Brae
by Kieron Connors

 

Chapter 5 

Skip wanted to make a point of getting to practice early the next morning so we were there fifteen minutes early. Emmie was just arriving for her shift so I decided to go over and say hello, I dragged Skip along to meet her, even though he seemed a little bit reluctant. She was taking large swigs from her oversized coffee as we approached. Despite the early hour, she looked carefully put together and was even wearing a little makeup which I guessed was probably for Colin.

“Hey Emmie! This is Skip, my roommate. Skip, Emmie.” I made the introduction, hoping that Skip would be captivated by Emmie’s charm. I wanted the whole group of us to be able to socialize together.

“Hey Skip! It’s great to meet you. I was really hoping you were going to come to the beach with us yesterday, but I heard you had a rough night.”

Skip smiled sheepishly. “Uhh, yeah.”

“It happens. You clearly take after your roomie. You should have seen the wild man the other night at our apartment.”

“Emmie, nobody wants to hear about that,” I interjected.

“No, I do,” Skip said with a large smile.

“Let’s just say you should ask him about his secret Riverdance past,” Emmie said, winking at me. I groaned.

“What?!” Skip exclaimed.

“I used to Irish dance when I was little. It’s no big deal. My mother made me do it,” I said. “End of conversation. This is never to be spoken of again.” Skip and Emmie laughed.

“Well I guess I’d better go start stretching,” Skip said. “It was nice to meet you.”

“You too! You’ll have to hang out with us soon!” Emmie said brightly.

“Yeah, sure,” Skip smiled, walking over to the gym mats.

“Shit Emmie, it isn’t even 6am, take it down a few notches.” She giggled.

“So where is my future husband?” Emmie asked playfully.

I scanned the deck and the blue gym mats looking for Colin. “No sign of him yet,” I said. “He is definitely single and open minded to being set up. I talked to him yesterday.”

“You talked to him about me?!”

“No, not about you. It was broad generalities. Promise,” I said.

“You’re working later right?”

“Yeah later this afternoon. With Lottie.”

“Cool. What are you doing tonight? Wanna go out?”

“I dunno, I think I’ve learned my lesson on that one,” I said. “Definitely tomorrow night though. I don’t have practice on Sundays.”

“Oh, right, perfect. We could go to a movie or something tonight.”

“Sure, if you guys don’t mind me cramping your style like that,” I joked.

“Oh, well, we’ll actually probably go out after,” Emmie laughed. “But we promise to have you home and in bed by ten.”

“Okay, sounds great. And maybe I’ll be able to get Skip to join us.” Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Colin entering the pool from the men’s locker room. He looked really good. His red Speedo contrasted nicely with his pale skin, his wavy hair was pushed messily back off his forehead, showcasing his model worthy features and his deep blue eyes. “Oh! That’s him… Colin. Red Speedo,” I said, a little hypnotized by the sight of his muscles tensing and constricting under his skin as he walked towards the mats.

“Ohh,” Emmie gasped. “He is hot. I’m really into that. I don’t know how I never noticed him before!”

“I don’t know. He’s pretty outgoing, I feel like if you were paying the least bit of attention, you know, to your job, you would have noticed him,” I jibed.

She kicked me lightly on the shoulder from her perch on the guard chair. Her legs swung delicately from the seat, kicking to the beat emanating from the small radio clipped to the side of the chair, playing ‘your favorite hits of the 80’s and 90’s!’

“So do you want me to introduce you today or would you rather I just see if I can set something up completely blind?”

“I didn’t put mascara on for nothing Brae. Introduce us!” she said with a laugh.

“Okay, I think we’re going to get started in a minute, but I’ll bring him over after, if he’s up for it. I should go stretch a little,” I said, giving her a mock salute and then heading over to join Skip, Colin and the other guys on the mats.

I waved at Cam and Kenner, then grabbed an open space between Skip and Colin.

“Morning,” I said.

“Morning. Who’s your friend?” Colin asked.

“Why? You interested?” I teased.

“Oh, is thatthe friend?”

“It is.”

“I didn’t know you ran in such attractive circles,” Colin smirked.

“So I take it you’re interested.”

“Yeah. Does she know who I am yet?”

“Yeah, she just gave her very warm approval.”

“Oh,” Colin smiled broadly and his face flushed a little bit. He waved across the deck to Emmie and she waved back, with a dazzling smile.

“Braeden Davenport: Resident Matchmaker,” Skip joked from beside us.

“You better watch it,” I said, poking him. “You’re next!”

***

Practice went well. I was getting used to Timmy’s coaching style and I enjoyed the challenge of working out with Eric and Henry, they certainly pushed me. After all the drama with Skip over the last few days it was nice to clear my head for a little while and focus my energies elsewhere. I let everything slip from my mind and I just enjoyed the sensations of gliding through the water.

***

“So do you need me to make a formal introduction or would you rather handle it yourself?” I asked Colin as he climbed out of the lane next to me. He stole a furtive glance across the pool at Emmie, sitting Indian style on the guard chair.

“I think I can handle it,” he said.

“You sure? I don’t mind providing reinforcements.”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

“Alright. Get to it Casanova,” I said, giving him an encouraging pat on the back.

Colin padded off across the tiled deck towards Emmie and I headed towards the locker room. A quick glance back at them confirmed that they seemed to be getting on well. Colin had Emmie’s complete attention, she wasn’t even pretending to supervise the pool, and she was twirling her hair flirtatiously around her finger. I gave myself a mental pat on the back for orchestrating this coupling then headed in for a quick shower.

