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The Raven King: Chapter 9


The Foxes cleared out of Abby’s house before noon the next day, but Andrew’s group didn’t head back to the dormitory. Instead they went out for an early lunch. Aaron, Nicky, and Kevin were too hungover to eat much and settled for pushing their food around their plates. Andrew was oblivious to and unsympathetic of their plight. By the time they left the three were looking a little steadier, so Nicky drove them to a party store fifteen minutes out from campus.

Halloween fell on a Tuesday this year, which mean Eden’s Twilight was having an event the Friday before. Neil knew only because Nicky had been talking about it nonstop for over a week, but he hadn’t really expected they would go. For one, they had a game that Friday. For another, they were all too old to celebrate such a childish holiday. Andrew and Aaron were nineteen for another month, Kevin was twenty, and Nicky was twenty-three. Apparently Neil overestimated their maturity level.

‘We’re a little old for costumes, don’t you think?’ Neil asked as he climbed out of the car.

‘It’s bad form to go to a Halloween party without a costume, Neil,’ Nicky said. ‘Besides, the bartenders give out a free round to anyone who comes dressed up.’

‘I don’t drink,’ Neil said.

‘Then give your shot to me, you stingy child,’ Nicky said. ‘I know you said you’d never come shopping with us again, but we’re doing you a huge favor dragging you along. You wouldn’t trust me to pick out your costume, would you? I’d probably make you a French maid or something. Come on.’

The front of the store was packed with decorations, everything from packs of spider webs to skull-shaped shot glasses and ghost window clings. An animatronics raven flapped its wings and cawed at Neil as he approached. He pushed it to the back of the shelf and moved a glittery Styrofoam skull in front of it. It cawed once more at the rough handling, but the sound was muffled.

Neil passed rows of wigs, masks, and an entire shelf of face paint and gaudy makeup. The entire back half of the store was devoted to costumes. The five men spread out between the racks to search. Neil doubted he’d find anything, but he was curious enough to look. He couldn’t believe how many options there were, even if some of them bordered on the ridiculous.

‘People don’t really wear these, do they?’ Neil asked after pawing past a cereal box and a giant sponge. Nicky sent him a curious look, so Neil pulled the next one off the rack. It was a milk carton with a cutout for the wearer’s face and a bold ‘Have you seen me?’ printed beneath it.

‘Oh, that’s perfect, Neil,’ Andrew said. Neil sent him a dirty look. Andrew laughed and held up a mottled costume. ‘Nicky! Look! A cow. I think you should be this.’

‘Cow tits,’ Nicky said, pointing at the rubber udder in disgust. ‘At least let me be a bull, as in hung like a. Or Matt. Same difference, right? Dan is so lucky.’

‘I’m going to pretend I don’t know you,’ Aaron said.

‘What else is new?’ Nicky asked breezily.

‘Just hurry up and find something. I don’t want to spend all day shopping.’

‘You have somewhere to be?’

‘I’ve got a paper due Monday.’

‘Do it tomorrow,’ Nicky said. ‘Saturdays are supposed to be lazy.’

‘That attitude is why your grades are so terrible,’ Aaron said.

Nicky muttered under his breath as he turned his attention back to the costumes. Kevin pulled something long and dark off the rack closest to him and went up front to look at decorations. Andrew watched to make sure he didn’t go far and then went back to his search.

Neil’s phone hummed in his pocket, and Neil pulled it out to find a message from Dan: ‘where u guys at’. Neil tapped out the name of the store, and Dan responded almost immediately: ‘important txt when otw back’.

Neil closed his phone but was slow to put it away. Wondering about Dan made him think about last night’s game. Neil had an idea, but he could already guess how the others would take it. His chances of winning this argument were slim to none, but Neil had to try. He tucked his phone back in his pocket and looked up. Andrew was pulling costumes off their hangers and dropping them on the floor.

‘We should invite the others to come with us,’ Neil said.

Nicky turned to stare at Neil. ‘What?’

‘No,’ Aaron said. ‘We don’t go out with them.’

‘We need them,’ Neil said, keeping his eyes on Andrew. Andrew hadn’t slowed but Neil knew he was listening. ‘Talent alone won’t get us to semifinals. If that was enough, you’d have made it last year. You have to stop breaking this team in half.’

‘Don’t have to anything,’ Andrew said.

‘I’m not asking you to be their friend,’ Neil said. ‘I’m asking you to give an inch.’

‘Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile,’ Aaron said.

