Beth dropped me off in the morning. She was vacillating between lecturing me on my behavior and trying to be supportive. I found it all tiresome. Once she'd dropped me off I went directly to my first class rather than chance a meeting with Tris. He'd no likely be upset with me. It hadn't been thirty minutes prior to that debacle that I'd told him I'd do anything for him and then I broke that. I had been unable to swallow the events at the Malones and I don't see how he could forgive that. The last thing I wanted was a fight with him and, with a refreshing feeling of certainty, I knew I had to leave.
I'd given up my freedom in order to have Tris. I'd allowed the system to direct where I'd live and that I'd go to school. I worked hard for Tris, did whatever was in my power to please him and keep him for my own. Of course, that had been foolish of me. He wasn't an object to be owned or manipulated. He was his own wonderful person. He deserved more than I could give him and so his parents had been right. I'd never go to school and always be an economic weight around their son's shoulders. I'd likely be a social weight as well, forever dragging him down.
Relief flooded me with the decision made. I would miss Tristan Malone, probably for the rest of my life. But I had a direction again and I was free. The only real question was how to facilitate my disappearing act and I'd need money.
Brandon took his seat by me and was his usual self. In a way, I'd miss him as well. He was loyal and irritatingly constant. By the time lunch rolled around, however, he must have spoken to Tristan and was ready to – once more – make clear where his loyalties lay.
“You dick! What did you do?” he snarled, tossing his lunch tray on the table and causing some of his corn to bounce off his tray and scatter.
“None of your business,” I said calmly. My appetite had evaporated with his arrival. Melody placed her tray down and put a hand on Brandon's arm.
“Bran, let him explain.”
“I'm not explaining anything,” I said, my patience straining.
“He's my best friend. Whatever you did to hurt him, you go fix it. Now,” he snarled and glared at me.
“Go fuck yourself,” I told him and I stood, leaving my tray on the table and left. I headed to the social worker's office since I was due to see her anyway and I had no where else to be. The outer office was empty on my arrival and I slumped in a chair to wait. As I did my mind turned over how ironic it was that I'd left one irritant, Bran, for the arms of another in Eileen Belcher. Would the idiocy never end?
Mrs. Belcher's door opened and she started at seeing me. Smiling she said, “What a nice surprise. I was just talking about you.”
“Seems to be the thing to do,” I muttered.
“Well,” she said as she took a step toward me. “I had someone come see me who'd like a private word with you. After speaking to him—”
“No,” I said and stood to leave.
“Hey,” Tim said from the doorway of her office. “Give me ten minutes. Please?”
I paused, taken aback. I'd expected Tris or perhaps Piper – though Mrs. Belcher had said 'him' so that wouldn't be a very wise deduction.
“Ehren? Why don't we sit down. From what I've heard, you really don't have to talk. Just listen.”
Whatever Tim was going to say, it would be about Tris. Much as it hurt, that was now in my past. The thing was, I still craved the connection to Tris and, reluctantly, I nodded and walked slowly into Mrs. Belcher's office.
I sat down like a robot and clasped my hands in my lap. Tim sat to my right, his chair turned slightly to face toward me. Mrs. Belcher moved behind her desk and smiled.
“I'm going to just monitor the conversation, but otherwise just pretend I'm not here.”
If only, I thought.
“So,” Tim said nervously and rubbed his palms on his jeans. “I wanted to talk to you about Tris.”
“Why?” I asked.
His face contorted into something that may have been regret. “Despite what you might have heard, I care for him. I wanted to explain a few things. I...don't really have a goal, I guess.”
I waited. I didn't know what else to do. I had nowhere to be. That was until, of course, my eyes passed over Mrs. Belcher's photo of herself and her husband. An idea began to form in my head; her husband could be my ticket out of this whole mess. With that thought I turned back to Tim and whatever he was doing.
He cleared his throat. His gaze flicked toward Mrs. Belcher and then back to me. With a resolute look he spoke. “I figured out a lot of what I'm about to say to you in therapy. I'm going to be kind of blunt, but I hope you'll keep in mind I didn't really think too far ahead.”
I remained silent and watched him impassively.
“Tris and I had been dating for a while. He's a good person, as you know. My brother, who is straight, and I talked between us about our relationships; comparing them. What we did, how far we got, that sort of thing. Guy talk.”
I tilted my head slightly and waited for him to continue.
“Mark, that's my brother. He and I have always been competitive to the point of stupidity. So we get to talking, comparing, and he tells me he...had sex with his girlfriend. Like full on, he screwed her sex.” He wet his lips. “I had already wanted to have sex with Tristan. But after Mark told me he'd gotten laid, I was obsessed with fuck...uh, screwing Tris.” His eyes had darted to Mrs. Belcher, but she remained impassive.
“And?” I asked.
“My brother came up with a plan. He said it had worked with his girlfriend when she hadn't been so hot on having sex.” He paused and looked down, refusing to meet my eyes. “He'd broken up with her suddenly. Like, she thought things were fine – he waited until things were pretty decent except for the sex thing and then he dropped her. She got upset and after a day or two they talked and made up – and had make up sex. So, he told me if I wanted to fuck Tris so bad, I should break up with him.”
