“Andy!” Andy jumped up, stepping away from the railing and looking down at where Chrystal had her little hands latched to his jeans, a huge smile on her face.
“Chrys,” he sighed, hand on his chest, “Jeeze, don’t do that, scared the hell out of me.”
Chrystal gave an exaggerated gasp, “You swore!”
Andy’s lips twitched up and he knelt down tickling the little girl’s stomach, “You scared the pee outa me, then.”
“Ewe!” Chrystal shrieked, laughing, and Andy giggled before looking up.
Brad was standing a few paces away, hands tucked into his pockets, duffel bag hanging off one shoulder, staring out past the bridge, “M-morning, coach.”
Brad gave a slow mumble to show he had heard before turning to look at Andy, shock flickering through his blue eyes, “What happened?” he demanded, and Andy stared blankly at him for a moment.
Andy drew his eyebrows together, “Rude.”
Brad rolled his eyes and pulled out his cell phone, holding it in front of Andy’s face so he could see his reflection. It made his stomach lurch up to his throat. Dark bags layered under his green eyes, and a scrape traced his jaw before breaking into a light bruise beneath his eye.
His cousin never hit him on the face before, it was always easy to hide. He really must have been drugged up to mark up his face like that. Not a problem. Andy was used to hiding the injuries.
He hunched his shoulders and looked up at Brad from behind his eyelashes, “That’s embarrassing.”
“Embarrassing?” Brad slid his phone back into his pocket and Andy stood up.
“Well, last night on my way home, I wasn’t looking, and I guess I should’ve noticed the sign, like those stop signs, with wood posts. I walked into one. Didn’t notice it left a bruise,” he forced his face to twist into a concerned expression, “People are gonna get weird ideas now.”
Brad just narrowed his eyes, and Andy felt his heart thud against his ribs, because he could see in the man’s eyes that he didn’t believe Andy even a little, “Why are you lying?”
Andy felt the color drain from his face, which didn’t at all help his situation, “Why would you assume I was lying? That’s kind of mean. We have nothing if not trust.”
“Bull,” Brad reached out and snatched Andy’s chin in his fist, lifting up his head and feeling across the bruise, tracing it, “Running into a post doesn’t leave a bruise like this. This kind of curved scrape is made by a fist, someone wearing a ring,” he tapped the raw scrape, “That’s where this comes from, the ring,” he let go, and Andy felt dizzy from fear, “Don’t lie to a former bully about injuries received in a fight.”
Andy bit down on his bottom lip and bowed his head, fists curling, “I... I don’t understand you at all.”
Brad just stepped forward, taking Chrystal’s hand, “The people at the school will believe your little fib about the wooden post. I won’t. Don’t lie to me,” Andy shuffled to follow behind him, “So are you gonna tell me what happened?”
Andy thought for a moment before looking up with another lie, “Fine. I was mugged. Well, they didn’t take anything, maybe they were just blowing steam-.”
“You’re still lying.”
Andy grit his teeth as Brad stared at him, “How would you know?” he asked, voice shaky, giving away his fear.
Brad looked away again, letting Chrystal walk a few paces ahead, watching her as he spoke, “Because I’ve seen it all. The look in your eyes doesn’t tell me it was some stranger. Wanna know why?”
“Because you’re outside. You were outside alone just now, and you didn’t look worried about that stranger coming back for seconds. Normal people would be terrified of going out alone after something like that.”
“Well maybe I’m not normal!”
“No. What I think is you got that bruise from home. You’re at ease outside, away from your house. You’re always nearly an hour early for school, which leads me to believe you enjoy being away from home,” he reached out to trace the bruise again, “Safe from whoever did this.”
Andy’s eyes were glassy as he ground his teeth together. It was always so easy to lie about bruises if his cousin slipped up and marked his face, and he always said the lies so smoothly, no one ever questioned it! Brad... it’s like nothing got past him... he knew... he could see it, because he’d been the same way as Andy’s cousin at one point. A former abuser. The one person who could see through Andy like he was nothing but an open window.
