much.”  They had.  I heard Spooky chuckle and I glanced up from my shoes to his mocking green eyes.  “You know I’m right.  You got your stubborn brat pout going on.”  He mimicked me:  lower lip protruding, arms crossed tightly over my chest, eyebrows wrinkled as he scowled at his feet, scuffing the toe of a shoe against the floor. 

       “Shut up.”  He laughed in response.  “So?” I demanded.  “You plan on walkin’ out of here and ignorin’ me again?”

       “I’ve only had the urge to strangle you twice in the last half hour, and I didn’t do it.”  He tossed another pillow at me.  “You’re apparently extending me the same favor.  I guess we’re cool?”

       “You movin’ back in?” I asked quietly, my eyes focused back on the toes of my tennis shoes.

       He gave a long-suffering sigh, still playing the big brother.  “Aren’t you ready for your own space, man?”

       I waited, but he said nothing more.  Realizing I was holding my breath I inhaled sharply, turning on my heel to shut the closet door.  “Tired of you keeping me up all night while you jack off, anyway.  You’re a moaner.”  I picked up the pillows he’d thrown and tossed them back at him maybe a little harder than necessary.

       He was on his feet in a heartbeat and grabbed my arm.  “Hey!  You can keep the hi-fi.  Peace?”   

       It was the slight catch in his voice that did it.  The urge to beat him to a pulp passed for the moment.  “Yeah, I guess.”  We stood across from each other at a loss for words, drowning in the silence of things left unsaid.  “Um…  Are you comin’ home tonight?  I was gonna run in the mornin’ if you want to join me.”

       “Man, Waxer, we got another couple months before summer practice starts.  Give it a rest, bro.”  I guess that was a no.  He stood and walked to the door before turning around for a final dig: “I’ll let you get to your date, baby boy.  I’d say don’t do anything I wouldn’t, but you’ve already done her.”

       “Asshole,” I hissed, slamming the door behind him.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7:  An Unexpected Double Date With My Old Buddy Ed

 

       I’d expected relief to wash over me once Spooky lifted the silent treatment, but I only felt a trickle of hope.  It wasn’t enough.  We were talking.  At home.  In private.  I wasn’t dumb enough to think that meant things were back to normal.          

       “Don’t you need to start walkin’ to school?” Spooky sniped as he looked at the clock.  Yep.  My suspicions were confirmed: we weren’t fighting, but we still weren’t friends.  “I may have cracked under your damn puppy dog eyes last night, but that don’t mean Cowboy’s forgiven you.”  Because he’d spent the last week at the Masterson’s or otherwise ignoring my existence, Spooky didn’t know I was no longer relying on James or my own two feet for the journey.  If they thought I was ready to kiss ass to get back my ride to school, they were mistaken.  Besides, Brian’s Charger could eat Cowboy’s Mustang for breakfast without ever working up a sweat. 

       “I got my own ride.”  I spoke around a mouthful of bacon as a beastly rumble and the blast of a horn filled the kitchen.  Perfect timing.  I snatched my books and another slice of bacon as I called goodbye to Sally and headed out the door.  I caught Spooky spying out the front window so I wiggled my fingers like a flock of birds and blew him a kiss as I jumped in the monstrous black car with bumblebee stripes.

       “Things any better there?”  Brian asked as he caught Spook’s single-digit response.

       “We talked last night.  Mostly ‘cause he was dyin’ to see the Inner Circle mark on my shoulder.”

       “Sorry, man.  I didn’t intend to make things worse between you and Spooky.”

       “Wasn’t you.  The damage was already done.  Besides, we are actually talking now.  That’s an improvement.”  I twisted the dial on the stereo and upped the volume of the radio, halting conversation.  Brian took the hint.

       Tommy’s ass still occupied my spot with the Saints at their usual lunch table and Spooky didn’t even look my way.  Regardless of what my brother said, I still didn’t like the older Son and I wasn’t eager to bury the hatchet unless there was bloodshed involved.  Judging by the glare Tommy gave me over the top of Spooky’s head, I was pretty sure he felt the same way.

**********

       Wednesday I was summoned to the principal’s office.  In my experience, that had never meant good news.

       “What did you do this time?” Spooky hissed as I gathered my books to go.

       “What do you care?  Your ass ain’t in the line of fire.”

       “Just…” He reached for my arm.

       I shrugged him off.  “You guys are safe.  Everyone knows you’re pissed at me, and even if you weren’t, I’ve never ratted you out and I’m not startin’ now.”  I shouldered my bag and stood to leave. “Besides, I’m really innocent this time.”  He rolled his eyes in disbelief.  “I haven’t done anything,” I insisted in a whisper.

       Spooky looked skeptical and I heard a soft snort of disbelief from Mickey-D.  Kinda like old times.  “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”  Cowboy was passing a note to Tommy and deliberately not watching me, unlike everyone else in the class.  That ice wasn’t thawing anytime soon.

       The squeak of my black converse sneakers on the brightly polished tile of the empty hallway echoed down the hall past closed classroom doors.  As I walked, I wracked my brain to remember what I had done.  It wouldn’t be the first time a forgotten prank had belatedly caught up to me.  I came up with zilch.  It was possible that someone else had done something and I was merely being hauled in for questioning as one of the usual suspects.  But, honestly, aside from the occasional lick in gym class I hadn’t been paddled in four months which was undoubtedly a record for me.  Though that four months included Christmas break and a record number of snow days from the crazy winter, so maybe it wasn’t as huge of an accomplishment as I thought. 

       Already seated on the narrow wooden bench outside Father Benedict’s office was Brian.  His eyes widened and he swore under his breath when he saw me.  “Damn.  There’s no way this ends good.”

       “What’s goin’ on?” I flopped down onto the uncomfortable bench next to him.

       “Don’t know yet.  My parents are in the office with Father Benedict and Coach Campbell.  I think your Dad is with them.”

       That couldn’t be right.  I looked at Brian and scoffed incredulously.  “The Judge never comes to school.  He just sends his law clerk to get the details.” 

       Brian shook his head.  “Not this time.”

       There was a sudden buzzing in my head.  “Shit.”  I tried to think what kind of offense would warrant such a response.   Dad hadn’t come to school himself for any of my previous escapades.  Not the fights.  Not the cursing.  Not my creative use of limburger cheese.  Not even when I gave the basketball team blue balls using supplies I stole from the photo lab.  “Can you hear what they’re sayin’?”

       Brian shook his head as clueless as I was.  “I’ve heard the basic sounds of parental outrage, but I can’t make out any details.”  His head tilted to the side, his attention on me as he placed a hand on my knee to calm the jitters that were rocking the entire bench.  “You pulled any shit I should know about?”

       “What?  No!” I protested.

       He nodded, chewing on his lower lip now as he thought.  “For once, that’s not the answer I was hoping for, kiddo.” 

       It didn’t take much to figure out the direction of his thoughts.  “You think we were set up?”  I stopped my fidgeting and sat up straight.  “How?”

       Brian stretched his legs out in front of him and crossed his arms over his chest as if he wasn’t bothered, but his brows were knit together in a single dark line that slashed across his face.  I’d been around him enough to know he was angry.  He was worried too, I realized when I noticed him biting at the inside of his cheek.  “I don’t know,” he admitted.  “But get ready to assume the position and take it up the ass.  I gotta bad feeling the other side’s already won this round if Father Benny didn’t wait to question us before he called our parents.”

       It wasn’t much more than a minute before Coach Campbell opened the door and asked us to step in.  Coach’s expression, which could be read clear across the field during a game, was inscrutable.  The school secretary sat between the hallway and Father Benny’s office.  Usually she had a smile for me, even when I was in deep trouble.  Today, she was grim-faced, arching her thin-plucked eyebrows as she glared at me down her too-long nose through over-large glasses that gave her the appearance of a praying mantis.  Once we passed her desk and entered the principal’s office, any lingering doubt we may have had about our fate was quickly dispelled.

       Brian’s parents sat in the two chairs directly in front of Father Benny’s large but plain wooden desk.  His mom was actually crying, a soft gasp of a sob escaping her as we walked through the door.  Brian’s father, an older and thicker version of Brian himself, kept one hand wrapped around hers, the other was knotted into a fist that rested on his thigh.  His dark eyes looked nearly black as he scrutinized Brian and then me.  After an eternal few seconds there was a new crease in his brow.  His jaw moved as he bit the inside of his cheek, just like Brian.  Without looking, I’d already honed in on my father’s presence standing in the far corner of the room next to Father Monarch, the vice-principal.  My fingers began to tingle and there was a ringing in my ears and cotton in my head; the way I felt after a hard tackle on the football field.  I looked at Father Benny instead.  The principal was a tall man, but he’d grown smaller as I grew up, his shoulders rounded with the weight of years.  A ring of silver hair surrounded the large liver-spotted bald spot on top of his head, where his silver-rimmed spectacles were currently perched.  He studied Brian and me with his naked eyes which were steely gray and sharp.  His elbows rested on his desk and his long fingers with knobby knuckles were steepled under his lips.  He sat behind his desk, and rather than his usual bemused smile, Father Benedict’s mouth was turned down at the corners as if he smelled something unpleasant.  All I could smell was my Dad’s bay rum scent clogging my nose and working its way into my throat. 

       I chanced a glance at Brian and saw that his jaw was clenched and his focus was riveted on The Board of Education, a long paddle hewn from sturdy oak maybe three-quarters of an inch thick, and drilled with holes to increase the unpleasantness of a swat.  Though he no longer wielded it himself, the paddle already lay on the priest’s desk, a sure sign of our fate.  Old Ed and I were intimately acquainted.  For each of the last four years, stretching back to my grade school days, I held the dubious distinction of Holy Joe’s Most Paddled Student.  Even with the four-month hiatus, I was well on my way to receiving the honor of infamy again this year.

       Besides the priest’s, there were four chairs in Father Benedict’s small office, Mr. and Mrs. Collins sat in two.  Dad stood on the far side of the office, ramrod straight in his three-piece suit and his smartly polished shoes.  Father Monarch, and Coach Campbell stood beside him.  Dad glanced at his watch, the motion in my peripheral vision, drawing my eyes to him instinctively.  Waves of irritation seemed to shimmer in the air around him like heat rising off the hood of a car on a summer’s day.  When his eyes met mine, I could feel my own temperature and temper begin to rise.  Two empty chairs were to the left of the principal’s desk, on the same wall as the door.  Everyone in the room positioned themselves to face those two chairs where Brian and I were instructed to sit.  No pressure.

       “Boys, let’s get directly to the point,” Father Benedict began, breaking the suffocating silence.  “Based upon some rumors he’s been hearing, Father Monarch searched your lockers this morning.”  He paused to gage our reactions.

       They’d searched our lockers?  Crap.  I knew I was in trouble.  Though I sucked at poker, I tried to keep my face neutral.  And failed, if the huff from The Judge and the narrowed eyes of my audience were any indication.  From years of being questioned alongside Spooky and the Saints, at least I knew enough not to look at Brian and taint him with my guilty expression.  Unfortunately, it didn’t matter.

       “Inside Brian’s locker there was a paper bag with money and multiple plastic bags containing marijuana and several pills.”  I felt Brian’s body jerk beside me as a breath of air shot out of his mouth in protest.  I may have made a noise myself, because Father Benny’s eyes left Brian’s face to consult my reaction.  There was no way that shit belonged to Brian.  Brian wasn’t above an occasional joint or even an upper during finals, and he had no problem with alcohol, but he never carried anything on him, and he had more than enough status and seniority with the Sons to avoid being a mule or a pusher.  With his gaze still fixed on me, the principal continued.  “Christian, marijuana, rolling papers, alcohol and other contraband were located in yours.”  He sat the box of rubbers Brian had given me, several comic books, a pint-sized flask and a switchblade knife on his desk beside the drugs taken from our lockers.  Brian’s mother blushed and quickly looked away from the box of Trojans.  I blushed even more, I could feel my skin going clammy from the heat. 

