Extract from Luke’s notes:
Christ—what a hell of a week!
On the night after the fire when Simon broke down, I sat with him as he shook, thinking of all the reasons he could have done with a better brother than me. In fact, I felt as fucking useless as the day I’d let Ryan down when they’d picked on him in the restrooms the previous year. Si didn’t cry long, but by the end, it seemed to have done him more good than it did me!
We talked, but he still didn’t give many more details as to why he and Toby had split up. I asked Si—and I had to—if him being in hospital the previous month had anything to do with it. He said yes, kind of, but it had been an accident. He wouldn’t say any more.
We spent most of the evening together. I went out in the car to go get the suits back from the drycleaners and he tagged along. There was no way I was doing any more school work that day, and we stayed out for a while and went bowling—just the two of us. Si cheered up considerably and we had a blast—I even made sure I didn’t win! Mum and dad were delighted enough that they even gave me the cash for it!
* * *
The last couple of days of that week both at school and at home—at least for the most part—got back to same old, same old. If anyone had hoped that the school was going to be shut because of the fire, they were to be disappointed!
However, what was dropped from the school daily timetables were any art lessons, at least for the time being. Daniels was conspicuously absent for much of the time, too. Maybe there wasn’t much he could really do when his teaching space and materials had gone up in flames?
What was really encouraging was to see Simon hanging on to his improving mood, and Luke tried to keep that going as much as he could.
However, what remained out of bounds to any but a few was the Art block, which had been wrapped up in police tape. Forensics guys in plastic suits spent the day there on Thursday alongside a pair of fire marshals and a couple of detectives who were questioning students and taking statements. Luke guessed they were probably detectives at the other two schools, too, and rumors were flying. Simon had said he didn’t actually think Toby had anything to do with it, but by what others were saying, Luke could tell nobody else believed that—you’d have thought that kid was already languishing in Guantanamo Bay by the way they were talking! That was until Toby came back to school on Friday with hardly a mark on him!
Finally, the week was done, and Luke and his family were gathered around the dinner table for an end-of-week catch up. When it came to Toby and the fire, their mum seemed to know more than he and Simon did.
“I forgot to tell you,” Lucy said, laying down her knife and fork on her empty plate and sitting back with a glass of wine. “Grace popped in after lunch today. She’s been taking some holiday leave for the past couple of days to keep an eye on Toby.”
Luke said, “Actually, Toby was back at school today, wasn’t he, Si?”
Simon nodded, though looked cautious.
“Yes, she did say he'd gone back today.” Their mum looked thoughtful as she glanced at Simon. “I guess he’ll only have heard when he got home.”
Simon looked blank. “Heard what?”
“Well, Grace said that those two police officers we saw at the hospital came around to her place this morning.”
“They came to let her know that they think they finally figured out what happened.”
After a long pause, Geoff chuckled. “Well, are you actually going to tell us, or do we just have to guess?”
“Be patient.” She rolled her eyes, but seemed to be enjoying the game.
Luke shook his head in exasperation. “Mum, this isn’t ‘American Idol’—you don’t have to string it out ten minutes to tell us!”
She failed to hide an amused smirk. That TV show was the one time of the week she never gave up the remote! At last, she continued. “Well it turns out that it was an arson attack after all, but it had nothing to do with Toby.”
“You actually thought it was him?” Simon’s eyes narrowed, though Luke kept his mouth shut. He had to admit, he’d thought that, too, at first.
Lucy shook her head. “Of course I didn’t, silly! Grace said the forensics investigators foundtraces of an accelerant—petrol or something—that looked like it had been poured through an opened window. There were fresh footprints in the soil on the outside.”
Geoff said, “So, Toby’s in the clear?”
“Of course he is, Hon! There’s no reason why he would do such a thing anyway.”
“So why didn’t he just get out when the fire started, then?” Geoff pressed.
Luke’s head kept flicking one way and then another in the tennis match exchange. Yes—why didn’t Toby just make a run for it? Even Simon hadn’t been able to shed any light on that.
