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Introduction:

"And ye shall seek and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart" Jeremiah 29:13
Oh no…

My breath stopped. My chest constricted in shock and terror. My lungs fought desperately against the mounting pressure as I wavered and stuck a hand out to balance myself. I felt like I was going to collapse.

Oh no…

“AND HE’S YOUR BROTHER! WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?!”

My first thought was to run, to grab Kayla and run back to her house and wait out the storm. I could tell her that it was family stuff and that we shouldn’t get involved, that it didn’t concern us and we should let it blow over first…No, I couldn’t. They were my siblings. I couldn’t just leave them twisting.

Besides, this was partially my fault. I let them be intimate whenever they were alone. I let them lower their defenses.

But…damn it, guys, why couldn’t you have been more careful?

“I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU TWO!”

Kayla clutched my arm as the structure of the house seemed to shake from the force of dad’s voice. Great, now she was going to find out too. And I had told her there was nothing else she needed to know…

My breathing was shallow and I felt like I was going to puke with each breath. I just couldn’t will my legs to move, terror rooting me in place. I had to get up those stairs but what I would find up there…I still remember that feeling…like I would find my death at the top of those steps. That nothing but fire and fury waited for me at the top to consume me if I came anywhere close.

WELL?! SAY SOMETHING!”

Alan and Amanda were in trouble. I had to help.

I had to.

My legs broke through the ice block of my fear and I raced up the stairs, Kayla close on my heels. I didn’t exactly want her finding out this way (though I wasn’t exactly sure how I did want her finding out, if at all) but it wasn’t like I had much of a choice now. And she was hardly the biggest of my problems now.

Every clomp of my shoes on the steps was like a death toll, bringing me one step closer to the greatest trouble I would ever have been in. I knew I had to do this but I’ll be damned if I didn’t think I would die of a heart attack along the way. My heart was beating so fast that I felt the metallic taste of blood filling my mouth.

Alan and Amanda’s door was open and the angry roaring was coming from there. Feeling like I was about to face an explosion head-on, I walked in.

Alan was pressing himself against the closet door, desperately trying to cover himself with his boxers and his eyes wide with terror. His other hand was lightly clawing at the wall, as if hoping he could somehow escape into it. Amanda was nothing more than a lump in the blankets and a pair of horrified eyes peeking out. It was like stepping into a horror movie right as the killer bursts through the door where the two young deadmeats have been having sex. Actually…that’s exactly what happened, sans the killer part.

Mom and dad stood like two mountains of rage. Fury pulsated from them like malevolent wavelengths that made my stomach churn and my limbs quiver. I couldn’t even see their faces and I already knew I would see my parents, two of the people I loved most in the world, transformed by their fury into something terrifyingly unrecognizable. The thought of their faces staring at me with the same anger that was now directed at the twins was almost enough to make me want to bolt.

Almost.

Alan and Amanda’s eyes found mine and the same expression appeared on their faces. It was a look that screamed, “Help us!”

I couldn’t abandon them.

Dad was inhaling, his body swelling as he prepared to yell again. “Dad,” I said firmly.

He whirled around. “WHAT?!” he roared. His fury abated slightly upon seeing Kayla and I, but in that brief moment before he realized who I was I caught a glimpse of his true fury. Dad was a casually handsome man, his trademark grin giving him a look of boyish roguery, but there was no semblance of that charm now. His face was set like granite, his eyes alight with hellfire and his teeth gritted so tightly I could practically see sparks flying from them. The furious shape of his mouth had tugged on his cheeks so that they stretch in what might have been a comical fashion if not for everything else.

It was only a moment that his face was like this but it’s an image I will never forget.

“Jack,” dad said, panting a little, “Kayla…please give us some time…” He was trying to control himself and somehow his level tone was making the whole situation scarier than it already was.

“No, dad.”

“Jack,” mom said, her voice so hard that hearing it was like getting punched in the ear, “Please leave.” Mom wasn’t the type to have her face twisted by anger; instead, she became eerily stoic and you were always terrified she was suddenly going to hit you. She never did but she had a way of convincing you that she might.

“I’m staying,” I said firmly. It’s a good thing my voice was steady because I could feel my legs shaking in my jeans, and not just because I was still wet from the Jacuzzi.

Jack,” dad snapped, “This—”

“I know all about it.” I honestly think, though I needed to call upon my courage a lot before then and a lot of time after, that I never displayed more bravery than at that point. If I didn’t say something now, we would pass the point where I could do anything.

Kayla had been gripping my arm and her hands suddenly tightened in shock. Mom and dad’s face went white and their mouths hung open, words completely failing them. Alan had slid on his boxers and both he and Amanda were looking at me in shock. I don’t know what else they expected me to do. It had to happen.

“You…know about…” Dad couldn’t even bring himself to finish the sentence.

I held myself firm. “Yes,” I said, “I’ve known for a while now. So if you want to get mad at someone, get mad at me. You made me head of the house. I let them do it because it’s what they wanted to do. They love each other.”

“THEY’RE BROTHER AND SISTER!” dad roared, this tie really causing the room to shake, “THEY CAN’T DO THINGS LIKE THIS!”

“How could you, Jack?” mom said in a deathly whisper, “How could you?”

“How could I what?” I fired back, “What is wrong with this?” Good God, I’m actually about to defend incest.

“What is wrong with it?” mom sputtered, “What is wrong with…a brother and sister…”

“Yes,” I said solidly, aware that Kayla’s hands were slipping from my arm. I’m sorry, Kayla. “What is wrong with it? What’s wrong with it besides the fact that they’re related?”

Dad was gesturing between the two of them, barely able to form words. “They…are…they…” He rounded on me in fury. “How dare you let this happen in our house?! We trusted you, Jack!”

“And it was happening before I was put in charge!” I shouted, “So what does that say about you guys?”

Both of them were quivering in fury. “Jack…” Dad was about to explode. Whether literally or figuratively, I didn’t know.

What I did know was that I had to start speaking or I was in serious danger of being punched in the face. I took a deep breath. What I said next was not anything I had planned to say ahead of time (frankly, I hadn’t planned for this at all) but, somehow, I was able to make it flow;

“Seriously, guys, what’s wrong with this? Where does it say that brothers and sisters can’t be lovers? People have been doing it for centuries and I don’t see anything being worse because of it. I mean…okay, what’s the big hang-up? Morals or something? It’s immoral? Says who? The Bible has a ton of incest in it! And where exactly do people get the idea that we always have to do it with people outside the family? When did this moral outrage start? It wasn’t so long ago that it was considered ‘immoral’ for black people to vote. It wasn’t that long ago it was considered ‘immoral’ for women to have jobs outside the home.”

“This is different—” dad started hotly but I cut him off.

“No, it isn’t! This is just as important! I’m not saying everyone should go out and fuck their sibling but what’s wrong with it in this case? You love them. They love you. And they love each other, just as more than a brother and sister. What’s wrong with that? No, really, what’s wrong with that? Wouldn’t you rather have your child with someone who cares about them? Dad, seriously, wouldn’t you rather Amanda’s first time be with someone who actually gives a shit about her rather than some high school douchebag just looking to put another notch in his bedpost?”

“JACK, THAT’S NOT—”

“IT IS,” I roared, making everyone jump, “It’s important! It’s the whole point! I was freaked out when I first saw it but you know what? It wasn’t any of my business! It didn’t affect me and it sure as heck doesn’t affect you any more than you want it to! Like…okay, what does this mean? They’re having sex? Having sex just for fun? Well, does that affect you any more than me having sex with K…than if me and Kayla were having sex?” My parents probably knew but probably best not to out Kayla right now. “It’s not any more of our business than if two gay people have sex. Really, it’s not. I mean, shouldn’t you be happy that they found someone that they love? That they found someone they love as much as I love Kayla?” I meant that but part of me kind of hoped saying it would make Kayla less mad at me.

“If we let them—” mom started but again, I interrupted.

“Then what happens? They have sex. That’s it. It’s not going to bring the world crashing down on us. No police are going to come and the only thing that could go wrong is if intolerant fucktards find out and try to make it their business but who’s going to tell them? Are you? Am I? Are they?” I was basically babbling at this point but I had the sense that the longer I talked, the calmer my parents were getting. “I know…trust me, I know it’s weird and you don’t have to like it…but what is the harm? Who is hurt by this? Who’s gonna know? Please…please don’t make this a big thing. It’s shocking, yeah. It’s fucking weird as shit but so what? I knew and it didn’t do anything to me. I didn’t freak out or anything. Okay, maybe a little at first, but then Kayla and I started dating so maybe it worked out for the best. I don’t know. But this whole thing isn’t as fucked up as it seems when you think about it.”

They were a little calmer now but they could spark back up at any moment. “Jack—”

“If you’re going to punish them, you’ll have to punish me too. They wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t let them. I could have stopped them at any time but I didn’t because I was happy that they loved each other. And you should love that they love each other too because they’re your children and you should want them to be happy. If you aren’t happy then…well, you’ll have to punish me first because it’s mostly my fault. If you’re going to ground them, you better kick me out of the house. If you kick them out of the house, you better leave me in the desert. I stand by what they’re doing and I’m not moving. I love you guys and I love them and we’re going to stay together, no matter what.” I folded my arms, hoping I looked resolute.

Alan and Amanda were gaping at me, tears in their eyes. Mom was rubbing her eyes and dad looked stuck on the fine edge between warily calm and batshit crazy. I didn’t dare turn to look at Kayla. I wanted to be scared about what she was thinking and what this might mean for our relationship but I had to focus entirely on my family. This whole thing was on the razor’s tip.

Dad took a few deep breaths and looked at me with a stony expression. “We love you all,” he said, “But this…damn it, Jack, this isn’t something you can just easily explain away. We…we need time to…” He looked over at mom, who had buried her face in her hands. “Your mother and I need to talk about this. In the meantime,” he pointed at Amanda, “you will be sleeping in Jack’s room. Jack, you’re going to sleep in here.” He gripped my arm hard, his eyes drilling into mine. “You’re not going to allow anything like this anymore, okay? Your mother and I can’t start coming home earlier so if I even catch a hint that they’ve been…well…” He squeezed my arm so hard, I swear it left a bruise.

“Damn it, kids,” mom said softly, “I don’t even know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything,” dad replied harshly, “Come on. And remember…separate rooms you two.” Alan and Amanda nodded, visibly trembling. Mom and dad left, the shadow of their anger still hanging heavy over the room.

I let out a long breath. “Get dressed, guys,” I said, “I’m going to walk Kayla home.” They nodded, still unable to speak.

It was only now that I turned to look at Kayla. Her expression wasn’t what I expected. I had expected anger or betrayal but she just looked at me the same way you might look at a confusing painting. It was impossible to read what she was thinking and that made me even more nervous. I wanted to reach out and take her hand but I was afraid she might pull away. I couldn’t bear that.

“You…um…ready to go?” I asked lamely. What else could I say? She nodded slowly and walked toward the stairs, keeping eye-contact as much as she could.

The walk across the lawn to her house was one of the longest walks I’ve ever taken. Not because of distance but because of the leaden silence between us. A million explanations, a million justifications, a million things came to mind for me to say but I didn’t have the heart to say them. She had told me to not keep secrets from her. Technically, she had asked me to tell her only things she needed to know but…this was a big one. Besides, what must she think of me? Encouraging incest? With two of her newest friends?

Just describing it in my head made me ashamed of myself. Not that I did something wrong by protecting Alan and Amanda but someone on the outside would not see it like that.

I walked her to her door, feeling like I was about to lose something. She turned to me and gave me that same look she had when we were still in the twins’ room. “Kayla, I—”

She held up a hand. “What time do you go into work tomorrow?” she asked calmly.