       Coach growled and took a step forward. “Well, what do you have to say for yourselves?”  There was no interrogation, just a soul-sucking vacuum as both Brian and I realized we were being asked for an apology, not an explanation.  Our guilt was already assumed.  Brian was frozen, but for his jaw as he gnawed at the inside of his mouth, his hands rubbing back and forth over his thighs in controlled agitation. 

       The attention shifted to me when Dad spoke, his voice not asking, but demanding an answer: “Christian, don’t be disrespectful.  You were asked a question.”  He glanced at his watch again as if we didn’t all know he was an important man with other places to be. 

       I took a deep breath and tested the water, not with my Dad, I knew that was a lost cause, but with Father Benny.  Before he was the principal at the High School, he had been principal of the grade school so he knew my extensive history of crimes against the order and decorum of the educational system.  And he’d punished me for them.  As a priest, he’d heard hundreds of my confessions, so he knew my sins.  That said, I hoped he knew me well enough that I could plant a seed of doubt in his mind, even in the face of the evidence against us.  “I’m not innocent.  Everything you found in my locker I put there.  Except the marijuana and rolling papers.  Those aren’t mine.  They weren’t there this morning, and I don’t know how they got there.  I can promise you the same is true for Brian.  About the stuff in his locker.  Not the stuff in mine.”  My brilliant argument hit a hitch and I stuttered.  “I mean, he didn’t know about the drugs in mine either.  Or the…the other stuff.  That’s all on me.  Not him.  Brian had nothing to do with that.”  I finished more red-faced than when I started, trying not to notice how red-faced The Judge had become during my statement. 

       “Is this true, Brian?” the priest asked, his poker-face much better than mine.

       He nodded and met Father Benny’s gaze directly, “Yes, Father.”

       “Did you sell marijuana to Christian?”

       “No!”  Brian and I both spoke up at once, Brian nearly coming to his feet in outrage.

       “Do either of you have an explanation of how the drugs got in your lockers?  Or why?”

       “No, sir,” I lied and Brian shook his head in agreement with me as a muscle in his jaw began to visibly throb.  We did, of course we did, but talk about making an already bad situation worse…  Neither of us could think of a good excuse that didn’t involve The Sons.

       “If you maintain your innocence, you can request a hearing before the Honor Council.”  As he made the offer, Father Benedict’s stare speared me like a bug in a specimen box.  The Honor Council was composed of three students and three teachers with Father Monarch serving as the moderator and tie-breaking vote.  They were a combination of judge and jury, with the power to decide guilt or innocence and impose consequences.  It might have been worth a shot, except for one little catch…Stan Gaddis was on the Honor Council.  And, if that wasn’t bad enough, two of the three teachers had me in class the previous semester.  Neither had found me amusing, and one had given me my only B because she deducted points for conduct.   

       Brian was weighing his options as well.  “If the Honor Council found us guilty, what could happen?” he asked.

       “Because the allegations involve drugs on campus, they could recommend suspension.”  Brian paled, his olive complexion taking on a sickly cast and that jaw muscle twitching again.  “More likely, since this is your first serious offense, the Council would make a lesser recommendation:  community service, swats, or Penance Hall.  Christian is a sophomore with a much longer disciplinary record so his consequences would be more severe.”

       There was only one possible punishment that could be described as more serious than swats or suspension.  I looked at Coach Campbell in a panic.

       “The Honor Council typically suspends an athlete from a number of games.  You’d likely sit out part of the football season, Christian.”  I hoped to be starting quarterback for the varsity squad in the fall.  Sit out?  With Stan on the Honor Council, I’d be lucky if it was just a few games.  Coach was thinking the same thing.  His face was once again easy to read, he wanted to make sure I got the message.

       I got it.  I was probably as sickly looking as Brian.  But on the inside, I was pissed.

       “And if we don’t challenge the accusation?”  Brian tried hard to keep his tone respectful. 

       The principal frowned and peered at us owlishly.  “This school will tolerate no drugs on campus.  You did not just have drugs on campus, but you appear to have been buying or selling drugs to your classmates.  You’d receive a dozen swats each.  You would spend the rest of the week in Penance Hall with no extracurricular activities.  For the additional contraband, Christian would clean the pews in the chapel during afterschool detention until he finished the task.”

       “No game suspensions?” I asked.

       “Not this time, but if it happens again…”

       “Christian, stop wasting everyone’s time and accept the offer.  It’s better than you deserve.” Dad ordered impatiently.  I didn’t need his advice; I didn’t trust the Honor Council.

       “Son, what’s your choice?”  Mr. Collins asked Brian.

       Brian reluctantly met his father’s worried eyes and nodded slowly.  “I’ll take it.  But Christian shouldn’t get worse than me.  I’ll take whatever you give him.”  I looked at him in surprise.

       “That’s noble, Brian,” the principal acknowledged.  “Christian is younger than you, but he’s made far more trips to this office than you have.  The offer stands.  Christian may take his chances with the Honor Council if he wants to plead for a lesser sentence.”

       “No, sir,” I said.  “It’s okay,” I told Brian, laying my hand on the taut muscles of his forearm.

       Father Benedict nodded, satisfied that the matter was quickly and neatly resolved.  “Very well.  Coach Campbell, if you would do the honors with Mr. Collins first.”  The priest handed the paddle to the burly football coach. 

       Brian scowled as he stood and removed his school blazer before bending over and bracing himself against the principal’s desk.  If Coach had any misgivings about our guilt, he didn’t show it by easing up on the administration of justice.   The cracks of the paddle drove Brian’s hips forward, scooting the heavy desk with each swat.  The whack of wood against khaki-clad ass cheeks was loud enough to be heard in the hall which was now full of students moving to their next class.  Coach kept an even rhythm.  Between each stroke I could hear Brian’s ragged breath and as each blow fell he gave a grunt of pain.  All in all, he didn’t do half-bad for a first-timer. 

       I turned my back to Brian to remove my blazer so he wouldn’t know I’d seen him swiping tears from his eyes as he signed his name to Old Ed.  Signing the paddle was part humiliation, part badge of honor for those sentenced to a dozen of the best.  Most offenses would get you only three licks, and that was bad enough.  Twelve swats were the most given at any one time.  Twelve swats would leave your backside horribly bruised and make sitting at your desk miserable for at least two days.  I knew this from experience; I’d earned a full dozen more than a few times in my educational career, most recently for the Big Blue Balls Caper.  I didn’t think any less of Brian for a few tears.

       Brian sat back in his seat with the grace of a hemorrhoidal octogenarian.  I couldn’t help the smirk twitching at the corners of my mouth even though I knew I soon was going to be feeling just as tender.  Father Benedict had moved away from his desk, but he caught the sparkle in my eye and, with the clearing of his throat and a tilt of his head, snuffed out the light.  After I received my twelve love taps from Ed, I drew in a shaky breath and made the tenth hash mark under the signature I’d scrawled the first time I earned the maximum penalty.  I’d been in fifth grade.  Returning to my seat, I eased into it gingerly.  My eyes were dry.

       Brian and I slowly rose to our feet as our parents left the office.  Dad stopped at the principal’s desk.  He opened the knife and tested the blade against his thumb.  The flask was engraved with his initials.  He unscrewed the lid and sniffed the contents.  Keeping it in one hand, he dumped the smaller packages of drugs out of the larger bag, smelling the marijuana and mentally cataloging the pills.  “May I?” he raised the flask to the priest.  “My brother gave it to me.  I never expected my son to steal it.”  The tingles returned to my fingers and my skin suddenly seemed too tight.

       “Of course,” the older man answered.

       Slipping the battered flask into his pocket, Dad thanked the priest then took the two steps to stop in front of me.  I glared at my shoes, choosing deference over defiance.  “Meet me in my study tonight at six-thirty sharp.”

       “Yes, sir.”  The summons wasn’t a surprise.

       News of what happened made it out of the office before we did.  No matter how superior we believed we were to our skirt-wearing counterparts at St. Kate’s, gossip didn’t need girls to travel fast.  There were plenty of stares and whispers as Coach Campbell took us each by an upper arm, frog-marched us to the detention classroom and ushered us inside.  “Coach…” Brian looked the older man in the eye.

       “Not a word, Collins!”  We both recoiled instinctively at the bite in Coach’s bark.  “You’re the senior!  You’re supposed to set an example!  Waxer I expect this crap from.”  He took a fistful of my blazer and gave me a shake.  “Boy, if you didn’t have a dead momma and more talent than you should, I’d’ve been done with you after that stunt with the basketball team.  Your brother’s no slouch at quarterback either, son.  You’d do well to remember that.”

       “Yes, sir.”  My heart was racing and there was an iron band around my chest that kept me from filling my lungs with air.

       “Coach, this was my fault not Waxer’s,” Brian’s voice was calm.  He held one hand with his palm out towards our Coach, the other hand went to the back of my neck with a reassuring squeeze.

       With a shove into the doorframe, Coach released me, his hand wiping down his face as he stepped back and regarded Brian with reproach.  “And it will be your fault if you lose those scholarships you’ve been offered.”  He pointed a beefy finger in my face.  “One more, Waxer.  One more fight.  One more prank.  One more teacher complaining about your smart mouth, and you’re through.  Your brother’ll be my new star.  Understood?”

       “Yes, sir.”

       His hand fell back to his side and he exhaled a heavy sigh.  “Romans.  Now get your hind ends in that classroom before I roast you again.”

       Brian used the hand on my neck to tug me closer once Coach rounded the corner.  He pressed his forehead to mine and spoke softly, but his voice was quivering with barely contained fury.  “He’s all talk, Waxer.  You know that.  He’d never kick you off the team.”

       It was easier to breathe with Coach gone, the ghost of Brian’s cinnamon scented breath tickling my face and the steadying pressure of his warm hand on my neck.  I wanted to linger in the comfort of that moment, but I pushed him away just the same.  “I know.  It ain’t the first time I’ve heard that lecture.”

       We were the only inhabitants of Penance Hall that day.  Aside from the fancy name, Penance Hall was just a vacant classroom located near the teacher’s lounge.  I walked to the bookshelf and snatched up two bibles, bringing them back and dropping them with a clunk onto the desks where we’d dumped our books.  We were to copy St. Paul’s letter to the Romans before we would be released or allowed to do other schoolwork.  We’d be checked on periodically.  The supervision was minimal, but it was enough; not even I was foolish enough to want to learn the consequences of violating Penance Hall.

       We both stood as we thumbed to the correct pages in the Bibles and unpacked paper and pens.  My butt was still throbbing.  I wasn’t going to sit until I had to and I assume Brian felt the same.  To my horror, the happy camper gave an occasional twitch, understandably confused by the pulsing heat and increased flow of blood nearby, causing me to shift my weight from foot to foot like I was a four-year-old doing the potty dance. 

       “How much trouble are you gonna be in with your Dad?” Brian asked in hushed tones, his pen continuing to scratch across the paper as he copied the assigned text.  He’d taken advantage of a podium in the front of the room so he didn’t have to sit.  The clock showed he’d been sweating over that question for more than an hour. 

       “It won’t be nothin’ I can’t handle,” I said easily, bestowing Brian with my trademark megawatt smirk of devilish sunshine.

       “Bullshit.”  He was already too much of a friend to let me get away with the lie.  “Has he seen your mark yet?”

       “No,” I squeaked, then quickly cleared my throat and repeated in a stronger voice, “No.”

       Brian’s eyes were so sloppy with sympathy, I swear I could hear globs of it splash to the floor and puddle at his feet like melted ice cream.  I could feel heat creeping up my neck and burning my ears.  “My Dad saw mine the day after I got it.  I’d just showered and I was hunkered over the toilet still puking from the night before with only a towel around my waist when he forced open the door to check on me.”

       “What did he do?”