***

Skip and I hadn’t had anything to eat that morning because he wanted to get to practice early, so we decided to grab a proper breakfast at the dining hall and Kenner and Cameron decided to join us. Things felt much more normal than they had the other evening with Cameron, and I was glad to have the old Skip back. Skip was really excited about his new computer and Cameron offered to help him install the software and other stuff he would need. Cameron came up to our room with us, while Kenner decided to grab a nap while Cam was out of the room. “He snores like a chainsaw, I hafta grab my sleep whenever I can take it!” Kenner whined.

Kenner and Skip immediately got to work, leaving me to twiddle my thumbs. There wasn’t an awful lot for us to be doing until classes started, there was a lot of downtime, but it was hard to take full advantage of it, because two-a-day practices kept us pretty tied to campus. Eventually I decided to buy my books for the upcoming semester, since I already had my schedule set. ‘Might as well take advantage of being here early and avoid the lines,’ I thought, not wanting to fathom the ordeal that book buying would be once the hoards had descended upon campus. Eerie as it could sometimes be, there was also something serene and majestic about the quiet and largely deserted Carrington campus. I had mixed feelings about the imminent arrival of the rest of the student body.

There was a bookstore on campus but Lottie and Emmie had both mentioned that there was another bookstore on Carrington Cross that was far more reasonable, so I decided to try there first. As I strolled into town, I called my dad to catch up. I was planning on making a long call to my mom the following day, but I thought my dad would appreciate a quick call. He was at the office, hoping to get out by 11am to head out to the Hamptons with my mom. He was thrilled to hear that I had been moved up to Timmy’s practice group and pestered me with questions about the other breaststrokers, Henry and Eric. I told him I was going to buy my books and we chatted about the classes I was going to be taking. He approved of my course selections and thought that the public speaking course would be a real asset. As he signed off, he reminded me that my mom’s birthday was coming up in a week and a half and suggested I pick her up some university apparel as a gift. I thanked him for the suggestion, although I’d actually already thought of that, and told him that I’d call the following day.

The front room of the campus store had every type of Carrington merchandise and apparel conceivable and was overflowing with Cougar pride. The store had an intimate, boutique like feel to it, with the sunlight sparkled off the various glass, crystal, and metal knick-knacks displayed in the window. I thumbed through a few racks of ‘Carrington Parent’ apparel, not seeing anything that I could imagine my mother wearing. I couldn’t remember ever having seen her wear sweatpants or a hoodie in my life. I eventually stumbled upon a ‘Carrington Swimming’ t-shirt that I figured she might actually wear to a swim meet or something, so I grabbed that. I also picked up a pair of lululemon yoga pants and athletic top with the Carrington crest on them, figuring they were about the only other thing in the store that she might get some use of. I grabbed a baseball cap for good merit, and then set about finding my books.

The bookstore was a warehouse-like room in the back, featuring aisle after aisle of industrial shelving. The books were arranged by subject and course number, so I had an easy enough time locating my classes on the shelves and then selecting the necessary books. They had all of my books but one, and I grabbed an order slip, so that I could pre-purchase a copy for when they arrived.

I left the bookstore feeling accomplished and a little bit stunned at having just dropped almost $900 on books. My econ textbooks were more like tomes and I felt like I was carrying cement blocks. Heat radiated off of the sidewalk and reflected off the store windows onto me as I trudged along on what was becoming an intensely miserable walk. I spotted the welcoming blue awning of the post office up ahead and decided to stop inside for packing materials (and air-conditioning!). I bought the appropriate sized box, some tissue paper and some packing tape, then realized upon getting outside that I had not only increased my load, but had made it infinitely more cumbersome, as I tried to balance the flattened box in the crease of my armpit, while still lugging along my books. By the time reached the dorm I was puffing with exertion, sweat was cascading down my face and my t-shirt was plastered against my back.

I did the stairs up to our room in two trips, not wishing to inflict a hernia upon myself. Skip wasn’t in the room when I got back, so I set about unpacking my purchases, writing a quick card and boxing up the presents for my mom, and finding I still had a few hours before practice settled back into bed with my book.

***

“Whatcha readin’?” Skip asked when he came in a couple of hours later.

Gerald’s Game. It’s a Stephen King book.”

“Any good?”

“It’s great. Really psychological.”

“Scary?”

“No. Not yet anyways. I feel like most of his stuff is amped up for film anyways. It’s far less scary in print.”

“Well what’s it about?”

“You’ll think I’m weird if I tell you.”

“I already know you’re weird,” Skip laughed.

“Okay, it’s about this woman who goes up to her vacation cabin with her husband and he basically has a heart attack and dies while they’re having sex, leaving her handcuffed to the bed with no way of getting out. And nobody knows where she is.” Skip whistled. “Yeah, it’s quite the predicament. Anyways, while she’s trapped she is essentially to face a lot of her demons from, well, I don’t wanna give it away…”

“And I don’t really wanna hear anymore,” Skip chuckled. “It’s an innerestin’ concept but it doesn’t sound like my kinda read.”

I smiled. “Yeah, it wouldn’t be for everyone.”

“So how’d ya make out at the bookstore?”

“Got everything I needed except one book, which I pre-ordered. And I picked up some yoga stuff for my mom’s birthday. What’d you do this afternoon?”

“I worked on my computer for awhile with Cam and then hung out in Drake’s room for awhile. He wanted to come up here, but I figured you’d probably rather he didn’t,” Skip said.

“Oh… yeah kinda. But it’s your room too, you can do what you want,” I said, trying to be diplomatic. “Anyways, I have to back over to the pool. I have my shift in a little bit.”

