Scott was going to do something stupid. He’d been trying to talk himself out of it since Natalie had left last night, but that had all been in vain. He wanted her. Screw that, he needed her. He needed her more than he needed his next breath. Most days he felt like he was drowning in his self-pity and self-loathing. Natalie eased that, she eased all of it. Without even trying she gave him the one thing he’d always wanted, acceptance. She never asked him to be someone else, she never wanted him to be something else. She accepted him, wholly and completely, just the way he was.
He’d thought he’d blown his chance with her, blown it eight years ago when he’d let her walk out of his life. Then last night, when he’d just stepped out of the shower, he’d seen the desire in her eyes, the attraction. For that briefest of moments she wanted him too. Maybe she didn’t need him as desperately as he needed her, in the way he needed her, but she had wanted him. For those few seconds she had wanted him.
That was something he could work with. He could start there, off the attraction, and eventually he’d make her fall in love with him again. He had to. The biggest mistake of his life had been letting her go. Now she was back, and he wasn’t letting her walk away this time, not without a fight.
“Bryce stop.” Eliza’s voice came, travelling through the vents to where Scott sat, waiting to hear something interesting. “Now turn around.” There was a pause where Scott assumed Bryce was turning to face his mother. “What’s with the sunglasses?”
“We have this project at school.” Bryce replied and for the first time since Scott had met him the little boy sounded small, defeated, no longer speaking with that know-it-all voice of his, no longer confident he knew it all. “We have to spend one day living like a blind person, experiencing the world like they do.”
“But you can still see.” It was Pete talking now.
“Not as well.” Bryce replied.
“Take off the sunglasses.” Eliza commanded.
Another silence, and although Scott couldn’t see what was happening from where he sat outside he could piece it together. Bryce, who was just as stubborn as both his parents would try to keep those sunglasses on while Pete and Eliza would wait, both sternly staring him down until he broke.
“What happened?” Eliza eventually asked.
“Nothing.” Bryce replied, his voice so soft Scott almost didn’t hear it.
“Something happened.” Pete said. “Who did it?”
“No one.” Bryce exploded, raising his voice to a scream. “I walked into a door handle.”
“You told us the kids had stopped picking on you.” Pete said. There was another pause where Eliza and Pete waited for Bryce to say something, but no reply came. Scott could picture it, Bryce standing there stone faced, arms crossed across his chest, waiting for it to be over.
The three of them went back and forth for a while. Pete relentlessly pushing Bryce to talk while Eliza remained silent, only injecting a couple times to tell her husband to calm down, Bryce would talk when he was ready. Pete ignored her, and pushed and pushed and pushed, eventually breaking Bryce.
“I made Sarah James cry and Cooper Bronson punched me.” He exploded.
“Why did you make her cry?” Pete wanted to know.
“I just did.” Bryce replied.
“Bryce, tell us what…”
“She kissed me, as a joke.” Bryce explained, his voice filled with shame. “We kissed and then all of a sudden there was laughing. The whole third grade class was watching us, and they were all laughing. Then Sarah started laughing too.”
“And?” Eliza prompted.
“And I got mad at her and made her cry. Then Cooper punched me. Can I go now?”
“Bryce we need to talk…”
“You can go.” Eliza interrupted.
More silence followed and Scott assumed Bryce had left, that Eliza and Pete were waiting for him to be gone before discussing the matter between themselves.
“Why did you let him go?” Pete asked once Bryce was out of earshot.
“Why did you push him to talk about it?” She shot back.
“We need to know what’s going on with him. He was punched in the face.”
“And he would have told us, eventually, when he had time to calm down and didn’t feel so humiliated. Who the fuck is this Sarah James bitch anyway?”
“Eliza.” Pete exclaimed. “She’s eight.”
“I don’t care how old she is, I’m gonna kill her.”
Scott rose to his feet, letting the conversation drift into the background as he walked away from the vent and into the house. He didn’t know what was driving him forward, he didn’t particularly like Bryce, but he just had this urge to go check on the kid, make sure he was okay.
Maybe it was because he knew how he felt. Sure, no girl had ever pretended to like him just to make fun of him later, but he did know what it was like to be the outcast, the kid living in the shadow of the great and wonderful Pete. There was no way Bryce would have been able to avoid that burden. He might even have it worse. He was Pete’s son, he was expected to follow in his footsteps, and when Pete was eight everyone already loved him. They weren’t making fun of him like they were his son.
When he reached the door to Bryce’s room he knocked to announce his presence, then entered before Bryce could refuse to let him in. Bryce’s eyes went wide as he recognised Scott standing in the doorway, and he quickly reached for an enormous pair of sunglasses, shoving them onto his face to hide the big purple bruise covering his left eye.