       “He waited until I sobered up then took me to the doctor for a tetanus shot and a lecture on bacteria and infectious diseases.  When he brought me home he made me tell my Mom.  She totally flew off the handle.”  He grimaced at the memory of it.  “I was grounded for a month and they worked my ass off around the house:  babysitting my little sisters and my niece and nephew, dishes, laundry, mowing grass, weeding flower beds, washing cars, gardening.  No allowance and I had to pay Dad back for the trip to the doctor.”

       “So they know about the Sons?”  I spent quite a bit of time at Brian’s house and I’d never heard his parents mention the Sons.

       “Hell, no!” he hissed at me as if they could overhear us.  “I told Dad it was some kind of rite of passage for athletes at Holy Joe that I took on a dare.  If they knew about the Sons I’d be grounded for life.”

       “I hate being grounded,” I complained.  “And Dad hates havin’ to stick around to make sure I stick around.” 

       Brian had shared a locker room with me and Spooky since we’d joined the football team when we were in sixth grade and he was in eighth.  It was no secret that grounding was the least of my worries.  It also not a topic of discussion.  His eyes oozed another outpouring of pity.  “You know you can call me if…” his complexion darkened as he blushed.

       “Sure thing,” I brushed aside his offer before the words left his mouth.  “But I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look your Mom in the eye again.  Maybe I should tell her the rubbers are yours?” I attempted a grin and narrowly dodged the blackboard eraser Brian winged in my direction.  “What’s gonna be the fall out from today’s fiasco for you?”

       Brian’s frown became darker and his already dark eyes looked nearly black as he reluctantly allowed me to change the subject.  “Even if Dad believes someone set me up, and I don’t know if he will, I’m sure I’ll be grounded for a week or two at least.  Longer if he really thinks the drugs are mine.”

       “Really grounded, or technically grounded?”  I arched my eyebrows.

       He rolled his eyes, “Really grounded.  They’ll check my room during the night and they’ll take the car keys as soon as I come home from school.  I can kiss spring break in Florida goodbye.” 

       “Sorry, man.”

       “You’re sorry?”  Brian shook his head.  “I got you into this, Waxer.  I brought Mount Olympus down on you.  I’m the one who’s sorry.  I never thought they’d do something like this.”

       I held out my hand to stop him before he got all mushy on me.  “You didn’t make me punch Barry or fight Clay.  You just got me the souvenir tattoo.”

       “Do you regret it?”

       “At the moment…” I gave rueful smirk, “but once my butt stops hurtin’ I’m sure I’ll get over it and focus on getting’ even.”

       Brian grinned back, showing a dangerous flash of teeth.  “Amen, cuz.” 

       I fished in my book bag for a second and came up with five dollars.  I slapped it down next to Brian’s backpack.

       “What’s that for?”

       “It’s a down payment.  I still owe you fifteen.” 

       “A down payment?”  Brian’s grin became larger, spreading across his face as he remembered the terms of our bet.  He limped across the class room to retrieve the five bucks.  “Screw the fifteen dollars, Waxer.  You just made my day.”  He jostled my shoulder.

       The classroom door opened and we hastily fell silent and slid into our desks with hisses of breath snaking through our clenched teeth.  Damn!  Coach always made sure he tagged your sit spots good.  Brian took the chance to rub the burn from his ass as he pocketed the five dollars, glowering at me as he caught me watching with a smug expression on my face.  He got me back, landing a hard whack to my sore bottom as we were excused for the day.

       “Shit,” Brian swore, shaking his cramped writing hand that was now likely stinging as well.  “I’m surprised the paddle survived twelve swats on your ass.  I think you broke my hand.”

       “Serves you right.”

       “I’ll meet you in the parking lot.  I’ve got time to run you home before Mom considers me late.  Besides, she likes you.  She likes your manners.  I’m sure she went to church after she left Father Benny’s office to light candles and pray for our souls.”

       “I need all the prayers I can get.  And thanks for the offer, but Father Benny’s expectin’ me in the chapel.  I can put in an hour or so there before I have to head home to meet Dad.”

       He nodded and I turned away from his concerned eyes to begin the next phase of my punishment, escaping before Brian could smother me with any more guilt-ridden kindness.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 8:  Held in Contempt

 

     Sunlight filtered in from stained glass windows, drenching the silent chapel in raspberry hues.  I was there to be punished, but the serenity of the space combined with the tedious and solitary labor of the task before me was soothing.  The call to lose myself was strong, to forget my anger and my worries and my plans for revenge.   I stripped my top half down to my undershirt and toed off my chucks.  In the supply closet of the chapel I found a putty knife, bucket, sandpaper, rags and a jar containing a mixture of beeswax and olive oil.  Beginning at the front of the church, I scraped gum and heaven knows what else from the underside of the pews, scoured off the random graffiti, and rubbed the homemade treatment into the wood. 

     I was an old hand at this.  By the time I was in second grade, Father Benedict, who at that time was principal of the grade school, St. Joseph’s Latin, got so tired of paddling my butt he decided to get creative.  Instead of bending me over a chair for the usual punishment (I was shorter then), he began making me spend my recesses polishing woodwork around the school.  There was a lot of wood, and I got in a lot of trouble.  First my friends and then other kids began calling me Waxer.  The name stuck.  Even though the priests and teachers all refer to me as Christian, they know my nickname.  As far as nicknames go, I guess it’s not half bad. 

     Spooky was the first of the Saints to get a second name.  He and Mickey-D are both called Michael, so that was a situation that needed to be remedied.  While Michael Donovan eventually became Mickey-D when we started school and there wasn’t just Spooky but three other Michaels to contend with, Spooky got his name when we were just little kids.  The name was born from his fear of the dark.  He was afraid of the dark because of ghosts.  Adults never failed to ask questions about the ghosts, and Spook would raise his arms in what was supposed to be a menacing pose and swoop about with a whooooooo that mimicked a howling wind.  Comments like That sure is a spooky ghost, young man just egged him on and he was encouraged to repeat the performance for newcomers.  The adults were charmed by his antics and began asking which of us was Spooky.  He was proud of the attention and soon was calling himself by the new moniker.  So, of course, we began to do the same.  Spooky didn’t take his nightlight with him when he moved out of our room.  But, on the nights he slept at home, I noticed he left the television on through the night even after the station had signed off, the volume down and the glow of the static filled screen casting the room in soft illumination.      

     I was underneath a pew, on my back on the cool marble floor trying to dislodge a particularly stubborn wad of petrified chewing gum from the wood when I saw black pants and gum-soled shoes pause in the aisle beside me.  With a mighty crack I fulfilled my quest and emerged from the shadows with my grotesque trophy which I deposited into the bucket with others of its kind.  I wiped my hands and accepted the one Father Benny proffered, letting him pull me to my feet.

     “How is it coming?” The priest asked in mock earnestness.

     “Teenaged boys are disgusting,” I responded with equal sincerity, bringing the familiar smile to the old man’s face.

     “Shall we sit?”  I grimaced at the question, causing the principal to chuckle.  “Perhaps not.”

     “Standing’s not much better,” I complained.

     “Don’t get ahead of yourself.  You haven’t earned my sympathy yet, Christian.  Why didn’t you take your case to the Honor Council?”  Father Benny rarely took an indirect route to get to the point of his visit.

     “Stan Gaddis is on the Honor Council.”

     It took a few seconds before the old man’s eyes came alight in understanding.  “Basketball player?”  He tried to hold back another smile but failed.

     “Yes, sir.”  I hesitated but then added, “And I don’t think Mrs. Marcum likes me very much.  The others are neutral, but that means nobody would be comin’ into the hearing fully believing I might be innocent – especially with the evidence.”

     “It is rather damning,” the priest agreed.  “Are you innocent, Christian?” He fixed me with his stare and once again I felt like a bug mounted on a display, impaled with a pin.  I’d long ago concluded that Father Benny was only one mutant gene away from developing laser vision like the X-Men’s Cyclops.

     “Like I said, the rubbers, the comics, the flask and the knife were mine.  The drugs weren’t mine and they weren’t Brian’s either.  Brian doesn’t deal drugs.”

     Father Benedict frowned.  “I’ve known you ten years, Christian.  I must say you’re usually very forthright in admitting responsibility.”

     “If I’m gonna have the guts to break the rules, I’ve gotta have the guts to take the punishment, sir.”  I grinned in what I hoped was a disarming manner.

     He shook his head, eyes looking to heaven briefly.  “I’ve never doubted your supply of guts.  Common sense, however…”  He pondered what I said before asking, “Are you and Brian good friends?”

     “I guess so.  Yeah.” I amended.

     “It hasn’t gone unnoticed that you and your brother and the Masterson boys seem to have had a falling out.”

     I blinked as I waited for my brain to make the leap to the change of subject.  “Yes, sir?”  I couldn’t keep the question out of my voice.

     “Is that something you want to talk about?”

     “No, sir.”

     There was a pause while I studied a small hole in my left sock.  Father Benny cleared his throat but when I remained silent, the priest lightly pinched my chin and tipped my head up.  He chuckled as I stubbornly kept my gaze down even as he tilted my head higher.  My eyes ached from the strain.  The old man played dirty, bopping my nose and capturing my eyes as I jerked my head in surprise.  “As bad as that, is it?”  I shrugged, my tongue probing my lips in search of a spot to bite. 

     “Does it have anything to do with the Sons?”

     My eyes flew open wide and I nearly fell backwards over the pew behind me trying to distance myself from the priest.  “No!  It doesn’t…  I don’t…  I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

     “Now, that is a lie, Christian,” Father Ben knew at once and his voice conveyed his disappointment.

     “But…”  Any protest I made was just going to dig me a deeper grave.  Whatever answer I gave would be the wrong one.  The urge to lash out was almost overpowering, but I knew he could have easily mentioned the Sons when we were in the office.  He hadn’t.  I lowered my head and traced the veins in the marble at our feet while I took several deep breaths.  “Yes, sir, that was a lie,” I agreed, my guts churning.  “I’m sorry.”

     “If you’re involved in something you can’t talk about, chances are it’s something you shouldn’t be doing.”

     “I know.”  My voice echoed in my head and in the cold stone of the chapel.  My empty hands clenched and unclenched at my side.  This conversation was nearly as painful as the twelve licks.  Father Benedict was strict, but he was never unfair, and despite the number of times I’d found myself in his office, I knew he liked me.  I even felt that he trusted me.  I could feel a piece of that trust slipping through my fingers.

     “Shall we try this again?” 

     “Do we have to?” I grumbled, realizing my arms were crossed tightly over my chest, lower lip pressed out, and socked foot toeing at the marble in what Spooky had described as my pouting pose.

     After spending most of his life in the company of brats, brown-nosers, and delinquents, Father Benny had perfected the eyeroll.  He generously bestowed one upon me.  “You’ve been punished, Christian.  Nothing short of an orgy or a satanic ritual would land you back over my desk for a date with Ed.”  As I gasped out a startled laugh, his eyes shone with a youthful mischief that belied his grizzled hair and position of authority.  “Out with it, son.”

     “Igottatattoo,” I mumbled.

     “You haven’t come clean if I can’t hear you.”

     “I got a tattoo, sir.”  I took a much needed breath and easily met the priest’s eyes.  “No orgies.  No satanic rituals.  No drugs.”

     “You’re the Son?”  I wasn’t surprised the principal knew about the club.  He seemed surprised about my close connection to it, however.

     “Yes, sir.”  I didn’t offer up any other names.  To his credit, at least in my book, Father Benny didn’t ask about anyone else.  Of course, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that most members of the Inner Circle would be known.  The ink on our shoulders was a dead giveaway, and even the non-athletes had to strip down occasionally for gym class.       

     “The drugs in your lockers?”

     “Not ours.”

     “Were you holding them for someone else?”

     “No, sir.”

     His laser eyes tried to burn their way into my soul.  “You’re saying they were planted?  That someone set you and Brian up for trouble?”  I nodded reluctantly, the movement small.

