Learning to Trust
By Chris the Blizzard
By Chris the Blizzard
The night's sleep was a restless affair, between memories of the past invading my dreams and my usual light sleep, it felt as though I hardly even slept an hour before the beep of the alarm signaled the end of the night. Matt had calmed down, though there was still a measure of unresolved tension hanging in the air between the two of us. The day before, Matt had informed Henry and Janie about his going to a classmate's house after school to play some video games, which was a convenient coincidence. I wouldn't go out of my way to make sure Matt wasn't alone here, but it was nice when things happened to fall into place neatly like this.
The conversation around the breakfast table was, as always, light and filled with easy banter, everyone telling everyone else their plans for the day. I, as always, didn't contribute much to the conversation, but the whole setting just exuded comfort. It reminded me so much of our Saturday mornings back when Mum and Dad were still alive, it was eerie. I definitely enjoyed the atmosphere.
Something I hadn't thought of until then was what an impact the presence of another kid would have on my ability to get along with our foster parents; Mike was a good person, didn't that fact constitute and endorsement for his parents? If they were bad people, Mike wouldn't have turned out the way he has, would he? Anyway, after breakfast we all quickly got ready for school.
"Janie. Yes, Jason?" I cracked a smile. It was actually a lot of fun to tease the two of them this way.
"Can I spend the afternoon at Brandon's place? We have to prepare for a presentation in Biology."
"You can and you may." She said with a smile, even as I rolled my eyes at her 'wit', "You can always spend time with your friends, just let us know where you are going and when you'll be home."
"He's not a friend. Just someone who roped me into a project."
Janie waved her hand dismissively. "Whatever you want to call them, friends, acquaintances, classroom associates. Just let us know where you go." She rhymed the last part enthusiastically and cackled, which got a collective groan from the younger generation.
"Matt, did you take your phone?" He looked at me darkly.
"Is it charged?"
"Do you have all the numbers installed?"
"WILL YOU STOP THAT BULLSHIT?! YOU'RE NOT DAD!" He suddenly exploded, grabbed his backpack and rushed out, leaving me to stand and gape. Mike looked at me with a deer-in-headlights expression, completely unsure how to handle Matt's outburst, while Janie seemed somewhat startled but not as rattled as Mike. Schooling my facial expression, I picked up my bag and left without another word.
On that happy note, all our days began. Whatever weak truce Matt and I had developed was gone, replaced once again by stony silence and glares. Only difference: this time I have no idea whatsoever what he is mad about. Okay, maybe I was a bit overbearing asking about the phone, but it's really nothing new. With some of the foster parents being less than stellar at the whole parenting gig, we had to look out for each other, instead. We would inform the other where we were, what we were doing and with whom. Never once had Matt been this mad about it. Sure, he would make smart remarks about me being playing dad, but it was all in good fun, never this kind of anger. I was definitely not looking forward to cracking this puzzle.
The only interesting thing during the school day happened at lunch. I'd seen Matt already sitting with other people again, so I took my tray to go to my customary table at the edge of the cafeteria, feeling more than a little angry myself. This was the second day in a row Matt was mad and I can only take so much before it irks me, too. I almost didn't notice Frank Pitts, my QB friend from the first day, sitting at the table I was passing, but I saw his foot shoot out just in time. I made a snap decision and instead of walking around or stepping over the offending limb, I hooked my foot behind his and pulled as strongly as I could without appearing conspicuous. Lucky for me, to get his leg out far enough, he had to slide down his seat a fair bit, so when I gave him a pull he just slid the rest of the way off, landing on his butt under the table. He quickly came back up from "down under" to look at me, furious indignation on his face. I waited long enough for him to look at me again and shot him a wink and a smile before continuing. Lunch: $4, sneakers: $40, the expression on his face: priceless.
Now in considerably higher spirits, I arrived at my usual table to find it already occupied by Brandon and Lucas, grinning at me when I closed in. Apparently they had seen my little stunt just now.
"You just have to go out of your way to annoy him, huh?" Lucas asked after I sat down. Despite the somewhat reprimanding words, he was grinning widely, obviously approving.
I huffed, "It's always him who's starting shit with me. With guys like him you can't give them any ground. If you give them a finger, they'll take the whole arm. Stare him down though and make some noise and they fold faster than a lawn chair."
"Enlighten us, oh guru of high school bullies." Lucas quipped.
"Seriously, Igloo, be careful about him. He might try to go for a little more "hands-on" approach next time." Brandon warned me though he, too, seemed to enjoy the sight of Frank on his ass, face red and embarrassed.
"Whatever. If he tries, he'll leave the fight with a more fitting name, Rank Pitts."
Brandon seemed to contemplate for a second.
"I don't get it." I grinned maliciously.
