The stunned silence that descended upon the room was deafening. Celia stumbled into Ian’s arms “what will she do? What did she mean?”
“I don’t know” he kissed her cheek trying to give her what comfort he cold as he wrapped his arms around her squeezing her close.
“This is my fault isn’t?” Garrett asked looking around the room “if I had invited her to my party then she wouldn’t have needed to threaten us.”
“You don’t know that,” Katrina protested taking a step forward reaching out for him “this is not your fault.”
“He shook his head in disbelief If he had given in to her demand maybe she wouldn’t have been so angry. Maybe if he had shown her some forgiveness she wouldn’t have felt the need to threaten everyone. No matter what anyone said he knew this was is fault. “I should have let her come,” he muttered.
“This is not your fault,” Katrina shook him as if she could help filter her words into his brain.
Wild-eyed he pulled away from her “it is my fault, it is.” He turned and fled from the room. Distantly they heard his bedroom door slam.
“Garrett,” Katrina called to him. “Let me go,” she cried as August pulled her close to him.
“Let him go,” he advised her “he needs time to calm down. He won’t listen otherwise. At least not in his current frame of mind.”
Relaxing in his arms Katrina let him coax her from following her brother upstairs. “He shouldn’t blame himself. Kara’s a psycho. She’s responsible for her own actions.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Ian broke into their conversation. “What time are you leaving tomorrow?”
Looking up at August before replying Katrina waited for him to nod before answering “we’re staying for the weekend.”
“I thought you were leaving tomorrow?” Ian said ignoring the not so gentle elbow in the ribs Celia gave him.
“We were,” August said “but I know Katrina wants to stay longer. We really don’t have anything important to get back to.”
“Uh huh” Ian grunted eyeing them “as long as you’re not staying because of what happened tonight.”
“Dad” Katrina blurted without thinking “I’d be lying if I said it had nothing to do with it.” She wrapped her arms around him “I worry about you guys.”
“I appreciate that” Ian squeezed her tight “but you need to live your own life.”
“I know and we will,” she acknowledged stepping back. Taking August’s hand in hers she looked up at him than at her parents. “I have something to tell you but you might not like it.”
“I’m going to be Grandpa,” Ian attempted to joke.
“No Daddy please….”
“We’re moving in together,” August informed them “we found a little one bedroom house close to campus that we could rent for less than it takes to live in the dorm.”
“Plus we have added benefit of privacy and the ability to study in peace and quiet,” Katrina added.
“That’s a relief” Ian laughed.
“Aren’t you moving a little fast?” Celia fretted.
“Mom please,” Katrina rolled her eyes “we’ve known each other since high school.”
“It’s just” Celia bit her lip before continuing “your so young.”
“So were you and Daddy,” Katrina pointed out “it’s not like August and I will make the same mistakes as you and get pregnant….”
“Katrina” Ian’s voice cut into her flow of uncensored words “that’s enough. You’re an adult and can make your own decisions. We’ll respect that. But do not throw up our past to prove your point. Yes we made mistakes and because we were so young we know a little something about the added pressures of having to grow up fast. We would hope you’d appreciate our viewpoint and hear our concerns.” He pulled Celia close to him knowing how vulnerable and hurt she was over Katrina’s thoughtless comments.
“Daddy I didn’t mean it like it sounded” she tried to make amends after observing how hurt her parents were over her thoughtlessness.
“It’s late,” Ian said as he escorted Celia towards the stairs “we’ll talk more in the morning once we’ve all calmed down.”
Katrina watched her parents leave. She felt August come up behind and kiss her cheek “come on babe let’s go to bed.”
“I’m such a terrible daughter.”
“No you’re not,” he objected “you’re just not thinking straight. After a good nights rest you’ll see things differently.”
“Why do you put up with me?” she asked turning to face him.
“Because I love you,” he emphasized his words by kissing her nose.
