His heart leaped in his chest as he almost fell backwards out the window again. He had to be quick and quiet, he reminded himself. Being seen by anybody was not an option. The glare cast by the Audi's windows from the streetlights blinded him momentarily as he took a backward glance out the window. He felt a powerful surge of resentment towards everybody in it. His whole life had come down to this; breaking into his own house to get his things and never come back. He didn't even know why. His hand was being forced; if he had a choice, if there was any other way to get out of this, he would've gladly taken it. He could feel his anger intensifying and he shut his eyes and clenched his fists. After he had regained some composure, he began to get his things together. His room looked strange and alien this time of the night, the shapes of the furniture casting oddly shaped shadows against the blue walls. He noticed that it had not been touched and everything looked exactly how he had left it. His clothes were strewn across the floor as always, the clean mingled with the dirty and he almost tripped over something as he made his way to his closet to get his bag. He looked down and saw that it was the neck of his Paul Reed Smith his sister had bought him after he had come back from music camp last year. His muscles tensed and he pushed it back under his bed with his foot and resumed shoving as many clothes as he could into his sports bag. He got the shock of his life when he heard a loud grunting noise. Thinking that somebody had heard him, he rushed quietly into his bathroom and shut the door. He was leaning against the door, heart thumping, eyes closed, when he realised that it was just his father. He always did that when he was asleep. His sister obviously hadn't called them yet. The adrenaline pumping through his body was making him shake violently and he clenched his fists again to steady himself. He flicked the light switch on so that he wouldn't slip on the tiles and began to grab his toiletries from the shelf below his mirror. He paused to look at his reflection. It looked pale and fatigued. His hair was messy and dishevelled and his usually lively eyes were bloodshot. It frightened him. It didn't look like him. He ran a hand absently along the healing line of stitches on his neck; even though they were neatly done, they still hurt nonetheless. He took one final look at himself in the mirror, one last look at himself as the Tristan Illae he once was and exited back into his room. As he grabbed his passport off the counter, the framed picture on his bedside table caught his eye. He seemed to be so much more aware of everything in his room tonight, he thought to himself. It was a picture of himself and Durean. They were grinning widely, with one arm on the other's shoulder, from beneath a canopy of large pine trees. He was pulling a face and Durean was letting out a belly laugh with his mouth wide open. A lump rose in his throat as he thought about all his friends and if he'd ever see them again. He could feel the tears welling up in his eyes as he thought about this and forced himself to wrench his eyes away from the picture on his bedside table. He resumed the hurried packing of his suitcase and as he did so, he could hear his father snoring through hid bedroom wall. It made him physically ache to think that that snore would never jerk him awake at night ever again and at that point the tears just began flowing of their own accord, spilling down his cheeks and onto the clothes he was packing. He fought to keep his sobs quiet and controlled and wondered furiously why his sister was taking so long to call them. It took him a moment to realise that he was done packing. This was it. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and took one last look at his room. Home. The Audi's engine began to purr and he took a deep breath, slung his bag over his shoulder and climbed out his window just as the front door opened and the sound of an anguished wail pierced his ears.
He was going to throw up, he just knew it. One more step and he was either going to die, throw up, or pass out. It felt as if he was drowning in has own sweat. He could feel the muscles in his calves beginning to seize up and his lungs burning as if on fire. The heat was too intense. The sun was glaring down at him like some relentless, demonic eye. Why on earth did he even bother to put himself through all this anyway? Deep breaths, he urged himself, deep breaths. Mr Powell's constant shouting was not making it any easier. Since when did cool downs become so strenuous? I mean the whole idea was to cool down your muscles, not warm them up again. He pondered this angrily as he jogged around the track, the dry grass scrunching under his heavy feet and it wasn't long before he finally finished his final lap. Tristan arrived at the group of panting, profusely sweating and extremely fatigued hockey boys and gulped down his water as fast as he could. It was wonderfully refreshing and as it made its way down his throat, felt as if it was dousing the fire that had been burning in his chest the whole afternoon. He swept his wet hair from his face, slumped to the ground and began changing out of his sweaty gear.