‘You really think they’re strong enough to take a mile from Andrew? You think he’d let them?’ Neil shook his head when Aaron started to argue again. ‘Kevin told Riko we’d see them again at semifinals. I’d like us to get our act together before that rematch, wouldn’t you? We can’t do that until we respect and understand each other. We might as well start now, with this.’

‘I doubt they’d agree even if we invited them,’ Nicky said. ‘We kind of burned that bridge last year.’

‘You mean Matt,’ Neil said, looking between the three. Nicky’s gaze shied away, so Neil looked at Andrew again. ‘Abby mentioned it my first night here. She didn’t want you doing to me what you did to him. When Coach was yelling at you afterward, you said it was different. So what happened with Matt?’

‘Ask him,’ Andrew said.

‘I’m asking you.’
‘I’d rather hear how he tells it,’ Andrew said. He slung a striped inmate’s outfit over one shoulder and detoured past Neil on his way to the front of the store. When Neil started to argue, Andrew hooked a finger under his chin and forced his mouth closed again with an easy jerk of his hand. ‘Ask him, and then tell the busybodies to come along if they dare.’

Nicky’s jaw dropped. ‘Wait, are you serious?’

Andrew’s smile was wide and pitying. He continued like he hadn’t heard Nicky. ‘It won’t make a difference in the long run, but find that one out for yourself.’

Nicky and Aaron exchanged a baffled look as Andrew left. Nicky tilted his head in silent question, as if making sure he hadn’t imagined that. Aaron only shook his head. Nicky rubbed the back of his neck, looked after Andrew one more time, and went back to his search. Neil didn’t know what to make of Andrew’s easy agreement either, but he wasn’t going to question it.

The others found their costumes long before Neil chose anything for himself. It didn’t take Nicky long to realize Neil was stalling. He batted Neil’s hands away from the rack with a heavy sigh.

‘Never mind. I’ll find something for you.’

‘I’ll dress up as a college student,’ Neil said.

‘No,’ Nicky said, and pushed a couple hangers around. ‘You’re going to be a zombie cowboy.’

‘You’re making that up.’

‘Shhhh.’ Nicky pulled a costume off the rack and draped it over one arm. ‘You are absolutely impossible to put up with sometimes. I might ban you from shopping with us ever again.’

‘I tried banning myself last time,’ Neil said. ‘It obviously didn’t work.’

He tried to take his costume back at the register, but Nicky kicked him in the shin and tossed it on the conveyer belt with everyone else’s. Aaron tossed a couple vials of face paint and fake blood on top. Nicky split the bags between himself and Aaron on their way out to the car. When Neil was sure they were heading back to campus he texted Dan a ten-minute warning.

Finding a parking spot at Fox Tower on a Saturday afternoon was tricky. They ended up in street parking a short walk away. They took the stairs up to the third floor and Nicky snagged Neil when Neil continued past the cousins’ room.

‘Where are you going? You’ve got to try this on.’

‘I’m checking in with Dan,’ Neil said. ‘She messaged earlier to say something was up.’

‘Did she use punctuation?’ Nicky asked.

‘I’m convinced she never does.’

‘She does when she’s angry,’ Nicky said. ‘Thinks it gives her words more emphasis or something. Did she?’ He waited while Neil checked his phone, then tugged Neil’s shirt again when Neil shook his head. ‘Good, then it can wait. Come on. This will only take a couple minutes.’

‘So will this,’ Neil said, shrugging out of Nicky’s grip and going next door.

Dan answered his knock almost immediately. Instead of inviting him in, she stepped out into the hall with him and pulled her door most of the way closed behind her. She looked from Neil to Nicky, who was waiting like he thought Neil wouldn’t really come over afterward, and then at the cousins’ open door.

‘Close that,’ she said. Nicky frowned but did as he was told. Dan waited until the latch clicked before speaking again. ‘We’ve got a visitor. He came by a little while ago looking for Andrew. I sent him to the library café to wait and called him when Neil said you were on the way back. I’m surprised he not back yet.’

‘Someone important?’ Nicky asked.

‘Yeah.’ Dan hesitated when the elevator dinged. Neil and Nicky turned and watched a stranger step into the hallway. Neil tensed. The stranger was dressed in jeans and a casual button-up shirt, but he had a cop’s swagger as he approached them. Dan lifted her voice in greeting and introduction. ‘This is Officer Higgins of the Oakland PD.’

‘Whoa.’ Nicky held up his hands like he could ward Higgins off. ‘Wait. Oakland as in California, right? You are way out of your jurisdiction.’

