Nine o'clock. It was nine o'clock and I was still sitting by the front door, waiting for everyone.
We had a three hour drive to get to Galveston, where the cruise ship was leaving. It was set to depart at noon. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. When I decided to go on vacation with seven women, I should have known scheduling would be a problem. I should have lied and told them the ship left at ten. But, Mom bought the tickets, so she would have known better. Still, we had all agreed we would be out of the house at seven-thirty, to give us a nice cushion so we didn't have to rush.
That was wishful thinking on my part.
I looked over at the stack of luggage next to the door, and was glad I had at least talked them into renting a passenger van for the trip to the port. Sure, the eight of us could have fit into Megan's suburban. It would have been a tight fit, but we could have made it. Or so it was pointed out to me the previous week when we were booking everything. But I had a feeling we would need more room, and looking at the mound of luggage, I knew I was right.
I couldn't fathom why we needed so much luggage. I was thinking a single duffel bag would be all I would need. We were only going to be gone for ten days. Not that I was allowed to pack for myself. When I suggested all I needed were ten changes of clothes you would have thought I had declared I was going on a cannibalistic diet. Apparently, I didn't understand the need to be prepared, fashion wise.
Thankfully, my traveling companions finally made it down from packing and I was allowed to load the van up. By this point, it was nine-thirty, and we had two and a half hours to make a three hour drive.
"I have to run inside one last time," I said once they were all in the van.
"What? We are running late, Cas," Zoe, one of my girlfriends, said.
Yes, I said one of. I have three girlfriends. Some would say I am the luckiest guy, others would say I am a glutton for punishment. Both would be right.
"I will be fast, I promise," I told her.
"Well, hurry up. You're making us late," Vicki, another one of my girls, said.
I had grown accustomed to the girls finding a way to make things my fault, and had given up on trying to make corrections. I figured if I gave in on all the little stuff, it would give me a fighting chance on the big stuff. So I hopped out of the van without responding, and ran into the house.
Except I had told a small lie, I didn't need to get anything. I wanted to make a phone call to my friend and sometimes attorney, Jonathan. Not because he was a lawyer, but because he was pretty persuasive. I explained my problem to him. After spending a moment to laugh at my situation, he said he would call ahead for us and see if he could stall them for a bit.
As I walked back to the van, I started to think it might be time to get cellphones for me and the girls. The per minute cost had always put me off them, before; but considering how many times I have had to sit by the land-line and wait for a call, it might be time to bite the bullet. Besides, now that my company had sold off our patents, I was set to get a pretty enormous payday. It wasn't like I couldn't afford it.
I hopped in the van and we were off. I didn't tell anyone I had asked Jonathan to call ahead and stop the boat, mostly because I didn't want to have to point out that they had made us run so late. Mom was doing her best to make up the time on the drive and I was a little worried we might get a ticket. But we weren't really speeding more than the other drivers on the highway, so I figured that it was ok.
Mom did manage to make up some time and got us to the port just ten minutes after the end of boarding time.
"See, no problem," Mom said as she indicated the ramp to the boat was still down and they were still set up to accept passengers.
We, however, were the only passengers there. Everyone else was already on-board.
"Excellent! Now we can stop waiting and get underway," the man who checked us off the passenger list said.
Mom gave me the 'stink eye', and I figured the jig was up.
We had arranged for three cabins. One for me and the girls, one for Mom and Tina, and one for Megan and Sarah. Looking at the cabin, I could already tell the girls and I were going to be a tight fit, but there was no way we wanted to be split up, so we would just live with it.
The cabins were small enough that I had to back up and stand in the hallway, so the girls had room to put away clothes and do whatever it is they felt they needed to do, so it could be livable for the next week.
I was leaning against the hallway wall, across from our room, when the door to the left of ours opened up.
A guy and a girl stepped out of the room. They were somewhat older than me from what I could see, but still fairly young. If I had to guess I would say college age, give or take.
"Hi," I said, smiling.
"Hi," the guy said back. "I thought maybe the cabin next to us was going to be empty. You guys just get on board?"
"Yeah. We were pretty lucky the boat was still here."
The girls stepped out of our room, probably because they heard me talking to someone.
"This is Zoe, Vicki and Tami," I said indicating each of them.
"I'm Charles Bailey and this is my girlfriend Sandra. But people call me Charlie and her Sandy. You guys on vacation?"
