Disclaimer: This story is the property of the author. Characters, plots, and everything else may not be borrowed or posted elsewhere without permission. Any similarities to names, places, real people, whatever are a coincidence and this work is strictly a result of my imagination. Now that that’s out of the way, if you are easily offended by relationships between two males you don’t want to read this, and if you are too young, or if it is illegal in your area to read sexual content between two consenting males then don’t read on.
Thanks to Jim for editing!
In the Fish Bowl
It was clear to both occupants of the little, cluttered car that the driver didn’t know what to make of Travis Beltnick as he took his time on the snowy streets, taking a direction every now and then from his passenger. He had a hand half over a firm jaw, and on occasion his green eyes would slide towards his passenger, sometimes curious, and sometimes accusing.
Personally, Travis wished that the guy would lighten up; or turn on some music. Anything to make the ride more enjoyable for both of them. Finally, he just said, “It wasn’t personal, you know.”
“Oh. Yeah. Uh-huh.”
Travis narrowed his already narrow eyes. “If you’re that bent about it, why give me a ride home?”
Dennis dropped his second hand on the wheel and turned on Travis. “What makes you think I’m taking you home?” he responded. “For all you know I’m about to leave you on top of the mountain to freeze your balls off--not that it would bother you, none. You obviously have some to spare!”
For a brief moment, Travis was surprised, but then he laughed. “A sense of humor. Who knew? So, now that we’re on friendly terms...”
“So, now that we’re pretending to be on friendly terms,” Travis corrected himself. “What’s the deal with Phil Clayton?”
“We’re old friends.”
Travis’s lip turned up. “Says you...says him. But, personally, I don’t see it.”
Dennis sighed, more out of frustration with the situation. “It is what it is. How’d you end being friends with him?”
“Oh, we’re not friends,” Travis said earnestly. “In fact, I’m making a mental note to kick his ass for that bullshit back there as we speak.”
Dennis seemed to take some interest in the comment. “Do you do this often?”
“Pick fights with strangers for a few bucks?” Travis replied. “Nah. I usually pick fights with willing strangers for a few bucks. Hey, I bet you’ve done some damage before; if you ever feel like getting out of delivering those pizzas we could set something up. You might even get paid to throw me around a little more.”
“I’d do that for free.”
Travis laughed again. “No need to make a believer out of me. Turn at the next right. We’re not too far out of your way, are we?”
“I can walk from here,” Travis said seriously.
Dennis considered it for a moment, but then shook his head. “Where’d you say you live again?”
“I didn’t. It’s an apartment just up here. Greenview Village.”
At that, Dennis looked over, seeming amused for a second before he shook his head.
“You know it?” Travis asked.
“I know the owner. He’s another old friend.”
“Huh. Well, I hope he doesn’t ask me to hit you, too,” Travis remarked, rubbing at his sore ribs. “At least until after I recover from this time.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. If Aiden really wanted to hit me he’d do it himself.”
“Aiden?” Travis repeated, and then looked unexplainably pleased with himself. “Aiden Knightly, right?”
“Huh. So that’s who I pay my rent to? Huh. Met him tonight. Nice guy.”
“If you say so.”
Travis looked over at Dennis as he pulled into the parking lot of his complex--not in front of the right building, but it was good enough. “Do you have any old friends that actually like you?”
“Nope. Can’t say I do,” Dennis replied, and then gestured around the parking lot. “Will this do it for you?”
Travis looked thoughtful before he opened the door, allowing the cold air to chill the inside of the vehicle. “I guess so. For now. See you around, Dennis,” he said, and then closed the door before any negative response to that was issued.
Jogging through the buildings, Travis made it to his door and juggled out his keys, only to find that the front door was unlocked. He hated when Ryan did that, but never griped since the door being locked only really mattered when he was on the other side of it, and once he was he turned the lock, and he could have woke an entire cemetery the way he wrestled his wet clothes off, all the while moving through a gauntlet of gym equipment that wouldn’t have looked right in any living room but theirs; and stopping to peer into Ryan’s room, he decided that he would have woke an entire cemetery--if Ryan wasn’t in it. His roommate was fast asleep beneath a mountain of covers, his dark head barely sticking out. Travis flicked his light a few times to make sure he was really asleep. If not, he wouldn’t have minded talking for a while, but Ryan didn’t so much as stir.