I blinked and thought. “At noon.”

“Can you be over here at about ten? I…want some time to think about this. I know you want to talk and we should talk but I need some time to think, okay?”

A little hope returned but I wasn’t about to push my luck. “Okay,” I replied, giving her a small smile.

She returned it, to my relief. “I don’t think I’m mad,” she said, touching my hand. She pulled me in for a hug and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I would have liked for an actual kiss but I wasn’t about to ask for one. I’m stunned she decided to give me a hug.

“See you tomorrow,” I said and then risked adding, “I love you.”

She gave me a wider smile. “And I love you.” She closed the door.

I sighed and beat my fists together. She had said she still loved me, which made me feel good, but who knows what she might say tomorrow after having a night to think about it? We had never really discussed our thoughts on other types of relationships but our own so I didn’t know where this fell on her scale of acceptable. Maybe she would decide…

Knock it off, Jack. I couldn’t just stand here feeling sorry for myself. Alan and Amanda needed me too, now more than ever. The image of their terrified faces was still burned in my brain and the persistent whisper that it was all my fault continued to buzz in my ear. It was my fault but that only meant it was my responsibility to make it right.

I was grabbing some clothes from my room when Amanda came in, dressed in her pajamas and carrying one of her stuffed animals. She clutched the rabbit to her chest, still visibly shaken by everything. “Jack…” she said softly, licking her lips.

“Hey, Amanda,” I said, getting up, “You okay?”

She bit her lip and shook her head, looking at the ground. “Alan said he thought he heard the garage door but I didn’t want to stop.” She ran a hand across her eyes. “It’s all my fault.”

“No,” I said firmly, going over to her and gripping her shoulders, “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I let you guys do it when mom and dad weren’t around. I never had a problem with it. I never told you to be careful. I’m more responsible than you are.”

“That’s not true, Jack. We would have done it even if you hadn’t…” She had to stop as tears streaked her face.

I wiped them away and said, “Everything is going to be okay. Mom and dad aren’t going to kick anyone out.”

Apparently those were the wrong words to say. “Oh my God, do you think they’ll send one of us away?!” She was crying in earnest now. ‘I can’t lose you guys…either of you…I just…” She buried her face in the bunny’s back and cried.

I pulled her in for a hug and she cried into my shoulder, each fresh sob soaking my shirt in tears. I stroked her hair and shushed her. “No one is being sent away,” I said, “I promise.”

She pulled back and looked me in the face. “I was so scared when you told them that you knew. I thought they were going to hit you.”

I gave her a small smile. “Thank goodness for shock paralysis.”

She gave a teary chuckle. “Thank you. For coming in when you did. I don’t know what mom and dad might have done if you hadn’t…”

I pulled her in for another hug. “Just get some sleep. I’m sure everything will be better in the morning.”

She hugged me back, then suddenly looked up and gave me a quick kiss. I was too stunned to do anything but she was already pulling back and stammering before I could react. “I’m sorry!” she said, mortified, “I’m sorry! I just…I wanted to feel something good before…” She started to cry again and collapsed on my bed.

I wanted to comfort her, to tell her everything was going to be okay, but I had just about all I could handle today. I squeezed her shoulder once, said, “Good night,” and left.

Alan was sitting in bed, staring off into space. “How is she?” he asked.

“Broken up,” I replied, taking off my shirt.

Alan bit his lip. “I’m so sorry, Jack.”

“Nothing we can do now but wait for mom and dad to come to a decision.”

He went white. “Do you think they’ll send one of us away?”

“Not if I can help it,” I said firmly, crawling into Amanda’s bed, “Just go to sleep. You worry too much about it, you’ll just feel worse.”

“Yeah, I guess…was Kayla upset?”

“I don’t think so but she wants me over at her house tomorrow before work to talk about it.”

“I hope it goes okay.”

“Me too. And really, Alan…don’t worry about it.”

It was all well and good for me to say that to him, but I wasn’t exactly heeding my own advice. As I put my head on the pillow and drew up the unfamiliar blanket, my mind was full of worry and doubt. It was a long time before I got to sleep.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Nobody was up when I went downstairs for breakfast. Alan and Amanda were still in bed, presumably having been awake as long as I had before finally falling asleep, and mom and dad’s door was still shut. It was the first lonely breakfast I had had in a long time and, frankly, it was pretty depressing. I missed the banter, I missed the laughter, I missed having someone there to fill in the silence while I chewed. My chewing sounded disturbingly loud.

I finished eating by nine-thirty and still, no one was awake. A half-hour of dead air. Wonderful. I would have booted up a game or something but Amanda still wasn’t awake and I had no desire to turn on the television so I did the only thing I could think of doing: go for a walk. I left a note for my parents, telling them I was going to be at Kayla’s and that I would probably be going directly to work from there.

There was a hint of autumn in the air as I walked. Normally, autumn is my favorite season, if for no other reason than the smell of it. Often, I’ll stand outside and just inhale the scent of leaves and chilled wood, of roaring fireplaces and the twinge of spice from the stale grass. The decomposition of the dead leaves gave way to a heavenly scent, almost a sweetness. Beauty from death. I loved the way the sun shone brightly but the chill in the air was enough to make you shiver; a weathery contradiction. I loved how people huddled together in groups when they talked, keeping each other warm, and the way the conversations would become more intimate because of their closenss. Walking in my leather jacket through a sea of dry leaves, hearing the crunch beneath my feet and the crackling shuffle as they rustle together…honestly, you couldn’t find a better way to spend an afternoon.

I hoped to share that with Kayla soon. God, please don’t let her be too upset.

I walked around the neighborhood, nodding greeting to the few people out and about. I remembered how, not too long ago, Alan and I had walked this same route on the way to talk about relationships. Now, both of them might be in jeopardy. Despite my confident reassurances to my siblings, it seemed terrifyingly likely that one of us might be sent away to live with another relative. Then the family would know about it…then how long until the kids at school?

One little mistake and my whole world might come apart. I was praying as hard as I could but I knew this was in my hands now.

I made it to Kayla’s house a minute before ten. I leaned against her porch railing, staring at the door as I waited for the remaining minute to expire. Did she sleep as fitfully as me last night? Had she made up her mind? Would she be okay with it?

Only one way to find out.

She opened the door on the second knock. “You could have knocked instead of waiting out there,” she said with a little smirk. Good, she’s in a teasing mood.

“And you could have invited me in instead of just watching me,” I replied, sticking my tongue out.

She giggled. “But I like watching you when you don’t know I’m looking.”

“You been staring at me in my bedroom?” Shit, please don’t let her have seen Amanda kiss me.

“Please, I got all of you saved up here.” She tapped her forehead and smiled. She was dressed in sweatpants and an old T-shirt, presumably pajamas made for colder weather. And she still managed to make them sexy as hell.

An awkward silence fell as we both fumbled for something to say. She cleared her throat and gestured to the living room. “Let’s…well, sit down,” she said awkwardly.

A dark lump on the sofa uncurled itself into Tori, stretching and gazing at us with accusing eyes for disturbing her sleep. “Hey, Tori,” I said, stretching out my hand. She sniffed my knuckles and rubbed her head against them. She got up, stretched again and then gently crawled into my lap.

“She’s taken to you,” Kayla said amusedly as she sat down next to me. Tori looked over at her and then quickly flowed from my lap to hers.

“Well, she still knows who the momma is,” I replied, scratching Tori’s ears. She closed her eyes and purred.

“Yes she does.”

Silence fell again. Kayla stroked Tori’s back and I sat, trying to keep from twiddling my thumbs. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she replied, blowing out her cheeks, “I stayed up for a bit last night.”

“Me too.”

“This is…not something you can usually prepare yourself for.”

I couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Kayla, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you! I—”

She put a hand gently to my mouth. “Jack, if you’re worried that I’m going to break up with you or stop loving you, you don’t have to worry. I’m not.”

“You aren’t?” Next paycheck was going straight to the Vatican, I swear.

“No,” she said, giving me a small smile, “I know I asked you to not keep secrets and tell me stuff I needed to know but…well, this wasn’t your secret. It was Alan and Amanda’s. I’ll admit, I was a little pissed off at first that I had to find out this way but the more I thought about it, I wasn’t pissed off at anyone. I was pissed off at the situation. I wanted to be angry at you but I thought what would happen if I had a brother and sister and I realized that you did it to protect them. Because you love them.”

I was so relived I couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “Uh huh.”

She laughed at my response. “Nice to see your brain is working.”

“I hope my parents feel the same way.”

“They better. I mean, it’s always been just kind of an accepted thing that incest is wrong but the more I think about it, you were right in saying there isn’t anything other than a moral outrage making it ‘wrong’. Hell, I’m not even convinced people are just pissed at it because it can make some fucked up babies.” She sucked in her cheek. “Jack…the way you talked last night…honestly, that took some balls.”

“Big balls?” I asked, grinning.

She flicked my ear. “I’ll compliment your cock another time, stud. Seriously, that was really brave of you and I hope your parents realize just how difficult that was for you to do. I don’t know if that will affect their decision but they should realize it.”

“Yeah…”

She put her hand on my cheek. “I’m worried about you, Jack.”

“Why?”

“Well, I don’t want you to try to put too much on yourself. I’m here to help you, too.”

“I know. That’s why I’ve been telling you everything.”

“I know, baby, but I want you to know I can help you.” She cupped my face with both hands and kissed me lightly. “Jack, I love you and I want to be there for you. As more than just someone who can kiss you and have sex with you and hang on your arm. I just feel like…” She started tearing up. “I feel like sometimes I’m just taking you for granted without earning you.”

“Kayla,” I said, seizing her hands, “You deserve me. You’ve earned me. You’re the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to bed.” If I had thought about these words, they would have seemed really sappy, but I was speaking from the heart so they were the truth. “I love you because you are you. You make me so happy and bring so much joy to my life. I wouldn’t change anything about you.”

She smiled and kissed me. Then she grabbed my head and pulled me in for a longer kiss. Tori, neglected, slid off her lap with a discontented meow and padded off. The kiss lasted half a minute before she pulled back. “That’s for not giving you one last night,” she said, twisting her mouth apologetically, “Sorry.”

“I understand. So…you’re not weirded out by Alan and Amanda?”

“If they love each other, they love each other. It’s only weird because I’ve been told it’s weird. I care about them enough to get over that.”

I blew out my cheeks. “Any chance you might be able to get my parents to think that way?”

Her tongue moved around inside her cheek. “I wonder how they’ll react to me being okay with it.”

“They love you.”

“I know they do but they also love Alan and Amanda. And I saw the way they were last night.” She shuddered. “My dad can get scary when he’s mad but your parents…damn.”

“Yeah,” I said, laughing a little, “I’ve never seen them like that. Hope I never again.”

She cuddled up to me. “I hope everything is okay. I don’t want to lose any of you guys.”

“You won’t. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Thanks for being amazing.”

“Thanks for being perfect.”

She poked me in the belly. “I’m not.”

“Yes you are. Hey, can you do me a favor?”

“Of course!”

“While I’m at work, could you maybe go over and talk with the twins? Just talk with them, maybe help them feel a little better.”

She looked up at me. “Will your parents let me?”

“I don’t see why not. They made them sleep in separate rooms last night so they probably would be fine having someone else around to make sure they don’t…do anything.”

“…Okay. I’ll go over.”

“I’m sorry, I—”

“No, no, it’s fine,” she said, putting a hand on my stomach, “Are you going to be okay at work?”

“Yeah. It’ll take my mind off it.”

“What, and I don’t?” she asked, pretending to be offended.

I laughed. “You do. You always make me feel better.”

She kissed me. “Are there…any other ways I can take your mind off it?” she asked with a wink.

“Do you want to?”

