Ary Bridges splashed the cool water on his face. The dream that had pulled him from his sleep was not an uncommon one during the autumn months. It wasn't a happy dream; it wasn't even a happy memory, but Ary knew every detail of it, down to how many breaths he took. Reaching for the hand towel on the side of the sink, he nearly tripped over the corner of the navy blue rug that had folded over. He regained his balance and wiped his face clean. When he looked in the mirror, his face was no longer the only one reflected in the spotless glass.
"Hi Rhiannon," he said quietly. His voice was choked with a groggy sleepiness, causing it to sound several octaves lower than his usual tenor tone.
"He's having fits again. I promise I'll be out before morning."
"You know you're more than welcome at our house. I'll grab the sleeping bag."
His neighbor flashed him a dazzling smile, one that lit up her entire face, but was not commonly seen. It was a smile she usually reserved for the stage when she was acting; Ary was the only person in real life she ever shared the smile with. Throwing his arm casually around her narrow shoulders, Ary drew her into a half hug and kissed her lightly on the forehead. The movement was very similar to what he did with his younger sister, Charlie, when she was frightened. To Rhiannon, it was equally comforting.
She followed him back into his spacious basement room, and grabbed one of his throw pillows off of the floor. It was the third night in as many days that she had had to seek refuge from her house. She crawled into the familiar sleeping bag and said a quiet goodnight to Ary before falling asleep.
For a few moments, Ary just listened to her breathe. When he was sure she was ok and sleeping peacefully, he rolled over and went to sleep himself.
4:00 A.M. The neon red of the numbers on Ary's alarm clock blared into the darkness of his spotless room. It is a time most do not see more than a few times in a lifetime; Rhiannon saw it every morning that she stayed at Ary's house. Waking instinctively, she saw that this particular morning was no different and began silently rolling up the sleeping bag. She could have packed the sleeping bag away blindfolded, and packing it away in the complete darkness of Ary's room was not much different. Having made the walk thousands of times before, Rhiannon counted the steps to his closet and gently slid the sleeping bag into its home on the top shelf.
She smiled to herself, thankful that Ary kept his room so immaculate. The only time there was anything on the floor was when he was sleeping and he lined the throw pillows up beside his bed. Replacing the one she borrowed during the night, she did one final check over the spot she was sleeping in. Convinced that it was perfect, she climbed onto the desk, making her way over to the dresser so she could slip out the same basement window she had used as an entrance the night before. Upstairs, she heard the faint pattering of feet on the carpet. Rhiannon knew it was one of Ary's siblings (he had six), but she couldn't tell who it was. Ignoring the noise, she crawled into the cool night air, slowly closed the window, and began the short walk to her house next door.
The buzzing of Ary's alarm clock went off at the usual 6:30. Despite the early hour, Ary was used to the routine and rolled out of bed without the slightest grumble of dissatisfaction with the alarm clock. The Bridges' house was already filled with noise as the family members got ready for their day. Shaun and Michael, the eldest of Ary's siblings, were the only other residents of the basement. They had a bathroom to get ready in near the stairs; Ary's was off his bedroom. He took night showers, but he did quickly wash his face and splash water on his sandy blonde hair so that he could spike it up with a light coating of gel. After a solid two-minutes of brushing his teeth, he pulled on a pair of dark blue carpenter cut jeans and a bright blue polo shirt. His tennis shoes, like his bedroom, were impeccably clean. Once ready, he crossed the basement to the stairs and went up to join his family for breakfast.
The Bridges' kitchen was always the busiest room in the house. Because the parents were set on eating meals as a family, it was also the largest. A long, formal dining table with the extender permanently in place sat on tan tile in a sunflower-themed room. The large, yellow flowers had been stenciled onto the cabinets by Allan, the 11-year-old, and had been airbrushed onto the dishes by his Irish-twin, Samuel, the 10-year-old. The two boys, whom the family nicknamed the "Do-It Duo" were not so much creative as they were hands-on. If it was a job meant to be done by hand, there were no better candidates in the house, be it laborious, artistic, or technical. It didn't matter to them; they could handle it all.