     “Do you know who?”

     “No, sir.”  I’d never been a snitch.  Besides, I may have had my suspicions, but I really didn’t know.  Once again, the priest didn’t push. 

     Father Ben released my chin and gently patted my cheek.  I melted into his touch.  “Was that so hard?”

     “You believe me?”  Hell, if I‘d known it was going to be that easy we could’ve spared Brian from a well-cooked rump roast and gotten my own ass off the burner a little faster.

     The old man gripped my shoulder.  “You’ve given me something to think about,” he confided.

     It was less than what I hoped for, but more than what I’d expected.

     He gave me an arched eyebrow.  I’d learned that look meant he was reading my mind.  “Don’t get your hopes up, son, and certainly don’t go feeling guilty thinking that you could have spared Brian from his punishment if you’d told me this earlier.  Even if I believed you completely, I couldn’t have let you go.  Not on your word alone.  No other student would get that kind of break when the evidence was so strong against them, certainly no student with your history.  And I know what the Sons do.”  The hand on my shoulder squeezed a bit harder.  “I’m disappointed in you, Christian.”

     I nodded, my eyes focused as low as I could get them with us standing so close.

     “Still…you’ve made a serious allegation that I can’t ignore.  And I won’t.”

     I nodded again.  I expected to be released, but the priest still held my shoulder.  A few more seconds ticked by and I had to raise my gaze in curiosity.  That was what he’d been waiting for.  “Your father doesn’t know about the tattoo, does he?”

     “No, sir.”  For a minute we were lost to our own dark thoughts. 

     The priest massaged the bridge of his nose, jostling his glasses.  He let the silence linger, hoping I would break it.  I didn’t.  He rubbed his hands together like he was trying to rub away a chill.  “Thank you for your honesty, Christian.  I’ll let you get back to the job.”  He correctly interpreted my scowl.  “No pouting.”  I huffed at that and heard another chuckle deep in the man’s chest. 

     “Yes, sir,” I gave an exaggerated grumble.

     He turned to the altar and bowed his head as I bent over to retrieve the jar of beeswax polish from the floor with a wince and a muffled curse.  I heard another bubble of amusement behind me.  “Alright, Waxer.  Put in another hour of hard labor and we’ll call it even.  I’m sure you’ll give me reason soon enough to send you back in here to finish the job.”

     “Thank you, Father!”  I felt the grin on my own face like the warmth of the sun after a storm.  No matter what he had said, Father Benny believed me.  The principal returned my grin, but the smile didn’t reach his worried eyes.

     “If you change your mind about that talk, son, you know my door is always open for you.”

     “I do know that, Father.  And I’m grateful.”

**********

     I rode the city bus home, arriving in the kitchen shortly before 6:00.  Good smells still lingered in the air, but a measly bologna sandwich waited for me on the counter and Sally was nowhere to be seen, proof that word of my crimes had already reached her ears.  I snarled at the offending sandwich, but I still took it and a bottle of milk up to my room.  A minute later Spooky burst in without knocking: “What the hell happened?”

     “I thought you’d be at the Masterson’s?”

     “On my way, but you’re the story of the day, bro.  You and Brian got caught smoking dope?  At school?  Are you two crazy?” He jumped onto my bed.

     “That’s not what happened,” I said with a mouthful of bologna and bread as I stood at the desk.  “We were set up.  I thought you might know something about that?”  My eyebrows raised suggestively.

     “You think I had something to do with it?”

     “Why don’t you answer the question?”

     “Fuck you!”  There was no knuckle popping, and no eyes skittering around like hyperactive squirrels.  He clambered off the bed. 

     I had no snappy comeback.   A silent sigh released the breath I’d been holding captive.  It wasn’t Spooky.  “Okay!  I’m sorry!  I’m sorry!”  He stopped midway through his dramatic exit, but he didn’t return to his casual position on the bed.  “Do you…”  I swallowed nervously.  “Do you think Cowboy or Mickey-D could have done it?”

     “Negatory.  They’d never do anything to get you in trouble with Dad.  None of us would.”  Spooky stood in the doorway glaring at me.  “Is that really what you think?”

     “You can’t blame me for asking.”  I sat down hard onto the chair at my desk and immediately wished I hadn’t.  “Goddamnit!” I yelped.

     “Twelve?”  He tried to keep the scowl on his face, but failed.  Spooky’s mouth lifted at the corners in a smirk.  He was amused by my current pain and suffering, and back to being merely annoying.  I nodded and gave him the rundown of the events in Father Benny’s office.

     “Did he say who reported you?”

     I shook my head.  “I guess we could have found out if we took it to a hearing, but I didn’t like my chances.  It doesn’t matter, ultimately it was all Clay and Barry pulling the strings, and that means Tommy was involved.”

     My brother gave a dramatic roll of his eyes.  “There are plenty of other guys you’ve pissed off,” Spooky reminded me.  

     “Yeah, but Brian was also a target.  Tommy is the one with the closest link to Clay and Barry…if it wasn’t y’all.”

     “So if it wasn’t me or Cowboy it had to be Tommy?”  Spooky erupted in a whispered shout.  “How?  He rode to school with us in Cowboy’s car.  We walked to class together.  My locker is right beside yours.  You think I’d let him open your locker?”

     “He could have had someone else do it.”

     Spooky put a pillow over his face to muffle his exasperated yell.  After that, he raised a corner of the pillow to shoot me with a dark frown that made him seem years older than me instead of mere minutes.  “That’s a little far-fetched, Waxer.”

     “I know,” I sighed in defeat, my shoulders slumping.  “But it was him.”

     “You just want it to be him.”  Spooky wasn’t going to budge any more than I was.  “You’re never gonna let that damn gladiator fight go, are you?  You got your revenge!”

     “And he got his,” I mumbled. 

     Spooky tossed the pillow aside and popped up.  “How would he know your locker combination?  Or Brian’s for that matter?  Even if you think we ratted you out, none of us have Brian’s combination.”

     “Our lockers are crap,” I reminded him.  “They’re older than Father Benny.  Half the time they open if you just hit ‘em hard enough.”  We weren’t going to agree.  My brother was defending Tommy with the same dogged loyalty that used to keep him at my side. 

     “So…where were you and Brian this morning when all this supposedly happened?” Spooky tried to sound casual, but failed.

     “Why do you need to know?”

     “Jesus, Waxer, forget I asked.  Rumor says y’all were smokin’ dope in the boys’ room.  If you don’t want to tell me what you were really doing, I’ll just keep my mouth shut and let the rumors fly.”

     I squinted at him as I replied, trying to figure him out.  “He was checking out the tattoo.  Thought maybe it was infected.”

     “It’s been almost two weeks.”  My brother’s tone was incredulous.

     “He heard a rumor.  He’s checked it a couple times.”

     “You could’ve asked me.”

     I rolled my eyes.  “Yeah?  When?”  His lips thinned into a straight line as he clamped his mouth shut.  I ate the last mouthful of sandwich and washed it down with milk as I looked at my watch.  “I’m supposed to meet the Judge downstairs at 6:30.”  That brought an end to the argument.

     “He came home early.”  Spooky didn’t look at my face as he spoke.  His eyes were fastened on a black spot on the floor, a permanent reminder of the time we set off firecrackers in our room when we were six.  “He and Sally met for awhile then I could hear music in the study.”

     “Yeah, I figured Sally heard the good news if I got a bologna sandwich dinner.”

     “So, the Judge really came to school today.”  Spook followed the statement with an impressed whistle, but his face was devoid of color and I was certain mine was as well.

     I nodded and tried for a grin that came out as a grimace.  “He actually saw Coach give me the twelve with Ol’ Ed.”

     Spooky met my eyes hopefully.  “He could go easy on you then, you think?”  Shaking my head slowly, I disagreed.  I remembered the look on Dad’s face.  “Then I’m going to the Masterson’s to get out of the line of fire.”  Tingles, like tiny pricks of electric ice danced over my fingertips at Spook’s announcement.  I didn’t want him to go.  He hesitated, looking me over critically, as if I were heading out on a first date or a job interview, “You’re not walkin’ into the study lookin’ like that, are you?  Straighten up, okay?  And for Christ’s sake keep your mouth shut, Waxer.  Don’t make it worse.”

     I nodded, stood and tucked my shirttail in, once again worrying my lower lip with my teeth even after I tasted blood.  “The tattoo,” I said softly.

     Spooky froze.  “Goddamn Brian.”  My brother squeezed his eyes shut.

     “It’s not his fault.”

     Spooky wanted to argue about that too, the hypocrite, but he settled for muttering under his breath.  He checked the time as he shifted uncomfortably in the doorway.  “You gotta get down there, man.”

     I took a deep breath.  “Yeah, bein’ late’s never good.”  I absolved him of guilt for abandoning me by giving him permission to go with a jerk of my head while I picked my jacket up off the back of a chair.  “You better get.”

     The bastard didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the offer.  I turned my back to the doorway as I put on my school blazer so I didn’t have to watch him go.

     I removed my tie which was no longer knotted but draped around my neck, and left the top button of my shirt undone.  My perpetually messy hair was sticking in various directions so I smoothed it as best I could with the little time I had left.

     A few minutes before my scheduled appointment, I stood before the closed French doors of the study.  You’d think with as often as I’ve stood in that spot that it would have lost some of its power over me.  Well, this wasn’t that day.  The tightening in my gut threatened to force the bologna sandwich back up my throat like toothpaste squeezed out of a tube.  I couldn’t feel my knuckles as they rapped on the door.  I couldn’t feel the ground beneath my feet.  I took a deep breath, tasting cigarette smoke in the air entwined with Dad’s aftershave.  Spooky had already abandoned ship and the only sounds in the entire house came from behind the study doors.  Offenbach.  The German opera composer was one of Dad’s favorites and this particular piece had a soothing quality to it.  I would have been more worried if I’d heard Wagner.

     “Come in, Christian,” Dad responded to my knock.  “Close the doors behind you.”  I had to wipe my sweaty palms off on my pants before I could grip the door handle.  I took an ‘at ease’ stance on the oriental carpet, feeling anything but.  Dad walked over to the record player and replaced the album in its sleeve.  He returned to the desk and stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray, then took a swallow from the glass of scotch in his hand, gesturing for me to approach.  The Judge had removed the tan suit jacket, his shirt sleeves were rolled up and his vest was unbuttoned, but he wasn’t relaxed.  His movements were still quick and agitated.  The music and the alcohol had done little to calm him…or the sight of me had ruined their effect.  As I stood in front of the desk I saw Dad’s flask sitting on top of the Wall Street Journal.  My chest had become a beehive, an unpleasant buzz vibrating through me.  Milk curdled in my stomach.  I felt like I was going to puke, but I knew I wouldn’t.  In spite of the feeling, I never had before.  Standing behind his desk, fingertips touching the surface as he leaned forward, Dad began the lecture.  “Christian.  You humiliated me today.  Not to mention, I had to leave a trial… A trial damnit!”  He punctuated his bark with the smack of his fist to the desk. “…to come to school to deal with you.”  His expression didn’t change, but somehow everything he thought of me was conveyed in that one word.  “Everyone at the courthouse knows where I had to go, and they know it was because of you.”  There it was again.  The word hit me like a punch to the gut and I could never figure out why.  “It’s always you.  You can’t go a goddamn week without dragging my name and reputation through the mud!”  It was now the knuckles of his fists that touched the desk, his hands balling up somewhere during his recitation of events.  Looking like it pained him, he unclenched his hands and picked up the flask.  “Stewart gave this to me.  I know where this was.  You’ve been in my office without permission.  You’ve abused my privacy and stole from me something that I could never have replaced.  I’m sure you stole the bourbon inside as well.  Am I correct?”