She sighed. “I do. Really, really bad, especially after last night. Last night…oh my God.” She shivered. “But I know you have to head out soon.”

“Yeah…” I could have gone for a quickie but I wasn’t exactly in the mood and I doubt she was either.

Reading my mind, she said, “And last night isn’t the best mood-setter either.”

“No, it’s not,” I agreed.

We lay snuggled for a while, happy for the security of each other’s arms. Tori came in at one point and polished our ankles but soon left after finding neither of us much in the mood to make her the center of attention. I checked my phone occasionally to see if anyone had called me but the messages remained blank. I thought about messaging Joe or Tara (maybe Brad, just to see if anything would change) but what exactly could I say? The one thing I really wanted to talk about was taboo for everyone except for my immediate family and Kayla. God, what were my parents going to do about Kayla knowing?

“Hey, Jack, I was thinking…”

I put my phone away. “Yes?”

“I think we should talk to Brad about Jessica.”

I shuffled back so I could look her full in the face. “Why?”

“Because if she’s going to be putting guns in your locker, what’s she going to do next? If Brad can do something…”

I thought about it. Brad had put a huge barrier between us and him but maybe…I mean, I wasn’t saying I wanted him to break up with Jessica, but since he was her boyfriend maybe he could talk to her? Or, at the very least… “Maybe we could all sit down and talk,” I said, “Get to the bottom of this.”

“That ought to be cheerful,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Seriously. We’ll talk to him in gym on Tuesday, get us all together at lunch, and find out what the hell is going on.”

She sat up and stretched. “If she goes for it…yeah, I like that idea.”

I sat up as well and put my hands on her shoulders, squeezing the muscles near her neck. She moaned out loud. “Ohhhhh,” she said in a low voice that made my cock twitch, “That feels goooooooood.”

I didn’t say anything but proceeded to massage her shoulders firmly, easing out the tension in her slim shoulders. Her head lolled back, her hair spilling onto my hands. “What happened to your hair bow?” I asked, brushing her hair aside.

She scooped all of it and flipped it over her shoulder. “Haven’t…mmmmm…had time…” She was moaning lightly as I relaxed her muscles. My hands slid off her shoulders, down her back to work on the knots around her spine. Her back arched and she gasped and sighed appreciatively.

“What have you been doing to get all this tension?” I asked teasingly.

“I’ve…mmmm…been having to make a…ohhhh…certain someone very happy…mmmm…”

“Anyone I know?”

“Yeah, he…ohhhhh yes…exists in your mirror…”

I laughed and she couldn’t help but join in, even in the ecstasy of the massage. She leaned back into me, twisting her head so she could kiss me, long and lingering. My hands, now robbed of a surface to massage, found their way to her breasts. She cooed and giggled as I lightly squeezed them through her shirt. “Something on your mind, mister?” she asked coyly.

“Yes,” I replied, kissing her forehead, “Work.”

I stood up, forcing her to flop back on the sofa. She twisted immediately and gave me a pouty face. “You can’t do that,” she huffed, pounding the sofa, “You can’t tease me like that and then leave!”

“Sweetcheeks, I have to go to work,” I said piously, “I would love to stay here and take care of your needs but someone has to win the bread.”

She crossed her arms under her boobs, making them swell. Her face was frowning but her eyes held only mischief. “Just see if you ever get to play with them again,” she hissed.

“Oh, as if you could resist me,” I said, tying my shoes, “I’ll text you on my break, I promise.”

“Okay,” she said, suddenly happy. She ran over and threw her arms around me, giving me another kiss. “And I’ll go over to your house soon. I promise.”

“Thanks, Kayla,” I said, “You’re the best.”

She laid her head on my chest and held me. “Everything’s going to work out,” she said.

“I know.”

She kissed me again. “Have a good day at work, baby. I love you.”

“I love you too,” I said, turning around and opening the door.

“Hey!”

I turned. “Yeah?”

She stared at me for a second, then grinned and lifted her shirt. Her beautiful breasts fell out, her beautiful pink nipples staring at me. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like going to work. She dropped her shirt. “Something to think about at work,” she said, putting a finger to her lip, “And to get you back for teasing me.”

I rolled my eyes and left. Nothing was better with my family yet but I was feeling a whole lot better all the same.

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Breakfast the next day was…well, there’s not a word for it, but ‘insanely uncomfortable’ sounds about right. Alan and Amanda were extremely subdued, staring only at their plates. Mom and dad were just as silent, but with the air of a cobra poised to strike. Dad wasn’t reading his morning paper and mom wasn’t happily flitting about, getting the table set. As such, everyone was forced to go get their own breakfast, meaning there were a lot of chair-scrapings and muttered apologies as people got in each other’s way. In the unusual silence, they were very loud.

I wanted to try to break the ice but I got the sense that it would be unwelcome. Everyone was extremely uncomfortable and if they were forced to talk to each other…Silence was probably better.

Kayla had, unfortunately, not been able to talk to the twins the day before. Mom and dad had been very courteous with her, as they always were, as they explained that the twins were forbade from seeing anyone at the moment. They had even taken their cell phones away. Even though it was supposed to be a punishment, it sounded very paranoid to me, as if mom and dad were afraid that the twins would blab about what happened.

Parents might be older but that doesn’t mean they are all-knowing. But don’t let them know that.

I put my plate in the sink and turned around, clearing my throat. Everyone looked at me and I suddenly felt like I was standing before a jury. “We’ll be heading out in a few,” I said to Alan and Amanda, “You guys ready?” They nodded. “Good.”

They dropped their dishes in the sink and meekly left the room to go collect their backpacks. Dad cleared his throat. Like mine, it had gotten a little dry from lack of use. “Remember what we said yesterday. About anything happening between them.”

“I will,” I said. I probably wouldn’t even have to do anything. Alan and Amanda were so terrified, they’d probably have a heart attack just by accidentally touching each other. “Have you…thought about it?”

Dad steepled his fingers and mom pointedly took a long, long drink of coffee. “We are thinking,” dad said. He wouldn’t say anything more and I didn’t push it, lest he start thinking that I need to be punished for covering it up.

“Hope you guys have a good day,” I said, smiling at them. My mouth fought the smile but I managed it all the same.

They looked at me and I could tell they wanted to smile as well. “Have a good day at school,” dad said. I went over and gave them both a hug. They tried to return it but couldn’t bring themselves to. That one hurt but I sucked it up and walked away. They didn’t say anything else.

Alan made to get into the passenger’s seat but I cleared my throat and looked pointedly at the back seat. He was about to say something but I cut him off. “Mom and dad aren’t riding with us,” I said, “So you can sit next to her.”

He hesitated but crawled in next to her. They gave each other an awkward smile but still looked like they were trying to stay as far away from each other as possible.

Kayla ran up to the car just as we were pulling in the driveway. “Hey,” she said to me, kissing me sweetly. She then turned around. “Hey, guys. Sorry I couldn’t see you yesterday.”

Since she hadn’t been able to talk to them, they didn’t know how to react. They stared at her, breaths held. “You guys okay?” I asked, backing out of the driveway.

“Are you…mad?” Alan asked tentatively.

“Why would I be?” Kayla asked, confused.

“Because we…you saw us…”

Kayla took each of their hands. “Guys…you’re my friends,” she said seriously, “If you love each other, you love each other. Brother, sister…okay, yeah, I still find it a little weird but so what? You two are happy.”

Their jaws dropped comically. “Are you sure?” Amanda asked.

“If I wasn’t, I would have punched Jack in the jaw yesterday,” she said, giving me a fond look.

Alan gave a breathless, relieved laugh. “Isn’t there a term like ‘Jack-punching’ someone? Or something?”

“Oh, we can make it,” Kayla said, grinning.

Amanda was still looking a little worried. “You weren’t mad at Jack or anything?”

Kayla thought about it, turning back around in her seat. “I was at first. I mean, it’s something you don’t wanna find out about like that but…well, what Jack said made a lot of sense.”

“Yeah, you really pulled out the big guns,” Alan said, clapping me on the shoulder.

“I’m not saying I would be into incest if I had a brother,” Kayla said (and we have another contender for Sentences You Never Expect Someone To Say), “But…I can’t even begin to convince myself to have a problem with it. What argument could I give?”

Alan leaned back, laughing in relief, but Amanda was looking at me. I knew what she was thinking about: Kayla’s comment about not being into incest if she had a brother. I gave her a quick head-shake and she visibly relaxed. That was a secret I was going to hold on to.

“Thanks, Kayla,” Alan said, squeezing her upper arm, “I just…I guess we didn’t expect you to be so cool with it.”

She shrugged. “It’s none of my business. You guys being happy is. I just hope your parents see it that way too.”

The mention of our parents put them back in a sour mood. “Yeah…” Amanda sighed, looking out the window. Kayla looked at me with despairing eyes, sorry she had brought up the topic. I squeezed her hand.

We walked up to school and found, to our surprise, Joe was not alone in waiting for us. He was deep in conversation with Belle, one of Jessica’s closest friends. They were laughing together and standing much closer than they needed to for a friendly chat. Kayla and I grinned at each other and I called, “Yo, Joe!”

Joe looked up and blushed instantly. “Oh, hey,” he said, jerking his hand up, “How you guys doing?”

“Great,” Kayla said, all smiles and friendliness, “How are you guys doing?”

“Pretty good,” Joe said, looking at Belle and coughing. He gestured between us a few times and said, “Belle, do you…know everyone?”

“Sort of,” she replied, a little less embarrassed than him. She gave us a small smile.

“Well, this is my best friend, Jack,” he said, pointing at me, “His girlfriend, Kayla.”

“Hey,” Kayla said, sticking out her hand, which Belle shook.

“And Jack’s brother and sister. Alan and Amanda.”

“Hey,” Belle said, waving at them. They waved and smiled back. Though no one at school knew about their relationship, you’d swear they thought everyone was just waiting to spring out and mock them.

“So how was your weekend?” I asked Joe, trying to be as casual as possible. Every part of me wanted to tease him but he was actually looking somewhat contented for the first time in a week. No reason to take that from him.

“Pretty good,” he said vaguely, looking at Belle.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Belle said exasperatedly, huffing, “Joe and I went on a couple of dates.”

Really?” Kayla and I said together, beaming at Joe.

Joe blushed and said, “Yep.”

Belle looked at him. “Though I may end up being the man in the relationship if his balls don’t come in.”

Ohhhhhh,” I drawled, giving Belle a high-five, “That stung!”

Joe blushed. “Come on,” he said.

Belle put a hand on his shoulder and leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. “I’m just kidding, big guy,” she said sweetly.

I glanced across toward the school where Brad and Jessica were standing in their usual spot, surrounded by members of Jessica’s entourage. Brad was busy talking with a few of the girls but Jessica was glancing over at us. Her eyes traveled from Belle to me. When she saw me looking at her, she quickly turned away.

Belle saw where I was looking. “Jessica wasn’t too happy about it,” she said a little sadly.

“Babe, you don’t need her,” Joe said, putting an arm around her shoulders, “If she wants to dictate who you can and can’t date, she can piss up a rope.”

“I dare you to say that to her face,” Kayla said. She grinned but I could sense the venom behind her words.

Joe drew himself up. “Maybe I will.” He turned around.

Belle quickly caught his arm. “Don’t jump into the snake pit yet, Indiana,” she said quickly, “I’m expecting a few more dates first.”

“Gladly,” Joe said with a smile. It was good to see him smile again. The whole business with Brad had thrown him off so much and it was kind of depressing to see such a naturally goofy guy get so depressed.

“Well,” Amanda said, giving everyone a smile that stopped before her eyes, “We’re going to head in. See you guys later.” She and Alan walked on, both their heads down, trying to ward off nonexistent attention.