They were sitting in front of the middle of the window (Allan on the left, Samuel on the right) still looking like they were half-asleep. Of the entire family, they were the only two that were not "morning people." Next to Allan sat Shaun. Shaun was an exceptional person who was used to being overshadowed in such a large family. At 17, he was the second oldest, so to all of his teachers, he was simply "Ary's brother." To the other Bridges children, he was not as imposing as Ary, so when they needed a big brother, they overlooked him and went to the oldest. He had a 4.0, but he worked hard for it, unlike his younger brothers Allan and Samuel, who soaked up information like sponges, catching most concepts halfway through the first explanation. Sports were not his friend, so he fell second once again to Ary, but also to Michael and Charlie, both of whom had a knack for basketball, which appeared to be the family sport. He sometimes resented the fact that he did not have a place in the spotlight in the family, but he understood that just because he was not the best at something, it didn't mean his family didn't love him. Of all the siblings, his closest bond was with Ary, despite the fact they were so different. He glanced up from his plate and smiled at Ary when he stepped into the kitchen.
The father of the family, David Bridges, sat at the head of the table. He was an investment banker in the city and had to get up early to make the long drive to work. The profession suited him; well-educated, sharply dressed, and soft-spoken, Mr. Bridges had a quiet power about him that frightened most teenagers, and even some adults, into behaving without him ever raising a finger. Ary, being the oldest, got the right-hand seat next to his father. Next to him was his 14-year-old brother Michael, who may as well have been Ary's clone. Not only did they look alike, they had the same talents and interests and Ary was in every way Michael's hero. Both of them were exceptional basketball players and Michael was looking forward to making the Varsity team as a freshman, replacing his brother who would be graduating at the end of May.
The baby of the family, 2-year-old Max, sat on a booster seat in the chair between Michael and the mother. Emily Bridges was the epitome of suburban motherhood. She held down a full-time job as a librarian and still managed to get her family together for breakfast and dinner. Though she was 42, Mrs. Bridges looked to be in her mid-thirties, despite having seven children. Her naturally blonde hair was golden as ever, without a touch of dye, and the only wrinkles to be seen on her face were light smile lines around her eyes. Her only daughter, 8-year-old Charlie, sat on her other side, completing the full table. Growing up with six brothers, she was, naturally, a tomboy. Tall not only for a girl, but for an 8-year-old as well, she was well on her way to becoming the family's next basketball star.
Ary piled three pancakes on his plate and snatched four strips of bacon. When no one was looking, he passed two of the strips under the table to the two Dachshunds that were waiting patiently for them. The Dachshunds were the family's only pets. One was a 4-year-old wirehaired named Oscar, short for Oscar Mayer, and the other was a 1-year-old smooth coat named Frank, short for Frankfurter. Both had been adopted from an animal shelter as puppies and the boys had been put in charge of naming them, which only seemed fair since they were, in a roundabout way, in charge of naming each other.
Family was a strong feeling in the Bridges household and everything Mr. and Mrs. Bridges did reflected that, including the naming of their children. Rather than have their children share a common middle name, the Bridges had a ladder system that passed the name around: each child's middle name became their next siblings' first name. For example: Ary's full name was Aryeh Shaun Bridges, therefore, when his brother came along, they named him Shaun - Shaun Michael. The only hiccup in the plan came with the unexpected arrival of the only girl. The oldest boys liked having their closest younger sibling being named after them, so they felt sure when they spoke for 2-year-old Samuel that he would want his baby sister to be named after him too. Therefore, they named her Charlie Maxine, this time preparing for the chance that the next child might not share the gender of its closest sibling. With the birth of another boy after Charlie, the parents decided to only use unisex names as middle names from there on out, naming the youngest child, Max Taylor Bridges. None of the children had complained yet about the naming system, so the parents felt quite confident that Max wouldn't have a problem with it either. The Dachshunds, though their names were light jokes, seemed pleased with the selection as well. They took the bacon from Ary's hand and ran out of the kitchen with their loot.
Rhiannon's house was a much different story at 6:30 in the morning. Her stepfather, Richard Bryant, was passed out in the recliner in the living room. Her mom, Julie, was asleep in the small bedroom across from Rhiannon's room. Rhiannon opened the door to her mom's room very carefully, so as not to wake her. She forced herself to peek at her mom's face, but there were no marks. There were never marks.