Higgins’ mouth twitched into a half-smile that didn’t reassure any of them. ‘I’m not here on official business. Not yet, anyway. I just want to talk to Andrew where he can’t hang up on me. It’s important. He’s here?’

Dan gestured next door and came up alongside Neil. Nicky shifted like he wanted to throw himself between Higgins and his cousins, but he hesitated too long. Higgins rapped loudly on the door and waited. Neil didn’t want to get any closer to Higgins than he already was, but he couldn’t see Andrew’s door well enough from here. He kept his eyes on Higgins as he edged down the hall. Higgins glanced back at the movement, but the door opening distracted him.

Unsurprisingly, it was Andrew who investigated the authoritative knock. He only got the door halfway open before he realized who was standing in the hallway. Neil heard the doorknob creak in warning as Andrew twisted it further than it was meant to go. It was a startling giveaway considering Andrew’s wide smile and the breezy tone of his voice.

‘Oh, I must be imagining things. Pig Higgins, you are a very, very long way from home.’

‘Andrew,’ Higgins said. ‘We need to talk.’

‘We talked, remember?’ Andrew said. ‘I told you not to bother me.’

‘You said not to call you,’ Higgins said. ‘Just give me a few minutes, won’t you, for old times’ sake? I came all the way out here to see you. Doesn’t that get me any sort of consideration?’

Andrew shook his head with a laugh. ‘You didn’t come out here for me. You came on a witch hunt I already said I wouldn’t help you with. Give me one good reason to not cut your throat, would you?’

Dan hissed under her breath, but Higgins looked completely unfazed by the threat. ‘I was wrong. I know that now. The investigation on him turned up nothing.’

‘I warned you,’ Andrew said, unsympathetic.

Higgins held out a hand like he thought Andrew would shut the door in his face. ‘We were looking at the wrong person, weren’t we? I think I’ve got it right this time, but I can’t do anything without a complaining witness. The other kids won’t speak up. They don’t trust me that much. You’re all I’ve got.’

That got Andrew’s attention. ‘Kids? Kids, plural. You only mentioned one last time, Pig. How many are you talking about? How many has she had?’
‘You wouldn’t care about the number unless there really was something there for me to find,’ Higgins said, quiet and accusing. ‘Just yes or no, Andrew. That’s all I want. That’s all I need right now. I’ll give you a name, you give me an answer, and I promise I’ll go away.’

‘You promise.’ Andrew sounded highly entertained by the notion. ‘You’ll break that promise inside a week, Pig. Don’t pretend otherwise. Do I have to walk you out to make sure you leave or will you—’

‘Drake,’ Higgins said.

Andrew shut up. Higgins stretched his hand out further, bracing for a violent reaction, and stared down at Andrew as he waited. Andrew was silent, but not for long. His drugs wouldn’t let him keep still for more than a few seconds.

‘How many kids, Pig?’

‘Six, since you,’ Higgins said.

Andrew pushed his door further open and stepped out, nearly shoving Higgins aside on his way to the stairs. Higgins strode after him, and the stairwell door slammed behind them.

‘You said this wasn’t going to be a problem,’ Dan said.

Nicky sent her a helpless look. ‘I said if it was, Andrew would handle it.’

‘This is handling it?’ Dan demanded. ‘Who’s Drake?’

‘Never heard of him,’ Nicky said. At Dan’s expression he insisted, ‘I swear. Cross my heart and needle in my eye and all that other stuff. Ease off the Look of Death, would you?’

Dan folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the wall to wait on Andrew’s return. Neil waited with her, too curious to walk away yet. Nicky disappeared into his room, likely updating Kevin and Aaron. Neither Dan nor Neil spoke as they waited, and the silence did nothing to ease Dan’s obvious bad mood. She was still glowering when Andrew made it back a couple minutes later.

‘A welcome party or the inquisition?’ Andrew wondered when he saw them.

Dan stepped in front of his door before he could disappear into his room. Andrew obediently stopped in front of her, but he wrapped his fingers around her upper arms. It was a clear warning: he wouldn’t hesitate to throw her out of his way if she didn’t move fast enough. Dan tensed but held her ground.

‘Why are the police looking for you?’

Andrew tilted his body toward her and smiled into her face. ‘I’m not in trouble, oh captain my captain. The pig is just too incompetent to make his case without some outside help. Don’t try to make this your business, okay? I won’t let you.’

‘Don’t let it interfere with my team and I won’t have to.’ Dan stepped aside, then asked, ‘Do you need Renee?’