“You wanna grab some grub on your way?” Skip smiled and his face seemed to light up. I felt a little flutter in my stomach. He really was gorgeous.

“Sure.”

We grabbed a “snack” in the dining hall, though Skip’s definition of a snack would probably constitute most peoples’ idea of a good sized meal. I spotted the new kid from the hall across the cafeteria and pointed him out to Skip. We were in too much of a hurry to go over for introductions, but we decided we should drop by at some point later in the evening to say hello.

***

Lottie was already up in the chair when I entered and I looked up at the clock on the wall to see that I was a few minutes late.

“Sorry!” I said, throwing my bag down next to the guard chair. Skip wanted to grab some food and given the precarious state of our relationship lately, I figured it would probably be a good idea to take him up on the offer.”

“How is that situation?”

“It’s a lot better now. We had a pretty long chat about stuff last night. You know that Drake kid I was telling you about was giving him a hard time about being my friend?”

“Why? Does he know you’re gay?”

“No, I don’t think so. He would have made that common knowledge and fodder for ridicule by now. He was insinuating that I have to buy my friends or something and that everyone thought that Skip was living off me.”

“Eww, who would say something like that?”

“Drake.”

“Oh crap, Greg is here!” Lottie indicated with a nod of her head towards the figure of our boss entering the Gnat. “You had better go sit on the opposite chair. He is kind of a stickler about it when he’s here.”

“Okay. I’ll see you a bit later then,” I said, grabbing my iPod out of my bag and walking around the perimeter of the pool to the second guard chair. I plugged my iPod in the dock, put on an Unkle Bob EP, and settled in for the shift. There was literally one person in my surveillance area, a middle aged man probably swimming on his lunch break. He was clearly an experienced swimmer, might even have swam in his college years, so it was easy to zone out watching him fluidly navigate through the water.

Greg haunted the deck for the majority of our shift, so Lottie and I were forced to sit at opposite sides of the pool and I didn’t get to speak much more. We stole brief snatches of conversation during our rotations and I told her about introducing Emmie to Colin that morning and we finalized movie plans for that evening. I ducked out of our shift a few minutes early to go get ready for practice.

***

I grabbed a spot on the mats next to Colin for dry-land. He flashed me a bright and somewhat bashful smile as I sat down, letting his wavy hair hang down into his face a little to shield his rising blush.

“Hey!” I said cheerfully.

“Hi.”

“So how was your afternoon?”

“It was good. How was yours?”

“Good. I bought my books and some stuff for my mom’s birthday.”

“Cool.”

He wasn’t being particularly forthcoming and I supposed that it might just be his nature. I decided not to press for further details when I knew they could (and would) be so easily had from Emmie. I was sure she’d be gabbing about Colin (negative or positive) all through the movie. Frankly, I was surprised she hadn’t contacted me about their introduction yet.

***

Jimmy worked us hard and my muscles were burning by the time we got into the pool. Timmy also went pretty hard on us and Eric kept making suicide jokes during the few times we were allowed to congregate by the wall for a quick breather. I trudged into the locker room exhausted and headed straight for the dry sauna.

Three levels of tiered wooden benches surrounded the central sauna heater on three sides. It was a large sauna that could sit around 15 people comfortably and a lot more if you had the inclination to do so. I climbed to the top bench and laid out, enjoying the woody aroma of the sauna and the tingly way the heat felt against my chilly skin. The rowdy voices of the guys in the showers slowly slipped away and I enjoyed the weightless and lightheaded feeling created by the heat.

“Braeden! Hey! You alright?”

An unfamiliar voice snapped me back to consciousness. It took me a moment to reorient myself. A firm hand rested on my shoulder and Tate’s concerned face floated a foot or two from mine. The heat now felt more oppressive than it did relaxing, my mouth was parched and a dull throb emanated from between my eyes.

“You know you’re not supposed to stay in here very long and I noticed you walking in here almost a half hour ago.”

“Oh, yeah, thanks,” I said, embarrassed and unnerved. I still felt uneasy around Tate. He seemed like a good kid but I was uncomfortable with what he probably knew about me and I didn’t feel like I had quite gotten his act down yet. I sat up quickly. Too quickly and immediately felt woozy. Tate grabbed my shoulders and helped me lower my head between my knees. “Yeah I guess I’m a bit dehydrated,” I said, my mortification only adding to the now miserable feeling of over-heatedness. My vision was spotting out and there was a ringing noise in my ears.

“Do you want me to get someone?”

“No, I’m alright I think, just gimme a second,” I said, waiting for the blood to flow back into my head and my body to return to its equilibrium. Tate seemed unsure and uncomfortable.

Eventually I felt myself normalizing enough to get out of the stifling and suffocating sauna. I stood up and started walking down the benches towards the exit. The woozy feelings grew stronger as I neared the heater and Tate grabbed me with a strong, steadying arm and led me out of the sauna. Stepping out, even into the steamy shower room, was unbelievably refreshing and I could help but gasp full lungs of cool air.

“Are you okay? Do you wanna sit down for a second or something?” Tate asked.

“No, no, no, I’m okay. Just have a bit of a headache and feel pretty stupid,” I said, studying my toes, and the design of the blue tiles beneath them. “I’m going to shower. Thanks a lot for your help.” I beelined for the showers, head down in humiliation. I couldn’t believe I’d nearly fainted in front of one of my teammates. And not just any teammate, but the one who had seen me blackout drunk and probably knew my deepest darkest secret. Thankfully he didn’t follow me, although he did seem to loiter around for a few minutes to make sure I was okay. I savored a long cool shower then dressed and headed back to the dorm.