     “Yes, sir.”  I did feel guilty about the flask.  It was old, but so was everything in the god damned house.  It was dented and tarnished and never used; I hadn’t known its real value.  My father was as likely to willingly share his stories with me as he was to willingly share his liquor.   

     “And now drugs?  The police could have been called!  Thank God your brother has more sense.  I should have known you were up to no good when Sally told me Michael moved out of your room.”  He closed his eyes and massaged his temples.  “How long have you been using drugs?” 

     I couldn’t stop myself.  “The drugs weren’t mine, sir.”

     Disagreement equaled defiance and defiance made the Judge breathe loud through his nose, nostrils flaring, teeth clenched tighter than his asshole, and eyes like daggers, like weapons.  “That wasn’t my question.  Was it?”

     “No, sir.” 

     “How..long..have..you..been..using..drugs?” he repeated, enunciating every word.

     This was why Spooky warned me not to open my mouth.  “I..don’t…  Sir.”  The last time I’d used pot was at a New Year’s party.  I didn’t like smoking.  Cigarettes made me sneeze and I thought marijuana smelled like dirty gym shorts.  I avoided pills because too many of them looked like the colorful little pellets Mom took for the crazy or the cancer.  I was afraid of needles so that ruled out anything that had to be injected.  And I had enough difficulty keeping my mouth and my temper in check on a good day so the thought of adding speed or cocaine to the equation was terrifying.  I’d stick to the booze, thank you very much.

     “You don’t use drugs,” Dad echoed using his lawyer voice.  “Then how did you get caught?  And why did you and your friend have drugs in your lockers?  Don’t lie to me!  You know how I feel about lying, Christian, and you’re in enough trouble!”  In the Judge’s opinion, even a criminal could have integrity, but a liar was the lowest of the low.  It wasn’t just a sin, it was an abomination.  It was who you were.  And he'd caught me red-handed.

     “I’m not lying!”  Jesus, shut up!  But even though I was a key player in the scene, it was like my brain was watching bound and gagged and powerless from a corner of the room while my emotions committed mutiny.

     “What will I find when I search your room?”

     I was suddenly back in my body.  Like a fish hooked and dragged to the shore, I shut my mouth, opened it, then closed it again.  I couldn’t answer.  I didn’t know myself.  I’d lived in that room my whole life.  I knew there was a bottle of bourbon.  There could be pot, I wasn’t completely immune to peer pressure and Spooky was certainly no innocent.  Speaking of which, there could be worse than pot.  Spooky had only moved out the week before and he’d left plenty of junk behind – the detritus of fifteen years, but it was now my room and whatever was there, whoever it had belonged to originally, it was now mine.  And even if it wasn’t, I wasn’t going to rat out my brother.  I glared at Dad, hating the smug gleam in his eyes.  Hating him.

     He dismissed my angry eyes with a wave of his hand.  To him it was just further proof of my guilt.  “That’s what I thought.  It’s not my fault you didn’t think your lies through very well.  I’m not a fool, and I’m certainly a match for an arrogant, spoiled teenager.”  Condemnation hung in the air as the Judge stared down at me like I was dog shit on the sole of his shoe.  With the reverence you show a loaded gun, he took the riding crop from its hook.  “Take off your jacket and shirts and get in position.”  The thin, leather wrapped rattan switch as long as my arm and tipped with four more small strands of leather was another family heirloom.  I knew the history behind this one.  My grandfather had used the crop to keep my father and uncles in line, so my father used it now.  My family is big on tradition.

     I knew better than to argue or hesitate.  Clumsy fingers fumbled with the buttons of my shirt.  I removed my undershirt and moved to the only patch of wall free from furniture and artwork where I placed my hands.  I knew when Dad saw the tattoo.  He dropped the damn riding crop and I heard him choke which turned to a coughing sputter.  Momentarily, I had rendered my father speechless, but he recovered quickly.  “Come here.  Now, Christian!”

     I obeyed.  Closing the distance between us was the last thing I wanted to do, but cowardice was another unforgivable sin in the world of Judge Pike.  When I was within reach, Dad grabbed my arm and spun me around.  My arms shot forward to brace myself against the desk as I stumbled.  Dad rubbed his hand across the artwork on my shoulder as if he could wipe it off.  “What is this?”  His voice was cold enough to raise goose bumps on my exposed skin.  “You’re fifteen!  Who did this to you?”  He held me by the arms as he turned me around yet again.

     “I don’t know.”  It was the truth; I had no idea where I’d been taken to have the tattoo done.  Dad didn’t believe me, and I had to admit my answer was even more far-fetched than my insistence that I didn’t use drugs.  How do you not know where you got a tattoo that covered a quarter of your back?  Well, I was drugged, your Honor.  I was sure that response wouldn’t go over well after my assertion that I was drug free. 

     Rough hands gave me a hard shake.  “Really, Christian?”  Another shake.  My teeth clacked together.  “Answer me now and tell me the truth if you know what’s good for you.  Where did you get that done?”

     “I really don’t know, sir, but I wouldn’t tell you if I did.”  It came out more wise-ass sounding than I’d intended.  Really. 

     The backhanded slap was no surprise.  I received a second for good measure.  “You are in no position to take that disrespectful tone with me!”  By a fistful of hair he dragged me back to that section of wall where he could swing the crop freely.

     “It’s just a thing some of us guys did.” I backpedaled quickly as he pressed me against the cold plaster.  I was only delaying the inevitable.

     “Your brother’s done this too?”

     “No, sir.”

     “Who?”

     I tried the same line Brain gave his Dad.  “It’s a club, sir.  A lot of athletes belong to it.” 

     “What club is this?  Does the school know about these tattoos?”

     “It’s not a school club.”

     “What’s the name of this club?”

     I wouldn’t answer.  The Judge knew all about the Fifth Amendment, and he knew it meant I had something to hide.

     “This Brian…  Is he a part of this club?”

     I kept my mouth shut.  It didn’t improve his mood. 

     “Answer me!”  He thumped my head against the wall.  “Did he put you up to this?  Are you covering for him?”

     “No, sir.”

     “Did he sell you the drugs?  Is that what this club does?”

     “There were no drugs, sir.”  We’d reached an impasse and were right back where we’d started.  “You don’t believe me so just get on with it, because my answers aren’t going to change.”  Dad blinked in a moment of shock at my audacity.  I had no doubt I would have been slapped again if our positions had allowed it.

     Making a noise partway between a sigh and a growl, my father moved a step away from me.  “Give me your belt.”

     I would have been ecstatic over that announcement if the Judge didn’t already have the riding crop in hand.  I unbuckled the belt around my waist and passed it into my father’s waiting hand before I finished unfastening my pants.  In one move I’d practiced many times, my pants and underwear were both around my knees.  Before I returned my hands to the wall, I took the crop from Dad.  I’d hold it until he asked for it.

     I’d barely taken position before Dad began swinging.  He held the buckle and let the strap fly.  Though it was healed, the tattoo was still tender.  It took the brunt of the first lash, the tail of the belt curling around my upper arm.  I surprised myself by the sound I made.  I could usually make it through most, if not all, of a belt-whipping before I had to let the pain out.  The second lash, another flare of searing heat across the healing tattoo on my shoulder, fell before I got my breath back from the first.  The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth licks were all focused on the Sons’ mark, and I still hadn’t been able to take control of my reactions.  It wasn’t just the pain, but the worry.  I hadn’t wanted the damn tattoo anyway, but I didn’t want it messed up.  What would it look like when this was over?  Would the damage be permanent?  Was Dad trying to ruin it?  Would there just be some fucked up smudge on my shoulder?  The questions in my head kept me from focusing on my breathing and the usual tricks I used to get me through my punishments.  I lost track of the number of blows that rained down on the same spot.  They kept coming.  Instead of holding position, I twisted my body and curled my shoulders trying to force the lashes to land someplace else, anywhere else, but after the end of the belt struck my cheekbone just the right way to cut, I forced myself to be still and take it.  I wanted to call for a do-over or a time out.  I hadn’t been ready.  I wasn’t ready.  The worry over the tattoo had locked my mind in my body and I couldn’t escape.  I was disgusted with the sobs and cries I heard coming from my own throat.  I had just noticed that the licks were coming harder and faster when they stopped.  I sucked in breath after breath and I could hear the Judge doing the same.  My right arm was shaking, there were places where the skin was raw and beading blood, and I could only imagine with horror about the condition of my pretty picture.

     “Back in position.”  The whipping resumed when I obeyed, but this time we were on familiar territory as the belt covered the rest of my back, my ass and my thighs in wide bands of electric fire.  Any tears I shed this time were from relief.  Mostly.  Of course, it hurt; but it was pain I knew.  Dad doubled the strap over and worked the meat of my ass once more, adding to the marks left by the Board of Ed and Coach’s heavy hand.  I wanted to howl and dance from foot to foot like some wild creature, but I just locked my jaw closed and leaned into the wall to keep myself upright.  The clatter of the belt buckle onto the hardwood floor brought me back to the moment.

     Dad spoke, but the words didn’t register through the shrieking pain and blood pounding in my ears.  It didn’t matter, I knew what he wanted.  I passed over the riding crop.  He probably told me how many stripes to expect, but I was in a place where his words were just background noise.  The sound of the riding crop slicing through the air though…  I heard that.  And my own scream.  A white hot flare of pain cut across my right shoulder.  Dad was targeting the tattoo again.

     “One, sir,” I choked out.  The second stripe was already on its way, singing through the air like one of Wagner’s Valkyrie.  The start of a punch drunk chuckle in my chest was derailed by another scream as that lick also dealt the knight on my shoulder a terrible blow.  “Two, sir!” I shouted.  The third stripe nearly brought me to my knees.  The fifth one did.  Though my jaw was locked up tighter than Fort Knox, I couldn’t hold back the screams.  Manly screams, not chick-in-a-slasher-film screeches.  Still…  I couldn’t stop the burst of noise that was ripped out of me each time the Judge added another stripe.  I fell two more times before the fifteenth slash cut into the knight’s armor.  Fifteen was the norm…or it had been.  The Blue Balls Caper earned me a well-deserved twenty-five and Spooky got fifteen as my accomplice.  I could feel the icy hot tingles that separated themselves from the mass of raw pain like strings being tugged as blood welled up from the cuts made by the deeper or overlapping lashes.  He’d made me bleed before, but it was usually accidental or resulting from an exceptionally forceful swing on the final lick to drive home whatever point he was trying to make.  This was no accident.  And it wasn’t over.

     The riding crop whistled through the air another fifteen times.  This time the lashes fell on my butt and the backs of my legs, but they were just as vicious.  I screamed and sobbed.  I bucked, kicked, stumbled and broke position.  I pressed myself into the wall as if I were hoping to slip through the solid plaster and escape like a ghost.  I broke every rule of decorum I’d given myself except one:  I never begged. 

     For a minute, the only sounds were Dad’s labored breathing and the hiss and moan of air between my teeth as I struggled to stifle the sound of my sobs, then I heard soft footsteps, the hollow pop of a cork leaving a bottle, and the icy chink of glass on glass as the Judge fortified himself with his standard two fingers of scotch.  Selfish bastard didn’t offer to share.

     “Get dressed.”  He sounded tired, but there was a bite in his voice that said he was still pissed.  Sometimes it was almost worth the punishment to feel the air cleansed of tension or my conscience wiped free of guilt.  This wasn’t one of those times.  The scales of justice weren’t even, and the Judge wasn’t happy.  Whatever price I’d just paid, it wasn’t enough to buy my father’s forgiveness.  I held my breath as the corner of my eye captured the sight of Dad watching me, a scowl darkening his handsome features, drink in his left hand and the crop tossed onto his desk.  I realized he wasn’t breathing either only when he began again.  “Meet me in your room, Christian.  We have a job to do.”  He returned his father’s riding crop to its resting place and marched out of the study.   

