by Jane Lebak, 9/99
Jason wouldn't have gone into Baskin Robbins that Saturday at all, except that Rob and Chris insisted. They were in the middle of picking flavors when Chris said, "Hey, man. Isn't that your brother's girlfriend?"
Jason looked around the store to see three girls from their high school. Two he didn't recognize because they were the year below him, but the third he did even so. Mark's girlfriend Laura sat crying, shoulders hunched.
Rob said, "Maybe you should find out what's wrong."
"She's not my problem." Jason frowned. "Wonder what's eating her."
Chris said, "I think you better ask."
Jason trudged to the girls' table. "Laura?"
One of the girls said, "Leave her alone, okay?"
Jason shrugged. "I'm Mark's brother, and I figured if something was wrong, I could tell him to call. Sorry for trying to be helpful."
"You want to be helpful? You tell your deadbeat brother to go jump in the river." The third girl glared. "He hasn't called her in like forever, and he hasn't even got the decency to break up with her."
Now Jason paused. "He never said anything was wrong."
"Why the hell would he?" the second girl retorted. "He's got a girlfriend when he wants one and total freedom if he doesn't."
Laura spoke for the first time. "I thought for sure with school starting again next week, he'd call for one more date. But nothing."
Jason said, "So call him. You've got a finger and a mouth and a phone."
Laura sniffled, "That's not the point."
"If she has to ask, then it doesn't mean anything if he does it."
Jason folded his arms. "Then I shouldn't tell him this either?"
Laura put her face in her hands. "No. Don't. Please."
The second girl said, "Don't you know anything?"
The third girl added, "But you can tell him he's a worthless rat."
Jason said, "I tell him that all the time." Returning to Rob and Chris, he muttered, "My idiot brother."
Chris gave Jason a shove. "Who'd have guessed? Man, if I had a babe like that, I'd make sure she never cried."
"That's because you have a clue." Jason got a cone, then went outside with the other two. Just at the door, though, he turned back and walked brusquely to Laura's table. "Listen," he said. "You show up at the ISO circle tonight at five. I'll make sure you have your night out before school starts."
Laura looked at him, cheeks blotchy red. "But--"
"None of that 'it doesn't count' garbage. You said you wanted a date. You'll have what you wanted."
"Just don't tell him," Laura said.
Jason blinked. "Don't tell him she was crying," the second girl snapped. "Are you an idiot?"
"Fine." Jason walked out of the store.
From the first time Jason had met Laura, he'd thought her a bit of a flake. She obsessed over her clothes and her makeup and her hair, and she listened to all the hot bubble-gum pop bands. She cried just talking about the end of a sad movie. Mark had brought her home for dinner and left Jason singularly unimpressed by his judgment in girls. Laura's style screamed artificial glamour. She was the kind of girl his friends glanced at and whispered, "She's hot," but that heat never penetrated her core. At least Alyssa had class, a sense of the rebellious underlying her obsession with appearance and pop culture. Alyssa primped endlessly, but Alyssa made it look good. And although Alyssa dated other guys, when she and Jason went out, it felt like Jason had her entire attention. Laura seemed perpetually distracted.
Returning to ISO before two o'clock, Jason found Mark in the gym. "Hey," he called to the figure working out at the weights. "Casanova! It's the last weekend before school starts. Want to double-date?"
Mark sat up. "No, but thanks."
"It'll be fun. Me and Alyssa, you and Laura." Alyssa was, in fact, seeing Rob tonight. But that didn't matter. Once he convinced Mark to call Laura, he could call Alyssa, seem surprised, and cancel for their half of the date. Laura would have her wish, his obligation would be completed, and he wouldn't have told Mark any of the details.
Jason's stomach tightened. "But it's the last Saturday we're free."
"There are plenty of Saturdays left in the universe." Mark shrugged. "It's not a big deal, and there's other stuff going on. When Laura wants to go someplace, she'll call."
There was nothing to say until Jason finished unpacking that statement. Finally he said, "Are you saying things aren't going okay with her?"
Mark didn't look very happy. "I'm not saying anything. She's not saying anything either."
"How long are you going to sit in limbo like that? It's not like you're asking her out for the first time." Jason shifted his stance. "It's easier to go places in groups anyhow, and Alyssa picked a movie she thinks Laura would really like."
"What if Alyssa calls her and suggests it?"
Jason said, "How about tomorrow?"
He ventured, "Monday?"
"Same thing. I need my instrument rating quickly so I can get to work on that jet." Mark paused. "Why are you so intent on this?"
"Oh, no reason." And then Jason backed out of the gym.