***

Skip was out when I got back and I still had awhile before I was meeting the girls for the movie so I popped a few Excedrin for my headache and decided to take a nap. Skip still wasn’t back when I got up an hour and a half later, so I changed into jeans and a polo and started into town to meet the girls.

***

“You have created a monster and I will never forgive you,” a straight faced Nicola snapped at me in lieu of a greeting. She and Lottie were waiting for me outside of the theatre.

“Where is the little monster,” I asked with a chuckle.

“Primping. She has a date with Colin after. She should be along in a minute,” Lottie said.

“So it went well then, I take it?”

“I believe she referred to it as a ‘glorious entwinement of souls,’” Lottie laughed.

“Yeah. Sure. Laugh.” Nicola gave her a death glare. “You aren’t the one that was forcibly roped into hour upon hour of Facebook stalking Romeo.”

“I’m surprised Emmie hasn’t called me about it yet,” I said.

“I’m not. She literally only pealed her face away from his profile page 15 minutes ago when I told her we were leaving,” Nicola replied.

“Should I be giving Colin a heads up?” I joked, though I was legitimately a little worried that Emmie was the type to go boy psycho.

“Probably,” Nicola said.

“No!” Lottie laughed. “Emmie is just enthusiastic, she throws herself into things whole heartedly. She’s excited, but she’ll calm down. She isn’t a crazy person.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“So, no Skip tonight?” Lottie asked. “Emmie thought she might have made some progress with him.”

“Yeah he seemed to like her. I guess it’s just something about you Lottie. You’re sure are a repugnant one.”

“Amen!” Nicola chimed in.

“I actually don’t know where he is. He hasn’t been in since after practice. He’s probably out with Drake or something.”

“Ahh, Lucifer himself. We’ll keep an eye out for them tonight,” Nicola quipped. “This Drake kid has already made quite the name for himself on the Carrington bar scene. And I don’t mean that in a good way.”

“I’m sure he’ll calm down. He’ll have to. The practices are only going to get more intense. At the very least we’ll start traveling in a few weeks so he’ll be gone on weekends.”

“Alleluja.”

I was bombarded from behind suddenly as Emmie catapulted onto my back, throwing her arms around my neck and planting a kiss on my cheek.

“Hey Emmie,” I laughed. “I hear things went well with Colin.”

“He is smashing. And sooo hot.”

“I’m glad the introduction went well. So what are you planning for your date tonight?”

“A late dinner and then drinks at the cocktail lounge,” Emmie replied.

“Don’t keep him out too late, remember he has practice in the morning.” I winked.

“I’ll make no promises.” She grinned mischievously and ran her hand through her voluminous red mane. “Shall we go in?”

“Finally,” Nicola muttered.

***

The movie was a political thriller. I was entertained, though Nicola was quick to dismiss it as ‘derivative’ and ‘totally predictable.’ After the movie we parted ways. Lottie and Nicola tried to entice me into going out to the bars with them, but I stood firm and started walking back towards the dorm. The night was cloudy but bright and it gave the Carrington campus a majestic and regal glow.

As I crossed the commons I spotted Drake and a group heading my way. I groaned inwardly, steeling myself for a little verbal sparring. As they drew closer I was surprised to recognize Skip amongst their folds.

“Hey Davvy,” Drake taunted, malice dripping in his voice.

“Hey Drake.”

“Brae!” Skip beamed at me, obviously irking Drake.

“You going out?” I asked.

“So what if he is?” Drake sneered.

“Drake, shut the fuck up. I’m not scared of you,” I snapped, surprising myself. I had clearly reached my breaking point as far as the amount of verbal abuse I could tolerate. Drake seemed too stunned to respond at first, so I turned my attention back to Skip. “You going out?”

“Uhh, yeah…” Skip said, clearly surprised by my sudden hostility.

“Okay. Have fun. Don’t be too loud when you come in.”

“Right-O,” Skip chirped.

“Night, see ya guys,” I said, nodding at Finch, Brian, Reed and some of the other guys I recognized from the team.

“Yo, Davvy. Who the fuck do you think you are?” Drake growled, clearly having recovered from his surprise.

“Save it,” I retorted and began stalking away.

There was some yelling from behind and I figured Skip or one of the other guys was probably having to restrain Drake from coming after me, but I kept my face glued forwards and continued on home.

***

I didn’t hear Skip come in, so I was relieved in the morning to find him safely tucked into bed. I supposed he’d learned his lesson after all. He looked a little rough around the edges and he wasn’t his usual chipper self, but it was a vast improvement from the other morning.

“How you feeling?” I asked as I pulled on a pair of shorts. Skip opened the blinds, letting in the reddish light of the sunrise.

“Not too bad. I took it pretty easy last night. Just tired mostly,” Skip said, looking out onto the green. “It shore is purdy here ain’t it?” He said, hamming up his accent.

“Life in Technicolor,” I smiled. “What time did you get in last night? I didn’t even hear you.”

“One-thirty-ish.”

“Oh, that’s not so bad. And you can sleep the rest of the day.”

“Thank god,” Skip chuckled.

We stopped into the dining hall on our way out and ran into Cam and Kenner. The four of us grabbed a quick bite and then hurried over to the Gnat.

***

Colin was already on the mats warming up when I walked in, so I headed straight for him.

“So? How did it go last night?” I asked, laying down next to him and falling into the rhythm of his crunches.

He looked over at me with a soft grin. “Great,” he said. “She’s really fun. I had a really good time.”

“She is a handful that one,” I chuckled.

“I think all she needs is a calming influence,” Colin replied.

“Like you, I suppose?”

