The Life of Another - Chapter 24

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28 of The Life of Another Hi,

I had to split the chapter so we won't be seeing what I mentioned in the spoiler for a little while yet. XD On the plus side, much of the next chapter is already written so it will be around that much sooner as a result. Thanks again for all the friendly messages! ^^

The Life of Another - Chapter 24

© Jake Atkinson

P.O.V. - Roger - Dorm Room - 4:00 pm

I tensed and scratched at the back of my head. "Er... uh..."

Before I could stammer out more, he rolled his chair beside mine and leaned over to grab my forearm. "I won't even tell Bea, and I tell her everything! Please? Let me in for once."

"Ok, but there's something else I want to go over first." I said as I turned to better face him. "You know how some video games begin by asking you to choose the difficulty level?"

"Yeah." he said as he nodded. "My favorite role playing games all do that. You get a choice from easy to hard and, if you complete the game, you unlock an extreme mode where you only get one life. But what's that got to do with your dream?"

"It's more about what it has to do with me, and us." I said as I smiled softly. "As far as potential boyfriends go, I'm definitely in the 'extreme' category and I'm not really sure you're aware you've started the dating game at that level."

Nick's tail curled subtly through the opening in the back of the chair and he tightened his hold on my wrist. "No one's perfect; you're always so hard on yourself."

My ears gently swiveled downward. "Not like that... think of it this way. Let's assume you play the dating game at 'normal' level and when it begins you get teamed up with Colton. Sure, he's got issues but they aren't overwhelming and they add to the challenges that make the game fun. The problem with me is, my issues aren't normal. There's going to be secrets for both of us to keep and I don't mean the 'Don't tell my mom I'm gay.' kind of secrets. The deeper you get into my game, the more questions you're going to have and you might not get the answers right away. To top it off, some of the answers might seem really bad unless you have the patience to wait it out until you have the full story." I took a breath and rested my hand on top of his. "So before I talk about the dream, I need to know you're committed to playing the dating game in 'Hard Core' mode."

"Roger," he said. "Even though we haven't really talked about it, I already know about your mom. Back when you first arrived at school I bumped into your Aunt while she was on the phone and I kinda overheard the conversation. But you don't have to worry, I would never hold something like that against you." After a moment, he nuzzled his nose into my cheek ruff but then looked away as he said "I've gotta admit though, it sorta slipped out while I was talking with my parents."

Ugh, he must think that's what I was referring to. Oh well, guess I'll just roll with it and see where we end up.

At first I sat motionless, unsure how to react. Since she wasn't really my mother I never took her, or her circumstances, seriously. In my mind she was little more than an annoyance. That said, I could see how someone would consider her imprisonment to be embarrassing, or worse. "I uh... I'm surprised, by your parents I mean. I would think they'd be concerned to find out their son's been hanging around with someone of my background. Is that what the whole Advanced Placement mention was about? You know, making me out to be something I'm not is never going to work in the long run."

Nick's gaze shifted from the floor back to my eyes and he said "I guess I did want to impress them but it wasn't to make up for your mother. I just got swept up in the moment because I've been so anxious for them to meet you."

I nodded and replied "I guess it's ok but they still seem surprisingly accepting of me. Are you SURE you haven't been painting my picture with some unrealistic colors?"

Nick's tail stirred the air softly behind him as he talked. "I can see how it might look that way but the A.P. mention was the only thing, I swear! And I still think you'll get into the advanced program so it's not that much of a stretch." He grinned encouragingly and leaned back. "Roger, my parents knew I was an empath before I did. They used to play games with me when I was little to help me learn how to use it. Once I got older, and better with my talent, they would always bring me along for things like car repairs and house shopping. Heh, I upset more than a couple would-be mechanics and real estate agents!"

"I'll bet." I said. "You're a salesman's worst nightmare. But what does that have to do with your parents being so cool with me?"

Nick sat up straight as he replied. "Because they trust my judgment. Remember when we first met? You lit up, literally. Even if you hadn't, I still would have known how you felt."

My ears splayed with embarrassment. "PLEASE tell me you didn't report to your parents that I got a pocket chubby the first time we met!"

Nick's ears shot up and he laughed. "No! Give me SOME credit! I just told them that while you aren't the most open guy, you are a genuine, caring and protective person. The likes of which they'd be crazy not to approve of!"

Somewhere in the middle of his compliments I buried my face in my hands dramatically and exclaimed "Niiick!"

"What?" he said defensively. "It's true! Of course I didn't really word it like that. I just told them about how you jump in to help people and... stuff. Anyway, consider me committed. Let the 'hard core' game commence. Now stop stalling and tell me about the dream!"

