CHAPTER TWO – THE INVITATION
Five years later …
“Are you almost done?” Scott Westmore drawled.
From Ethan’s spot behind the apartment’s boiler that he had nicknamed “Big Bess”, Ethan could only see his Scott’s legs moving restlessly. His best friend shifted from one booted foot to the other booted foot while Ethan tried to get the boiler working again. No hot water in winter would be a disaster.
“Hey, if I don’t get Big Bess working then you won’t be having hot water for your shower – or worse, the pipes will freeze and it’ll be as cold in here as it is outside,” Ethan chuckled from behind the many-armed boiler for the apartment building.
“Yeah, this place is a real Shangri-La with the water working.”
Scott had moved into the apartment building the week after Ethan’s mother had died. Scott’s parents were also dead, but their lives had been ended in a car crash in California and Scott had been sent to live with his grandfather in Winter Haven. The fact that Scott and Ethan were both orphans had been an immediate bonding point. That and the fact that Scott wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He had determined to be Ethan's friend and his determination had breached Ethan’s many, careful defenses.
“So let me get this straight, you are at the beck and call of the Bottom sisters even on a school day? You have to shovel their shit no matter what?” Scott asked with a growl.
“You know the deal, Scott. You keep having me repeat it to you as if it’s going to miraculously change after five years.”
“But the deal sucks. Your mom paid them in gold for the apartment, right?”
Ethan had broken his mother’s rules with Scott. He had slowly told the other boy everything about his mother, their fugitive lifestyle, her Elven delusions and finally, over an unfortunate bottle of Goldschlager, his forbidden desire for Alric Koenig, the man that his mother had named his father.
Scott’s reaction was to nod solemnly and give him the following drunken advice, “Have sex with Alric first and then tell him you think he’s your dad. That’s the best way. Well, it’s most likely the only way you’ll get to have sex with him, because the ‘you are my father’ thing is sure to dampen the mood. Or maybe he’s into that so --”
“He’s not my dad!”
“You could call him ‘Daddy’ in the middle of sex. Maybe that would key him in--”
“He’s not my dad, Scott.”
“You sure do look like him though. All black hair and big eyes though yours are a silvery green while his are blue …”
“Stop looking into my eyes. You’re drunk,” Ethan had pouted.
Scott had thrown a companionable arm around Ethan’s shoulders. “Actually, after what you just told me, I’m pretty sure that we both are drunk. Drunk as skunks.”
“The deal sucketh, Ethan. Sucketh big time,” Scott’s present voice drew Ethan out of his memory.
“The deal gets me the room at no cost. The chores get me money for food, clothing and everything else,” Ethan answered dryly as he tightened two of the connections. The boiler was old and in need of replacement but the Bottom sisters did not spend money easily. 'Easily' was probably not the right word. They didn't spend money at all so if Ethan let anything fall into disrepair it might not get replaced and all the residents would suffer. It was up to Ethan to keep the apartment building running despite them and he had been doing so since he was thirteen.
“Do you know how absolutely Scrooge-like you have to be to trust your apartment building to a thirteen-year-old?” Scott scuffed the floor. “Trust is probably too strong a word. They’re so cheap that they could only hire a thirteen-year old to work for the money they’re offering.”
“I’m eighteen now.”
“Right, and you’re foolish enough to still take that pittance. This should be our time to be carefree. But no, you’re fixing the boiler or the sinks or the toilets when we should be partying.”
“Scott, it’s seven a.m. I don't think even you are up to partying at this hour.”
“It’s Friday. The last day of school before winter break. We should be partying even if it the freaking crack of dawn. Speaking of which, if you don’t get a move on we are going to be late for school.” Scott tapped one booted foot on the cement floor.
“Weren’t you just telling me we’re eighteen and should be footloose and fancy free? Now you’re worried about us being late to school?” Ethan tightened one last bolt on the boiler. “Besides, if I didn’t fix things around here, it would never get done. So consider yourself lucky to have a very handy best friend.”