He blushed a little. “Maybe… We’ll see…”

“Well am I allowed to tell her that you think the date went well if she pesters me with questions later?”

“I think she knows… I, uhh… I just left there.”

I sat up in surprise. “That well, huh?” My voice reverberated through the Gnat and we got a few glances from some of the other guys. Colin blushed even more crimson.

“No, no! Nothing like that. We just talked and then slept.”

I arched a brow in disbelief. “That’s all, huh?” He smiled sheepishly.

“Well, we may have made out a little bit…”

“That’s more like it,” I said. “Well I’m glad that things went well. I think you guys make a nice couple.”

“We’ll see, I guess.”

Skip, Cam and Kenner came over, so I didn’t push Colin any further, sensing he was a little bit uncomfortable talking airing his romantic life in public. At least Emmie could count on his discretion. I was relieved that Skip chose to sit by me because as much as I tried to suppress it, the growing fear that I was going to lose Skip’s friendship to Drake had been gnawing at me since the night before. I knew it didn’t have to be an either-or scenario, but I worried that perhaps my behavior was making it into one. Regardless, I was glad to find that Skip still sought out my company and seemed to enjoy it. He perked up considerably over the course of Timmy’s warm up, cracking joke after joke at our coach’s expense.

***

After practice Skip and I went straight back to the room to nap. Even though I’d had a full night’s sleep, I was finding I could nap whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself and I certainly wasn’t going to deny myself a few hours of sleep. When Skip’s alarm woke us a few hours later, I felt like I could roll over and sleep for another few hours, but we both dragged ourselves out of bed. Skip decided to go for a run and I decided to make the promised phone call home to my parents. My dad was out golfing so I only ended up chatting with my mom, still, she managed to keep me on the line for nearly an hour. It was a little depressing how excited she was to hear about even the trivialities of my life the last few days; it was obvious that she was really missing me.

After getting off the phone I grabbed my book and a towel, headed down to the cafeteria to pick up a plate of lunch, and then spread out on the Res Square lawn for the afternoon. After a couple of hours I finished my book, but not feeling like going inside, I peeled my shirt off, flipped onto my back and basked in the glorious sunshine.

***

“Mind if I join ‘ya?” A familiar voice asked me from above.

“Not at all.” I smiled up at Skip, shielding the late afternoon sun out of my eyes.

“I saw you laying out here from our window. ‘Ya looked pretty collegiate.”

I laughed. “Oh really?”

“Yup. Like something out of a campus catalogue.”

“I’m glad I’m blending in so well already. You’d hardly guess I’ve only been at this a week and have yet to attend my first university lecture.”

“Hardly,” Skip chuckled.

“How was your run?”

“It was nice. I just went around the lake twice.”

“Cool. How far is that?”

“Maybe three miles? I’m not sure. How are your parents?”

“They’re good. My dad was out golfing, so I didn’t get to speak to him. What have you been up to all afternoon?”

“Playing around on my spiffy new computer. I think I’m in love with it,” Skip said gleefully.

“The Mac Book is a thing of beauty,” I agreed.

“I will cherish it always.”

“For better or for worse?”

“’Til blue-screen-of-death do us part.” Skip snickered. “So what are you doing tonight?” Skip asked.

“I think I’m promised to Emmie and Lottie for the night. They’ve been gunning for another opportunity to further my corruption ever since Monday night.”

“Oh boy,” Skip moaned with exaggerated terror.

“Do you want to come? They’ve specifically invited you. I was thinking I’d ask Kenner and Cam too, and I have a feeling Colin will probably be there also. Emmie has gotten her hooks into him already. Any interest?”

“Yeah. Maybe…” Skip said with a noncommittal shrug.

“I understand if you don’t want to go but they really would like you to come.”

Skip smiled at me, the setting sun giving his green eyes a golden, gleaming appearance. He was breathtaking. “Maybe,” he said again, elusively. “Want to go grab a bite? You’re lookin’ a lil’ burned and I wouldn’t be doin’ right by your mama if I didn’t do something to get your sorry lobster-ass inside.”

I laughed and held up my (slightly pink) arms for inspection. “Drama queen,” I playfully chided. “Sure, let’s go eat. I think it’s taco night.” I cringed.

“E. coli. Yum.” Skip’s grin stretched from ear to ear, and he wiggled his eyebrows devilishly. I couldn’t help but laugh.

***

Skip was wolfing down his third taco (I was on my second) when I spotted the new boy from our hall entering the dining hall. I waved in his direction and he looked at me, confusion written all over his face. After looking around himself to be sure I couldn’t be flailing down anyone else, he hesitantly walked over to our table. He was of a slight build and looked to be of South American descent. His skin was a deep coppery color and his straight black hair was meticulously side parted in a way that evoked classic Hollywood.

“Uh, hi. Were you waving to me?” he asked. His startling green eyes darted between the both of us.

“Yeah,” I said, standing and extending a hand. “I think you live down the hall from me and my weak-stomached roommate. You saw our little incident in the hall the other night.”

“Oh, right,” he said, excepting the proffered hand and giving it a gentle shake. Skip rose and extended his hand in turn and the boy shook it.

“I just thought we should properly introduce ourselves. I’m Braeden and this is Skip.”

“I’m Christian,” he said with a tentative smile. He had a soft and delicate manner about him that immediately had my gaydar pinging.

“Cool. So are you a freshman?”

“Yeah,” he said, a little awkwardly.

“So are we. We’re on the swim team. I’m assuming you’re here for pre-season also. What sport do you play?” I asked.