'Alright boys listen' said Mr Markus Powell in between the huffing and puffing escaping from the boys. 'We've got a match against Pinewood Academy on Wednesday-'
There was a collective groan. Pinewood were their toughest opponents and they were almost definitely going to lose, dismally at that.
'-on Wednesday' he ploughed on, 'and I've decided to place Tristan further forward as striker'.
Everybody's heads turned towards him and Xavier gave him a huge grin. Tristan jerked his head up, midway through pulling off his drenched, stinking socks. He had a bad habit of not paying attention to what people said so he was a bit confused as to why his name had just been mentioned.
'I'm sorry I beg your pardon?' he mumbled. What did I do?'
'Striker dude you've just been put up as striker!' laughed Xavier as he slapped him on the back.
'Huh?' he said in disbelief, his eyes popping slightly, 'Why me?'
Striker was a big deal in their team. This was mainly because there were so many good players who felt they deserved the glory of being given the opportunity to score during a match. It was like being promoted from manager to CEO. Honestly, he didn't really want to do it purely because it involved so much running but it did, admittedly, feel good to be considered for such an important position. He felt great, but in the back of his mind he knew that there were many people, one in particular, who were going to give him a hard time about it. Aaron, their left link, looked as if he wanted to protest to this, and Mr Powell seemed to notice this, but he didn't give either of them a chance to respond.
'Not now Fletcher,' he said with a stern glance to Aaron. 'Now boys I know this is going to be a difficult match, okay maybe a very difficult match' , he admitted as this statement was met with sceptical looks from the team, 'but this is exactly the kid of attitude I don't want. There are going to be three other schools there so we can't afford to slack. This week is our last week of practise before we leave so I want 100% from all of you. Now I'm still looking for confirmation as to who those other three schools are so we can get our strategies together. We can't accept defeat before we've even played, that's not something I'd expect from grown high school boys. Now you will pull yourselves together and change this attitude of yours or so help me God I will make you run 10 laps everyday for the rest of the season! I put Tristan in front because I know he can handle it and if you have a problem with it, I suggest you leave this team right now.'
Nobody moved and there was absolute silence.
'I want you all here again tomorrow, same time. We have a lot of things to discuss before Wednesday's match. See you guys tomorrow.'
As soon as they were dismissed, the chatter began. He knew exactly what it was about, but chose not to listen to it. He'd worked very hard for this, or at least he thought he had, and he wasn't going to let anybody, let alone jealous team-mates spoil it for him. He slung his hockey bag over his shoulder and as he did so, Xavier jumped over and gave him another slap on the back.
'Man! Wow this is crazy! I can't believe Mr P just did that. Show a little life man! It's not every day you get moved to such a huge position. Durean is not going to believe this!'
He forced a smile. In all honesty, he didn't have much to smile about but his best friend's grin was infectious. Xavier Branson was loud, confident (but those two went hand in hand, didn't they?), annoyingly good looking, remarkably talented (on the hockey field that is) and he knew it.
'Really you'd swear it was you or something. Just don't keep mentioning it, I feel sick just thinking about all that running. I hope he's not expecting me to suddenly become player of the year because of this. I mean I play right half for goodness' sake! What was he thinking? As if I don't have enough to worry about now I'm going to have up my game threefold because of damn Aaron. I'm telling you right now he's going to have something to say about it, as always. Like he hasn't screwed my life up enough already. I'm just going to make a complete arse of myself in front of a large group of people as always.'
'Come on man. Seriously? You will if you think like that. He wouldn't have risked such a big move if he didn't think you couldn't pull it off. We're playing against the strongest school in the area soon. Yeah alright maybe he could've given you a bit more notice but you're just going to have to grit your teeth and do it. His word is law. Just remember if you aren't willing to do it, there're 10 other guys on this team willing and able to'.
He was right. The other boys would be after his blood after today's debacle and he didn't want to give them a reason to get him kicked off the squad. Xavier stopped the moment becoming awkward when he continued the conversation.
'So,' he asked with a wide smile, 'how's it going with you and Lee?'
'It's not,' Tristan replied immediately. He'd actually been thinking about a lot the past few days. 'That's my problem. I mean one moment she'll be looking at me funny like she wants to pick up where we left off then she'll go all Ice Queen on me.'