‘Oh, Dan,’ Andrew said, amused and pitying. He stopped in his doorway to look back at her. ‘I don’t need anyone. Goodbye.’

He shut the door and locked it. Dan stayed where she was a moment longer, then muttered angrily under her breath and turned on Neil. ‘Come on.’

Allison, Renee, and Matt were sitting in a circle in the girls’ living room and eating a sandwich lunch. Dan motioned to the kitchen, a silent invitation for Neil to help himself to their fridge, and took her place at Matt’s side. Neil had already eaten, so he sat between Allison and Renee.

‘How’d it go?’ Matt asked.

‘Higgins said something about needing Andrew as a witness,’ Dan said. ‘He didn’t say what for and Andrew still won’t give me a straight answer. He just told us to stay out of it or else.’

Dan didn’t ask Neil, obviously not expecting him to know what was going on. Neil didn’t know the finer details, but he’d asked Andrew about Higgins’ phone call a couple weeks ago. Children’s Services opened an investigation on one of Andrew’s former foster fathers. Andrew told Neil they wouldn’t find anything. He hadn’t said there was something to find if only they’d looked at the right person.

Neil didn’t know who Drake was to Andrew or what he’d done, but Higgins obviously hit a nerve with that name. He wondered if Andrew was finally willing to cooperate or if Higgins could otherwise compel him to testify. It had to be a big case; Higgins must be desperate if he’d crossed the country on his own dime for a lead. Neil said nothing about it to the others, though. Andrew hadn’t given away any of Neil’s secrets, so Neil wouldn’t give up his.

The best he could do was change the subject. ‘Before I forget, Andrew said I could invite you to the Halloween party at Eden’s Twilight. It’s on the twenty-seventh.’
Matt dropped his sandwich back to his plate with a splat. ‘Bullshit.’

‘Andrew doesn’t socialize with us,’ Dan said.

‘He’s making an exception,’ Neil said. ‘He doesn’t think you’ll come but he says it’s okay if you do. I know we’ve got a game that night, but it’s a home game, so we should get to Columbia a bit after ten. Will you come?’

Dan and Matt exchanged incredulous looks, but Renee said, ‘I’ll go. Allison?’

‘You want us to party with the monsters?’ Allison asked. Renee only smiled. Allison clicked her manicured nails together as she thought, then lifted one shoulder in a shrug and picked at her lunch. ‘It could be interesting, I suppose. The campus party scene got boring two years ago. Dan, we’re going.’

‘How the hell did you talk Andrew into this?’ Dan asked, staring at Neil.

‘I asked,’ Neil said.

‘And he agreed just like that?’ Matt asked, skeptical.

‘He implied you were the harder party to convince,’ Neil said.

‘Oh, did they tell you that story?’

Matt didn’t sound worried, but Neil said, ‘No. Andrew’s more interested in how you’d tell it, he said. But I’m not going to ask. It’s not my business.’

‘Why not? You’re the only one here who doesn’t know, and I know you’ve seen these already. It’s not like they’re subtle.’

Matt turned his arm enough to show off his track marks. Neil had spotted them within seconds of meeting Matt for the first time. Matt never tried to hide them. They were scars of a battle he’d fought and won long ago. Neil didn’t let his gaze linger on them now but gave a small nod. Matt ran a hand down them and picked up his sandwich.

‘Dad liked partying it up with the other rich shits of New York,’ Matt said, ‘but his party favors were drugs. He let me—encouraged me, even—to try whatever I wanted so I would fit in. When Mom realized what was going on she took time off from the circuit to get me clean. We thought I was okay until I started here. The juniors we had back then were into some pretty heavy things, and I was tempted. The only way I stayed sober was by hiding from them.’

‘By camping out on our couch for his entire freshman year,’ Allison elaborated.

Matt winced, not embarrassed but guilty. ‘I said I was sorry.’
‘Whatever,’ Allison said.

Matt tore his sandwich into shreds as he continued. ‘Last year the monsters joined our team. It took Andrew all of two weeks to figure out something wasn’t right with me, and he took it upon himself to fix things. They invited me out with them to Columbia. When we got there Andrew gave me speedballs.’

Neil’s stomach bottomed out. ‘He what?’

‘He didn’t make me take them,’ Matt was quick to say. ‘He just offered them, and I was drunk and stupid and desperate enough to say yes.’

‘Coach should have kicked him off the team.’

