Episode 9: The Secret Garden
Federal Agent Anya Willinsky sat on her bed in the lodgings she’d been given. Only a few staff members actually lived in Hackett. Smaller than the other buildings on campus and mainly used as the Dean’s primary place of office along with Anya’s, Hackett was an old dorm that had been converted into larger suites suited for staff residences as well. The rest of the Hedgewater College staff lived around town and some in close counties where they could commute. Anya didn’t have the luxury of privacy in her own home, cozied up by the fire after a long day of work. Then again, she didn’t want privacy. She wanted to know everything hiding within the walls of this place.
It was her job to know everything.
Dressed to the nines in her professional attire, deemed suitable by Mildred the snake, Anya shifted uncomfortably at her desk. She hated the endless buttons of her designer blouse, tucked into the high-waisted slacks with their wide legs. Mildred told her they’d flow when she walked and accentuate her shapely rear. Anya thought Mildred had fallen out of her tree a long damn time ago. The clothes were like being buttoned into hell for the agent.
She much preferred her black jeans and trainers, maybe a cotton t-shirt covered with a blazer if she was called in. Slacks were only for show, and what a show she was putting on. Her makeover aside, Anya was more concerned with the portfolio laid out on her bedspread. Files flipped under her fingers. These were the students she was sent to investigate and get to know through her role as their counselor and advisor.
They were only children to her, having yet to see the true nightmares of the world. Psychopaths and serial killers, child molesters and terrorists—she’d seen them all and then some as an agent for the FBI. So, being sent back to college to dig into the lives of these young men twisted Anya up a bit.
In the beginning of a case she always felt the same way. At first she sympathized, a natural instinct and a part of being human. Then her training and years of experience would kick in. Some children weren’t really children at all. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Innocent blue eyes pierced through her as she stopped on Shay Foster’s file. Now there was a kid who had lived to tell a tale, or what bits he could remember. Even behind an inanimate picture Anya could feel every emotion Shay Foster had felt when his school ID photo had been taken. He was hiding something. He was unsure and unfocused. He doubted everything and everyone. He hadn’t wanted to pose for the photo. His hair was too long compared to the other photos she’d seen. He’d let himself go when misery had taken him for a ride. Dark circles crept under his eyes from many things; lack of sleep; nightmares; memories; waking up; continuing to breath.
Then there was River Hathaway.
She flipped to the next file. He’d smiled for his ID. He was the kind of man who didn’t want anyone to suspect how upset he was, so he’d bared his teeth and acted happy. His green eyes sparkled, not from joy, but most likely the camera’s flash.
Anya tilted her head, judging the reflection within River’s irises—yep, definitely a flash. He looked a little gaunt around the jaw where most boys his age would have filled out, whether soft tissue or a mature hardness, there was always something there. He, too, showed the same signs of depression and struggle as Shay. Only unlike Foster, River was a people pleaser. His pride carried him through the hard times. His mask was thin, but it was there.
She could see why they were attracted to each other. They were Yin and Yang. They fit together and dispersed their unique qualities into their relationship to make it work. Only it hadn’t worked like they’d planned. This place had ripped them apart.
Romeo and Juliet, star crossed lovers destined to be shattered by violence and senseless destruction. She hoped they didn’t fall on the same ending as Shakespeare’s treasured duo. They had so much to live for.
Anya knew what it was to be ripped from the one she loved. Marcy had been the bright spot in her life up until the day Anya had been accepted into the FBI as an Intelligence Analyst. Anya could remember that night as if it were yesterday. Coming home to tell the woman she loved the good news that they’d be moving to Baltimore, where she would be working at the field office there. Instead of her girlfriend sitting on the couch, reading a book like she always did, Marcy was gone.
She’d left a note. The penmanship was casual, not written with the trembling hand of a woman forced to write it. It was as if she was writing out her usual grocery list or leaving a love note on the bathroom mirror for Anya to find. Marcy couldn’t do it anymore. She said she couldn’t lie. She had to leave. It wasn’t Anya’s fault. She would always love her, but she had to go. Not one word of it made sense.
Anya never understood why Marcy left. She was heartbroken and yet very much in love.
Twelve years later and it still hurt. Every case Anya worked she did it for Marcy. The woman who had pushed her through years of grueling studies and training and been her pride and joy had always stuck with her until she’d vanished and made it so no one could find her, not even the best of the best. This case was no different. Anya would never be different. She would always love Marcy no matter where she went, no matter how much her lover had crippled her heart.