Scott’s boots were now crossed at the ankles. He was leaning against the wall. “Yeah, well …”
“You just don’t like the dark, dank basement, do you?” Ethan jumped out at him from around the boiler. “BOO!”
Scott only flinched a little. The blond boy had California surfer locks and a laconic smile. He was dressed in faded, ripped jeans and a dark gray Henley with a leather bomber jacket he’d fished out of his grandfather’s closet. “You’ve got something black and nasty on your nose, E.”
Ethan scrubbed his face with the back of one hand that was marginally free of grease, dust and who knew what else that adhered to the back of the boiler.
“You just put more of it all over. Here, let me help.” He scrubbed Ethan’s face with the sleeve of his leather jacket.
“Now you’ve just smeared it. I can tell.” Ethan flapped his arms. He was wearing one of Scott’s old shirts that was too small on the other boy, but he was drowning in it.
“You’re looking a little thin there. I would say come to dinner tonight for Grandpa Joe’s awesome – well, maybe not awesome but at least it’s food-- chili out of a can. You need some grease big time.” Scott poked at Ethan’s thin side.
“Yeah, I can’t seem to gain weight.” The truth was that he was losing weight at an alarming rate no matter how much he ate. He felt this terrible burning in his stomach sometimes that made him want to curl into a ball. Sometimes he feared he was coming down with whatever had killed his mother.
She would say that I need to absorb someone’s life force. Uhm, no thanks.
“Instead of chili out of a can, maybe you should be eating a ton of mac and cheese. Like gallons of it.” Scott was still inspecting his too-thin frame.
“I’ll get some at lunch. They’re serving it today. But why can’t we eat chili out of a can tonight?” Ethan asked.
Scott narrowed his eyes at Ethan. “Why not tonight? Why not? What day is today exactly?”
“It’s December 20.”
“Come on, stalker boy, I don’t believe for one freaking second that you don’t know what tonight is!” Scott shook his head. Ethan looked at him innocently, which had Scott launching into a seemingly prepared diatribe, “Well, let me refresh you! Tonight is the night when you make excuses about why you can’t hang out and then I find you staked out behind Alric Koenig’s place in the woods with your binoculars watching his annual Winter’s Eve Party.”
Ethan flushed from the top of his head to his toes and quickly looked away. “Oh, is that tonight?”
“E? Seriously? Was I born yesterday?”
Ever since his mother had died and she left him with those insane, cryptic statements about Alric Koenig being his father, the man had stuck in Ethan’s mind and he had started to just notice when Alric was mentioned in the news or online or anywhere. Then Ethan had started looking for those articles and posts. Then he had started collecting them. And somewhere along the way, he had become obsessed with the man.
Okay, maybe I was obsessed with him from the first moment I saw him. Glimpsed him. Had thirty seconds where we were breathing the same air. Almost the same air.
“Yes, I am going to – to watch Alric’s party tonight, but I can still eat chili out of a can beforehand. If we eat early.” The woods around Alric’s mansion wouldn’t be patrolled until about two hours before the hour began so Ethan had a small window of time to slip in unnoticed and get a safe spot from which to watch the festivities.
“When doesn’t Grandpa Joe eat early? He’s probably eating dinner now.”
Ethan had to grin at Scott’s description of his grandfather. “Are you sure he isn’t trying to seduce Leticia again? He spends an awful lot of time doing that.”
Scott made a sour face. “He’s trying to get some rent taken off. There is no way anyone could find her attractive unless they were desperate for something she could give them.”
“Hettie agrees with you. She’s been trying to squash their romance.” Ethan wiped the wrench off with a rag and put it back in the beaten up red tool box.
“Ha! Like that will dissuade Grandpa Joe. He’ll try that much harder,” Scott said.
“Sounds like someone I know. You never give up either.” Ethan closed the toolbox and prepared to lug it back upstairs to his room when he caught sight of one of Scott’s devilish smiles. “What?”
“Hold up a minute.”
“You were just telling me that we needed to get a move on and now you’re stalling?”
