Warning Signs

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Bigger Stronger

"Come on score!"

"Block him! Keep your hands up!"

"Don't let him take it away!"

The basketball game was going on in full force. I could see Joe dribbling the ball down the court, determination written all over his face.

It was so loud inside the gym as I made my way up towards the bleachers. The noise reminded me of why I hated coming to any of these high school events. My ears rang with all the mayhem, making me feel a little dizzy.

I scanned the seats looking for a place to sit, wondering if my parents had arrived yet. I didn't see them so I headed over to the right side of the bleachers, near the band.

I was here to see my brother play. His team was number one in their division and Joseph told me that if they won today's game they would go one to play in the championship game. It was one of those all or nothing games. The winner would advance, the loser go home empty handed.

Just as I was about to sit down everyone jumped to their feet cheering. I craned my head around to see what the fuss was about, the referee was signaling a basket, his arms up in the air.

Joseph was surrounded by his teammates who were whooping and hollering, all thumping him on his back. The score was still too close to call the game over so I settled down in my seat and let my eyes wander around the court. Joseph only had time for a quick gulp from his water bottle before running back out onto the court. When he reached the center one of his teammates and closest buddies high fived him. I could feel myself sigh heavily, even though I had no reason to, I couldn't stand Joe's basketball buddy.

Like something out of a T.V. show, my brother and Clay Owens were the most popular sought after guys on campus these days. They were the top players on their high school basketball team and a crowd usually followed them around wherever they went. The phone at my house was constantly ringing, the girls never stopped calling for him.

They were invited to every single party known to man, and they were always together. That was the worst part. Clay Owens was always at my house.

Joe hardly had time for anyone anymore. His days were filled with school and practices, hanging out with his friends and talking to girls on the phone. The weekends were worse, Clay practically lived at my house, not leaving me a single minute to talk to Joe.

Joseph didn't purposely ignore me, he tried to drag me along with him, but I always refused.

"Matt! Clay and I are heading out to the skate park, wanna come and hang with us?" Joe peeked his head around the corner of my bedroom door.

I just shook my head no, keeping my book up near my face so neither of them could see my frown.

"Are you sure Matt? I'll let you borrow my skateboard."

I could see Clay's head, behind Joe's shoulder, he was rolling his eyes at me. It just made me angry.

"No thanks Joe, I have homework to do."

I could see Joe hesitating at the doorway, probably feeling guilty. Of course that was worse, I didn't want Joe to feel obligated to take me everywhere.

"The new guy in my class said he might come over today." I kept talking, not looking up from my book. I wasn't lying Ben Moore was new, he showed up in my class Monday, got assigned to the empty desk next to mine. He was the opposite of me, in looks and in attitude. He was so confident, so sure of himself, flashing his lazy smile to all the girls in class.

By the end of the day I was in awe how easily he managed to fit in with the crowd, something that taken me years to accomplish.

For some reason he took a liking to me, managed to extract most of my life story out of me during lunch and invited himself over to my house during the weekend.

"Oh yeah?" Joe brightened up considerably, pushing himself away from the door, "That's cool Matt, what's his name?"

"Ben...Ben Moore," but Joe was already gone.

"I talked to Sarah yesterday." I was dying to tell someone, and who better than Dr. Whitewater. He looked slightly surprised at my outburst, his clipboard almost slipped from his hands at my words.

"Really Mr. Steele? You talked to your wife?"

"Yes," I smiled at him, pleased with his reaction, "I even went to our house, uhh...her house."

"How did it go?" Dr. Whitewater leaned forward in his chair. The corners of his eyes were slightly crinkled.

"Okay." I tried not to grin. The evening had been playing over and over in my head all night long. I hardly slept after leaving our house. I tossed and turned in bed later, my brain going over every single detail, every single word that was spoken, trying to find any hidden meanings I might have missed.

Sarah and I talked for nearly an hour until Henry woke from his nap. I was able to spend the last forty minutes playing with Henry, it felt like something out of a dream, and I never wanted it to end.

"How have you been Matthew?" Sarah's eyes were warm, the moonlight was bouncing off her hair, the air calm and quiet. I was almost in a trance.