The same went for River and Shay. They were so young and troubled, and only judging from two school photos and a load of intelligence smattered with hearsay, Anya knew these boys were so in love they yearned to be reunited. She had to remain biased, though, no matter her heart’s opinions on the case. If evidence detailed they were somehow responsible for whatever was happening in Hedgewater, if they were covering things up even though they were victims, they would go to trial.
People had died. People had been scarred. The madness had to end.
Anya flipped the portfolio shut and stood. She would get to the bottom of this, just like she did every single time. For Marcy. For the one that got away.
A knock at her door indicated it was time for her first appointment. She opened it to find Mildred, little miss prim and proper waiting for her.
“Much better,” Mildred praised in a sickeningly sweet tone. “Who knew you would clean up so well?”
Anya dodged Michaelson’s secretary, locking up her room and pocketing the key quickly. “I wasn’t a vagrant, Mildred. I happen to enjoy business casual.”
“Business casual, is that what you call it?” Mildred laughed under her breath, evaluating Anya from behind her glasses. “Whatever you say, Ms. Willinsky. Come along. We don’t want to keep her our prized athlete waiting. Michaelson did ask me to remind you not to delve too deep with Mr. Foster during your appointment. The Sharks have their first game tonight against the Jackson College Tigers. First game is quite the event. There’s a lot of pressure on the players, you see.”
“Of course, we wouldn’t want to add any pressure on top of murder and rape would we.” Anya walked ahead of Mildred, aware of the burn in the back of her head from the secretary’s glare all the way to Anya’s office. “Thank you, Mildred. I can handle things from here. I won’t need you to accompany me to my appointments anymore, but you can tell Dean Michaelson I appreciate the help.”
Mildred inhaled sharply, smiled professionally, and sashayed off in her bright red heels without a word. If flames could have burst from Mildred’s feet, they would have set the building on fire. She didn’t like being told what to do. In fact, it seemed no one around here could handle being dictated to.
Anya rolled her eyes, already tired of seeing Mildred’s face after only a week. She collected herself quickly, then clicked open her office door.
Shay Foster sat on a couch by the window. His stunning blue eyes stared off into the distance, observing beyond the courtyard full of students to some unseen spot in the tree line. He wore his student blazer well, presenting his broad shoulders and long torso wrapped in red like a royal. His thick blond hair had been brushed back away from his face. His muscled, long legs, encased in tailored khakis, were crossed at the ankles.
On the outside he looked undisturbed, but once Anya cleared her throat, he jumped like a scared country mouse.
He stood, offering her a shaky hand. “Mrs. Willinsky.”
“It’s miss, but you may call me Anya.” She shut the door and took his hand. “Only in my office, though. I have a sneaking suspicion Dean Michaelson is all about formalities in public.”
“Okay, Anya.” He dropped his hand, quick to cross it under his arm. He didn’t seem to take the bait about the Dean. Under the circumstances she could understand his delicate cynicism.
“Have a seat. You seem to enjoy the couch.”
Shay gave her an ambiguous glance. “Is this the part where you tell me to lie down and confess my secrets?”
“That’s up to you. I’m only a guidance counselor or advisor, whatever you prefer, but I am licensed to listen to your troubles if you need to get them off of your chest. I don’t want you to feel like you can’t talk to me. I’m not just here to file papers and tell you what you should do with your life. I’m here to make you feel comfortable with the life you’re currently living.” She shrugged, then sat in the chair across from him. Shay’s class information was already drawn up on the side table, waiting to go.
“That’s it.” She opened the file, careful not to stare him down. He’d become uncomfortable. He’d equate her presence with that of his therapist, who probably did nothing but study him for every five hundred dollar hour. “Tell me about your class load. You’ve had a week now to settle in and experience a full schedule. How’s it going for you?”
“You mean is too much for me to handle since I’m damaged?”
Anya smiled. She knew with a little freedom to breathe, as she wasn’t any real threat to him, Shay Foster would begin to fracture quicker than most. “You don’t look damaged to me. Damaged tends to reference the loss of value or the impairment of usefulness. I’d say you’re an asset to your team, to this school, and to this community. I’d also say, judging by your high school transcript here, you were rather useful to the honor society and quite a few charities.
“You have the potential to be a brilliant student here and a fine member of whatever community you move on to in the future. What you need to remember is that damaged does not define depression. Better yet, depression does not define you. Being a prisoner of your internal struggles is normal. Depression is a time in your life when all hope seems lost, but in reality it isn’t. It’s how you carry yourself through that defines you.”