“Because he fell asleep!” The way their mum said it, she made it sound like it was completely obvious. “He’d not slept well the night before, Grace said, and had stayed up late reading, too. He told her that he was so bushed straight after lunch, and with nobody else there, he fell asleep at his desk. He only woke up when the place was thick with smoke. He couldn’t find the way out, he said, and collapsed.”
To Luke, it sounded a bit weak and he glanced at Simon. He could see that this was news to Simon too, but then again, Simon and Toby were no longer even talking, so perhaps… Luke shrugged. Who could tell anymore…
"They should be questioning every young person from Creek and Alpharetta, in my opinion," Lucy added.
Luke hid his irritation at what, to him, flew in the face of her earlier take on ‘those ridiculous policemen who hounded young people’.
Geoff didn’t let it go, either, and chuckled, "You missed your vocation, Hon. You'd make a great police officer!"
She pouted. "Don't be cheeky—you know what I mean!"
Luke grinned at her discomfort. Know what she meant? No, not really.
“You went to college, didn’t you Mum?” Simon asked. It was an ordinary everyday question. “What did you study?”
“She sure did!” Their dad grinned. “Me and your mum met at uni.”
“I studied History,” Lucy added. She crunched up her face. “And look where it got me!”
“History?” Simon giggled—a sound that had been missing for so long. “That’s so last century!”
"Oh very funny!” She couldn’t help but laugh with the rest of them as she was teased. “So, who's for hot chocolate fudge cake?"
It was hardly a tough question, and they started gathering the dinner plates as she dug around in the fridge. At the same time, she still didn't seem to be finished with the previous discussion.
“I’m surprised Toby didn’t already mention any of it to you, Simon—about why he got trapped in the building. I thought he was meant to be a friend of yours?” She popped the ready-to-eat dessert in the microwave, and turned to wait for an answer.
Luke chewed his lip as he glanced at his brother, wondering what Simon was going to say. For someone who used to be up and down the hill to Toby’s every other day, he was surprised this hadn't come up sooner, even though Simon had been house-bound after his operation.
Simon shrugged. “He's very into his painting at the moment, and he doesn't like sailing at all. I guess we're just into different things." His tone was light and it was hard to take it at other than at face value.
"Oh." Whether their mum thought that was a good thing, a bad thing, or that she really didn't care, wasn't clear.
Luke took an educated stab at something. “You’ve not seen much of him for quite a while, have you, Si. I don’t think anyone has. I think Toby and his mum have been spending quite a bit of time with Daniels over the summer.”
“Really?” Geoff smirked. “Who’d have guessed!”
For once, their mum seemed to go along with it. “Well—and it has to be between these four walls—Grace told me that they’re leaving soon. All three of them!” She brought the dessert to the table and sat back down in satisfaction at her apparent coup d’état.
“Leaving?” It was Simon who got his voice first, and he sounded as astonished as Luke felt. “When?”
“Grace wasn’t sure, but soon. Marcus has been offered a job in another school. She said it all just felt like the right time.”
“The right time for what?” Geoff had a teasing twinkle in his eye.
Lucy shot Geoff a withering look. “Behave, you!”
Pouring more cream until his plate was as swimming as his head, Luke considered what he’d learned. Toby leaving? Grace and Daniels? Going where?
Then the phone rang. Dutifully, Geoff stood to answer it. “Oh hello Rose,” he said, his face lighting up. “Yes we're good, thanks. How are you all?”
Luke’s ears pricked up as, from where his dad was answering the phone, Geoff mouthed, "Rose Carter".
“Toby, you mean?” Geoff said, continuing the conversation in his ear. “Oh, I see, Elliott was at the sports day...no Luke didn't tell us that...then again, it’s been a bit manic the last few days! Anyway, Toby's fine, thank God. We went down to the hospital to see him on Wednesday. They checked him over and released him a couple of hours later.”
He paused and listened, and then said, “Oh right…hang on. It's probably better if I put Lucy on. She’ll know.” He muffled the handset against his stomach. “It’s Rose Carter. They want to know if we can come round to dinner this Sunday?”
