“He’s a mess, Mom.”
“Yeah … but I’m really worried about him.”
She gave me a look—the one that said, What aren’t you telling me?
It was breaking the code: the brother code, as well as the military code that said, Snitches get stitches and wind up in ditches.
I took a deep breath.
“He had another bruise today. He wouldn’t say anything, but I’m pretty sure his dad…”
Her lips thinned with anger.
“…and he was sent home from work again. If he shows up with another bust lip or black eye, he’ll lose his job. Miss Perez said she can’t have him looking all banged up like that in front of the members.”
I didn’t tell Mom that the only reason Seb still had a job at all was because he was popular with the country club’s cougars. Not that he ever did anything with them even though he had plenty of chances—he was only interested in one cougar, and she was history.
I’d taken up quite a few of the offers I’d gotten, but I kept it on the down low because despite everything I thought about Seb’s Mrs. Wilson, he missed her—and she’d been his first.
I was really surprised when he told me that, because I’d always assumed that he and Brenda had got it on. He said they hadn’t, and I believed it. What I didn’t tell him was that Brenda was singing a different tune—pretty loudly, too.
Sebastian is like my brother and I’d helped get him the summer job at La Jolla club where I already had part-time work. It had been good. Hell, it had been great. But then the whole cluster fuck with Caroline Wilson had happened.
I couldn’t believe my best friend had been so dumb as to get involved with a married woman. Not just involved, but fucking deaf, dumb and blind in love with her. And even though she was like 30, which is practically ancient, I had to admit she was hot—a total babe, if I’m honest.
Seb said that they loved each other. At first, skeptical had been my middle name but it seemed like it was true. She’d left her husband for my friend, and lost everything in her old life. The last words that she said to him before they sent her away was that she loved him.
Well, that’s what he told me she’d said. She was speaking Italian at the time so I guess it was like a private message from her to him. But there was no doubting what I saw in his eyes. The mindbender was she was in love with him, too.
But, like I said, she was 30 and even now Seb was still six weeks away from his 18th birthday. Seb’s asshole dad threatened to have Caroline arrested if she didn’t leave quietly. Not only that, but she has the Statute of Limitations hanging over her for the next three years. If they contact each other, Donald will try and have her sent to prison, or at the very least, get her name put on a sex offender registry.
And Seb was falling apart. He’d been in pieces since she’d gone. He kept saying that she was the only good thing that he had in his life. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was holding onto the hope that they could be together again in three years, I think he might have done something even more dumb.
It scared me to see how desperate he was.
But when I thought about it, it wasn’t that surprising either. Seb had a shitty mom and a bastard of a father. There were no grandparents, as far as I knew, and my own mom and dad had been more parents to him than his own. So there’d just been Caroline Wilson.
Mom was still watching me, and I realized that I’d left her hanging.
“Can Seb come and stay with us? I mean, it’s only like six weeks—maybe a couple of months—and then he’ll be joining the Marines and he’ll be away from here.”
“I don’t know,” she said, slowly. “I’d love to say yes, but I can’t see Donald and Estelle going for it.”
“Mom, they freakin’ hate him! His dad is whaling on him, his mom yells at him all the time or is drunk off her ass! He’s miserable—it just sucks. He’s damn near my brother!”
She sighed heavily.
“Has he said that Donald hits him?”
“No, but it’s pretty fu… freakin’ obvious.”
She shook her head and muttered something under breath that I couldn’t catch.
“I’ll speak to your father.”
That’s all I could do for now.
“Okay, thanks, Mom. I gotta go—Seb and I got the late shift so I won’t be home till after midnight.”
She pulled me into a tight hug, which took me by surprise. She didn’t usually go around hugging people that much, even me.
When I got to Seb’s place, I leaned on the horn. We were cutting it close and he should have been outside waiting for me.
I saw the front door open and Seb walked out. Limped might have been a better word, and he’d got his hood pulled up.
“Ah shit, man! Not again!”
He didn’t speak as he pulled himself onto the front seat, but I could see that his cheek was bruised and he had a black eye.
I shook my head. “No way Perez will let you work looking like that.”
“The other guy looks worse,” he said, an ironic smile twisting his mouth.
I put the van in drive and headed out to La Jolla. Seb didn’t speak the whole way, just stared out of the window, but I don’t think he was looking at the passing scenery.
I parked around the back of the country club and jumped out. Seb was moving slowly, holding his ribs.