"I've been, okay." I managed to get out before the fog took over my brain.

"Were you two able to talk about the progress you've made?" I could hear Dr. Whitewater's voice somewhere in the background.

"Huh?" My head snapped up to his, "Well, uh, we didn't really talk too much about me." I started. Even though Sarah asked how I was, I managed to turn the conversation mostly about her and Henry, trying to soak up every little detail that I missed from their lives.

Dr. Whitewater just stared at me. I could almost see the disappointment. "Why not Mr. Steele? Why didn't you tell her about you?"

I shrugged, "I wanted to know more about her, what she's been up to, how Henry has been."

Dr. Whitewater gave out this little sigh, he was obviously not happy that I hadn't talked to Sarah about me, and the truth of the matter was that I was still scared. Scared to put my heart out there, for fear of being crushed. I wasn't sure I could take that kind of heartache again.

"You look, better..." Sarah was choosing her words carefully. She continued to watch me. "Do you go to the park often? Henry and I haven't seen you there before. We go, or we try to go there every Monday."

I didn't tell her that I already knew that, instead I shifted the conversation over to my son. "I try to go when the weather is nice," I began, "Does Henry like the park?"

"Oh he loves it. The swings are his favorite."

I bit back the urge to tell her about the time I saw Clay pushing him on the swings. "You've done so great with him Sarah." I just kept staring into her eyes, wishing I could tell her everything that was in my heart, everything that I was holding back.

"Thank you." Her voice was strangely quiet. She broke our gaze and looked down into her hands. I wasn't sure if I said the wrong thing.

"Okay," Dr. Whitewater sighed again, snapping me out of my trance. "How is Mrs. Steele? How is your son?"

Hearing him say Mrs. Steele sent a little shiver through me, I hadn't heard her being called that in a very long time.

"She seems to be just fine." I avoided looking at Dr. Whitewater, "Just like Henry."

What I didn't tell Dr. Whitewater about Sarah was that when I watched her talk it sent me spiraling back into time. It was just the way she would gaze off into the distance as she told me about our son. How her fingers played with the zipper of the cushion she was sitting on.

"He knows how to work the radio now." Sarah was smiling off into space, "He likes the rock station." She chuckled as I let out an alarmed gasp of disbelief.

"Rock? Sarah? Really?" I couldn't hide my surprise.

She chuckled again, it was contagious and I found myself half laughing with her.

"There's something about those fast thumping drums or those high pitched sounds of the electric guitar that appeal to him I guess."

I just wrinkled my nose at her teasingly, trying to think of something funny to say.

It was then that Henry's small cry came over the white baby monitor sitting on the coffee table. It ended most of our personal conversation but the magic of the night was not over yet.

Henry was all smiles when Sarah brought him out, happy and refreshed from his nap. He even toddled over to me and stood by my leg as I tried to engage him in conversation.

"You like the drums huh, little guy?" I used my friendliest voice, nodding my head at him. He just giggled at me, his big brown eyes watching my every move.

Sarah sat very still in her chair, she watched us quietly, her eyes sparkling with a small smile at her lips.

As I kept talking to him, Henry seemed to warm up to me, he even placed a chubby little hand on my knee. I patted his hand gently, my heart swelling with happiness.

We didn't talk about Clay again, but I could still feel his presence there. It hung over us silently, almost challenging. But I knew that when I was ready to take on Clay, I needed to be bigger...stronger.

I never told Joseph what Clay did to me that night. I guess I sort of felt like it was my fault. I shouldn't have gone in the first place, but I was feeling lonely that night and I wanted to hang out with my big brother.

"It'll be fun, come on." Joe was practically dragging me out the door, "Mom and Dad said it was okay."

I tried halfheartedly to pull away, "I don't wanna go to Clay's house." I mumbled, "It's boring there."

"It won't be boring, not tonight. It's his birthday, some friends are coming over." Joe wasn't really listening to my argument, he had already made up his mind.

I could tell the minute I stepped foot in his house that Clay didn't want me there. He gave Joe this look, you're brining him here?

Joe pulled him over to the corner where I couldn't hear them and lectured him or something. Clay just sort of glared at me but didn't say anything.