"Yep. Us, Zoe's mom, my sister, and a couple of other friends."
"Wow, big group."
"And all girls. Now you know why we were so la ... ow," I said, feigning injury after Zoe slugged me in the shoulder. Sandy laughed at our antics and Charlie's gave me an understanding look, one guy to another.
"Are all four of you staying in that one cabin?" Sandy asked.
"Uhh ... yeah," I said.
In our insular home life, I had grown used to people knowing about my relationship. Now, it occurred to me that some people might take a dim view of it. Thankfully, neither pressed for follow up information.
"We are going to go explore. Wanna come along?" Charles asked.
"Sure. We should probably let our friends know where we're going," I said
"Ok. Invite them along if you want. We were gonna meet our friend Eddie by the front pool area. Meet us, there?" Charlie asked.
"Sounds good," I said.
They headed off and we found the rest of our group. Mom and Megan both begged off, but Sarah and Tina wanted to come along. We headed up to the pool area and found Charlie and Sandy along with another guy their age I imagined was probably their friend Eddie.
After introductions were made Charlie asked, "So where do you go?"
"Truman High," I answered. I assumed they were also from Texas, and so maybe had heard of it.
"Ohh, you guys are in high school?" he asked, seeming surprised.
"Yep, I am guessing you're in college?"
"Let's go find some people our own age to hang out with," their friend Eddie said.
"Be cool, man, they're only a year behind us," Charlie told his friend before turning to me and saying, "We're gonna be freshmen at Sam Houston."
He was still adding several years to my age, and I felt it best not to point out we were four years behind him, not one. Ever since my genetics began doing their thing, and the girls had undergone their change, our bodies had made subtle changes. I had grown another inch and the girls had each picked up a little height, also. Coupled with the physical shape we were all in, and I could see how someone might credit us an extra couple of years.
Thankfully, the girls followed my lead, "We still have a little time to figure out where we want to go. I imagine you are pumped for college to get started."
"You have no idea," Sandy said.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the ship with the trio. Even though I had read the brochure on the cruise, I was still surprised by the variety of activities. There was a pool with water slides, a gym with basketball court, a small library, a movie theater, plus bars and clubs which were not open to us. I knew I would actually be on my own for part of the trip, as all the girls had scheduled to spend the better part of a day at the on-board spa.
After spending the better part of the afternoon touring the boat, the girls wanted to head back to our room and take a nap. This was a vacation after all.
"Do you guys want to meet up for dinner?" Charlie asked as we were saying our goodbyes outside the doors to our respective rooms.
I looked at the girls for confirmation and then replied, "Sure, sounds good. Meet up in the hallway at say, seven?"
"Works for us," Sandy said.
Turns out the girls weren't tired so much as they just wanted some alone time. That was easier said than done, considering the cabin we were in did not have beds designed for four people. We made do, however.
I left the girls sleeping and went to knock on Megan and Sarah's door. There was something that Mom had pointed out to me before we left, that I wanted to check in on.
"Take a walk with me?" I asked Megan when she answered.
Sarah wasn't in the room so I guess she was off doing something fun. We walked up to the deck and set a slow, leisurely place on the running track that went along the outside edge of part of the deck.
"So in about a month, you're going to be leaving us," I said as we walked.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Excited?" I asked.
"At the beginning of the year, it was all I could think about, honestly. Now. Not nearly as much."
"Feeling homesick already?"
"I guess. I mean, I had friends and everything before all that stuff happened this year. But now? It's so much different. I feel like I am a part of something. I really don't want to give that up."
"You don't have to. Even away at college you are part of something."
"Yeah, but it's not the same. Here I was contributing. Only a little bit, but it felt good."
"You will still be contributing, at college. A lot of what we are working towards will need the education you're getting."
"I know," she said, sounding unconvinced.
I wasn't sure if this was some aspect of the genetic bond we now shared, or purely psychological. But I got where she was coming from. Even when there were no special circumstances, leaving what you have always known and striking out on your own was difficult. All you have to do is look at all the issues college freshmen have, to see that.
"If you don't like it, you can always move to a closer college next year. Until then, any time you want to come home, even for a weekend, just say the word and I will have plane tickets standing by. How does that sound?"
She finally smiled and said, "Good. Thanks, Cas."
We stopped walking as she gave me a hug.
"No problem. You know how important you are to all of us. All we want is for you to be happy."
