Brae
by Kieron Connors

 

Chapter 6 

Back at the apartment, Nicola opened a bottle of wine and started pouring out glasses.

“Just water for me please,” I called, flopping onto their couch.

“Booo,” Nicola yelled back. She disappeared into the kitchen and emerged a minute later with a water bottle.

Tired and kind of shell shocked, the four of us sat around, waiting for our pizza, recounting our evening.

“I still cannot believe that happened. Nic you are so bad ass!” Emmie said, reaching across the couch to give her arm a squeeze.

“You continue to surprise me,” Lottie agreed.

“Who would have thought that Brae was going to make such an exciting and dramatic addition to our crew?” Nicola said, flashing me a rare genuine smile. It was a change to see her without her usual hard exterior.

“That’s me: the drama queen,” I snickered.

“That boy really has it in for you. I believed he was an asshole from what you said, but I never would have thought he was that bad!” Lottie said.

“He’s lucky we’re in harmless old Carrington. That kinda behavior is just asking for a shanking,” Nicola said.

“Well hopefully, he’ll take it as a lesson,” Emmie said.

“I would be shocked if he remembered anything other than the burning sensation in his eyes,” Nicola laughed.

“And that he picked the wrong bitch to mess with,” I retorted.

The pizza arrived a few minutes later, sending Emmie into raptures.

“The perfect end to an eventful night,” Emmie said, between bites.

“The best things in life are highly caloric,” Nicola said.

Colin arrived a few minutes later, looking a little worse for the wear.

“That Drake kid is heavy. I mean he is dead weight. Christ. I don’t know how Skip ever would have managed to get him home on his own.”

“Everything go okay? I feel so guilty you had to deal with that,” I said.

“It was fine. The club wasn’t looking to involve the police or anything. They were out on the sidewalk and Skip was trying to call a cab when I got there. We ended up just walking Drake back together. He stuck his face in every fountain we passed on the way home, said he couldn’t get rid of the burning sensation.”

Nicola and the girls guffawed.

“Oof! That sounds brutal.”

“Nah, it wasn’t so bad. He is just extremely, extremely heavy,” Colin said, stretching out his arms and twisting his upper torso. “I think I need to go to the chiro.” He laughed and grabbed a slice of pizza.

“My hero!” Emmie said gleefully, resting her head on Colin’s shoulder. He snaked a strong arm around her shoulders and rested his chin on the top of her head. “You’d better not get grease in my hair!” Emmie warned playfully.

“Oh, yeah? Whatcha gunna do to me?” he taunted.

“Nic, can I borrow your purse for a moment?” she asked. Everybody laughed heartily.

“Okay, I should probably get going,” I said, throwing the remnants of my crust into one of the empty boxes.

“No stay,” Emmie whined.

“Yeah stay,” Lottie echoed. “You can sleep with me.”

“Or with me,” Nic said suggestively.

“I actually promise to behave myself,” Lottie countered. Nicola threw her hands up in defeat, and another ripple of laugher pulsed through the room.

“I feel like I should check on Skip though. Damage control. I don’t want him to be mad at me.”

“Why would he be mad at you?” Lottie asked.

“I dunno, he might think it was my fault or something,” I said.

“No, he’s pretty aware that his friend is a prime asshole,” Colin piped in. “He was really apologetic and worried about you. I assured him that you’re okay.”

“Oh… really?”

“Yeah. He’s fine. He’s a big kid,” Colin said.

“You are not his keeper,” Nicola said. “He can survive one night without his babysitter.”

“Yeah and we don’t want you walking home alone,” Lottie said.

“Fiiiine,” I relented. “I’ll stay the night.”

“Yay! I hope you’re a cuddler!” Lottie nudged me playfully.

“On that note, I think we are going to retire for the evening,” Emmie said, peeling herself off the leather couch and pulling Colin up after her. “Goodnight everybody!”

“Night!” I replied.

Lottie turned to me “Ready for bed?”

“Sure,” I replied. “Night Nic.”

“Bonsoir,” she replied, finishing her wine in a large gulp.

I followed Lottie into her room and collapsed onto the bed, relishing the plush feeling of a real, non-school provided, mattress.

“Here. Put these on,” Lottie said, tossing me boxers and a t-shirt that she pulled out of her top dresser drawer.

I held the navy blue boxers up skeptically, checking them for stains. There was a bone on the crotch. “And whose are these?” I asked. “His taste is highly suspect.”

Lottie looked over before disappearing into her closet. “They’re Carl’s. Don’t worry — they’ve been washed.”

“Wait!,” I said stripping down and changing quickly. “You mean to tell me that these belong to the illustrious Carl Franke and you washed them? You probably could have sold these for millions on ebay. Olympian DNA!” I pulled on the boxers and a Kappa Kappa Theta rush t-shirt.

“You’re nuts!” she called back from the closet.

I went into the bathroom, splashed some water onto my face and squirted some toothpaste on my finger. Lottie entered a minute later in a tank top and sophie shorts.

“Oh, I have extra toothbrushes. You should have asked.”

“Nah it’s fine,” I spit into the sink and quickly rinsed out my mouth. “So do you think you guys will be getting back together this year?”

“Who?” she asked, playing dumb.

“You and Carl.”

“Who knows.”

“So you’re open to it then?”

Lottie shrugged. “Okay. To bed with you. No more questions.”

“Fine, fine,” I said, following Lottie back into the bedroom and climbing into bed next to her. “Goodnight,” I said, fluffing my pillow and settling under the covers.

“Night.”

***

My internal clock woke me just after 5:30am. I stretched out leisurely, relishing the moment. Finally a chance to sleep in! My mind began to play through the events of the night before and trying to process them. ‘I really fucked myself over last night,’ I groaned inwardly. ‘Drake is going to be determined to make my life that much harder now. What was I supposed to do? Am I supposed to avoid him for the rest of our four years? I hope he doesn’t start bothering Nic and the girls…” I laid there for a few minutes of silent contemplation, Lottie breathing softly next to me, her light brown hair splayed across her face and pillow. ‘Stop. Enough. Sleep!’ I thought to myself and then turned over and let myself drift back to sleep.

Lottie roused me at 11:30 as she attempted to slip out of bed unnoticed.

“Hey,” I said, looking at her through squinted eyes.

“Morning. Sorry if I woke you. I have my shift in half an hour…” She disappeared into her closet.

“No, no, it’s okay. I should be getting up anyways. Otherwise I’ll never be able to fall asleep tonight.” I stretched out my limbs, wiggling my toes in Lottie’s luxurious bedding, and gave a loud yawn. “I actually think I’ll go with you to the Gnat. I could do with a quick swim.”

Lottie’s laughter rang out from the closet. “Swimming on your day off? You really need a life Braeden Davenport.”

“Does the legendary swimming god Carl Franke practice on his day off?” I teased.

“I can’t say for sure now. But during my tenure, Carl Franke was engaging in other sorts of exercise on his Sundays,” Lottie shot back. I laughed.

“Well seeing as I am lacking the necessary options for that workout regiment, I guess I’ll have to settle for the pool.”

Lottie emerged from the closet in her guard uniform and grabbed a hair tie off the dresser and pulled her hair up into a messy ponytail. “Well I think our project for this quarter will be to find you the right personal trainer,” she said with a gleam in her eye.

I groaned and Lottie flashed me a wide smile before disappearing into the bathroom. Begrudgingly I slipped out of bed and picked my jeans up off the floor and pulled them on. “Can I just borrow the shirt? I don’t wanna put my polo back on,” I asked.

“Yup. You can keep it. We’re supposed to give them to boys anyways,” Emmie called back from the bathroom.

“Oh, uhh, thanks.”

“Yeah, no problem!” She emerged from the bathroom, looking completely refreshed. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah, sure.”

We emerged into the living room to the full blast of the early afternoon sunlight. Emmie and Colin lounged on the black leather couch, watching TV, with a box of cereal between them. The wall-to-wall windows provided a breathtaking view of Carrinton’s campus, the lush green plains surrounding it, and the deep blue lake glistening in the sunlight.

