Chapter Twenty Three
School went by in a blur, weeks of studying for exams and training for the soccer games on the weekends.
Yes, while I loved soccer, I didn’t really like the fact that we had lost every single one of our games so far, planting us at the bottom of the league ladder.
And because the games took up time that I usually used to study, I was forced to hang in the library at lunch to catch up on what we’d been learning in each class. While I was generally an average student, there were subjects that I still struggled with. And on top of that, I was running daily to get my endurance levels up, which hadn’t improved much by the way. Also I was still babysitting Ethan’s sisters, so that took up time too. Christen, having moved out and into a friend’s apartment, dropped in occasionally when my mother and father weren’t home. They did make an effort to show up more though.
Anyway, each time we lost the crowd at the next game would be even smaller. Soccer was, apparently, a huge thing at this school and crowds of students came to watch the girls and boys games each weekend.
And I was currently standing in line at the local frozen yogurt place after practice on Wednesday, slowly becoming more irritated as the line was nowhere close to moving. And I wasn’t the only one. A teenage girl in front of me was tapping her foot impatiently, seeming very close to bursting out with a complaint.
A lot of students from our school hung out here after school, and I recognised almost everyone sitting in the booths right now. Groups of girls, swooning over other guys who sat across the establishment. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
But then I saw something at the back of the place. A girl, around my age or maybe younger, being picked on by a group of guys who I recognised. They all went to my school. It was the classic hold-the-backpack-in-the-air prank, but it didn’t look funny. Before I could process what I was doing, I was stomping over there to help.
“Hey asshole,” I said, being considerably taller than the girl and being able to reach the backpack, grabbing the bag and handing it back to her. “Ever heard of manners?”
He seemed surprised, and a little pissed off, that I had interfered with his little game. His friends didn’t look too happy either.
“You should stay out of things that aren’t any of your business, girl,” the main guy said, stepping forward. He was still way taller and had more muscle than me.
I should really think before I act or speak.
“Well maybe you guys should just keep to yourselves instead of bullying people,” I shot back, my eyes drifting towards the girl. She looked like she was alright, she just hugged her bag to her chest and stayed silent.
“And maybe you should be taught a lesson about minding your own fucking business,” he growled, glaring, grabbing a cup filled with frozen yogurt from the nearest table.
I just shut my eyes and waited for the cold dessert to ruin my hair for the day. Fan-fucking-tastic.
But it never came. I opened an eyelid to see the guy’s arm mid air, holding the frozen yogurt. But another arm had stopped him. I looked to my right to see Xavier, an annoyed yet deadly look on his face.
“Back off, Oscar, I fucking mean it,” he said lowly, letting Oscar go. Meanwhile I was trying not to laugh. I expected his name to be something tough, like Blade or some shit. Not Oscar.
“Stay out of this, man,” Oscar glared back, trying to stand up to Xavier even if he was shorter and didn’t have as much muscle. He might’ve been quick though.
“Bullying again, Oscar?” Jordan came out from behind me and stood to my left. “Really?”
“Fuck off Jordan,” one of Oscar’s friends said, stepping forward also. The place had got quiet, everyone listening to the argument that I was currently in the middle of.
“Look just leave her alone, alright?” Xavier said, directing it towards all of them. “You’re already pissing me off, don’t make it worse.” His glare somehow got even scarier and more threatening.
“Whatever,” Oscar scoffed. “Have fun with her,” he said before he walked out, his goons following him.
I looked at my feet. “Thanks,” I muttered. I noticed that Ethan and Blake had also been there the whole time, watching but saying nothing.
“Don’t mention it,” he said, shrugging. “He’s always been a dickhead.”
“Can I buy you guys something?” I asked them all. “For doing that.”
Blake grinned. “YES! I’m starving.”
“What yoghurts do you all want?” I asked, wondering how I was supposed to remember all of their orders.
“No yoghurt for us, can you get some ice cream?” Jordan questioned, the others seeming to all agree.
“None of you like yoghurt?”
They all shook their heads. “Okay, what ice cream do you want?”
“Cookies and cream.”
I nodded, watching them turn around and find a booth to sit in. I looked towards the girl who was still hugging her bag to her chest.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“Are you okay?” I asked her. “Do you know them?” She seemed younger, so she might’ve gone to the same school. I wasn’t sure.