I hoped she was feeling better, but only time would tell. This kind of thing couldn't be rushed. I walked her back to her room and then rejoined the girls, who were getting ready for dinner with our new friends. I had left a message with the rest of our group about the plans for the night.
We met them in the hallway and all headed to one of the boat's many 'seated dining rooms'. They also had buffet style rooms, but we had agreed this sounded like the best option. We ordered and made small talk until the food showed up, mostly going over all the stuff we had seen on the ship that day.
"So, Cas tells me you three go to Sam Houston?" Mom asked once the food arrived.
"Well, we will once the year starts. Freshmen," Charlie said.
"What are you going to major in?" Zoe asked.
"Charlie and I are going to major in environmental science and Eddie's going for political science," Sandy told her.
"Out to save the world huh," Mom quipped.
"Something like that," Charlie said as a look passed between him and Sandy.
There was some kind of unspoken message between them, but since we only met today, I felt it best not to intrude.
"So, I'm dying to know," Eddie said after the silence hung for a moment, "what's the deal with you four."
He was indicating me and the girls.
"It's ... complicated," I said, still thinking it best to keep our unique relationship on the down low.
"No it's not," Zoe countered. "We are dating."
"All four of you?" Eddie asked after he picked his jaw off the floor.
"Yep," Tami said, smiling.
Either they had a talk between the three of them while I was walking with Megan, or they were just freakishly on the same wavelength. Honestly either of those could be true, knowing them.
"So like, you four... " Eddie started before being cut off.
"Leave them alone, Eddie," Charlie interrupted. "No one wants to give out the details of their love life. So what are you guys doing the rest of the cruise. Any specific plans?"
"The girls all have a spa day planned the day after our first port stop, and I know we were planning on spending some time at the pool ... past that, we were just going to wing it," I told him.
"So, nothing tomorrow?"
"Well, the four of us will go running in the morning. After that, nope."
"If we are going to keep eating like this," Sandy said, indicating the large plate of food in front of her, "then I am going to need to get some exercise in, too. Mind if Charlie and I join you?"
Charlie did not look thrilled at the request, but odds are he wouldn't have much say in it, one way or another.
"Sure; but, as a warning, we keep a pretty aggressive pace," Zoe said.
"I'm sure we can slow it down a bit. No reason to push hard while we are on vacation," I said.
"Great," Sandy said, sounding excited.
"Yeah, great," Charlie added, sounding less so.
The rest of the meal was just 'getting to know you' chitchat. They seemed like good people and I was happy we made some new friends. They were all from Waco and would be going to school in Huntsville, so the odds were we wouldn't see them again after the cruise. But you never know what's going to happen.
We got up early the next morning for our run. Tina and Sarah had no interest, and even though Megan has been enhanced like myself and the girls, she has steadfastly refused to join us in any of the conditioning we have been doing. Which is fine. Technically the rest of us could probably get by on just our enhanced bodies, without the additional exercise, and still be in top physical form. But I think the girls had come to enjoy the zen-like state of exercise as much as I had.
Sandy was bouncy and ready to go when we met them outside their room. She had a grumpy Charlie in tow.
"It won't be so bad," I told him.
"Says you. You're in great shape and probably do this all the time. I try and never run unless I'm being chased."
"Just think about all the good will you're building up with Sandy," I said, trying to lift his spirits.
"Yeah, I guess. It's not like she gave me a choice."
"Yep, I know how that goes."
"Times three. You are a masochist, you know," he said, finally smiling for the first time since coming out of his room that morning.
"Seems that way."
We got up to the running track that went around one section of the ship and started on a slow lap, well slow for us. By the third lap, we started picking up the pace and poor Charlie was huffing and puffing. Sandy was doing a little better. By the eighth lap, Charlie veered off and sank down to the ground just off the track, breathing hard.
"Man down," I joked and the girls all laughed, except Sandy.
"How ... are you ... guys ... not ... winded?" Sandy managed to get out between gulps of air.
"We do this a lot," Tami told her.
By the twelfth lap, Sandy collapsed beside Charlie.
"We are going to do a few more, and then we can all head off, ok?" I stopped for a moment next to them to ask.
"Sure ... whatever," Sandy barely managed to get out.