‘He should have, except Andrew cleared it with Matt’s mother first,’ Dan said, jaw tightening a little in old anger. ‘She knew Matt was having a hell of a time here and she wanted him to kick the habit for good. Andrew promised he could help, so she gave him her blessing. She flew in for the summer to help walk Matt through withdrawal and asked Coach not to punish Andrew. She even offered to pay Coach for the trouble.’

‘But—’

‘No harm, no foul,’ Allison said carelessly. When Neil stared at her, she gestured at Matt. ‘You can’t really have an opinion on this because you weren’t here then. You didn’t see what Matt was like. It was pathetic. He couldn’t even look any of us in the face. Look at him now. The monster’s methods might have been a little extreme but they worked.’

‘You’re not really okay with this,’ Neil said to Matt. ‘What if it backfired? What if you hadn’t gotten back up again?’

‘Andrew had too much invested in Matt’s success to let him fail,’ Renee said, speaking slowly like she was choosing her words with great care. Neil guessed she knew Andrew’s reasons better than anyone else did, given her friendship with him. ‘I don’t know if they’ve talked to you about Aaron’s history, but you understand Andrew’s, don’t you? He’s not allowed to fight his addiction. Watching Matt struggle was very hard on them both.’

Her reference to Aaron didn’t make sense at first, but then Neil remembered. On his second trip out to Eden’s Twilight he asked Andrew why he bothered with cracker dust. Andrew said they’d picked the habit up for Aaron’s sake. Just the other week Nicky mentioned that Aaron used his mother’s drugs, though he hadn’t specified what all she’d been into. Chances were cracker dust was a paltry substitute. Watching Matt crumble under temptation would have wrecked hell on Aaron’s own sobriety.

Neil was starting to rethink how apathetic Andrew was about Aaron’s life.

Matt misinterpreted Neil’s silence. ‘You’re a year too late to get mad on my behalf, Neil. Trust me: I’m okay. I’m more than okay, really. I thought rehab was bad the first time through. The second time almost killed me. It definitely killed any chance of me being tempted ever again. I’m clean for good and I feel better than ever.’

Neil needed more time to figure out how to feel about this, but it wasn’t his life, so he said only, ‘It’s your fight.’

Matt smiled in gratitude for Neil’s understanding. ‘Guess we’ll have to pick up some costumes this week if we’re going with you. We wait much longer and all the good ones will be taken. What’d you guys get, so we don’t double up on anything?’
‘I’ll ask.’

‘You don’t know?’ Dan asked, bemused.

‘I’m hoping Nicky was joking,’ Neil said, getting to his feet. ‘I’ll be back.’

It turned out Nicky wasn’t joking, but at least a zombie cowboy was better than a milk carton or a cow.

Having nine people along on a Friday night meant Andrew had to make an actual reservation at Sweetie’s, no matter that they got there at half-past ten. A small crowd of people was waiting at the hostess stand, but the L-shaped corner booth was marked with a RESERVED placard. The booth was technically intended for eight people, not nine in costumes, but it helped that Aaron and Andrew were pint-sized. The Foxes squished thigh-to-thigh and pored over menus.

Usually Andrew’s lot settled for ice cream and cracker dust, but it’d been six hours since any of them ate and they had a long night ahead of them. Dinner was also the safest icebreaker any of them could think of. The Foxes had never socialized en masse outside of team events and practices. They weren’t really sure what to do with each other when Exy wasn’t involved.

Aaron and Andrew did nothing to make the night easier on anyone. Aaron refused to speak to any of the upperclassmen, even when one of them said something directly to him, and radiated quiet anger from his spot between Nicky and Neil. Neil found it equal parts aggravating and interesting. Aaron didn’t have a serious problem with his teammates on the court, so Neil couldn’t understand why he was so against this.

Now that Renee was allowed to play as a goalkeeper again, Andrew only had to stay sober through first half. He’d taken a pill during halftime tonight and was still buzzing. He spent most of that considerable energy on his own group or Renee. He was a little more cooperative than his brother in that he answered Dan or Matt if they asked him something, but his answers were lightning quick, borderline rude, and always followed by a redirect to someone else at the table.

It could have been the most awkward dinner in the world if not for Nicky. Nicky hated how isolated the twins were and was desperate to make friends with the rest of the team. It was as if he’d developed a sudden allergy to silence. Any time the conversation started to slow he threw out another topic to salvage it. Renee, Dan, and Matt were happy to play along, but Allison and Kevin were slower to get involved. Neil preferred to stay out of it so he could watch the way they interacted, but since this was his idea he felt obligated to help Nicky out when he could.