The tears that fell were hot and stung the scrape on his face, but suddenly his face was against a chest, arms around his shoulders, fingers in his hair. He tensed up, so unused to comfort, but eventually raised his trembling arms to hold onto the back of Brad’s shirt. His crying was steady until he felt Chrystal’s arms around his leg. Only then did he break down into sobs, clinging to Brad like he was a thinning life line that could break any moment.
“I.... I-I don’t like going h-home,” Andy whimpered, figuring if Brad technically knew then there was nothing to hide.
“You need to tell someone.”
“I’m telling you, aren’t I?” Andy grumbled, shaking his head.
Brad set his chin on top of Andy’s blonde head, staring out across the street as he stroked through the soft hair, “I can only do so much.”
Andy gripped his shirt, “You have to swear you won’t tell anyone! Please! Don’t tell Mr. Creed or that counselor!”
Brad narrowed his eyes in thought. Ezekiel Creed was the instructor for the Winchester Project after school club, people were supposed to go to him with things like this, and Casey... Brad couldn’t count how many troubled students he’d sent to that office. He could understand being apprehensive, but talking to Casey seemed to really help people!
“Casey could help-.”
“No,” Andy pulled away, but Brad continued to hold his shoulders so he wouldn’t be able to wiggle further away, “I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want them to know. I hate you for figuring it out!”
Brad just smiled, tugging the sleeve of his shirt over his hand and holding Andy’s chin as he wiped the tears from his face, “I’m observant.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“I’m also your teacher and I could give you detention for calling me such insulting things. Even if they’re true.”
Andy scowled and sniffed, but didn’t pull away. He stared down at the concrete, “That... that’s why I never... dressed down.”
Brad paused before nodding, “Figures. There are bruises you don’t want people to see. Scars.”
Andy glared at Brad, “Why do you know so much about this?”
Brad’s smile was pained, “You said you knew about me, right? About when I was a senior here?”
“I know rumors.”
“There’s something you should understand about rumors. Although they’re all usually lies, there’s always a bit of truth to them.”
Andy’s stare was unwavering, “Are you trying to make me not like you? Cuz it’s not working.”
Brad scoffed and pulled away finally, “And you call me strange.”
“You are strange,” Andy wiped his eyes and ran after Brad as he walked towards the school, “And you never answered my question! How did you notice so quickly!”
“I’ve punched people before,” Brad said, taking Chrystal’s hand before crossing the street, “There are distinct patterns depending on how the hit was given and received. Even who the assailant is, sometimes you can tell. The person who hit you wore a ring.”
Andy lifted his hand to touch the scratch, “Yea... so?”
“That’s like a signature, and a sign of sadism. Wearing a ring when hitting someone... even I’ve never done that.”
Andy nodded, “And? About... me afraid to go home?”
“I’ve seen the same look in peoples eyes that I saw in yours,” Brad picked his daughter from the ground and balanced her against his hip as he looked at Andy, “The longing stare when you’re outside, like you wish you had somewhere better to hide. I’ve seen it before. More than once. The look someone gets when they feel completely trapped.”
Andy was staring down, playing with the zipper of his hoodie, “I don’t think I like you being smart,” he muttered, “You’re supposed to be a dumb jock.”
Brad laughed at that, shaking his head, “I was never good at sports anyway.”
“So you downgraded to a philosopher?” Andy sneered, and Brad chuckled, shaking his head.
“I won’t tell anyone, Andy,” Andy stood straighter, looking shocked, “but in exchange you need to promise me something.”
Andy hesitated, understandably, and nibbled on his bottom lip before nodding, “What?”
“I want you to tell me when you’re hurt, alright? If you need to talk, come to me. I’ll help you any way I can.”
Andy stared at Brad before looking down, “You’re nothing like the rumors said...”
“Yes... well,” Brad turned to the school, “Pain makes people change.”
