“I had perfect timing, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, sir.” Garry managed to mumble a reply to the man’s amused tone without sounding rude. Just impeccable, he thought as he took a seat in the armchair per Mr. Garland’s wordless command.
After Scarlet had fled – literally fled from the scene with a clumsily spluttered goodbye – Garry was left alone with his benefactor. Naturally, the man was invited inside, much to Garry’s chagrin. The only thing he was thankful for was that the blonde had taken Ib with her.
Walking to the living room with Mr. Garland had been nerve-wracking, to say the least. Judging from the look on Scarlet’s face when she saw “uncle Leo,” Garry didn’t think the man was too fond of him soliciting with her. The thought that impending doom was hanging over his head ironed his back straighter than a bowling lane, and Garry found himself sitting at the edge of his seat. He felt like a guest in his own abode, but to be fair, the man did own the place—and Garry, in a sense.
“Don’t worry about that little vixen, okay?” Garry blinked, confused for a moment before realizing the man was talking about Scarlet. Mr. Garland extended a smile that did not reach his eyes. “You wouldn’t have been hanging around her all this time if I wasn’t okay with it.”
He felt chills at the man’s word, understanding that he was being kept under a certain degree of surveillance. And he couldn’t help but wonder just how much his benefactor had already known about his life, social and personal. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the man was aware of last night… But it was probably not the case seeing as they were still leisurely chatting like this.
Garry squirmed in place as he followed Mr. Garland’s gaze around the room.
The coffee table was ajar from his frustrated kicking, and there was the towel hanging off its edge. The hourglass was on the rug, off to the side of the sofa set. The pillow and blanket he had brought out last night was shoved into a messy bundle that oozed untidiness just next to where Mr. Garland sat. Everything that entered his vision was pure horror. He partly appreciated that his benefactor – comfortably slouched against the cushion – didn’t seem to mind, but Garry still itched to clean everything up to salvage any last bits of his image.
After all, it was only normal to want to look good in front of someone important. And it was also normal for someone important to expect high standards… right?
“I gotta say, kid. You’re finally acting your age!”
What seemed like smug admiration flickered in the man’s eyes.
Okay, so Mr. Garland wasn’t exactly a normal case.
“I… had a busy morning.” Garry croaked out his excuse even though there wasn’t a need for one. He wasn’t bothered by his benefactor’s words, but rather their lighthearted nature. It had been a terrible morning, and the chipper demeanour was like an off-key hum that disrupted his dreary pace. It wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
Mr. Garland went on to say something, but Garry wasn’t paying enough attention to understand. Things just didn’t feel right… after what had happened. He should be taking care of Ib, yet was stuck receiving his benefactor. He wasn’t up to this. What was there to talk about? A feeling of defiance was simmering somewhere in a corner of his mind. He felt so out of place. He direly needed a minute to himself.
“Garry.” Mr. Garland snapped his fingers in quick succession, breaking the haze of Garry’s thoughts. “I know I came over early but stay with me now.” He loosened his tie, chuckling, and shrugged off his suit jacket. “I said. You still have some sleep in your eyes.”
Garry’s hand shot up to his face, finger quickly wiping away the dry crumbs at the corners of his eyes. “I’m s-sorry,” he mumbled, suddenly aware of how he looked all this time: hair mussed from irritated fingers, and clothes all wrinkled after a night of acting as sleepwear. Feeling overly conscious, Garry meekly corrected his posture. It was then that he thought he saw brown eyes narrowed with enjoyment, and swallowed to soothe his suddenly dry throat.
Mr. Garland told him it was all right, because he’d deliberately come this early to catch Garry off guard and, to quote the man, see a gormless look on his sleepy face. Garry fought not to frown as he heard this.
A cleanly shaven and well-groomed look. A slender build with average height that stood one head shorter than Garry. Leonard Garland was just a normal successful businessman, but Garry constantly regretted not seeing otherwise at first. The amiable, easygoing smile was somehow malicious. The generous gestures were somehow controlling and manipulative… Garry just hoped he wouldn’t be sticking around long enough to know for sure what kind of devil he’d signed a deal with.
“You don’t seem too surprised that I’m here, though.”