His luck was so shitty that I really shouldn’t have been surprised when Miss Perez walked out at the exact moment we were heading in.
She did a double take when she saw Seb.
“What happened to you this time, Mr. Hunter?” she snapped. “Another surfing accident? Tripped over paving stone on the sidewalk? I don’t think so. It’s quite clear to me that you’ve been fighting. Well, I can’t have you upset the members by them seeing you like that. You’ve had one warning already and…”
“He wasn’t fighting!” I said, quickly. “Ask his fucking father how he got those bruises!”
Seb looked furious as he clipped out the words, but Miss Perez was shocked.
“Commander Hunter … your father did this to you?”
“It was an accident,” said Seb, refusing to meet her worried gaze, instead staring over her left shoulder.
“Just tell her, man!”
“Stay out of it, Ches.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry, Sebastian, very sorry, but I can’t let you work looking that. I need someone here I can rely on. This is third time I’ve had to send you home. I’m making it official—I’m letting you go.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but Seb just nodded curtly and turned on his heel.
I glared at her. “You can’t fire him like that!”
“Watch your tone, Mr. Peters,” she said, her voice a warning. “I can’t get the Club involved in this—Sebastian needs to tell the police if there’s a problem at home.”
“You know he won’t,” I said, bitterly.
“Take him home,” she said, “but if you want to keep your job, be back here by 4PM.”
Then she walked away.
Seb was already halfway down the long driveway when I caught up with him.
“Get in, I’m giving you a ride.”
He shrugged, but didn’t speak. I didn’t know what else to do, so I drove him home. To my home.
Dad’s car was there and Mom was standing out front on her way to the grocery store.
“Chester why are you home so … oh, Sebastian! Oh sweetheart!”
She bustled him into the kitchen and got an ice pack from the freezer.
“Here, this will help with the swelling.”
He took it wordlessly and pressed it against his cheek, wincing slightly.
Then Dad walked in from the backyard and took in the scene with a single glance. When he looked at me, he nodded once.
“Seb, buddy, you need to stay here for a few days,” he said.
Seb shook his head. “Can’t. Dad says we have to … keep up appearances.”
“You leave Commander Hunter to me.” My father’s voice allowed no argument. “Ches, give me a hand, son.”
Outside, Dad grabbed a hold of my shoulder. “We’ll get this figured out, I promise. Seb can stay here as long as he likes. I’m going to the Hunters’ place now. You might want to clear some space in that pigsty you call a room.” He gave me a thin smile. “I’ll bring back as much of Seb’s things as I can.”
He nodded, but didn’t reply.
I watched as he drove off in the van, his face tight with anger. I wondered what he was going to do. No, that’s not right. I knew what he was going to do; I just wondered how he was going to do it.
Mom was talking to Seb quietly in the kitchen, so I headed up the stairs to my room. Dad was so damn military: what he called a ‘pigsty’ was a pair of old jeans and two pairs of boardshorts that I hadn’t put away. And some t-shirts, and a bunch of CDs, old copies of Surfer magazine, a few used coffee mugs. It wasn’t that untidy. I mean, there wasn’t any green moldy food…
I cleared some space in my closet and shoved the magazines and CDs under my bed.
Then I pulled out a cot and put a sheet on it and a couple of blankets. Seb had slept on it a load of times; he’d been overnighting here since we’d met as freshmen at high school. Seemed like a million years ago right now.
A few minutes later, I heard Seb coming up the stairs. His face still looked puffy and the bruise around his eye was coming out, but he seemed calmer now, less jittery.
“You wanna talk?”
He shook his head. “Mind if I crash out here? I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Sure. I’ve gotta get back to work. Look, I’ll talk to Perez. Maybe I can…”
“Nah, that’s okay. I was sick of working there anyway. It’s not the same since Caro…”
His words trailed off.
“What are you going to do?”
He shrugged painfully. “There’s a help wanted sign posted at Stone’s Reef Surf Shack. I’ll drop by there later.”
He stretched out across the bed and closed his eyes, so I left him to sleep off whatever demons were haunting him.
Mom gave me a ride back to the Club, saying she’d text me when Dad got back.
I was on lifeguard duty by the outdoor pool when I groaned to see who had just arrived. This day wasn’t getting any better.
“Hi Ches!” Brenda said in an irritating sing-song voice. “Is Seb around?”