"I'll punch the "F" out of him." Lucas started giggling hysterically, while Brandon just rammed his hand into his forehead.
"You are such a dork." He said, shaking his head, but also smiling warmly, gold eyes shining. The smile and those eyes, like honey on toast, were making me tingle all over and his laugh sent shivers down my spine.
"So, are we still on for later today?"
He rolled his eyes.
"Don't tell me you forgot. Biology? The presentation? You said you'd come over after school."
"Oh, that, yeah, of course I'm still coming over." I said as I finally managed to focus on the conversation again.
We finished the food- cardboard pizza- and suffered through classes. After our last period, English, I followed Brandon to his car. I kept walking after him silently, until suddenly he spun on his heel, held out his hands and yelled, "Tada!" After getting over my near heart-attack, I took a good look at it.
It was an old but well-kept pickup truck. Its color was a fairly dark rust-red, the seats covered in dark brown leather. Just to annoy Brandon, I walked around the entire truck, making a show of inspecting the car, checking the paint job, probing the tires.
"A bucket on wheels!" I finally proclaimed in a pompous voice, like I had any idea about cars. Brandon looked at me indignantly.
"How dare you! That's Trusty Rusty you're talking about!" He punched me lightly on the shoulder. By that time I was grinning widely at him.
"Rusty it is." I agreed. He rolled his eyes, conveying at once amusement and annoyance with me.
"I mean the color, you dick."
After getting into the car, we were both quiet for a while, neither of us quite knowing what to say to the other. A short drive later, we stopped at a two story house, but after stopping the engine Brandon didn't get out immediately. He looked at me seriously.
"Before we go in, I have to warn you."
"Okay." I said, starting to worry a little.
"Satan lives in this house." He said with a straight face, but the entire scene was more like a joke.
"Brandon, I know you live here." I said in a consoling tone, patting his shoulder.
There was that eye roll again.
"I'm serious. There is a creature in this building, a being of pure evil. It looks vaguely feline, but don't let it fool you with its cute paws, or soft fur and big eyes. It. Is. Evil."
"Wait…" I started, "You're talking about a cat?"
"Don't you listen?!" He exclaimed, shaking his head emphatically, "It LOOKS like a cat, but I won't believe it until I see the autopsy report. This… cat, as you call it, has left deep scars on me, both physical and emotional. Its favorite pastime is attacking the ankles of any barefoot person, if you get close to it, it bites and scratches. It looks at you like you're an idiot and it generally oozes hatred. It is the living personification of all bad personality traits a cat can have!" I gave him an incredulous look. He really was passionate about this issue.
"Well, why do you have a cat who hates you?" I asked.
"It was here before me, and it will be here when I am long gone." He said, "I'm starting to think the house was built on an old Indian cat graveyard. Also, it doesn't just hate me, it hates everyone and everything. So here is the code of conduct: do not initiate body contact. Do not get close, if and when it wants to get close to you, it will do so. If it wants you to scratch it, scratch it, or it will scratch you." Code of conduct? Now I was sure, he just HAD to be tweaking my nose on this one.
"Sure. Want me to sign a disclaimer, like "Enter at your own risk?"
"Fine, laugh at me. It's your veins the damn cat will try to open." But he was finally grinning now.
"What's the cat's name anyway?" He turned away at the question and mumbled something unintelligible.
"I didn't catch that." Oooooohhh, this was gonna be gooood.
"Mrs. Whiskers." He said bashfully. I wished I had some kind of drink on hand right then, just so I could spit it out like they do in the movies, or at least a camera to capture the expression on his face forever, so I had something to laugh at whenever I needed it.
"You're trying to tell me this cat from hell you've been warning me about is named Mrs. Whiskers?" I laughed.
"Dude, I was 3 years old. She was cute!" He tried to defend himself, a hint of a blush on his face, but he was grinning, and with every word he uttered I was only laughing more and more loudly.
My laughter seemed to be affecting him, because his shoulders soon began to shake with restrained mirth until he could hold it in no longer.
After the furious giggling subsided we got out of "Trusty Rusty" and entered the house. At Brandon's prompting we abandoned our shoes at the door and entered the lion's literal den. I looked around warily. I might not be completely taken in by his tale, but that didn't mean I was eager to get a pedicure by a devilish feline.
"Okay, where is Mrs. Whiskers?" I asked.
"Don't say her name where she can hear it! It's like Beetlejuice or Bloody Mary!" He hissed insistently. I gave him a flat stare. He was carefully making his way toward a nearby flight of stairs, eyes squinting at the ground to prepare for a surprise attack from below. The whole scene was positively ridiculous; this was his house, for crying out loud, not a damn war zone! His posture and care for quiet were having an effect on me though, as I found myself crouching down slightly, knees bent and ready to bolt at the sign of claws or teeth. I let my gaze sweep across the living room we were currently standing in, taking in the homey interior. It was very tastefully decorated, neither pompous nor bland, with a cream colored sofa as the centerpiece of the furniture.