Scott rocked back and forth on his toes. “Just listen. See … neither of us is going to be eating chili out of a can nor are you going to be in the woods behind Alric’s mansion tonight. Oh, no, we are going to be in Alric’s mansion tonight.”
Scott brought out a creamy envelope from behind his back that had in picture perfect penmanship ‘James Hawthorne and Guest’ inscribed upon it. Ethan recognized what it was immediately. Twin desires to snatch it from Scott’s hands and to back away warred within him.
“That is one of the invitations for tonight’s party!” Ethan cried.
“Indeed it is. Completely legit and authentic.” Scott sniffed the paper. “It even smells rich.”
“Who is James Hawthorne and did you steal this from him?” Ethan stared at the envelope as if it would burn him if he touched it.
Scott rolled his eyes. “James Hawthorne happens to be out of town. He has been out of town and in India for the past month so Mr. Hawthorne and Guest will not be able to make it this evening nor did they happen to send their regrets. So I sent in an acceptance.”
“What? How? You? Seriously?” Ethan sputtered.
Scott counted off on his fingers. “Squeaky is house sitting for Mr. Hawthorne. Our little Squeaks noticed this most excellent invitation in the piles of mail he has to lug in every day. He thought that you and I might take advantage of Mr. Hawthorne’s absence.” Scott nodded sagely.
Alan ‘Squeaky’ Kimble was a pudgy pothead that constantly wore tie-dyed shirts and shorts even in the dead of winter and only listened to music produced before 1979. Scott thought he was great. Ethan had trouble communicating with him on any level. But then again that seemed to be Ethan’s problem with everyone except Scott and the Bottom sisters.
“You didn’t tell Squeaky about – about my – my feelings for – about Alric, did you?” Ethan looked stricken and his chest felt tight. “I mean why else would he give you this invitation?
Another eye roll. “No, I didn’t have to. E, everyone who knows you even a little bit has an idea that you’re sort of a … fan of Alric’s. Many a wounded heart have been salved by the fact that your interest lays that way rather than just in some other pathetic high schooler.”
“How do these people know this? I mean, I don’t talk about Alric--”
“Really? I suppose you are going to say that you don’t always seem to be looking up information about him on the library’s computers? Or perhaps it’s an illusion that you always seem to know what’s going on with him and everyone connected with him? I think you’re getting the picture from the look on your face.”
“I – I – really? Squeaky knows? Lots of people know?” Ethan felt like sinking down onto the floor and then below it. If oblivious Squeaky knew then the cat was definitely out of the bag. What if it somehow got back to Alric? Though many of the kids they went to school with weren’t the uber-wealthy – those kids went to posh Dunhaven School for the Gifted – they still had some connections. What if they mentioned it at home to parents who might mention it to --
Scott thumped Ethan’s arm, which brought him out of his panicky fog. “Chill man. No one blames you. Even the straight boys look a little starry-eyed at Alric Koenig.”
“Yeah, he’s …” special … wonderful … beautiful … intelligent … cultured … everything … not mine.
“Great and going to be within reach tonight!” Scott filled in the sentence.
“What are you talking about?”
“We – you and I – are going to be at his house. Where he is. And you will look fantastic. He will notice. You are now legal to have sex with – unless he really is your father and then I don’t think that’s allowed anywhere. Things can then naturally take their course.”
“Scott, we can’t go! We cannot go to the Winter’s Eve party!” Panic seemed to want to squeeze Ethan’s windpipe closed as he thought of walking into the front doors of the fabulous Koenig Manor. He imagined Alric and his sister Nyssandra standing in the foyer in their formal wear looking like glittering jewels while Ethan and Scott approached in their ripped jeans and t-shirts.
“Why the Hell not?”
“Well, for one thing, we won’t look fantastic, because we don’t have the clothes for it! It’s black tie,” Ethan said.
His mind went back to memories of this party from last year where Alric had worn this slim-cut tuxedo with charcoal gray silk vest and black tie. His long black hair had been loose, flowing down past his mid-back. Despite the long hair, Alric looked incredibly masculine and virile in Ethan’s opinion. Everything a man should be. Broad shoulders, narrow waist and long powerful legs. A wash of heat went through Ethan just thinking about him and oddly, there was a pulse of burning in his stomach.