Resting her cheek against his chest she listened to his steady heartbeat beneath his shirt. “I love you too.” She looked up to find him gazing down at her with such love and affection it brought tears to her eyes. “I don’t know how lucky I must have been to win your love but I’m glad I was.”
“I’m the lucky one,” he contradicted kissing the top of her head.
“Yeah?” she smiled up at him. He nodded “don’t you ever forget it,” she told him.
“I won’t” he bent down and captured her lips with his. He felt her melt into him as he deepened the kiss. He pulled away just enough to say “let’s go upstairs.”
Giggling as he took her hand and led her to her childhood room. He groaned upon seeing the twin bed that awaited them. Beaming up at him she whispered in his ear “it’s never stopped us before.”
Looking into her eyes he smiled “nothing ever will.”
Several weeks later Garrett was putting the finishing touches to his homework. An essay about his most recent birthday. A stupid subject if anyone asked him but his teacher assigned the subject. He could write about it, easy, no problem. Sighing he set it aside. It felt unfinished. He had omitted so many things but there was no way he was going to include the threats that had been made. That was too personal and need to know. His teacher didn’t need to know.
Worry churned inside his stomach turning it to acid that felt like it was eating him from the inside out. Outwardly he agreed with his Dad. It wasn’t his fault that Kara had threatened them. He had no control over her or what she did. Inwardly he couldn’t help but wonder if things would have been different if he had invited her. Would she still have felt the need to threaten them? Would she have felt accepted the family? Had he tipped her over the edge? It probably didn’t matter She was what she was. Her decision had probably been made before she even approached him that day. It didn’t lessen his worry or cause his stomach not to hurt any less thinking about it.
“All finished” his mom asked from the stove.
“I just have a few math problems to do then I’m done,” he told her as he gathered his things so they could eat at the table.
“I’m so proud of you,” Celia told him “you’ve really changed and putting forth the extra effort.”
“Thanks Mom,” he mumbled uncomfortable with the praise for work he should have been doing all along but hadn’t. “Need any help?” he asked once he had cleared the table.
“Could you set the table and then find your Dad?” she asked.
“Sure can,” he moved to get the plates from the cupboard. He was shocked with he Mom pulled him into a hug.
“I love you” she told him “and appreciate the change in attitude.”
“I love you too,” he told her as his cheeks flared with heat “I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time before.”
“It wasn’t so much that,” she squeezed him once more before moving to stir the pot on the stove “we just knew you were capable of so much more.”
Setting the table he felt his parents expectations settle around his shoulders like a heavy cloak. The last thing he wanted to do was disappoint his parents again but afraid their expectations of him would increase.
“Hey cut that out,” Garrett snarled ducking his cousin Leighton’s attempt to mess up his hair.
Laughing Leighton asked ” what does it matter? It’s going to get messed up anyway.”
“That’s not the point. You wouldn’t like it if I did it to you.” Garrett huffed knowing what would happen if he even tried it. He’d be on the floor with his cousin standing over him.
“Leighton leave the kid alone,” Terrence said coming along side the huddled group.
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Leighton objected.
“Yeah we were only having a little fun,” Micah added coming to his brother’s defense.
“No you were being bullies,” Samantha said putting an arm around Garrett.
“How can we not tease the kid when he needs a girl to come to his defense?” Leighton smirked in away Samantha found irritating.
“Cool it,” Terrence commanded “he doesn’t need his own cousin’s bullying him. Think about it,” Terrence gave Leighton and his brother a stern withering glare “what would you do if someone else was bullying him?”
Shrugging Leighton looked at his feet “I wasn’t thinking of it like that. I’m sorry” he said looking up.
“Don’t tell me” Terrence pointed to Garrett “tell him.”
“I’m sorry,” Leighton repeated “sometimes I can be a real jerk. I hope you know that I’d defend you if you needed it.”
Nodding Garrett watched his cousin warily. Sometimes he didn’t know where he stood around them. They had recently moved to Starlight Shores from Roaring Heights and they were still getting to know each other. “Apology accepted,” he took the proffered hand and shook it.