Garry’s heart skipped a beat as his mind flickered back to the note in front of his door. The note that he had scrunched up and— His eyes fell onto a crumpled ball of paper on the coffee table, right in front of Mr. Garland. His blood ran cold. Garry immediately averted his eyes elsewhere, lest he drew unnecessary attention to the ball of trash. Remembering that he still needed to respond, he looked back to the man.
“Well, I—ve been expecting you to drop by…” he spoke quickly to make up for the delay while praying that Mr. Garland wouldn’t be too suspicious about it. Or get curious about the note. “I knew you were back, and… you did want to meet up before.” He wasn’t lying. For a while now he hadbeen aware Mr. Garland was in town; and he had been expecting the man to come— even if he’d only started doing so mere hours ago. So he wasn’t lying to the man. God no. Not to his face.
Mr. Garland didn’t hide the disbelieving squint of his eyes, but thankfully didn’t question Garry any further. Instead, the man started asking about Garry’s study and living condition, like a benefactor should be doing. There was just one thing. He breezed through the questions in a bored tone, not even bothering to listen to half of Garry’s answers. At one point, it started to feel like a survey where he only needed to choose yes or no. Garry quickly realized that his benefactor didn’t care for the details. Ms. Voltfied was always the one asking questions and keeping notes – which begged the question why the man was here without her.
“Moving on!” The man’s tone became animated again, but Garry was slow to catch on to the change. “Tell me about the Lowell’s little girl.”
Thick rubber grated over the gravel path as a silver car slowly crawled up to a sign that wrote Private Driveway – No Trespassing. It was already past ten o’clock, but the neighborhood was so quiet one could have been convinced the residents were all still asleep.
“I swear…” Scarlet pulled over and set the engine to neutral, foot still stepping on the break. She stared out the tinted windshield, at the gorgeous mansion perching atop the hill they were heading up. “My daddy is well off, but yours is just loaded, isn’t he?” she commented conversationally, looking back to the child sitting in her passenger seat.
Ib didn’t say a word. Neither did she give any indication that she had heard the older girl. She had. She just couldn’t seem to care enough to give a reply even if it was just to be polite; never mind how potentially rude the comment was. She had initially been cooperative because she was thankful for the lady’s help… and surprised to find someone with the same red eyes as hers outside of her family. However, in the end, this was still a stranger next to her. And if she hadn’t answered to that man whom she loved so much, why should a stranger be treated any different?
Her hands habitually searched for the fabric of her skirt, fingers curling.
The silence inside the car stretched. There was only the hum of the car engine rumbling in the background. Honestly, she didn’t want to stay with a stranger any longer than necessary. And with her home within sight, she could just get off and walk up there. Yet, she didn’t felt quite ready to go back. She’d never wanted her mother’s hug so bad, but at the same time she dreaded to see her again.
Her parents would surely ask about the sleepover, like they always had. Ib couldn’t seem to remember how she had answered them all those times before. She still didn’t understand, but she knew from now on things could never be the same again. Maybe she should have stayed. Maybe she should have heard him out. Maybe if she had, she would actually know what to make of things, and they could fix this somehow.
Her head immediately snapped up.
“That got your attention, huh.”
She glanced to her left and met Scarlet’s narrowed eyes. The older girl didn’t seem angry, just… tired.
“So, as I was saying. Remember. You are not at fault.”
Ib felt the rims of her eyes prickle; but she hardened her jaw and bit the tears back, refusing to let her visage crack. If the lady was trying to make her feel better, it wasn’t working. She lowered her gaze away, attempting to block Scarlet out again. The lady had been like a broken record the entire ride, constantly telling her that it wasn’t her fault. That—
“He did a horrible thing.”
Just because she didn’t answer didn’t mean she wasn’t listening. Realize that already! Ib wanted an explanation. Not redundant consolation, which she found hard to accept even. If there was something she remembered clearly about last night, it was that she had disobeyed Garry every step of the way. He told her to go home, but she stayed. He told her to go to sleep without him, but she just had to go out and bother him… He had even told her to go back inside and lock the door, but she’d clung to him…
And all that wasn’t her fault?