“How would you define me, Anya? You seem to know me so well.” Shay crossed his arms, an act of defiance and the building of a barrier.
Her indifference confused him. Her truthful simplicities got the cogs turning in his head. He wasn’t used to someone not telling him what to do. She uncrossed her legs, keeping them together at the ankle to display her openness with him. “Honestly?”
“I’d say you’re a boy who wants to be a man by bottling up everything inside so no one could possibly know how hurt you are. You’re the kind of person who’s scared of emotions because you were always logical before the incident this summer. You have no perfect formula or sure outlook on your situation. Therefore you’re stuck in this state until you’re positive you can figure out a way to get by and be safe in the end without hurting yourself or those around you. But you’ve already hurt yourself, haven’t you?”
His mouth hitched open, then his teeth clacked together. Eyes wavering, Shay was ready to either scream or deflate. He chose to let it out. “I spent all summer waiting for that, what you just said. My parents spent thousands of dollars for a shrink to feed me bullshit for months just so I could hear that. And he never even said it. He didn’t want to hurt my feelings or something. He only ever asked me questions.” Shay sat forward, dumbfounded. “No one understands. I am stuck. I’ve been stuck. I can’t go back to the way it used to be. They can’t fix me.”
“That’s because you aren’t damaged, just a little broken inside.” Anya leaned towards him, careful not to invade his space too much. “Like I said, I’m here to help you live in the now. How about we work on that class schedule and if you feel like talking at the end…I’m more than happy to listen.”
Shay’s suspicion eased, but didn’t vanish completely. To Anya he seemed on the verge of a breaking point, a healthy one. He didn’t need prescriptions or medical jargon and reverse psychology in the form of mindless questions. Shay needed Anya’s honesty and she needed his.
“Okay,” he murmured, leaning back to hear what she had to say next.
He messed his hair up a bit with an anxious hand over his head. “They’re fine, I guess. I like creative writing so far. Our professor just let us write whatever we wanted this morning. It was nice not being pressured for once.”
“What did you write about?”
He blushed, trying to cover it up by looking away. “It’s stupid.”
“I doubt that.” Anya sank in her seat, resting her head on her fist. Her smile was constant and warm, inviting him to continue.
“I wrote about a time at camp when I was in third grade. That’s where I started my swim career.” He laughed a little before wiping his hand over his mouth like he could erase his reaction. His blue eyes turned to her. They asked if this was okay—if smiling was okay to do for someone like him.
Anya smiled. Most teens his age would do with ‘classes are fine.’ Shay wanted to let someone know more. He wanted them to know why he liked his classes because he was excited, but attempting to be understated. No one had probably asked him how his day was in a long time. His parents babied him and sheltered him, figuring he would be unhappy for a long time. He didn’t have a roommate to chat with. From what Rogan had said Shay didn’t have the best connection with his team, to put it mildly. All in all, Shay just didn’t have anyone to talk to.
“That’s great, Shay. I’m happy you’ve found something you like. What about your math class? I see you took AP calculus your senior year, shouldn’t be that hard on you.”
Shay Foster smiled. He actually smiled. “I like math, too. It comes easy to me.”
She hummed, nodding. “Me, too. At first I didn’t like math because it wasn’t a challenge, but when you realize you’re gifted in that particular area you stop and bless your stars. Not everyone breezes through it.”
Shay uncrossed his arms, relaxing into the couch. “True. I tutored some kids my junior year. You want to talk about struggling students…” He laughed.
“We’ll have to keep them in our prayers.” She grinned. “Any classes you’re finding difficult, super star?”
His next answer came easier. His eyes had been cleansed of their animosity. “I’m not really into Holistics. We had to pair off and practice facial expressions with our partners. It was really weird.”
“Holistics is kind of weird, but it gets you a few health and wellness credits. I take it you didn’t want to do yoga?”
Shay groaned. “No, I wanted to, but it was full. Can you believe that? Yoga was full at an all guy’s school?”
“Maybe they got the memo about Holistics earlier than you.” Anya chuckled.
His smile faded quicker than it had come. “Maybe.”
Reel him back in, Anya, she scolded herself. He needs to feel a part of this school. Not segregated from the others. He’s so fragile. “Shay? Can I ask you something, and feel free to tell me it’s none of my business.”
He snorted, rubbing his face. “Sure.”
“Are you lonely?”