“Morning! We’re off,” Lottie said.

“Work?” Emmie asked.

“Yup.”

“Okay, see ya guys. Bye Brae!”

“Bye Emmie. Bye Colin.”

“Bye.”

***

We made it to the Gnat just in time for Lottie’s shift, after making her ‘non-negotiable’ coffee run. We parted in the lobby and I headed into the locker room to change. I donned a suit and headed out on deck. I checked Timmy’s and Jimmy’s offices to see if I could get a workout from them but they weren’t in, so I improvised a short and relaxed workout. Afterwards, I tried to do some crunches on the mats, but the early afternoon sun beating through the Gnat’s glass ceiling was too intense and I packed it in early. I took a long shower, changed, and popped back into the pool to say goodbye to Lottie before going back to the dorm to face Skip.

***

Skip was just getting out of the shower as I got back. ‘Perfect timing,” I thought to myself, a little lasciviously, as I ogled the way his thin white towel clung to the globes of his ass, the top digging just low enough to expose the white flesh beneath his tan line and a little bit of cleavage. Try as I might, I was probably never going to be able to shake my physical attraction to Skip.

“Hey!” he said to me with a dazzling smile, as he dropped his towel to pull on his briefs. My cock instantly sprung to attention and self-consciousness washed over me. “I was gettin’ worried about ‘ya. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, sorry. I just ended up sleeping over at Lottie’s and then I went for a swim.”

“You slept at Lottie’s, huh?” Skip raised his eyebrows suggestively. The sunlight accentuated his cut abs as he stood to pull on his t-shirt and it was all I could do to concentrate on our conversation.

“Nothing like that. We’re just friends,” I said defensively. “So, uhh, how is Drake?”

Skip groaned and flopped back onto his bed, throwing a bronzed arm over his eyes. “What a mess. Thank god you sent Colin back to help. Drake was anything but cooperative last night.”

“Yeah, I sort of noticed that…” I said with a chuckle, taking a seat in my computer chair and haphazardly spinning myself in circles.

“Yeah…”

“I wanted to come back and help you, but I was pretty drunk, and everybody else thought it just might incite him further…”

“I’m sorry about everything.” Skip looked over at me and winced.

“It’s not your fault. I saw you trying to play peace keeper. Drake’s just a little large for you to lasso in.”

“Yeah!” Skip laughed. “You should have seen Colin and me trying to get him home. It was quite the slap-show-comedy.”

“I’m sorry you had to deal with that. You’re a good friend. Probably a better friend than he deserves.”

“I dunno,” Skip said evasively, clearly not comfortable with the idea of roasting Drake.

“I should change,” I said, surveying my wrinkled appearance. “I think I’m going to read out on the lawn today. Start one of my British Lit books,” I said as I pulled a fresh t-shirt and athletic shorts out of my dresser. “I’m going to grab some food first though. Want to join?”

“Sure.”

***

Skip and I grabbed a bite in the dining hall and further discussed the events of the previous evening. Before long Skip was doing an uproarious half-man, half-bull impression of Drake. I was glad that we were able to laugh about it and Skip’s antics diffused a lot of my anxiety over the whole incident. After we finished up, I set out my spread on the quad and delved into the first book of my college career. Determined to get off to a good start, I highlighted diligently and took copious notes in the margins. ‘This will last all of 3 chapters,’ I thought to myself. A slight breeze blew through the arches of the cloisters, rustling the through the trees and creating currents in the perfectly manicured grass. The afternoon sun poked in and out of cloud cover creating the perfect balance between cool shade and tepid sunshine. It was truly a magnificent day.

I spent the rest of the afternoon immersed in 19th century London, only packing it in when it finally got too dark to read. I grabbed a quick dinner in the dining hall before making the trek back up to my room. Skip was playing around on his computer when I got back. Neither one of us felt like going out, so I talked Skip into watching movies for the rest of the evening, before turning in early.

***

The pool was a zoo the following morning. Not only was it the first women’s team practice but it was also the first mandatory practice for the upperclassmen. It felt like our numbers had quadrupled, which they probably had, and the chatter was overwhelming. Eric must have recognized the deer-in-the-headlights look on my face because he swooped in to my rescue, throwing a protective arm around me before circling me around to meet all of his buddies. I spotted Drake across the deck and the nasty look he shot me made me even more grateful for Eric’s presence.

It took Timmy and Jimmy a while to get practice going as the large, and rather rowdy, group of us seemed to subconsciously resist all efforts towards organization. Timmy eventually asserted his iron fist and got things moving. Jimmy ran us through some quick stretches and then Timmy split us up into groups. Tate and I were the only freshmen assigned to Timmy’s group and I felt a wave of pride sweep over me. The other freshmen, with the exception of Drake (who just glared), looked at us deferentially and even the upperclassmen seemed to view us as a force to be reckoned with.

I still shared a lane with Henry and Eric and I was already beginning to feel like we had established a comfortable way or working with each other and that Eric and I had our own repartee going. So I was a little bit annoyed, for more than just physical space reasons, when a fourth body slipped into our lane.

“Hey freshie,” he said to me with a saccharine smile that struck me as disingenuous.

“It’s Braeden,” I said giving him the once over. He was Asian, tall and lanky with flawless skin and silky black hair was styled in a bowl cut that he’d probably sported since second grade.

“’Kay, freshie,” he smirked.

I gave him a scathing look. “Well aren’t you just the pinnacle of maturity?”

Eric laughed and wedged himself between us. “Okay boys, settle, lets just settle down. Braeden, Philip. ‘Lip, Braeden. Peace and love, not war,” he said with a goofy grin.

“Sorry… It’s just a little early in the morning to be antagonized.” I said.

Henry flashed all of us a look of annoyance.

“Sorry Henry,” I said suddenly feeling like the awkward newcomer.

Practice was long and difficult and by the end it was dragging miserably. Timmy came down on us like a man possessed and for the first time I felt as though I was struggling to keep up.

“Is he working out some sort of vendetta against you guys or something?” I jokingly asked Eric between sets.

“I would laugh, but I don’t really have the lung capacity right now,” he replied, panting, with his tongue hanging out like a dog’s.

I rinsed quickly after practice, careful to avoid Drake in the locker room, then headed back to the dorm with Skip. Despite a good night’s sleep, we both walked home as though in a trance.

“Nap?” I asked as soon as we entered the room.

“Yeah. You look like a zombie,” Skip replied with a cheeky grin, laying out on his bed with his arms behind his head.

“I feel like all we ever do is nap. What are we going to do when we have classes to break up our naptime? I can’t believe I have to lifeguard after practice tonight! I’m going to pass out on the stand.”

I looked over towards Skip expecting a response but he had already passed out. I rolled over, pulled a sheet over myself and did the same.

Skip was still sleeping when I got up a few hours later. I grabbed my book and a towel and slipped out of the room, careful not to disturb him. After grabbing lunch in the dining hall, I claimed my usual spot on the lawn and delved into the next section of my book. I was reluctant to put it down and get back to the grind of practice a few hours later.

***

The afternoon session wasn’t nearly as extreme since we spent most of our time in the weight room. Colin and I spotted for each other and he chattered incessantly about Emmie, in a manner very uncharacteristic of his usual reserved stoicism. They had agreed the night before to make whatever it was they had official and Colin had the ear-to-ear grin of a kid in a candy shop. It was impossible not to take a little personal pleasure in their relationship as I took full credit for setting them up. ‘It’s like relationship fulfillment by proxy. How lame am I?’ I thought to myself.

***

After practice I toweled off quickly and changed straight into my uniform for my 5pm shift. The junior club team filtered in a few minutes after I climbed up into the chair and the pool was soon over-run with children ranging from around 5 years old to high school age. My presence was somewhat superfluous since there were multiple coaches supervising and I figured that was why Greg only assigned one guard to the shift. Despite guarding alone for three hours, the time passed pretty quickly with the enthusiasm and the antics of the kids to entertain me. Watching them took me back to my own humble beginnings, to a time when swimming was pure and uncomplicated and represented a world of opportunities. ‘Opportunity has arrived, I suppose,” I thought to myself, reflecting on my first week as a Carrington College swimmer. I missed that time when it had just been about the swimming. Somewhere along the way things got muddled and a hell of a lot more political.