“… Garry,” she felt a nip in her chest at the mention of his name, “what he did was disgusting and despicable.” Scarlet placed a hand onto her shoulder, alarming her every nerve. If she had felt the jolt Ib’s body had involuntarily given, the lady didn’t show it. Red eyes narrowed at her as the older girl repeated, “Get it? This whole mess is his responsibility.”
Ib broke the eye-contact and stared back down at her skirt, but not before shirking the hand squeezing her shoulder away.
Scarlet withdrew her hand and ran it through her dyed locks. The car gave a muffled groan as the gears were shifted. “All right. Do you want me to take you up there?”
“No,” was the simple, belated answer. The little girl undid her seatbelt and, despite her lethargic looks, was outside in a matter of seconds, bowing at Scarlet before walking away.
Scarlet sat watching the girl’s retreating back, mind in a mess of her own. She couldn’t believe Garry had the balls… No, scratch that. He didn’t, but he did it anyway. And Leonard Garland. The benefactor Garry so seldom mentioned was actually Leonard-freaking-Garland. She should have suspected something when that guy lived so conveniently close for booty calls. She slumped against the steering wheel, taking care not to put pressure on the horn.
“Garry, Garry, Garry,” she exhaled. Her finger reached for the windshield and tapped over the little girl, now a good distance away. “This is the last time I’m helping you.”
Garry could practically see the gleeful interest welling up in the man’s eyes as they watched him pale.
“Ib Evelyn Lowell,” Mr. Garland calmly said, crossing his legs. “The kid that my lovely niece took off with. Tell me about her.”
Garry’s heart made an awful squeeze and broke into a rampage against his ribs. His shoulders tensed, hands knitted together to grip down on the shaking that was soon to come. It felt as if he had been caught red-handed. He reminded himself to breathe—and to maintain eye contact. There should be no surprise his benefactor was aware of Ib and him. He must not act guilty. The man didn’t—shouldn’t know about “it.” He had to stay calm. Mr. Garland was probably just voicing his concerning about him hanging around a high-profile little girl.
His body rigidly relaxed.
“I—” he fought to keep his voice from shaking, “thought you were okay with it. I mean, I’ve been with her all this time.”
Garry could have punched himself in the face when he heard the spite in his own words.
“Defensive, are we?” Mr. Garland chuckled in the same blithe manner he always carried, making impossible to gauge his actual mood. “I’ll give you points for using my words against me, though. But don’t worry, I’m all for it. After all, she’s the best connection you have outside of my jurisdiction. She’ll definitely be useful later on.”
Keep her out of your filthy politics. Garry tried to keep the look of distaste from showing. The idea of using Ib never even crossed his mind, yet here this man was casually dirtying the nature of their relationship. And the worst part was that he could only sit and take it as if it was true.
“However, something caught my attention the other day, and I find the need to reconfirm.”
Shit, it’s about the time I stood him up, isn’t it. “Can I ask what it was—”
“Nope.” The man raised an eyebrow as if to make a point. “So, go on, tell me about your little friend.”
Garry sucked in a breath. What he wouldn’t do to rip out his tell-tale heart right now, pummel it into a million pieces and flush it down the toilet.
He began to tell Mr. Garland about how he met Ib. The uneventful and, to put it bluntly, fake story, which Ib and he had perfected during the first few months after their reunion, that in no explicable way explained their bond. It was just a more believable explanation than the version he had given to Ib’s parents.
“You two seem rather close for the meeting you claim to have, hmm.”
He was afraid this would come up. Just how much did the man have them investigated?
“… Yes, it’s strange, I agree.” He gave a breathless laugh. “I guess we just clicked.”
Mr. Garland bored straight at him in a pensive manner, head tilted against his hand. “Garret, do you remember your interview?”
Garry blinked at the sudden turn of the conversation. Nonetheless, he thought back to the interview around a year ago, when he had still been struggling to finance himself and naively applied for a sponsorship.
He’d sit amongst other nervous interviewees, waiting for his turn. The dangling prize was a private sponsorship for fashion major students whose dreams are too often laughed at and unsupported by cynical parents. Of course people from his department swarmed the opportunity like flies did honey. However, the first selection hadn’t been lenient, wiping out what he suspected was eighty percent of the applicants. There weren’t that many people left for the interview.