Well, that went over like a lead balloon. Back in his room, Jason ran over his options. He hadn't many. Finally he pulled out his Beatles tape and brought it to the gym. With a flourish, he popped it into the radio, and as loud as he could, he played "You're Gonna Lose That Girl."
Mark sat up from doing bench presses. "Turn it down, will you?"
"You'd better listen," Jason said.
"I'm not going to lose her over this," Mark said momentarily. "What are you going to do, take her out yourself? You don't know what's going on in her head. She'd say no if I did call for tonight." As Jason frowned, Mark approached. "What's with you?"
"Nothing. Forget it."
"Don't try to make a big deal out of it," Mark said. "And take your lousy music with you."
Back in his room, Jason fumed. That's the last time I put my honor on the line when Mark's involved.
When Laura showed up at the ISO circle, she found Jason instead of Mark. Her face fell. "He wouldn't do it, would he?"
"No crying," Jason said. "Sit down. It's not your fault Mark couldn't deliver."
She sat alongside Jason on the park bench and put her elbows on her knees, then nudged one toe against a line on the cement sidewalk. "I don't know."
"Why don't you just break up with him?"
Laura sniffed. "Guys all act the same. It wouldn't make a difference who my boyfriend was."
Jason folded his arms. She'd gotten dressed up, done her hair more than usual, and reapplied her makeup before coming. She'd put on perfume, too. Too much of it. "Not all guys are like that." He steadied himself. "I know it's not what you wanted, but I did promise you a night out. So name a place and I'll take you. The whole deal--dinner, dessert, movie, whatever you want." She stared incredulously. Jason didn't blame her. He hardly believed himself. "I'll show you how a real guy treats a girl on a date and prove to you it would make a difference who the guy was. Then you'll really want to break up with Mark." She said nothing for a while. Jason fidgeted on the bench. "The beginning of the year is the best time to break up, you know."
Laura said daringly, "Anywhere?"
Jason nodded. "Name the place."
"Okay." Laura took a deep breath. "My uncle owns a seafood restaurant in New Haven. I want to go there."
Jason blinked. "New Haven?" She wouldn't meet his eyes. New Haven was a ninety minute drive up I-95 or slightly longer up the Merritt Parkway. Jason glanced at Sweetheart, which he'd parked on the circle fifteen minutes ago. Well, he didn't have anyplace else to go tonight, and Mark thought he'd be going out with Alyssa. "Fine."
Laura gulped. "You mean it?"
"Did Mark teach you all guys were liars too?"
She followed him in a hurry. "It's just-- It's far."
Jason smiled as though he meant it. "I told you anyplace you wanted."
It pleased Jason when she noticed he'd washed and vacuumed the car. He let her pick the music, and she didn't surprise him at all when she picked a tape Alyssa had left behind, the Back-Alley Guys or something like that. He drove up the scenic Merritt Turnpike, with all its beautiful and unique bridges, and tried desperately to think of things to talk about. He settled on the only one they had in common, Mark, and made it his goal to get her good and mad at him. If he couldn't get Mark to act straightforward with her, the least he could do was get her to see the light.
She didn't share too many details of the relationship, and Jason didn't care to know, but soon she did open up enough to vent about all the atrocities Mark had committed in four and a half months. She claimed Mark had asked her out only because he needed a date to the junior prom, and that was all. She raged that he must have thought everyone expected him to have a girlfriend, so he gotten one, the way he'd buy a yearbook because everyone in school was expected to have one.
Jason laughed in the middle of her rage. "The one thing you've got to understand about Mark is he doesn't know how to deal with a relationship of equality. He can look up at you or down at you, but never dead in the eye. If you have a girlfriend, it has to be equal. You're the only really equal relationship he has, and he doesn't know how to handle it."
Of course, Jason could hear Mark's side of the story even as Laura told hers. She was one of those "Oh, anything is fine" girls. Invariably, Mark must have asked her if she wanted to go somewhere, she reacted without enthusiasm, "If you want to," and then he felt he was imposing on her. She didn't seem to enjoy whatever he decided on, so they started to settle only for dinner at places they'd gone before. She'd never ask for anything, and she'd never say when something was missing. Jason had dated one of those types once, and his response had been to issue orders: We're going to that place at this time, and I'm going to enjoy myself, and if you don't then next time you pick the date. It hadn't been a long-term ordeal, thankfully. Without feedback, Mark was doing only what he thought she wanted, but the resentment slowly built on both sides. Jason could read the writing on the wall. Laura could too, though it upset her. Mark was, well, being Mark.