“Hey Chrys?” Andy was watching Brad from where he was sitting on the benches with Chrystal in front if him, “What’s your dad like?”
Chrystal looked up at Andy with her pretty brown eyes, “I love Dada.”
Andy smirked, “Well I knew that. I mean is he a good Dada? Does he cook you yummy food and tuck you into bed and tickle your tummy?”
“Yes!” Chrystal seemed excited as she stood up on the bench just in front of Andy, holding out her toy dragon, “Dada made this!”
Andy could feel his lips twitching into a huge smile, and he reached out for the dragon, “Did he?”
“Yea,” Chrystal sat down, “He makes my hair pretty.”
“Yes, your hair is very pretty,” Andy agreed, reaching out to straighten the bow, “He better be careful. Someday soon a nice boy is gonna steal you away, pretty thing like you.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” Andy looked up, beaming at the sick look on Brad’s face, “She’s three.”
“So? I’m pretty sure I was five when I got my first crush.”
“Your parents must have loved you.”
“I have a crush,” Brad grew pale as Chrystal tugged Andy’s sleeve, and Andy beamed, leaning closer so she could whisper to him.
The entire time it looked like Brad was having an aneurism, eyes wide in horror and face the color of concrete. Andy giggled hysterically before bursting out into gut splitting laughter, bending over and clutching his stomach as Chrystal sat back on her knees and played with her dragon.
“What?! What did she say?!” Brad squeaked out, and Andy covered his face as he cleared his throat and stood up.
“She said that her teacher is super cute,” he keeled over laughing again, and Brad stared blankly at him before realization hit him in the face.
“Either way, absolutely not!” he set his hands on his hips and glared at Chrystal, “Ms. Erwin is way too old for you young lady!”
Andy kept his hands over his mouth as Chrystal looked up innocently, “But she’s pretty.”
“And too old for you! Why not think of a nice four year old instead?”
Chrystal held her hands up against her chest, “Cuz Ms. Erwin has bubbles here!”
Brad let out the most comical noise of despair that Andy had ever heard, hands on his face, and Andy laughed so hard he fell on his butt, arms clutching his stomach as tears left his eyes.
“Oh! My God! Coach! Your kid! I love her!”
Brad was red faced, hands in his hair, lips pressed so tight that they looked flat, and Chrystal smiled at him happily, “I think it’s time for a nap,” he said softly, picking his daughter up and moving towards his office, leaving Andy laughing on the floor.
When he came back, Andy was on his back, giggling as he wiped his eyes, and sat down on the bench heavily with a sigh, dropping his face into his hands.
“She’s a unique little girl,” Andy beamed, and Brad chuckled, running his hands through his hair.
“I swear she said that just to give me a heart attack. Honestly, an older woman? Why not a little girl her own age? Lord...”
Andy giggled and rubbed his eyes again, “Well look on the bright side. You don’t have to worry about unwanted pregnancy.”
Brad propped his elbow against his knee, chin in his hand, “True.”
They fell silent, until Andy spoke from where he was lying on the ground, “Can I ask?”
Andy rubbed his lips together before opening his mouth, “You really are... different... is it because of Chrys?”
Brad’s breath hitched, and he looked away, “Chrystal?”
“Yea?” Andy lifted an eyebrow, “What other Chrys is there?”
Brad nodded quickly, not meeting his eye, “Yea,” he said softly, “Let me ask you something. What rumors did you hear about me?”
Andy rolled his head so he was staring up, “That you were basically a whore,” he said bluntly, “Sleeping with every female who breathed. I also heard you only did that because you were in the closet and didn’t wanna accept being gay. Then I heard something about you molesting people and raping younger boys,” he said everything so nonchalantly, and it was easily heard in his voice that he didn’t believe any of it.