“Tennis.” I looked over at Skip, hoping that he would help fill the conversation gap. He was giving Christian a peculiar look and his mouth seemed to be hanging open slightly. I figured it was going to call on me to keep the hospitality flowing for the both of us.

“Oh, that’s great. I love tennis. I played a fair amount growing up. So where are you from?”

“Brazil. São Paulo.” He shifted his weight awkwardly.

“Oh wow. I’ve always wanted to go to Brazil. That’s so cool. You’ve really come a long way! Do you wanna sit down and join us?”

“No. I haven’t gotten my food yet and I was going to take it to go. Thank you for the offer though,” he replied.

“Yeah, of course. Well, we’ll see you later.”

“Yeah.” He turned to go.

“Oh and Christian,” he turned back to face me. “Feel free to drop by anytime.”

“Okay, thanks,” he said, before high tailing it back to the buffet area.

I turned back to Skip, who was still staring after Christian’s retreating figure. “Thanks for helping me out with the small talk bud,” I said, shoving him with my elbow. “I think your gaping stare made Christian uncomfortable.”

Skip turned back to me. “Brae. I think, I think he’s gay!” Skip whispered, utterly incredulous. I immediately felt myself go onto the defensive.

“Yeah, uhh, probably. So what?” I asked.

“So, I’ve never seen a gay person before!” Skip shifted his gaze back at Christian and stared at him like he was some sort of a rare specimen.

“Skip, you’ve seen gay people before. You probably just weren’t aware of it. Not everybody is as effeminate as Christian. Not that we even know for sure he is gay.”

“That’s so weird.”

“What’s so weird?”

“That gays could be all around us and we wouldn’t even know it.”

“Skip that sounds a little conspiratorial. Besides there is nothing wrong with gay people,” I said, feeling increasingly defensive and uncomfortable.

“Yeah, I guess. It’s just kinda weird. I’m glad I’m not Christian’s roommate, I’ll say that much!” Skip said with a laugh. His words were like a dagger and I felt utterly gutted by his comment. Skip seemed oblivious. “I’m done, you ready to go?” He jumped up from the table with his tray.

“Uhh, yeah…” I said, trying to recollect myself. Skip’s words had really stung me although I wasn’t sure why I was so surprised. Skip was likely a product of his upbringing and I was pretty sure that Kentucky wasn’t the most open minded or liberal state around.

***

It was still pretty early when we got back to our room, so Skip and I wasted a few hours playing Wii. I still couldn’t shake Skip’s comments from my mind and I felt uneasy about the future of our relationship should he eventually (inevitably) discover my secret. Skip opted out of accompanying me to the girls’ apartment and I no longer felt like pushing the issue. Distance actually felt like exactly what I needed at that moment, I was truly overwhelmed by the position I now realized I was in with Skip.

I changed and left for Lottie’s at around ten.

“Behave yourself tonight kiddo,” Skip called after me as I headed out the door. I poked my head back in.

“Hey, you owe me one night of peeling me off the bathroom floor,” I quipped.

“Yeah, yeah, get outta here!” Skip waved me off dismissively and I smirked as I headed towards the stairwell. The uneasy feeling returned before I’d made it down the 10 flights, but I did my best to shake it off on my way to Lottie’s. I just wanted to enjoy my night out.

***

There were already a number of people there when I arrived. Nicola immediately set me up with a drink and enlisted me as her beer pong partner. I spotted Emmie and Colin cuddled up on one of the couches and Emmie gave me a huge wave and Colin tipped me a salute. They seemed totally enraptured with one another.

“Lottie is still getting ready. She had a late shift at the pool,” Nicola said as we replaced the losing team at the table. “Chug that quick and then let’s get going,” she said, re-filling and arranging the cups on our end of the table.

“Uh, okay,” I replied, eyeing the full cup of questionable punch warily. I didn’t taste any alcohol, which meant that it was probably lethally laced with Everclear. “Bottoms up,” I toasted Nicola, then downed the drink in two large swigs.

“You know how to play right?” Nicola asked, cocking a dark brow over her icy blue eyes.

“We were more into flip cup at Vance, but yeah, I know how to play,” I said, suddenly hoping that I could perform to Nicola’s satisfaction. The second she gave her first toss, it was obvious that she had her game face on.

I was 0 for my first 3 attempts, much to Nicola’s chagrin, but managed to redeem myself by sinking my next 4 shots. Nicola kept our momentum going and we were able to close out the first team pretty handily, with my making the winning shot. Lottie came over to give me a congratulatory hug and to say hello while we set up for the next round. Colin and Emmie were the next pair of challengers and while Colin was a lethal shot, Emmie’s startling lack of aim allowed us to claim our second victory. Two guys I didn’t recognize stepped in as our third set of challengers and by then Nicola and I were feeling the effects of the alcohol enough to noticeably impair our playing. We gave them a run for their money, but they eked out a victory in a tie-breaker round. Shortly thereafter we abandoned the apartment to head to the bar.

***

I found myself sandwiched between Nicola and Lottie as the group of us drunkenly ambled towards the bar. Emmie and Colin walked a few yards in front of us, tentatively holding hands and giving each other shy smiles.

“So what do you think of the budding romance, Brae?” Lottie asked.

“Well as the master orchestrator isn’t my approval implied?” I laughed.

“Oh, yeah, I guess so…” Lottie said, giggling.

“They’re just two crazy kids in love!” I said, joining Lottie in her fit of laughter.

“Christ, neither one of you can hold your liquor,” Nicola groaned. “Truly a pathetic showing.”

“Hey, hey, hey! Don’t turn on your team mate like that! I thought we had a good thing going!” I replied. Nicola rolled her eyes.