When they finally reached New Haven, Jason asked for directions to the restaurant, only Laura had no idea. They had to find a phone booth, call information, and then call for directions. They arrived at a restaurant right on the waterfront, parking lot jammed, and were told they'd have an hour wait. Jason took Laura across the street to the beach. They spent the time there rather than in the crowded bar, looking at the sunset, throwing pebbles into the Long Island Sound, and finally building a sand castle. They returned just in time for their table.
Jason hated seafood, and this place served little else. He ordered a steak. Trying to sound older, he also ordered them each a glass of Chardonnay. The waitress sneered, "What year, sir?" and Jason snapped, "1993," as if he knew what he was doing. Laura asked to see her uncle, and shortly the wine appeared. The uncle stayed and talked for a while. Soon the food arrived, almost a mountain of it. This wasn't special treatment: every table had the same gluttonous repast. Jason put a good dent in his. Laura asked to have the remaining half of her scallops and crab alfredo boxed to go home. Outside again, they lingered on the beach until Jason felt it had been long enough since the wine. Laura wanted to learn to skip rocks the way Jason could. In the dim light afforded by the half moon and the distant street lights, Jason stood right behind her, looking out over her shoulder, guiding her arm and her wrist, to show her the trick of the toss. They counted each skip out loud until the stones couldn't resist gravity any longer and plunged under.
On the return trip, Laura picked R.E.M. for the tape player, and Jason's ears felt less assaulted. In the seat beside him, she opened her compact and touched up her lipstick. Jason watched out of the corner of his eye, tingling. She pursed her lips, gave a practice smile, then clicked the mirror shut. Jason forced his eyes back to the road. They were talking freely now, on any subject that popped into their heads. By ten o'clock they returned to Manhattan, energized despite the hour.
As they stopped at a red light, Jason rolled down the window and called to the car beside them, "Hey! Do you know how to get to Stuart Raceway?"
"No," came the answer. "Sorry!"
Jason said, "Take the Queens-Midtown tunnel to the LIE, exit 26. You can't miss it! Glad I could help!"
Laura was giggling like crazy. Jason beamed.
Because it was so late, they abandoned their plan to stop for dessert. "It's a shame," Jason said. "Ray's Pizza makes the best zeppoli in town."
Laura said, "What are zeppoli?"
"Imagine if you deep-fried a golf ball." When she burst into giggles again, Jason added, "Then doused it in powdered sugar. But they're really good. You have to trust me."
He brought Sweetheart right to the entrance circle of Laura's apartment building. He held the door for her, annoying the doorman.
"I wanted to thank you," she said softly, drawing closer. "I really had a good time."
Jason said, "Now you'll break up with him?"
"I'll call tomorrow. You're right." The night had gotten chilly, and Laura stepped nearer. Inches away, she tilted her face up so she could see into his eyes, and she drew a breath like a sigh. The wind tickled a few strands of her auburn hair across her cheeks, and she settled them back with the tips of her fingers. Jason felt rooted to the sidewalk, paralyzed by the lingering of her perfume and the hypnosis of her chestnut brown eyes. He couldn't hear the Second Avenue traffic, and he couldn't feel the presence of the doorman just ten feet away. Laura put a hand to her throat, then started to move even closer.
"Well, then I'll be going." Jason couldn't believe how curt he sounded as he turned roughly toward his car. "Just find a decent guy and get on with your life."
"Okay. Bye." She watched from the sidewalk until he drove away. Sweetheart still smelled of seafood, but Jason found he didn't mind.
Laura called the next day. Mark wasn't home. Jason answered the phone. They talked for three hours.
She called again Monday, but Mark was at the airfield. This time they met at Ray's Pizza and split a plate of zeppoli and a soda.
On Tuesday, school started. Tuesday night, Princess studied Jason a long time before declaring, "Jason has new-girlfriend look!"
In the middle of drying the dishes, Jason froze. "What?"
"It's obvious." Princess grinned. "You're wandering dazed, daydreaming, and distracted. You're in love." Jason grumbled something annoying as he put away the dishes. Princess was laughing. "Who is she?"
"No one," Jason said in a way meant to end the train of thought.
Keyop said, "Someone said the two things a guy can't hide are that he's drunk and that he's in love."
"Will you lay off?" Jason tossed his dish towel onto the table. "I'll finish up later, when the peanut gallery goes home."
As he left, he heard Princess say, "Yeah, he's got it bad."
Throughout September, Princess couldn't figure out the identity of the mystery girl, and not for lack of trying. Everyone in school realized Jason was seeing someone new, but no one could determine whom. The more they ribbed Jason, the less information they got. Even Alyssa had no idea who the girl was.
