By Saturday, Eren was beginning to regret his decision to
ask Annie for help. Not only did the entire swim team know at the next
practice, but each variation of the story seemed to involve some sort of
romantic gesture; from subtle flirtation, to a steamy make-out session on deck.
It didn’t help that Connie waggled his eyebrows lecherously whenever they were
within five feet of each other.
Even Jean’s spluttering disbelief and poorly concealed jealousy wore off, giving way to snide comments about Eren’s previous dating history (non-existent), his hair (constantly tangled and smelling of chlorine), and overall talent in the pool.
“I’ll give them a week together, max. Anyone else wanna bet?”
“That’s a great idea! Let’s wager on when you and Mikasa start dating. I’m putting my money on never,” he snapped, though this did nothing to dispel the rumors.
Annie, on the other hand, appeared completely unfazed. Eren wasn’t sure if she was very selectively deaf or if everyone was too terrified to let the stories reach her ears. He suspected the latter, judging by the hush that fell whenever she walked by, with only the barest flick of her eyes to acknowledge people were watching her.
If Levi hadn’t announced that he’d begin drawing up the roster for the first meet over the next few weeks, Eren might have called the whole thing off.
So he found himself on deck Saturday, the turkey sandwich he’d eaten for lunch swirling nervously in his gut.
Where is she? Maybe she decided not to show after all...
“Swim a lap. I want to see what I’ve got to work with.”
Eren jumped at the sound Annie’s voice behind him.
Is she a freaking ninja? I didn’t even hear the door to the locker room close!
“Uh, yeah good idea,” he stumbled towards the starting blocks, painfully aware he was giving off the goofy, love-struck impression he was desperately trying to avoid.
When he touched the wall at the other end of the pool, Annie was shaking her head.
“Levi was right. You don’t swim, you fight the water.”
“Isn’t that how you go faster?”
She rolled her eyes heavenwards, as if searching for invisible guidance.
“No. The entire point is to streamline yourself. Blend in with the water so that if flows around you, not against you. Watch.”
Annie dove in effortlessly, keeping her hands clasped tightly over her bowed head as she dolphin-kicked down the lane. When she finally broke the surface, she kept her elbow angled higher, rather than immediately smashing her hand down into the water. Her entire body rotated sideways as one arm reached forward, then twisted back and she repeated the motion on the other side, pulling the water back in a smooth arc.
“Wow that was… perfect. My stroke looks nothing like that,” Eren admitted grudgingly.
Mikasa was right, as usual.
“I’ve been swimming practically since I could walk, so it’s all second nature to me now. My dad wanted me to start early…” Her eyes flickered with something like uncertainty.
No wonder she’s such a powerhouse.
“Do you swim for him?”
Eren recoiled slightly as he saw her hands clench into fists.
“Like, you want to make him proud right? Does he inspire you?”
“I guess you could say that.” Her shoulders relaxed. “Why do you ask? That’s kind of a weird question.”
“Umm just curious, really.” Eren ran his finger across the surface of the water in idle shapes, suddenly aware of the personal direction the conversation had taken. He cleared his throat.
“My mom died a three years ago. She used to love coming to all my meets and everything. Mikasa’s too.”
Annie nodded, but didn’t press the issue. Instead she cracked her knuckles.
“Alright that’s enough stalling. Now you try.”
An hour later, Eren emerged from the locker room; frustrated, but with a brief glimmer of hope that he was improving. Mikasa was already waiting for him in the van, her lips pursed in a tight frown.
I really should take my road test one of these days…
“How’d it go?”
“She wasn’t mean to you was she?” Mikasa cut her eyes at Annie’s petite figure as she emerged from the building. The blonde waved vaguely in the direction of the van before bending down to undo the chain tethering a bright blue bike to one of the handicapped parking signs.
“If I said ‘yes’, would you arrange for her to die in a mysterious swimming-related accident?”
“Of course not!”
“That would be far too obvious.”
“Eren, can I talk to you a minute?”
“Right now, Dad? I’m in the middle of a battle,” he gestured towards the TV screen.
Grisha sat down on the couch next to him. He still smelled faintly like the hospital; rubber, disinfectant, and underneath it all, a tiny whiff of shit.
“It’s about your mother.”
Eren’s heart did a funny, jittering dance in his chest.
“Can she come home yet? Mikasa said she was gonna try baking a cake for my thirteenth birthday. I bet Mom’d wanna be there to make sure she doesn’t burn the house down.”
His father’s face remained impassive. If anything, the crow’s feet around his eyes only deepened.