The room was silent other than the air kicking on in the corner of the room. Shay stared at his hands, contemplating his current situation. The twitch of his jaw revealed an answer to Anya before he even said it.
She exhaled through her nose, completely relieved she’d dodged what could have been a major scene. “May I make a suggestion?”
“If it’s about pills I can’t do it…I just—”
Always with the pills. Anya made a mental note to look into that later. “No pills. No prescriptions. No sessions unless you want to come to my office and chat.”
He looked up, desperate for a solution to the ache in his chest. “Then what?”
“I think you should get a roommate.”
“Wait a second—”
She held up a hand. “Most people dream of having their own room at college because they’re used to their own space at home. They like things in a certain way. They like knowing their things and their haven away from class will be untouched and private when they get back. But what they don’t realize is that mom and dad are not going to be there anymore. Their siblings are still back at home. Their friends, too. A single room at college doesn’t hold the same comfort and familiarity as their bedroom at home does.
“That’s why most colleges opt to use a roommate system. A student is able to diversify their previous life with that of another person’s. They’re able to form close friendships and bonds with their roommate. They learn to cohabitate in a small space and share a bowl of easy mac when the dining hall is closed. They share secrets and talk about their day. They meet other people through their roommate and the saga continues. I think having someone to come home to, someone who you can trust will do you a world of good. I think it will help you to let go of your distrust for other people and start to open you up. But again, feel free to tell me no.”
“I don’t know anyone else here.”
“You don’t know anyone or you know someone who you aren’t willing to room with?” Anya mentally patted herself on the back when recognition spread over Shay’s face.
“River is in the hospital. He already has a roommate. Not that he’ll be back soon to get to know Kelly. I’m sorry. I can’t deal with this right now.” Shay rubbed his eyes.
“Shay, I didn’t mean River Hathaway. I’m sorry if I upset you.” She offered him a tissue from the side table. He shook his head at her. “I meant Jagger Winegarten. Forgive me if I’m making a fool of myself here. I’ve followed the story over the summer and I just think he’s been hurting like you have. I also think the two of you could benefit from being friends.”
“Why is everyone trying to throw Jagger at me? Don’t you get it? He thinks I stole his boyfriend! Why would I room with him?” Shay scowled, thoroughly upset with her plan.
“Is that the only argument you have against rooming with him? If it is, I think you’re better off than most people. Look, he’s not someone from the team. He won’t constantly get under your skin. You’ll have a reprieve from talking about sports and practice and the next game. He’s your complete opposite. You’ll learn a different side of life from him. You’ll learn to work out your anger against each other, which is seriously trivial if I’m being honest.
“He also cares for River, so you’ll have an ally where he’s concerned. And you’ll have someone to talk to, someone who’s been a target of the media since day one. He’s someone who knows the weight of the pressure you’re under and someone who has been dealing with it all along. He may seem like the enemy, but really he’s just like you—a kid struggling to deal. I think you may have more in common with him than you think.”
“You’re crazy. I’m sorry, Anya, but that’s nuts. He wouldn’t agree to that in a million years, not even if you fed him the same sugar-coated crap you just gave me.”
She drummed her fingers on the file, curious to his reaction. “You didn’t say no.”
His nostrils flared. He crossed his legs, retreating into himself a bit. “I didn’t say yes, either.”
“I’ll talk to him. We have an appointment after lunch. And if he agrees?”
“I’ll think about it,” he snapped back.
“Hey.” Her brows shot up. “I’m not poking a stick at you here. You wanted honesty and that’s my honest opinion. Take it. Don’t take it. That’s all I was trying to say. Anyway, I don’t want to razz you before your big game tonight. Speaking of which, tell me how practices are fitting in with your course load. I’m not insulting your intelligence or willpower, but you do have to maintain a certain GPA to stay on the team. If five classes are too much, drop back to four. You’ll thank me in the long run.”
“It’s only been a week. I still have until the end of September to decide, don’t I?”
“Yes, you do, but I have a feeling you’ll make up your mind sooner rather than later.” Anya put down the file. She offered him a smile, again, in hopes of reconciling his sudden turn of mood. “You look tired. That should be it for today. Think about what I’ve said and let’s set something up for next week.”
Shay hesitated responding. His look of incredulity remained. “About the roommate or about dropping a class?”
“Both. Get a roommate. Make some friends. Take a load off. Drop a class so you can have some room to breathe. Think about it.” Anya stood. She walked to him. “Oh, and give those Tigers hell out there tonight. When you boys win, and I’m sure you will with you out there, make sure to give me a smile. I’ll be watching from the stands.”