Before long there were all kinds of kids partying in Clay's house. Booze was being passed around. The guys got louder, the girls more giggly. Clay was too busy socializing so he wasn't stuck to Joe's side, it seemed he was especially enjoying all the girls swarming around him, one hanging onto each arm.

Joe stayed close to me for a while, told me not to drink anything and got me a can of coke. I was actually having somewhat of a good time standing with Joe, watching all the other kids make fools of themselves, until one of his buddies challenged him to a one on one basketball game in Clay's backyard. There was a crowd out in the back and he left me standing near a small peach tree, warning me to stay right there, not to go anywhere.

After a while I got bored and restless, and besides I had to pee. So I headed back into the house, trying to find my way around, looking for the bathroom.

"Hey little Steele! Where are you going?" Clay's words were slightly slurred, he had one arm wrapped around some girl, his other hand held a red plastic cup.

He smirked at me, waving his hand with the cup towards me.

I just shrugged at him and tried to move around them.

"Where's Joe?" He wouldn't let me pass, his eyes glanced around and he nearly spilled his drink on me.

"Out back," I answered, already wishing I had just stayed outside where Joe told me to stay put. "He's playing basketball."

Clay let out this half snort, half guffaw, "Then come on over here," he gestured. He shoved his cup into my hand, "I don't want you get bored or lonely." His laugh was loud and the girl next to him laughed too. I had no idea what they were laughing about.

I didn't move from my spot, tried to give him back his cup. I hoped he would forget about me but instead he kept laughing and turned to whisper in the girl's ear. I didn't know who she was or if she was Joe's friend too, I never seen her before.

Clay was standing really close to her and ran his hand up her bare arm, kissing her neck a couple of times. She giggled at Clay's words and turned to look at me. She eyed me up and down, then turned to Clay with a small frown.

"He's just a little kid." She told Clay.

Clay kept up his insistence, pulling her close to him for a second nuzzling her neck and then letting go. They both turned to look at me. I narrowed my eyes at them and backed away, I didn't like how either of them were gawking at me.

But it was too late really. The girl slithered up to me, wrapping her own hand around my own, the one that was holding the cup.

"Drink up honey." She was taller than me, leaning over me, her breasts this close to my face. I'd never been this close to a girl before. She smelled pretty.

"Uh, no thank you." I tried moving away from her. I couldn't see Clay anymore, I didn't know where he went.

"It's okay sweetie," She purred in my ear. I could feel the heat of her breath near the tip of my earlobe. "It's just punch, I already had some."

I looked down into the cup, she was right, the liquid was red. I looked up at her uncertainly, and she giggled back at me, "I won't let anything happen to you." She promised.

The punch was sweet. Someone put too much sugar in it. I coughed after the first drink, and the second too, but she just urged me to drink more, her arm sliding around my shoulders squeezing gently. For some reason I liked her next to me, didn't want to disappoint her. I kept gulping down the punch, letting her guide me to the empty chair in the corner.

She pushed me down, both her hands up near my chest. Some of her hair brushed against my face, it felt really soft. She giggled some more and plopped herself right into my lap, one hand going around my neck, the other spread out near my thigh. I could feel the room begin to spin, somewhere in the back of my mind something told me this was wrong, but I couldn't move anymore.

"You're kinda cute." She whispered, pressing herself closer to me. Her hand tightened around my neck and the hand on my thigh moved up ever so slowly.

The bells in my brain started ringing then. I was really getting nervous.

"I...I better find Jo..." My words were cut off by a pair of very harsh, very demanding lips. Gone was the softness, the lightness, there was only one word for it, rough.

I tried pulling back, pushing her away from me. Only I didn't have the strength. She latched onto me, grabbing me hard with both her hands, the hand on my thigh quickly moved upward, startling me, scaring me. I didn't want her to touch me there.

"Wai...wait." I tried shaking my head from side to side. She wouldn't let up, her tongue was suddenly in my mouth, I could taste the sickly sweetness of the punch, it repulsed me, made me gag. I couldn't breathe and panic ensued me.

"What the fuck! Get off of him!" Joseph's words were music to my ears. The girl was ripped off of me in seconds.