By the time Travis reached his own bedroom, every article of clothing that had been covering his body, except for a new pair of dark boxers, was piled in his arms. He dropped it all except his pants as he turned on a light and locked himself in. He emptied his pockets before dropping his pants, and then surveyed his near empty bedroom on the way to his dresser where he opened the top drawer, moved his socks aside, and cast his eyes over the several jars containing tacks, bottle caps, loose matches, empty matchbooks, and then finally the larger jar that had been painted black. He opened the last one, and without bothering to count it, shoved in the roll of money to join the rest before arranging the drawer back to how it was supposed to be. He’d remembered to make his bed the last time he’d used it, and somehow the sight of it made him sleepy. Lifting his arms enough to know he needed a shower, but still willing to wait until morning, he was quick to move across the room, turn off the light, and then lifted his feet as if the floor was on fire as he rushed to his bed.. He pulled back the covers to slip in quickly, pulled them over his head and reached for the uncomfortable thing beneath his pillow. The flashlight flicked on, and Travis held the light beneath his chin as he slowly drifted into an uneasy sleep.
“What the fuck happened to your face?”
Travis snapped the gum that he was rarely caught chewing and looked up from the magazine he’d been flipping through at the front desk of the Gordon Dealership to watch the tall balding man with a stern expression cross the empty lobby to his office.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Travis called after him, not that his employer had asked, or even cared. And, they weren’t that bad, anyway, Travis thought as he checked out the faint bruises from last night’s dealings in the reflection of the glass case holding model cars. It could’ve been a lot worse, after all, if Phil’s old friend had bothered to aim for his face. As it was, he still bruised easily, and even the weak punches the highschoolers had thrown had left their mark.
“Has your lazy ass even bothered to get any work done today?” Mr. Gordon called out to him.
“Nope,” Travis replied, unbothered. “My lazy ass has been parked right here, waiting for customers, Sir.”
Mr. Gordon popped out of his office long enough to point a stern finger in Travis’s direction. “You start watching that tone, boy, or I’ll be watching you look for another job.”
Travis snorted. “And I’d still need it less than the man working a late night shift of a drive-thru so he can support his wife and her new boyfriend!”
Travis smiled to himself as he heard Mr. Gordon grumbling behind his office door. When he came out, he looked even angrier than he had when he’d arrived. Travis’s work here was done.
“Has that bitch called today?” Mr. Gordon demanded.
“Yeah,” Travis replied, going back to his magazine. “Something about needing to remodel the kitchen, and your credit card bounced.”
“Which one?” John Gordon demanded.
“All of them. Hey, we should probably sell a few cars to take care of that. Tell you what, I’ll get the next customer that comes through the door,” Travis insisted, and then in a loud whisper, added, “You’re not that good with people lately.”
“Shut your shit hole,” John remarked, once again mumbling as he went back to his office, and then suddenly shouted. “I’m sick’a the whole god damn lot’a you! Get the fuck out, you’re done--fired!”
Travis flipped another page in his magazine. “No I’m not.”
John Gordon reappeared once again, red in the face. Travis wondered if he’d made himself dizzy yet. “Yeah, and why the hell not?”
“Because,” Travis replied, “for some reason, you like me. Probably because I put up with your shit and tell your wife to fuck off when you ask me to.”
Mr. Gordon seemed to think this reasoning over. “I’ll give you that second thing,” he allowed, and then finally went into his office to stay there.
Travis didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want this job, as easy as it was. Of course, it would have been better if they would have been a little busier. Unable to go home, Mr. Gordon had been spending enough time in the dealership to keep everyone at home except for Travis and two maintenance men, and really, he probably should have appreciated it more since he was the only employee there who hadn’t been around for years. But as he’d said to Mr. Gordon, that was probably because the old man liked him in a strange, twisted sort of way.