“We should probably head in, too,” Belle said, pulling on Joe’s hand.

“Oh, hey, Joe,” Kayla said, quickly, “Can I ask you something really quick?”

Joe nodded and said, “Go ahead, babe. I’ll catch up.” Belle flashed him a smile (a very pretty one, at that) and walked on. “What’s up?” he said to Kayla.

“Are you all over Brad?”

Joe turned white. “Brad…what about him…over him?”

Kayla raised an eyebrow and said, “Joe, I know, okay? It wasn’t exactly hard to pick up.”

Joe pointed at me. “Did he—”

“No,” Kayla said quickly, “I promise, I just figured it out. So you’re…bi?”

He was at a loss for words, looking at us both as if begging to be saved somehow. “You just…figured it out?”

“From the way you were acting about Brad. I mean, Jack was annoyed…you were straight up pissed and not in the ‘I’ve lost my friend’ way.”

Joe drummed his fingers on his leg for a second before muttering, “Yeah, I am.”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of!” Kayla said quickly, giving him a quick hug, “I think it’s sweet. I really am sorry it’s not going to best with Brad.”

“Yeah, well,” Joe said, shrugging, “I’ve decided to move on. Even if he wasn’t dating Jessica…I don’t know if I’m that attracted to him anymore.”

Kayla nodded approvingly. “Besides, Belle seems nice.”

“Yeah, she is,” he said wistfully. He turned. “I better go say bye to her. I’ll see you guys later.” With a wave, he left.

“Good for him,” Kayla said cheerfully, “I guess Brad did right by him with something.”

“Yeah.” I was still thinking about talking to Brad about Jessica. “Any way we can talk to Brad today?”

“You want to just get it over and done with?”

“Mhm.”

She sighed. “Me too. But we have gym with him tomorrow. No Jessica. Let’s wait until then.”

“Just hope she doesn’t do anything today.”

She cracked her knuckles and said savagely, “If she tries, I’ll remind her what happened last time I got pissed off with her.”

I smiled and took her hand. I didn’t even care if she ended up kicking Jessica’s ass from one end of the school to the other. Just the fact that she was willing to was enough for me. Violent? Yes, but very sweet as well.

Only women can somehow be violent and sweet at the same time. Go figure.

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“Harrison!”

I screeched to a halt. “Yes, Ms. Cartwright?”

I had just finished dressing for gym class and was on my way with the other guys to the auxiliary gym. I had been running through what I was going to say to Brad but couldn’t quite find a nice way to tell Brad that his girlfriend was a psychopath. Maybe ‘psychopath’ was a bit strong. ‘Nutcase’ might be better.

Ms. Cartwright beckoned to me from across the hall. “Can I see you over here for a moment?”

There were a couple wolf-whistles that were silence as soon as I turned and gave them a death-stare. I walked over and leaned against the wall like she was doing. “Yes?”

She seemed to be sizing me up. “Sorry about what happened last week.”

I shrugged. “No harm, no foul. It’s like it never happened.” Bullshit, but how many teachers could you really talk to?

She sighed and cracked her neck. “You angry?”

“No.”

“Upset?”

“No.” Why was this turning into a Dr. Phil session?

She seemed to sense my confusion and said, “Look, this is my first teaching job. I just want to make sure everything is…okay, you know? They don’t exactly teach you how to deal with upset teenagers.”

I snorted. “Give it a few years. I doubt you’ll know by then either.”

“Probably not,” she acknowledged, “but…well, just wanted to make sure everything was okay.”

“You could have asked me last week,” I said, pushing myself off from the wall, “When I might have been upset.”

“Yeah, well, that’s why I didn’t.”

“Huh?”

“Then I would have had to deal with you being upset.”

I looked at her archly. “So you thought it was best to only ask me if I was okay when there’s no chance you would have to actually do anything?”

She nodded. “Pretty much.”

There was a directness and frankness about the reply that I admired, even while being grossly offended by it. “Yeah, try and say that in front of Mr. Nichols, see how far that gets you.”

“First job,” she said, spreading her hands, “Now get in the gym before I mark you tardy.”

Well…that was a waste of time.

I took my usual seat beside Joe and Kayla. I was about to engage Kayla in conversation, namely to plan our Brad strategy, when Joe nudged me. “Hey, Jack,” he said, jerking his chin down the bleachers, “Check out Ted.”

I leaned forward to look at Ted. The poor kid looked like he’d been dragged a mile behind a moving car. You might have excused the few bruises I had gotten over the past month for simple accidents, but there was nothing accidental about his injuries. He had been beaten. Badly. The terrified look on his face was doing nothing to dispel that notion.

“Isn’t he Jessica’s brother?” Kayla asked, grimacing sympathetically.

“Yeah,” I said, frowning. What the hell had happened to him? And how had I not noticed in the locker room? I guess I had been a little preoccupied thinking about talking to Brad. Speaking of Brad…

I looked around for him and saw him lounging a few seats back. “Hey, Brad,” I said.

He glanced at me. “What’s up?” he asked. I may have made fun of him for his goofy and subtly homoerotic greetings, but I’d gladly take them over this indifference.

I motioned towards Ted. “What happened to Ted?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he asked frowning. He sat up and looked in his direction. “Damn,” he said in shock, eye bulging, “What the hell…” He tromped down the bleachers and went to sit beside Ted, putting a hand on his shoulder. Ted jumped at first but Brad looked like he was calming him down.

“Didn’t happen here,” Joe said, watching the exchange, “We’d have heard about it.”

“Yeah…” I’m surprised it wasn’t bigger news. Queen Bee’s brother bruised up like an old grape? You’d figure she’d be on a warpath to find out who did it, even if she wasn’t that fond of him. Assuming it was someone at school and he wasn’t mugged or something. Or if…

Kayla had the same thought. “His parents?”

I shrugged. “Who knows?”

She leaned in close and whispered in my ear, “How do you want to talk to Brad?”

I leaned back and whispered, “Might as well just do it direct. If we’re looking for a clever way of doing it, we’ll never ask him.” She nodded, looking apprehensive. I took her hand and she squeezed.

“PDA!” Ms. Cartwright called as she entered the gym. Kayla and I quickly let go of each other’s hand. “Better,” she said, standing in front of us, “Today we’re going to the main gym. We have the volleyball nets set up so you know what we’re doing.” There was some groaning; volleyball wasn’t exactly popular. “Oh, get over yourselves,” Ms. Cartwright snapped, “Groups of five. Choose them. Then lets move.”

Joe, Kayla, and I glanced at each other knowingly. Then Kayla stepped down and walked over to Brad. “Hey, Brad,” she said politely, “Wanna be on our team?”

Joe looked like he wanted to protest but I held him back. Brad blinked and said, “I guess. As long as Ted can be on the team, too.”

“Of course!” she said, smiling at Ted, “That makes five.”

“Why does she want Brad?” Joe asked darkly as we walked to the main gym.

“We have to tell him something.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ll let you know later.”

He huffed and folded his arms. “You can tell Brad but you won’t tell me?”

“Why didn’t you go after Craig when he first hurt me?”

Joe glanced over at Craig, who had been picked last for a team that had no other choice but to take him as a fifth member. “You told us not to.”

“And I’m telling you now that I need you to trust me on this.”

He was silent for a second, then sighed. “Fine. But if anything bad happens…”

I patted his shoulder. “I’ll let you know, I promise.” He grunted in acknowledgment.

There were two big nets set up in the gym, meaning only four teams could play at a time, leaving two to sit against the folded-up bleachers and watch. We were selected as one of the teams to play, thus prolonging the intended discussion even longer. Having Brad on our team was a boon for us, especially since Kayla and I were too distracted to really focus on the game and Joe was still pissed off at Brad, refusing to play anywhere near him.

We played a couple more games, winning only because Brad was a better player on his own than on a team. Ted tried his best but he wasn’t much of an athlete. The rest of us were too wrapped up in our own thoughts to do much more than serve as backup for Brad as he spiked us to three victories in a row. Needless to say, when it came to our turn to relax, he was feeling really proud of himself.

Kayla glanced at me. I nodded and took a deep breath. “Hey, Brad,” I said, “Mind if we talk to you for a second?”

He raised his eyebrows and said, “What about?”

“Well…about Jessica.”

He was immediately suspicious. “What about her?” he asked, narrowing his eyes.

“Look,” I said, stepping close and looking around, “Let’s go over there and talk, okay? Make sure no one else is listening in.”

“Seriously, dude, this isn’t cool.”

“It’s important. I promise.”

“It is,” Kayla said, coming to stand by me.

He looked at us both, visibly irritated and not a little hostile. Rolling his eyes, he said, “Fine. Whatever it is better be good.”

We walked to the far corner of the gym, partially obscured by the edge of the bleachers. Kayla’s hand touched mine as we walked and I could feel her nervousness travel through the touch. It was the exact same nervousness that was churning the contents of my stomach into clay-like mush. It would have been so much easier if we just didn’t know who did it.

But we did.

Once safely out of sight of everyone else, Brad turned to us and said, “All right, what did you need to tell me about Jessica? Is she hurt?”

“No,” Kayla said nervously, staring at the metal railings of the bleachers.

“All right. Good. That’s a good start.”

I had to take the initiative. I could never stand these tap-dances before getting to the actual point. “Brad, the gun they found in my locker last week…”

“Yeah?”

“Jessica was behind it.”

Brad sagged against the wall, his eyes wide and his lips tight. “What did you say?” he said quietly.

I knew he heard me. There was no reason to repeat myself. “She saw me opening my locker before Homecoming. She knows the combination. I don’t know if she was the one who actually put it in there but—”

“Okay, shut up,” Brad snapped, rigid with anger, “You got anything like proof?”

“She’s the only one besides me that knows my combination.”

“Oh, please, bang on the lock hard enough, the locker will swing open.”

“The security footage shows someone opening it with the combination. And since she—”

Brad’s teeth were bared. “Bullshit…you’re just pissed.”

Kayla started forward. “About what?” she demanded.

“Not you. Him.” He pointed at me. “He’s pissed that he didn’t take the chance to date Jessica when he could have.”

“Oh, what a load of—” I started but Kayla cut me off.

“Jack,” she said warningly. She turned to Brad. “He was dating me. He is dating me. If he wanted Jessica, he would have dumped me for her.”

“And he’s probably regretting he didn’t right now. That’s why he’s making up this bullshit about her putting the gun in his locker.” Brad was only a few inches from me and I was aware just how much bigger he was than me. “You’re jealous.”

“Of what?” I asked defiantly, “I have Kayla. Why would I want anyone else?”

“Because Kayla is a clingy, annoying waif who can only talk in cutsie phrases like she’s a fucking five-year-old.”

It sounded like he had rehearsed the insult ahead of time, which made its impact all the stronger. Kayla’s eyes immediately welled with tears and she angrily dashed them away, gritting her jaw so she looked extra defiant. I gave Brad a shove. “The fuck’s wrong with you?!” I snarled, “Take that back!”

“No,” he snarled back, rightening himself, “You going to fight me about it? You think you can take me?” He spread his arms, making himself look like a mountain.

“I’ll take you,” Kayla hissed, still trying to keep the tears back, “You insulted me so I’ll happily make you choke on your own dick, you piece of shit.”

Brad and I looked at her in astonishment. Her fists were clenched and there was a murderous look in her eye. “You seriously wanna fight me?” Brad said, a grin on his face.

“I fucking dare you to smile,” Kayla hissed, stepping forward with such violent intent that Brad jumped back, “Yeah, I’ll fight you. Right now.”

“Kayla…”

“No, Jack,” Kayla said, her jaw set, “If he wants to insult me, he can back up his words with fists.”