"'And stuff?' Heh, I can only imagine what that might entail but I'll let it slide. I know I have to trust you too." My ears folded subtly and I ran my fingers through the fur on my head before taking a slow breath. "Where to begin?"

Nick patted at my arm and responded helpfully "You said something about a Fox news anchor and a graphic video."

"Right" I said as I tried to pep talk myself. Ok, just stay detached. Pretend you're describing a movie scene. Keep it simple and don't lie, he'll spot it a mile off."So there's this video that shows a car pulling up to a red light. And before it even comes to a full stop, the passenger door opens and a kid lunges out. Initially he trips, but he scrambles to his paws and starts to run behind the car to cross the street. But just as he rounds the corner of the bumper, the driver throws it in reverse and the impact hurls him into the gutter. Worse yet, the car has so much momentum that it runs completely over him before it stops! After that, the driver is totally freaked-out and just sits there, staring as William lies writhing..." Even though I was trying to maintain an emotional distance from the story, I noticed the top of my muzzle was starting to flicker brightly. "Damn it, I'm already putting on a show."

Nick tipped his head and lightly licked the side of my muzzle. "Don't worry about it, no one's here but me and I don't care. Come on, you'll feel better if you talk about it."

I nodded and, after a moment to collect myself, continued. "So the bastard is just sitting there while the kid writhes on the asphalt, but you can tell all sorts of crap is going through his mind. Finally, he starts pounding on the steering wheel and screaming before he completely loses it. Snarling, he slams the shifter into gear and runs him over again, tearing down the street and leaving him to die."

As I finished recalling the scene, I realized I was making a fist so hard that my claws were digging into my hand. With a conscious effort, I released my grip and said "Yeah, so uh... that's it. You know how a song can sometimes get stuck in your head?" I asked rhetorically. "It's like that. Whenever my mind wanders... whenever I dream... there it is."

Nick rested his chin on my shoulder as he looked up at me. "This seems awfully close to you for a video you found randomly on the internet."

I really painted myself into a corner! Time to deflect his attention. "Uh, that's the complicated part. The thing is, the video isn't really out yet. But it will be, soon."

His ears perked and his voice took on a concerned tone as he replied. "Roger, are you saying this hasn't even been reported to the police?"

I shifted uncomfortably. "Yes and no... It's been reported, sort of. And without the video."

Nick stood from his chair and confronted me. "Roger, what's going on?!"

I held up my hands in a defensive gesture. "Calm down! Remember what I was just saying about not jumping to conclusions?"

Nick settled stiffly back into his seat and nodded. "Ok, it's just that I can feel how it affects you and it's hard for me not to get caught up in your emotions."

"It's alright." I said "Anyway, this all happened a few years ago and there were some... extenuating circumstances. But that's all changed now, so the video is about to come out. In fact, what time is it?"

Nick stood and produced his phone from an over-sized front pocket. "It's almost a quarter after four. Why?"

I rose and turned to recline my shoulder against the window frame, looking through Nick's reflection in the darkening glass as I replied. "It's going to get released in about a half hour. If you watch for it online you'll probably see it there first. Considering Thad's controlling interest in some of the media, it might take awhile but eventually the major networks will start covering it. Chances are they'll try to spin it in a discrediting light, but it won't last."

He stepped up beside me and leaned against my arm, his gaze following mine. We watched through the beveled panes as waning afternoon light receded from barren trees and empty walkways, leaving them cold and gray. After a moment, Nick asked softly "You mentioned that name last night. Who is he?"

His question hung quietly in my mind as I brought my arm over his shoulders and drew him close. "He's a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. He likes to sit back and watch people dance as he secretly pulls their strings. The sense of control gives him a sadistic rush, and it's his addiction to that rush that gets him into trouble. Beyond his lust for money, he's got a penchant for boys. It's not really a pedo thing, it has more to do with wanting someone he can mold and manipulate. That kid he ran over was his last conquest. Ever since then, there's been someone blocking him at every turn."

Nick stirred at my side and looked into the reflection of my eyes in the glass. "Were you one of Thad's..."

"No." I replied. "I knew the kid. We uh, talked online. At least, we did until he got in deeper with Thad. After a long silence he sent a cryptic message from an unfamiliar account that said someone was helping him escape. Awhile later... along came the video."

Nick gently pulled at my arm and turned my attention from the window to ask "You said his name was William. Did you know him offline, like in real life?"

My pulse shot up and my aura flashed brightly. Holy Crap, I did? _!_ I never used to slip like that! T_ hese f#ckin' emotions are going to get me killed! Damn it, e ven if_ Nick weren't an empath he'd have to be blind not to notice my _initial reaction. I hate being so round about with him but I have to be careful._ "Nick, Thad's a REALLY dangerous guy. If he ever found out I was connected, however remotely... You can't tell your parents, and definitely don't tell Bea!"