The art teacher assigned the students to illustrate a mother goose nursery rhyme. Not having grown up with them, Jason didn't know which were common. Mark picked "Humpty Dumpty." Jason worked a very long time on his. While not particularly artistic, it bore the caption
I had a little nut tree. Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg and a golden pear.
The king of Spain's daughter came to visit me,
And all for the sake of my little nut tree.
I skipped over water, I danced over sea,
And all the birds of the air couldn't catch me.
Laura loved the drawing. Walking with Jason through Queens Plaza, she said, "I know why you picked that rhyme. Because my father's a Spanish ambassador to the UN."
As her fingers brushed by his, Jason felt the heady warmth of skipping over water and dancing over sea, but he couldn't have put it into words. Instead, he said, "So if the nut tree is mine, what are the silver nutmeg and the golden pear?"
"Me and Alyssa?"
"I thought you were the king of Spain's daughter."
She thought for a while. With a smile, Jason went back again to the feeling of skipping over water. Momentarily he realized her hand was in his, and she smiled warmly. She spoke almost dreamily as she wove her fingers around his. "The golden pear is the wonderful things you want to do, and the silver nutmeg is all the terrific things you end up doing." Jason gagged. She giggled. "How about this? The tree isn't sure if it wants to be a fruit tree or a nut tree. So it has both kinds."
Jason squeezed her hand and felt as though live embers in their palms sent a hazy warmth through the rest of them. "Sounds good to me."
Jason took Laura out once a week if he could manage it, generally on school nights so she could have the weekends free for Mark. He and she never went someplace they were likely to be recognized, and they never talked during school hours. The only time she left a note in his locker, luckily unsigned, Princess saw him pull it out and agitated until she got it away from him...but then couldn't identify the handwriting. Laura and Jason had an agreement that if Mark ever did want to take her someplace, she was to go with him regardless of any plans she and Jason might have made. It was almost fun planning for every contingency. If she phoned the apartment and Jason answered, she talked to him. If anyone else, she asked to talk to Mark, who seemed both thrilled and perplexed by the sudden increase in attention.
In truth, Jason worried at first that Laura couldn't pull it off, that some hint would slip. After every time he saw her, he asked her, "You'll break up with him now?" and she promised she would. But every week, she didn't.
At the beginning of October, sitting on a bench at Liberty Park after splitting a Snickers bar, Laura moved closer to Jason. She took Jason's hand, and he glanced at her with a smile. Her touch still sent tension through his whole body. They talked for a while, but then they got distracted by one another's eyes. Presently she and he drew close enough to kiss, and they did. It was the first time.
She nestled against his shoulder with a warm smile. "I like the way you kiss."
Jason bit his lip and stood, dislodging her. "Let's go."
She hurried after him. "Wait, Jason--"
"You're supposed to be with Mark. This isn't right." He fished his car keys out of his pocket as he walked. "Laura, break up with him."
"I will. This week."
"I can't do this any longer. I can't look my own brother in the eyes." Jason stopped and stared at the pavement. "No more excuses."
"I--" Laura didn't continue. Jason resumed walking, and she followed a few paces behind. He drove her home in stony silence, and when she tried to take his hand, he moved it. She left looking crestfallen. Jason drove not home, but to First Avenue and 14th Street.
It was nine o'clock on a Thursday night, so it surprised him when Professor Sanders didn't answer the door. Jason sat in the alcove to the apartment writing a note on the back of a receipt, but before he finished, Sanders stood in the hallway toting groceries.
"I need to talk to you," Jason said, crumpling the paper and looking exhausted.
The professor put his packages inside the apartment. "Wait here. I've got another bag to get."
Jason accompanied him to his car instead and carried the bag. Sanders studied Jason while unpacking. "Start talking."
Jason swallowed. "What would you say if I told you I was seeing Mark's girlfriend?"
"I'd say that was about the stupidest thing you could possibly do."
Jason sat on the floor in the corner of the kitchen. "I'd say you were probably right."
Sanders said, "Even if you were attracted to the girl, why would you try to win her over? Don't you think she'd tell Mark?"
Jason said, "She hasn't so far."
Sanders paused, box of ziti in hand, and turned from the cabinets. "You've actually been seeing this girl?" Jason wouldn't answer. "How long do you think you can keep Mark from finding out?"
Jason said, "She just won't break up with him. She-- I don't know why. She promises, and then she doesn't."
Sanders opened his hands as if motioning Jason to continue. "Maybe that should tell you something."
Jason shrugged. "She doesn't have the heart to let him down."
Sander said, "It's nice to have two logs on the fire."
Jason's mouth tightened.
Sanders shut one of the cabinets with a thump. "Mark's been one of your best friends and strongest advocates. So why are you doing it? Because you can? Because you've finally got a way to be one-up on him?"