Brad was looking around for some way out. He held up his hands. “Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Didn’t mean anything by it?” I snapped, turning to him. I couldn’t believe how angry I was at him. Not two weeks before, he had been one of my best friends. Now I was ready to take him to the fucking cleaners. What the fuck happened? “You called her a fucking five-year-old. What’s the matter with you?”

“Just telling the truth.”

“No, it’s not,” I replied, one hand on Kayla’s arm to stop her from swinging, “I love her.”

“Uh huh.”

“I do! With all my heart!”

“Dude, grow up,” Brad said, pushing past us, “If you can’t see she’s just a clingy child then I’m not the one whose got problems. See you out on the court.” He gave us one last disgusted look, then left.

Kayla was still struggling against her tears, her short breaths heaving her shoulders as she fought desperately to keep composed. I put a hand on her arm and she shook me off angrily. “I’m…” she started but couldn’t continue. Her face slowly fell out of its rigid state and the tears started to come. She was beyond resisting at this point and she put her face in her hands.

I pulled her close and held her as she cried. She was trying so hard to stop, clenching her jaw and concentrating hard, but every time she did the tears broke through and she succumbed again. I just held her silently as she let it all out. She held me and buried her face in my shoulder, her sobs shaking her whole body.

“He’s wrong,” I said quietly, “You’re not.”

She pulled back and wiped her eyes. She was trying very hard to look composed but her red face and wet eyes were going to have a hard time convincing anyone I took her over here just to tell her a joke. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

“Nothing for you to be sorry about.”

“I thought he might do something about it. What if we just made it worse?”

I kept my hands on her shoulders. “Well, Jessica already knows we know it was her. Not like she can do much else to us.”

“Take that back!” she said quickly, “Don’t jinx it.”

“Okay, okay, I take it back,” I said with a smile. She smiled as well, only half-heartedly.

Our team was still relaxing so at least we didn’t have to immediately go out and play. I didn’t think I had another game in me. “What happened to him?” Kayla asked, looking over at where Brad was talking to Ted.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “I mean, yeah, I’d get pissed if someone told me you did something like that but I’d at least hear them out.”

She looked at me suddenly. “What if Brad was the one who…”

I caught her meaning and shook my head. “Trust me, if it was Brad they would have recognized his size on the security footage. Giant boulder with a head? Can’t mistake him.”

It failed to get a smile. “Well, what if he’s more in on it than we thought. What if he’s helping her?”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was his parents’ gun.”

I hadn’t thought of that. Then again, it’s not exactly impossible to get a gun these days, what with so many people having them. “Or it could have belonged to the family of any member of her entourage,” I replied, “Do we want to call every parents of every member and check?”

“Jack, please,” she said desperately, “I’m worried about you! What happens now? What happens when Brad tells her about what we said? I don’t want anything else to happen to you!”

We sat down and I discreetly took her hand, making sure Ms. Cartwright was looking the other way. “Well, I’m ready,” I said firmly, “I wasn’t last time but at least it won’t be as big a surprise.”

Kayla snorted. “Let’s hope so.”

“I know so. Don’t be so worried.”

“I have to be. I love you, Jack.”

“And I love you, Kayla. But seriously, it’ll be fine. We’re ready for whatever comes next.”

How I wish that had been true.

She didn’t talk much for the rest of the day. Lunch was a silent and uncomfortable affair, with Joe trying to get us to tell him what happened and me having to make continuous promises about later. At one point she spoke, just asking him to be patient, and one look at her face was enough to convince him that waiting was a good idea. He looked back to where Brad sat with Jessica and his brow furrowed in a frown that promised anger and potentially violent repercussions.

“Joe,” I said warningly, “Don’t.” He just grunted in response and returned to his food. The other guys at the table were completely lost but had the good sense to not ask questions.

Theater class failed to produce any significant mood change to Kayla. True, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to be in a better mood after having to spend an entire class watching the film version of The Winter’s Tale (which seems like a bad idea since any cast members might crim performance tips from the film), but she had me worried. I could see the gears working in her head as she pretended to watch the film. She was holding my hand, limply, like she had forgotten where her hand was. I watched her the whole class and never once did her eyes stray from the spot on the wall that they had chosen to focus on.

“Kayla,” I said once the class was done, “What’s wrong?”

She just looked at me and tried to smile. Her eyes were sad and her mood, usually so bright and energetic, was morose. She squeezed my hand harder but didn’t say anything.

I hoped play rehearsal would perk her up a little bit but she only had one scene to rehearse and she didn’t have very many lines in it. Her lack of energy was evident on stage but Ms. Locke was more focused on Jessica and her bitchy attitude to notice. Jessica’s attitude had been a big problem so far in the play. At first I thought it was just diva behavior but the more I observed, the more I realized she was perfectly fine in scenes where she didn’t have to interact with me. As soon as I was on stage with her, that changed completely.

“You love him!” Ms. Locke exclaimed, gesturing madly, “He is the light of your life, accusing you of adultery! He has locked you in prison, humiliated you, spat on you, threatened your very life in front of the whole court! But you still love him!”

“Why would I love him?” Jessica said with a sneer, “Some guy does that to me, I’ll kick him in the balls.” She didn’t look at me but I’m fairly certain I knew who the comment was meant for.

“But that’s not what Hermione would do,” Ms. Locke cried, “Hermione keeps her love and her pride, even when she’s at her very lowest. More importantly, she keeps her dignity.”

Jessica rolled her eyes and huffed. “Fine. Let’s do it again.”

We did it again and her bitchiness receded…sort of. If I was married to her Hermione, I’d be sleeping with a steel plate over my crotch.

It was only when we’d gotten into my car that Kayla said, “Jack, do you mind hanging out at my place for a little bit?”

“Sure,” I said, “Your parents won’t mind?”

“They went out to dinner. They just texted me. I wanted to talk to you.”

The words every boyfriend fears. “You can talk to me now.”

“Just…I wanna do it in a more…just please take me home.” She looked like she was going to tear up again.

“Okay, okay,” I said quickly, turning on the car. I put my hand on hers but she slid it away. My heart slid down a few notches with it. This wasn’t looking good. There were a million things I wanted to say but I didn’t have the courage to voice them, not with the potential end of our relationship so close.

I didn’t even know why it might end but…well, how many people do until it’s too late?

We pulled up to her house and I shot a quick message to Alan, telling him I’d be back later. Kayla was already opening the front door and I quickly followed her inside, my heart pounding heavily with each step.

I followed her up to her bedroom, where she immediately sat on the bed and looked directly at me for the first time in hours. “Is Brad right?” she asked.

I blinked. “What?”

“Am I too clingy? Too childish?”

“No!” I said, dropping to my knees and taking her hands, “You aren’t. At all.”

“But…I feel like every time we’re apart is just…it’s too long until I see you again. I think about you all the time when we’re apart and I just look forward to when I see you again and…shit, that sounds really stalkerish, doesn’t it?”

I stroked her hair. “Kayla,” I said gently, “I feel the same way. I’m just as clingy as you are.”

“No, you aren’t. I know you can survive without me. But…I feel like if I didn’t have you in my life…” Tears streaked her cheeks like tiny waterfalls. “If you weren’t in my life, I wouldn’t be worth anything.”

“You are worth everything,” I said, squeezing her hands, “Brad is wrong. Wrong a million times over. Too clingy? He’s one to talk. Too childish? After prancing around with his dick stuck out after dating Jessica one time? Kayla, I love you. I’m not just saying that. I absolutely mean it. Every day, I work harder and harder to be worthy of you.”

“Don’t you dare say that,” she snarled, gripping my face and staring at me with blazing eyes, “You deserve me. Good God, Jack, you fought to keep your brother and sister from getting kicked out of the house. You claimed it was your fault! How many other people would actually do that?”

“And how many people would scream at cops for their boyfriend?” I asked with a small smile.

She tried to return it. “Jack, I want you to tell me if I’m being too clingy. Please tell me. Be honest.”

I sat next to her on the bed and looked her in the eye. “You aren’t. If you were too clingy, I would tell you. Even if you are to someone else, you aren’t to me. You are the perfect amount of everything. I love you and I love who you are. All of you.”

She actually smiled now. She hugged me tightly, sniffling a little. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

“You didn’t do anything wrong. I would let you know. And you’d let me know if I ever do anything wrong.”

She pulled back and wiped her eyes. “Guess this whole ‘being in love’ thing isn’t as straightforward as you might think.”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re easy to love.”

She poked me in the ribs. I poked her back and that led to a wrestling match that was surprisingly even, given that she could bust out some serious moves when she wanted. I managed to win only because of her Kryptonite: tickling. I had her pinned on the bed, my fingers digging into her armpits as she writhed and shrieked with laughter.

“I give!” she shrieked between laughs, “I give!”

I released her and she flopped back, red-faced and panting. Frankly, she looked like she had just had a major orgasm. “Some day,” she panted, “I’m gonna find a ticklish spot on you and tickle you into a coma.”

“Good luck,” I said, flopping down beside her.

We lay in silence for a while, our hands lightly grasping each other’s. Finally, she said, “Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I try something?”

“Sure. What did you want to do?”

She looked at me and leaned in for a kiss. I kissed her back and she ran her fingers through my hair to cup my head. I lifted myself up onto my elbows so she could get a better angle and I could run my hand up her side and stroke the exposed skin at her midriff. We had kissed often enough for me to recognize her intentions: this was a kiss that wanted to be intimate, but in the ‘making love’ way, not the ‘fucking’ way.

“Move back,” she said, pulling back from the kiss. I scooted up the bed until my back was against the wall. She crawled up and straddled my waist, lightly cupping my face with both hands while she kissed me with steadily-growing urgency.

The urgency, though, was in the passion, not the physicality. Her hands on my face held it gently, lightly tracing her fingers down my cheeks. Her body molded to mine instead of smashing against it with carnal desire. For all intents and purposes, we may as well have been just sharing a loving kiss…except for the passion behind it. I could sense her desire, her longing to be intimate with me. It’s hard to describe. It’s just something you innately know about the person you love.

The same desire burned in me as well. After today, I wanted to make her feel good. Not just by giving her an orgasm but by letting her feel wholly satisfied. Letting her know how much I cared for her and how close I wanted to be to her. Today…had just sucked for her. She deserved to have it end happily.

She pulled back from the kiss and smiled at me. “Don’t move,” she whispered. Keeping eye-contact, she unbuttoned and unzipped my pants and slowly started to work them down. I did as she asked and didn’t move, staring into her eyes as little-by-little she pulled my pants down and off.

She crawled back up and lightly palmed my cock through my boxers as she kissed me again. I was hard already, my cock twitching like a flexed muscle in her hand as she rubbed it lightly. Her tongue darted out and gently parted my lips. Mine came out to meet hers and she grasped my boxers and slid them down as well, allowing my hard cock to bounce out and breathe.

The cool air on my cock made me gasp lightly. Kayla, still keeping eye-contact, smiled. “Don’t move, now,” she repeated, sliding down her pants and panties. She crawled back up into my lap, letting her hands rest on my shoulders as she positioned herself over my cock. We kissed deeply, her arms curled around my head as we panted into our kiss. Her eyes were screwed shut but mine were only half-closed. I didn’t want to miss the sight of her beautiful face in the midst of its ecstasy as I entered her.

My left hand gripped her thigh while my right slid down between us and I carefully guided my cock to her entrance. She slowly sank down, pulling back from the kiss and throwing her head back. I studied her face as the pressure and wetness slowly enveloped my cock. Her eyes were like when she slept; just barely closed, seemingly in the half-second before awakening. Her lips were just slightly parted, her light inhale raising in octave the more I slid into her. Her eyebrows were raised with just the slightest crease on her forehead that deepened as her thighs finally came to rest fully on mine. Her nostrils flared once or twice, her nose twitching as her eyes slowly opened and came to rest on mine. The look she gave was of absolute trust and love.