"Roger..." he said with a pained look. "You can't just let him get away with it. Even with the video being released you should still go to the police. The stuff you know might help with the case and they'll protect you. You need to learn to trust SOME people."

My ears perked and I affected a half-smile. "Nick, you're old enough to know that not all cops are 'good guys.' Thad's got more than enough money to buy favors from the Chief of Police on down. Don't worry, he's not going to get away with it. Give it time, you'll see."

By Nick's curled tail and lowered ears it was obvious he wasn't happy with my answers. He fell quiet and looked at the floor, shifting a paw uncomfortably.

"Nick," I said "you know I'm not the type to back down. Even if I'm scared out of my mind, I always stand up and do what needs to be done. In this instance the best thing I can do, WE can do, is wait. It'll be YEARS before he's finally sentenced. If too much information gets released up front it gives him more time to form his defense." In an effort to reassure him, I gave Nick's shoulder a squeeze just as a knock sounded at the door.

Nick looked to me and I shrugged before pulling it open to find Kriana. "Hey Roger." she said.

"Hey Kriana, what's up?"

The Otter looked past me and waved to Nick as she replied. "Mrs. Patterson just called, they need you to hurry down to the admin office. Your mother is on the phone."

With a huff, I replied "Of course she is. This day is just full of surprises." and turned towards Nick with a teasing grin. "Hey Nick, wanna meet my family?"

Nick hesitated uncomfortably until I added "Just kidding... are you going to be around later?"

He snapped out of his introspection and replied. "Uh yeah. I've gotta get started on my homework but... I could come with you, if you want."

I lowered my muzzle and turned my grin into a soft smile. "If I had normal parents I'd be proud to introduce you but..."

His gaze still averted, he said "I understand. If you wanna talk about it when you get back, I'll be in my room."

He looked desperately concerned and while I could tell some of it was from our discussion about the dream, he seemed to have something else weighing on him. Despite Kriana still waiting in the doorway, I gave him a quick hug and then slipped on my shoes to head out.

As I closed the door behind me I tried to make light of the situation by chatting up Kriana. "Maybe someday I'll get a phone like everyone else. Then we won't have to go through this little routine every time I get a call."

She shrugged and responded. "You're not the only student without a mobile phone. Besides, I'm just down the hall so it only takes a minute. Hey uh, is everything ok with Nick? He seemed kinda upset."

We walked side by side towards the stairs as I replied. "He tends to worry about me. He knows my mom and I aren't exactly... close."

We arrived at the end of the hall and she paused at her doorway. "With everything that happened with your father... I'm sorry to hear it's like that with your mom."

I waved off her concern. "It's not as bad as it sounds. Hey, thanks again. Oh, and tell your friends from the TV party 'hi' for me. I'm sure they'll be crushed to know I won't be able to make it down for awhile."

"Ya know," she said "I think they'll actually miss you. Don't let Amanda's tone scare you off. She's like that with everyone. Promise you'll come again another night, ok?"

"Ok." I replied. "I'd better get going, be a shame if I missed the call." I smirked and turned away, rehearsing imaginary conversations with 'Mom' as I went.

A few minutes later I was at the counter in the admin office. "Hi Mrs. Patterson. Working late?" I asked.

The Black Panther looked up from her desk and smiled. "Hello Roger, I'm often here until five. It just depends on the day. There's a phone in the small conference room next to Ms. Thurlington's office. You can take your call in there. Oh, and if I'm away when you're finished, please wait. There's something I'd like to discuss with you."

My apprehension at her comment must have been apparent because she quickly added "It's nothing to be concerned about, now hurry in. Your mother has been on hold too long already."

Geez, my dorm isn't exactly next door! Besides, what's the rush? Will she be late for the five o'clock wall staring contest back at her cell block? "Ok, thanks." I said and ducked into the aforementioned room.

Despite not needing to talk via the tablet anymore, I decided to use the speaker-phone. Somehow it created a sense of detachment compared to using the handset and I wanted any advantage I could get. I tapped the appropriate button and introduced myself in case the call needed to be routed through a third party. "Hello, this is Roger Evans."

I recognized the voice of Mrs. Evans instantly as she replied "Roger, is that you? You sound so different."