"What the hell are you doing Jane? That's my little brother!" Joe was roaring mad now, he was yanking Jane around, pushing her back behind him with his arm. His fury wasn't just with her though.

"Matt, get the fuck up! What the hell! Didn't I tell you to stay outside? What are you drinking? Give me that!" He snatched the cup from my hands and began to pull me up. I couldn't even stand straight, my stomach twisting up in the worst way.

"Fuck." Joe was mumbling under his breath. He glared at Jane some more and she let out this little whimper, stepping back and fading into the crowd. "Come on, let's go." He said gruffly, pulling my arm.

I never thought my first kiss would ever be anything like this. I always thought it would be something special, with someone I liked, and someone who liked me too.

But never like this.

I stumbled along after Joe, trying not to throw up, trying to make the room stop spinning. Joseph was huffing and swearing, saying goodbye to everyone, letting Clay know he would see him tomorrow. Clay looked all concerned, telling Joe he would call him later to make sure I was okay, but I swear to God, right before walking out the door I managed to turn around.

And I saw him.

Him, Clay Owens.

Laughing at me.

"Mr. Steele." Dr. Whitewater stood up from behind his desk and moved over to the empty chair beside me, "Let's talk about you for a second."

I didn't really want to talk about me. I wanted to talk more about Sarah and Henry.

"Sure," I shifted my body around in my chair so that I could face him better.

"You'll see Louis again later this week. Remember that he is your sponsor, you can call him anytime you feel you need him. You never have to do this alone ever again, please realize that."

I smiled at him, grateful for his words. "Thank you, Louis has really been my rock. I feel lucky to have him as my sponsor, he's put up with a lot."

Dr. Whitewater chuckled at my words, "Mr. Steele, Louis has been through far worse, I assure you." He glanced down at his clipboard and back up to me. "So are you ready for the next step?" His eyes held a hint of humor to them.

"Next step?" I cocked my head to the side in question.

"Yes," He smiled at me, "The next step, fatherhood."

The phone rang for the third time with no answer. I was beginning to suspect Sarah had caller ID on and was purposely not answering.

Finally, after I lost count, she picked up.

"Hello?" The sound of her voice made my heart jump.

"Hello. Sarah?"

"Matthew?" There was some silence, "Is that you?" I listened carefully to see if there would be any changes to her tone. I couldn't detect any.

"Yes, how are you?" I kept my voice steady.

"Fine, and you?" Her voice was low. Either she was working really well on not showing any emotion, or she absolutely didn't feel anything at all.

"I hope I'm not disturbing you." Okay now my voice was shaking and there was nothing I could do to stop it. "I just wanted to thank you for having me over the other night."

She was quiet for a second. "You're welcome," She paused, "It was, nice."

"Yes," I needed to do it now, before I lost my nerve, "I would like to return the favor if you don't mind, and ask if you and Henry would like to go out to dinner with me, when you're free."

More silence.

"Uhh...thank you," her voice trailed off.

My hand tightened around the phone, she was going to turn me down. I could feel it.

"Henry doesn't do really well in restaurants." She hurried.

"I understand." The letdown was so hard to handle. I wanted to sink down into the floor and just wallow in my misery. Of course she wouldn't want to be with me anymore. Why should she? I hadn't proven myself to her at all.

"How about you come over here instead?" Her voice suddenly got brighter, "I think I could make something we all like. Henry will be more relaxed in his own house."

My eyes snapped open. I had to hold on tight to not drop the phone.

"What do you think?" She was asking.

"I would really like that, thank you." Did that sound okay? Had I lost my voice? Did she hear me?

"Really? I mean, great. I think Henry would be happy to see you again. How about tomorrow? Six o'clock?"

"Six? Yes that's fine, perfect, I'll be there." My emotions were literally running rampant.

"We'll be waiting for you."

I leaned back into the sofa in relief. This shit was hard, harder that I ever thought it would be, and for a brief second I wondered if Sarah felt the same?


The entire day had been a disaster, starting with being fifteen minutes late for work, breaking my heel on that damn ramp that the entire office had been bugging corporate to fix for weeks, and to top it all off Clay called to tell me he was bringing his client to my house for dinner.

