Downward Spiral Rising

Chapter 20

I sat Indian-style on my bed. Becky had that patented Concerned Mom Look they secretly teach to expecting mothers in the pre-natal ward of hospitals the world over. It clawed at my insides like some kind of large, guilty predatory animal. A lion maybe?

"So," she said, letting the word hang there, filling the silence.

I picked at an errant thread of cloth on my bedspread, stubbornly refusing to meet her eyes.

"Are you going to tell me what that was all about?"

I shrugged. "Connor and Warren don't like each other."

Mom gave me a bland look. "So I gathered," she replied. She and Maxine had come running out of the house at the sound of Connor and Warren beating each other bloody. Or, more likely, at the sound of Claire and me screaming at them to stop. Ren had put up a surprisingly good fight for such a nerd.

Connor had a fat lip and a bruised cheek, but other than that he looked no more worse for wear. Warren, on the other hand, had left with Max and Shane with a broken pair of glasses and a black eye. I thought of my best friend laying in bed for the rest of the weekend, barely able to see. I was still pretty pissed at him, but Connor had no business baiting him like that.

"Nikki broke up with Warren yesterday and Connor rubbed some salt in his wound." I explained awkwardly, still picking at the bedspread. "Ren shouldn't have hit him though."

Mom lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "That's it?"

"More or less," I said.

"What exactly did Connor say to make Warren act like that?"

"I don't remember," I lied. There was a pregnant pause. I could almost hear my mother deciding whether or not she should pretend to believe my steaming pile of BS.

"So you're telling me they weren't fighting over you?"

I looked up at her sharply. "Why would you even ask that?"

Mom rolled her eyes. "I'm not blind, Chloe," she said. "Warren's been sweet on you since you were in diapers. And I noticed that Connor's been taking you to school every day recently. He's acting very nice and attentive all of a sudden."

My stomach churned.

"Connor looks a lot like Alec," she mused. "I can see the appeal."

"Gross, Mom," I said. Was this psychological punishment?

Mom squeezed my hand. "You know the last thing I want to do is tell you who you can and can't be with," she told me seriously, "But if Alec and I get married, Connor's going to be your step-brother."

"I know, Mom," I replied, feeling unbearably uncomfortable all of the sudden.

Mom nudged my shoulder. "Warren's a nice boy," she told me conspiratorially. "And pretty cute in that bookish, lanky sort of way."

Oh my God. This was not happening.

"Are we done now?" I croaked.

She looked me in the eye and smiled softly. "Yes, Chloe, we're done now. Just remember that I love you no matter what, OK?"

"OK," I said.

Mom and Alec blockaded themselves in their room, supposedly to discuss the proper punishment for Connor. I also had the nagging suspicion that they were discussing what to do about Connor and me, as if there was a "Connor and me." Just the thought of it made my skin crawl with embarrassment. If Mom ever breathed a word of her theory to him I would die of mortification at the misunderstanding. What if Connor thought she got that idea from me?

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to throw up.

Claire was clucking over her brother in the kitchen when I finally gathered up the resolve to leave my room. At the sight of Connor, my courage left me and I stood in the hallway, unsure if I should suck it up and keep going or turn around and hide in my room again. I lingered there awkwardly, eavesdropping on their conversation while I made my decision.

"You shouldn't have provoked him," Claire chided, handing her twin fresh package of frozen peas to press to his cheek. "I think Warren really likes her."

Connor grunted.

"I'm serious," she said. "If Chloe wanted your help, she'd have asked for it."

"You went out there first," he reminded her.

Claire flipped her glossy black hair behind her shoulder. "That's different," she replied hotly.

He shot his twin a bland look. "How?"

"Because I didn't punch anyone in the face, Connor."

With a shaky breath, I padded into the kitchen. I felt a new flush of embarrassment as Connor looked at me, sitting at the kitchen counter with a face full of peas, perched atop his stool. Mom didn't have to worry. There was no way he was interested in me when girls like Caitlyn Sobre were practically throwing themselves at his feet every day. Besides, Connor literally saw each new girl as another notch on his bed post, so I don't think he'd have gotten so protective about the whole situation unless he saw me in a sisterly light. "My family," he'd called me.

I wasn't not entirely sure what his problem with Warren was, but it wasn't because he saw Ren as a romantic rival. The thought was laughable.

"Are you all right?" I asked him. I was still pissed that he'd goaded my best friend into a fist fight, but that didn't mean I wasn't still worried about the idiot.

"My face isn't broken, if that's what you're wondering."

"Well that's a relief," I replied, "What would you have without your good looks?"

Connor smirked, pulling his fat lip taut. "A brilliant mind and rock hard abs."

I shot him a small smile in return but my heart wasn't in it. I had to make sure he understood that his approach to the whole situation was far from OK.

"I get that you were trying to help, Connor, but baiting Warren wasn't the right way to go about doing it."

Connor's voice turned hard. "I wasn't baiting him, I was telling him to back off."

"It wasn't your place to do that," I told him.

"Someone had to."

I turned to Claire. "Can you give me a ride to Warren's?" I asked her. Given the circumstances I was willing to brave her driving for the 10 miles it took to get across town.

Connor stared at me a moment before slamming the bag of peas onto the counter. He pushed the stool back in a single, jerky motion and stalked off without a word.

His twin ignored his outburst and shot me a small smile. "Of course."

Claire's driving wasn't nearly as nauseating as it usually was. I think all the drama was distracting her. "So do you like him?" She asked suddenly when we were half way through town.

For a second I didn't know who she was talking about, but then

"I don't know," I confessed. "I've never really thought about it before."

Claire frowned. "Sorry, I just don't get it. I knew how I felt about Darryl the second I first saw him."

"The first time I saw Warren weren't even potty trained yet."

Claire considered that a moment. "I guess that might be a bit of a turn off."

We drove in silence for the rest of the way. I wasn't sure what I was going to say. It had been a little chaotic when Warren left with his parents. They were in a bit of a hurry. I still didn't think I could give him the answer he wanted right away, but maybe we could find a compromise. I loved Warren; I didn't want to lose him.

My heart seized when the Davis house finally came into view.

"Forget it, I changed my mind," I told Claire sharply. "Let's just go back home."

She shot me an odd look but nodded and drove past the brick house without asking me any questions. I let out a frustrated sigh as I watched the house fade from view in the car mirror.

Nikki's bike was in the driveway.