Shay Foster transformed in seconds. As if they’d time traveled to just minutes ago, he looked like a little boy lost, begging for a hand to hold. Only this little boy was six foot two and built like a machine. A stunning, graceful machine.
“I’m really nervous about tonight,” he admitted. “I think I’ll fuck it up with everything going on. Owen and Coach have been hounding me all week to stay focused, but I just can’t. I’ve tried to swim laps to relax. I’ve tried to push myself after practice and—”
Anya touched his shoulder. “Stop thinking about it.”
“Stop. Thinking. About it. You’re putting so much pressure on yourself. You know how to play or they wouldn’t have given you a spot on such a prestigious team. Go out there and stop thinking and just play your heart out. Don’t think about anything else except for how much you love water polo. Just play, Shay. If you give it your best no can fault you. Defeat is only in your head.” She caressed his cheek with the barest of touches. “You’re a good kid. Go out there and show everyone how good.”
His head held high, Shay stood and took her hand. “You shouldn’t be some school advisor, Anya. You would make better money as a therapist.”
“I don’t do it for the money. I do it for that.” She pointed to his smile. “Get out here. I’ll see you next week.”
“Yeah, next week.” He beamed all the way out the door.
Either Shay was a gifted sociopath or he was a beautiful person who had yet to believe in himself. Going by her training and guided by her heart, Anya was positive Shay was nothing more than a victim in all of this. Still thinking of victims, Anya went to the coat closet in her office and teetered on the toe of her heels as she reached to the top shelf.
She pulled down a leather bound journal. Handling it carefully, Anya locked her office door and went to her desk. She pushed off her heels, tucked her feet underneath her, and settled in before Jagger’s appointment. In her hands she held the one piece of evidence that had prompted the case against Hedgewater. Sadly the case had taken a more violent turn, collecting a death in the killer’s pocket before they could make any sense of it all.
But this…this journal was everything. If only she could understand it.
The author remained anonymous on every page, but Anya deduced they were female, a female who’d grown up in Hedgewater. Two years ago Anya found the journal packaged in a delivery envelope on her desk at the field office. It had been addressed to her specifically. Even now she didn’t understand why her and why years after the journal had been written. The very first entry had been written on June 15, 1994 according to the journal.
Long, loopy cursive filled the book from cover to cover. Every painful entry documented a young girl’s descent into hell. She’d been brutalized, pushed away, made a fool of, and forced to leave Hedgewater when tragedy struck. In her escape from the man without a name, Jane Doe was three months pregnant. No one knew except for her. What happened to the child, the author, and the nicknamed characters in her journal was still a mystery the feds were trying to unravel.
But one thing they did know, the entire reason the FBI had locked onto Hedgewater in the first place, was a name. A name that had circulated throughout Hedgewater almost eighteen years ago like wildfire. Paul Fromme, brother of Bruce and uncle to Garrett Fromme, had been violently raped and murdered in Hedgewater as a college freshman just like his nephew years later.
The note attached to the parcel Anya received had been typed up.
He holds our secrets as we hold his. He covers his tracks, disguised as someone you’d see every day and pay no mind to. But he’s a monster. In some ways we’re all monsters, but not like him. This is the only evidence I have, that anyone will ever have on him. It’s now yours to bring him down. Every day he walks free he preys on our families. Every day I walk this earth knowing he’s out there I die a little and the memories are already too many to bear. I can’t handle anymore. I purge myself of him by giving this to you.
Save them. I know you can. Save them before another Bruce Fromme dies again.
Anya had read the note so many times she’d memorized every word. The same man who had killed Bruce Fromme was out for vengeance again, but why? Why did Paul Fromme have to die? Who was the killer? Who were these anonymous characters the author painted so vividly and entrusted with her life over a year of torture? Where had she gone? Had she sent this journal to Anya, and why? Why her?
After a little investigation into Paul Fromme, digging into the old murder case files and other materials supplied by town records, the anonymous characters in the journal turned out to be quite familiar. The author’s friends had been tight back in the day, old college buddies that shared a secret. They were parents of children who now attended Hedgewater College.
And as Rogan had relayed to her last night, the usual suspects were all back in town to protect their families and their secrets. Things were starting to unravel in this town. Anya only hoped no one else had to die to get some real answers.