That meant I had to run to the grocery store right after picking Henry up from Daycare, in my broken heel, and grab something I could make fast, before Clay and his client got here.

Henry was in no mood to shop, he fussed the entire time, even refusing the small goldfish crackers that usually kept him happy and occupied, but not today.

I was exhausted by the time I walked through my front door. I had exactly one hour to change shoes, make dinner, feed Henry, and hopefully put him down for a much needed nap.

The phone kept ringing nonstop the entire time. I completely ignored it. I had no time to chat on the phone with Cassie, or anyone. I didn't even check to see who it was, I didn't think it was anyone important, they didn't leave a message.

I was still walking around barefoot hoisting Henry on one hip when Clay and his client arrived. I hadn't had time to fix my hair so I am sure I looked like a hot mess when I greeted them. At least dinner was ready.

Clay was sympathetic. He always was. He ushered me to my room and told me to put Henry to sleep. He said he would serve himself and his client. They would just be talking business anyways.

I cradled Henry in my arms for a while, humming to him softly. He finally closed his eyes, and I let myself daydream. My mind went back to the days when my life wasn't quite so hard, quite so hurried. I could never understand why it all had to fall apart or even when the downfall began.

But that wasn't the worse part. The worst part always was and always would be, that I wasn't enough. I would never be able to reach him, he would never talk to me.

The shrill of the phone made me jump, and I grabbed it quickly before it woke Henry up.

"Hello?" I was annoyed. What did Cassie want so badly?

"Hello. Sarah?"

I stared at the phone at loss for words. This sure as hell wasn't Cassie. "Matthew?" I tried to swallow but failed, "Is that you?" It was a ridiculous question, of course I knew it was him. I would never, no matter how hard I tried, forget that voice.

"Yes, how are you?"

How was I? I was a mess, thank you very much, a fucking mess.

"Fine." I struggled with my anger, "And you?" I didn't want to wake Henry and I didn't want to alert Clay that I was on the phone, so with the phone cradled between my shoulder and neck, I gently placed Henry down in the pack and play by my bed, keeping my voice as low as possible.

He was talking about not disturbing me or something like that, he was thanking me, but I wasn't listening to his words, I was listening to his voice, the one that held all my dreams and so many promises.

I froze still half crouched over the pack and play. That voice was shaking. I could hear it. It wasn't slurred or slow, just shaking, as if it were scared. It sent shivers through me.

I realized he stopped talking, was waiting for me to reply. The seconds ticked by, "You're welcome," It was just the way he sounded, so fragile, it still had an effect of me, "It was, nice."

I wasn't sure if I could handle him back into my life again. If I even wanted to go there again. He had taken me on a whirlwind of pain and I watched him, the man I once loved, die inside. He was gone, just like his brother, and no matter what I did, I couldn't reach him. And I knew I could never live through that again.

But here he was, with that shaky delicate voice, trying to ask me if he could take his son and me out to dinner. It caught me by surprise, threw me off guard. I had no freaking clue he was going to do this.

Henry stirred quietly in his pack and play. I could hear Clay's laugh from the dining room. I was torn.

"Uhh, thank you." My brain was racing, trying to think up some quick excuse. "Henry doesn't do really well in restaurants." Okay, that wasn't a lie.

"I understand."

And that was it, just those two little words. It sounded so hurt, he was so hurt, and sad, and alone and...

I just couldn't do it.

"How about you come over here instead?" Even I couldn't believe what I was saying. Still I kept on going, not even bother to think ahead of how I was going to tell Clay about this.

Clay didn't know I already seen Matthew, much less talk to him. I hadn't told anyone, not even Matthew's parents, and I talked to them almost daily.

I could hear it, the relief in his words, behind the surprise. It almost made me smile to myself.

I checked on Henry once more, he lay there sleeping peacefully, a small baby smile turning his lips upward.I brushed his hair back gently, "You'll see your daddy tomorrow." I whispered softly, "But we'll keep it a secret okay?"

For now it would be my little secret.

Well ours.

Mine, Matthew's, and Henry's.

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