As his mum reached for the phone Luke chewed on a mouth filled with chocolate. Last time he'd seen Elliott at the ASSF, the guy had been acting quite strangely. On top of that, was dinner on Sunday still related in any way to the determination that Estela seemed to have that she should cook for them?
“Hello, Rose!” Lucy beamed down the phone. “That’s kind of you to call. Yes, we’re fine…so how are you all? I've been meaning to phone for a while...”
For a few minutes the two of them chatted about the fire and Toby, and the ridiculous police who seemed to assume that she and Simon were terrorists, just because they came from another country!
Eventually, they got down to the business of the social calendar, and Lucy tapped on the date in question. “This Sunday? Sure, we’d love too. It will be just the three of us—Simon is doing something else that day." Meaningfully, her eyes flicked towards Simon and Luke couldn't help but wonder if the look meant 'if he actually goes!’
"What time? And the address?” She scribbled it all on a pad. "And what’s your phone number?"
Shortly after, she disconnected the call. “I hear you saw quite a bit of Elliott at school the other day,” she said to Luke, coming to sit back down.
More than you think! The good bits of the day came flooding back and Luke grinned. “Oh, my God—you should have seen him!” His laugh was infectious enough that he didn’t get called on his cussing either. “He absolutely demolished our Junior volleyball squad!”
“Volleyball?” His dad was quizzical. “I thought you guys always won that?”
“Not this year—at least not the juniors. He’s the captain of their junior squad, and we got totally humiliated. It was awesome!”
“So much for your sense of school pride, then,” Lucy chuckled. “So, who’s Estela?”
"Estela?" Luke shrugged, guessing she'd got the name from Rose. “Not really sure—a friend of theirs that’s visiting from Spain, I think. She seems nice. Why?”
“Well, it seems that she promised to cook for you.”
"Us—and don’t even go there!" Luke rolled his eyes. She was so predictable! "I think she’s Elliott’s girlfriend.”
Except that he didn’t think that at all. Actually, he didn't know what to think.
She dropped it, turned to Simon and became a little more brisk. “So, do you want to come on Sunday or not? If you want to come with us instead of going to the lake, then come—just don’t change your mind at the last minute!”
“Hon…” Even their dad seemed to think that was a bit mean and Luke bristled. She had no idea what Simon had gone through, and Simon had been trying so hard the last couple of days, yet Luke expected it was going to turn sour again. However, Simon's response—when it came—was surprising.
"I know I haven't been very nice recently," he said quietly. He shrugged. "If you really want me to come, of course I will, but I kind of wanted to spend some time at the lake on Sunday as the Walkers are going..."
Luke looked across quickly. He could tell this was a lot different to the last time Simon had used that one. For a change, he actually seemed to mean it.
It took their mum aback, too.
"I don't think that was very nice of me, either," she admitted. "I am so sorry, sweetheart—you didn’t deserve that at all! And of course you should go sailing, if that's what you prefer.”
She gathered herself. “I tell you what, why don’t we have a real family day tomorrow? We’ll go out for lunch—just the four of us— to somewhere really nice. Dad’s paying—“
“What?” Their dad’s mouth dropped in mock surprise.
“—then we can go do something in the afternoon. What about Go Karting?”
“Cool!” Simon was enthusiastic. “Can I drive to get some practice?”
“The van or a Go Kart?” laughed Luke, though he knew what his brother was after.
“You can drive all day if you want, sunshine!” Geoff smiled as he added to the plans. “You’ve got a lot of catching up to do! Then, what about a movie in the evening?”
Unsurprisingly, dinner went even better after that!
Later that evening, Luke chilled in front of the TV with his mum, dad and Simon, watching some stupid movie that was little more than chewing gum for the eyes. In the frequent breaks he tapped away at the laptop on his knee, catching up on Facebook. Damon was online again, so they chatted. Damon was shocked—as far as smileys would allow shock—that they'd had a fire at their school.
[DAMONJ] "So who did it?”