Jason hunched tighter. "I never thought of it that way. He wasn't treating her right. I found her crying because of him, and he didn't care. I take her places and pay attention to anything she wants, and we just clicked with one another. He didn't really want her anyhow. Is that wrong?"
"I hope you know how selfish you sound." Sanders returned to setting groceries on their proper shelves. If Jason was waiting for a lecture about how Mark was his brother and always would be, how in five years this girl's name would be forgotten and Mark would still be his brother, and how next year's fight to save the world would require absolute trust in one another--trust that could so easily shatter in just a moment--Sanders didn't say it. He continued stocking his shelves in silence.
Eventually Jason said, "So should I break it off with her?"
"You didn't come here to ask that. You came to have me confirm it for you."
Chuckling, Jason said, "You're right."
The next night was Friday, and Jason would be seeing Laura. He would tell her tonight, in no uncertain terms, it was over until she broke up with Mark. He lifelessly helped the others clean after dinner, listening halfheartedly to their plans to see the movie he and Laura had seen the week before. Mark called to invite Laura while Jason waited in exquisite tension, but Mark got off the phone in the same good humor.
The Chief said, "That was fast."
"Yeah, she said she had something going on. Apparently she saw that movie last week, but she thinks I'll enjoy it."
Princess turned to Jason. "You've got a date tonight. Why not bring her with us?"
Jason said, "I'd really rather not." He swallowed thickly. "I'll be leaving in a few minutes, and I don't plan to be out too long anyway."
Princess said, "Can't you just tell us who she is?"
Jason said, "No."
The Beatles' "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" came on the radio. Jason turned it off. Mark suddenly laughed. "Turn it back on, Jason. Or are you upset that your prediction didn't come true?" Mark turned to the Chief with a grin. "Aren't you glad at least one of us doesn't have serial relay rapid-fire relationships?"
The Chief chuckled. "None of you have."
Tiny snorted. "Yeah, right. Between Jason and Princess, we've got half the school covered."
The Chief looked a little confused. "Jason's had two girlfriends, and Princess had two boyfriends."
Princess looked sheepish as she scrubbed one of the pots. "Two I told you about."
Jason looked tired. "If it wasn't going to last long, why bother you?"
Mark said, "Peggy Wilson."
Jason said, "Six weeks."
"Two weeks." Jason turned to Princess. "Tony Lau?"
She rolled her eyes. "Four months. And then two weeks a couple months later."
The Chief said, "Really?"
"Why do you think he called all those times?" Keyop bit his lip to keep from laughing. "Pete Bugoulovich?"
Tiny added, "Now there's a story. Cynthia Rasmussen?"
Keyop piped up, "Eleven days! Laura Fuentes?"
Mark smiled shyly. "Six months next Wednesday." He turned to Jason, who looked stricken. "And the mystery girl?"
With a deep breath, Jason said, "Five weeks, and no more, okay?"
"Come on," Mark said. "It's not that big a deal!" Jason shrugged. Mark added, "I don't see what all this secrecy is about, anyhow."
"No, you wouldn't." Jason walked from the room. "I'm out of here."
Mark watched him go. "So he's got a second girlfriend. Big deal. Alyssa knows."
Princess said, "Alyssa encourages it. But she's got no idea who it is either. I wonder why you'd keep it a secret?"
Keyop said, "The girl's probably got a big brother who'd beat Jason up." He laughed. "So what's this movie about, anyhow? Do I really want to go?"
Tiny said, "You should go ask Jason before he leaves. He saw it."
Mark paused. "I didn't know that. Why didn't he just say so?"
"He told me about it last week." Tiny was putting leftovers in Tupperware and then stacking it in the fridge. "He liked it a lot. That's why I suggested we go."
Princess said, "Do you suppose the girl's too young, like we'd tease him if we found out?"
"Oh, that's rich!" Keyop laughed. "He's dating Cynthia Rasmussen and thinks I'll be jealous!"
Princess said softly, "Or is he protecting someone?"
Mark studied her. "Himself or the girl?"
Tiny burst out, "Or the guy!" and Keyop howled.
After holding Mark's gaze a moment, Princess suddenly put on a smile. "It doesn't matter. Sooner or later, someone's got to crack. One of them will let something slip."
Mark folded his arms and frowned. Tiny said, "Nah, he'll never crack. He's too closed-mouthed. It's probably like Keyop said, he's afraid someone will beat him up. Like the girl used to date the leader of a gang."
Mark stared at Tiny, then at Keyop as he said, "Nothing that dramatic. Probably just a brother."