There was nothing ‘hot’ about how she looked, nothing as simple as that. Her expression, if I had to put a label on it, was ‘bliss’.

I was aware my own mouth was hanging open and the unbelievable sensations of her pussy flexing around my cock were now fully beginning to register. Her eyes held mine as she slowly started to lift herself up and down, her arms gripping my shoulders for balance. I continued to stay still and look her in the eye.

Imagining what it looked like as her pussy slowly raised and lowered on my cock was an oddly arousing experience. Our connection was never broken as we stared into each other’s eyes, our breath swirling together between us as she slowly ground herself on my lap. I wanted to look, to watch my cock disappear into her slick entrance, but I held fast. She had asked me not to move. I wouldn’t move, not even my eyes.

We ground into each other at a deliberate pace so our groins came together with a wet shick rather than a loud slap. The pace teased my cock endlessly, since the pressure was firm but nowhere near as strong as when we were going at it fast and hard. It was like getting a handjob with just the fingertips. It was frustrating and arousing at the same time.

Her hands slid up my neck to wrap around my head. She tried to keep her eyes open but the feeling of pleasure from our sex was overpowering her will. Her eyes slowly closed and her mouth hung open.

I leaned forward and kissed her, my hands sliding down her back to where the skin of her rear peeked out underneath her shirt. I was still looking her eyes so the experience was purely done by touch. My fingers found the softness of her flesh and helped lift her up and set her down with slightly more strength than before.

Her mouth fell open in a gasp. I moaned as well as the extra weight was putting extra pressure on my cock. The wet silk of her pussy tickled my length like little shocks of electricity. The pressure on my cockhead was firm, like I was about to cum, but the pressure came from outside rather than inside. I had to grit my teeth to keep from being too loud.

I wanted to thrust up but the pace we were going was driving me crazy. I knew it was having an effect on her as well, for her fingers were twitching and flexing on my skin. Her cheek was rubbing against my forehead and I could feel the heat of her skin burning me like the sun. She had stopped sliding up and down and was now gyrating her hips on mine, which kept a constant pressure and consistent level of holy shit going.

Her breaths were high-pitched wind now. Her eyes were wide but her brows were crinkled as she started to rock back and forth. “Kayla—” I tried to say but she put a finger on my lips.

“Shh…shh…” she whispered between pants. Sweat dripped down her forehead. Staring into her eyes for so long, tiny details like that were becoming clearer. The sex itself was teasing me like crazy. I couldn’t look away from her face (I didn’t want to) so everything was just feeling. Sensations. Everything I normally felt when we had sex but heightened in the absence of sight.

Her eyes were glazing over. I knew that look. It meant she was about to cum. I brought my hands from her ass to the crease where her leg met her hips and gently rubbed it with my thumbs as she ground herself on me. She cooed and gasped, forcing her eyes to stay open. Her wetness had now made my cock so slick, it was gliding in and out of her with almost no resistance from her pussy lips. Inside her, it rubbed against her walls and tapped her cervix so she gave strangled gasps every time she hit the right angle.

I was getting close myself. My chest was tightening from all the shallow breathing and the hyper-sensitive head of my cock was sending waves of pleasure down into my balls. They woke up and started to respond.

Kayla was biting her lips, hissing through her nose. Even her shoulders were being used to thrust her down onto my cock, forcing her ever closer to the edge of her orgasm. Discreetly, I slid my thumb down the crease of her leg and gently pressed against her clit.

Her mouth dropped open and she slammed down on my cock. Her eyes were squeezed shut as a silent scream blew into my face and a cascade of her wet cum exploded onto my cock. That was enough to cause me to blow my load as well, grunting as my cum shot up into her. Our hands were squeezing each other hard enough to leave bruises but the only thing we felt was the shivering tingle that ran through our bodies as our orgasms climaxed.

I leaned back against the wall, panting but nowhere near as hard as I normally did. Kayla was leaning into my chest, her arms wrapped around my waist. Our shirts were sticking to us and I had the distinct impression, based on some pretty strong evidence, that I was going to need to take a shower as soon as I got home.

Kayla looked up at me and gave me a kiss. “Thank you for that,” she said.

“Of course,” I said, smiling, “What was it you wanted to try? Not breaking eye-contact?”

“Yeah,” she replied, sliding me out of her and laying beside me, “I just wanted to know how the connection would work. How strong it would be. Like, our sex is amazing but what would it be like if the sex was in the background and it was just you and me, in the moment. It’s hard to explain but…well, it turned out to be everything I’d hoped it would be.”

I stroked her hair. “Well, I hope next time we can take our shirts off, too. I stink.”

She laughed. “Yeah, you do.”

“Do you need to be tickled again?”

She giggled and stroked my cheek. “I love you,” she said in a placating voice.

“Yeah, yeah, I love you too,” I pretended to grumble. I looked down at her sheets, which had been stained with her wetness and our mixed cum. “You’ll need to give these a wash.”

She looked down and grimaced. “You aren’t kidding.”

We pulled on our pants and I helped her change out her blankets. “Are you feeling better?” I asked her as we put her old blanket in the washer.

She grinned at me. “After that…absolutely.”

“I know but I mean…well, with what Brad said earlier.”

She sighed and leaned against me. “It still hurts but if you don’t think I’m clingy…”

“I don’t.”

“Well,” she said, looking up at me, “You’ll let me know, right?”

“I will.”

“Good.” She kissed me on the cheek. “What do you wanna do now?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I guess I could head home.” One look at her face told me that wasn’t an option. “Or…I could stay here. Help you with your English.”

She pulled a face. “If I don’t have to think about The Great Gatsby ever again, it’ll be a good life.”

“Come on. Lord of the Flies wasn’t—”

“It was.”

“Okay, but you can get through this one, too.”

“I guess,” she said, giving me a grin that suggested she had a better idea, “Or…we can see if your Smash Bros skills have improved at all.”

I was trapped. Inevitable defeat was looking at me with a smile and a hair bow. “Can we just say you win?”

“We could, but then you’d deny me the satisfaction of actually winning.”

I sighed. “All right,” I said, trying to sound confident, “But I bet I win this time.”

Thirty consecutive defeats later…

I left around nine, my pride thoroughly crushed under the weight of my losses. I had put up a valiant fight, even came close to winning a couple times, but she was a magician with the controls. I felt ashamed to call myself a game lover. Kayla kissed me better and said, “I’ll let you beat me at something else sometime.”

“Actually, there is something I would like you to let me do.”

Her eyebrows raised in curiosity. “What?”

I pulled her close. “I want to eat you out,” I whispered huskily in her ear, squeezing her butt as I did.

She slid her hand up my crotch and looked me in the eye, one eyebrow quirked sexily. “Soon, Mr. Eager,” she said, kissing me, “I can’t wait.”

“Awesome,” I said, stepping out onto the porch, “Love you, gorgeous.”

“Love you, handsome.”

The shower was welcome and not just for getting the stink off my body. The sex had been an amazing way to relax but the warm water on my muscles seemed to solidify the lack of tension. I soaped and rinsed at least three times before I felt fully clean. Usually my shower time was when I reflected on the troubles in my life and how to fix them, but not today. Today was just about relaxing.

There had been enough stress already.

I toweled myself off and got dressed before my stomach gave me a very strong reminder that I had yet to eat dinner. I went downstairs to grab a plate of whatever mom made this morning and, to my shock, I found dad sitting at the table, picking at a plate of lasagna.

“Hey, Jack,” he said, looking up.

“Hey,” I replied, frowning, “I thought you were at work until really late.”

“Got out early today,” he said, taking a bite, “How was school?”

“All right.” I went and grabbed a plate of lasagna. “What’s up?” I asked as I sat down across from him.

He pushed away his plate and stared down at the table. “Oh, you know…just trying to figure out this whole thing.” He didn’t sound mad, which was a plus. “You know, of all the things I imagined you kids doing, this never came up.”

“Well, when I have my own kids, now I know to think about it,” I replied, cutting into the lasagna.

Dad looked up sharply. “It’s not funny,” he growled, “This is serious.”

“Why? Why is it so serious? How is this hurting you?”

“Because…” I watched the absolute certainty with which he started come crashing down around him. I knew he didn’t have anything.

“Aside from it being ‘morally wrong’, how is this hurting you?”

“It could hurt us, Jack! If the wrong people found out…”

“Then what? Society shuns us? Who gives a shit?” I pushed away my plate. “Dad, the important thing here is not what the people out there think.” I pointed to the window. “The important thing is that your children love each other. Are in love with each other. And they need your support and blessing.”

“And why should I give it if I don’t agree with it?”

“Because they’re your children,” I replied, “You don’t have to want to do it to agree with it. You can support gay marriage but not be gay. You can support medicinal marijuana without wanting any yourself.”

“Those are different.”

“No…they…aren’t,” I said emphatically, “They are two people who love each other. Isn’t saying that they shouldn’t be together because of some moral outrage the same as saying two gay people shouldn’t be together because you don’t ‘morally agree’ with it.”

Dad put his head in his hands. He took a few deep breaths and looked up at me. “So, what, you think we should just ignore it? Pretend like nothing is wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong, dad. And I’m saying you should ignore it; I’m saying you should find the positive in it and focus on that. Remember when you said that to me?”

“When?”

“The first day of my freshman year. I told you I didn’t want to go to school because it was nothing but jagoffs and losers posturing for each other so they can feel like they’re important. You said I needed to find the positive in it and focus on it, otherwise I’d always be miserable.”

He was silent for a long time, staring at the table in front of me. “You’re growing up fast, Jack,” he said slowly. I didn’t say anything. He was thinking, reaching his own decision. I had to let him do that on his own. Finally, he sighed. “I’m not ready to rule on this just yet,” he said, standing up, “I have to talk to your mother.”

“Dad—”

He held up a hand. “Whatever you think, Jack, we are your parents and we have to do what is right for everyone, not just for Alan and Amanda.” I had no clue what that meant. Keeping the family together must be best for everyone, right? “But I promise…to try and be lenient and understanding.”

“Thanks,” I said. It was probably the best I was going to get.

He gave me a small smile and pointed at my plate. “Eat,” he said, “Growing mind needs a growing body.”

He left and I stared down at my food. I tried to work up an appetite but even the thought of food made my stomach deflate. I folded my arms on the table and lay my forehead on them, hoping against hope that someday life would be easy.

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“If you’re not going to take this seriously, Jessica,” Ms. Locke shouted, standing up in a fury, “then we’ll just call it a day!” She kicked back her chair and stomped out of the auditorium.

Everyone was frozen in position on the stage, looking at each other incredulously. We were halfway through the scene where Hermione is brought on trial before Leontes to declare her innocence. Based on Jessica’s acting, however, you’d think we were all gather to wake her up. She’d been sleep-walking through her performance all day, giving just enough energy to be heard and no more. What was going on with the Wilsons? First Ted shows up kicked to crap and now Jessica looks like she can’t see straight.

Weird.

Slowly, the cast dispersed as we realized Ms. Locke was serious about just giving up. Not too bad, especially considering it was Friday. Kayla was looking at Jessica. “Think we should talk to her?” she asked.

“Real talk or your kind of talk?”

She stuck her tongue out. “A real talk, doofus. See what’s up.”

I gave her a glance and shook my head. “She wouldn’t tell us anything. Hell, she’d probably run if she saw you coming at her.”

“Yeah, because I’m so intimidating.”

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling her muscles, “Kick my ass with those if you wanted.” She laughed and flexed.