[LUKE] “Nobody knows—they’re still investigating.”
[DAMONJ] "Well, we'll see—that is, you will. There’s probably a line of fucking nutcases waiting to come and burn the rest down!"
[LUKE] “Just 'cos you have to go through metal detectors, doesn't mean all schools are like that!"
[DAMONJ] "Oohh—that hurts!"
[LUKE] “Mind you, it was the inter-school sports day, so who knows. There were lots of people around. It could have been someone from one of the other schools"
[DAMONJ] "Maybe it was me!"
[LUKE] “Lol! You go to Creek or Alpharetta now?"
[DAMONJ] "You know me—The Chameleon—I could have snuck down there and you'd never know I was there! So, did anyone get hurt?”
[LUKE] “One guy was trapped, but they got him out. A friend of my brother's, actually. He's fine."
[DAMONJ] "He's lucky. Up here they'd leave you in and collect on the insurance!”
[LUKE] “Yeah—right...so anything new with you!"
[DAMONJ] "Me? I wish! I'm so fucking bored right now, I'm watching this total crap movie on TV!”
[LUKE] “On ABC?"
[DAMONJ] "You got it...you too? Hell, it's almost worth switching to a shopping channel! Watch up...here we go again!”
Luke grinned as, in front of him too, the movie restarted. In fact, the second half was a lot more fun than the first as he and Damon maintained a constant stream of jokes and jibes at the expense of everything from the actors to the storyline. By the time the film ended, their message history had grown considerably!
* * *
Sunday rolled around, and late that morning Luke and his parents were threading into the notably swanky Greendales estate in his dad’s car, heading towards lunch at the Carters.
Simon had stuck with his plans, and in a continuing good mood had left for the lake with the Walkers to sail his boat just before nine. However, now that his brother was set for the day, Luke was feeling somewhat apprehensive himself. There was a lot he didn't know about Elliott Carter, and he wondered what the day would bring.
The main artery into the estate led them up a rise, and Luke studied the surroundings. Keeping well under the speed limit and searching around for clues to the right direction, they passed homes that were big—their surrounding landscapes matured. This wasn’t the kind of newly built community like the one Luke and his family had moved into five years ago. Back then, everyone's backyard in their neck of the woods was just grass—and cheap turf at that! These places on the other hand had character and had aged sufficiently that, along with the landscaping, the community that lived there had had time to grow out, too. Lofty trees filled the avenues, and rich, colorful gardens surrounded homes of every shape and style, none looking the same as another.
“I think Jacko Jackson lives around here somewhere,” Luke murmured as they followed the directions the Carters had given them. "Don't know which one, though."
“Try to stay on our side of the road, Hon. You’re not in a Kart now, you know” Lucy didn’t disguise any of the tease in her tone.
Luke chuckled. Their dad had been a bit erratic on the track the previous day! “Give him a break, Mum—at least we’re getting there!”
Geoff pouted. “Hey, that wasn’t my fault…there was something wrong with the Kart!”
“Yes, Hon—we’ve all heard that one before!”
Luke double-checked the written instructions, and pointed to the next right that was just coming up, and his dad turned into Oak Lane. “This is it—we should be near. According to this, they live at the end.”
“Mmmm…” His mum peered through the car windows, and sounded thoughtfully impressed as they made the turn. “I wonder why they don’t send their boys to the Academy?”
Not surprised at the comment, Luke smirked as he leaned forward between the two front seats. “Their kids were home-schooled most of their lives don't forget—and maybe they just didn’t want to go somewhere like our school?”
"They were given a choice?" Geoff sounded deliciously shocked.
"Behave!" Lucy smacked Geoff's leg, as he pulled her chain. She turned her head and said, "You can't tell me you haven't appreciated the place, Luke. It's been good for both you and Simon."
"Yeah, I guess." Luke knew she was right. He changed the subject. "Si seemed in a good mood again today."
"He did, didn't he," she agreed. "He's had me and dad worried for a while, for sure!"
"Maybe the thing with Toby finally got his worries off himself?" Luke said.