“She wants to, but-”
“That’s great! You can convince the doctors to let her out, right? I’m sure she’ll get better much faster at home. She always tells me how much she misses the light coming in through her window in the morning…” He trailed off as he realized he was babbling.
The voice that responded sounded like a hundred year-old corpse rather than his father. It seemed to emanate from somewhere deeper than his mouth; solemn, heavy, and cracked with dust.
“Your mother wants to stop treatment. She isn’t going to get better, Eren. But she’d prefer to be here, with you two, when she-”
“DON’T YOU DARE SAY THAT!” He was standing now, hot and cold pulsing through his body in waves.
The last time he’d visited Karla’s hands were white and brittle as paper, stroking his cheek. Her eyes were dull from chemo with bags dark as bruises underneath, but she smiled all the same. Told him to be strong.
“HOW CAN YOU JUST GIVE UP ON HER?”
“Listen, we just want to do what’s best-”
“THEN YOU DON’T LOVE HER LIKE I DO.” Eren screamed, his throat burning raw with tears. He ran; out the door, down the block, trying to outpace the quivering, sick feeling in his stomach. He didn’t stop until his knees gave out, long after dark.
He lay in the strip of balding grass next to the sidewalk, staring up at the inky sky. He wanted to reach out and tear it down, pluck out the stars as if they were the tumors growing inside his mother’s body.
The soft whirr of tires caught Eren’s attention half a second before the piercing beam of a flashlight swept across his face. Wordlessly, Mikasa climbed of her bicycle and knelt down next to him in the dirt.
“It’s time to come home,” She murmured, wrapping an arm around his back to help him stand.
Eren’s heart froze at the sight of a sleek, black Cadillac parked in their driveway. He had his seatbelt undone before the van even came to a stop, dodging around the restraining hand reaching for his shoulder as he popped the door open and hit the ground running.
“Eren don’t-” Mikasa called after him, but she might had well have been talking to a post.
He barged in through the front, kicking his shoes aside carelessly as he strode into the living room.
“I’m home! If anyone cares.”
His father peered at him over the top of a book.
“Nice to see you, Eren,” He said mildly. The same calm, unaffected voice Mikasa used that made his blood boil.
“I didn’t know if you guys had eaten lunch yet, but I’m making lasagna for dinner.”
“I’m eating at Armin’s,” Eren grunted. He fingered his phone in his pocket and made a mental note to inform his friend of this plan. “I figured you wouldn’t be home again.”
“Oh that’s too bad.”
“Yeah, you sound real broken up about it,” he muttered sarcastically.
“What do you expect me to say?” Grisha’s eyes flashed behind his glasses. His voice remained clam but there was a tension growing behind it.
Maybe I don’t want you to say anything. Maybe I just want you to be here more than once in a blue moon.
Eren clenched his fists, but the soft click of a closing door and Mikasa’s pointed throat-clearing stopped his angry retort.
“How was work today?”
I wish you didn’t act like nothing was wrong.
He shut out the banal chatter, using it as a cover to slink down the hall. Once he reached the safety of his bedroom, he whipped out his phone.
Eren: yo armin you got anything good cooking for dinner?
Eren: dad’s here
Armin: Shit umm, my Grandpa’s got his bridge group over actually.
Armin: Let me see what I can do…
Armin: Worst comes to worst I’ll sneak over with a pizza, okay?
Always looking after my sorry ass, eh?
Eren: don’t worry about it. Remember wat happened last time?
Armin: I wonder if Bruno just REALLY hates pepperoni…
He smiled at the memory of Armin, white-faced and clutching a greasy box, being chased around the yard by their neighbor’s dog.
Armin: But seriously, let me know if you need anything.
Eren thanked him before setting down the phone; pacing back and forth across his room as if wearing a groove in the floor could solve his predicament any faster.
Mikasa’s too busy sucking up. Connie’s probably making out with Sasha somewhere, and even if he was free, I don’t feel up for dumb jokes or noogies.
Jean’s face briefly crossed his mind but he quickly quashed it.
How would that POSSIBLY make anything better? Besides I don’t even think I have his number.
But Eren realized that he did have Annie’s.
His fingers hesitated over the keys for a moment, as he tried to think of a way to phrase his question in a way that didn’t sound too desperate and needy.
Eren: hey are you free to hang out? i know we just saw each other but I need to get out of the house.
My dad’s an asshole, he added after further thought.
He half-expected her not to respond at all, so Eren was shocked when his phone buzzed in his hand almost immediately.
Annie: Gimme your address and I’ll be there in ten.