Charlie had recovered enough to laugh at her suffering. I sped up and rejoined the girls. Now that we didn't have to hold back for Sandy, we picked up the pace to our normal 'public' speed. If we'd been all alone, and out of sight of any others, we probably would have gone much faster, so we could have had a real workout. But there were too many people around, and I still thought it best to not draw attention if we could help it.
We pushed out five more laps before I called it a day. I didn't want our new friends to have to just sit and watch us run lap after lap. Stopping by the two, I helped Charlie to his feet while Vicki helped up Sandy.
"Man, you four are machines," Charlie said.
I laughed and said, "Zoe did warn you."
Sandy was just shaking her head, "I thought that meant you would go a little fast or do a few extra laps. You guys really picked it up once I stopped, and went for a bunch more. And you don't even seem tired."
I just shrugged, "What can I say. We like running. Let's head back and get showered and changed. We can find something else to do for the rest of the day."
Thankfully, they let me change subjects.
The next two days were like heaven on earth. We swam, we ate, we danced at one of the clubs at night, and just had a good time. I still wasn't sure about Eddie, his personality seemed to be a bit brusque, but Charlie and Sandy were great people. I was surprised when we made port and invited them to join us for some shopping. The three begged off, saying they had something they needed to do. They did promise to meet back up with the lot of us when they finished, and hang out some before we had to be back on the boat.
We split up on the dock. The seven girls and I headed into the small shops set up to sell to tourists. To be honest, this was one of the things I was not looking forward to. A day of shopping is never a good time in my book, but I didn't have much say. I tried to beg off and spend time by the pool reading, but was told I was required to join them to serve as their pack mule. This is one of those downsides of love you are never warned about in the fairy tales.
We spent hours going through every single bauble and piece of junk in every single store! Or, at least, that's what it seemed like to me. Finally, the girls gave it a rest and we were able to call it a day, but not before they put a hurting on my new credit card.
I wasn't sure if I was thankful or not that Charles Green, my financial advisor and company CTO, not the new guy we met on the boat, had managed to secure one for me. Normally banks and card companies would never give a card out to a sixteen year old, but considering my new financial situation and the fact that Mom was available to co-sign on the card, the companies found a way to gloss over the fact of my age.
Charles liked to call this the 'wall of cash' form of negotiation, and I could see his point. Still, seeing how free everyone was with my card while shopping, I was beginning to see a downside. Not that I couldn't afford it, but frivolous spending wasn't something I had grown up with, and it was butting against my frugal nature. Of course, the girls all said it was ok, since we were on vacation ... like that was an excuse. But, again, I wasn't given much choice; and I enjoyed seeing them so happy, so I let it go.
Near the end of the day, we were gathered near the pool, sipping drinks, and just relaxing until it was time to get back on the boat. Even with all my complaining it had been a pleasant day, just hanging out with my family.
The peacefulness of the day was torn apart when Eddie stumbled up to us. He had a cut on his forehead and was holding a piece of cloth to it which was looking pretty blood soaked.
"Eddie, what happened," I asked as I jumped up and helped steady him.
"We went into the city ... the slums really. We had a plan to talk to some of the people there, do some outreach. We picked up a bunch of food and stuff and were going to give it out to the people who lived there. These guys jumped us. They had guns. I ... I ran. They grabbed Sandy and Charlie and I was knocked to the ground. Most of them were grabbing for Sandy and not paying attention to me, so I ran away."
"We should call the police," Mom said.
"Yeah, but I don't want to rely on them," I told her. "Places like this, there are areas the police don't go into, or at least not quickly."
"You're going to go after them, aren't you," Zoe asked, sounding concerned.
"I think so."
"The ship is going to leave soon," Tami said.
"I know. You guys get on board. Get Eddie some help. I will find Charlie and Sandy and meet you at the next port."
"How," Zoe asked.
"I'll figure something out. I'm sure if I call the States, Ted or Jonathan could arrange for transportation between here and the next stop. I just don't want to leave them."
"I want to go with you," Vicki said.
"I know, but you can't."
"Why not," She asked.
"Because even with your ... abilities ... you don't have enough training. Hell, I don't really have enough either, but of the group of us, I am the furthest along."
I reached out and stroked the side of her face, "I know you're worried, but I'll be ok."
None of them was convinced, but they knew me well enough to know I wasn't going to drop this. They helped Eddie hobble towards the ship, but not without several concerned backwards glances at me. After watching them for a few moments while I considered my next actions, I turned and headed in towards the poorest parts of the adjacent city.