They were working on dessert when Andrew’s high started to noticeably peter out, and Neil didn’t miss the curious looks the upperclassmen sent Andrew’s way. Andrew’s withdrawal wasn’t a new thing but they’d always seen it through the smokescreen of a game. Here there wasn’t a court and another team to distract them from his slow crash. Allison predicted earlier this week Andrew wouldn’t last the night without his medicine, so Neil thought to warn them about Andrew’s cracker dust habit. Andrew would ease his withdrawal with alcohol and drugs; he was going to be harder and colder than the upperclassmen had ever seen him.

Andrew acknowledged their attention with a sly grin and an elbow in Kevin’s side. Kevin shifted in his seat enough to put his hand in his pocket. The rattle of pills against plastic was so soft Neil might not have noticed it if not for Andrew’s reaction. The look Andrew shot Kevin’s hand was so intense Neil wanted to lean away from it. Andrew dragged his stare back up to Kevin’s face with obvious effort. The slow smile that curved his lips said he was pulling free of his drugged haze and was not at all amused by Kevin’s silent offer.

‘Don’t make me hurt you,’ Andrew said. ‘I don’t want blood in my ice cream.’

Kevin only shrugged and pulled his hand free. Across the table the upperclassmen were silent. They didn’t know what they’d missed but they’d heard Andrew’s threat. Nicky shot Kevin an accusatory look for making things awkward and distracted Matt by asking about a recent movie.

Neil let the words go in one ear and out the other. He’d just remembered a question he’d been sitting on for months. He weighed his chances of getting a real answer with so many people present, considered asking in German, and decided he didn’t want Andrew’s half-assed answer. Kevin sat between Andrew and Neil, so it was easy for Neil to get his attention. He nudged Kevin with his knee and asked in quiet French, ‘Why do you have his drugs?’

‘I hold onto them when he’s adjusting his schedule,’ Kevin answered. ‘Game nights or nights like tonight when he wants to go into withdrawal, it’s better if someone else keeps the bottle. If he has his pills he’ll take them. He won’t be able to help himself.’

Kevin wasn’t speaking any louder than Neil had, but the foreign sounds got their teammates’ attention. Neil feigned not to see the curious looks Matt and Dan sent him but went back to his snack. Kevin looked at Andrew again. Andrew missed it, as he was digging his phone out of his pocket.

Nicky noticed Andrew’s distraction and whined, ‘That’s not Coach, is it? We won tonight. He’s not allowed to harass us.’

‘Just Bee!’ Andrew said. ‘Bee being stupid. Bee being, ha. Look.’

Andrew tossed Nicky his phone. Nicky took one look at the screen, laughed, and reached across Aaron to show Neil the phone. Neil didn’t care about the team’s shrink but he obediently looked at the image she’d sent. It was a grainy picture of Betsy Dobson wearing a bee costume. Nicky waited a beat for Neil’s reaction, realized he wasn’t going to get one, and passed Andrew’s phone back via Neil and Kevin. Andrew typed out a response as soon as he had it back in hand.

‘She with Coach?’ Dan asked.

‘Coach and Abby invited her over,’ Andrew said without looking up.

‘Why is she messaging you?’ Neil asked.

‘Oh, she does that sometimes.’

He didn’t sound bothered by it. Neil didn’t understand. He knew Andrew had mandatory weekly sessions with her, but he assumed someone like Andrew would resent counseling. ‘Why do you let her?’

‘Not everyone dislikes her,’ Renee said mildly.

Dan looked startled. ‘What do you have against Betsy?’

‘She’s a psychiatrist,’ Neil said. ‘I distrust her on principle.’

‘Give her a chance,’ Matt said. ‘She’s good people.’

‘She’s pretty badass, you mean,’ Nicky chipped in. ‘I was really worried for her when we all went for our first meet-and-greet.’ He waggled his thumb between himself and Aaron. ‘Andrew goes through shrinks like he’s trying to break a world record only he knows about. She’s his eighth one at least.’

‘Thirteenth,’ Andrew said. ‘She made sure to ask me if I was superstitious.’

‘Some insane number,’ Nicky said. ‘But when Andrew waltzed out of her office at the end of his first session with her she was right on his heels and completely unfazed. Pretty impressive, right?’

‘No,’ Neil said.

Nicky sighed. ‘Eat your ice cream, jerk.’