It was a slow morning at the dealership, and Travis spent most of it bored out of his mind; but eventually he made a sale, and that lifted his spirits enough to call and see what Kyle was up to. Mr. Gordon had completed Travis’s sale by the time he hung up, and for the next half hour he listened to the old man argue with his wife over the phone about their dwindling financial situation in what Mr. Gordon likely considered a hushed tone. Travis had never been concerned over what went on in the life of John Gordon as long as his paycheck was on time, but even he noticed that the old man looked grimmer than usual when he finally came out of his office.
“Stop paying her,” Travis suggested, even when his opinion wasn’t asked for.
“A court order says I have to until the divorce is final,” Mr. Gordon responded, and then made more curses under his breath.
“So get divorced,” Travis said, checking his watch. Two minutes left, but if he waited those two minutes, he’d miss his bus and end up late for work at the Video Warehouse again. For a moment, he weighed the options of incurring the wrath of Mr. Gordon, or of Lacy. Decidedly, Lacy could be more frightening, though he was sure he was the only one who’d think that.
“Look, Mr. Gordon, I’ve gotta run. But hey, if you need some extra cash that your wife never has to know about, I’m thinking about putting together a fight pretty soon.” And with that idea planted, Travis hardly took the time to empty his locker before he was on his way across town.
“Dennis, if you’re hungry we’ve got lunch upstairs!” a cheerful male voice called following the knock on the door of his basement bedroom, and Dennis sighed, wondering if he should respond, or pretend that he was asleep.
“Thanks, Mr. Chesley,” he finally called, but by then, the other man’s footsteps had already faded up the stairs.
Using the remote to raise the volume of the television, Dennis turned over on his bed and shielded his face when the black cocker spaniel sharing his pillow tried to get his attention by licking his nose. In turn, he held her under his arm and petted her roughly, hoping that his canine would give up on wanting to take a walk. If he even attempted it now, he’d be carrying her in his coat the whole way because according to her, her winter coat wasn’t enough to fend off the cold. So, neither of them went on a walk, and Dennis felt as unsatisfied with just sitting there as his dog was.
Dennis was pretty sure that part of the problem was that he was always moving. Moving pizzas. Moving Sunday papers. Moving Mrs. Chesley’s furniture all through the house because she never knew where she wanted it and between her fragile son and her husband’s bad back, Dennis was all the help she had. But then, he didn’t mind that last task so much. He didn’t really mind any of them. The problem came when all he had to occupy his day was a paper route that took him not even two hours to complete. Then, there was nothing except for an oversized room and not enough to fill it. And, he supposed, the Chesleys.
They were nice people. Nice enough to take him in nearly two years ago, to make him a part of their family when he didn’t have one. But, even if he was grateful, he was also ready to find a life of his own. He worked just about every day, he paid his own bills, including a fair price for rent, and he fed his dog. But he never really felt like he was doing something. And with this much free time on his hands, his mind often drifted into territories that he’d rather stay away from. Like it did when he finally turned off the television and picked up the phone.
Sometimes Dennis wondered why he even had a phone. He supposed it was his employers could get hold of him; or the Chesley’s, when their son Reilly needed an occasional ride. But, it wasn’t like Dennis ever called anyone. There was only one number even logged into his phone, and even then, he never called it. Not unless he was so bored that he’d actually lost his mind from being bored.
It must have been one of those times.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, Dennis looked to the cocker spaniel, as if to consult her before pushing the button that would inevitably connect his call. She didn’t seem to care either way, so he decided it would be safe to blame her later if this didn’t turn out well. He pushed the button, and then waited. Not very long, though, because he was surprised by how fast a voice on the other end of the line picked up.
“Dovan?” Dennis replied, and then winced at the sharp way that last name tended slip from his mouth. “Um... Owen?”
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“It’s Dennis. This is... Dennis.”