     Once Dad left, I slid down the wall onto my knees and elbows, my forehead touching the floor.  It took several minutes before I felt like I could make it to my feet and stay there.  Pulling up my pants was a bitch, the stretch to reach down for the clothing more painful than the rub of the fabric against my skin.  I tempted fate by stealing a few swallows of Dad’s own scotch, but the need was greater than my fear, and it wasn’t just the need to kill the pain.  Tears swam in my vision as I tugged my t-shirt over my head and it rubbed over my right shoulder.  I didn’t bother buttoning the dress shirt.  I doubted that I’d be able to walk or raise my right arm in the morning.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’d missed school after answering a summons to Dad’s study. 

     By the time I dragged myself up the stairs, staggering and supporting myself against the wall like an old drunk, my bedroom was a wreck.  Every drawer from the dressers had been pulled out and dumped onto the beds or the floor.  The contents of the desks were spread out over the tops.  Clothing from the closet had been discarded in a pile on the floor.  Among the mess were several empty cigar boxes and cookie tins.  Treasure boxes where Spook and I had stored trinkets, photographs and memories. 

     Dad had rummaged through the contents of each box, removing what he wanted before letting the box drop from his hands.  Spilled onto the floor, the magic of the boxes had shattered:  dragon’s eggs became rocks; kryptonite became sticky fragments of green rock candy and bits of smooth sea glass picked up along the beach during a long ago vacation; promises from fortune cookies heralding grand and glorious futures had drifted to the floor becoming mere scraps of paper…trash.  The human wrecking ball was now standing at my bed where there was a bankers’ box he must have pulled out of the attic.  As I watched, he roughly snatched stacks of comic books off my shelves and tossed them into the box without a care.  “What are you doing?”  My voice was rough from all my earlier shouting.

     Ransacking my room had resulted in a dime bag of marijuana, a few other bags containing much smaller amounts and residue; various pills; empty bottles that had once contained bourbon swiped from Dad’s study; skin magazines; eight knives; and two guns.  We had taken the weapons from the real bad guys, the punks and pushers we used to prey upon before we became Sons.  “I’d ask you to explain, but I’ve heard enough of your lies tonight.”

     I heard the sound of paper ripping as Dad grabbed another twenty or so comic books from the shelf and roughly disposed of them in the box.  “Hey!  Be careful!” 

     “I never should have allowed this trash into our house.  Every time you get in trouble at school there seems to be a comic book nearby.  And that damn tattoo…”  Another handful of comics were thrown into the box and he turned to me with eyes that were weary and a soul deep fatigue written in the lines of his face, but he rubbed a hand across his face and the expression was gone.  “You’re too old for comic strips and make-believe, Christian, and too young for guns, drugs and tattoos.”

     “You’re blaming all this on comic books?”  Okay, the laugh I gave was bordering on maniacal hysteria, maybe a little too much of the Joker in it.  “I’m reading the same comic books when I get straight A’s on my report cards, or serve as an altar boy, or play quarterback.”  There was a serious flaw in the Judge’s logic.    

     “Then I’ll expect even more from you once these are gone.”  The last of the comic books on the shelf were thrown into the box.  There were smaller boxes under the bed as well, but any hope that those would escape the massacre were dashed: “Pick those up and follow me.”

     I doubted that I was in any shape to follow his instruction even if I’d wanted to…I didn’t want to.  “Where?  What are you doing?”  My words were sticks poking a rabid dog.

     “Damn you, Christian!”  One of his hands seized my arm and swung me towards my bed and the offending comic books faster than my body wanted to cooperate.  “For once just shut your fucking mouth and do as you’re told!  Is that too much to ask?”

     Apparently, it was.  I didn’t back down.  “What are you going to do?”

     “I’m taking out the trash.”

     I swear I heard the crack as I was bent past my breaking point.  I wasn’t afraid anymore.  I didn’t hurt anymore.  I wasn’t thinking.  I was just pissed.  “No!”  I stepped in front of Dad, blocking him from the box he’d been packing.

     “Move.”  Nothing good ever followed that deathly calm tone of voice.

     “No!”

     “One more word, son, and I’ll drag you back into my study and whip you until one of us breaks.  I promise you it won’t be me.”  His glare was more an invitation than a challenge, he was angry enough to make good on that promise.

     I didn’t say a single word.  I said two: “Fuck you.” 

     I saw him coming and barely managed to teeter out of the way, but I lost my balance in the debris covering the floor and toppled onto the nightstand.  The bedside lamp fell to the floor.  My back protested the way I was shoved against the wall.  Dad jerked me to my feet and I nearly fell again as I pulled loose.  My brain and my body weren’t prepared for the fight my mouth had started.  I was too stubborn to retreat or attempt a diplomatic resolution, too hurt already to put up much of a resistance.  

     It was a shorter standoff than I had hoped.  My grand attempt to rescue my childhood heroes lasted only a few seconds.  I was trapped at the point of a triangle created by the bed, the nightstand and my father who seemed larger, stronger and angrier than ever before.  With no other warning, I found myself on the receiving end of a fist.  Stars twinkled behind my eyes.  The breath was punched out of my diaphragm.  For all my bluster and defiance, I’d never raised a hand to my father.  I didn’t that night either. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 9:  I’m Fine

 

     I blinked in the darkness, feeling a sense of…wrongness.  I was laying on my stomach, but I didn’t have to be a princess to feel lumps underneath me that most certainly weren’t peas.  My head was turned at an awkward angle that I was sure to feel in the morning.  Or sooner.  The more my mind tried to shake off the fog of sleep and confusion, the worse I felt.  Everything hurt, from my eyelashes to my toenails and everything in between.  My eyes gradually adjusted to the dim moonlight filtering through the windows.  Slowly the edges of furniture became clear.  Finally, in shades of gray I could see the disaster that surrounded me.  My memory came into focus all at once, but my brain had yet to kick in.  I tried to use my arms to push myself up and collapsed back to the mattress with a noise straight from a low-budget zombie movie.  Yeah, I wasn’t going to be trying that again any time soon.   My head ached and I groaned as I raised it from the damp bedspread, twisting it to the side once more so I wouldn’t suffocate.  Oh God, it wasn’t just my head, I hurt all over.  Lifting a shaking hand – my left - I wiped wet from the side of my face…tears, saliva, snot…blood.  Tentatively, I ran inquisitive fingers over my nose…sore, but not broken.  Damn.  For an old man, the Judge could pack a punch.  I couldn’t remember how I got to the bed.  I couldn’t even remember the end of the fight.  I was pretty sure that meant he'd won.  A shiver ran through my body and I sucked in a breath at the nerve endings that movement set on fire.  I fought back the sour taste of panic as I recalled Dad’s threat to whip me again.  Was that where he was?  Was he on his way back with the riding crop?  How long had I been out?  Minutes?  Hours?  I tried one more time to push myself up.  The results weren’t any better than my first attempt.  I could feel the breath locking itself away in my chest.  I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t escape.  Flash bulbs started popping behind my eyelids as I fought the fear for control.  My lungs weren’t cooperating, but my ears were…  The house was so still I could hear the grandfather clock ticking downstairs.  No voices.  No opera.  No footsteps.  No ripping paper.  No whistle of doom in the air.  I was alone.  My breath gradually returned.  If I told you I didn’t cry myself back to sleep, no one was there to call me a liar.

     Warm water trickled across my scalp and down my cheek.  I turned my head and tried to raise my arm, waking up to a world of pain and Sally’s presence on the bed.  She shushed my whimper as she dipped a washcloth into a bowl of warm water and wrung it out.  I kept my eyes closed as she ran the cloth gently over my hair and then over the side of my face that wasn’t glued to the bed, lightly scrubbing at something that clung to my skin, erasing tear tracks and wiping away the goo that glued my eyelashes together.  “Raise your head for me, baby,” she murmured.  “Can you do that?”

     I tried to answer, but my mouth was too dry and my tongue wasn’t even wet enough to soothe my lips that were so chapped the flakes of dried skin felt like tiny knives slicing the underside of my tongue as I ran it over them anyway.      

     “Don’t try an’ talk.  Let’s get you up, then we’ll get you a drink.”  A hand followed the path the washcloth had taken.  “Come on, baby, raise up.  You can do it.” 

     I could.  That didn’t mean I wanted to.  I closed my one eye and faked sleep, pretending Sally wasn’t there.

     “When has playin’ possum ever worked on me?  You know me better’n that, Christian.”  I did, but I didn’t blame myself for trying.  “We’ll take it slow, baby.  Come on an’ turn your head for me.”

     I huffed out my displeasure at her persistence.  My neck ached, just like I’d known it would.  For a guy who spent a lot of nights sleeping on his stomach, I’d never gotten used to it.  Sally was patient as I grumbled, but, ultimately, I did as she asked.   

     “Oh, baby.”  I knew if I looked there’d be tears in her eyes.  Fingers investigated the left side of my face, pausing whenever I winced at an especially sore spot, before moving on.  “You gonna tell me what happened?” 

     “Jus’ wanna sleep, Sally,” I croaked.

     “I know,” she crooned, but she peeled back the thin sheet that covered me.  I shivered at the loss, and at the realization that only one person could have tucked me in.  I heard the soft splash of water and the short-lived rain of droplets as Sally wrung out the washcloth once more.  A few moments later, the damp cloth was draped over my eyes.  “A few more minutes, baby.”      

     I waited until Sally’s footsteps sounded far enough away that she wouldn’t hear my moans, then I began the slow process of trying to scoot my aching body to the edge of the bed.  The movement broke open the cuts on my backside.  My skin felt too tight, and it cracked as the raw edges of the new wounds split apart.  I’d been laying on the contents of Spooky’s desk drawers throughout the night.  Paperclips and pencils jabbed at me as I began to move.  I continued to push myself until my legs were over the edge of the bed and I was kneeling on the floor with my torso still stretched over the bed.  I wanted to take a minute, but I knew Sally could return any second now.  I knew I would need her help eventually, but I wanted to get out of the damn bed and get into the bathroom on my own to survey the damage before anyone else.  I could tell that the Judge hadn’t followed through with his threat to give me a second whipping, but I didn’t remember much beyond the first few punches which meant he’d knocked me out cold at some point.  Then picked me up.  Laid me on the bed.  And tucked me under a sheet.  Was he sorry?  Was he going to give me the second beating later?  Was I supposed to be grateful?  Fucking with my head wasn’t going to win him any Father of the Year awards from me.

     I whimpered like a kicked puppy as I used my left arm and my shaking legs to try and get my feet to support my weight.  I felt like a toddler cruising between pieces of furniture:  from the bed and bedside table to the desk to the wall to the bathroom.  A journey that normally would have taken two seconds took two minutes, my feet shuffling through the trash on the floor like a kid wading through autumn leaves, but without the smile.  Once I reached the bathroom I locked both doors and started the water in the shower and both sinks to muffle any sounds I made.   I left the lights off, enough sunlight entered through a window made of glass blocks, so that I could see all that I needed and more than I wanted.  Half my face was covered in dried blood.  It hurt too much to stoop over to drink from the faucet, so I swallowed the aspirin dry, clamping my own hand over my mouth to force myself to keep them down.  I was struggling to pull my t-shirt over my head, not a simple task to perform one-handed even on my strongest days, when there was a knocking on the bathroom door. 

     “Christian?” Sally called.

     “In the shower!”  I hissed as I gave up being careful and let the shirt scrape over my bruised and bloody shoulder.

     She hollered something else through the door, but ocean waves were sounding in my ears and I was fighting the urge to vomit.  The shirt had stuck to my skin and peeling it off had hurt like hell and started the bleeding fresh.  Only bits and pieces of the design on my skin were visible underneath the blood, bruises and cuts.  I let my forehead rest against the wall until the nausea passed then clenched my jaw as I entered the shower, prepared for the sting as the warm water made contact with my raw flesh.  After the initial internal scream of pain, the water gradually became comforting to my sore muscles.  I stayed under the shower even when the hot water ran out because the cold felt good too.  Opening my mouth, I welcomed the tepid water.  Once I'd rinsed out my mouth and drank my fill, I didn’t move much except to adjust my body under the spray, allowing the water to caress some new spot of hurt that was feeling neglected.  Fuck soap and shampoo, I knew what Sally had in store for me.