The rumbling hum of nearby prisoners filled the awkward pause that followed until I summoned up the nerve to dive in. Finally, I cleared my throat and said "They just let me start talking the other day but my voice is still healing up. It'll probably sound normal in a few days." Unfortunately, before she could respond, the contemptuous hatred I had for the woman boiled to the surface and I couldn't help but to inquire sarcastically "Seeing as how I wasn't invited, I have to ask. How was Dad's service? Did your church friends put the 'fun' in 'fun'eral?" The severity of the verbal assault caught even me by surprise and I cringed as I imagined the impact on Roger's mother.

While I struggled to think up words to mitigate the damage, she reacted. "Roger! This is just how I thought you'd be! Did you really think they would welcome you back into their house, the house of GOD, after... after everything?!" The Wolf's raised tones quieted the voices that initially clamored in the background of our call. Their effect on me, however, was another matter.

I yelled back at the defenseless phone "Isn't the very foundation of your religion supposed to be based on forgiveness and compassion?! Where's the compassion in denying a son the right to go to his father's funeral?!" Oh good job emotions, that'll calm her right down!

From Catherine's instant response it was obvious arguments came naturally to this little family. "I wasn't able to go either! How do you think I feel? You never consider MY feelings! Here I am, calling because I love you and all you do is attack me!"

Figures _, she had no rational response to my questions so she changed the subject._ Damn addicts, all they ever think about is themselves. As I looked across my muzzle at the dark tabletop, I noticed my aura was reflecting my rage. It rose off my fur in smoky, electric heat waves. Yikes, I better rein myself in. It's n_ ot like she's MY mother. Who cares what she thinks? Just tell her what she wants to hear and get the stupid call over with._

Earlier in the day, after Ms. Thurlington stopped by, I had been experimenting with a new technique to control my feelings. Now seemed like the perfect time to try it out. I took a slow breath to collect myself and then clamped down on my anger, directing it inward and up as if it were an electrical force. The experiment resulted in a strange rush that ran from the base of my tail to my ears and ended in a ripping headache, but it worked. Suddenly, my anger was all but gone. Yes! I'm finally getting the hang of this body! That reminds me, I've gotta show Nick that new trick I learned today!

The rasp of Catherine's voice snapped me out of my reverie. "Roger?! You better not be thinking about hanging up on me! Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to call you?!"

"I'm here mom." I responded. "And I'm not mad at you, it's your church. I just don't understand your obsession with that congregation. There are countless churches that have special programs for addic... people in your position. Why do you stay with them even when it tears your family apart?"

"They're my friends Roger." she said in a forceful but restrained manner. "And they'd be your friends too if you'd just see the light. Until you accept the Savior into your heart, you'll never be anything but a... deviant. Denny fought with them too, at first. But he found his way, and so can you. Honey, I just want what's best for you. Why can't you see that?"

The way she spit out the word 'deviant' caused my anger to flare anew but it rose only briefly before I was able to tamp it down again. My head was absolutely pounding but at least I was able to think clearly. With my elbows on the table, I leaned my thumping skull into my hands and massaged it, folding my ears down as I rubbed. "Mom, I don't want to fight. I'm sorry for starting the call like that. How are you holding up? I know it must be hard."

The apology seemed to catch her off guard and my hunch about her narcissism looked to be correct. Now that we were both focused on her feelings, and hers alone, she felt better.

The murmur of Catherine's fellow convicts slowly escalated to their previous level and she continued the call in a more casual tone. "It's been awful, just awful! But Mary and Caroline have been visiting me every chance they get. They're just like angels, sent down to help me."

"I'm glad to hear you have someone there with you." I said flatly. "And I can't even imagine what it must be like for you right now. You know that even if I yell and scream I still love you, right?"

My acting skills left much to be desired, but she ate up every word. Her voice started to shake as she spoke. "Roger, oh baby! I know, and I love you too! Don't ever forget that. I miss you so much!"

I heard a loud, unintelligible voice behind Catherine and it brought a sense of urgency to her manner. "Honey I've gotta go but, real quick... I need to ask you about what's going on with your Aunt Sue. I just got a letter from an attorney that says she wants to take custody of you!"

My chest tightened and I sat up in the chair to reply. "Well she uh... she thought it might help take some of the pressure off of you. What with you losing Denny right while you're having to struggle through your programs and all. She said she prayed really hard on it and that this is what families should do. They help each other."

She was almost weeping openly and it tore at my heart despite the fact that I despised the woman. "Roger baby, I don't wanna lose you! You're all I've got left!"

I was quick to respond. "Mom, she's not taking me away. I'll always be your son. It's just some legal mumbo-jumbo. The school needs someone to sign for stuff now that Dad's gone." I tried to add a lighter quality to my voice. "It's only so you won't have to worry about dealing with stupid forms from the school every time I need a new pair of socks."

"Honey, I..." Her response was cut short as the line disconnected.

