I woke at 6:30 just like I always did. It took me a second as I stretched and yawned to remember that I wasn't in my bedroom at home. Instead, I was on Rachel and Lisa's couch, in some sleeping clothes lent to me by the latter. they were a little tight, but mine had ended up having more than a little blood on them (some his, some mine). I was reluctant to skip my morning run, but after last night I figured I could skip a day.
Instead, I busied myself trying to repay their generosity just a bit.
"Mmmh, now that smells delicious." I jumped and spun around, brandishing my spatula as a weapon upon hearing the unfamiliar voice. A smirk marked the face of a half dressed pretty boy, as far as I could tell clad only in a long flowing shirt and curly hair.
"Uh..." I didnt really know what to do here. "Who are you?"
His smirk grew just a bit. "I should be the one asking that. Why is tall dark and lanky making breakfast in my apartment?"
"wait, you live here too? I thought it was only Rachel and Lisa."
Now his smirk grew into a giant grin. "Oh hoho, Rachel AND Lisa? I never would have guessed."
Blush crept up my neck all the way to my ears, and I started stammering incoherently. Pretty boy just started laughing uncontrollably. Every time I tried to think up a defense-I wasn't even gay! Probably! Maybe?-my traitorous mind would flash back to strong jaws and green eyes, and I would start stammering and blushing all over again. Which only made pretty boy laugh even harder.
"Are you teasing our stray Alec?" came a voice tinged with amusement from the doorway. Lisa was there, leaned against a wall with her arms crossed. She was still in her sleep shorts and tank, and when she caught me looking she broke out in a smirk.
"Oh no," I said absentmindedly. That flush definitely wasn't going away any time soon.
"So, what's this?" Lisa asked as she walked over and jumped up to perch on the countertop right next to me.
"I uh, hope it's okay I raided your fridge. I wanted to do something to thank you and Rachel for last night." After a beat, I quirked an eyebrow at her. "And if he was teasing. what exactly was it that you were doing?"
She had a glint in her eye as she leaned forward. "Maybe I was staking a claim." This place was going to be the death of me. As I tried to formulate a reply, she snatched a piece of bacon and turned to address someone behind me. "Look Rachel! She cooked breakfast for us after all that strenuous activity last night." Lisa turned and actually winked at me before taking a bite out of the bacon.
I was pretty much on overload from all the...teasing? It couldn't be flirting, why would anybody want to flirt with me? The entire room felt ten degrees hotter and I don't think I had ever looked closer to a tomato than I did just then. Rachel was also still in her sleep clothes, which didn't help. Even just out of bed you could tell how powerfully built she was. What did she do to keep up muscles like those? Did everybody in the apartment walk around almost naked? It almost would have been easy to compare what was happening to what the trio did, but it wasn't. It was different, and even if it was meaningless, I liked it.
Luckily Rachel mostly ignored us. She didn't even ask Lisa to move when she went to grab a plate from the cabinet behind her, instead electing to stand pressed up to the counter between her legs. She piled her plate full of food and moved to the table that had up until this point been ignored.
"Thanks," she grunted, "S'good." I smiled at her, and she immediately tensed. Like she was ready for a fight. I was confused for a second, until I thought about those viciously sharp smiles the trio would throw my way. The dread that welled up in anticipation. It made me wince, imagining that she must have had some sort of similar experience. I carefully smoothed my smile down to a more neutral look and gave Rachel a nod. Slowly the tension melted out of her and she returned my nod.
Lisa drew my attention back to her when she started speaking again. "I guess we should have warned you about Alec, especially with his flair for dramatics." That last bit had been directed at the man in question, and he let out a faux-haughty sniff in response. "He's our third roommate. We used to have a fourth, Brian; I mentioned him last night I think. He moved out a few weeks ago though." She continued happily munching her way through the spare bacon as everyone got their plates and settled down to eat.
"Wow, so you all just live out here on your own? What about school?"
Lisa shrugged. "Rachel never went, Alec dropped out, and I have my GED. We don't have a ton, but we get by."