Jessica’s attitude toward us (namely, hostile ignorance) hadn’t changed at all but the past couple of days, it seemed less calculated toward us and rather to the world in general. She just flat-out didn’t care anymore, making her an irritant to everyone, especially the rest of the play cast. Everyone was giving their all in the play and it was more than a little frustrating to see Jessica, as one of the lead actresses, being a Lindsay Lohan about the whole thing. Honestly, the only reason I think Ms. Locke hadn’t removed her yet was because she’d have to admit she made a mistake in casting.

God forbid.

We pulled up to Kayla’s house and she heaved a sigh. “I need to read the book,” she groaned, “Ugh!”

“Need any help?” I asked.

She brushed her fingers on my cheek. “Thanks, baby, but I really do need to concentrate on this.”

I pretended to pout and said, “Am I a distraction?”

“The best kind!” she exclaimed, leaning in to kiss me, “But I need to get this reading done, even I don’t understand what the hell I’m reading.”

I laughed and said, “You’ll text me when you’re done, right?”

“Absolutely,” she said happily, “I’m gonna need some loving after reading.”

“Happy to oblige,” I said, grinning. Her parents were out of town again. She wouldn’t even need to get herself psyched up for college; she’ll already be used to living on her own.

“Bet you are. Love ya!” She gave me another kiss and bounced out of the car, waving to me as she hopped up onto the porch. I looked after her for a minute, wishing I could follow her in, then pulled into our driveway.

Alan and Amanda were deep in discussion when I walked past their bedroom. I stopped in the doorway. “Hey, guys,” I said, “What you talking about?”

They sighed and Amanda said, “We just…it’s been such an uncomfortable week and we were talking about…” She looked too pained to continue.

“What?” I asked, folding my arms and frowning.

Alan took Amanda’s hand and finished: “We were going to talk to mom and dad and let them know that we’re not going to do anything ever again. We’ll stop all feelings for each other and get separate rooms. And…if they want…I’ll move out and—”

No!” I shouted, making them both jump, “That’s not going to happen!”

They stared at me. “But—”

“Stop! You two are going to stay here and you’re going to stay in love and mom and dad are going to be happy with it! And you’re going to stay happy with it too! No arguments!”

Amanda stood up and walked toward me. “Jack, look, we’re okay with—”

“No…you’re not,” I snapped, cutting her off, “Look at him.” She looked at Alan. “Now tell him that you can stop loving him.”

She turned back to me. “Jack—”

“Tell him!” I roared, “Tell him to his face that you can stop loving him just because it’s hard!”

Her lip quivered and she turned back to Alan, who looked at her with sad eyes. She opened her mouth a couple of times, then turned back to me, shaking her head and close to crying. “I can’t do that,” she whispered.

I came over and hugged her. “Then how can you say you guys should be separated? How can you say you can just stop your feelings for each other?” I motioned Alan over and we all wrapped ourselves in a sibling hug. Amanda was crying a little and Alan was looking like someone had killed a puppy in front of him. “You guys are meant for each other, okay? You wouldn’t feel like this if you weren’t supposed to.”

They pulled back and nodded, holding each other’s hand. “Thanks, Jack,” Alan said, “Guess we just needed a little shouting to…”

“If I could have done it without shouting, I would have. You guys knew separating wasn’t the right thing.”

“It would have made things a lot easier,” Alan said quietly, sitting on the bed.

I nodded. “It would have but that’s not the point. If stuff like this was easy, it wouldn’t be…well, it wouldn’t be love.”

Amanda cocked her head slightly. “Loving Kayla isn’t easy?”

Hmm, that was a good question. “Loving Kayla is easy. And I’m willing to wade through the hard stuff to make sure she’s happy. Because she’s worth it.”

Amanda smiled. “Awww.”

“You guys relax,” I said, leaving the room, “Mom and dad will come around soon.”

I hope.

I spent a couple empty hours pulling heists in Grand Theft Auto. My phone was on the floor beside me and I kept glancing at it every time I thought it vibrated. Poor Kayla. I know she needed to actually read the book but I would have been happy just sitting in silence with her while she read. Was I really that much of a distraction?

Dang it, now I was sounding clingy.

I got up at one point and looked across to her window but I didn’t see her. Either she was lying on her bed or she was down in the living room. I sighed and glanced at my phone again. Should I text her? Just to say ‘hey’? No, she was trying to concentrate and if I texted her, she’d feel obligated to text back and then we’d start a conversation and she wouldn’t get back to her book…

Being responsible is such a cock-block.

I was trying to set a record motorcycle jump in the game when my phone suddenly rang. The controller crashed to the ground as I seized it and looked at the caller. Dad. Dang it. But okay, it’ll be good to hear from him. He usually doesn’t call while he’s at work.

“Hey, dad,” I said, answering.

“Hey, Jack,” dad replied, “Are Alan and Amanda around?”

“They’re in their room. Why?”

“Well…look, I know the past few days have been very uncomfortable for them and…well, I wanted to apologize.”

“It’s okay.”

“And I should apologize to them as well but I think we need to do it in person. Your mom and me.”

“Okay.”

He sighed heavily. “Jack…we need to talk with all of you when we get home tonight. Your mom and I…we’re been discussing everything and we’ve come to a decision on what should be done.”

My stomach lurched. “What is it?”

“We’ll talk to you all tonight. Just wanted to get you prepared.” That didn’t sound good. “We love you guys.”

“We love you too,” I said, keeping my voice level, “Remember what I said.”

“We did. I promise.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, hey, don’t forget to take the trash out tonight.”

“Okay.”

“I love you, Jack.”

“Love you too, dad.”

I hung up and shut off the game. I couldn’t play anymore, not with the prospect of bad news hanging over my head. Dad hadn’t sounded like anything bad was going to be said tonight but I couldn’t be sure. Mom usually delivered the bad news.

I got up and started pacing. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. It was going to be a long few hours, especially with Kayla occupied with her book. Maybe if I told her…no, she needed to do her work. Damn it. I wanted to be selfish and text her anyway but I couldn’t. She would respect me if I needed to do work and I needed to respect her.

What was I going to do in the meantime? Homework? Well, that’ll eat up about ten minutes, and then what? I wanted to text Joe, but he was probably on a date with Belle. Brad was out of the question. Tara maybe?

I picked up my phone and shot a quick text to her.

Me: Hey coz

I wasn’t planning on telling her anything but it always felt nice to just talk with her.

Two hours later, there was no response from her. She was probably busy. Damn. I had filled in the time as best I could. I tried playing video games again, I tried reading, I got all my homework done (seven minutes, at most), I grabbed some of the chicken pot pie mom had made this morning. Time just crawled on.

Alan and Amanda were always deep in conversation when I went by their room. I wanted to join them, if only so I wasn’t alone, but I knew they needed to discuss their own things. Besides, if I talked with them, I might accidentally let something slip about tonight.

Tonight. Fuck, why won’t it get here?!

Don’t you just hate waiting those last couple of hours for something? A date, a phone call, an interview, anything. The last couple of hours are always the worst. The last fifteen minutes are pure torture. And I was nowhere near those last fifteen minutes yet.

Maybe we needed to get a pet. Like Tori. I wondered if everyone else in my family was a dog or a cat person. Oddly enough, it had never come up. We were too busy playing and messing with each other to want a pet. Did mom and dad ever feel like they had to put us on a leash? Maybe you can train a kid the same way you train a dog…

These were the thoughts my brain was trying to make to pass the time. If I ever start wondering something like ‘what sound does an apple make?’, do me a favor and call me some help.

Creeping up on nine, when the sun was down and I was well and truly out of anything else to eat up time, I decided I might as well take the trash out. There’s another ten minutes I can easily eat up. I was clutching at straws by this point.

I doubt it took me five minutes to gather up all the trash in the house and bring it out to the big trash can in the garage. Alan and Amanda offered to help but I turned them down. That would just make it go by quicker. I dragged the trash can out to the curb, trying my best to make each step last a minute. I glanced both ways up the road, hoping to see mom or dad coming home early, but no such luck.

I slid the trash can into the crease of the curb and leaned against it for a second. I had been putting off thinking about what might come out of the talk tonight, but I couldn’t anymore. I didn’t mind if I got punished if it got Alan and Amanda off the hook, but my parents weren’t going to forget them. Being sent away was the Worst Possible Scenario, one I hoped we could avoid but…Damn it, I wish I could have eavesdropped on one of mom and dad’s conversations. At least then I would have known how things stood.

A sudden pressure on my ankle made me jump and I looked down to see a cat winding itself around my legs. It looked up at me and I saw, to my shock, that it was Tori. “Hey, Tori,” I said, crouching down and scratching her ears, “What are you doing out here?”

I looked over at Kayla’s house and noticed that the garage door was open. I thought maybe one of her parents just got home, but the light wasn’t on in the garage. And they would have shut the garage door when they got in the house…Weird. I walked a little closer, peering into the black hole through the garage door and saw no car.

A horrible, terrifying feeling creeped up my spine and I pulled out my phone. I dialed Kayla’s number. Two endless rings later, she answered. “Hey, Jack!”

“Hey, Kayla,” I said, slightly relieved but still trembling, “Did you happen to open your garage door recently?”

“No. Why?”

“Because it’s—”

“Jack…are you in my house?” I could hear the wink in her voice.

“No, I’m—”

“Jack, I can hear you coming up the stairs. You could have just asked to come over.”

Oh no. Kayla

“Kayla,” I said in a panic, “That’s not me! Lock your door! Don’t—”

My words were cut off by a scream over the phone and the sound of it being dropped. I was already racing toward her house, fear and rage chasing me with spears to make me run faster. The door leading from the garage to the house was open and I flew through it, pounding up the stairs and bursting into Kayla’s room. It had taken me maybe ten seconds to get there, but the terror of what might be happening had made it seem like an eternity.

Kayla was struggling valiantly against someone dressed completely in black. She was beating with hands and feet but whoever it was had tackled her against the bed and she was having a hard time grounding herself so that she could land a decent hit. They had switched off the light and I flicked it back on, taking them both by surprise. The attacker threw up a hand to shield their eyes and that was all the time I needed to rush over, punch them in the face (which was covered by a face mask so only the eyes were visible) and haul them off Kayla.

They thrashed like a hooked fish. I squeezed with one arm around their midriff and seized the mask with my other hand. They desperately bucked in my arm and succeeded in kicking me in the knee. The pain was enough to make me loosen my grip and they burst free, dashing out of the room.

With a bellow of rage, I gave chase. He (it had to be a ‘he’, just based on body shape alone) was already halfway down the stairs. I pounded after him and flew down the last half, trying to tackle him against the ground. I missed the hold I was going for but managed to seize one side of his pants. He thrashed and struggled and tugged free with a long riiiiiiiip. Part of the fabric came away in my hand.

I was on my feet in a minute, ready to continue the chase, but by then the attacker was in the garage and dashing across the lawn into the night. There was no way I was going to be able to catch him at this point. I slammed my fist into the floor, roaring with anger. Why hadn’t I been faster? Why couldn’t I hold them? Why couldn’t I protect Kayla?

Kayla…

A sob from upstairs drew me back to reality and I hurled myself up the steps. She was curled up against her bed, shaking and sobbing with fear. She saw me and immediately hurled herself into my arms, clutching at me and shaking so violently, I thought she was going to fall apart.

“It’s okay, baby,” I whispered, “I’m here.”

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The police suggested we move Kayla to my house for the time being, just in case whoever it was decided to come back. They contacted Kayla’s parents, who were a state away, and took our statements. We couldn’t give them much. Kayla had been taken by surprise and I had been so obsessed with trying to get them away from her that I hadn’t thought to notice any distinct features. Not that there would have been any to see since whoever it was had been bundled up tight. I couldn’t even remember their eye color. All I knew was that it was a male about my size.