The abrupt silence left me relieved that the call was over but the aftereffects lingered. My head was still pounding and the tension at the end of the call left my aura flickering softly. Phew, glad that's over _.__ Hmm,_ I didn't realize Aunt Sue was going to file the custody papers so soon. I hope the angle I played works out.

I stood and glanced at the clock. Time to find out what Mrs. Patterson wants. There's something about her that seems... off. She's so ordinary. No horns, no glowing fur... then again I suppose there's no reason a normal person can't work here.Still, I wouldn't be surprised to find she has some sort of hidden talent.

My internal debate continued as I exited the conference room and approached the Panther's desk. While I rubbed at my temples, I cleared my throat to get her attention. "My call is done. Hey uh, I've got a nasty headache. Would you happen to have a couple aspirin?"

She turned and started to reach for her purse, but hesitated midway and said "I'd love to but there's a school policy about giving out medications to students. I could check with Dr. Tamner, she might still be at her desk."

I shook my head and replied "Ah nevermind, it's not that bad. Anyway, you said you wanted to talk with me about something?"

She paused, drumming her fingers against the purse's supple, reptilian leather. "Oh don't be silly. The call will just take a moment."

"But it's really..." was all I managed to say before she waved me to silence, the phone already to her ear.

"Hi Laura, I'm glad you're still in." she said. "Don't worry, it's nothing dire. Roger is here and has a headache. Is it alright if I give him a couple aspirin?"

I sighed heavily and sat against the edge of a nearby desk. Meanwhile, Mrs. Patterson covered the mouthpiece of her phone to whisper "It'll just be a moment, she's pulling your file to check for allergies."

I nodded and glanced towards my tail to make sure I wasn't about to sweep anything off the desktop and in the interim, their conversation resumed. "Oh... alright, just a moment."

She passed me the receiver and I stepped forward to hold it to my ear.

"Hello?" I asked.

"Hi Roger," said the doctor. "I hear you have a bit of a headache."

Frustrated at all the attention my malady was getting, I fought to keep my cool. "It's ok Dr. Tamner. I just happened to be in the office and thought to ask for some aspirin but it's not that bad. Let's just forget the whole..."

She cut me off to say "Nonsense. Don't be so impatient. There's certain protocols about these things but they don't take long. Now, how would you rate the pain on a scale from one to ten?"

I rubbed at the fur on my face with my free hand. "It's just a stress headache. Lots of people get them. I always get one after dealing with Ms. Thurlington and this afternoon... ugh, I don't want to get into all that. Anyway, I just finished a call with my mother and we got into a bit of an argument so it flared up again. Look, can we just drop the whole thing? I'll be fine."

Dr. Tamner's years of experience with recalcitrant, teenage patients left her unfazed by my protests. "Roger, I've already opened the incident file. I have to put something down, so rate it mister!" Her authoritative tone was obviously in jest but at the same time it was clear who was going to get their way.

With a huff, I responded. "Before I asked for the aspirin, four. Now I'd say it's a five." As I heard my own words I became suddenly self-conscious and rushed to add "Erf, I'm sorry. The call I had a few minutes ago was kinda rough but it's not fair of me to take it out on you. Both you and Mrs. Patterson have been nothing short of amazing since the moment I arrived."

Mrs. Patterson patted my shoulder and the way she smiled sadly made it obvious she already knew about the call. Despite the door being closed I was sure she overheard the yelling, if not the whole thing.

Dr. Tamner took it all in stride and replied. "I understand Roger, we all get upset sometimes. Now normally I'd ask about the context of your headache, but luckily you already filled me in so I think we're good to go. If it doesn't get better in awhile make sure to get word to me. Would you please pass the phone back to Mrs. Patterson?"

Still feeling like a jerk, I quietly responded with "Ok, thank you Dr. Tamner." and handed the phone back.

She accepted the handset and I resumed my position against the neighboring desk as they wrapped up the call. At one point she produced the bottle from her purse and read off various bits of information but my mind was elsewhere, replaying pieces of my conversation with Nick. The clatter of the receiver being placed back into the cradle brought my attention back to the present and I looked up as the Panther handed me two pills.

"Here you go Roger." She said. "I'm sorry for making such a big production out of it. Help yourself to the water cooler and I'll meet you in the conference room, ok? I think it would be best if we talk in there."

We seem to be alone here in the outer office. Why go to another room? Probably just force of habit but it does make me wonder.

After washing down the aspirin I was quick to join Mrs. Patterson and pulled up a seat at the conference table.

"Roger," she said. "I know you've had quite a day, but I wanted to talk about your interactions with Ms. Thurlington."