She stood there smiling, her hand on her hip, with no fucking clue of the carnage she’d created in my friend’s life.
“Nope,” I said, then added quietly, “and if he was, he wouldn’t want to talk to you.”
Her face showed a range of emotions: surprise, guilt, pleasure, anger, annoyance.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” I said, lowering my voice still further, “that he wouldn’t want to talk to a trouble-making bitch like you.”
Her superior smile faltered for a moment, then her lips curled into a sneer.
“Caroline fucking Wilson deserved everything she got.”
My temper snapped.
“You’re a bitch, Brenda. I don’t know when or how that happened, but you’re a fucking, cold bitch.”
And I walked to the other side of the pool, just to get away from her.
She scowled, but didn’t try to follow me.
It was nearly 1AM by the time I got home. I was physically tired but my brain was wide awake. It didn’t look like anyone else was sleeping either, because the lights were still on in the house.
Mom was curled up on the couch with a blanket over her legs, and Dad was watching a ballgame.
“How come everyone’s still up? Where’s Seb?”
“Sit down, Chester. We just need to lay down a few ground rules now Seb is going to be living here.”
Dad didn’t usually call me by my full name so I pinned back my ears and listened.
“I went to see Donald Hunter. He’s agreed to allow Seb to stay here until he turns 18 and enlists. I’ve brought most of his things, so there’s no need for him to go back there. But this stays in the family, okay? I don’t walk you telling this to anyone.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, Dad. No breaking the military code—even for a douche like Donald Hunter.”
“It’s not that, son.” I watched as Dad scrubbed his hands over his buzz cut. “I had to make some serious threats against him—against a senior officer—do you understand what that means?”
“Your father could get in a lot of trouble,” Mom said, resting her hand on my arm. “And it’s better for Sebastian if he can just put this whole, horrible business behind him.”
I didn’t know if she meant Seb’s father beating him or his affair with Mrs. Wilson. Probably both.”
“Yeah, okay, but what does Seb say?”
“Not much. He’s happy to stay here for now.”
“So, the douche is still making him enlist? No college?”
Mom sighed. “That’s still the deal.”
It really sucked ass. For the last two years Seb and I had planned what we were going to do when we went to UCSD together. We were going to room together, take the same Liberal Arts classes, hang out, surf. Now that was all gone.
“And there are some other rules,” said Dad. “No drinking in the house. I don’t mind you guys having the occasional beer, but stay off the liquor. In fact, don’t let Seb drink too much anywhere. He doesn’t need to end up like his mom.”
That hit home. Seb’s mom was a whoring lush.
“Yeah, got it. Anything else?”
“No smoking weed. I find you’ve been doing that again, I’ll be taking the keys to the van. Got it.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” I muttered under my breath.
“Excuse me?” he snapped.
“Yeah, I got it, Dad. I’m not a kid.”
But the truth was I kind of felt like one, especially when I thought about Seb’s problems. He’d left home at 17, and would be enlisting soon. No drunken college nights for him, no all-nighters cramming for a test. He’d do his basic training, then he’d be shipped off to wherever the Marines wanted him. Smart money said Iraq.
He’d fallen in love, got his heart stomped on, and the shit beaten out of him by his own father.
Compared to that, being told not to touch Dad’s whisky and stay off the weed … I had no problems. None.
When I went up to my room, Seb was lying on the cot again, but I could see that he’d stowed some clothes and a few books. Funny enough, the place looked tidier, even though it had more stuff in it.
“Hey, man. ‘Sup?”
“You cool with this, Ches? I’ll only be in your hair for a few months … just till I leave for basic training.”
“Sure, of course it’s cool. You’re my brother, man.” I laughed uneasily. “Mi casa, su casa.”
He sat up, staring out at the night sky.
“I can’t believe she’s gone. I keep thinking she’ll find a way to get in touch. Write me or something. But it’s been two weeks now.”
“You know she can’t, buddy.”
He sighed and looked down at his hands.
“I know, but I can’t help hoping that she will. Fuck, I know that makes me sound like a pathetic pussy but … I miss her.”
He scrubbed at his eyes and I didn’t know what to do.
So like a complete dumbass, I said something to make it worse. “I saw Brenda today. She was looking for you.”
His eyes narrowed dangerously. “That whore better stay out of my way. Fuckin’ bitch. This is all her fault,” and he punched his pillow hard.
I cleared my throat a couple of times. “Any luck with the job hunt?”