“Now that we’re all friends” Samantha hissed “we better get to the pool or Garrett won’t be able to compete.”
Glancing at the time Garrett broke into a sprint realizing he had five minutes to change for the first meet. He could hear his older cousins laughing behind him as he went. He couldn’t worry about them right now. He knew that Samantha would be giving them a tongue lashing once he was gone.
“Bennett you’re late,” his coach bellowed at him as he entered the pool to the combined groans of his team mates. “You let the team down Bennett.”
“I know sir. I’m sorry sir” he replied back the way the coach liked due to his previous military history.
“I thought we were past this childish immature attitude,” the coach went on to berate his lack of discipline and teamship. He stood at attention in front of the older, larger irate man. He could feel the glares and contempt emanating from his teammates.
He sat through the entire competitions cringing each time he should have been swimming. Watching helplessly while his substitute suffered one humiliating defeat after another. The hostile glares of his teammates increased the longer he remained rooted to the bench. He wanted to leave but to do so meant quitting the team. He wasn’t ready to take the final drastic step yet.
At the end of the competition he followed the defeated team into the changing room. The coach followed behind him with his unrelenting scowl in place. As the lockers came into view his teammates glared at him. At that moment Garrett wondered if he should have quit instead of having to endure their combined hate.
“We lost because of you” an older boy said backed by the jeers of others.
“Save it,” another growled slamming his locker shut.
“Boys that’s enough,” the coach admonished them “Bennett won’t be late next time, will you?” He gave the boy a piercing gaze.
Swallowing Garrett met that cold hard gaze that he no doubts had cadets everywhere running for cover “It won’t happen again sir.”
The coach nodded holding his gaze a moment longer before nodding. “Good” he said turning and walking into his office.
An hour later Garrett met up with Samantha in front of the school. “What took you so long?”
Wincing he dropped his backpack to the ground “sorry” he mumbled.
She looked at him in concern “you’re moving kind of funny. Did you pull a muscle or something?”
“No I…don’t want to talk about it,” he turned away from her touch but not fast enough to prevent her from seeing the marks on his back.
“You didn’t get that swimming. What happened?” she demanded.
He shook his head avoiding her concerned gaze “we lost…”
“So they took it out on you…” words failed her.
“It was my fault,” he moved away from “I was late and coach wouldn’t let me compete.”
“Let me see,” she coaxed approaching him. Gently she pulled his shirt up. Her horrified gasp was enough for him to know it was bad as it felt. “What did they do?”
“I don’t know” he admitted as panic welled up inside him “a bunch of the guys held me down so I couldn’t see….couldn’t move….”
“How’d the swim meet go?” a friendly voice asked causing both of them to jump.
Whirling around Samantha snarled “this is your fault.” She pointed an accusatory finger at her cousin Leighton.
“What’s my fault?” he asked looking over Terrence’s shoulder.
She moved quick and pulled up Garrett’s shirt before he could prevent her. “That’s your fault” she indicated the marks on Garrett’s back.
“Samantha please,” Garrett complained jerking free from her grasp “I can fight my own battles.”
“Your back says otherwise,” Terrence said a cold anger burning in his dark eyes. “Who did this?” he demanded.
“The swim team,” Samantha spoke knowing Garrett wouldn’t.
“Most of those guys are juniors and seniors,” Terrence simmered like a volcano about to erupt.
Leighton’s eyes were round with shock “they did that because you were late?” anger creeping into his voice “wait until I get my hands on them.”
“No don’t” Garrett pleaded “you’ll only make things worse.”
“We’ve got to do something,” Terrence advised “otherwise they’ll feel free to do it again.”
“I could quit,” Garrett said “then they would have to stop.”
“No Garrett,” Samantha protested “you love swimming. You’re the youngest on the swim team and the best swimmer.”
Terrence considered her words “have they ever hurt you before?”
“No” Garrett thought of all the times he had been late in the past or couldn’t compete due to poor grades. “It just started when Coach Yarbrough took over.”