“Oh,” Dennis repeated dumbly. This was awkward. He hated awkward. If it were up to him, he’d never do awkward. “Listen...I mean...you know what? This was probably a bad idea. Sorry. Bye.”
“Why are you calling?” Owen asked, not giving Dennis enough of a chance to hang up. He thought about pretending that he’d already done that; that he hadn’t heard the question; but before he finished considering it, it was too late. “Dennis?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“So why were you calling... everything’s okay, right?”
Because, of course, Dennis never called Owen Dovan when things were okay. He felt like an even bigger idiot.
“Everything’s fine. I guess... um, how are you?”
The nicety was obviously not something Owen Dovan expected, because it took him a moment to respond. “Good. I guess.”
“Okay,” Dennis said. “Good.” This was how a normal conversation was supposed to go, right? He felt too out of practice to know for sure, and it was beginning to frustrate him. “Do you wanna go do something?” he managed to get out quickly, likely before he had a chance to change his mind. And then he waited, for whatever excuse Owen was about to come up with to end this call.
“Yeah?” Dennis repeated, unable to hide his skepticism, and Owen laughed.
“Yeah. Inside, though, right? It’s freezing today.”
“You know where my brother’s club is?” Owen asked, and when Dennis said he did, “There’s a place across the street...”
Coffee. Dennis didn’t do coffee almost as much as he didn’t do awkward. But, he still ordered one as he sat down in the small café where Owen was supposed to meet him. Unfortunately, Dennis wasn’t really the café-going-type-of-guy either, and he found himself wishing that Owen would have arrived first so he’d have less of an opportunity to get the hell out of there.
Part of that was because Dennis didn’t really know what he was doing there in the first place--or, what Owen was doing meeting him. They’d gone to high school for a short time together, but even then, they hadn’t been friends. Not even acquaintances. Actually, for most of that time, mortal enemies would have been a more accurate description.
It hadn’t been Owen’s fault so much as Dennis’s, and Dennis knew it. Dennis didn’t know a bigger asshole than himself in high school, and he’d even aspired to be just that. But then, things changed, and he found that the one person he’d gone out of his way to make miserable was one of the few people he could actually count on, all because they’d found they had one thing in common. A crappy childhood with even crappier parents was really nothing to bond over, and they hadn’t bonded, not exactly. Owen had moved in with his older brothers to get away from his parents, and he had friends that seemed to love him no matter how obnoxious he could be; while Dennis had moved in with the Chesleys--even after tormenting their son on more than one occasion--and he kept primarily to himself. But, Dennis figured that the one thing they had in common was an understanding of each other, so during the few times that he actually felt like calling a friend, it was always Owen who came to mind, regardless of whether or not Dennis ever ended up calling. He usually didn’t, and that was exactly why meeting Owen now felt like such a strained effort to him. It was also probably why the first words out of his mouth when Owen sat down were, “Hey, asshole.” And Dennis was ready to crawl under a rock and die. “Owen,” he quickly corrected himself. “Sorry... old habits, I guess.”
But, to Dennis’s surprise, Owen didn’t look at all fazed. He even smiled. “No problem, dumbass,” he responded, and then looked thoughtful. “Is it weird if I actually miss fighting with you? I mean, not the part when we were always hitting each other... or you calling me a fag, or...”
“I think I get it.”
“Right. So is it weird?”
“Is it weird we can only talk if we’re insulting each other?” Dennis asked.
Owen seemed to consider that, too. “Not really. Like you said, old habits and all. But, I guess we’re talking now.”
And then the talking abruptly ended, leaving both of them at an awkward loss before they were forced to laugh at it.
“Alright,” Owen finally said. “So why don’t you tell me what the phone call was all about.”
Dennis shrugged. “I was bored.”
“Seriously? That’s it?”
“That’s it,” Dennis admitted.
Owen sighed. “Whatever. I was bored, too.”
“You’re not working or anything?” Dennis asked.
“Not today. Usually I’m across the street helping Chris out at the club since Tony’s gone.”