Neil fought the urge to roll his eyes and dug in. When they left Andrew brought a stack of napkins away from the table with him. Neil didn’t have to ask why. He didn’t know how many of Sweetie’s servers sold cracker dust, but hiding the packs between extra napkins was an easy way to make deliveries. Andrew waited for Kevin to get in the passenger seat first, then dumped the stack of napkins in his lap for Kevin to sort on the drive to the club. By the time they got to Eden’s Twilight Andrew’s smile was gone for the night.

Eden’s Twilight was a two-story nightclub near the heart of Columbia. Nicky had worked there as a bartender when getting the twins through high school, and Neil had a feeling Andrew had helped out under the table. They’d left the city for school but came back as often as the season allowed. Nicky’s friendship with the staff and Andrew’s generous tips got them instant access and ridiculous discounts on drinks.

The upperclassmen came in Allison’s car. When Nicky pulled over at the curb out front of Eden’s Twilight, Allison double-parked beside him to let her passengers out. Andrew collected VIP parking passes from the bouncer on duty. Kevin handed Allison hers and gave her quick directions to the parking garage in case she got separated from Nicky in traffic. She nodded understanding and pulled away.

The bouncer on duty looked a little confused by how many people Andrew had with him, but he waved them through without question. Andrew pushed open a second set of doors and led them into the club.

The doors put them out on the dais, a curved section packed with tables and the main bar. Two short stairwells led a few feet down to a crowded dance floor. Halfway between the doors and bar were the stairs up to the second floor. Neil had yet to go up there, as the balcony was meant for private parties. Andrew could have easily gotten them access, but his preferred bartender Roland always worked the downstairs bar.

It took work to find a table through the crowd, and the one they found only had two stools left. Andrew shrugged it off as inconsequential, since chances were most of the Foxes would end up on the dance floor anyway. He left most of his teammates to guard the table and dragged Neil through the crowd toward the bar for their first round.

It took Roland a couple minutes to work his way to them. Anyone who showed up to the club in costume was rewarded with a free shot, so Andrew gestured over his shoulder toward their table. Roland peered through the crowd until he spotted them. His eyebrows went up when he saw three unfamiliar faces with Kevin and Aaron.

‘All grown up and making friends?’ he asked. ‘Never thought I’d see the day.’

‘I’ll tip you double if you never say such stupid things again.’

Roland grinned, did another headcount, and began setting up a tray for them. He didn’t ask what they wanted; he knew the cousins’ tastes by now and could easily throw in a couple of the bar’s more popular concoctions for the upperclassmen. Roland knew Nicky was missing, but he didn’t know to include something for Allison. Neil didn’t say anything, figuring Allison could have his shot, except Roland didn’t stop at eight drinks. He mixed close to twenty.

‘How many DDs?’ Roland asked.

‘Just two,’ Andrew said.

Roland added two cans of soda to the tray and slid it across the counter to Andrew. Neil led the way back through the crowd and made room for Andrew as he went. Andrew got the drinks to the table without spilling a drop. He passed one soda to Renee and left the other for Neil, but no one drank until Allison and Nicky caught up with them. Allison looked vaguely impressed by the amount of drinks Andrew had procured for them.

It took the Foxes almost no time at all to empty the tray. Andrew cleared the mess away, and this time Renee followed him to help. Dan watched them go, then spoke up to be heard over the music. ‘You sure this is safe?’

‘Huh?’ Nicky asked.

‘Letting Andrew be sober for a full night,’ Dan clarified. ‘Good idea, bad idea, won’t live to regret it idea?’

Nicky looked confused by her ignorance. ‘He’s not sober; he never is. You’ve seen him go through withdrawal at games, yeah, and we,’ he jerked a thumb between the remaining four of Andrew’s group, ‘sometimes get to put up with him like he is tonight, but Andrew hasn’t been sober in years. He’s always got something in his system to mess him up. Trust me, you’d know if he was clean. It’s, uh…’

Nicky looked at Aaron as he searched for the right word, but Aaron stared back and refused to help. Nicky was undeterred by his silence and settled for saying, ‘It’s unmistakable. You’ll see next summer whether you want to or not. He’s off his program in May and should finish rehab by the time we start June practices.’

‘Finally,’ Kevin said, sounding annoyed.

‘Of course you’re looking forward to this,’ Nicky said. ‘Curiosity killed the cat. Fox. Whatever. I’m just hoping the past couple years of drugs and intense counseling have mellowed him out some.’

‘New team rule.’ Matt mimed banging a gavel on the table. ‘Never again put ‘Andrew’ and ‘mellow’ in the same—oh my god.’