The Hedgewater Sharks lined up next to the pool, separated from the Tigers by three referees. The Sharks’ warm up coats hung loosely from their bodies, swarming them in rich red material. White swim caps with ear protectors fit around their heads to signify they were the home team while the Jackson College Tigers wore dark green caps as a mark of their visiting status.
Two announcers from a nationally televised sports station, SPX, sat to the opposite side of the indoor pool. They were deep into commentary, riling up the fans at home by reminding them of Hedgewater’s five year consecutive national championship title. They were the team to beat this year, especially now that Owen Trusou was leading the way. The announcers continued breaking down the team by strengths and weaknesses, naming Hedgewater as one of the best defensive teams they’d seen in decades.
Their focus turned to Francis and his record breaking goal count. Francis tensed a bit. Shay noticed out of the corner of his eye. He looked at Francis and didn’t get a reaction. Francis’s head was in the game. His shoulders relaxed. His eyes remained on the water in front of them. The crowd screaming behind him didn’t seem to matter. His stare became intense. Francis Ozella was slipping into another frame of mind before Shay’s eyes.
Shay on the other hand was nervous as hell. He stood next to Owen and tried not to throw up. Their pep talk in the locker room had been like being splashed in the face with a bucket of hot water. The coach revved them up then gave them a moment to breathe. But Francis and Owen used those last minutes to corner Shay.
“Say a word and you’re done. Do you hear me? I’ll make sure you never swim again. You can’t swim if you don’t have legs.” Francis snapped his cap on, thumping Shay into the lockers as he went by. “You better not fuck this up!”
Owen shook his head at Shay. “I was rooting for you, man, until you put your nose where it didn’t belong. You could’ve left well enough alone, but no, you went to the cops. Just be lucky you still have a spot on this team and don’t mess with us out there. We’re champions and we intend to stay that way. So get with the plan or get off of my team.”
Owen pulled his warm up coat over his bulging shoulders and buttoned it up, hiding his rock hard chest. “I thought we were friends.” He frowned and walked away.
“Friends don’t beat the shit out of people for no reason,” Shay whispered. He put on the last of his gear, grabbing his mouthpiece, and walked out of the locker room. Bright lights hit him. Screaming fans waved as he and the other players made their way to the pool. Francis and Owen glared, along with his team.
Now here they stood, listening to some Cavelle girl sing the national anthem off key. The tension was so thick even the other team seemed to notice. Their attention strayed from the pretty girl by the stands. Their eyes targeted Shay. They thought he was weak. They thought he would be an easy target in his emotional state.
As the SPX cameras panned over the teams, Shay looked directly at the nearest one. He narrowed his eyes and put a hand over his heart. “This is for you, baby,” he whispered slowly to River, hoping the universe would allow his love to see it.
“Shut the fuck up,” Owen hissed in his ear. “Don’t show your ass in front of the cameras or on my watch.”
Shay looked at Owen. What he saw was nothing more than a scared boy in a swim suit and a big coat. Not only was Shay a threat to Owen’s future, he was a threat to him in the pool, and Shay finally understood that. The talks between Owen and Coach. The after practice practices suggested by the team. All of it was to make him feel like he wasn’t good enough; to bring him down.
Filled with confidence that he hadn’t felt in a long time, Shay turned to the stands after the anthem ended. He saw his family. His mom and dad sandwiched Leif on the third row back. Next to them was Will Hathaway in Jackie’s absence, the Winegartens, then Ira, Jagger, and Kelly. They waved at him. Even Jagger nodded his head. But it was the woman in the front row next to the Dean that gave him two thumbs up and an ear splitting smile.
Anya cupped her mouth. “Go get em, Shay!”
For the second time that day, Shay smiled. He shrugged off his coat, giving it to Coach’s assistant. The teams took their sides. Six players plus one goalkeeper made up each end of the pool. Shay let the water rush over him before surfacing and clinging to the pool’s edge. The fresh counter displayed nine minutes for the first period.
Shay’s heart fluttered. He curled his toes, stretching his legs in the water. He could do this. He could help his team win this even though he hated their guts. He was a damn good player and no one could take that away from him except for him. Fuck Francis. Fuck Owen.
Breathing in the scent of chlorine, energized by the crowd and the echoing voice of the commentators, Shay pushed off the edge at the sound of the ball hitting the water. He swam with power across the pool, directly at his opposing player.
Francis was the first to touch the ball. He kicked hard to stay above the water, displaying his bobbing chest every few seconds with the ball raised above his head. He sought out Owen at the corner of the Tigers’ goal.