Lucy smirked. "Either that, or it was watching your dad crawl round in last place on the track yesterday!”
Luke grinned. “Anyway, I hope he has a good day on the boat."
"Us, too," agreed his dad. “It really looks like he’s turned a corner.”
“You were talking about counseling the other day…” Luke was cautious, wondering what they were thinking about that now.
“What do you think, Hon?” Even his mum sounded like she was still grappling with it
“We’ll see,” was all Geoff would say in Luke’s presence.
Luke didn’t press. Instead, he scanned the various properties as they drove by. He’d got used to being well down the pecking order at the Academy, but even he was surprised. They had to be close by now, and suddenly he pointed ahead. “There...that’ll be it!” It had to be. There was no more road!
Chez Carter was an unusual property, that was for sure. Many of the big houses they had passed had an old colonial feel to them—white stone and columned facades. The Carter’s house was different, and you could immediately see its strong Spanish and South American flavors. Passing through open gates, they drove up through a garden awash with palm trees and other exotic plants and flowers. With its extensive arches and several spacious balconies, the imposing house they drew towards looked like it had come out of a spaghetti western!
Would there be a pool? With a frontage like this, he'd bet the farm there would be! He checked his watch. It had taken less than twenty minutes to get there. Not too far if he ever wanted to come back…
They came to a stop, and across to one side, in front of the garages, he could see three cars, one of which had to be Elliott’s Mazda.
They'd arrived impeccably on time, and the front door opened before they'd even got out of the car. Beaming, the whole Carter family—minus Sam—came out to greet them. With them, and with her arm draped around Elliott's waist, was Estela. Seeing them both, Luke felt totally freaking intimidated! This was nothing like going to lunch at Ryan’s place—which he knew so well—or even the Quince’s home. He’d fussed for ages that morning in the privacy of his wardrobe, trying to decide what to wear. It wasn’t that he was trying to impress Elliott he told himself—he just didn’t want to look like a dork! He’d almost gone out and bought something, and might well have done if he actually had any money left just then. He’d finally latched onto a pair of chinos that had come from Justins, and one of his golf shirts. He cringed now as he knew he'd even made sure his boxers matched!
The Carters were as welcoming as they could be, and they gathered around the car as Luke and his parents got out. Whatever the etiquette for these kinds of occasion was for their hosts, they sure didn't hang around on the doorstep!
“Lucy—how lovely to see you again!” Rose's musical tone rose out of the chatter. Apparently without any self-consciousness, she offered Lucy a proper Latino greeting kiss, and then swiveled to give the same to Geoff. Luke sidled towards Elliott and Estela, but it didn’t save him as he got from a kiss on the cheek from Rose, too, and then got accosted by Estela on the other cheek as well! Natty went around formally shaking everybody’s hand, and the handshake Luke got from Benedict was as firm as he’d remembered it! Surprisingly, Luke quickly relaxed, and it seemed his mum and dad did too as they all slipped back into the easy friendship that had started in the hospital ward.
“Mum, this is Estela,” Luke said, filling the gap for her.
Estela smiled as she took his mum’s hand. “I am pleasing…” she frowned and seemed to be thinking it through, adding, “pleased to meet you, Mrs. Summers.”
“Estela is learning English,” Luke explained.
“Come on through.” Benedict suggested, and they followed him in and through the house, coming out again onto the shaded patio. Luke stared with satisfaction.
Oh yep, there was a pool. Roll on the day when they had their own!
The back of the property continued the same Spanish flavors as the front, and he was faced with what had to be one of the most beautiful gardens he’d ever seen. Autumn color blossomed amongst statues and carefully crafted ironwork designs, and Mediterranean-yellow boulders of all sizes formed numerous rockeries. But large though some of those were, they didn’t seem conspicuous in the size of the plot. Brick walls of the same color lifted up beds and created shapes that had mellowed with age. Stretching into the garden as though it were a Mediterranean-heated spa was a beautiful, inviting pool.