“Actually, Squeaks was able to help us out with that little detail, too,” Scott said triumphantly.
“How is Squeaky – Mr. I Only Wear Tie-Dye And Shorts – going to help us with black tie formalwear?”
Scott shrugged. “Squeaks has a lot of jobs, including one as a waiter at a catering biz. The woman who owns it actually keeps on hand dozens of tuxes for her staff. Squeaks has a key to the changing room. We’ll both be able to find something that fits.”
“Okay, fine, so we have tuxes. But what about the fact that the invitation says ‘James Hawthorne and Guest’? Neither of us is Mr. Hawthorne and I know they check IDs at the door,” Ethan said.
Scott pulled out a license that had his face and James Hawthorne’s name. “Come on, E, you’ve got to do better than that! Did you honestly think I couldn’t get us a fake ID? See, I’m James Hawthorne now and you’re the ‘Guest’.”
“You really think they’re not going to question how a bunch of kids are invited to the Manor? Alric’s huge driver, Wulf, always keeps an eye on the front door during these things. Not to mention Alric’s British secretary, Jordan, will be there! He doesn’t miss a thing!”
“You know his staff’s names? Huh.” Scott’s forehead furrowed. “Is Jordan the blond, hot one that looks like he’s sucking on a lemon and has a stick up his ass? The one with the scars on his cheek?”
Ethan nodded. Jordan had four deep scars on his left cheek as if a wild animal had mauled him. The scars though did not take away from his icy good looks. “He’s just very … correct, that’s all. I’ve seen him be quite kind and--”
“I’m sure he’s a great guy. But he better not get in the way of my plans tonight, because great guy or no, we’re getting into that party.” Scott’s eyes narrowed and a determined glint appeared in them.
Ethan’s voice sounded frantic as he yelled out, “But you’re forgetting the main reason we can’t go!”
“What is the main reason we can’t go?”
Ethan opened his mouth, but nothing came out. There wasn’t a final reason. Not one that he could easily compress into a sentence. Instead, he kept thinking about being in the same room as Alric Koenig. Hearing the man’s smooth as honey voice in person. Smelling his discrete yet spicy cologne. Ethan felt ill and excited at the same time.
It wasn’t that he believed his mother’s insanity that if the man realized Ethan was his son – I’m not! – that Alric would kill him. It was just that if he met Alric and the inevitable happened, which would be a polite yet dismissive greeting and then turning away by Alric Koenig, Ethan’s dreams of getting out of pathetic life and swept up into Alric’s incredible one would be destroyed. And he had too little to risk that. Scott didn’t understand. Scott was trying to do something nice for him. But Scott’s nice actions might destroy the only hope Ethan had.
“Hey, hey, calm down and breathe. You’re looking a little blue there, my man.” Scott gently thumped Ethan’s back.
For one terrible moment, Ethan flashed back on his mother’s face as she gasped for air. He took in a great shuddering breath. “I—I’m okay.”
“Good, I was getting worried there for a second.” Both of the boys stood up fully again. “So what is this last reason we can’t go meet the man of your dreams?”
Ethan let out a soft slightly hysterical laugh. “Because I’m not going to be his dream, Scott. There’s no way a kid like me is going to get his attention. And then my dream is going to die. Don’t you see?”
Scott stared at Ethan for long moments. “I actually do see that. And I’ve seen it for awhile.”
Ethan blinked. “You – you see? But you got the invitation and want me to go anyways?”
“Yes,” Scott said. He scrubbed a hand over the top of his head. “Look, I’ve been thinking a lot about this, but wasn’t sure how to say it so I’m just going to come right out and tell you.”
“That’s normally best.” Ethan gave his best friend an uncertain smile.