“I didn’t say you could come in.” Bryce barked.
“Got punched in the face huh?”
“I didn’t get punched in the face.” He protested. “Why would I get punched? I’m a model student. I’m on the honour roll, I’ve never been in trouble.”
“Those things don’t stop you from getting punched in the face. If anything they make you a target. Plus, I already saw the bruise.”
“Oh.” Bryce said, shrugging and taking off the sunglasses. “Well, I’m not gonna talk about it, so you can leave now.”
“I also know about Sarah James.” Scott admitted. “I know she pretended to like you, and that when you kissed her everyone laughed.”
“How do you know that?” Bryce demanded.
“I have my ways.” Scott said, sitting down on the bed beside Bryce. He didn’t say anything, he just sat there, waiting. Maybe Bryce would never talk, maybe he would, but if he did it would be his choice.
“Who does that?” Bryce said, breaking the silence. “Who pretends to like someone just to make fun of them? It’s not fair. It was an ugly thing to do. So I told her this and she started crying, like I was the one who’d hurt her.”
“And then she punched you?”
“No, Cooper Bronson did. He also likes her, and I made her cry so he punched me.”
“Wait, Bronson? I went to school with a Bronson. Idiot.” Scott commented. “You reckon it’s the same family?”
“It has to be.” Bryce said. “Cooper’s a moron. He can’t even spell the word smell. He thought it went S.H.M.I.L.”
“Exactly.” Bryce said, throwing his hands up into the air. “But everyone likes him and hates me. I should just be more like him.”
“What the hell for?”
“Because then I won’t get punched and Sarah James will actually want to kiss me.”
“You don’t wanna be kissing Sarah James. Those girls are nothing but trouble, and not the good kind.”
“Well, the good kind won’t want to kiss me either now. Not after this.”
“Look, my first kiss was just as bad.” He said. “It was with Candice O’Connel, during a game of spin the bottle. She told everyone I bit her lip and spent the rest of the night crying in ‘pain.’” On the word pain, Scott made air quotes with his fingers. Candice had always been a drama queen, and he most certainly had not bitten her lip. “No girl would kiss me for ages after that.”
“You’re not helping.”
“My point is, eventually, someone did want to kiss me again. And someone will want to kiss you too. I promise.”
“You’re promises don’t mean much around here.”
“So we’re back to hating me? Fantastic. I missed this.”
“I never stopped hating you.”
“I guess not.”
He rose to his feet and made his way to the door. Bryce was okay, he was back to his old, bratty self, just like he was supposed to be. Scott was putting this down as a win, even if it hadn’t changed Bryce’s opinion of him.
“Scott?” Bryce’s voice called.
“Yeah?” He said, turning around to face him.
“My dad’s first kiss, was it bad too?”
And there it was. The pressure to live up to Pete’s legacy. Just like with everything in Pete’s life his first kiss had been good. He’d been 13, and it’d been with Nadia Rogers, the hottest girl in the seventh grade. They’d become boyfriend and girlfriend after that, and even years after they’d broken up Nadia still told the story of her amazing first kiss with Pete.
“Worse.” Scott lied. “Not only was it bad it only happened when he was 16. You’re doing better than he ever did.”
Bryce gave him a small smile, and his eyes softened toward Scott. The kid was totally warming up to him.
That realisation made Scott happier than he thought it would. He’d thought he hated this kid just as much as he seemed to hate him, but somehow Bryce had grown on him like a fungus. Scott just hoped he was growing on Bryce the same way.
When Scott came down for dinner later that night he knew Pete was gonna piss him off. He could just tell. Pete had that look in his eyes, the look he always got before he told Scott something he wouldn’t like.
“What?” Scott asked, cutting to the chase.
“Ryan and Natalie are coming over tonight to swim.”
“Seriously?” Pete asked. “So you need to clear out. They’re my friends, I don’t want you here irritating Ryan and confusing Natalie.”
“I should be so lucky.” Scott replied.
“This is exactly why you can’t be here tonight.”
“You need to chill brother. All this stress is only gonna speed up the ageing process.”
“Then stop giving me reasons to stress.” He said turning away from Scott and heading back up the stairs. “I expect you gone after dinner.”
There was no way in hell Scott was leaving. Not after last night with Natalie. Not only was she coming over, she was coming over to swim, and that meant one thing. She would be stripping down into a swimsuit. No way was he missing that. As an added bonus, he’d get to strip down too, maybe even get a few more heated looks from her.
The thought made him shiver with excitement. He could hardly wait. Pete’s wrath would be totally worth it. Although Pete didn’t really have all that much of a wrath. When he was angry he just gave you the silent treatment, something Scott didn’t mind all that much.