Mark put away his dish towel and walked down the hall, brow furrowed. "You're gonna lose that girl. If you don't take her out tonight, you're gonna find her gone. I'll make a point of taking her away from you." He made his way around the corner to where Jason stood waiting for the elevator. Five weeks, and no more. His brother looked up at him suddenly. Too suddenly. The king of Spain's daughter. Jason's face was too blank.
Jason just watched Mark, who met his eyes without averting his gaze as he closed in on him. Instead, Jason was the one who looked away. The elevator door opened, but Mark said, "Wait a minute," and Jason didn't move. The door slid shut again. Mark had drawn close.
And all the birds of the air couldn't catch me.
Mark said softly, "You're going to see her now, aren't you?"
Jason swallowed. "Yeah."
For a moment, Mark couldn't speak. His eyes widened, and his breath caught in his throat until he managed to swallow. This expression might have flashed across Julius Caesar's face in his last moments, pain from the knife overpowered by the pain of whose hand held it. His eyes sought Jason's as though he'd find in Jason's place a stranger and therefore an explanation. Instead he found only his brother. Mark whispered, "How could you?"
Jason tried to force a grin, still unable to raise his eyes. "But Mark," he managed, "we share everything."
With a shout, Mark punched him in the jaw, and as Jason stumbled backward, Mark grabbed him and hurled him into the wall. Jason's head cracked into the plaster with a loud report, and he staggered to his knees. Tiny rushed around the corner in time to see Jason jump up and shove Mark away, and Tiny pushed himself between, shouting, "What the hell are you doing?" Even as Tiny restrained Jason, Mark came around Tiny's guard and nailed Jason in the abdomen. Jason dropped like a stone. Tiny spun to block Mark from attacking again.
"Stop it!" Tiny wrestled Mark back from Jason, but Mark kept struggling to win free. Gasping, Jason lay curled on the floor, arms crossed over his face, knees up over his stomach.
"Let me go! You have no right!" Mark drove his elbows back, but Tiny avoided them. "Get up, Jason! You're not hurt, and you're not manipulating me anymore! Why is it always all about you? I thought you were my brother!"
"Hold on! Mark, stop what you're doing!" The Chief rushed into the middle of the fracas. "Get ahold of yourself!"
"You animal!" Mark was screaming at the top of his lungs. "You stupid God-forsaken lousy wretched piece of garbage! How dare you try to make the whole thing a joke? How dare you taunt me with that rhyme? Don't you have any morals?"
Tiny let Mark go, and he darted for Jason again. "Mark!" The Chief grabbed Mark by the arm so hard that Mark twisted his enraged eyes toward him and stopped struggling. It took ten seconds for the Chief to stare him into submission. "Go to the library! I'll deal with you later. Go! Now!"
Tiny ignored the shouting and crouched beside Jason, who still hadn't moved from the position of last defense. It looked like it was agony for him to breathe. Princess and Keyop were standing at the neck of the hallway, and the Chief told them to leave. Only when Mark had rounded the corner with one final volley of insults did the Chief turn back to Jason and Tiny.
"He isn't getting up," Tiny said.
"Jason," the Chief said clearly, slowly, "we're going to move you now. I want you to try to sit."
Jason uncurled a little and stared in bewilderment at both the Chief and Tiny. "Help him," the Chief said, and Tiny helped guide Jason up to a sitting position. Jason dropped his head forward. "We're going to get you to your feet now." That took a little more work, and when Jason was upright he leaned almost entirely on Tiny. They brought him into the Chief's examining room and helped him climb a step-stool to the table. Jason stared around in confusion, then started to lie down. "Sit up. Jason, I'm serious." The Chief looked in his eyes, his ears, and in the back of his throat. "You're not leaking cerebrospinal fluid. Where did you get hit?"
Jason said softly, "What?"
The Chief spoke as he probed Jason's skull with his fingers. There's a bump. He got you pretty good." Running his fingers along the jaw-line, he found another spot that made Jason wince. "You're bruised. I'm going to assume for the time being nothing's broken."
Jason murmured, "I feel sick. Can I lie down?"
"No." The Chief attached the blood pressure cuff, and while it pumped itself, he ran his hands along Jason's ribs and his abdomen. "I assume Mark isn't taking PCPs. Why did he do this?"
For a moment, it seemed as if Jason wouldn't answer. Tiny started to ask if he should leave the room when Jason said, "I've been seeing Laura."
The Chief paused momentarily. "Ah. I'd probably have reacted the same way. Give me your arm." After writing down the reading, the Chief checked Jason's eyes again with a penlight. "It's overnight observation for you. Hop down from the table."