***

After my shift I grabbed a quick dinner and trudged up the 10 flights of stairs back to my room.

“I am dead,” I announced, kicking off my flip flops, as I entered the room. Skip looked up from his computer and laughed. “I’m going to shower,” I said. “Are you in for the night or are you planning on going out?”

“I’m beat,” he groaned. “And I’m only in the kid’s club, not the big leagues like you,” he grinned. “I was glad not to be in your shoes, or flippers, today.”

“Yeah tell me about it. The wrath of Timmy is something to be feared.”

I took a long hot shower, so long that Skip knocked on the door at one point to make sure that I hadn’t fallen asleep.

“Your phone rang twice while you were in there,” Skip said when I finally emerged from the bathroom, unleashing a cloud of steam into the room.

I groaned. “I hope it wasn’t my mom. I do not have the energy for that right now.” I picked my shorts up off the ground and fished my cell phone out of the pocket.

“Are you going to leave your clothes strewn everywhere? Pick up after yourself,” Skip said with mocking chastisement.

“Sorry,” I said, kicking my clothes up off the ground, catching them out of the air and tossing them into the hamper.

“Quite the showman aren’t we?” Skip laughed.

I flipped through my missed calls. “Oh, it was Emmie,” I said, hitting the redial button.

“Hey Brae!” she answered brightly.

“Hey. What’s up? You called?”

“Yeah! We were thinking about doing another beach day tomorrow and we wanted to see if you had any interest in coming.”

“Oh yeah, that would be great, as long as I’m back in time for practice.”

“Oh, of course. Colin is coming too, so he’ll keep us on schedule.”

“Oh, great. That’ll be fun. Do you need me to drive again?”

“No, my car finally arrived today!” Emmie said excitedly. “Does Skip want to come?”

“Hold on, I’ll ask,” I said, putting my hand over the receiver and turning to Skip. “Hey, we’re going to do a beach day again tomorrow. Do you want to come this time?”

“And miss out on valuable napping time?” Skip said incredulously.

“HA. HA. You can nap on the beach.”

“Nah, you go. Have a good time. I have lunch plans anyways.”

“With who?” I asked, not liking the answer, even before I’d heard it.

“Uhh, Finch, Brian, and, um, Drake,” he said, looking guilty.

“Where are you guys going?” I asked.

“Some hotdog stand way out on Route 94 that Brian knows about.”

“Cool, that’ll be fun,” I said, trying to sound lighthearted. I turned back to the phone. “Skip’s busy tomorrow, so it looks like you’re stuck with just li’l ol’ me.”

“You tell that roommate of yours that we’re going to get him out of that shell of his eventually,” Emmie said with a laugh.

“The sooner the better,” I agreed. “So 9am tomorrow?”

“Yup. We’ll pick you up.”

“Great, see you then!”

I pulled on some pajamas and crawled into bed, plugging my phone into the charger on my bedside.

“Skip will you put the A.C. down to 66?” I asked.

“Fine, lemme just dig out my parka,” he replied.

“I like sleeping in the cold!” I whined.

“Your wish is my command,” Skip said, reaching over and adjusting the window unit.

“Thanks! Goodnight!”

“Do you want me to turn the lights out or something? It’s only 9 o’clock you know…”

“Nah, it’s fine. I’m exhausted; I could sleep with a train barreling through the middle of the room right now. Night!”

“Night!” Skip said with a chuckle.

***

Practice the next morning was equally, if not more, brutal than the day before. My lungs burned and my muscles ached before we’d even finished our warm up. But it felt good to focus on the physical sensations. I thought of the club team kids from the night before. ‘This is swimming the purest sense. This is what got me hooked to begin with’ I thought, pushing myself through Timmy’s rigorous workout. Lip continued to use me as the butt of his jokes until I was seething with annoyance. Eric seemed to sense that I was a walking time bomb and did his best to diffuse the situation by inserting himself between us whenever possible.

“Just hang in there,” he said, patting me on the back as we headed towards the showers. “This whole ‘rag on the new kid’ routine can’t last much more than a week or so. He has a finite amount of material. Besides he was the new kid last year, so he probably thinks he’s just giving you your due.”

“I’ll do my best, but no promises,” I said, giving Eric a grin. “Thanks for mediating.”

“Yeah well, I really was just afraid that your squabbling would bring the wrath of Timmy on us. Or worse, Henry.” We laughed.

I went back to my locker to grab some shampoo and was just digging it out when I noticed Beau coming in my direction. ‘Ughhhh, why me?!” I moaned to myself, knowing that he had me pretty much cornered.

“Hey Braeden,” he said cheerfully. Despite our long and vigorous workout, Beau still somehow looked like Vineyard Vines perfection.

“Hey,” I said begrudgingly.

“I wanted to talk to you-“

“If this is about Emmie Heron, she’s dating someone now,” I interrupted, almost feeling guilty when he flinched.

“Oh, uhh, she is?” Disappointment read all over his face.

“Yeah, it’s a recent development,” I said.

“That wasn’t actually what I wanted to talk to you about…” he continued.

“Oh?”

“I wanted to see if you wanted to grab coffee or something.

“I actually have plans, sorry.”

“Oh, maybe some other time then?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, non-committally.

Kenner rounded the corner into our row of lockers.

“Hey Brae, can I borrow some shampoo?” he asked. “Everything okay?” he asked, eyeing Beau up warily.

“Yeah, everything’s good. Let’s go,” I said, shutting my locker shut and trailing after Kenner towards the showers.

“Thanks for the rescue,” I whispered.

“No worries,” he said.

***

I showered quickly then ran back to the dorm to grab a bite to eat and to pack a bag for the beach. Lottie called when they were outside and I ran down to meet them. Emmie’s black Range Rover idled across the street from campus and she honked her horn twice to get my attention.

“Hey guys,” I said, sliding into the back seat next to Lottie and Nicola.

Colin was passed out in the front seat but Emmie, Nicola and Lottie all greeted me warmly.

“How was practice?” Lottie asked.

“I think Colin pretty much personifies my answer to that question right now,” I laughed. “It’s been really brutal the last two days. Hopefully they’ll ease up on us once classes start.”

“I’m sure they will,” Emmie said. “I mean, don’t they like have to?”

“One would think… By the way, your other boyfriend cornered me in the locker room today.”

“Who?!” Emmie squealed with a giggle.

“Beau Vanderbilt.” The name elicited groans all around.

“I told him you were no longer available and he seemed quite distraught about it.”

“I’ll bet,” Nicola scoffed.

“He could not be more annoying,” I said.

“He could be Drake,” Nicola pointed out.

“Point taken,” I laughed. “I still cannot get over the other night. You are truly my hero.”

“St. Nicola, patron saint and protectress of gays everywhere,” Nicola laughed. Emmie shrieked with laughter and the rest of us joined her, waking Colin in the process.

“What’s going on?” he asked, flustered.

“Uhh, nothing. You had to be there,” Emmie said, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror.

“Technically, I was here.”

“You snooze, you lose buddy,” Nicola said, patting him on the shoulder.

It was another incredible beach day. We all laid out on the raft to soak in the early afternoon sun, lunched on chips, pretzels and watermelon, contested multiple rounds of boys vs. girls beach volleyball, and played Frisbee until a stray throw by Emmie lodged it in a tree. Conversation was not as candid as it had been on our previous visit; Colin’s presence changed the group dynamic somewhat, but he was a welcome addition and we all had a wonderful time.

“This was just the escape I needed,” I said as we packed back into the car to return to Carrington.

“Too bad we go straight back into the lion’s den,” Colin said.

“Tell me about it.”