“Oh Rose, this is simply gorgeous!” Lucy said at once, and Luke could tell she wasn't just being polite. His mum loved their own garden and tended it carefully, but it was nothing like this.
“Mom likes to do most of the gardening herself,” Elliott said. “She gets her green fingers from Mama Juanita—my grandmother.”
Lucy strolled out amongst the nearby beds and started sniffing. Luke didn't blame her—the smells wafting over them were aromatic and strikingly intense. If he shut his eyes, he could easily could be transported away in an instant!
“You'll have to give me a tour,” Lucy said, a determined glint in her eye.
“Perfect!” Benedict smirked at Geoff. “While the ladies are touring the greenery later, you and I can watch a bit from one of the Gunners matches that I just got on a DVD from the UK!”
“Yes—and right now, these two can come and help in the kitchen!” Estela pointed at Luke and Elliott. “I need slaves!”
“Estela is cooking for us today,” Rose explained. “I'm banned from the kitchen, but I think we're in safe hands." She raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps the word you were looking for was ‘helpers’, my dear?"
The correction was met with a shake of Estela's head and a mischievous glint in her eye. “No, slaves!”
* * *
Earlier that same day, in the seclusion of his bathroom, Ryan had stood in front of his bathroom mirror and dabbed a bit more cream on his face, wincing where the cut, just under his eye, still stung uncomfortably. A black eye had formed overnight, and as far as weekends went, his had been overwhelmingly crap!
It had kicked off the previous day, the day of the monthly army officer’s cookout that he so loathed—which on this occasion was made worse for a whole pile of reasons!
Firstly, it wasn’t at their place that month, so he couldn’t find ways to ‘hide away’ in the house when nobody was noticing. Secondly, Mel hadn’t been there, nor her father, General Piper. Finally, his own father had been in a completely foul mood because as a backdrop to this monthly’s BBQ from hell, there was the delicate issue of his on-going employment in the army!
Being an army officer had a shelf life, at least at any one particular pay grade. His father was a captain, an O3 in army pay-grade, but you could only stay at that—or any other officer grade—level for so long. And if you got passed over for promotion more than once, it was curtains. His father was already at the plate for the second and final time.
US army pay grades were pretty simple: you didn’t get much, at whatever rank you achieved! As a captain at O3, Ryan’s father pulled in just over $4000 a month. Ryan had looked up the figures for himself. It was a rather paltry $50k a year; his dad wasn’t raking it in by any stretch of the imagination! One of the reasons Ryan suspected that his father liked to host the monthly cookout was all to do with the fact that he liked to prove that he was above it all, with resources that the rest of them could only dream of. At the same time, he didn’t win many friends that way!
Ethan Alexis had been in the army since before Ryan was born, and Ryan had never known anything else. In fact, the nineteen or so years since he’d first enlisted was a long time, and Ryan’s father should have already made major by now.
He might be a bastard, but he was a clever one. Right out of High School, Alexis had enlisted into the US Army. He’d advanced quickly and had been seen as a bright rising star by some—Ryan wondered if maybe that was why his mom had been enamored enough to marry Ethan Alexis. The flipside of that was, however much Ryan wished she'd found somebody better, he would not have existed if she had!
Cleverer than the average enlisted soldier and seen as a real prospect, it had been an easy path to college. After his first tour of duty, Alexis was cherry picked to enter the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Core), all paid for by government money through the GI bill. From there it had been three months at the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning to complete his training, and on into the commissioned ranks.
Ryan’s father’s career path had pushed on apace at first, through second to first lieutenant, and then slowed—captain had taken a couple of attempts. Right now, he was trying to advance from captain to major. It was a big promotion, and he’d already been passed over once, though Ryan didn’t doubt that his father would use his influence, bullying whoever he needed to get what he wanted.
Ryan’s mom said she wasn’t worried, and that his father had been in this situation several times before. He’d done a lot of work since the previous year, she said, and she was confidant he would get the promotion this time. She seemed to be hanging on to some preconception that, once Ethan reached major, the pressure would be off and he’d become a so much nicer person. Ryan just shook his head and knew better. The figures said that 20% never made it.
