I'm not sure who's more surprised at this point, Sam or me.
He stares a...
I'm not sure who's more surprised at this point, Sam or me.
He stares at me for a while longer before starting class. "Okay, everyone get in the water."
I keep waiting for him to approach me or pull me aside, but he doesn't. He assigns us some simple drills and strokes. I catch him glaring at me occasionally, but it looks like it's as far as he plans to go.
While everyone is getting into the water, he finally approaches me. "What is this some sort of joke?" he hisses once the other kids are out of range. "After what you did to Arden, you should stay as far away from him and his friends as you can."
I refuse to back down. "I need this class to stay in shape for soccer, so you can just deal." I match his venomous gaze and climb into the swimming pool.
Sam starts practice off easy; for everyone except me, of course. "You know, Mark." His voice is seeping with sarcasm. "You don't look too tired. Why don't you do forty more laps of freestyle?"
I make as if to argue, but in truth, I don't mind. If he keeps pushing me this hard, I'll be in fantastic shape once the cast comes off. I just have to make sure he doesn't figure this out. "Wait, why doesn't anyone else have to do this?" I make my voice just whiny enough to piss him off.
"Because," he's clearly enjoying this way more than he should be, "I didn't tell them to. In case you didn't get Barken's letter, I'll tell you in person; I can kick you out of the class if I feel that there's a good enough reason. Not doing your laps is a pretty good reason, I think."
I sigh and push off the side. The cast on my leg, combined with the one on my arm - not to mention my lack of swimming ability - ensures that I finish long after everyone else leaves. By the time I climb out of the water, Sam's already changed into his bathing suit.
"Same time tomorrow," he snickers.
"Yeah." I struggle to catch my breath. Running never gets me this winded. "Count on it."
I make it over to the bench and grab my crutches. If practice is going to be this tough every day, I'm not going to have much energy for anything else; but I need it to stay in shape, and even if I didn't... I'll be damned if I let Sam win.
The locker room is empty when I come in. I plop down on the bench and start wrestling with my swimsuit. I'm so busy trying to pull it past the cast that I don't notice Arden until he comes in. One look at me freezes him again; he heads over to the row of lockers farthest from mine and disappears from sight.
My fur is still slightly damp, but now really isn't the time to dry it. I get dressed as quickly as I can and leave. Every time Arden and I run into each other, I feel worse and worse; I did this to him. I knew he would be sad, but hoped that he'd understand just how much better he can do than me. Maybe there is still something between us.
My dad's car is parked right in front of the pool complex door, so it's not much of a walk. I'm perfectly capable of walking with crutches, but Dad always insists on making me walk as little as possible.
I open the passenger door and almost cry out in surprise. Warren is sitting in the passenger seat; both he and Dad are grinning broadly. It doesn't take much to figure out that everything worked out. For a second, I forget about my own misfortune and focus on just being happy for my dad... dads.
"He said yes!" James can hardly keep from bouncing in his seat.
"Congratulations!" I smile and embrace Warren.
"We were actually going to go celebrate," Dad unlocks the rear doors, "as a family."
Had he called me and told me this over the phone, I might have said no. I might have even said no if he told me earlier. The encounter with Arden drained me completely; but seeing my dad and Warren, their love as young as the day they met, I can't help but agree.
"Where are we going?" I climb into the back seat and shut the door.
"Pelliccia di Fantasia." Warren's Italian is flawless.
"Sounds good!" I fasten my seatbelt, and we're off.
As we drive down the street, I notice Warren's paw resting on the center console. I watch the engagement ring glittering in the light of passing street-lamps. My father's paw comes to rest on top of his. He looks over at the fox and smiles, and Warren smiles back.
A writer, I don't remember who, once said: 'Love is last person you date before realizing that all those romance novels lied to you.' Whoever wrote this could not have been further from the truth. Even after twenty-five years, my father and Warren have retained their love for one another. I just hope it doesn't take me twenty-five years to rekindle my own love.
The restaurant is packed when we arrive - it's all those people who like to be fashionably late to everything, including dinner. I feel severely underdressed for the occasion. James, as if reading my mind, pulls a tux out of the trunk. "Let's go get you changed."
I feel like a total pup after that statement; but, realizing that I can barely tie a tie with two paws, I accept his offer.
Warren goes off with the muskrat waiter to find our table while Dad and I head to the bathroom.
"Mark, I haven't said anything to Warren about you and Arden," he says right after the door closes behind us. "Although, it won't take him long to figure it out."
I remain silent as he helps me put on the stiff tuxedo pants.
He waits until I start fumbling with the shirt buttons before continuing. "I think you should talk to him."
"Why?" My attention remains squarely on the buttons. "So he can tell me what a asshole I've been?"
"Why would he say that?"
He looks genuinely confused, so I humor him. "Because I've done the same thing you did, Dad."