“Yeah, I go to the same school as them. And I recognise you and those guys,” she replied, putting her bag over her shoulders.
“Oh okay,” I said. “If they bug you again, just...” I trailed off. “Come to me. I’ll make them stop?” It sounded more like a question, but she wore a small smile anyway.
“Thanks, I’ll be off,” she said, waving goodbye before she left. I went to the counter, which was free from a line finally, and I managed to remember the guys’ orders.
I balanced the cups of ice cream in my hands as I made my way over to them, handing them each their order. Then an awkward decision rose to the surface: should I sit with them or leave?
“Sit down,” Jordan encouraged, somehow reading my mind. I rose my eyebrows and looked to the others to see if they were going to object. They didn’t, but Ethan was biting his tongue. He wasn’t as rude as when I first met him, but he isn’t going out of his way to be friendly either. Pretty much the only time we interact is when he decides to drop his sisters off at my house, which is now a random thing since it doesn’t happen every night.
“Sit down,” Blake said, digging into his bubblegum ice cream. Within seconds it was all over his face. Xavier and Jordan both rolled their eyes at his antics.
I sat down with them, laughing at whenever Blake would accidentally spill ice cream and then blame it on someone else. I could tell that the boys were true friends, and that they needed each other.
After the ice cream shop, I had headed home to an empty house. My mum had been there this morning, but she must’ve left for work and then crashed somewhere nearby with my dad.
Ethan showed up half an hour later with his sisters, barely mentioning what time he would be back before hugging them and then leaving. I took them inside to play with some old toys and have some snacks.
They settled themselves on the couch with a large blanket and some pillows while I made some popcorn in a bowl.
I brought the bowl over, sitting down with the girls. I turned on the TV and put it to the kids channel.
“So where does your brother go off to every night?” I asked them, putting a piece of popcorn in my mouth. “Does he work somewhere?”
They shook their heads. “No, he goes to visit our mum.”
“And where is she?”
I immediately regretted asking, it was none of my business. But now that I had, I was curious and somewhat worried. “Is she okay?”
“She’s sick,” they said, sad looks overwhelming their expressions. “We don’t have a daddy, so Ethan has to make money to look after her.”
A sense of sorrow rushed over me. “She’ll definitely get better, I know you two are strong and she must be too,” I said, smiling at them. They gave me grins.
After school on Thursday, I walked to the nearest hospital with the hope of finding a particular patient.
I walked into the reception, the line non-existent. I greeted the lady sitting behind the desk with stacks of files surrounding her.
“Hello, I’m looking for a patient with the last name of Grey,” I said, readjusting the bouquet of flowers in my hand. “I’m not sure if she’s at this hospital, but I was hoping you could help me if she is.”
“Ethan Grey’s mother? Yes, she’s here,” the woman said kindly. “Ethan is a friend of yours?”
“Something like that.”
“He’s a wonderful boy. Visits everyday.”
I nodded along. “Yes, well, I was wondering if you could deliver these flowers to her for me.”
“Of course, dear,” the woman replied. “I’ll get to it right away. I’m sure she will love them. Thank you.”
I said goodbye to the woman and walked out of the hospital, feeling slightly better that I had done something good.
I then had the pleasure of bumping into a familiar face. The familiar face being Ethan Grey.
“Oh.. hi,” I waved stupidly.
He raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing here?”
I was a crap liar, so I might as well tell him the truth. “See, uh, the thing is..”
I sighed. “Your sisters told me about your mother. I just came to give her flowers,” I said.
He froze. I couldn’t read his expression, but it definitely contained anger. And shock. And hurt, a lot of hurt.
“They... told you?” he said lowly, his voice dangerously quiet.
“I know it’s not my place and I shouldn’t have butted in and it’s none of my business and I’m sorry an-”
“Stop.. talking,” he said, thoughts swirling around in his head for only him to see. “Goodbye.”
He pushed past me, walking into the hospital without another glance or word. Good one Stef.
“I’m sorry!” I called, not knowing if Ethan had heard me or not. My shoulders slumped as I walked across the street and onto another path, heading home.
I kept walking, my legs slowly starting to ache and my eyelids starting to droop. I felt a sudden sense of tiredness and weakness, and I could barely stay conscious.
I made it home, barely. I opened the door and locked it behind me before I collapsed on the floor with the absolute need to sleep, my body refusing to do otherwise.