Movement caught his eye and he looked up to see Eliza entering the kitchen. An idea formed, and he quickly followed her. If anyone could challenge Pete’s authority, it was Eliza.
“For a Good Time Call Eliza.” He greeted.
“I hate it when you call me that.” She said.
“You used to like it. Used to say it sounded like a compliment coming from me.” He pointed out.
“That was when we were in high school and you meant it as a compliment. Now you’re just the guy stuck in the past.”
“How did this happen?” He asked. “How did you go from ‘For a Good Time Call Eliza’ to ‘Accountant Eliza?’”
“I’m not an accountant.”
“My question still stands.” He said. “Why are you pretending to be this person?”
She sighed, putting away the bowls she’d been clearing out of the dishwasher before turning to him with a bored expression.
“I’m not pretending.” She said. “This is me now.”
“And all the snippy little comments?”
“I always made them. The difference was back then I kept them to myself, and now I have the balls to say them out-loud.”
“And the business suit?” He asked. “The ugly haircut, being serious all the time? That’s not you. I called you ‘For a Good Time Call Eliza’ for a reason.”
“I know, I give the best blowjobs in the county.”
“You never gave me one.”
“You only wanted them from Natalie.” She said, stressing Natalie’s name. They both laughed, remembering the days she used to torment him about his feelings for Natalie, long before he had the guts to do anything about it.
“You used to have fun.” He said, getting back to the point. “Now I haven’t seen you smile once.”
“Works been tough lately.”
“Work or home?” He challenged, raising an eyebrow. They both knew the truth. He’d overheard conversations between her and Pete through the air-vent he sat beside whenever he got bored. They never spoke about anything, they tried, asking each other about their day, but the conversation always fizzled. Now they were doing things like date nights, trying to recapture some of the old magic. Scott wasn’t convinced there’d ever been magic. Pete had never been interested in Eliza when they’d been younger. Then, a year before everything with Natalie had blown up, they’d suddenly gotten married.
“I have to get dinner ready.” She said, changing the subject.
“Two more things.” Scott said, his voice stopping her as she tried to leave.
“Ahh, what?” She groaned.
“Ryan, do you like him?”
She rolled her eyes and took a deep breath, contemplating telling Scott the truth. It probably wasn’t a good idea, both of them knew it, Scott needed to get used to having Ryan around, the guy wasn’t going anywhere. He didn’t need to be bitching about the guy behind his back, it would only make him bitter and even more pathetic.
“Let’s put it this way.” Eliza began. “He dresses like he’s going to a country club, but there’s no country club anywhere near here. And his hair, he styles it to look messy.”
“I thought so.” Scott said.
“I mean go to bed, toss and turn a little, and wake up. You’ll save yourself a tonne of money on hair gel. I don’t hate him, he’s just a bit anal-retentive. That’s all I’m saying about him. What’s the second thing?”
“Pete asked me to clear out tonight.”
“I hate when he says clear out.” She complained.
“Well I want to stick around.”
“You think that’s a good idea?” She asked, giving him a disapproving look.
“Probably not.” He admitted. “But I am in a good mood.”
“That’s not a good thing.” She said. “When you’re in a good mood you talk, and tell stupid jokes, and purposely get on everyone’s nerves because you find it funny.”
“Then it’s a good thing you don’t like Ryan. Imagine how much I could wind him up.”
“Fine.” She agreed after thinking about it for a moment. “But there’s one condition.”
“Pete can kick you out whenever he wants to.”
“He’ll kick me out straight away.”
“Then you better behave.” She said smiling a mischievous smile. There she was accusing him of doing things just to irritate people, but now she’d just done the exact same thing to him. The hypocrite. “This is fun. I can see why you want to do it.”
She smiled one last smile, enjoying the power she had over him as she began to exit the kitchen in search of Pete.
“Its good to finally see you smiling.” He called after her. It still wasn’t a real smile, it still didn’t light up her eyes, but it was something at least.
“Shut up or I’ll change my mind.” She called as she disappeared into the massive house.
He wanted to follow her again, or maybe just go to the air vent and listen to her put Pete in his place, making it clear who was in charge around here. That was one thing Scott liked about the new Eliza. She was no longer the insecure girl with the crush on the golden boy. She didn’t let anyone mess with her anymore, didn’t let anyone walk all over her. It was good, but at the same time it seemed to come at a price. She was assertive, but she wasn’t happy. Scott had done a similar thing, given up his shot at happiness for what he'd believed to be the greater good. Now he wasn’t sure he'd made the right choice.
He smiled as he thought about the night that lay ahead. He could just picture Ryan’s face now. Screw Eliza’s threats, he was gonna mess with Ryan, give the guy a real reason to punch him. It would be fun.