“Brae, do you want to come for dollar burgers tonight with us?” Lottie asked.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“There’s this bar in town that has $1 hamburgers and half-off cocktails on Tuesday nights. It’s a hotspot.” Lottie said.

“And it’s early. We usually go like 8 or 9-ish, but we could even go earlier, to accommodate our men-folk,” Emmie said.

“I’m game,” I said.

***

Afternoon practice was equally brutal and we didn’t have the benefit of an hour in the weight room to escape Timmy’s tyranny.

“I feel lucky to have made it out of the pool alive,” I said to Kenner and Cam as we rinsed off in the showers.

“I hear you brother man,” Kenner said. “And I don’t think we have it even half as hard as you do with Timmy. Jimmy is a more benevolent mistress,” he laughed.

“Benevolent my ass,” Cameron echoed.

“So what have you guys been up to?” I asked.

“My brother moved in this weekend,” Kenner replied, so we helped out with that and drank with some of his friends and stuff.

“Oh, cool. It must be nice to have him around.”

“Ehh, we tend to be at each others’ throats a lot of the time.”

“I always wanted a brother or sister,” I said.

“You say that now,” Kenner laughed. “You don’t know how lucky you are, my friend.”

“What have you been up to Brae?” Cam asked.

“Sleeping mostly,” I said. “And I am only half kidding.”

“I hear ya,” Cam commiserated.

“Amen,” Kenner echoed.

A whoop went up from the other side of the showers.

“Drake?” I asked, not even bothering to turn around and check.

“Yup,” Cameron confirmed.

“Wet towel snapping,” Kenner added.

“How original.”

“He has been in rare form this week. He’s been very vocal about how displeased he is that Timmy didn’t want to train him,” Kenner said.

“Yeah, well, he hasn’t been performing,” I said. “He should be in the A group right now, but it’s nobody’s fault but his own that he isn’t.”

“Yeah. Not sure he sees it like that…” Cam said.

“He certainly has been a pleasant training partner the last two days,” Kenner smiled.

“Did you hear he got attacked with mace this weekend?” Cam whispered.

“What? No…” I said, stifling a smirk and casually inching out of the showers, back to the lockers where I proceeded to burst into laughter. I dressed quickly and high-tailed it out of there before Drake and his goons finished in the showers.

***

Back in the room I flipped on the TV and flipped open my computer to go through emails, while I waited to see if Skip came home. When he didn’t show up after twenty minutes I figured he’d probably gone for dinner so I decided to take the opportunity to call home and check in. All was well in Davenport-land and my mother was busy planning their upcoming anniversary trip to Riga, the “little Paris” of Eastern Europe. My dad was freaking out about to what to get my mom for their big 20th anniversary and was leaning towards a yacht, an uncharacteristically extravagant gesture on his part especially since we weren’t boating people.

I still had over an hour to kill after getting off the phone, so I picked up my book in an effort to distract myself from my hunger pains. Hunger pains won out within 10 minutes, and I started bribing myself with an Oreo for every chapter I completed. I was still ravenous an hour later when I changed and left to meet Colin and the girls.

***

The bar was nicer than the one on Saturday, probably because it was a chain, and it had more of a restaurant feel to it. The décor was 1930’s style art deco, with bold colors and dramatic lighting. We opted for a table outside on the sidewalk since it was still pretty out and it made for good people watching. We got burgers and beers all around and settled into casual small talk. It was clear that the girls were mourning the end of their summer and had mixed feelings about school starting up again. Lottie was also on edge because Carl had called her and he was going to be arriving back in Carrington the next day.

“So you’re going to see him?” I asked.

“I dunno, I haven’t decided yet.”

“Of course she’s going to see him, she loooves him!” Emmie teased.

“He’s a good fuck. That’s what she really needs,” Nicola said, throwing in her two cents.

“Nicola!” Lottie yelped.

“Whatever, we’re all aware of the long running vacancy in your nether regions,”

“Nether regions?!” Emmie squealed. “Who talks like that?”

“Colin, I’m sorry you have to be subjected to this,” Lottie said, blushing.

“I have three sisters,” He grinned. “This is nothing. Plus, I knew what I was getting into with Emmie.”

“You’re a trooper Colin,” Nicola said. “Now, getting back to the Carl issue: Will you or won’t you?”

“No comment!” Lottie rolled her eyes.

“What do you think Colin? You’re like our spy into the enemy camp,” Nicola said.

Colin laughed. “I don’t know. I didn’t even know he was going to be back tomorrow. We haven’t spoken at all.”

“Well, keep your ear to the ground for us,” Nicola said.

“Will do,” he chuckled.

“I can’t believe we start classes a week from tomorrow,” Emmie moaned

“Yeah, the campus is going to be completely overrun this weekend,
Lottie complained.

“Move-in weekend is always a bitch,” Colin confirmed.

“I wish we could go to Carl’s lake house for the weekend and get away,” Nicola said. “You think you can work your magic by then Lottie?”

“What? Whore myself out for a weekend vacation for all of you guys?” Lotte snorted. “Great plan.”

“I’d do it for you,” Nicola whined.

“Nicola, you’d whore yourself out regardless of whether or not a weekend house was involved,” Emmie said.

“Okay, true… but not the point.”

“What if we just look up weekend rentals or something?” Lottie suggested.

“That takes all the spontaneity out of it,” Emmie said.

“You know, I have a ski house a couple of hours from here…” I said.

“You do?” Emmie said.

“Yeah, in the Berkshires. I would have to check with my parents, but I’m sure it would be okay. It’s on a lake and we have a boat and everything…”

“And we don’t have to whore ourselves out to you to use it?” Lottie said incredulously, giving Nicola a slanted look.

“First visit is complimentary.”

“Will mommy and daddy Davenport go along with it?” Nicola asked.

“Probably. They’ve never been able to refuse me anything.” I dug my phone out of my pocket.

“Yeah, the perk of being an only child,” Emmie said. “I’m so excited!! This is going to be fun!”

“Yeah, we just can’t leave until after practice on Saturday morning… Sorry.”

“Nah, it’s fine. We’ll wanna go out Friday night anyways,” Lottie said. “Oh and you’ll have to let us buy all the food and stuff for the weekend.”

“And booze,” Colin added.

“We actually have a groundskeeper who stocks the house up whenever we go up there, but you guys can definitely provide the booze… Oh, and there are tennis courts Colin. Okay, lemme call real quick”

I called home and quickly got permission from my dad. He promised to call the groundskeeper and have him get the place ready for Saturday. We spent the rest of the evening planning, or rather listening to Emmie’s plans, for the upcoming weekend and teasing Colin about his tennis prowess. Colin and I polished off three burgers apiece and tossed back a few more beers before the girls decided to move on to another bar and Colin and I retired for the evening. Skip was just getting ready for bed as I got back to the room and the two of us hit the sack hard.

***

Timmy was equally ruthless at the following morning’s practice and Skip and I retreated back to our room afterwards, tails between our legs for an extended nap. As I spread my towel out on the Res Square lawn to knock out the last few chapters of my lit book, I realized my life was falling into a rather predictable pattern. ‘How lame am I?’ I mused. ‘It took me less than a week to become utterly boring. I ought to spice things up a little bit… some time when I’m not so fucking tired. At least I have this weekend to look forward to…’ I thought, turning my attention back to my book.

I was surprised a little while later to see Skip exiting the dorm and heading in my direction. He flashed his botany textbook at me, stripped off his t-shirt and sprawled out on the lawn next to me, flashing me one of his trademark impish smiles.

“Is that a book you’re about to crack there?” I teased.

“Yup, you can pick yer jaw up off the ground Davenport. I figured it was time I got down to a little bit of business,” he said. “Plus, I’ve always been one to take advantage of a head start, when one presents itself.”

“That sounds like good news for Carrington swimming,” I joked.

My phone rang, interrupting our banter, and I checked the caller ID. It was Emmie.

“Hold on, I gotta take this! It’s Emmie and we’re supposed to work together tonight.” I said, flipping open the phone. “Hey! What’s up?”