It was like a whole new door had opened, and I could see all these new possibilities. "Yeah," I said, "That doesn't sound so bad."
I left with a promise to come see them again. "Just stop by any time," Lisa had said, after I told her I didn't have a cell. I made up for missing my morning run by jogging back home, just a little bit more jumpy than I was before last night.
Dad was sitting at the dining room table catching up on paperwork when I came in. He looked up when he heard the door shut. I was glad that my sweatshirt had been washed overnight, the sight of blood would have immediately set him off."Taylor, how was staying over at your...friend's?"
After mom's death dad had entered a sort of haze, and never really escaped from it. My hospital trip had kicked him into a little bit more action lately, but even then it was like he was one degree removed from everything. He was obviously wracking his brain trying to remember if I had talked about making any new friends lately. Which I hadn't.
I had to fight the blush back just thinking of this morning."Good. I had to sleep on the couch, but it was nice to hang out." I wasn't going to mention that he didn't know anything about these people; I especially wasn't going to mention I had just met them myself last night. Better to leave him guessing about what he was supposed to know. "Anyways, I'm going to go shower and change. Love you!"
Freshly clean and away from my paradoxically overbearing and detached dad, I made sure to put fresh gauze over the cut on my forearm. I would worry about hiding it, but I had taken to wearing baggy sweatshirts ever since the trio had started harassing me anyways.
That taken care of, I pulled my notebook out and started to aimlessly doodle. It was what I normally did if I wanted to kill time or warm up for some more serious sketching. After about fifteen minutes I looked down at the page and huffed out a laugh at myself. It was covered in strong features and sharp eyes, bits and pieces of two girls I just couldn't get my mind off of. I mean, they DID save my life, or close enough. I started up again, this time purposely sketching out a pair of portraits as best I could from memory.
With Monday loomed the school week. I geared up as best I could to force myself to go. Skipping out had felt so good last week, but I knew if I didn't make myself go now it'd be twice as hard the next day. I spent the bus ride there sketching out more portraits. There was something about Rachel's demeanor that I wasn't quite managing to catch, but I was determined to get it down. I hadn't brought THE sketchbook, of course. There was no way I was letting the trio get their hands on that. Not after what they did to mom's flute.
I didn't have any of the homework due today, or the art project that was due last week; it had all been destroyed during Friday's incident. I was honestly finding it harder and harder to care. I always timed my arrival right before the bells went off, and luckily my first class was trio free, so I could relax for at least the beginning of the day. I spent the majority of Mrs. Knott's computer class browsing the web aimlessly, and by the end I had somehow ended up on a page about the pros and cons of getting your GED.
After that was Mr. Gladly's class with Madison. This is where things always started to go downhill, and I had a gut feeling about today. It started with glue on my seat (again), then snide comments made just low enough that the teacher didn't hear, and finally arranged it so that it looked like I had tripped her coming back to her seat. Like a cruel parody of Friday. Mr.Gladly held me back for a minute to scold me about "Keeping my limbs and belongings out of the aisle." By the time he let me go, the trio had gathered a group of girls to corner me in the hall.
They made snide remarks, not even directed at me but as if I wasn't even there, despite staring me down the whole time. Every time I tried to leave they would close ranks and crowd me back towards the wall, so I just put my back against it and endured as best I could. I felt the anger bubbling up, just beneath the despair and anxiety. It would be so easy to grab it, use it to throw a punch. But I knew if I did that, I'd be the one getting expelled. The trio would twist everything so it looked like they were the victims, and all these girls would just back them up.
Through the crowd I saw Mr.Gladly exit his room, and a little hope blossomed in my chest. It died just as quickly when the most attention he gave the crowd was a glance before he walked off. It almost felt like I was drowning for a moment, but then the anger was back. Like a fucked up life raft. I managed to shove my way through the girls, not caring at this point if they whined to the administration that I pushed them.