“Your other brother, right?” Dennis found it easy to keep up with a conversation when he didn’t have to add anything but small parts to it.
“Yeah. That’s Tony.”
“Where’s he at?”
“Traveling somewhere warm, probably,” Owen responded with obvious envy in his voice. “He’s with his boyfriend... You remember Jake?”
“Yeah,” Dennis nodded thoughtfully. “He’s the one you painted my mom’s house with a while back, right? I think I cussed him out a few times.”
“That’s Jake,” Owen agreed. “What about you? Work, school? I thought I heard you were working at that pizza place... Shelly, I think is the name of the owner.”
“She sold a while back,” Dennis replied. “But yeah. I work there. I’ve got a paper route, too. I think I might deliver yours.” And then, when Dennis felt that sounded entirely too lame, he added, “I was in school for business for a while, but I dropped out.”
“I sorta realized it was what my dad did when he couldn’t play football for a living. Lost interest, I guess.”
There was more silence, and it was far from comfortable. “I don’t really know how to talk to you,” Dennis finally said. It was as honest as he could get, and unfortunately, the best he could do. But, instead of ending their doomed meeting, Owen seemed to stare somewhere past him for several moments as he contemplated something.
“Aiden and I broke up,” he finally said.
“Aiden. My boyfriend. You know, the other fag,” Owen quipped sardonically. “We broke up about four months ago. Three months, twenty-two days, if you want me to be specific.”
“No, that’s okay,” Dennis said quickly, because their meeting had suddenly gone from awkward to unsettling, at least on his part. He didn’t have much practice being the sympathetic ear, and the fact that Owen suddenly looked like he needed one was not helping matters.
“It’s just, everyone I know, knows Aiden, too, so it’s not like... it’s not like...”
Owen stopped and his blond brow creased into a frown as if he’d just determined that he was talking to a wall, and should quit while he was ahead. Something about it bothered Dennis.
“What do you mean?” Owen asked, looking up.
“Why’d you break up?” Dennis asked.
Owen’s lips parted, and he shook his mouth, at a loss for words, but Dennis had a feeling that it had nothing to do with his breakup. “Look, Dennis, I get it if this shit makes you uncomfortable. With me and Aiden, you were never... okay, you know?”
Dennis nodded, and then frowned. He, too, seemed to be having trouble coming up with necessary words. “Look,” he finally said, his voice seemingly short. “I’m not an idiot, Owen. I know who your friends are...” --he lowered his voice, as if he suspected everyone in the room to be eavesdropping on their conversation at that very moment -- “and I know that you know some of them used to be my friends. I know you’ve heard things about me that...”
“Okay,” Owen said quickly, and it was a relief. “Just so you know, I’d never repeat any of it.”
“Yeah, I figured if you were going to you would have already,” Dennis replied impatiently. “Can we get back to Aiden now? Did prince charming dump you or something?”
“No. It wasn’t like that. Not really,” Owen replied. Even though as he thought about it, he did recall Aiden being the one to say the exact words necessary to end a relationship. It bothered him. “I think we just... stopped.”
“People do that?” Dennis asked.
Owen nodded. “I guess so. I think we’re supposed to be taking a break. But it just doesn’t feel right, you know?”
“So why not... you know... not, take a break.”
“That wouldn’t feel right, either. Not right now,” Owen replied, and now Dennis was successfully confused.
“I don’t get it.”
“Neither do I,” Owen admitted. He looked at Dennis, appearing just as confused, and then started to laugh in a way that ultimately, Dennis couldn’t help smiling at. It was a strange moment that passed like the rest of them, and afterwards the conversation never turned back to Aiden. Instead they stuck to what they were comfortable with: arguing over who got the better of who back in high school, the people they saw the most, and even a few details about Dennis’s dog. There were still voids that awkward silences crept into, but there were also three cups of coffee each, and a darkening sky before they parted for separate destinations.
Kyle Davis was from a big family. Growing up, he’d shared a room with four brothers, and there had been one bathroom for all of them plus two sisters. Needless to say, he’d learned to keep things orderly early on. Back then, it had been the only way to go.