“How is my favorite gay boyfriend?”

“Emmieeee,” I groaned. “I will not respond to that.”

“Okay, fine. How is my favorite hottie?”

I winced. “I’m good. Just doing some reading. What’s up?”

“Oh! Okay, I’ll make it quick. I just wanted to know if you wanted me to pick you up some dinner or something before our shift tonight.”

“Oh, wow, that’s so nice. Thank you. That would be great!

“Yeah, no problem! I was going to get Jimmy Johns…”

“Number 7. The Turkey Tom.”

“Got it. Also, Nicola wants to know if she can bring her bong this weekend. Sorry, promised I’d ask,” Emmie said.

“Umm, maybe we could save that for a later trip,” I said.

“Got it. Say no to peer pressure. Okay, I’ll see you later tonight!”

“Bye.”

“Emmie is bringing me dinner tonight, since I won’t have time to grab any before our shift,” I said.

“Oh, that’s really nice of her,” he replied.

“Yeah. By the way, I’m going down to my ski house this weekend with Emmie, Lottie, Nicola and Colin, and I was hoping that you’d come too,” I said. “We’re just going to relax, play around on the boat, drink, avoid the move-in crowds this weekend.”

“Oh.”

“We’re leaving Saturday morning after practice and then we’ll be back after dinner on Sunday. I know the prospect of having the entire room to yourself all weekend is pretty enticing, but it will be fun. You should come.”

“Sure, sounds like a good time. An’ I could use a break before classes start. Swimmin’ is beginning to feel like a full-time job,” he grumbled.

“Tell me about it. Plus, I’ve got a part-time job on top of that full-time job.”

“Yeah, I cannot believe you’ve got to work tonight. You’re a glutton for chlorine.”

“I know, it like oozes out of my pores. Anyways, looks like you have some fascinating, and very heavy, reading ahead of you, so I’ll let you get to it.”

My reading was substantially less productive now that I had the intricate musculature of Skip’s back to distract me. I was hypnotized by his the arch of his lower back, his broad shoulders and his deep bronze tan. He had quite the highlighter system worked out, complete with color coding, that he set about diligently in addition to the notebook of tiny precise notes that he scribbled furiously, his brow furrowed in concentration.

Despite my distractions, I managed to finish my book and to enjoy a quick nap in the sun before we had to pack it in for afternoon practice. Skip hummed the theme to Jaws the entire way over to the Gnat. His choice seemed oddly prophetic by the end of practice, by which time I felt as though I needed the jaws of life to get me out of the pool and I had to dash into the bathroom for fear of vomiting all over the deck. Somehow I managed to hold on to the contents of my stomach (although the two guys in the stalls next to me weren’t so lucky) and I silently cursed myself for indulging in the burgers and beer the night before. It took me a few minutes before I finally felt gastro-intestinally secure enough to leave my stall. The door next to me opened at the same time and Colin stepped out, he gave me a weak smile.

“Let’s never speak of this,” I said.

“Deal.”

***

I rinsed off quickly, changed into my uniform and then ventured back out on deck for my shift. Emmie was already sitting on the chair, looking resplendent as ever, and Colin was standing by her side, chatting away.

“Sorry, I needed a little time to regroup and recover.”

“Yeah, you were looking a little peaked at the end there,” she said. “Don’t worry about it! Oh, your sandwich is in my bag.” She pointed at it on the bench behind the guard chair.

“Thanks. I think I’m going to need a few minutes before I’m ready to think about food…” I said.

Emmie laughed and Colin gave me a knowing look.

“Greg is still here, so you should probably go sit in the other chair and then whenever he leaves you can come over here and chat with me,” Emmie said.

“Sounds good.” I grabbed my sandwich out of Emmie’s bag and headed over to the other chair. The club team practice was in full swing and I had to stay on my toes to keep from being run over by a few pesky critters, blinded by their foggy, crooked goggles. The younger age groups were doing a butterfly stroke clinic and the results were nothing if not comedic. It was hard to believe that I had once been one of those floundering kids contorting their bodies into incredibly awkward and unnatural positions while trying to remain afloat. About 45 minutes later, I noticed Emmie wildly flagging me down. I climbed down and headed back to Emmie.

“I’ve been trying to get your attention for 20 minutes!” she said, exasperated.

“Sorry, I was a little busy, you know, supervising the children.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah… Greg left 20 minutes ago and Colin went home for dinner. I’ve been beside myself with boredom. So! Let’s talk about this weekend!”

Emmie bombarded me with her plans for the weekend, questions about the house and her predictions for the imminent reunion of Carrington power couple, “Carlottie.” I also got Lottie and Carl’s entire dramatic history in excruciating detail. It sounded like they were two kids who really cared about each other but had some serious issues with commitment and putting themselves out there — certainly feelings I could relate to. The shift was up before I knew it. Emmie invited me back to her apartment to hang out, but I was too exhausted to think about going anywhere but to bed. I promised I’d come over the following evening, then clocked out and trudged home. Skip was out when I got back, so I flipped on the TV to decompress with some trashy VH1 reality television, before turning in at the ripe old hour of 9:30pm.

Skip stumbled in just before 2am and nose dived straight into his bed, without even removing his shoes. I stifled a laugh, thought about helping him undress and getting him some water, decided I was too lazy to get out of bed and rolled over and went back to sleep. If Skip wasn’t capable of learning his lesson, he could suffer for it in the morning. And suffer he did.

***

“It feels like there is a jackhammer run amuck between my eyes,” he mumbled, sitting on the side of the bed with his head in his hands. I grabbed some aspirin out of the bathroom and a water bottle out of the fridge and handed them to him without saying a word. “Thanks,” he said taking the pills and quickly downing the water.

“You should maybe grab another one of those for the road,” I said. “Ready?”

“I’m having premonitions of my tragic and untimely death. But sure, let’s hit the road.”

We made our way over to the Gnat, Skip moving at a glacial pace. The mornings were already noticeably darker than they had been even the week before. The dull glow of the medieval-looking lanterns, hanging from the eaves of the cloisters, lit our way down the uneven cobblestones that tripped Skip up every couple of yards. A slight rose tint on the horizon hinted at the sunrise in the otherwise night sky.

Jimmy instantly honed in on the fact that Skip was looking a little worse for the wear, yet again, and it looked as though he was going to make it a rough morning for him. Not that Timmy, in turn, didn’t make it a rough morning for me and the rest of the ‘A Group.’ To top off the torture, Lip was in a particularly ‘lippy’ mood and still seemed to find my freshman status hilarious. After practice, I stomped off to the locker room, fists clenched in fury and frustration.

“Give him a few more days… and if he doesn’t calm down, I’ll punch him,” Eric said, coming up to me in the shower and giving me a reassuring pat on the back.

Skip came in a minute later, picked a secluded showerhead, turned it onto cold, then eased under its stream and leaned his forehead against the tile wall. I walked over cautiously.

“Hey, Skip how are you doing?” I asked tentatively, trying to keep my voice down, a relatively useless gesture given the general commotion around us.

He rolled his head towards me and cracked one eye open to look at me. “It hurts to breathe,” he rasped, his voice just above a whisper. He suddenly doubled over and began retching into the gutter. I rushed forward and began stroking his back as his muscular back spasmed with each heaving lurch.

“Heads up down there, vomit!” I called down to some of the other guys in the corner, noticing that the gutter was carrying Skip’s ripe-smelling bile in their direction. They all shouted their disgust and high-tailed it out of the way. I looked around, searchingly, and my gaze landed on Kenner entering from the pool.

“Hey Kenner,” I called. He looked over at me with a wide grin that quickly evaporated upon seeing the state that Skip was in. He grimaced and began inching towards us.

“You’re not going to try and rope me into clean-up duty are you?” he asked.

“No, could you just go alert the janitorial staff. Or at least ask Timmy or Jimmy to alert them?

“Yeah, sure.”

Skip finally stopped puking and stood up trying to catch his breath. He took a swig of water from the shower to clean his mouth out and then spit it into the gutter.