Fuck this, fuck them, and fuck the school. There was no way I was going to stick around, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
I was on my way to visit when I spotted a figure turn onto a side road just ahead of me. "Hey Rachel! Loft is the other way, where're you headed?" I jogged a little to catch up to her.
"Dogs." was all she said. I perked up, remembering the german shepard that was in equal parts sweet and scary.
"There are more? do you mind if I tag along?"
She looked at me warily, but eventually answered, "Sure."
We walked through the docks in silence. Rachel wasn't a big talker, I had noticed, and I didn't really feel up to small talk right then. We made a couple more turns, and I tried to keep where we were centered in my mental map of the area. We stopped at a building that looked only half finished, with a rusted crane still sitting on the property. There were plenty of properties like this in the docks, places that were in the middle of development when the shipping industry crashed.
I could already hear the barking from the street, and I was starting to think maybe there were more dogs here than I had anticipated. She removed a chain from the door and beckoned me in. There must have been two dozen of them in total, dogs of every breed you could imagine. They mobbed us, some of them trying to get to Rachel, some of them curious about the new human.
Rachel let out a shrill whistle and followed it up with a few commands for them to back off and settle down. Her tone brooked no argument, and even the ones that obviously didnt have as much training were held in line by the ones that did.
Gruffly, she began to introduce me to her dogs. First were the obviously most well trained. "Brutus, Judas, Angelica." Judas I recognized as being the one who Rachel sicced on the mugger, so I made sure to pay him extra attention before I moved on. The rest of the names were a bit of the blur, but by the time I was done my hand was covered in slobber and I'm sure I was already smelling like dog.
After that she directed me to dump a bag of food into a trough, while she made sure they had water. The fact that there was no snapping or growling as they vied for food showed just how well Rachel had been teaching them. When we both finished up I turned and asked her "What's next?" being very careful not to smile with anything but my eyes.
She stared me down for a moment, her face as stony as ever. Without taking her eyes off me Rachel motioned to the wall near an opening into the yard. "You can shovel shit."
My spine stiffened, and I felt just a flash of anger as I looked over to the shovels she was indicating. I took a moment to push away my emotions. I was sure the was some sort of test, somehow. "Sure," I said, keeping my voice level. "As long as you're shoveling too."
We locked eyes and stayed like that for a minute, until her gaze turned assessing and swept up and down me a couple times. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I kept my composure and waited for her next move. "Sure," she replied, and with that moved to go grab a shovel. I still wasn't positive what that was about, but I felt like I passed somehow.
When we had finished up caring for the dogs (and then playing with them until everyone involved was tired out) Rachel went into the back room and returned with snacks for the two of us. We ended up perched on one of the various stacks of pallets scattered around the edges of the room. When I finished eating first, I decided that this would make an excellent scene for a doodle.
Pulling my backpack over I dug out a notebook and pen, and set to work capturing the enthusiastic animals. We had started with a foot of space between us, but as I doodled Rachel slowly inched closer. She was intensely curious, and eventually ended pressed up against my side with her head perched on my shoulder.
Luckily she was on my nondominant side, otherwise that might have made things difficult. As it was it took all my willpower to concentrate on drawing, and even then I was sure she could feel the heat radiating off my face. We stayed like that for a long time as I continued trying to get down as many details on individual dogs as I could and she watched raptly.
Eventually though, the change in lighting outside made it clear that it was getting late. I cleared my throat and started to put everything away. Rachel jumped back a little as though breaking out of a trance, and I immediately missed the heat and pressure of her against my side. It felt like it had been forever since I was last that close to somebody. When was the last time my dad even hugged me?
"I have to head out," I said softly. "I enjoyed this though. Could we do it again sometime?" She seemed torn between keeping up her usual stoic facade and that seemingly rare softness. Eventually she just nodded her head and hopped down from our perch.
Before we left Rachel called over Brutus and hooked him up with one of the collar and leash combos she kept near the door. When we both left to go our seperate ways, I kept my eye on the two of them for as long as I could. My brain was swirling with all sorts of feelings I couldn't decipher as she turned the corner and disappeared into the late afternoon.