There was a line out front, but Nicola led us right past it.

“Hey Rambo,” she said to the bouncer, an imposingly large man of at least six and a half feet, probably weighing in the vicinity of 300lbs.

“Nic!” A huge grin spread across his face and he swept her up into a bear hug, lifting her at least two feet off the ground. “How’ya been kid?”

“Up to trouble as usual.”

“Of course, of course. How many ya’ got tonight?”

Nicola quickly surveyed our group. “Like 15.”

“Sure kid, you guys can head on in.”

“Thanks Rambo. Oh! And I want to introduce you to our new friend Braeden. The studliest 21 year-old freshman around,” Nicola said, pushing me forward. Rambo guffawed.

“Good to meet ‘ya kid,” he said extending a large hand that completely engulfed mine. “’Ya can’t do better than an endorsement from Nic here, and her lovely friends of course.” Emmie and Lottie chirped their greetings and started in the door. I held back with Nicola as everyone else entered.

“Isn’t he going to check IDs?” I whispered aside to Nicola.

“He knows we have ‘em. I would never fuck him over like that. You have one right? Lottie said that you did.”

“Yeah, it scans and everything.”

“Well look at you city boy.” She smiled at me.

“Hey! Brae!” Skip’s voice yelled out from behind me.

I turned to see Skip stepping out of the rear of the line. He walked over to us.

“Hey Skip, this is my friend Nicola. Nicola this is the infamous Skip, my roommate.”

“Ahhh, yes, another one who cannot hold his liquor,” Nicola said, gracefully extending a hand. Skip seemed hypnotized by Nicola’s siren looks and sultry demeanor.

“Aww, crap. ‘Ya told people about that? Well it’s nice to meetcha.”

“You too Skip. You should have come to our apartment to pregame tonight.” Nicola turned to Rambo. “The red head is with us also, Rambo.”

“Gotcha kid. Anybody else?”

At that exact moment Drake came barreling up to the front of the line with his crew of miscreants.

“Skipper! Davvy! My buddies,” he slurred, clapping both of us on the back. Hard.

“And who is this?” Nicola asked, distaste evident in her voice.

“This would be the notorious Drake. Need I say more?”

“No,” Nicola said curtly. “You don’t.”

“Who’s the hottie?” Drake asked, giving Nicola an appraising eye.

“Please.” She rolled her eyes and started into the bar.

“Nic, these guys with you?” Rambo asked, looking skeptically at Drake and his buddies.

“No. Do what you will with them,” She said, giving Rambo a parting wink. I started following her inside.

“You coming?” I turned to ask Skip.

He seemed to waver for a second. “Uhh, yeah,” he said, tipping Rambo a salute as we passed him, into the bar.

***

The bar was small, dark, and more-or-less your typical college dive bar: dark wood paneling; moldy looking booths; pool tables; dart boards; faux-Tiffany lamps; and paintings of dogs playing pool tool compliment the various Carrington sports memorabilia. The bar was to the left of the entrance and tables and booths took up most of the rest of the space, with the back being reserved for the pair of pool tables. The bar was only about half full, surprising given the state of the line outside. Lotte seemed to read my mind.

“They like to have a crowd out front to drum up business. Most of those guys are probably freshmen and won’t get in anyways,” she said.

Our group walked right past the bar, past the pool tables, hung a right and walked into a back room with a smaller bar, a dance floor, and more booths lining one side of the room. Nicola went straight to the bar with a few of the guys, while Lottie and Emmie scoped out an empty booth, Skip and I followed them.

“Skip you remember Emmie and Lottie and obviously you know Colin from the team,” I said as we slid into the booth.

“Yeah, hey everyone.”

“Skip, I’m so glad that you made it out with us,” Emmie said, giving him an effervescent smile.

“Hey, Skip,” Lottie and Colin echoed.

“Skip, were you aware that your roomie is a beer pong star?” Emmie asked. “He trounced us,” she said, putting an adoring hand on Colin’s shoulder.

“To be fair, Colin probably could have beaten us single handed,” I chipped in.

“Are you suggesting I was a dead weight team mate?” Emmie said with mock affront.

“You were a crucial part of the team aesthetics,” Colin said jokingly. “I think it’s safe to say you weren’t enlisted for your skill.” Skip laughed.

Nicola arrived with a tray of probably two dozen jello shots a moment later.

“Shots for everyone,” she announced, putting the tray down on the table. We did three each in quick succession and finished the rest off shortly thereafter.

I was subsequently dragged onto the dance floor by Nicola, Lottie and Emmie. I was conscious of the hateful stares I was getting from the rest of the guys in the room for monopolizing the three most attractive girls at the bar. Colin and Skip seemed engrossed in conversation and I was glad that he seemed to have been absorbed by our group so easily. Emmie eventually retrieved Colin for a dance and I replaced him.

“Having fun?” I asked, sliding back into the booth.

“Yeah, your friends are really nice,” he said, with a wide grin.

“Is that you or the shots talking?” I asked. We both laughed.

“Colin is really great too. He’s really solid and, like, mellow.”

“Yeah, he’s a good guy. He’s been really nice to me.”

“Yup, so you wanna go play some darts?” Skip asked.

“Sure,” I said, sliding out of the booth and following Skip into the main room. We had to wait a few minutes for one of the boards to open up, and then pay at the bar to rent the darts. I had never played before and Skip was in the process of owning me when I noticed Drake approaching out of the corner of my eye. I groaned and Skip caught the object of my gaze. Drake was obviously stumbling and looked incredibly drunk.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you guys,” he said throwing his arms around us. It felt as though I was supporting his entire bodyweight and I tried to slip out of his hold. “You left me high and dry out there, with your bitch-cunt of a friend. Not very team mately of you guys. You guys think you’re too fucking good for me or something?”