Eren decided to wait on the curb, away from the thick scent of tomato sauce and melted cheese that was beginning to permeate the house. He saw Mikasa watching him from the window, the corners of her mouth pulled down and her brow drawn in a straight line low across her forehead, but she made no move to bring him inside.
She vanished seven minutes later, when Annie rolled up on her bicycle.
“Hop on the front,” she explained in response to Eren’s raised eyebrow.
He gingerly settled himself on the handlebars, for once in his life grateful for his small frame. Annie was staring back at the house with an odd, scrutinizing expression.
“Is Mikasa alright?”
“Uh, yeah.” Probably having a grand old time actually. Talking about how she’s in lane five, and planning what colleges she wants to go to. “Can we get out of here? I told my Dad I was going to Armin’s.”
Annie pushed off and began pedaling easily, despite the extra weight. Eren wondered how she could see around him well enough to steer, but decided it best not to ask.
They rode in uneasy silence for several blocks, until she pulled over with a squeal of tires in front of a cramped café located in a dingy plaza away from Sina’s main shopping center.
“Bertholt works here. He had a crush on me in middle school so I can probably score us free coffee. They’ve got sandwiches and stuff too, if you want.” She scuffed the toe of her shoe along a crack in the sidewalk.
“Uh,” Eren glanced surreptitiously at the pizza place across the street. Bertholt seemed like a nice guy; never complaining or badmouthing anyone, but he couldn’t be sure how the quiet behemoth would interpret this outing with all the rumors flying around.
But Annie was already pushing open the door, decorated with a hand-drawn smiley face that said “Welcome” in large block letters. He followed her in with an irritated sigh, slouching his shoulders as much as possible to convey to everyone in the shop that he had no choice in the matter.
Fortunately Annie was not one for small talk, and within moments they were back outside with their orders; delayed only by haggling over the coffees.
“So,” Annie sat down heavily on the curb, brushing a lock of blonde hair out of her eyes, “What’s going on with your Dad?”
Eren took a moody sip of his drink.
“It’s complicated,” he finally grumbled. “We just fight about everything, even stupid stuff. And I know that most of the time I start it, but I can’t look him in the eye without getting angry. Every little thing he says or does…” His cup stared to crumple in his fist, spilling hot drops onto his fingers. “Basically I just don’t wanna be around him anymore.”
He waited for Annie to say something, but she only nodded and stole one of his French fries. Her expression remained as unruffled as a lake on a calm day.
“Seriously. I know how you feel. Sort of.” Annie stopped chewing and drew her knees up to her chest. “My dad puts a lot of pressure on me to do well. It’s only the two of us and he works really hard to give me a bright future or whatever, so I can understand but… Sometimes there’s all this tension you know? Like, everything has to be a certain way or else one of us’ll explode.”
Eren watched her warily out of the corner of his eye, unsure how to handle the new, exposed, Annie Leonhart.
It’s like reaching out a hand out to a strange dog. Either we’ll become friends or she’ll bite me.
Quick as a flash, Annie snatched another fry.
“Hey if you wanted some you should have ordered them!” He yelped indignantly.
“Watch this.” She saved the last bite and threw it in a graceful arc into the center of the parking lot.
“So what, now you’re just going to waste-”
Her hand clamped firmly down over his mouth. A minute later, a flock of pigeons descended, flapping wildly and coo-ing with excitement. They stared at each other like cowboys in a Wild West showdown, circling the morsel with quick, bobbing steps.
In spite of himself, Eren chuckled through Annie’s fingers. She released him and he grabbed another fry to lob into the growing throng of birds. They watched the ensuing frenzy in silence for a while before Annie dug her elbow into his side and stood up to get her bike.
Eren mumbled a thank-you in the driveway, eyeing the house that sat dark and shuttered like a sleeping dragon.
“Don’t let the man get you down,” Annie smirked; punching him in the shoulder as she pedaled off.
He half-expected Grisha to be waiting for him, peering disappointedly over his spectacles, but all that remained of his presence was a cold pan of lasagna and a note that read: Called in again- be back in a few hours. Wash dishes in sink.
Mikasa had already done her part- half the silverware was stacked neatly in the drying rack. From the way her bedroom door had clicked shut the minute he’d stepped into the house, he figured she was studiously avoiding him for the time being.
I don’t mean to pick fights with Dad and I know that makes you really upset, but we can’t just “get along” anymore.
Eren picked up a cup; felt the smooth ceramic surface, trying to decide whether to submerge it in soapy water or fling it against the wall.
“I know how you feel”.
Annie hadn’t offered anything other than her stolid, cynical presence, but somehow that was enough. He picked up the dishrag with a sigh.
No use in making an even bigger mess.