"Want something to drink?" He asked in a normal voice, making me jump. The idiot was grinning at me madly. I glared at him.
"Did you make the whole thing up?" I answered the question with a question, completely ignoring his inquiry. His eyes held the mischievous sparkle they had displayed several times before.
"Nah. Well, a little, maybe. The cat's very real and it is evil incarnate, but not quite as bad as I made her out to be. As long as you don't annoy her she usually doesn't do anything. She is smart though and I think she gets a kick out of picking on me."
"I think I'm going to love her." I said dryly. "Where's the nearest PetSmart, I want to get her a gift."
"Haha." He said, walking toward the open kitchen area and opening the fridge. "So, drink? We've got coke, OJ, sparkling cider or water." I opted for a coke and he tossed me a small bottle. He went back to the living room to fetch his bag, which reminded me we had work to be doing.
I followed him up the stairs, where he opened one of the doors to reveal his bedroom; it was somewhat messy, but not in a dirty kind of way, simply untidy. Clothes, books and various other paraphernalia were strewn about haphazardly. There were pictures hanging on the wall depicting Brandon and what I assumed was his family. Before I could study the photographs more closely, some movement in the corner of my eyes caught my attention. On the desk opposite the bedroom door, lay a cat, presumably THE cat. Beautiful white fur which looked impossibly soft to the touch adorned her sleek form and, with ears turned upward in a playful manner, it was looking right at Brandon, one of its paws toying with the edge of a stack of papers.
"Don't you dare." Brandon growled warningly at his four-legged nemesis. He started toward the table, but the paw was faster, swiping the entire stack off the table, the sheets flying about in a chaotic, fluttering mess and landing on the floor. Brandon tried to make a grab for the cat, but it was far quicker than him. She jumped off the table lithely and landed right on one of the papers that had fallen. At the same time she seemed to notice me standing there for the first time. She gave me a short, considering glance, then walked right up to me and started rubbing herself against my leg affectionately.
Brandon watched with both fascination and what seemed to be astonishment.
"What…?" He started, then frowned. "Jason, are you sick or something?"
Bewildered by the sudden question, I just blanched for a second.
"Are you sure?" He insisted quite vehemently. This time I was certain it was no joke, the tone in his voice left no doubt whatsoever.
"Yes. I have to get checkups every year to make sure I'm healthy and the last one was just about 3 or 4 months ago. I'm fine. Why the sudden question?"
"Because the only time Mrs. Whiskers is nice to anyone, at least to this degree, is when they're sick. Like last year, both my sisters had chicken-pox and whenever they got really bad, like, with fever and itching, Mrs. Whiskers would just start cuddling them non-stop." He smiled a little at the memory.
I leaned down to scratch her ears and she purred affectionately, leaning into the touch and rubbing her throat against my leg.
"By the way she's behaving you'd think you were dying." Brandon said, far too seriously for my liking. What does he care anyway?
"Again, I'm fine. There is nothing physically wrong with me." I said, beginning to be a little annoyed.
"Okay." But the way he looked at me, contemplatively, suggested he was not yet done. He looked me over, eyes narrowed slightly. Under his intense scrutiny I remembered why I felt intimidated the first time I met him; there was a certain intensity to his gaze, a burning sheen of understanding. For a second we just stared one another in the eyes until I looked down, ostensibly to look at the fallen sheets of paper still lying about. The first one I got a good look at was filled with a drawing of… a building? It looked grand and tall, reminiscent of a library. The drawing showed the front of the building, wide stairs leading up to a graceful, arched door, and windows spanning almost the entire front.
Other pictures showed details; a full rendition of a window, a close-up of the door and the arch above it, you name it, somewhere there was a picture of it on the floor. Noticing where my attention had gone, Brandon began scooping up the pages in a flash, but I quickly picked up one of a statue that framed the stairs and looked at it more closely; the detail was marvelous, and the drawing seemed to almost reach out of the paper, it was so realistic. A proud lion, standing tall with majestic features carved in white marble.
"Amazing." I breathed quietly.
Brandon, who was beet-red now, snatched the drawing out of my hand and stuffed it in the middle of the pile before picking up the whole stack and making it vanish in one of the drawers in his desk.
"I forgot I still had those out." He mumbled. "Damn, old cat." He glared at Mrs. Whiskers, who had yet to leave my side. Neither of us said anything more about the pictures and we started to work on the presentation.
First, each of us read the material the teacher had given us. It was a fairly quick summary of the process of mitosis which encouraged us to seek out additional sources, so that was what we did and went to work.