Xavier laughed at him. Tristan knew that his best friend had much more experience than he had and that he was probably going to point out everything he had done wrong. Again. 'Fickleness thy name is woman!' he exclaimed dramatically. 'There's one thing I can tell you and it's that girls want you to grovel man. Grovel like your life depends on it! I mean look at it from her point of view. You guys get really close, have this insane make out session at camp and then you barely make a move on her man.'
'But she's the one who told me to lay off in the first place!' He was beginning to grow frustrated. 'I mean it's not like I haven't done anything. She's just so stubborn. It's like she's looking for a reason for us not to hook up. She likes me, that I know but she's just so….' He sighed in frustration. They stopped at the tap to fill up their water bottles. Xavier took a long gulp and continued his criticism.
'Dude, it's like I've told you before. You need to be-'
'"Subtle yet persistent",' Tristan finished. He didn't know how many times Xavier had told him that already but he still had no idea how to do it. His friend slung his arm casually around his shoulder.
'Have no fear buddy!' he said cheerfully. 'I'll take you under my wing and show you the proper way to snag a hottie like Lee. I mean do you see the way everybody looks at you when you walk around her?'
'Yeah and my out-of-the-blue promotion is going to make life so much easier,' he said, wishing life wasn't so depressing.
'Nah man, have no worries. It'll work itself out. Just think about it, this is totally going to boost your chances of getting to nationals. You know how seriously they take Powell. If he promotes you it means you're kicking some serious ass out there.'
Tristan adjusted his hockey bag on his shoulder. 'Yeah suppose you're right. This year's just really shit. Honestly, having Lee around is just screwing with my mind man. Screwing it over'.
Not wanting to put up with Xavier any longer, he made up an excuse about having to be home early, bade them goodbye, and made his way to Lee's house. He was sure that she'd definitely be better company than they were. The music blaring in his earphones made the walk there seem much shorter than usual was and he was really beginning to feel the effects of running the gauntlet with their hockey coach days before a big meet. After his walk he arrived at her house and knocked on the front door. It was beginning to get cooler and darker as the sun set and he suddenly realised how bad he must smell after all that running. As he lifted his armpit to check, the front door opened and Lee smiled up at him. He felt his heart jump and a burning sensation that had nothing to do with this afternoon's torture crept up his face.
'Tristan! Hey! What're you doing here? I thought you were going out with Xavier ad Audrey tonight.'
'Oh so you don't want me here? Alright fine I'll just be going then-'
She laughed her loud laugh.
'Yes very funny. Come in I was just about to start on supper.'
'I sure as hell wasn't going to spend my Friday night enduring soft porn. I mean really! As if he doesn't get laid enough already.'
'Well you know him. Anything to get attention!'
They walked through the neatly ordered living room towards the oak staircase. Even though they'd only met a year ago at music camp, it felt like a lifetime. She was that gust of fresh, sometimes crisp and biting, air he needed when things got too weird for him. She opened the door to her room and they walked in. Her room was in a total state and it being so big only made the clutter seem worse. She insisted that just because she was a girl, it by no means meant that she had to be unnaturally neat and tidy. She, like him, had a deep set passion for music and it was obvious everywhere you looked. The walls were a shade of deep burgundy and she'd hung the dragon painting he'd done for her on the wall above her bed and it pleased him immensely. The white curtains were drawn back and her computer desk was cluttered with CD's and pages of music. There were more pages of music atop the black baby grand piano in the corner and he caught a glimpse of her red and white Stratocaster in the corner. There were a bunch of amplifiers and cords stacked untidily next to it and a painting of a field propped up against them. Her walls were plastered with photographs of her and her friends and big posters of musician. On her bedside table sat a framed photograph of her and her brother, Julian. They were standing together in front of a large tree at Bluewater Estate, with Julian behind her, his arms wrapped around her shoulders. They both had wide grins on their faces and he could just barely make out his shadow against the dark bark of the tree. The fluffy carpet felt soft between his toes after the afternoon of running and he grabbed himself a seat on one of the black armchairs.