Skip was immediately apologetic. “No, no, we don’t think that at all Drake. We’re sorry. We thought you were coming in right behind us.”

I gave Skip a disgusted look and shrugged Drake off of me once and for all. “Fuck off Drake. Go sober up. I’m going to go back to our table Skip, you coming?”

“Uhh, no, I think I’ll hang here for awhile,” he replied hesitantly.

“Fine. Have fun,” I said, happy to extricate myself from Drake’s company.

Nicola had just purchased a second tray of shots, this time tequila, when I arrived back at our table and we quickly downed them. Nicola and Lottie dragged me back onto the dance floor and soon we were grinding away to the best of the 80’s and 90’s. The night was quickly fading into a blur and I was really beginning to feel the effects of Nicola’s magical array of shots. Just as I felt like I might totally lose myself in the music, I heard a loud commotion from behind me. The form of an enraged Drake was storming towards me, hurling insults and profanities that I couldn’t quite distinguish from the rest of the noise. Skip trailed behind, obviously trying to restrain him. Before I knew what was happening Drake was in my face, screaming, and pushing me back into the crowd of people on the dance floor. Too confused, disoriented, and frankly, drunk, to do much for myself, I just stood there stunned, focusing on Drake, trying to pick the words of his tirade out of the air.

“MOTHER-FUCKING… PRETENTIOUS ASSHOLE… THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME… YOUR SHIT STINKS DOUCHE-BAG!” Bits and pieces of Drake’s diatribe rattled around in my brain as I tried to make sense of them. A crowd was beginning to assemble around us. Suddenly, Nicola nonchalantly opened her purse, pulled out a small canister, and matter-of-factly doused Drake’s face in mace. He immediately howled and dropped to the ground in agony, leaving a bewildered Skip standing over him, looking distraught and helpless. Security finally seemed to have caught on to the fact that there was a problem and Rambo and two other men rushed in from the main room.

“We are out of here,” Nicola announced. “Over there, Rambo,” she said, pointing at Drake as she led us out of the bar.

“You okay, Brae?” Emmie asked, coming up and grabbing my arm as we crossed through the main room.

“Uhh, yeah.” I was still in a daze.

“Wow, what an ASSHOLE,” Nicola vented as we emerged from the bar.

“Yeah, that was unreal,” Lottie agreed.

“Poor Tate. I can’t believe he has to live with that Neanderthal,” Emmie said, seemingly near tears. Colin put a protective arm around her.

“Yeah, we should let him move in with us. That guy is fucking psychotic,” Nicola said, still fuming.

“I can’t believe how you just took him down. That was epic,” Emmie said.

“Yeah, he fell hard,” Lottie agreed.

“Brae, are you alright? He looks stunned.” Nicola looked me over with concern.

“Uhh, yeah. I’m fine. I was just really, really drunk in there. This is sorta sobering me up though…”

“Yeah,” Lottie agreed.

“I want food,” Emmie chimed in.

“I have a feeling this isn’t going to make my life on the team much easier,” I said ruefully.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Colin spoke up. “He was clearly in the wrong. Plus, I doubt he is going to remember much of this come tomorrow.”

“I think he’ll remember being maced in the face,” I said skeptically. “And obviously, he’s a huge douche bag, but he has a pretty loyal band of followers.”

“Speaking of, where is your roommate?” Nicola asked.

“Oh fuck, Skip!” I groaned, remembering the helpless look on his face when Drake collapsed. “I should go back and make sure he’s okay… He was only trying to diffuse the situation and I’d feel really bad if he got in trouble. Or if he ended up having to take Drake home alone.”

“Brae, don’t be ridiculous! You’re not going back to help take Drake home! That guy basically assaulted you tonight. He is a nutcase!” Lottie said.

“Skip shouldn’t have to deal with this on his own. I don’t even know if he’d really know what to do. He’s a farm boy from Kentucky!”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Emmie asked.

“He is not equipped to deal with this,” I groaned. “He didn’t ask for any of this.”

“You are the company you keep,” Lottie recite.

“I think that’s ‘you are what you eat.’ I’m hungry!” Emmie whined.

“I’m ordering pizza now,” Nicola said, pulling out her cell phone.

“Brae, I can go back and check on Skip for you. And make sure that he and Drake get home safe,” Colin said.

“No, no, I should do it. I feel partly responsible. I incited Drake, it’s at least partly my fault. I should deal with this.”

“Brae, you’re really drunk. I’m not. I don’t mind taking one for the team. It’ll only take a half hour or so.”

“Colin, that’s so nice of you,” Emmie gushed, jumping onto his back and hugging him from behind. Laughing, he stumbled slightly, and reached an arm up to pull her hair out of his face.

“Yeah, it’s really nice of you, but unnecessary. I can deal with this,” I pleaded again.

“Brae, enough!” Nicola said, with her hand over the receiver on her cell phone. “Yes, two extra large cheese pies.” She covered the mouth piece again. “That psycho hates you and you’re drunk. Colin will take care of it. End of story,” she said with finality. “12 Carrington Cross, apartment 1802… Cash is good,” she rattled on into the phone.

“Well, Nicola has spoken,” Colin smirked. “I’ll see you guys in a little while. You better save me some pizza.”

“No promises,” Emmie gave him a big peck on the cheek and jumped off of his back. “Hurry back!”

“Will do.” Colin turned and headed back in the direction of the bar.

 

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