‘Does that still count as blasphemy?’ Nicky asked, because Dan and Matt had come dressed as a pair of Greek gods. He turned to follow Matt’s stare to a passing partygoer. The man had come dressed as a neon yellow oven mitt. Nicky’s face contorted in incredulous dismay and he laughed hard enough he almost fell over. ‘I think that one wins grand prize, kids. No one’s outscoring that one on the crazy meter.’

He was probably right, but that didn’t stop the Foxes from craning their necks and looking for any other weird costumes. They were in the middle of a couple harsh critiques when Andrew and Renee made it back. The arrival of more drinks slowed the conversation, but it was the packets of cracker dust Kevin produced that completely derailed it.

Matt, Renee, and Neil abstained. Andrew divvied up the rest, keeping the most for himself since his system could tolerate more than anyone else’s. Dan took only one packet and dumped half of it into a drink near Allison’s elbow. Nicky counted down from three and they knocked the dust back as a group. They raced each other through their third and fourth rounds before heading for the dance floor. Renee promised Allison she’d join them as soon as she finished her soda and stayed behind with Andrew, Neil, and Kevin.

Andrew stacked the empty cups on his tray and left again. He didn’t need help this time, since he was only getting enough drinks for himself and Kevin, but Neil followed after him. He had to shove past two drunks in lopsided Carnival masks to reach the bar counter and he squeezed into the small space at Andrew’s side. Andrew pushed his tray across the counter for Roland to retrieve when he had a minute and slanted a look at Neil.

‘Stop hiding. This was your idea; deal with the consequences.’

‘It’s not that easy,’ Neil said.

Explaining his discomfort wasn’t any easier. Andrew had promised to watch Neil’s back until May, but when he made that deal he said Neil’s growing reputation could keep him safe the rest of his Fox career. Andrew assumed Neil could graduate from Palmetto as long as Neil played his cards right with Kevin. Neil hadn’t yet told him plans had changed, which made it harder to say why tonight was making him unhappy. Finally he fell back on the half-truth he’d given Andrew that summer.

‘I’ve never been in a position where I could get to know people. I know I have to let them in if we’re going to make it through the season, but it’d be easier if they were just names and faces. How have you stayed so disconnected for so long?’

‘They’re not interesting enough to keep my attention.’

‘Kevin is. So is your brother, apparently.’ Neil wasn’t surprised when Andrew didn’t acknowledge either accusation. He pressed on. ‘What about Renee?’

‘What about her?’

‘She’s not interesting?’
‘She’s useful.’

‘That’s it?’
‘You expected a different answer?’

‘Maybe,’ Neil said, and hesitated when Roland finally showed up. Roland stayed only long enough to get their tray before leaving again. Neil looked back at Andrew and wondered at the cool smile on Andrew’s face. He was being mocked, but he wasn’t quite sure why yet. ‘Most everyone is waiting for something to happen with you two. Even Nicky thinks it’s inevitable. But Renee promised Allison nothing would come of it. Allison said as much to Seth. Why?’

‘Does it matter?’

Neil gave an uncomfortable shrug. ‘Yes? No? It should be—it is—irrelevant, but…’ He hesitated, but Andrew said nothing, unwilling to make this easy on him. Neil shouldn’t be surprised by Andrew’s attitude, but he was annoyed regardless. ‘I’m just trying to understand.’

‘Sometimes you’re interesting enough to keep around. Other times you’re so astoundingly stupid I can barely stand the sight of you.’

Neil scowled at him. ‘Forget it. I’ll ask Renee.’

‘You’ll have to stop avoiding her first.’

Neil didn’t waste his time answering that. Roland returned their tray a couple minutes later and they headed back to the table. Renee’s soda was finished, but she was keeping Kevin company until their return. As soon as Andrew sat, she looked to Neil.

‘Are you not coming?’

‘No,’ Neil said.

She nodded and left to find the others. Andrew and Kevin had the chairs, so Neil stood between them in silence. He watched them drink a few more rounds, then went alone to the railing overlooking the dance floor. The metal bars were sticky with sweat or spilled liquor, but he folded his arms across them and looked out at the jumping mass below.

It’d be hard to spot his teammates on a good day. With the lights flashing overhead and everyone in costumes it was impossible. That smear of red might be Renee’s Red Riding Hood cloak and the silver that kept sparking like a sequin was probably Nicky’s space cadet uniform, but there was no way to be sure. He had to trust that they were all there, safe and having fun. He was content to watch and imagine.

Lonely, too, but there was nothing he could do about that.


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