Then, he’d moved away from home to go to school and he’d discovered the joys of having all the space he needed, all to himself. He even left his socks out on the floor every once in a while, though that was as messy as he ever got. So, it was a change to have his cousin’s things cluttering up his apartment. A jacket hung over the couch, dishes left out on the counter, a toothbrush on the bathroom counter, and dirty boots left in the middle of the living room. It all seemed so unnecessary since Kyle had been able to provide Nicky with his own room. But then, he didn’t really mind enough to complain.
Kyle hadn’t been home in a while, and it was nice to live somewhere with noise and clutter again. Although, when he’d first moved into the apartment, he’d never imagined that he’d be living with Nicky in it. Especially since Nicky was the kind of cousin that he’d never really gotten to know. They’d rarely showed up at the same family gatherings, and each time he had seen him during childhood Nicky looked like a completely different person.
It had been chance that connected them just over a year ago when Kyle was living in a small dorm room and he’d recognized his cousin walking across the campus. Nicky had been visiting his best friend, Owen Dovan, and through them, Kyle had managed to meet just about everyone he cared to know, and he’d reconnected with a family member that he wouldn’t have known otherwise.
He found himself reconnecting with Nicky once again, and on a slow Tuesday night, it had already caused him to be an hour late for work. But, Chris would understand. He of all people seemed to understand when family needed to come first, and right now, Nicky needed someone to talk to. Kyle wouldn’t have thought so at the time, but for Nicky, moving in with his dad had been a mistake. His cousin seemed to have tunnel vision when it came to his anger. When he wasn’t around other people, it was all he could talk about.
Kyle only had one side of the story, but it was clear that there had been a disagreement between Nicky and his new stepmother. According to him, he’d spent almost every day helping to care for his little sister, and Kyle didn’t think he minded that so much. But, trouble had started when he’d come home one night and his stepmom offhandedly mentioned that they’d appreciate it if he would make sure to be home by ten every night. Nicky, who was eighteen and not interested in a curfew had blown it off to avoid tension. Of course, he rarely made it home by ten on the nights he went out, and finally his father and stepmother had fought over it. It seemed that the new woman won out, because his dad said the dreaded words (although politely): While you’re living under our roof, we need you to follow our rules. At which point, Nicky had (not so politely) reminded them that the only reason that he was living under their roof was because they’d asked him to, that he was an adult, and that he would do whatever he damn well pleased. After that, the conversation had gone downhill as matters of financial support and who helped out with the new baby the most came into it, along with an incident that sounded silly regarding his stepmother being annoyed about a load of whites that Nicky had turned pink in the washer. This all ended with him packing his bags that very morning, kissing his sister goodbye, and ending up on Kyle’s doorstep not long after. He hadn’t talked to his dad since, and it seemed pretty clear that Nicky felt like he’d been booted out of the man’s life.
Kyle, of course, knew that the fence would likely be mended, at least a little, if Nicky would just call his dad. But, his cousin was stubborn enough to insist that it needed to be the other way around. Maybe, Kyle thought, Nicky was right. He was already thinking about calling his uncle--not to interfere so much as to hint--when Ryan Sader turned up to borrow a textbook. He and Nicky got to talking, and Kyle was finally able to get ready for work as he listened to them from the other room. He was happy to hear that Nicky had given dwelling on his father a rest. But unfortunately, what Nicky did was bring up the one topic that he knew Ryan wouldn’t want to talk about.
“I spent most of last night with Lacy.”
“Please,” Ryan had remarked. “Help yourself to her.”
“She said just as much about you,” Nicky replied. “You were best friends when I left. How come no one’s saying what happened?”
“Because nothing happened. Just let it go, alright?”
“Can’t,” Nicky replied, and there was a pause and the sound of a wrapper crinkling. Kyle guessed that he’d gotten into the bag of chips on the counter that he saw no point in putting away. “I wanna hang out with both of you tonight.”
“That won’t happen.”