     Of course, I couldn’t see myself in the steam covered mirror.  Usually, I didn’t mind, but this time…  Even after wiping a spot clean, by the time I turned around to catch a glimpse of my shoulder, the steam had smudged the glass again.  Well…fuck my plan.  That seemed to be the theme of the universe lately.

     The towel around my waist scratched my poor ass unmercifully and I wouldn’t have bothered if I hadn’t expected Sally to be outside the door.  She was.  She was on her knees sorting through the debris on the floor.  She didn’t look up as I opened the bathroom door.  “You don’t have to do that.”

     The noise she made quite clearly told me to shut up.  It wasn’t friendly.  I started to stoop down to join her, but I nearly fell on top of her instead, catching myself on the chair to Spooky’s desk.  This time the noise she made definitely carried the overtone of an I told you so.  I watched her work for a moment as I waited for the energy to move. 

     Exposed to the light of day I couldn’t remember what was so special about many of the trinkets that now littered the bedroom floor.  I guess I was sentimental in my younger years.  Dozens of pastel paper parasols dotted the landscape.  Mom used to gift me the tiny umbrellas that garnished the cocktails she’d consumed.  They were my reward for being a good boy while she was gone out.  Spooky had always insisted on being rewarded with cash or candy; a sign that my brother has always been smarter than me.  Sally cast me a sideways glance as she retrieved a mostly empty bottle of Angelique Incens, from the floor.  The plain bottle of my mother’s signature scent was deceptive; and even Sally couldn’t resist opening the cap to unleash the lavish genie inside who smelled simultaneously of God, Queen Elizabeth and Eve.  It wasn’t a scent for the faint of heart.  The shorter hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I shivered as Sally placed the bottle of my mother’s essence on the desk only inches from my hands.  Sally probably intended to return it to the dresser in Mom’s room where the smell occasionally seemed to escape from the bottle and under the closed door and down the hallway with a brush of cool air like my mother herself had just come in from the cold air of a winter evening and removed her scarf as she swooped into her sanctuary.  Maybe Spooky wasn’t the only one who believed in ghosts.  

     I decided it was time to try and make it across the room to my bed, which Sally had already cleaned.  I noticed Spooky’s had been stripped of the bloody bedspread and sheets.  Everywhere I stepped, I walked over the empty cookie tins and cigar boxes and memories: a few stray photographs; teeth Spook and I had pulled out of each other’s mouths and hid from the tooth fairy; the bandana we’d used to tie our wrists together when the Saints made ourselves blood brothers when we were ten (Dad had gotten rid of the knife the night before); the blue ribbon I won in the second grade spelling bee and the rainbow assortment of other awards Spooky and I accumulated over the years for everything from martial arts to academics to Easter egg painting.    

     “You don’t need to be so careful, Sally.  It’s just junk.  You can throw it all away.”  I stumbled, and, to my surprise, the older woman caught me, as silent on her feet as any of the spirits haunting the room.  She readjusted her grip in response to the rough bit of a cry I’d let out as her arm pressed against some place on my back.

     “Not here, baby.  Let’s get you out of here.”  I let her steer me into the hall and into the adjacent bedroom, the jill room that Spooky and I had never used.  There was a full-sized bed in the middle of the room and Sally already had the bedspread pulled back for me and waiting.

     “School,” I protested, even though I knew the answer.

     “It’s almost noon,” she shushed me.  “I called this morning to ask them to send any of your school work home with Michael.  ‘M hopin’ there won’t be much with spring break so close.”

     “Did Brian…”

     Sally gave me a slight push that sent me sprawling to the mattress.  “Don’t you say that boy’s name under this roof, Christian Eugene Pike!” 

     Auggghhh.  The full name.  Every loathsome syllable.  Looking over my shoulder as I settled myself on the bed, I could see Sally’s shoulders go rigid as she saw the full vision of my back for the first time, tattoo and all.  “It’s not what you think, Sally.  Brian’s not…”

     “Not what?” she snapped.  “The boy who gave you drugs at school?  The boy encouragin’ this feud with your brother?  Did he have anything to do with this…this thing on your shoulder too?”

     “No!”  I repeated the story of our innocence…well, Brian’s innocence.  I forgot about the other shit in my locker until Sally reminded me.  “You believe me, don’t you, Sally?” I pleaded at the conclusion.

     She gave a weary sigh.  “It’s not about what I believe, baby.  That boy doesn’t come into this house without Judge’s permission.  That understood?”  I stubbornly turned my head away from her to glare in the opposite direction.  I was tempted to ask Sally just what she planned to do if I disobeyed.  I’d endure a month of cold bologna sandwiches if I had to, but I decided the wisest course of action would be to keep my mouth shut about my intentions.  I wasn't above going behind Sally’s back.  I did it with Ashton, after all.

     “Dad didn’t tell me I couldn’t hang out with Brian.”

     “You know your Father.  If you think that argument will work on him, you go right ahead.”  Grinding my teeth together didn’t ease the ache in my jaw or the frustration I felt because I knew Sally was right.  She reached out a hand to smooth my hair off my forehead, but pulled back when I flinched.  “I’ll be back.  You stay put this time, hear?”  Leaving me my space, Sally bustled downstairs once more.

      I tried to focus on anything besides the burn of freshly flayed skin and the gnawing hunger in my stomach.  The last thing I’d had to eat was that damn bologna sandwich before I walked into Dad’s study.  I wondered about Brian and Spooky, Cowboy and Mickey-D…  I realized that Sally hadn’t told me whether Brian had stopped by to pick me up that morning and what he did when I didn’t come out and get in the car.  Then I realized she’d never even let me ask the question.  I thought about Spooky’s promise, that no matter how mad they were, none of the Saints would ever deliberately get me in trouble with Dad.  I went back over the memories of my lifetime to test his theory.  He was right.  But that was the past.  Had things changed enough between us to change that too?  And what did it mean if Spooky was right?  Were we all still friends or was that just one of the few lines they decided they wouldn’t cross?

     The bed where Sally dumped me smelled like the lavender sachets she made and tucked inside the linen closet and the pillows in the guest rooms.  I reached inside the pillow case under my head and fished around until I found the smelly little culprit.  I tossed it across the room.  Resting my head back down on my folded arms I buried my nose in the crook of my elbow and wished for the smell of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and cinnamon.

     Sally entered the room and I stifled my groan with the pillow and stopped my hips from rutting against the mattress.  The movement had been too infinitesimal for her to notice…hopefully.  I mean, I hurt too bad to be engaging in too much hip action, but the only times I ever lay on my stomach were when I’d just been whipped, or when the happy camper demanded something more than my hand.  This wasn’t the first time Happy had taken notice of a post-punishment throbbing in my backside and decided he liked it.  I’d kinda tried to casually ask Spooky about it once.  You know, to see if it was something that happened to everybody, or if it was just me.  After his reaction, it was a topic I’d never pursued again.  Not even with Ashton.  She’d figured it out on her own.

     Sally set a tray down on the bed.  Even before I turned my head to look, I could smell tomato soup and the browned butter comfort of a grilled cheese sandwich.  My stomach gave a noisy growl, but first things first.  Sally handed me a glass of water which I drank so quickly it dribbled from the glass and down both corners of my mouth.  I passed the cup back to her and let my head drop back to the pillow, tensing as I waited for what was coming.

     Alcohol bit into my shoulder with sharp fangs.  I buried my face in the pillow as I cursed, writhing and trying not to kick Sally as she continued to dab disinfectant over my shoulder with painstaking care.  Sometimes, the clean-up hurt worse than the punishment.  This wasn’t one of those times, but it was close.  Sally waved her hand over her work, offering a bit of a breeze to cool the sting.

     “Is it ruined?” I asked, wiping tears and sweat from my face into the pillowcase.  I could feel goosebumps on my arms and the quiver of muscles in my back as they bunched and trembled no matter how I tried to keep still. 

     Sally sputtered in outrage like a wet cat.  “How did you think you were ever gonna keep this hid from your father?  Or were you fool enough to think he’d let you keep it?”

     “No more lectures, Sally, please,” I pleaded.  “Just tell me how it looks?”

     “Baby, your father tried to peel your skin off, and he nearly did it.  It don’t look good.”  She gave a grudging sigh, “But I can still the picture there.  It’s too soon to tell if any of these marks are gonna scar.  Your knight may look like he’s been through a battle and come out the worse for wear.”

     “I…I guess I can live with that,” I muttered to myself more than to Sally.  The knot of worry in my gut unraveled a tiny bit.

     Asking Sally not to lecture was asking the impossible, but my pseudo-grandmother tried her best.  “I guess you’ve paid for it already, haven’t you, baby boy?”  As the youngest twin, I'd always been called baby or baby boy by the housekeeper.  Spooky was her sweet boy.  She lowered the volume of her sermon and didn’t require me to respond as she continued to doctor me up.  I couldn’t hold back the occasional less than macho sounding mewl because damn, it fucking hurt! 

     “Does this thing at school have anything to do with you an’ Michael an’ the Masterson boys still fighting?”

     “I don’t know,” I admitted.  “Spooky says no.  They ain’t the only ones mad at me.”  I studied the crescent shaped marks where my nails cut into my palms.

     Sally slammed the alcohol bottle back down on the tray after soaking more cotton balls, rattling the soup bowl on its saucer, the contents sloshing over the side.  “What have you gotten yourself mixed up with, Christian?  I’ve never seen you boys fight like this.”

     “I haven’t done anything wrong, Sally!”

     She put her hands on her hips, “We just went over this, young man.  You’ve done plenty wrong, and that’s even if I believe your side of the story.  I still haven’t heard an apology, by the way.”

     She was right, but…damnit.  I hung my head under the weight of her disapproval, the phantom taste of bologna in my mouth.  “I’m sorry.” 

     “Did you tell Judge you were sorry he had to come down to school?  Sorry he had to walk out of a trial with a jury and a bunch of lawyers waitin’ on him?”

     “No, ma’am,” I answered by rote, already purchasing my ticket to her guilt trip.

     “Don’t you think he deserves an apology too?”

     “Yes, ma’am.”

     “You fix that.”

     “Yes, ma’am.”

     Sally finished my back and gave my butt what would have been a playful swat if yesterday had never happened.  Instead I yelped.  She didn’t apologize.  She was still plenty pissed at me as well.  “Your father and brother aren’t here.  Take off that towel and let me tend to you, or do you want me to get James to help you?”

     “I’m okay, Sally.  You don’ need to coddle me.”

     “Keepin’ you from getting’ an infection and having to amputate your butt ain’t coddlin’ it’s common sense.”  Sally’s tone was only part teasing, she really would strip me herself or call James if I didn’t cooperate.  Reluctantly I lifted the towel to expose my busted bottom.  “You’re not showin’ me nothin’ I ain’t seen before,” Sally reminded me.  True.  The tiny woman had cooled the tempers and the eased the hurts of two generations of Pike boys, even the Judge himself.  She was a silent and reassuring presence assessing the damage and fixing what she could, sometimes offering a word of comfort or something good to eat, sometimes adding her own gentle reprimand.  She knew instinctively the difference between wounded pride and wounded spirit, who could be left to lick their wounds in peace and who needed her special attention. 

     “Sorry,” my voice was small and exhausted when she was finally done with her task. 

     “I know.”  She patted my head and I knew I was forgiven.  Now I could eat.  I turned my lip up in distaste at the first spoonful of cold soup.

     Sally’s chuckle rattled like dice in her chest.  “Give me that and I’ll stick it in that radiation death box for you if it’ll get that pout off your face.  You want a new sandwich?  I’ll make it fresh.”