Tears stung her eyes as she left the room as quietly as she had entered and she crept into her own room, only remaining quiet in hopes that she would not wake Richard up. Her bedroom was her only refuge in the house. She had reinforced the door with a deadbolt last summer at Ary's urging, after a drunken Richard had delivered a few blows to Rhiannon. She hated Richard and what he did to her mother, but with no marks, there was nothing she could do. Even if there were marks, her options were still limited, because if she did report the abuse, Richard threatened to do a whole lot more to her mother than just hit her, and though you couldn't tell by the house or its furnishings, Richard had enough money to make bail. Enough money to make bail and hire a top-notch defense attorney, something Julie could not afford.
It had been this way since right after her father, Lawrence Sanders, died in a car crash. He had died on November 19 four years ago. Thanksgiving hadn't been the same for Rhiannon since. Her mother married Richard on April 7 of the following year. She hadn't even waited six months. The two dates were painted on the walls of her room, incorporated into the brick pattern that Rhiannon had painted. All of the bricks were bright colors, except for two - the two containing the dates of her father's death and her mother's remarriage. Those had been painted on black blocks; symbolism was not wasted on Rhiannon. The other blocks contained dates of her best performances on stage, titles of her favorite shows, and names of her favorite roles.
Rhiannon was a born actress. Naturally beautiful, with long, wavy black hair and bright blue eyes topped with long black eyelashes, she could stop a boy with one turn of the head, and she sometimes did, though it was always unintentional. But it was not just her face that was attractive; long, toned legs played into her tall figure and she had enough curve to her chest that halter tops fit her perfectly and she could wear spaghetti strap tank tops without exposing too much cleavage. What really set her apart, though, was that she could act. It helped that she looked the lead, but she had the ability to play a role and make the character come alive, something which her toughest competition at school, Natasha Friedman could not always do. Other than dates and theatre-related information, she also had a few blocks on her wall dedicated to Ary, the one person she could always depend on. Ary had been there, quite literally, for every major event of her life, both good and bad. She had his jersey number, 12, on a blue block, to match the color of Fielding West's home jersey, and on three yellow blocks, she had his record number of points in a game from each of his three Varsity seasons. There was an empty yellow block waiting for this season's stat and Rhiannon was curious to know if the number would increase yet again this year.
Just as Ary made it to every show Rhiannon was in, Rhiannon had made it to every basketball game, if not for the whole game, then at least long enough to wave to Ary to let him know she was rooting for him. He understood that rehearsals and games shared time slots, but she hadn't let him down yet, always managing to slip away for a few minutes to watch a play or two.
She checked the clock; it was only seven, but she knew that the entirety of the Bridges household was up and moving. Pulling on a pair of ripped jeans, she slipped a rainbow-striped belt through the belt loops and secured it around her slim waist. A hot pink shirt with small, lime green print that said "Hurts to look at them, don't it?" topped off her outfit. She normally pulled her hair into a ponytail, but today, she left it down, letting her bangs sweep dramatically across her face. She grabbed her khaki messenger bag and began her path to the front door. Tiptoeing down the hall, she almost made it when Richard mumbled, "Dishes."
"I'm late for school, Richard. I'll do them when I get home," she lied, hoping that he wouldn't look at the clock. He didn't and she made her escape, running to Ary's house, in case Richard changed his mind.
A light tapping at the door set the Dachshunds off howling at full volume. Mrs. Bridges stood up, frowned at the howling dogs, and went to open the door.
"Rhiannon, what a pleasure it is to have you over early. Would you like some breakfast? We're having pancakes. They're your favorite, right?"
Rhiannon smiled gratefully at Ary's mom, who stepped aside to let her come in. Upon seeing Rhiannon, the dogs ceased their howling immediately, instead bounding over to her to giver her a few welcoming licks with their pink tongues.
"Do you want one or two?" Mrs. Bridges called from the table, plate in hand, waiting to pile flapjacks.
"Just one. I already ate."