Shay knew the plan was to keep the ball away from him, even though he was open and still fending off the Tiger against his palm. He kicked up, raising his hand. Francis was the hole set on the team. He was the one who directed the plays because he was fucking good at it. But Shay noticed the way Francis was positioned wasn’t constructive to the game.
Shay was in the middle of the arc they’d set up around the Tigers’ goal. Three on three, he was still the one to pass to. He would slap the ball straight in if given the chance. The Tigers’ defense sucked. Hell, the guy he was handling could barely put up a fight. Shay stuck his hand up so far his arm burned.
He watched the ball shoot across the water towards Owen, their point, and the farthest man away from the goal. Shay growled in his head. What the fuck was that? The ball slipped from Owen’s hand immediately, never sticking to his palm. The horror in Owen’s dark eyes could have chilled the crowd to the bone if they’d caught it.
A Tiger scooped up the ball and swam beeline for the Sharks’ goalkeeper, Patrick. Patrick was all ferocious arms and angry eyes as the players moved in on him. He kicked it up a notch, beating his legs like he could fly above the water. He reared his shoulders back as three passes were made and the ball came flying at him. Like the ball had no chance, it magnetized to his hand. Patrick sent it soaring away from his goal with enough speed to knock a hole in the wall. Luckily the ball landed back in the water before the it could make it to the stands. Patrick’s victorious roar sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Francis sped by like the shark he was, cutting around two players to get the ball. Once he held it again, he rotated and fought off a Tiger until he saw Owen. Shay snarled, spitting water to the side. They wanted him to play like a winner, then it was time to start winning. He broke away from his team’s structure to create a four on two, leaving him farther away from the goal and Owen within the protection of the team.
Francis had to pass it to him this time. He had no choice. Confusion spread through the Tigers with the swiftness of the change up. Francis was ready to murder Shay with his eyes, but he saw the opportunity to win and took it. The ball whacked against Shay’s palm before he could blink. Turning so quick his head spun, Shay zeroed in on the goal and let the ball rip through the air.
A buzzer went off. He wasn’t sure what had happened. Shock settled in his body, only lifting when he scored a few slaps to the shoulder from his teammates. Hedgewater had the first point in under two minutes of gameplay. Shay made that point. He’d actually made the first point in the first game of the season as an unprecedented freshmen player on varsity.
He swam back to his side, hearing his name chanted from the stands. The only two people not enthused with his performance were glaring at him. Francis and Owen didn’t like to be put in their place. That noted Shay knew he was in for some trouble once the game was over. Big. Fucking. Trouble.
“Hedgewater takes the victory with 28-16. Newcomer Shay Foster bagged 15 points for his team tonight. I’d say he’s the one to watch this season. That first point switch-up with a double hole on the set was remarkable, especially by using team captain for the Sharks, Owen Trusou inside the man up instead of being on point, which is his bread and butter in the water. That was one of the fastest and most incredible kick-outs I’ve ever seen by a newb, Mark.”
“I completely agree, Eric. Foster has what everyone wants here tonight. He’s the comeback kid, winning his way into the graces of Hedgewater with raw talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s calling the shots this time next year. With Ozella and Trusou moving on to bigger and better things after graduation, if Shay Foster keeps this up he’ll surely be the golden boy at Hedgewater during his sophomore career.”
Shay grinned. He nodded, turning to the crowd. He accepted a few bumps from the teammates who seemed to have been won over with his skills and listened to the fans cheer. It was exactly what he’d needed to feel human again; to feel wanted and needed; to feel good in his own skin.
“As is tradition with a win for Hedgewater, we’d like to welcome the ladies from the Hedgewater Garden Society. For years these special women have helped the Hedgewater Men’s Water Polo team and the ladies from the Cavelle College Women’s Ensemble come together for charitable causes and raise thousands of dollars to make a difference. It is with great honor that they present their boys with a special gift for tonight’s win.”
Applause lit up the pool area. Shay froze. Thirteen older ladies came around the stands from a side entrance, holding giant bouquets of fresh flowers. Violets for Owen. Carnations for Francis. A different flower for every player. When it was Shay’s turn, the small lady that could’ve been his grandmother filled his arms with a full bouquet of pink peonies… Just like the one Rogan had brought River in the hospital.
“You show great promise,” she whispered with enthusiasm. “This was Paul’s flower. He always said he liked the peonies the best. We, the ladies and I, put it up for debate and decided you should have them tonight.”