Jason sort of slid off the table with help from Tiny. The Chief opened the door and paused, then let Jason out. Mark was standing in the middle of the office. "I told you to wait in the library."
"I've had enough of waiting around while you coddle that double-dealer." Mark looked as outraged as before. "Has he got a good explanation?"
Standing small alongside the Chief, Jason said softly, "I handled that very badly. Commander."
Mark swallowed hard. "That's not good enough. I want to know why--"
"For goodness sake, Mark, let him sit." The Chief guided a rather pale Jason to a chair. "In answer to your question, I'm not rewarding the aggressor by giving you all my attention. I told you to wait in the library, and I expect orders to be obeyed. I also expect you not to use your training on each other. No matter what he did to you, I expect restraint and constructive problem-solving. Instead, he's going to the medical ward. You can either stay here or in the library, and we'll talk afterward. A long talk."
Shortly afterward, Jason was in a hospital room on the 24th floor, Tiny pumping him for details. There were more doctors, more exams, more questions. After that he was left alone with the lights dimmed so finally he could fall asleep.
Every two hours, one of the nurses roused Jason, checked his vital signs, and then let him drift away again. At one o'clock, however, Jason didn't return to sleep. Edgy and restless, he put on his clothes and sneaked out. He rode the elevator as high as he could go, then walked through the top floor conference center until he reached the steps to the roof. He opened the door before he realized someone had already unlocked it, and he found himself face to face with Mark.
Perhaps five hours had made Mark calmer. He didn't fly into a rage, but he still looked seething. He was in birdstyle.
Jason backed away. Mark said, "I was just leaving. I figured since you stole my girlfriend, I could steal your sulking spot, but it's not helping. You can keep it."
Jason said, "I'm sorry. I knew it was wrong."
"So you went ahead and did it anyway. I almost wish you didn't know." Mark closed his wings over his chest. "I hope I hurt you."
Mark lingered near the door even as Jason edged aside. Finally, Mark fixed a piercing look at Jason's eyes. "Damn it, I just don't understand! You could have any girl in the school. Why did you have to take mine?"
"Any girl?" Jason averted his gaze. "There are plenty I'd never get. You're the one they think is cute."
"And then they all gravitate toward you. Yes, half of this is her fault, but that doesn't make you any less a thief. I swear, if I ever get married, I'm not even inviting you to the wedding." Mark's fists tightened. "We all went on that group date to the movies two weeks ago. Were you holding her hand on one side while I held the other?"
"That's not fair." Jason bit his lip. "I deliberately didn't sit anywhere near you guys in the theater."
"Aren't you just the soul of ethics?"
Jason stared at the blacktop. "It's only-- She was crying."
"Yeah, well, she's crying now too." Mark took another step toward the door. "I broke up with her."
Jason said, "Did you tell her it's over for me too?"
"Tell her yourself, coward." Mark stopped and shook his head. "She told me a whole lot of things I never wanted to hear, and you know, maybe it's better I found out now what she's like. She'd never have dated you openly. She wanted someone cute and respectable. She'd never have been able to tell her friends she was dating someone ugly and rude."
Jason stared through the ground. "I don't know what else to tell you."
"Spare me." Mark stepped through the door, then looked back. "All I can say is, if something this horrible had happened yesterday, I'd have had three people to talk to. Now I have Princess."
Jason tucked himself against the wall where the cameras wouldn't see him, arms wrapped around themselves. As Mark descended the steps, Jason could hear him radio the Chief, "If the doctors want to know where Jason is, he's on the roof." Jason waited until they came and got him.
With no signs of long-term injury, and with no broken bones, a tender Jason was discharged the next morning. He had until Tuesday to recover, Monday being Columbus Day and therefore a school holiday. Mark still said nothing to Jason beyond the minimum necessary, and sometimes not even that much. There were bruises on Mark's arm where the Chief had wrenched him away from Jason, but Mark never rubbed at it or complained. Nor did he complain about whatever punishment the Chief meted out to him, and Jason never inquired what that was.
Jason kept a low enough profile on Saturday that no one noticed he was gone until dinner time. It took one phone call, to the track, to find him. An enraged Cassie all but stripped him out of the racing suit and sent him home.
On Monday, the Chief let Jason work out with the team because they would do fairly light exercises. The Chief selected Tiny and blindfolded him, then had Keyop silently lead him through an obstacle course. Keyop could touch to guide him, but not talk. They got graded on how rapidly they completed the course and how adeptly they figured out the nature of the obstacles they faced.
The Chief said, "Mark, you're next." He tied the blindfold onto Mark, then led him to his guide. Halfway through the first hazard, Mark stopped. "Chief, I refuse." He worked off the blindfold. "I know what you're doing, and you're not getting me to trust Jason again that easily."