He looked up with wet eyes. “I know. Fucked up. Beyond stupid. Believe me, anything you can think of I've already called myself.” He placed his hands together as if in prayer. “But I was blind by the idea, the desire. So I broke up with him. I thought things would be just like Mark said. Just wait a couple days, Tris and I would make up and then I'd bang him. But...nothing went like it was supposed to. Mark told me it'd work out and he cut Tris off to try and help me. His friend, Steve, he did the same thing.”
He wiped his eyes and sniffed. “Everyone was lining up just to help me have sex with Tris. And...I went along with it. I figured it'd only be for a few days and I'd finally have Tris. Then, for some reason, everyone started to hassle Tris. I was confused – we'd never been a target as a couple and, even then, I wasn't messed with but people seemed to sense Tris was wounded and they piled on.
“I didn't know what to do,” he said with his hands held open. “I wanted to take it all back, but I didn't know how. I didn't know Mark was causing this feeding frenzy, instigating people all to try and force Tris to have sex with me.” His voice had tapered into a whisper. He took a tissue and wiped his eyes and blew his nose. He stood awkwardly to throw the tissue out. Despite myself I felt a shred of sorrow for him. Not enough to change anything or to ever mention, but I knew sometimes things just got out of hand.
“When I heard Tris had tried to hurt himself, I lost it. I went into counseling because my parents thought I might try, too.” He looked down, twisting his fingers together. “I worked on all of it with the counselor. I'm...I'm not proud of myself, but I also didn't see how I could ever explain to Tris and have it mean anything. No matter what I meant or what I felt I couldn't change any of it.”
It's hard not to feel some sympathy for someone who is vulnerable in front of you. I didn't like what Tim had done or why. I perhaps understood the baser desire to manipulate someone into what you wanted, but he was talking about Tris. He hadn't respected Tris and tried to force him into giving away his virginity rather than letting Tris decide when he was ready.
“I don't know what you expect to happen,” I said. “You know you're wrong. Me adding to that won't change anything. I have no idea if Tris could ever forgive you.” I paused and thought about what I'd just been thinking about Tris and how Tim had tried to take his choice away from him. Feeling a sense of clarity I shifted in my chair to face him fully.
“Tim, I hate what you did to him. I think you may hate yourself. It's not up to me, though, to forgive you.” I wet my lips. “You tried to manipulate Tris's choice about whether he would have sex with you. I won't give you absolution. I won't take away Tris right to judge you or forgive you as he sees fit. You're telling all of this to the wrong person.”
Tears ran down Tim's face and he nodded. “That's true. That's right. You're right.”
“I can probably help with a meeting, if the parents are okay with it,” Mrs. Belcher said quietly.
“Oh God, his parents,” Tim moaned. She got up and came around to comfort him and I left, with half our time yet to pass. I didn't think she'd miss me.
I headed across the school to the athletic office. The office was directly to the right as you entered the short hallway to the boy's locker room. There was a desk, a small couch and a stand up storage cabinet. A small door on the opposite end led to a bathroom and in front of the desk was a large window that looked out at the changing area. A blind was down, covering the students from view at the moment. I sat on the couch and waited for the gym class to come back inside. It was easy to tell, given the amount of noise a crowd of young people make when they travel anywhere. Moments later Coach Belcher entered his office and stutter stepped when he saw me waiting.
He was a middle aged man who was in reasonably good shape. His hair was thinning a bit and his face had the beginnings of jowls. He glanced behind him and then looked back at me
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I need to make some money,” I stated without preamble. Hey, this was business – I wasn't here to seduce. “I want to leave town, quickly. I figured maybe we could trade.”
His face flushed slightly and looked slightly damp. “Not here, not right now – I could lose my job or go to jail!”
“I don't want either of those things,” I said and stood. “Strictly business.”
He blinked a few times and looked back over his shoulder. Kids were starting to pack in the hallway as they waited for the bell to ring.
“Come back after school. No practice today, the gym is being set up for testing,” he said in a rush. “I may have an answer.”
Nodding briskly I waited for the bell to ring and for his class to rush away before departing his office. Plan in motion, I set about finishing my last day of high school.
My phone buzzed as the day wound down. I glanced at it briefly. If I had just one text I could see a preview of the message, but I had multiples so it only showed me the names. Brandon. Melody. Tristan. Piper. All too easily I divined that Tristan was angry I'd run. Piper was probably apologizing for her parents refusing to let her drive me – essentially cutting me out of their lives. Bran was likely on a tear to defend Tris and demanding to know what I'd done and Melody was trying to temper whatever Bran said and asking me not to hold it against him.
I didn't read any of the messages. The elder Malones, the 'responsible adults', had deemed me a danger to their children. There really wasn't anything else to say after that. Better to let it lie.
As I walked into the athletic office at the end of the day I felt at peace; in control. Undeniably I was sad about Tris and thinking about him would only bring me down. I couldn't afford to go down the rabbit hole of wishing things were different. Maybe when I was squirreled away in my own place I could indulge that particular hurt, but now was about survival. So I waited for Coach Belcher and for the money I could make to get me started elsewhere. I wouldn't need much. Just enough for food for a time so I could find a place of my own and start with can collecting or dish washing – all sorts of menial things that paid enough.