“Where was he when this was going on?” Leighton demanded.
“In his office like always. It was his son…”
“His son’s on the team?” Micah asked speaking for the first time.
“Yeah he’s the one who…”
“Who did that to you,” Terrence finished for him anger flashing in his dark eyes, deepening his voice.
Glumly Garrett nodded “he’s never liked me. Always had something against me since the day he moved here.”
Nodding in agreement Samantha added “he moved here about six months ago and he’s been out to get Garrett ever since.”
Rubbing his chin Terrence thought for a moment. “From now on you’re not to go anywhere without one of us.”
“That won’t work,” Samantha was quick to point out “none of you are on the swim team. What will happen to Garrett when he goes to practice or away to competitions?”
Sighing Terrence said “at least one of us will have made the team. All three of us will try out that way it’ll increase our chances.”
After Terrence drove them all home Garrett stood outside his house dreading the impending conversation with his parents. Terrence was the one who insisted he tell them what happened. In Garrett’s mind he still didn’t know what good it would do. Sighing he moved at a snail’s pace up the sidewalk. For once his parents weren’t waiting to pounce on his as soon as he opened the door with a dozen questions about his day. He sat at the table organizing his homework.
An hour later, his homework done he frowned. It wasn’t like them to not at least greet him when he got home. He felt the first tingle of apprehension turning his stomach to acid. He was about to call his dad when the door opened and both of his parents walked in.
The first thing he noticed was the look of disappointment in his Dad’s eyes and the look of disapproval on his Mom’s face. Turning to his Dad about to ask a question when his Dad said “we heard what happened at school today. You know how we feel about fighting.”
Shock swept through him making him feel sick to his stomach. “What fight?” he asked confused.
“Don’t play innocent or make us out to be idiots,” Celia snapped at him “we know about the boy you punched. Just because you were too late participate in the competition is no excuse to take your frustrations out on the boy who took your place. It’s not his fault he’s not as good as you.” She crossed her arms continuing “I thought you were doing so much better. I’ve never felt so embarrassed or ashamed of you in all my life…”
“Celia that’s more than enough,” Ian’s voice came out sharp and brittle “we haven’t heard Garrett’s side of things. I’m not convinced what we’ve been told was the entire story or the truth.” He waited expectantly for Garrett to say something to prove him right.
“I was late for the competition,” Garrett admitted “I couldn’t compete. The team was justifiably upset with me. Some were even angry.” He looked up his eyes pleading for understanding “I didn’t hit anyone. I never got the chance…”
“What do you mean you never got the chance?” Ian asked him.
Sighing Garrett pulled his shirt up and turned around displaying the raw red welts covering his back. “They grabbed me. Held me down while someone….” he gulped unable to finish his thought “I couldn’t see who was doing what or even what they were using on me.” He turned around confronting his parents pain filled eyes.
“I’m going to call the school…”
“Mom don’t…” Garrett cried “it’ll only make things worse.”
Looking at his son Ian nodded in agreement “Celia don’t. I have a feeling they want to provoke us into some sort of action. I’m afraid all we’ll accomplish is more aggression against Garrett.”
“They want to kick him off the team,” Celia protested “if he did hit that boy is was self-defense.”
“I know but they didn’t. They only gave him a week suspension.” Ian said “Son do you want to stay on the swim team?”
“Yes Terrence said if I quit I’ll be giving them open invitation to continue coming after me,” Garrett told him.
“What else did Terrence say?” Ian asked curious to know what plan of action his nephew would suggest.
“That I’m not to go anywhere without someone coming with me. They’re even going to try out for the team.”
“Terrence seems to have a good head on his shoulders,” Ian nodded in approval thankful that Garrett had someone he could rely on.
“Well I still don’t like it,” Celia muttered “I also know I’m out voted.” Turning to Garrett “come with me so that I can examine the damage.”
Turning to his Dad as if to ask for help Ian laughed “sorry son not even I can help you with this.”