“We should probably shut your shower off. I don’t want the gutter to overflow and send this mess all over the floor,” I said. “At least it’s pretty contained as of right now… How are you feeling?”

“Not much better,” Skip groaned.

“Still have that headache?”

“Yeah, it’s worse than ever.”

“Okay, let’s get you back to the room. We have some Excedrin Migraine. That, along with some sleep should probably do the trick.”

I led Skip back to his locker and helped him get dressed. Drake, not surprisingly, took it upon himself to provide a running commentary of Skip’s misery and to paint us a pretty picture of the Jaeger bombs and Long Island Ice Teas that had led him to his current predicament. I managed to ignore his snide remarks without snapping, a feat I believed should qualify me for sainthood. Then I helped Skip back to the dorm, avoiding the toxic sunlight whenever possible. We managed to get back to the room without a repeat incident and I got Skip into bed with a double dose of Excedrin.

“I’m going to go read on the lawn. I’ll be sure to be back in time to get you up for practice.”

Skip mumbled something that I took to mean “Thank you.” I grabbed the next two books off my syllabus and went out to claim my usual spot on the green. I thumbed for the first few pages of both of my reading options and selected the harder one, figuring I might as well get it out of the way while I still had the free time. I grabbed lunch around noon and then returned to working on my reading… and my tan.

***

I roused Skip at 2pm, so that he’d have time to grab food before we had to head back to practice. He said he was feeling a bit better, but he had a slightly grey cast to him that led me to believe he was till feeling seriously ill. He managed to get down some basic carbs before practice, but didn’t seem to have any interest in venturing out to more adventurous food groups.

We both survived the afternoon session. Skip ended up vomiting again, but at least he made it to the toilet this time and he had the rest of the evening to hole up in our room and pray for death. Jimmy had no taken no pity on him and seemed intent on instilling a lesson on my thick headed roommate. Figuring Skip could probably do with some peace and quiet for the evening, I left him alone in the room and went to grab some dinner in the dining hall. Cam and Kenner were already eating so I joined their table and half-heartedly discussed Skip’s “epic pukefest” at practice that morning. While Skip was clearly reaping what he sowed, I couldn’t help but have a little bit more sympathy for him than they did. I felt like his behavior was the production of his own insecurities, his relatively naïve personality and the emotional games his family had been playing on him for months. Skip was clearly desperate for attention and friendship anywhere he could find it and would do anything to hold onto it. This of course was not a conversation I could really have with either of them, so I mostly nodded at the appropriate moments and pondered the hideous mural of classic movie poster re-interpretations on the wall behind them.

Emmie texted me while I was at dinner to make sure that I was still coming over, so after we’d finished our meal I said my goodbyes and ventured into town. I stopped at Carrington’s legendary bakery and picked up an assortment of tea cookies and cakes to bring over as well as a couple of bottles of wine that I got next door. I figured it was about time I reciprocated their generosity.

***

“Ahh, he comes bearing calories,” Nicola announced upon opening the door for me.

I followed her into the living room, where everyone was assembled. Emmie and Colin were cuddled up on one end of the couch and Nicola took a seat on the other. Lottie was curled in one of the easy chairs opposite the couch and the oh-so-recognizable form of Carl Franke was seated, a little awkwardly in the other. He was almost better looking in person than he was on TV, a fact I’d already observed that summer at the trials. His bulk was impressive even clothed and seated. His muscular build was somewhat unique in the swimming world and he was known more for the raw power of his swimming than for his technique. On top of his impressive physique was a face that made endorsement brokers’ mouths water: Doe-like chocolate brown eyes; strong cheek bones under flawless tan skin; a rugged jaw-line; and a pout most women would kill for created a specimen that looked more suited for life on Mount Olympus than amongst us mere mortals. His dark brown hair was styled messily and obviously professionally, so that he looked ready for a photo shoot at a moment’s notice. He rose to shake my hand and I extended mine in turn, a little hypnotized by his presence. He wore a cream colored shawl-collared sweater and coral Bermuda shorts that exposed his bulging calf muscles in a mouth-watering fashion.

“Hey, I’m Carl,” he said warmly. “I guess we’re going to be teammates. Colin speaks very highly of you. As does Lottie.”

“Hey, umm, I’m Brae,” I replied, fighting to retain my presence of mind.

“I remember you from this summer,” he said.

“You do?!”

“Mmm, gimme those,” Lottie said, reaching out for the box of cookies.

“You can give me the alcohol,” Nicola said with a grin. She patted the empty spot on the couch next to her. “I’m no longer the fifth wheel! You are my lord and savior.”

I handed Lottie the cookies and then took the proffered spot on the couch. “So how is your roommate doing?” Colin asked. “That was quite the scene he made this morning.”

“Tell me about it. He’s sleeping it off. I think he might have a migraine or something,” I said.

“Ooh, brutal,” Lottie winced.

“Yeah. But self-inflicted,” I said. “I don’t mind looking after him. It’s not a big deal… but I have minimal sympathy. This was hardly the first time.”

“He’s definitely pissing Jimmy off,” Colin said.

“Well, I hope Jimmy gets through to him soon. It would make my job as roommate a lot easier.”

“It’s not your job to take care of him,” Nicola said. “I would leave these two to die in the gutter in a heartbeat if either of them either puked on me!”

“Nicola you are such a liar!! You held my hair when I puked in the bushes at spring formal last year!” Emmie said.

“Yeah, well, you were wearing my dress. I had a vested interest in making sure your mess was contained,” she quipped.

“I see you haven’t changed a bit Nicola,” Carl said with a chuckle.

“Admit it. You love us,” Emmie teased.

“Whatever. I’m going to open these,” Nicola said, hopping up off the couch and walking into the kitchen.

“I’m sooo excited for this weekend!” Emmie said. “I want to buy a badminton set to bring down.”

“We have one. You may want to pick up some extra racquets and birdies though.”

“I love badminton!” Lottie exclaimed. “That was always my best unit in gym.”

“Where are you guys going this weekend?” Carl asked.

“To Brae’s ski house down state,” Emmie said.

“Oh, cool.”

“You’re welcome to come, there’s plenty of room. Did I tell you guys Skip is coming?”

“I’ll be sure to stay out of his projectile range,” Nicola said, returning with a corkscrew and a stack of Solo cups. “It was easier than bringing in six wine glasses,” she said putting them down and starting on the first bottle of wine.

“We picked our venue for white party today!” Emmie said, changing the subject.

“Oh it’s at a different place this year? Isn’t it usually at the same one?” Carl asked.

“Yeah, we were asked not to return. Whoops,” Nicola said with a shrug, She’d opened both bottles and was pouring out peoples’ drinks.

“What’s white party?” I asked.

“It’s our fall date party,” Lottie explained. “It’s only a couple of weeks after school starts. You’re my date this year.” Carl shot her a surprised glance, which she ignored.

“Oh…” I said awkwardly, noticing that Carl had turned an inquisitive eye on me.

“It is the social event of the quarter,” Emmie raved. “The theme is white, obviously, so everyone is expected to wear all white and the venue is usually mostly white also.”

“Sounds cool. Like P. Diddy’s Hamptons party,” I said.

“Yeah, exactly! Have you been to that?!” Emmie asked.

“No,” I laughed. “My dad would never let me.”

“Oh, I really like this wine. Good choice Brae,” Lottie said, taking a sip.

“Thanks. I visited this winery with my parents last summer, so it’s sort of become my go-to wine whenever I find a place that has it,” I said.

“We’ll have to pick up some bottles for this weekend!” Emmie said.

“I’m so bummed you’re going away this weekend,” Carl said looking over at Emmie.

“Like I said, you’re welcome to come Carl,” I said.

“Thanks, but my sister is moving in this weekend. She’s going to be a freshman, so I hafta be around to see the parents and help out and stuff.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of other girls willing to hook up with you,” Nicola said. An uneasy silence settled upon the group. Carl broke his gaze away from us and stared awkwardly out the window. Nicola finally spoke up again. “I suppose I should have waited until we were all sufficiently imbibed before I said that.”