Brad’s hands were folded in front of his face, his eyes downcast, “I’ve done a lot of awful things,” he said softly, “I have... hurt people,” he dropped his hands, “I hurt my brother... Jaimie. He was openly gay, or... no, he wasn’t, he was in the closet, but he had a boyfriend and I saw them kissing, so I... overreacted. I was... so cruel to him. I let the people on my soccer team... hurt him, and I didn’t try to stop it,” he paused, not looking at Andy, who was still staring at the ceiling.
“And? You did more, right? If you wanna tell me...”
Brad laughed. He was telling a child... he was so pathetic, “Yea... I raped my best friend,” he hid his face in his hands, “It wasn’t rape at first because he asked me to and... I was so angry... I was angry that I enjoyed it, and I blamed him, so I... I made his life hell.”
“So you are gay?”
Brad was silent, still hiding in his hands, but he nodded, “Karma is a bitch,” he whispered, “He shot himself, my friend did.... right in front of me... and I deserved it. I went comotose for a few days because of it, and when I woke up I drank. I tried to drink myself to death, because I figured it would be good enough atonement for what I’d done...”
Andy was chewing on his lip, not really phased, and he nodded, “And?”
Brad raked his fingers through his hair, “Somehow Chrystal’s mother, Denise, got me into bed when I was intoxicated. I didn’t even remember when I woke up, cuz she was gone. I just remember feeling.... disgusting. What she did... was my first time with a woman... and my last. It was when I decided to come out, and my parents kicked me out. Nine months later I had Chrystal.”
“You named her...”
Brad dropped his hands to his lap, “Yea. I named her after the two people I hurt most. Jaimie and... Chris.... her name is Chrystal Jamie Richardson. I figured... taking care of her, making sure she was always safe, raising her, doing something right... it would be atonement. I know I’ll never be forgiven by my brother, or by my friend, but... that’s okay. They’re both happy. And I have Chrystal. When she’s happy and an adult, then maybe I’ll be able to forgive myself... maybe.”
Andy sat up and scooted closer, standing before sitting beside Brad, looking up, “My dad was in jail most of his life,” he said, “He used to rob convenient stores because of how poor he was as a teen. One day he accidentally knocked over an old man, killing him. He went to jail, but he never threw out the idea that he could do better. He could atone. When he got out, that’s what he did. My mom married him despite his past, they had me.... my dad always said that no matter what anyone has done in the past, there’s always, always a chance to do better,” he looked down, “That’s why I don’t care about those rumors about you. I really don’t care what you’ve done in the past. You’re different now, you’re trying to fix it. You deserve a second chance, just like everyone else.”
Brad’s eyes were burning as he grit his teeth, tears staining his jeans as they swam in his eyes and fell down his face, “I fucked up.”
“Yea, you did,” Andy shrugged, “So did my dad. No matter what, if you’ve raped someone, killed someone, I really believe there should always be a second chance for someone. Especially if you were young when you screwed up. If we gave up on humanity because of every little thing... we’d be extinct already.”
Brad was covering his eyes, his shoulders trembling, “You... you can’t honestly believe that I... deserve that...”
“Everyone does. That’s my opinion at least. My dad was given a second chance, and he made a good life for himself! You can do the same if you really want to.”
Brad shook his head, wiping his eyes, but the tears kept flowing, “You’re seventeen-.”
“- and you seem like more of an adult than I am,” he gave a shaky sigh, “I really have a lot to learn, don’t I?”
“That’s fine,” Andy smiled and leaned closer to Brad, who looked at him weakly, “I can be your coach,” Brad scowled and rolled his eyes, and Andy giggled, setting his forehead against Brad’s shoulder, “I’m joking.”
Brad stared ahead, the tears slowing, and he looked down at his folded hands. Andy was... amazing. Despite everything Brad had done, Andy seemed to honestly not care. He really did believe that Brad deserved a second chance, and if that was right.... then Brad felt if he fucked up again, he’d be letting the boy down.
“Alright,” he said softly, wiping at his eyes, “Second chance... maybe I can... maybe I can do better.”
“I know you can do better,” Andy smiled, “That little girl in there is proof you’re a good man. People just need to take a step back and notice it.”