The application for advancement was already in that month’s pipeline, and Ryan’s father was expecting to hear within a few days. The tension was high, and it kicked off at the cookout.
It was Fern Blackman’s father that started it. He and Alexis had never been the best of friends and Hugo Blackman was in line for promotion to Major himself—and had got there a lot faster than Ethan Alexis. Everyone seemed to be aware that Alexis was on his last roll of the dice, and Blackman had pushed enough buttons that a scrap had started.
Ryan had been shocked as his father had started laying into Blackman and had tried to stop it—for his father’s sake if for nothing else. His father had turned on him, lashing out and catching Ryan just under the eye with the expensive, stoned ring he liked to wear for occasions like that to prove he was worth something.
It had fucking hurt, and though it didn’t bleed much at the time, had quickly lifted a bruise. They’d left the cookout soon after. As Ryan and his mom followed his father as the latter stormed to their car, all the man would say was that it was Ryan’s own fault he’d got hurt, and he shouldn’t have got in the fucking way!
It had gone downhill from there!
The following morning, Ryan dabbed his bruised face in front of the mirror and made ready to go down for breakfast.
Sunday was one of those days when his mom, Helena, always got up early so they could go to church. How she managed it when she couldn’t be raised before ten on most other days was beyond him, but he wasn’t surprised to see her at the table when he stepped into the kitchen. She raised her eyes from her mobile phone, frowning as she studied him at the doorway. No doubt she was looking at the bruising, though he somehow doubted she would say anything.
He was wrong. She tried to sound positive as she said, “Your little bump from yesterday seems better now.”
“Little bump?” He was incredulous, and it probably only looked better because his eye was smothered in a covering of cream. He touched his face and glared at his father. “You mean where he hit me?”
“Don’t be like that,” she said quickly, looking nervously towards Ryan’s father who was seated at the head of the table. “It was just an accident.”
“You’re late,” Ryan’s father growled, looking up from his paper. “We’re leaving for church in five minutes—you need to move it!”
Ryan studied the two of them. Both were already dressed for church. What a complete and utter farce that was!
Bluntly, he said, “I’m not going.” The table was pretty sparse of food, but at least the coffee pot was on, and he crossed to it to pour himself a cup.
“Yes, you are.” His father’s dangerous tone was just as inflexible. “You’ll do as you’re told!”
“Fine. And when they ask about this,” Ryan pointed to his eye, “I’ll tell them that you punched me in the face!”
His father shrugged, and went back to his paper. “Say what you fucking like, but you’ll not ever speak to me like that again in my house.” His tone belied the threat that was there.
Ryan couldn’t help himself as he lifted the mug of black coffee. He sneered, "But it’s not your house is it! It belongs to Papa and Gamma!” Immediately he regretted it, and started backing away as his father suddenly dropped his paper and launched himself from his chair.
“Ethan…don’t…” Helena said, but Alexis moved fast and even Ryan didn’t have any chance to backtrack as his father grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. The coffee Ryan was still holding spilled all over the floor as his head was forced down towards his knees. Then a fiercely hard hand began smacking his backside. Once, twice, and more. Finally, the stinging attack stopped, and Ryan’s father let him go, his eyes blazing with anger.
“Don’t think you’re too old to be smacked—and never speak to me like that again in MY house! Now clean that mess up, then get out. I don’t want to see your face today.”
Ryan staggered backwards, speechless. It wasn’t that it had hurt that much, not through his pants and underwear, but the humiliation along with the flashing memories of previous beatings stole his voice.
Helena hustled out of her chair. “I’ll clean it up. You go and get yourself sorted out and ready for church.” Her approach, as always, came from out of the sand she'd buried her head in!
“No!” Alexis commanded. “He made the mess—he can clean it up himself!”
Turning swiftly, Ryan ignored them both and strode from the kitchen. He got his keys, his wallet, and a pair of sunglasses for his bruised face. The last thing he heard as he banged shut the front door was, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”