“I’m sorry.” Shay glanced at the flowers. His breathing was shallow as if he couldn’t remember how to breathe at all. “I don’t know who Paul is.”
“Paul Fromme, the greatest water polo player to ever jump in that pool. God rest his soul.” She patted his hand before joining her society members to the side.
Dead? Shay looked from right to left. Roses are red. Violets are blue. And he was holding pink peonies—a dead’s man legacy. Near panicked, Shay turned around, looking for answers from his friends or family. Anya was nowhere to be found. In her place was Mildred, the Dean’s secretary. Shay’s parents were so still they looked like cardboard cutouts that could be pushed over with the touch of a finger. Ira and the Hathaways gawked like they had just watched a beheading and not a winning game.
Kelly and Jagger nervously squirmed around until Shay caught their eyes. He lifted the bouquet, questioning them silently. They nodded. At least the guys were on the same page. Dread bloomed in Shay’s gut. He turned back around, waiting in line until the team filed out of the pool area into the locker room.
Usual locker room banter ensued. Shay hastily threw his things into his bag, avoided the peonies to pull on some sweats, and exited before Francis and Owen were left alone with him. Not before he saw the promise in their eyes, though. He understood every cruel second of their stares. He wasn’t getting off that easy. He was on their official shit list.
In that moment Shay couldn’t have cared less. He wanted to get the fuck out of there. He wanted to be surrounded by the safety of his loved ones and moments later he was. Walking out into the parking lot with his parents and Leif, Shay was stopped by Jagger and Kelly.
“Hey,” Jagger said, playing it cool. “Got a second?” His eyes flitted around the Foster family.
Dean smirked. He nudged Shay forward. “Go hang with your bros.”
“Dad,” Shay groaned. “Don’t say stuff like that.”
“Well, Gloria, I think if he’s good enough to argue with me that win must have done him some good.”
Gloria Foster’s lips ticked up. “Must have. Shay, go with your friends. We won’t keep you. Call us in the…call when you can. We’re so proud of you, honey.” She hugged her youngest son.
“Yeah, good game, bro.” Leif ruffled Shay’s hair. “Nice to see you still have some mojo left.”
Shay batted Leif’s hand away. “Mojo? Seriously?”
Kelly sniggered. “Nice.”
“I thought so.” Leif mocked dusting off his shoulders. “I still have it.”
“An ego?” Shay snorted. “I don’t think you can lose it if you tried.”
Dean Foster pulled Leif away. “Thanks for taking care of our superstar, boys. Have a good time. Call us, Shay.”
“Yeah, dad, I will later.” Shay raised a hand. He waited until their car pulled away before pivoting towards Kelly and Jagger. “We need to talk.”
“I thought that was pretty obvious. I didn’t just pull you aside so we could go out for pizza.” Jagger rolled his eyes.
Kelly elbowed him. “Pizza sounds fucking awesome. Why don’t we order one?”
“Because we’re not having a sleepover.” Jagger’s scowl deepened.
“No, you’re getting a new roommate and we’re getting a pizza. Oh, and the shit that just happened back there is going to take a long time to discuss.” Kelly shook Jagger’s arm. “Don’t be an asshole.”
Shay paused. “Roommate?”
Jagger grumbled, “Yes, roommate. Don’t make this harder, Foster.”
“Are you saying you’ll let me room with you?” Shay played with his hands, afraid to look into the face of rejection. He’d given it some thought before the game and decided Jagger wasn’t so bad. In fact it would be nice to come home to someone, even if they didn’t like him. Just having another person in his room would make him feel more secure about sticking around.
“What, did you need a formal invitation? Sorry, ain’t gonna happen. I’m all out of frilly pink stationary at the moment.” Jagger crossed his arms and tapped his foot. “Well?”
Shay’s mouth quirked to the side. He shrugged, mimicking Jagger’s indifference. “Sure. Pizza sounds good.”
“Whatever.” Jagger clung to his pessimism, lingering on the curb as Kelly and Shay walked towards the dorm.
Game goers started to flood out of the pool entrance. Kelly gestured them into the parking lot. “Let’s get out of here. We need to grab you some stuff, Shay, then get over to Jagger’s before they stop delivering pizza tonight. I’m starving.”
“I guess it is a fucking sleepover.” Jagger trudged after his new roomie and his new best friend. “Wonderful.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
MUSIC FROM THIS EPISODE
See you all next week!