'Just dump your stuff somewhere in the corner there,' she indicated absent-mindedly as she looked around for something. 'Must've left it downstairs…. Oh well. So, what brings you over?' she said with a wide smile. She looked so friendly, so welcoming. This left him feeling slightly dazed and his mind went blank. He remembered what she'd said, but he really could not help himself. The way he looked at her with bright, chocolate brown eyes, the way her short, coarse hair stood up and the way her olive skin glistened with sweat from the heat forcefully reminded him of last summer at music camp. He cut the memory off even before it fully formed. It was going on a year now and he still felt himself turn to mush around her. He knew better than to say something because she'd just bulldoze him in an argument and besides, he'd spent the past year building up a convincing cover and he didn't want to blow it now. He decided that looking at the fluffy, maroon carpet was his best bet right now.
He shrugged his shoulders. 'I just said. Xavier and his girl were being super gross so I decided to be courteous and allow them their privacy. Besides, do I need a reason to come see you now?'
'Well no. But I mean it's like the third time this week.'
He tried to think of an excuse for this because he knew he was in violation of the terms of their agreement but he was finding it difficult to focus. She was looking at him expectantly and he decided that maybe he should give Xavier's strategy a go. Trying not to sound any different than he normally did, he resumed the conversation as he usually would have.
'I…,' he said slowly as he tried to think of something to complete the sentence with. Then he thought of something, 'I was just wondering if you were going to the dance next week?'
She frowned. 'The dance? I don't know. Maybe. I'm not really in the mood for that kind of thing I'd rather make some music or something. And besides, we won't be here, remember? We're leaving for the sport.'
'Oh. Okay.' She leant casually against her black piano and studied him as though he were a particularly difficult mathematical problem. Unfortunately for him, her unrelenting gaze was very disarming and he felt blank again. She looked as though she was grappling with a very difficult decision. She turned her head and looked out her window as she spoke.
'You remember what we agreed on, don't you?' She sounded ever so slightly tense. Seeing the very rare gap in her defences, he jumped at the chance and made the most of it. Subtle yet persistent, he reminded himself. He stood up and walked towards her. This felt so familiar, he thought. He'd been suppressing this feeling all year and soon he was standing so close he could feel the heat coming off her. She turned her head towards him and she looked surprisingly calm and composed. Her features remained unchanging as she studied him. He really had no idea what was driving him, it wasn't like him to be like this, but whatever it was, he liked it. Very much. He leant a little closer and she abruptly put a hand to his chest to stop him. He thought he could hear her breathing just a little faster and this satisfied him enough not to continue.
'Sorry,' he whispered with a smile and backed off. Lee looked flustered, as though she'd just been jogging up stairs. She cleared her throat and rearranged her features into a determinedly impartial expression. Hiding emotion was one thing she'd always been better than him at and he just shook his head and smiled.
'Come on let's go downstairs. My mum's going to be home any minute now.
He shrugged and followed suit. When they got downstairs, she began unpacking pots and pans. This seemed to improve her mood because she began to chat cheerfully again.
'So how was hockey today? Is your team also playing against Pinewood?'
'Yeah we are,' he said, oven dish in hand. 'Mr Powell moved me to striker today.'
His heart jolted as he thought about it. He hadn't really taken it in yet. Lee stopped chopping the onions. She gave one of her loud laughs again.
'You?' She laughed again. 'Oh my goodness that's great! But why? You're like the laziest guy on the team!'
'Hey that's not true!' he said indignantly as he gave her a playful nudge. It somehow felt different to when he usually did. He was very aware of how warm her skin was against his. He ignored it.
'Mm yeah sure it isn't.'
'Really I don't know why he did it though. Aaron looked like he was about to bust himself an artery he was so angry. Wait, let me,' he offered as she struggled to take down the macaroni from the top shelf. He reached for it, and as he did, he inhaled a nose full of her fruity shampoo. He liked the smell and it distracted him slightly as he handed her the jar.
'There,' he said slightly breathlessly. His face was feeling a bit warm. He wondered if it was just because of the steam coming from the pan.