     “No, ma’am.”  As good as that sounded, after clenching my bruised jaw for so long, chewing was more effort than I wanted to expend.

     Once Sally was gone, I made myself stand again and tottered off in search of clothes.  The door to my room was shut and it was easy to make the choice to keep walking down the hall to raid Spooky’s drawers.  After surrendering to my shoulder in the battle of the t-shirt, I remained bare-chested.  I leaned against the cool glass of the window and stared out at the backyard, looking for signs of spring.  James hovered over a fire he’d started in one of the old metal trash cans he used to dispose of yard clippings.  Large flakes of ash detached themselves from the rising smoke and floated through the air like hell’s snowflakes.  I watched as he bent down for another handful of trash to add to the conflagration, and suddenly I knew what he was using to feed the fire. 

     Sally intercepted me before I could stagger out of the room, determined to stop the carnage.  The bony hands on my shoulders were gentle.  Still, the touch made me go stiff with pain and she quickly pulled back, but her hands hovered uncertainly inches away from me in case I tried to move around her.  “It’s done, baby boy.  Ain’t nothin’ you can do out there except get yourself in more trouble.”

     Looking back over my shoulder out the window, I saw James add a stream of kerosene to the fire and watched as the blaze shot up devouring Star City, Gotham, Metropolis and a host of other worlds in the inferno.  “Is there anything left?”  Sally didn’t answer and she didn’t stop me as I made my way back to the window.  She knew I had to stand watch, the only mourner at a funeral for make-believe heroes.

*****

     The phone rang later that afternoon, bringing me out of the nap I hadn’t quite managed to sink into.  Once I realized the time, I wasn’t surprised when Sally called to me up the backstairs from the kitchen.  “Thanks, Sally!” I shouted back, meaning it too.  “Tell him it might take me a minute to get there!”  I had a grin on my face and the pain didn’t seem quite as bad as I slid off the bed and limped my way to the phone in the upstairs hall.

     “I’m grounded,” Brian confirmed as I picked up the line.

     “Hang on,” I interrupted before shouting, “Sally, I got it!  You can hang up now!”  Once I heard the click, I gave Brian the go ahead.

     “Two weeks,” he griped.  “And my trip to Panama City for spring break is off.  You?”  The older boy waited expectantly for me to share.  He knew me better than that.

     “Nah, I’m not grounded.  Told you I wouldn’t be.”

     “Yeah, I know that’s not your Dad’s style,” Brian couldn’t keep the growl out of his voice though he tried to make the tone light.  “You missed school today.”  He made it an accusation, and when I started to answer, he cut me off.  “I waited in your driveway.  Then pounded on your kitchen door.  Sally never answered, but James and I shouted at each other for another five minutes until he threatened to call the cops if I didn’t leave.”

     “Brian, I…” 

     He didn’t give me a chance.  “Your fucking brother couldn’t tell me if you were dead or alive.  If I find out any of those kiss-ass little shits…”

     “It wasn’t them!” I hissed.

     “How do you know?”

     “Spooky said th…”

     “No.  It’s gonna take more than your brother’s word to convince me.  If the Saints didn’t have a hand in this, then they better be ready to punish whoever did, or…”  He stopped himself.  I could hear him panting like a prank caller.  Hell, I could even hear the creak of the phone receiver in his fist, he was holding it so tight.  I was stunned into silence.  “Are you okay?” He asked carefully.

     “I’m fine.”  It was the answer he hated, the answer he expected, and the answer he needed even though we both knew it was a lie.  He’d just given me something I hadn’t even known I needed, and I didn’t want to talk about it.  I just wanted to take the feeling back to bed with me and wrap it around me like a blanket. 

     “You’re always fine,” he spit it out like it was a dirty word, but he was no longer teetering on the brink of violent stupidity.

     “Damn straight.”  I even managed a laugh.

     He breathed out the rest of his rage like a cramp on the football field before he gave his own little laugh.  “Father Benny made me wax the chapel today instead of copy chapters in Penance Hall.”

     “Oh yeah?”  I was surprised that I felt a flair of jealousy.

     Brian noticed and his laugh came again, deeper this time.  “Don’t worry, I don’t plan on making it a habit.  There were a couple others in Penance Hall today and I think he knew he needed to get me away and let me burn off some energy.”

     “On the bright side, you didn’t have to sit on your twelve swats all day.”

     Brain groaned.  “Man, the only sitting I’ve done since yesterday afternoon is behind the wheel of my car.  I’ve got new admiration for your ass, kiddo.”

     “Nothin’ special.  I’ve just had plenty of practice.”  I quipped, then leaned back against the wall and quickly regretted it.  There were some things that never got any easier.  “So how’d you con Sally into lettin’ me talk on the phone.”

     “That’s probably something you did, more than my powers of persuasion.  She made it clear that I’m still considered persona non grata, but she didn’t hang up on me, and I didn’t have to threaten to show up on your doorstep with my dad and Father Benny and half the LPD.”

     “Yeah.  We talked.  Sorry about this morning.  I was out ‘til noon, so she hadn’t heard my side of the story yet.”  Silence greeted my statement and I realized what I’d said.  “That’s not…  I meant that Sally let me sleep ‘til noon.”  The silence sat heavy between us.  “Brian…”

     “Shut up.”  His sigh buffeted the receiver loud enough that I winced and pulled it back.  “I get it.”  I could hear the click of his jaw as he swallowed back everything else he wanted to say.  “Will you be at school tomorrow?”

     I shrugged, grateful that Brian couldn’t see the way I immediately grimaced, mouthing a curse.  “I don’t know,” I admitted.

     “Is it your choice or theirs?”

     I knew better than to shrug this time.  “Mine, I guess.”

     “I’ll pick you up.  Usual time.  Bring a change of clothes,” he barked out orders.

     “What for?”

     “In case we do something stupid.”

     “What’s with the mystery?  This payback or something?”

     “Or something.”  The smile had returned to his voice.  “I gotta go.  I am still grounded, after all.”

     “Sucks to be you.”

     “Yeah,” the word was laced with sarcasm.  “Call me if you need me, Waxer.  Promise?”

     “Yeah.  Sure.  Promise.”  Another lie.  We both knew it.  But it felt good.

*****

     The phone rang again later that evening, long after Sally had left.  I had gone into the study to retrieve my blazer and decided to have a drink while I was there.  In spite of everything, my father had still left the liquor cabinet unlocked.  I was grateful for the noise in the smothering silence.  “Pike resssedence,” I spoke into the receiver, something about being in the Judge’s office pushing me towards formality.

     “Waxer?”

     “Heeeeey, Spook.”

     “Are you drunk?”  I could hear voices in the background.  Specifically, I could hear Tommy’s loud voice and hissing SSSHHHS that I bet came from Mickey-D as he tried to listen in on Spooky’s conversation.

     “Not yet.”

     “God, you’re an idiot.”

     “If you’re just now figurin’ that out, then I ain’t the only one.”

     He fired off a single shot of laughter.  “So you’re okay then?”

     “’M fine.”  He didn’t ask for details and I wouldn’t have given him the play by play if he had.  It was nothing I wanted to relive, and definitely nothing I wanted Tommy to know about.

     “Well…  That’s…good.  I guess.  I was worried when I left last night.”

     “’M fine,” I repeated.  “Peachy.”

     “Okay.”  He didn’t sound like he believed me.  “I guess Dad’s not home?”

     “Nope.”  The Judge rarely stuck around to observe the aftermath of his justice.  I didn’t expect him home until it was time for his Sunday evening call with the Louisiana cousins. 

     “Are…uh…are you gonna be at school tomorrow?”

     Once again I forgot not to shrug until it was too late.  “Fuck!”

     “What?  It’s okay if you miss.  You don’t have any homework.  That’s what I was callin’ for.  Sally asked me to…”

     “No, not you,” I cut off his rambling.  “It was…somethin’ else.  Um…I don’ know about school.”

     “Oh.”  The moments trickled by.  I tried to remember when we’d last had to talk to each other over the phone.  Long enough ago that neither of us knew how to do it.  “We’re leavin’ tomorrow after school.  For Florida.  I just thought…I wanted to…you know…say goodbye.”

     “Don’t you need t’ pack?”

     “Nah.  I…uh…I packed on Wednesday.  After school.  I knew Dad was pissed and I didn’t want to have to come back to the house if…you know.”

     “Yeah.  I know.”  I downed another shot of Maker's.

     “You sure you’re okay?  I mean, what did Dad do when he saw the tattoo?”

     I rolled my eyes.  “He said it was fuckin’ beautiful.  Wanted t’ know where he could get one for himself.”

     “Waxer.” 

     “Spooky?”

     “You’re not still thinkin’ it was one of us who set you up, are you?  I told you that we…”

     “I don’t know who it was,” I snapped.  “But I know what side they were on.  What side are you on, bro?”

     “Don’t you…!”

     “Enjoy your spring break.”  I hung up the phone and took it off the hook.

*****

     Friday morning I debated skipping school again and cancelling whatever field trip Brian might have planned.  I still felt like shit and looked even worse, it was the last day before spring break, and I was going to be in Penance Hall anyway.  It was a pretty strong case for staying in bed, and I knew Sally was willing to cover for me.  But Brian had piqued my curiosity.  Besides, I didn’t want to spend another day by myself, haunting the huge house like a ghost with nothing but the voices in my head or Sally’s disapproval for company.  I raided my brother’s closet rather than attempting to navigate the mess that still covered the floor in my room.  With prune-y fingers from the shower, I buttoned my stolen shirt and did my best to go down to breakfast without tumbling down the stairs. 

     Halfway through my second bowl of Raisin Bran – eaten while standing up at the counter, Sally entered the kitchen carrying the milk delivery and the newspaper.  To say she was surprised to see me up and dressed for school would be accurate as she dropped the newspaper and nearly dropped the milk as she took a startled step back.  “Lordy, Christian!”  She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment.  Opening them, she crossed to the refrigerator to put away the milk and took her apron off the hook, trading places between it and the misshapen red cardigan she wore year-round.  “Cereal’s for Saturdays.  Let me make you something hot.”

     “’S okay, Sally.  I’m already eating and you don’t have to cook just for me.”  The look she sent my way shut me up and I resigned myself, not too reluctantly, to eating a second breakfast.

     “You’re goin’ to school?”  I watched her eyes trace the bruises on my face.

     “Yes, ma’am.”

     “Go run over an’ tell James you’re gonna need a ride, so he can be ready.”

     I looked down and poked at the raisins in my cereal bowl.  “Brian’s comin’ for me.”

     I didn’t have to be looking to know that Sally’s shoulders had gone rigid.  She slammed a drawer shut, making the silverware inside rattle.  “The boy who got you in trouble?”

     “You know it’s not like that.  I told you yesterday.”

     “And I told you what your father would think about that situation.”

     “Are you gonna tell on me?” I challenged, daring to meet her eyes and refusing to look away.

     Sally’s eyes flashed wide, surprise, hurt and anger smoldering in their depths.  It wasn’t the first time in my life I’d put her in this position, and I doubted it would be the last, but I could expect a lot more bologna sandwiches in my future and a lot less peach cobbler.  She turned to the stove, taking out her aggression on the eggs.  “He hasn’t told me to keep you away from the Collins boy, so I won’t say anything unless he asks.”  She raised her voice to make sure I heard: “But if he asks, I’m gonna tell him the truth.”

     “Of course.”  I waited a moment, watching the back of her head as she focused on breakfast.  “Thank you.”  That got me a hrrrumph, to remind me that it was my own ass I was gambling with.

     The black Charger pulled into the driveway right on schedule.  I carried my dishes to the sink and gave Sally a peck on the cheek to worm my way back into her good graces.  She knew what I was up to.  She smacked me with her dishtowel and sent me a scowl, but her eyes had some of their sparkle back as I waved goodbye and picked up my book bag on the way out the door.