When his name was called, he stood up and quietly passed by a girl that was leaving. Inside, he shook hands with the two people present. Ms. Voltfied’s albino looks caught his eyes at first, but then he saw Mr. Garland – chairman and CEO, as the nameplate indicated. Young for such a position, but Garry had read that the company was inherited and was able to keep his surprise at bay. What got him, however, was how… down-to-earth… the man looked. He even swiftly entertained the idea that it was an employee acting as a double for the real chairman.
The interview took place. It wasn’t his first time, so he knew roughly what he could be asked. And for the most part, everything was predictable. It had gone so smoothly that Garry didn’t remember what exactly he was asked. But then Mr. Garland asked him something that had stood out.
“What are your thoughts on children?” Mr. Garland’s voice snapped Garry back to the present. “Do you remember what you told me?”
“… Yes, sir.” His face darkened as he realized what the man was getting at.
“What was it now?”
Garry hesitated. “I told you I hated them… sir… I still do. They’re weak and pathetic.” Just like his cousin who writhed from his kick when it probably didn’t even hurt that much. Just like he had been under the tyrant that was his father. “I meant every word.”
Some people would have lied. Some people would have picked better wordings to tone it down. But the out of context question had led him to believe the sponsorship required him to work with children. Garry was afraid that if he didn’t made it clear enough, he might get chosen for something he hadn’t signed up for.
“Now, now,” Mr. Garland looked amused, sitting up straight. “I never thought you were lying. I’m very aware there always are exceptions. Though it’s still most curious that you and she are so close.”
“Ib’s just… different,” he said, reiterating what he had been telling himself the past two years. “Sir, this,” he tapped his temple, “it’s not a preference. It’s a disorder and for whatever reason, she’s… she doesn’t pass the criteria. I’m just strangely okay with her being there. Any distaste I have just doesn’t apply no matter which angle I look.”
He waited for Mr. Garland to say something in return, but the man kept quiet. But it wasn’t the contemplative, sympathetic kind of quiet. It was the scrutinizing, confrontational and judging kind that clawed at his certainty.
“You know, Garry, most would accept that as an explanation. But I’ll tell you now, it isn’t working on me. You’re still not telling me why—” he paused, the hint of a smile never leaving his face, “why she’s so important. We all know I have my sources, and we all know you two are more close-knitted than your little story suggests. So, won’t you tell me?”
Garry fought the grimace that was threatening to form. He had hoped his longwinded speech would throw the man off, but it seemed he had been too hopeful. He resolved to stay quiet and hold out for as long as he could. Mr. Garland already knew too much, and Garry feared the idea of giving away any more information that would let the man have even more of a hold on him.
Time seemed to stand in place as he impatiently counted every second in his head. The pressure from his benefactor’s calm gaze was driving him crazy— until help came in the form of a ringtone. A simple default ringtone found in all smartphones.
“Or maybe you can’t,” Mr. Garland muttered offhandedly before taking out his phone to answer the call. “What’s up, Rin?”
Garry relaxed his body and seized the chance to look elsewhere for the first time since he took his seat, feeling like he had just been released from a snake’s hypnotism. He easily tuned out the man’s conversation with his secretary, not wanting to accidentally hear anything he wasn’t supposed to… and also not wanting to listen to the man’s voice altogether.
“‘Kay, I’ll be right there.” Mr. Garland promptly stood up just as he ended the call.
Garry immediately followed suit and shot up to his feet, secretly bubbling with joy and relief that his benefactor was leaving sooner that he’d thought. The man looked up at Garry as he fixed his tie. “Something came up, so I’ll leave you with this,” he picked up his jacket and started to walk pass Garry when he tapped on his arm, “set your priorities straight, yeah?”
“No need to see me out.”
With that, his benefactor disappeared into the corridor, and it wasn’t much later that he heard the door opened and closed.
Garry dropped back down to the armchair and let go of a breath he’d been holding. He wiped his face, mind replaying the conversation in lightning speed. So it really was about the time he canceled their meeting. It wasn’t even anything much, but he guessed Mr. Garland wanted to address the problem when it was only a seedling. The man always made sure to do that, as far as Garry cared to observe. What the man didn’t know was that he was already two years too late.
This seedling had long plunged its roots into hard concrete.
- for one year, Garry managed to trick himself with the “explanation.” Now he uses it on other people instead