Kayla held onto me the entire time as the police explained that the attacker most likely pulled open the garage door, since Kayla would have heard it sliding open automatically. Kayla mentioned that the attacker had been wearing gloves so there was no point in dusting for fingerprints. I gave them the strip of fabric I had pulled from the attacker, without much hope that it would turn up anything.

They asked us the usual questions: is there anyone who’s made threats? Do we have any enemies? Has she noticed anyone following her? None of our answers were going to help lead to anyone’s arrest. We couldn’t pinpoint anyone specific. Jessica was the most likely suspect, at least as the person behind the attack, but we had no proof.

The officers seemed satisfied with the scant answers we were able to give and promised to update us if they had anything new or had any more questions to ask. They bade us good night and let us in one last time to get her an overnight bag.

We gathered a few clothes and other things from her room and made our way back to my house, where Tori was curled up on the front step. “She’s a hero,” I said to Kayla, “She was the one who alerted me.”

“Good girl, Tori,” Kayla said in a small voice, still holding onto me.

Alan and Amanda were nothing but sympathetic, giving her tight hugs and promising to help watch over her tonight. Kayla thanked them both. She was trying her best to recover and put on a ‘normal’ demeanor, which only made her fear more obvious. Amanda saw it too and pulled her in for a tight hug. Kayla refused to let go for almost ten minutes, shaking the entire time.

I got her some hot tea and the drink seemed to steady her a bit. Tori was exploring the house, sniffing in the corners and glaring suspiciously at unfamiliar ornaments. Alan and Amanda were both taken with her at once.

“We should get a cat,” Amanda said as she trailed her fingers down Tori’s back.

“I thought you hated them,” Alan replied, amused.

“I was five years old! I thought I hated broccoli back then!”

“You still do.”

“Well…yes.”

Kayla laughed a little at that. “Thanks, guys,” she said huskily, “For helping me.”

“Of course,” Alan said, kneeling down next to her, “We’re here for you.”

Kayla looked up at me. “Do you think…maybe I could go lie down for a bit?”

“Absolutely,” I said, helping her to her feet. I carried her back with the few sundry things she had grabbed from her room and brought her up to mine.

She sat down on mine. “I can’t believe that just happened,” she whispered.

I looked outside, where the police cars still sat and the officers milled about. “It’s not going to happen again,” I said, “Not as long as you’re here.”

She smiled a little. “I wish I had been stronger. I wish I had been able to fight him off.”

“You had no way of knowing. Don’t you dare feel bad about this. Nothing is your fault.”

“I know,” she said, rubbing her nose and sniffing, “I just don’t want to seem like I’m weak. If whoever it is thinks I’m weak…they might come back.”

I brought her in for a long, tight hug. She didn’t cry but just held tight onto me like we were poised at the top of a mountain with room enough only for one. “I think…I want to get into my pajamas,” she said quietly.

“Of course.”

I picked through her bag and pulled out her sweatpants and tank-top. As I handed the clothes to her, my hand fell on a thick, hard object in her bag. I pulled it out. “What’s this?” I asked her.

She was in the process of taking off her shirt, something I would have found way more interesting under different circumstances. She glanced at it. “I don’t know,” she said, frowning at it, “I scooped it up with the rest of my clothes. I thought it was a sock.”

“You have black socks?”

“Jack, I was just grabbing stuff. I wanted to get out of there.”

“I know. I’m sorry. It’s not yours?”

“Never seen it before.”

I opened it. It was a wallet. I picked through its contents: a few loose bills, some gift cards, a few small cards with phone numbers scratched on them. “This must have belonged to the guy who attacked you,” I said.

“Should we give it to the cops?”

“We will,” I said. That is, after I found out who the motherfucker was who attacked the woman I love. There was no driver’s license but I found a business card for a consulting firm named Meyers and Co. The card was for a Mr. Jeffrey Carter. But Mr. Jeffrey Carter was obviously not the attacker so there was only one other person it could be.

Craig.

I dropped the wallet and left the room. “Jack?” Kayla called after me, but I was too blinded by rage to hear her.

I found Alan and Amanda in the living room, playing with Tori. They took one look at me and stood up, full of concern. “Jack, what is it?” Alan asked.

“Up in my room,” I said in a measured voice, “You’ll find a wallet. The wallet belonged to the person who attacked Kayla. Give it to the police and show them the business card inside it. It’ll lead them to the attacker.”

“Why can’t you do it?” he asked.

“Because I’m gonna go find this asshole and beat him to a pulp.” I wasn’t thinking clearly. God damn it, I had given Craig the benefit of the doubt after he had been proven innocent of putting that gun in my locker. Now he goes and does this.

I wanted him to suffer.

I was aware that my siblings were talking to me as I pulled on my shoes and grabbed my keys but I was too far-gone to hear them. No, I wasn’t doing the right thing. In the moment, all I saw of right and wrong was Kayla cowering against her bed with tears in her eyes. I was enraged.

My phone was in my hand as I walked out to my car, calling Joe. He picked up on the third ring.

“Hey, man,” he said, “What’s up?”

“Kayla’s been attacked.”

What?!”

“It was Craig. He left his wallet. I’m going to go find him.”

“Whoa, Jack, slow—”

“I’m starting at the Old Gin Rummy. Meet me there.”

“Jack!”

I had already hung up. I think there was a part of me that knew I was being too irrational, too eager for violence, but that image of Kayla cowering against her bed…I wanted to cry hot tears of anger and pain.

I opened my phone again and dialed Brad. It was a long-shot but I knew he hated Craig just as much as I did.

“Yeah?” he answered after a few seconds.

“Brad…Craig attacked Kayla.”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Yeah. I’m headed down to the Old Gin Rummy to find him. Meet me there.”

“I’m kinda busy…”

“It can wait. Just meet me there!”

I hung up and started my car. My heart was thumping painfully, each thump fueling the anger that was coursing through my veins. I was fighting hard to keep in control. I wanted to fly out into the streets and tear through town until I found Craig. I forced myself to go slowly and obey traffic laws. No reason to get pulled over before I got there.

It was a good thing I went slowly because it gave time for the rational part of my brain to kick in. I no longer wanted to hurt Craig…okay, I did, but I wasn’t going to. I was going to confront him, demand a confession from him. I had found his wallet; he couldn’t possibly deny that. If he wanted a fight, I’d just beat him again. If I had been able to drive for a little bit longer, perhaps the rational part of my brain would have superseded my anger and I would have turned around and gone home.

That’s what I should have done.

It’s not what I did.

I parked out front of the place and walked in, doing my best to look normal and inconspicuous. My heart was still thumping with rage but at least now I was able to bed down the desire to boot open the door and scream out Craig’s name. The place was lively as always for a Friday night and I had a hard time pushing my way up to the bar. “Excuse me!” I called to the bartender.

He glanced at me. “You’re a bit young to be here, aren’t you?” he asked.

I leaned in close. “I’m looking for Craig Carter!”

The bartender stopped pouring his drink and looked me full in the face. “He’s my cousin,” he said evenly, “What do you want with him?”

“I just want to talk to him.”

“What’s your name?”

“Jack Harrison.”

He looked at me for a few seconds, then jerked his head toward the back wall. “He’s over there.” He went back to pouring drinks but one eye stayed on me the whole time.

I pushed my way through the crowd of wannabe-hipsters and slack-jawed dweebs to find Craig nursing a beer in a lonely booth. He saw me coming and immediately stood up. “What do you want?” he snarled.

I stepped close enough to let him know I meant business. “I wanna talk. Let’s go outside.”

“We can talk just fine here,” he replied, folding his arms.

“Suit yourself. I want everyone to know what you did.”

He scoffed. “And what did I do?”

“You attacked Kayla!” I made sure to say it loudly so the people around us would look around.

His jaw dropped. “I didn’t!”

“Yes you did! I chased you out of her house less than an hour ago!”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up to see one of the two muscles-with-a-head that Craig had brought with him to the school parking lot standing behind me. “Got a problem, Craig?” he asked in a voice that came from somewhere in the lower chest area.

“Apparently, we do,” he replied, narrowing his eyes at me. He jerked his head toward the door. “Let’s go talk outside.”

The bouncer kept his hand on my shoulder the whole time. The pressure was light but there was enough of a threat behind it for me to realize it was probably a bad idea to try anything stupid. We walked around to the alley where I had picked up Kayla all that time ago. There, Craig turned around and folded his arms again, hate etched everywhere on his face. “I didn’t do anything to Kayla.”

“Craig, I chased you out of her house. I’m not that stupid.”

“When?”

“Less than an hour ago. More than enough time for you to change and get back here.”

Craig looked at the bouncer. “Marco, tell him where I’ve been for the past few hours.”

The bouncer replied, “He’s been here. He came in around seven-thirty and he hasn’t left once. We would have known.”

I scoffed. “Is that what you told him to say?”

“There are security cameras in the place,” Craig replied icily, “They’ll all show me being here since seven-thirty.”

“If you were here, then why did I find your wallet at her place?”

He started. “You found my wallet?” he asked.

“Yeah, pretty stupid of you to leave that behind.”

“My wallet’s been missing since Thursday,” he snarled, his face turning red, “Since gym class. Did you take it just to set me up?”

“Oh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense!”

“Just like it makes a lot of sense for me to attack your stupid girlfriend and just happen to leave my wallet behind?”

“I don’t know how your stupid mind works, you dumb shit!”

Craig’s teeth were bared like a tiger’s and he snapped, “Hold him!” My arms were suddenly being pressed against my sides. I wanted to struggle but the thought had hardly formed in my head before I saw Craig charging at me. He drove his fist into my stomach, using the force of his running to drive it in deeper. The breath exploded out of my body and with it the ability to use my arms and legs.

I sank to my knees. “Leave me the fuck alone!” Craig roared, slamming his fist into my face, “I’m sick and tired of you always picking on me! Stay out of my life!” He kicked me hard in the stomach, driving out what little breath I had left, and then drew back his elbow and slammed the point into the side of my head.

The impact wasn’t as hard as I expected, probably because the lack of breath took away all feeling in my body. I was numb, my vision swirling gray and fogginess, like when you’ve been lying on a couch for too long and get up too fast. It was a fight to stay conscious. Hell, it was a fight to breathe. My hands were at my stomach and I was croaking and gasping, desperately trying to fill my lungs.

Dimly, I saw the bouncer holding Craig back. The fog returned for a second and when it cleared, I saw them walking away. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. All I could do was feel. I felt myself sway back and forth, my movement undeterred by any control in my limbs.

“Jack!”

I heard the call dimly. Maybe I just imagined it. I imagined Kayla, laying beside me in bed. I imagined her smiling at me and leaning in to give me one of her heavenly kisses. Then the image changed and once again, I saw her crouched by her bed, the look of terror in her face.

“Jack!”

Someone was grasping my shoulders, laying me back. My vision was getting hazier and I felt like I was going to pass out at any second. The air was rushing to my head, filling it like a balloon, and I couldn’t fight it much longer. Joe’s face swam into view, looking down at me in horror.

The darkness was closing in around me. Joe was here. That’s right. We were supposed to meet up.

My last thought, before I passed out, was that I probably should have waited for Joe before going in.

I should have thought through my plan more carefully.

I should have done a lot of things better.

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Author's Note:

Hey everyone! First of all, thank you so much for all the supportive comments. It really means a lot to me to read them and it helps give me energy and motivation to continue. Suggestions are, as always, welcome, so keep them coming.
One of the comments asked how long I was planning to make this series. Specifically, they were asking if it was going to be as long as 'Allison and the Primdales' (forgive me if I misspelled that). Well...I don't know yet. We'll see where this goes. I do have plans to continue it for a long while yet but I don't know exactly where the end is.
Hope you all enjoyed reading and I'll see you in the next chapter.
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