He sighs and looks away. "Son, I just don't want you to make the same mistake I made."
I straighten my shirt and grab the jacket. He helps me get my left arm into the sleeve. "I don't want you to turn into me, Mark."
"I know that's what you were thinking, Son." He helps me tie the bow-tie, avoiding my gaze the whole way through. "The way you feel for Arden is exactly how I felt about Warren. I didn't feel like I deserved him." He looks at me to confirm; my features don't hide much. "Mark, sometimes it doesn't matter whether you think you deserve him or not. Sometimes it's just about forgetting the little things and letting love take its course."
"Dad, I want nothing more than to be with him right now." And there I go, thinking I wouldn't cry today. "I just don't think I can ever face him without us both reliving that one moment..."
Hell, I don't even have to face him. I'm reliving it right now. I quit while I'm ahead and go to the sinks to wash up.
"I won't force you to do anything you don't want to do, Mark." He lays his paw gently on my shoulder. "But, it will only get harder to face him with each passing day."
I can't imagine it getting harder than it is now; but somehow, I know he's right.
"Thanks Dad, I'll think about it."
He nods. "I'll wait for you outside."
I spend a few more minutes with my muzzle under the sink, just letting the cool water run over me. Something about it reminds me of that summer night at the pool. That night, I made the mistake of thinking he didn't like me; I ran away. He was the one who patched things up. Maybe now it's my turn. I wish I could just jump right into the stream of water and end up on the other side, months before I made the biggest mistake of my life; I'd know just what to do, just what to say to make sure none of my loved ones ever have to suffer. Sadly, jumping into the stream would only land me in the sewers.
I turn off the water, dry my muzzle and join my father outside.
He is waiting patiently when I come out. "All set?"
"I think so."
We follow the waiter to our table and sit down.
"Aww, you boys look so spiffy!" Warren pulls out his camera and snaps a picture.
He looks harmless and happy now; but so did my mother before I came out to her.
This is almost worse than coming out of the closet, though, because I know exactly what he will say.
Our waiter comes by, and we order drinks. They arrive surprisingly fast.
Warren picks up his glass. "A toast," he says, raising his glass high. "To my future husband and son!"
We're about to raise our glasses when a voice interrupts our merriment. "Great, who let the fags in?"
"Excuse me?!" James spins around in his chair to face the speaker.
The rat in question recoils slightly before continuing. "You heard me! Your kind shouldn't even be allowed to get married."
"Well, fortunately, it's not up to you." Dad's on his feet now, I've never seen him like this. "That's right!" He scans the crowd of onlookers. "I'm a forty-two year-old queer!" He smiles. "And I'm in love; so who gives a damn what the rest of you think?!" He stares the rat down. Looking rather flustered, the asshole turns back to his food without a word.
"James." Warren has that look in his eyes; I've only seen it once before, when Arden came out in front of an entire crowd of students to read his essay. "I'm so proud of you."
"I'm not afraid anymore, Warren." My father leans over and kisses the fox on the muzzle. "I know who I am, and I'm proud of it."
Several people around us applaud. The rat scowls into his plate, but doesn't say another word all through dinner.
We walk outside into the brisk cold. My parents are holding hands and chatting as I walk behind them, just watching. So, this is what love is supposed to look like.
We stop by Warren's apartment to get the rest of his stuff. Despite my broken leg, I offer to help.
"Warren, can I talk to you?" I've told James to stay in the car and keep the engine running; he understood.
Warren just nods. "Sure."
We walk down the narrow hallway, and he unlocks the door to his apartment. "What's up?"
I tell him the whole story. He looks terrified when I get to the part where I finally let Arden slip through my paws, almost as if it's being done to him.
I finish my story and look up at him. He doesn't respond for quite some time. I begin to regret saying anything.
"Mark, do you still love him?" His response isn't as entrapping as I was expecting; not by much, though.
"Of course." I don't even have to think about it; I'm just scared of where he will take things next.
"Well, if you love him enough, you shouldn't even care what he thinks." He starts stacking books and clothes into an open suitcase on the floor. "Your father certainly didn't. This is one of the reasons I took him back, you know." He throws the last of the clothes in and stops to glance at the engagement ring. "He knew the odds were against him; he knew he didn't stand a chance, but that didn't stop him from trying. Besides, what do you have to lose?"
That last part, he's definitely right about. I've pretty much hit rock bottom at this point; the only way to go is up. "I guess so, I just don't think he'll ever love me after what I did."
"Love is a strange animal, Mark." He zips up the suitcase and wheels it over to the door. "Every time you think you understand it, it surprises you with a twist you never see coming. Heaven knows, I had no idea that I would be engaged to the wolf who broke my heart twenty-five years ago. Sometimes, you just have to take that leap; it's sacrifices like this that show the depth of your love."
"I'll try." I will try.