“Look, I know that things didn’t end so well last spring but-“ Carl started.

Emmie interrupted. “Carl, I don’t think now is the best time for the ‘intentions talk.’ Let’s just table the issue for now.”

“So should we take one car or two down to the cottage on Saturday?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation in a fresh direction. Emmie and I had already discussed everything at length, but it was all I could think of at a moment’s notice.

“I think one, since there are 6 of us. If we pick up any more passengers before Saturday, then we should probably split up,” Emmie said, matter of factly.

“How many bedrooms does this ‘cottage’ have?” Nicola asked, amusement written on her face.

“Six plus the master,” I replied, a little embarrassed.

“Oh so it’sthat kind of cottage,” Nicola smirked.

“I know it’s kind of pretentious, but my mom likes calling it ‘the cottage.’ She got the idea out of this old movie that she is obsessed with.”

“Oh my god!Thoroughly Modern Millie!” Emmie squealed. “I love that movie!”

“Yeah! That’s it!” I laughed. “How did you know?!”

“Emmie knows any and all things Julie Andrews,” Lottie said. “You two will as well if you spend enough time in this apartment,” she said looking at Colin and me.

The banter remained light hearted for the next two hours as we finished off the two bottles of wine I’d brought over as well as an additional two from the girls’ stock before heading out to the bar. The place was similar to the one we’d gone to on Saturday night, but smaller, more crowded, and without the benefit of the backroom. The two outside walls were entirely windows, which prevented the place from being as claustrophobic as it might have been were it entirely wood paneling like Saturday’s bar. The place was packed and we had to squeeze through the crowd to get to the bar while Nicola went off to see about finding us a table.

“I don’t think she’s going to have any luck,” I said.

“Nicola doesn’t need luck,” Emmie replied. “She just latches onto a table of what she would call ‘misfits’ and essentially scares them into leaving.” Colin and I looked at her incredulously. “I know, it’s terrible,” Emmie continued, “but so is standing up in this joint. May I remind you that we are all in heels.”

After getting our drinks we inched towards the back of the bar with Carl forging a path. Whether it was his bulk or his famous face, the crowd seemed more than willing to part to let him through. Sure enough, Nicola had procured a window table in the back. From their perch the girls observed the crowd around us and a number of people came up to essentially pay tribute to them; it was clear they had the social scene wrapped around their fingers. Carl also garnered a substantial amount of attention, with a number of people coming up to pat him on the back and wish him congratulations. I cut myself off after that first drink partly because I wanted to be in good form for practice the following morning and partly because I didn’t want to brave the crowd again to go back to the bar. I left around midnight to head back to the dorm, knowing that I was going to be deathly tired the next morning. Skip was still sleeping when I got back, so I slipped quietly into bed and went to sleep.

***

It felt as though I had just shut my eyes when the alarm went off. I groaned in disbelief for a moment then dutifully pulled myself out of bed. Skip was over by his dresser, pulling on a pair of shorts.

“Is it possible that I still have a headache?!” he moaned.

“I am not a happy camper today either,” I commiserated. My mouth felt sticky and dry and had the acidic taste of alcohol in it and my eyes burned with sleep deprivation. I went into the bathroom and gave my teeth a quick brush.

“Hungover?” Skip asked, appearing in the door frame.

“No, just tired,” I said, spitting into the sink, then went to get dressed.

We grabbed some toast in the dining hall before leaving for the Gnat. Skip had never made it out of bed the previous night and thus hadn’t even had dinner, so he was famished.

“Dude, just remember yesterday, and that what goes down might very well come up,” I said as Skip grabbed his fourth slice of (heavily buttered) toast.

“Oh, uhh, right.” He flashed me a guilty grin.

“Sorry about that. Thanks.”

“No worries.”

***

Skip’s stomach held out and Timmy finally showed signs of slacking up on us a bit. That, or I was just acclimating to his aggressive style. Of course, I was still exhausted and began fantasizing about my upcoming nap before practice was even over. That morning also marked Carl’s first appearance at practice a whole three days earlier than anticipated. His presence seemed to evoke a mixed assortment of emotions ranging from awe to almost fear from the other freshmen. Drake was blatantly peacocking around the deck, obviously hoping to catch Carl’s attention and impress him with his machismo. He shot me a murderous glare when Carl came over and said a few words to me before practice started.

I had a pretty crippling toe cramp towards the end of practice, one that made it feel as though my toes were being forcibly twisted around each other. I hung around for a few minutes after practice to stretch it out. Jimmy noticed me on the mats trying to flex out the ball of my foot and came over.

“Toe cramp?” he asked with a grimace. I nodded. “Here, sit down,” he said, kneeling in front of me. He took my foot and slowly started massaging it. “These are the worst,” he said. “You get them a lot?”

“I did when I was a kid. I haven’t had one in years though.”

“You’re probably dehydrated,” he said. “So, Timmy is thrilled with your performance so far. You’re coming along great Braeden.”

“Oh, uhh, thanks,” I said.

“He’s thinking about putting you in the 200 IM. Has he told you that yet?”

“No, he hasn’t mentioned that. I don’t know if my fly is at a competitive level for that,” I said hesitantly.

“You’ll get there quickly. You’re a hard worker. Like I said, we’re both very impressed. Now we just need to get your roommate in line.”

I forced an awkward laugh. “I think he learned his lesson after yesterday.”

“I doubt it. But I’ll drill it into him sooner or later.” He patted my foot and put it down. “All set. See you this afternoon.”

“Thanks coach,” I said, getting up and retreating to the locker room.

***

The showers were nearly empty when I walked in and I headed straight for my locker to get my shampoo. Drake’s voice bellowed out from our row of lockers and I rolled my eyes. ‘He’s probably on the rampage since Carl Franke didn’t even give him the time of day,’ I thought to myself. I was surprised to find Drake standing on the bench and a large cluster of guys surrounding him.

“He’s a fucking cocksucker!” Drake barked and my stomach dropped. I felt panic rising in me as I tried to figure out who Drake’s diatribe was directed at.

“Motherfucking homo! He’s been scamming on all of us. Fucking dicklicker!”

“Umm, what’s going on?” I asked Skip, who was standing right next to me at his locker.

“Drake’s roommate’s a fag.” Skip said without tearing his eyes from the spectacle.

“Yeah right,” I said, skeptically. “Poor kid, Drake’s such an asshole.”

“No,” Skip said turning to look at me. “He found gay porn on his computer! And he found articles from the French papers about him dating guys!” Skip’s eyes were wide.

“Probably tried to fucking molest me in my fucking sleep! You make me fucking sick you shit pounder! You don’t deserve to live!” Drake continued.

I craned on tip toe to see over the crowd and sure enough, Tate stood at the center of the crowd like a leper, his eyes down and his jaw and fist clenched tightly. My heart ached for him. The guys around him remained quiet but I could see them getting sufficiently riled up to do some damage without much further coaching from Drake.

“I oughta rip your fucking ass apart you dirty faggot. We oughta fucking kill you right here shiteater!”

My own fists clenched in anger and adrenaline started pumping through my veins, I could feel the tendons in my neck tightening and my stomach felt as though it was boiling over.

“This fucking homo is going to come after all of you! He wants all your fucking asses. Goddamn dick bitch. I hope you get fucking AIDs and die!”

Something within me snapped. Before I really knew what I was doing, I was pushing through the crowd towards Drake.

“Drake you need to shut the fuck up right now!” I yelled, shocked by the rage that was coming out of me. “You’re a fucking disgraceful bigot.”

Drake looked over at me, shocked at being challenged.

“What’s the matter? Are you a fucking fag lover?” he sneered. “A fucking fag fucker!”

“Seriously, shut the fuck up. Everyone here should be ashamed of themselves!” I walked over to Tate and put an arm around him. He was shaking slightly, but I could tell if it was in fear or rage. Probably both. Probably everything and anything. I felt like I was going to explode with adrenaline.