Pulling the blindfold from his eyes, he saw his guide was Princess. "Oh," he whispered. "I'm sorry."
Stopping the clock, the Chief turned to Jason and fixed a knowing look on him. Mark walked from the gym in silence. Jason just sat against the wall, head against his knees.
On Tuesday, they walked to school in separate groups, Mark and Princess together, Tiny and Jason more slowly. Jason said, "There's no need for you to join me in disgrace. If people take sides, you're better off on his." But Tiny stayed with him until they reached the school-yard.
Rob, Traz, and Chris met up with Jason before the doors opened. Rob slapped him in the shoulder. "Is it true, Anderson? You're crazy, man."
Jason frowned. "Who told you?"
"Alyssa. She thinks it's hilarious."
"Great." Jason puzzled. "And who told her?"
Chris said, "All I know is, I'm going to get Mark back for you."
"You just repay me sometime by getting my brother in trouble."
Mark and a bunch of his friends stood in a different gathering a way off. Jason wondered for a moment how many of the conversations going on right now were about the dating triangle, and how long it would take until the next piece of gossip washed it away. How many of Mark's friends were plotting their own little vengeances against him? High school scandals faded and rose in importance with no rhyme or reason. Even so, he knew it had taken a week for people to stop talking about his suicide attempt. By contrast, Jason had received blow-by-blow detailed accounts of Tiny's attempted relationship with a ninth grader for over a month.
Before the bell, Laura walked up to Jason, who took a hasty step backward. He could imagine Mark's angry stare. Laura was wearing far too much makeup, but her eyes still looked pink. "I have something for you." She pulled a photograph from her purse and handed it to Jason at arm's length. He took it gingerly. It was him and Mark, two weeks ago, just after the movie they'd all seen together. They were in a silly enough heroic pose, just about to burst into laughter.
"Why don't you give it to Mark?"
"How am I supposed to talk to him?" Laura gulped. "I'm sorry, Jason." The other guys had vacated the scene, leaving Jason totally exposed. She dropped her school bag by her feet and clasped her hands behind her back. "I knew I should break up with him. But you took me out that first time from pity. If I broke up with him, you'd have had no reason to stay. So I lost you both anyhow."
Jason folded his arms. "Just find a decent guy and get on with your life. That was all I wanted in the first place."
She sniffled and swallowed, then grabbed her bag and fled back to the shelter of her friends.
The bell rang. Jason pivoted and walked the photo against the tide of students to Mark, whose stare hardened into armor. Jason handed it to him, and Mark looked at it briefly. Like Jason's friends, Mark's had cleared to give them room.
Jason said, "We made a good team."
"We did." Mark didn't give back the photo. Jason didn't leave. The schoolyard had mostly emptied, but Chris watched from a distance, and a couple of Mark's friends did as well. Mark noticed them, then grabbed Jason by the arm and dragged him in the opposite direction. Jason tugged free but followed anyhow. Mark led him all the way to the opposite side of the yard, then pointed to one of the benches. Jason sat. "Okay," Mark said, folding his arms and squaring his stance. "I want you to tell me everything. From minute number one to the end. My brain's not going to stop churning until you do, and imagination is probably worse than reality."
Jason swallowed uneasily. "Why do you want to know? It's not as if it matters now."
Mark leaned forward. "You're stalling."
Jason didn't speak for a minute. Mark was cutting homeroom to do this. With a breath to steady himself and no further fanfare, he gave Mark the complete story, in mostly chronological order. Mark said nothing throughout, but a couple of times he saw Mark getting tense or upset. Jason didn't back off. When Mark wanted him to stop, Mark would tell him. He ended with, "That was when I decided we had to break up. And then you figured it out."
For a long time, Mark stared at Jason as though drilling through a wall. There were no extraneous movements. Jason sat waiting. This, at least, he found familiar.
Mark said, "And that was it? Nothing else? You didn't do anything more?"
"That was the whole thing."
Mark took a deep breath. "Did you love her?"
A dodge was the last thing Mark would accept. "Yes. After a bit."
Mark's mouth twitched. "Well, you can have her." He picked up his book bag. "I'll see you tonight."
Jason got to his feet. "Let me finish."
"What else is there to say?"
"That when I had to make a choice, I did. That's not enough, but it's all I can offer you." Jason gathered himself. "I'm not asking you to excuse what I did. But I am asking you to forgive me."
"Eventually." Mark looked over his shoulder at Jason. "Get your bag. We're going to be late as it is." He walked slowly enough that Jason caught up to him within a few strides, and they entered the school building together.