"Just remember that James and I will always be here for you." He stands a foot shorter than me, but like Arden, his embrace is impossibly large.
"Thanks, Dad." I squeeze him even tighter. Perhaps going back in time isn't the answer. If I'd gone back and tried to remove all the hurt in my life, I would be doing so at the cost of the happiness of others.
James is leafing through a magazine when we return. He looks up at us cautiously, but seeing our smiles, he joins in. "All set?"
"Yeah," Warren and I say at the same time.
We drive home in much higher spirits than before; it will take me a lot to get Arden back, but I won't stop until I do. All I need to do now is figure out where to begin.
Every day for the next two months, I try to approach Arden... and every day, I'm foiled. Sam watches over him like a hawk, intent on protecting his best friend from any more emotional torment. Chris is doing the same thing on my end. I ignore him most of the time; he means well, but I'm far too set on my plan to back down.
So, I keep attending classes, swimming after school and trying to catch Arden's gaze.
Winter break comes and goes. Snow falls, as it usually does in this neck of the woods, in great amounts... before melting into a slushy mass just days later. My birthday creeps up on me without me even realizing it. Normally, being eighteen would be a big deal, but without Arden, it's all meaningless somehow. I get my reminder in the way of a package that I find on the porch, just as I'm coming back from school. I open it up, thinking it's some sort of gift from a relative, but find that it's from Arden. My heart flutters for a few moments before I realize that it's dated: Sept 20th. Clearly, he ordered my present in advance, and put my birthday down as the delivery date.
I tear the gift-wrap to reveal a ZuneHD; I remember talking about how much I wanted one. In fact, it was somewhere around the end of September that the conversation happened. My otter thinks of everything.
I'm about to open the box it when James walks in. "Time to go pick up your birthday present, Son."
I lay the Zune down and follow him outside. He, Warren and I drive down to the dealership, where a brand new SUV is waiting for me.
"Happy birthday, Son!" My parents embrace me and leave me lost for words.
I expect some sort of joke about trying to not crash this one, but neither of them says anything.
I drive home alone, passing Arden's house on the way. His car is in the driveway, and his dad is helping him unload the suitcases from it. They don't notice me, and I continue onward before they do. He's back from Finland now. No more excuses to postpone my confrontation.
I call James to tell him I'll be taking a detour and head to school. I would have loved to run into Arden after my swimming class, but I missed my chance for that. My cast has been off for about a week now, so I'm back to playing soccer (indoors, of course.) Thanks to Sam's relentless pushing, I'm in better shape now than I was before my injury; and now, I have the rest of winter to get into top shape before Spring Leagues begin. I sit in my car, gauging the time 'til when I think swim practice should be ending. I let a few of the swimmers trickle out of the building before killing the engine and heading for the pool.
I don't run into Arden on the way there, so it's pretty safe to assume that he's still around.
I peer into the locker room cautiously, almost expecting to bump into him right in the doorway. At first glance, the place appears empty; a closer examination reveals a rustling noise coming from one of the rows of lockers.
I head in that direction, trying to not to breathe - the smell of chlorine is stronger than usual.
I decide to begin my speech before reaching the lockers "Arden, can I-" and regret my decision moments later.
Instead of Arden, I run into Sam again.
He zips up his jacket and approaches me.
I want to back down and go home, but something keeps me where I am.
"How dare you?!" He's less than a foot away from me; his icy glare flawlessly communicates all the hatred he holds towards me. I am about to wither before it, but I remind myself of my goal and stand strong. I'm not sure if he's searching for words or if he just hopes to scare me off. After staring me down for a few moments, he speaks again. "First you break his heart, and now you're back for more? You blood-sucking cretin!"
"Sam, I-" I'm practically waiting for him to cut me off. The only rebuttal I could possibly make is to deny his accusations; but he's right.
"I won't let you hurt him anymore!" He cuts me off right on cue; I almost breathe a sigh of relief for not having to explain myself.
With an angry huff, he throws his backpack to the floor and glares at me, probably wishing his glare was strong enough to kill. I never thought an otter could look this imposing.
"I'm not going to hurt him, Sam." I want to be angry too, to mach his energy, but he has every right to say these things. Arden means as much to him as he does to me; they were there for each other when nobody else was. I almost feel like I'm intruding on that bond somehow.
"Oh yes; you did what you did because you loved him." His voice is dense with sarcasm. What he doesn't understand is that I did do it because I love him. I wanted to protect him from myself as much as Sam is trying to right now.
"Sam, I'm going to talk to him whether you like it or not."
He clenches his fists, but I hold my ground. I didn't come this far to back down now. All the doubts from before assail me, trying to disloge my paws from the ground, but I brush them off, remembering why I came here. "I don't want to lose him."
My statement winds him. It's as if I'd punched him already. His eyes fill with tears and hurt, like he's been lied to by someone he trusted. "You already have!"