“You a big fucking fag Davvy? You a cocksucker like Tate?” Drake continued.

“Yeah Drake, I’m a big fucking fag,” I snapped. “I’m gay. So-the-fuck what?! And don’t worry, I wouldn’t ever touch you! Any of you! You are all a disgrace.”

Drake looked stunned for a moment, as did everyone around us. Even Tate looked at me with a surprised expression. The emotions that were coursing through my body in that moment were unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I’d never felt so simultaneously empowered and sick. Drake jumped down of the bench.

“You a fucking homo?” he asked, giving me a shove backward towards the locker. “I knew there was something off about you Davvy. You a dirty fucking homo?” He pushed me again.

“Yeah Drake, I am, and this dirty fucking homo will break your fucking neck if you ever touch me again. Or Tate.”

Drake lunged at me again, but Tate forced himself in between us. I noticed that Kenner had also forced his way to the front and looked ready to intervene should it become necessary. I eyed the crowd around us warily. So far nobody had moved, but I did not like our chances at getting out of this without a group beating. I felt ill. My mind was unable to process everything that was happening and everything I had just done. My eyes sought out Skip in the crowd, but he was noticeably absent — something I did not take to be a good sign. Drake all but roared in anger and continued his verbal barrage against us.

“What is going on here?” a voice barked from just outside the mob. I looked and saw Carl Franke and two other guys I recognized as seniors, forcing their way through the crowd.

“Just weeding out the fags, Carl. Gotta take care of the team you know. We don’t need any fucking homos.” Drake replied, with a smug and victorious smile on his face.

Carl looked at me for a second, seemingly in consideration. “If anyone has a problem with my friend Braeden here, you can deal with me.” He said, his voicing ringing out strong and clear. “And if I hear about any of you guys giving him a hard time, you’ll be hearing from me. And you know Carrington has stringent anti-discrimination policies, so if y’all want to keep your spots on the team you better treat him like he’s the fucking second coming. Timmy and Jimmy are not going to be pleased to hear about this. You are a blight upon this institution,” he said sharply to Drake, who looked like he had just been horse whipped. “Come on,” he said, taking me by the shoulder and leading me and Tate out of the row of lockers. The other guys parted to make room for us, their stares burning into me.

Now that the shock of the moment was wearing off, I suddenly felt as though I might vomit, or cry, or both. I had the miserable feeling that I had just made a huge mistake, one that I was going to regret for the rest of my Carrington career. I was surprised to find that when I looked over at Tate next to me, I felt almost resentment towards him for the situation that he had put me in. A part of me knew that that was completely untrue and that I had entered that conflict of my own volition, and yet I also wanted somebody to blame, somebody to channel my anger towards.

Carl led us towards the showers and stopped just opposite the door to the sauna. “Are you guys okay?” he asked. We both nodded our heads. “Ugh, that makes me so mad!” he growled, his body was tense with anger. “So you’re really gay?” he asked me. I nodded again. “I guess that makes sense. I was having an impossible time trying to figure out what your relationship with Lottie was,” he said.

“Just friends… obviously,” I said, surprised at how small my voice sounded.

“Yeah. I’m really sorry about everything guys. Shit like that makes me so angry. My little brother is gay you know. I’ve been the gay-crusader for you years now.” I flinched. “Sorry,” he said with a smile. “Anyways, I think the guys will leave you alone, for now anyways. I’m going to go talk with Timmy. He should probably at least have an idea of what’s going on.”

I groaned. “Do you really think that’s necessary?” I asked.

“Yeah, I do. I think he’ll want to know that his two best recruits are being harassed” he said. “And listen, I want you guys to come to me if you have any problems. You shouldn’t have to deal with anyone giving you a hard time. What’s your name?” he asked Tate.

“Tate,” he responded, his voice soft and a little raspy.

“Ahh, Mr. Vallette. I’ve heard a lot about you. You should have come up and introduced yourself in Beijing this summer,” he said.

“You were a difficult man to get anywhere near,” Tate said with a smile.

“Good point.” Carl returned the smile. “You guys okay?” He put a reassuring hand on both of our shoulders.

“Yeah,” Tate replied. I nodded.

“Okay. Well anytime you have a problem you let me or one of these guys know. This is Donovan and this is Justin,” he said indicating to the guys next to him. “They’re two of my roommates.”

We shook hands all around and then Carl went to talk with Timmy and Jimmy. Kenner walked up and gave me a hug as soon as Carl left. He’d been hovering a few feet away from us.

“Are you all right?” he asked squeezing me tightly.

“Yeah,” I said, resting my chin on his shoulder for a second, enjoying the feeling of having someone’s arms around me and wanting to break down.

“That was incredibly brave of you,” he said softly into my ear. After about a half a minute he pulled away to address Tate. “Hey,” he said extending his hand. “We’ve met, but I don’t feel like we’ve really gotten to know each other at all. I’m Kenner.”

Tate shook his hand firmly, and it was only then that I realized how big Tate actually was. Kenner was dwarfed next to him. Tate’s build was similar to Carl’s, but slightly less developed. I was a little struck by the irony of the fact that I had rushed to the defense of someone bigger and stronger than I was. “I’m Tate, it’s nice to meet you,” he said to Kenner.

Skip’s face suddenly popped into my mind and I remembered the way he had suddenly disappeared during the incident. There was a sinking feeling in my stomach and I felt sick again. I walked away from Kenner and Tate, into the showers. I turned one on hot then slunk to the floor, sitting so that its spray beat down upon my back. Tate came over and sat down next to me.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Not really,” I said. “Look, no offense, but I don’t really want to talk to you right now.”

“Oh,” Tate’s voice sounded devastated. “Well, I just wanted to say thank you for what you did back there. And I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” I replied, my voice choking in the back of my throat so that it came out as an awkward, mournful croak. Tate got up and walked across to the sauna as Kenner crouched down in front of me.

“You’re worried about Skip aren’t you?” he asked, reaching out and putting a hand on my knee.

“Yeah,” I moaned, putting my head down on my knees. “I think he’s going to see this as the ultimate betrayal.”

“Maybe at first. But you have to realize he’s a product of a lot of his upbringing. And I think if anyone can help to open his horizons, it’s you. I think he’ll come around.”

“Yeah, I wish I could feel that confident. He’s sort of made his feelings on this subject pretty clear in the past.”

“Well, hopefully you’ll be able to help him change his opinions.”

“Yeah. Not to mention the social leprosy I’m going to have to deal with here,” I groaned.

“That’s not true. You already have true friends here Brae that aren’t going to turn their backs on you. You’ll always have me. And Cam. He doesn’t give a fuck.”

“Thanks Kenner. You know that everyone’s going to act weirdly around me now though.”

“Maybe for a little while, but they’ll get over it. In the meantime, do your thing, let your swimming speak for itself. Carrington is lucky to have you and they are all going to realize that sooner or later.”

“In the meantime my life is going to be a bloody misery. I guess I need to talk with my parents sooner rather than later now that it’s out.”

“You certainly came out in style,” Kenner said with a smirk.

“That’s such a comfort,” I rolled my eyes.

“Hey, it helps to find the humor in these types of situations,” Kenner said. “It reminds you that it isn’t actually the end of the world.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“So how much longer do you wanna stay down here on the floor for?”

“Sorry,” I replied.

“No, it’s okay, I can crouch here all day.”

“No, no, you’re right.” Kenner extended a hand and helped hoist me up off the ground. “Plus I wanna get out of here before Timmy or Jimmy comes to have a chat with me.”

“You know that that’s probably inevitable, right?” Kenner said.

“Yeah, I know. I’m just not ready for it right now.”

“Fair enough.”

We walked back to the now deserted row of lockers and I changed. Kenner walked me back to the dorm and up to my room.

“Do you want me to come in with you?” he asked.

“No, it’s okay. I should probably do this alone.”

“All right, well you can always call me, if you need anything,” he said, giving me another warm hug.

 

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