It was a lie, and everyone in the room knew it. But, Mrs. Bridges understood that Rhiannon didn't want to press her hospitality, so she played along, passing the plate to Rhiannon and taking her seat again to continue eating.
"You can have my chair," Ary said quickly. "I have to go grab my homework."
This was also a known lie, but it was the only way Rhiannon could sit at the table with her second family. It wasn't always Ary who offered to get up early so she could sit down; Shaun and Michael would also play along, but as Mrs. Bridges didn't protest to Rhiannon only eating one pancake, Rhiannon didn't protest to the offer to sit at the table. Ary left the kitchen and headed back downstairs. With Rhiannon eating upstairs, he had the opportunity to stick his hand out the window to gauge the temperature outside. Rhiannon had come over without a jacket, but Ary knew that was because she didn't have one. The temperature outside was a little chilly for Ary, making it about twenty degrees below Rhiannon's preferred summer temperatures. He pulled on his basketball hoody, stuffed a Fielding West hoody in his backpack and once again went upstairs.
As expected, when he walked in the kitchen, Rhiannon was done eating and had already put her plate in the dishwasher. It was only 7:30, but it was a fifteen minute walk to the school and Rhiannon would probably be buying breakfast.
"Ready?" he asked, leaning against the doorframe.
Rhiannon nodded, slinging her messenger bag over her shoulder.
"Shaun? You coming with us?" Ary asked, looking at his brother. Shaun was the only one in the family who attended the high school; Michael, the next oldest, was still at the middle school.
Shaun shook his head. "Nah. I'm walking over with Streak."
Coleman "Streak" Rogers was one of the seniors on the Varsity Basketball Team. He lived down the street from the Bridges and Rhiannon and was friends with both Ary and Shaun. He earned the nickname "Streak" when he had to run from the locker room to his normal locker wearing nothing but a towel because he forgot his change of clothes in his book bag and the laundry cart with the dirty uniforms had already been wheeled away. Only the basketball team knew the story behind the nickname. Not even the coach, Coach Ruthers, knew the full extent of it (he misunderstood and thought Streak just had to go to the locker room lockers, the team didn't bother correcting him).
"Alright. Remind him to bring me my calculus notes to first period, would you?"
Shaun nodded and Ary and Rhiannon stepped outside to begin the mile walk to the high school. Once they turned off their street, Ary pulled the second hoody out of his bag and passed it to Rhiannon.
"I'm not cold."
"I know you aren't."
Ary pretended not to look as she slid the oversized hoody on over her bag.
"Thanks for letting me stay last night."
"You don't have to thank me. You didn't even stay all night. You never do."
"What would Richard think if I stayed the night at your house? In your bedroom?"
"That nothing happened and you were just trying to get out of the house because you think he's an ass?"
The only time Ary ever cussed was when he was speaking about Richard. His family frowned upon vulgar language, but Ary couldn't help it. He hated Rhiannon's step dad, possibly more than Rhiannon did.
"Ary stop it. I'm fine."
"For how long? How long before he loses his temper again? He's an abusive alcoholic, Rhiannon! It's not safe to live with him!"
"And what about my mom, Ary? Am I supposed to just leave her alone with the abusive alcoholic? With the exception of one time, he hasn't laid a hand on me. I have to be there for my mom. I'm all she's got."
"Not all abuse is physical, Rhiannon."
The argument was pretty commonplace between the two friends. It was Ary's way of offering Rhiannon the chance to move in with his family, and it was Rhiannon's way of refusing the offer. By fighting about the issue, they could acknowledge what the other was saying without actually saying it. After five minutes of uninterrupted silence, Ary asked, "Senior show's coming up, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Auditions are Friday."
"Who wrote it this year?"
The name was unfamiliar to Ary, but he continued questioning Rhiannon about the show nonetheless.
"What's it about?"
"Trials of an abusive relationship."
Ary couldn't help but be shocked. "Surely you aren't trying out?"
"And miss the Senior Show? Ary, come on - I was made for this role."
"It's cutting a little close to home, don't you think?"
"It's a play, Ary. I'm an actress. I want this role. I'll be fine."
For once, Ary couldn't tell if she was lying or not.