Coach Belcher stepped into the office, and once again seemed surprised by my presence.
“Okay. Okay,” he said as if to himself. He turned and closed the door to the office and turned back to me. He wiped his hands on his pants and took a couple of quick steps to his desk and sat in his chair, swiveling around to face me.
“All right, here's the deal. You want out of town, right? Leaving, need money – that's the deal, right?” he asked nervously.
“Okay, okay.” He paused and took a breath. “I know a guy. He pays for photos. Fetish kind of stuff. Like, feet. He's interested. So what we do is, I'll take a few pictures and send them to him. If he likes them, I'll take you over to him. He's a few towns over and he pays cash.”
I didn't like it. It sounded too good. The job gets me money and out of town? My skepticism must have shown because Coach waved has hands toward me, as if urging me to stop.
“It's all above board! He runs a website, people pay to see the pictures.”
I thought for a moment. “If I do some pictures, like you're saying. How much do I get?”
He looked taken aback. “These pictures, they're like an audition. You don't really get paid for that.”
I looked down my nose at him. “And you won't be keeping these pictures for yourself?”
His eyes widened slightly and then he smiled nervously. “Okay. Forty bucks, it's all I have on me.”
Forty bucks was a start. “Okay. How do we do this?”
He wiped his palms on his pants again. “Okay. Do you have your gym shorts in your locker?”
Nodding that I did he continued, “Okay, okay, good. So, you go put those on and come into the shower. We'll take a few pictures of you taking the shoes off and your bare feet. Then we send them and give him a little bit to go over the images.”
“How fast will you hear from him?”
“Should be fast, he's waiting on these. I, uh, told him you have beautiful feet,” he said with his face growing very red.
I was unmoved by his sentiment. Perhaps if Tris has said that, I'd have cared but — no! No more thinking about Tris! Job to do, money to make and a town to get out of. I nodded my understanding and headed out in the the changing area. I changed quickly and put my shoes back on. The shower was a large square room with shower heads all pointed toward the center of the room. It echoed slightly as I walked to the far side and the coach brought his phone out and took a few steps closer to me.
“Should I smile?” I asked.
“No, no face shots. We want to tease him, get some commitment for cash first,” he said nervously. His voice even had a tremor as he spoke.
He directed me to place the heel of my shoe against the toe of the other and to push the shoe off. He took a picture of that as it happened, then of my foot in the sock. I repeated the process with the other shoe. He had me pull each sock off with a finger, stopping me so he could get images of my foot being slowly revealed. Then he had me lean back and he took a picture of my feet, then had me place one over the other “Like you're shy” he said. For the last shot he had me face the wall and kneel so he could take a picture of the soles of my feet.
He started to tap on the phone's screen and I stood, intending to go put my pants back on.
“Wait,” he said and kept tapping. I paused, wondering what else he could want a picture of. With a final tap he put the phone in his pocket. “Um, so, since you're already...how about if I just give you a little foot massage?”
He paused. “I can drive you out of town,” he offered.
I thought. “The forty bucks as well?”
He nodded quickly and reached for his wallet and withdrew the two twenties. I took them, folded them over and put them in my pocket.
“Okay. Want me to sit here?” I asked.
“Oh, um, no. Even though there is no practice, someone could still get the wrong idea if they walked in. Let's go back to my office while we wait.”
I shrugged and picked up my socks and shoes before following him. He held the door open and then closed it behind us. He placed his phone on the desk while I plopped down on the couch. He sat in his chair and wheeled it over toward me and then, licking his lips, he reached down and picked up each of my feet and laid them on his lap. He began to stroke each of them, kneading and rubbing the skin and muscles.
This was a lot of what he liked to do. I'd never worried about this guy very much because he always paid and the foot rub felt good, even though he was getting aroused from it. In a very real sense it was relaxing as I was back in control, back in my element. I was making money and free, soon to be in a new town and doing as I pleased, when I pleased. A pang of sorrow hit me as I thought of Tris, but I clamped down on my emotions. Tris was out of reach – I had been a fool to think otherwise.
I lost track of time while Belcher massaged my feet. I tried to think of my next steps. At the very least Belcher would drive me out of town. I'd push to leave right from school. I wasn't coming back the next day, that's for sure. If this other guy was legitimate, I might score enough cash to make it a little farther away. If I could get to a bigger city there were soup kitchens and shelters as well as more places to crash.
Belcher's phone buzzed on the table. He sighed and kissed the top of each of my feet before putting them down. He rolled backward and picked up his phone. As he did, my own phone, forgotten in my pocket, buzzed with an incoming call. I ignored it. Probably Beth or Emily wondering where I was. I felt a little bad about leaving them. Perhaps I'd text them before I dumped the phone, just to thank them for what they'd tried to do.
“We're on,” Belcher said with a quick smile. “We can head over and he'll cut a deal with you.”
“You said a few towns over? How far?”
He thought for a moment. “About an hour and a half. On the edge of the city.”
Around here there was only one 'city'. New York City. Perfect.