She hesitated for a split second as she took the jar, as if she wanted to say something to him, but seemed to think better of it and resumed cooking. The kitchen was beginning to become stuffy and Lee seemed to notice this because she walked across the kitchen and switched the air conditioning on. As he sat there and watched her while she worked, he, for some unexplained reason, started to notice small mannerisms about her that he never did before. Like how she'd sing a song quietly and when she forgot the lyrics, would immediately sing another one instead; and the way she moved. It was difficult not to notice. She seemed to feel his eyes on the back of her head because at that moment she turned around to look at him. He cleared his throat. Just as he opened his mouth to say something, Lee's mother came in. Miss Anderson was a slender, attractive woman who made it obvious how well she took care of herself. Her skin was a much darker shade of caramel than Lee's yet it was just as impeccable. At first glance, she seemed to be a prissy, vain woman, but in all actuality she was a kind, warm hearted woman who loved her family immensely. Her hair was still ridiculously neat; it looked as if she hadn't even left for work yet.
'Mm that smells good. What's for supper?' she asked enthusiastically as she peered around the corner. 'Tristan darling hello! I haven't seen you over here in ages. How are you?'
'Me? I-I'm doing fine. Thanks for asking,' he said shyly.
He never knew why but he always felt a bit sheepish around Lee's mother. Even though she smiled warmly whenever she spoke to him, he always had the feeling that she was sizing him up. He thought he had an idea of why this was, but didn't think it probable. Lee was now placing the macaroni and cheese mixture in the oven; it smelled delicious. Mrs Anderson seemed to read his thoughts.
'You're staying for supper I presume,' she asked as she took off her watch.
'Yes, yes I am. I told my mum that I'd be back late anyway.'
'Great! Then you can tell me all about how you sport is going. How's your sister by the way? I saw her the other day in town; she's getting really big now.'
'Nah she's fine. She just eats all these funny things and apparently she's a nightmare to be around. Rob said he's counting the days until the twins are due.'
Miss Anderson gave him a knowing smile and began to reminisce over the times she was pregnant with Julian then with Lee. Probably having already heard this many times before, Lee decided to interrupt her.
'Mum, we're playing Pinewood next week. Miss Carter told us we're going to have to sleep over so I won't be home for most of the week.'
Her mother looked slightly crestfallen at this.
'But I wanted us to go out next week. I hardly ever see you anymore. If you're not at school, you're locked up in your room fussing over that piano your dad got you.'
'Mum, please. Really?' she said exasperatedly, unfolding her arms in annoyance. 'The reason that happens is because every time I have free time, you aren't here. You're at work. I can't adjust my life to suit you, mum. You're the one who got me to do as much stuff as I could to keep myself busy, and I did. Now you want me around again? And dad got me that piano because unlike you, he could see that schoolwork wasn't the only thing I was good at.'
Tristan felt like he was intruding; this wasn't a conversation that he wanted to listen in on. He felt like he should leave but didn't know how to without seeming rude. He had a sudden urge to shut his ears, the way a child would but decided against it. This was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Lee loved her mother, there was no doubt about that, but she always felt somewhat resentful towards her for never involving herself in her life. She always gave her the means to do something, to excel, to become the best and stay at the top, but she never watched or supported her along the way. This resulted in them having a relationship that was always on the rocks. Once again, he cleared his throat and they looked around in unison. It seemed as though they'd forgotten he was there. Lee looked like she was about to burst a vein and her mother looked somewhat defeated.
'I'm so sorry Tristan' she said, looking apologetic, 'we're being so rude.'
'No, really, it's okay I understand-'
To his relief, his phone rang at that very moment. It was his sister, asking where he was. He felt this was a bit random because she never really cared what he did with his time. Nonetheless he was grateful for the call and used it as an excuse to leave Lee's house early. He went to fetch his bag from her room and made his way back downstairs.
'See you tomorrow then.'
'Yeah… listen sorry about earlier. I'm getting to the end if my rope with her, really I am. Say hi to Scarlette for me won't you?'
He hugged her goodbye, a little tighter than he normally would have and once again, took in her wonderful warmth and fruity scent. As he was walking home, he thought to himself how a small, tiny, barely there feeling can turn a situation completely catastrophic. He could feel it. He could feel it spreading all in him, like a virus attacking every rational thought within him. He shook himself. No, it wasn't doing anything. Or at least he wouldn't let it.