He blew out a long breath, then nodded. “Yeah, starting at Stone’s Reef in the morning.” He flashed a small smile. “In about five hours.”
“Seriously? Why so early?”
“Gonna be a good swell—they want to be open for breakfast.”
I don’t know if he slept that night, because every time I woke up, I could see that his eyes were open.
After that, we got into a rhythm. We worked when we had to, surfed when we could, and didn’t talk about Caroline Wilson or what had gone down. But it was there, simmering under the surface. And Seb was just plain miserable. He never wanted to hang out with the guys anymore, and I felt he only just tolerated my company sometimes. He preferred to be by himself, and when we surfed, he was always the furthest away from us. Fido was pretty cut up about that.
But my best friend was hurting and I didn’t know what to do to help.
One thing that definitely wouldn’t help was Brenda fuckin’ Wiseman.
Even after I’d told her that Seb didn’t work at the country club anymore, she kept coming around and bothering me, trying to find out where he was working now.
Girl wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I was just taking my break when she turned up again.
“Ches, can’t you at least give him a message from me? I really need to see him.”
I sighed heavily. “He doesn’t want to see you, Brenda. He doesn’t want to talk to you, and you know what, he doesn’t even want to think about you. You fucking cheated on him with Jack Sullivan, and then you shit all over his new relationship. Believe me when I say you’re better off not hearing what he thinks about you.”
Her eyes watered, and I held back a frustrated curse. I hated it when girls cried. It was like the ultimate weapon against a guy.
“Does he hate me that much?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” I said, not caring to sugarcoat it.
“That … that woman, Mrs. Wilson. He was really into her? But she was, like, old?”
I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. “Yeah, he was into her. He loved her.” And still does.
Brenda looked shocked. “He told you that? He told you that he loved her?”
“For fuck’s sake, yes!”
“Well, she couldn’t have loved him back, because I heard she just drove away and left him.”
I grabbed her arm and pulled her around to the side of the pool where there were fewer people who could overhear us.
“Jesus, are you so freakin’ dumb? Caroline—Mrs. Wilson—was forced to leave because Seb is underage. It was either that or get arrested.”
Brenda’s eyes widened and her mouth popped open in a silent O. Then she pulled herself together.
“Well, she was way too old for him anyway.”
It was all I could do to keep from slapping her.
“I had no idea you were such a selfish bitch, Bren. If you hadn’t screwed around on Seb, none of this would have happened.”
I wasn’t sure how true that was because there was no doubt how deep Seb was in with Caroline Wilson—and always had been.
I walked away from Brenda, but as I looked back, the breeze caught the summer dress she was wearing, and it wrapped tightly around her body. At first I thought she’d put on weight, but the blood drained from my face as I realized that her belly wasn’t just fat—she was pregnant.
She saw the look on my face and paled.
I marched toward her, and she took a step back, as if looking for somewhere to hide.
It wasn’t a question.
She nodded slowly.
“Are you saying that it’s Seb’s? Is that why you’ve been stalking him?”
She bit her lip and looked down.
This time I did grab her arm and gave her a small shake.
“Tell the fuckin’ truth for once. Did Seb knock you up?”
She yanked her arm free.
“No!” she shouted. “I wish it was him, but it wasn’t. I wish…” her words broke off and this time she really was crying.
“Ah shit,” I said, quietly.
I led her out to the staff parking lot and she sat in my van, crying and ruining her makeup. What a fucked up story.
Jack Sullivan had given her some skunk—much stronger weed than she was used to. They’d had sex, even though she was still going out with Seb at the time. When she woke up in the morning and realized she wasn’t a virgin anymore, she was afraid to tell him what she’d done. So she broke up with him instead.
To try and make herself feel better, she’d gone from party to party, getting high, getting drunk, sleeping with guys, including several more times with Jack. She’d gotten pregnant at the exact same time that Caroline Wilson came back into Seb’s life.
In Brenda’s fucked up mind, that meant that Caroline was her competition, so she’d gone out of her way to get rid of her.
“I know Seb won’t … be interested in me now,” she cried. “But I just hoped … I thought if he slept with me one time…”
“You’d tell him the kid was his. So Caroline being around messed up your plan to get Seb to sleep with you. That is fuckin’ low, Brenda.”
“I know, but I was desperate,” she gasped out between sniffing and hiccupping.
Chicks don’t cry as pretty in real life as in the movies.