Scott looked down at his feet then took in a deep breath and said, “I know you think that you’re not living your life – or I should say limiting your life – because of what your mom told you for all those years. But you are, E.” Scott raised up a hand as Ethan’s mouth had opened to protest. “Let me count the ways. First, you’re obsessing about Alric Koenig, the man she obsessed over. Second, you won’t set foot outside of Winter Haven as if you’ll be struck by lightening if you do. Oh, and that’s sort of what she told you, right? Third … well, third is that you’ve boxed your life into your Mom’s illness. You’re not living. You’re just going through the motions.”
Ethan went very still as he processed Scott’s words. They hurt to hear. They hurt like Hell. But they stung only in the way that true things stung. “I see …”
Scott gently grasped Ethan’s shoulders. “I’m sorry to say this stuff to you. But I need you to snap out of it. You need to snap out of it so you can actually go on with your life. And I thought that if you actually met Alric Koenig that maybe – just maybe – you might see that he’s just a man. Not an Elven king. Not an arbiter of your fate. Just a really hot guy that – hey, maybe you can seduce! That would be the best, wouldn’t it? He’d be real and not the myth your mother made him into.”
Ethan wanted to yell at Scott that he was wrong. He wasn’t like his mother! He didn’t believe in Elves and magic or anything like that. His life in its dreary grays and browns and thrift-store clothes, cheap pre-packaged food and endless drudgery doing the Bottom’s chores had killed any belief he had in fairytales.
Ethan also wanted to protest Scott’s characterization of Alric Koenig as a “really hot guy” or “just a man”. Alric could not be reduced that way even if he wasn’t an Elven king. Alric was as deep as the ocean. Ethan knew that the information he scrapped up was only the tip of the iceberg. Alric wasn’t just a brilliant businessman, he was an incredible philanthropist, and that was only the charity work that the press knew about. There was more. So much more. Ethan had discovered that Alric funded multiple orphanages and helped needy kids all the time out of the limelight. Ethan sometimes wondered if Alric couldn’t have children of his own, but still wanted to help as many as he could. Even though Ethan would never take advantage of Alric’s charity, he felt a kinship with the man for helping kids like him.
But even as Ethan prepared to launch into a defense of himself and Alric, he found himself staying silent. Because there were a few other unfortunate “facts” that made Scott’s argument seem legitimate.
Such as the many times and flimsy excuses that Ethan had used not to leave Winter Haven when he’d been asked to go to the movies or swimming or camping outside of town. Or the fact that he planned his life around Alric Koenig’s life like tonight’s Winter’s Eve party. Scott was right that he wouldn’t dream of doing anything else but hanging out in the woods behind Koenig Manor and living vicariously through the beautiful, wealthy people that spun through the ballroom. And then there was the fact that Ethan had never kissed, let alone dated, anyone in his entire life. He told himself it was because high school kids didn’t interest him. Nor did college kids. Nor did the older men with money that seemed to want to pay him to spend time with them. No, Ethan’s interest was purely and only for Alric.
Ethan’s head lowered in a kind of shame. He had never tried to be normal. He found the concept alien and stupid. No one was really normal. But these particular things about him seemed terribly abnormal. Like his mother.
I’m not like her. Ethan wrapped his arms around himself. I don’t want to be like her. I don’t want to be crazy and poor and starving. I – I don’t want that. But wasn’t he going just that way? No, no, I’m not. Scott’s wrong. I’m not like her!And I can prove that to him! I – I’ll go to the party.
Ethan swallowed shallowly. He could do this. He could go to the party, ape the manners of the wealthy. He wouldn’t have to actually speak with Alric or maybe he would. Just a few words wouldn’t hurt. The man would be warm and friendly to a guest or a boy he thought was a guest. It would be the same – yet better – than using his binoculars. He’d actually be with Alric in some small way.
Ethan firmed his resolve and looked straight in Scott’s blue eyes almost challengingly. “We’re going to that party tonight.”
Scott, who had evidently been holding his breath since Ethan went silent, let out an explosive yell of success. “All right! I knew you’d do it, E! I knew you’d face this thing down.”
Ethan smiled even as he felt his stomach knot and burn at the thought of being near the man his mother believed would kill him.