“What do you think is going to happen between you if you do see Seb again?”
She looked down.
“I don’t know. Nothing, I guess. But it would be nice to have the chance to see … if there’s anything still between us. We were … we were good together.”
“He moved on,” I said, gently.
“Yeah, I get that. Although I still don’t understand what was so great about her.”
I couldn’t face getting into that conversation again.
“Look, I’ll tell him you need to talk to him, but after that it’s up to him.”
“Thanks, Ches. I owe you.”
“No, Brenda. You owe, Seb. Big time.”
Boy, I really wasn’t looking forward to telling Seb about any of this. I waited till we were in the van on the way home from a late night stealth mission. I’d parked on the beach and left the van’s lights on, so we’d have something to aim for, as we caught wave after wave in the oily black ocean.
It had been good, almost like old times, but Seb could sense the tension in my body.
“You look like you’ve got a stick up your ass, so why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you,” he said, eyeing me steadily.
“Uh yeah, so … I saw Brenda today.”
“Yeah, she still wants to talk to you.”
“Un-fuckin’-believable.” He paused. “You told her no, right?”
He rolled his eyes. “Since when did you get to be on her cheer team? You hated the bitch even before I did.”
“I just think you should hear what she’s got to say. She knows she screwed up and she knows you’re not going to take her back.”
“Then why bother?”
“Just talk to her, man. It’s important.”
“Ah fuck it. Okay, tell her to meet me at the surf shack after work. No, wait. I don’t want her knowing where I work. Tell her the park. She can have five minutes.”
He looked pissed about it, but at least he agreed.
It was two days later that he had his talk with Brenda. He came home looking upset.
“So, how’d it go?”
He shook his head.
“Fuck, I can’t believe it, man. She’s fuckin’ pregnant.”
“Yeah, I know. It was kind of obvious when I saw her up close.”
“She told her parents yesterday. They’re freaking out. She said they asked her what I’m going to do about it.”
“Yeah, she hadn’t even told them we’d broken up, even though it was like five months ago.”
“But she’s put them straight now?”
He shook his head, looking irritated.
“Not exactly. She wouldn’t tell them who the father is. I’m not even sure she knows. She thinks it’s Jack Sullivan, but she’s not sure.”
“Yeah, but because she’s not saying, her parents won’t believe that it’s not me. She had to stop them going over to see my old man.”
He shook his head in disbelief.
“That’s why she’s been trying to talk to me.”
“What are you going to do?”
He gave me a look.
“What the fuck am I supposed to do? It’s not my kid. If it was … if it was mine, I’d look after them, or something. No kid should come into the world unwanted. I should fuckin’ know. But I’m not gonna fall on my sword for her either. She fucked up when she told my mom about Caro. I can’t forgive her for that.”
“I can’t believe you never slept with Brenda. I always thought you guys were doin’ it like bunnies.”
He shrugged. “We were going to. It was supposed to be this big deal.” He side-eyed me. “Because we were both virgins. We did some other stuff, but we never fucked.”
I slapped him on the shoulder. “Well, you’ve ticked that box now, bro.”
Instead of a fist-bump, he scowled at me.
“It wasn’t like that with Caro.”
My eyebrows shot upward.
“You’re telling me you didn’t sleep with her? Because, dude, I saw your back and she had some serious claws.”
His cheeks reddened. “I meant it wasn’t fucking. Well, yeah, it was. But it was more than that. When I was with her … it was like the whole world went away and it was just us.” He shook his head. “I can’t explain it.”
“Have you heard anything from her? From Caro?”
“Nah, man, and it’s driving me crazy, not knowing where she is or what she’s doing. Not knowing if she’s safe…”
“Maybe she went back to her mom’s.”
He studied the rug on the floor that was rough with sand we’d trekked in from the beach.
“I don’t think so. They weren’t close—not since her dad died.”
“So where do you think she’s gone?”
“I don’t know. I don’t fuckin’ know.”
He looked at me hopelessly.
“What are you going to do?”
His eyes dropped to the floor again.
“I’m going to wait for her.”
“That’s three years, man. That’s a long time.”
He shrugged, and a ghost of a smile made its way onto his face.
“Life is a long time living, but without Caro it would just be a long time dying. I love her. So I’ll wait for her. And I know that somewhere on this rat infested planet, she’s waiting for me, too.”
I hoped he was right. But it was damn hard trying to believe it.