“Owen and Aiden can put aside their differences long enough to have some fun.”
“Owen and Aiden are weird,” Ryan insisted. “Besides, I’ve got work to do anyway.”
“Work never stopped you from having fun before.”
“Well, I’m sure Lacy would agree with you,” Ryan said shortly. “So at least you’ll have something to talk about without me.”
“So that’s what happened? She got bored?”
“Nicky, shut up. Seriously.”
“I would, if someone would just explain why...”
“There is no why,” Ryan finally snapped. “There was no one big thing, alright? This is just how me and Lacy are. We tried something serious in high school and should have learned not to repeat the mistake. We can’t be more than friends.”
“But you’re not even that now,” Nicky pointed out.
“That’s because we pissed each other off.”
“So just apologize.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for. And what the hell are you all over it for, anyway? You still like Lacy, right?”
“Uh-huh,” Nicky replied. “But, I haven’t exactly been around, and you’re my friend...”
“And that didn’t stop me when you left,” Ryan interrupted. “So I’ll tell you the same thing you told me: It’s alright with me. Okay? Are we good? Can we stop now?”
“No. I’m pretty much gonna be annoying until you tell me why you two aren’t talking.”
In his bedroom, Kyle crept closer to the door as he zipped up his pants, imagining that Ryan was close to pulling out his own hair. Ryan’s tone suggested that he was correct.
“You want a list, fine. I don’t like the way she picks her teeth after every meal--and don’t look at me like that. You see how she eats. That’s a lot of teeth picking! And she hates it when I forget to pick her up because I’m too busy studying, and how I look at other girls, because I do look at other girls, and I’m always going to look at other girls. I liked her better when she pointed them out to me, and I hate how she turns everything I say into an argument. She says I was more fun when I was smoking pot, even though she hated it when I smoked...”
“You stopped smoking pot?” This was from Kyle, who’d finally decided to emerge from his bedroom.
“Hell no,” Ryan stated. “I just don’t smoke as much as I used to. I think it really does make you stupid, you know? Besides, I can’t smoke it at my place anymore because Travis hates it.” He paused long enough to turn back to Nicky. “Anyway, there’s a lot of shit. We’re not good together unless we’re just friends, and right now Lacy doesn’t want to be friends because she thinks...”
“Travis hates it?” Kyle asked, not seeming to care about what Lacy did or didn’t think.
“Huh?” Ryan asked.
“Travis hates when you smoke?” Kyle repeated.
“Uh... pretty sure,” Ryan said. “He kinda made it seem that way the last time I was smoking when he broke the lock on my door, ripped my pipe out of my hands and threw it out the window.” Ryan looked thoughtful. “He still owes me at least thirty bucks for that.”
“When was this?” Kyle asked.
“Hello,” Nicky grumbled. “What does Lacy think?”
“Right after he moved in,” Ryan answered Kyle.
“Why’d he do that?” Kyle asked, still feeling a bit surprised. Travis had never been predictable, but Kyle had always figured that part of Travis’s more questionable behavior had to do with some kind of drug use.
“He said he didn’t like the smell,” Ryan replied. “I don’t know. You tell me, it’s not like I know him better than you do.”
“Hey!” Nicky finally shouted, jumping onto the couch between where Ryan was sitting and Kyle was standing. “Why doesn’t Lacy wanna be friends?”
“Oh,” Ryan said. “Because she thinks I was cheating on her when we were together.”
“Were you?” Nicky asked, but Kyle didn’t stick around for the answer as he announced he was going to work, grabbed his coat and headed out into the cold, all the while thinking about Travis. He did that a lot, whenever he learned something new about his friend, considering each new piece of information like a puzzle piece; only with Travis, there was never any telling if the pieces would fit together or not.
Maybe he over-thought about his friend. Kyle could admit that. He could even admit that it consumed more of his time than what might be within the normal bounds of friendship. But in his defense, Travis was the only friend he had who could make himself a friend without letting anyone really know who he was, and that left plenty of room for curiosity. There was also what little Kyle did know about Travis that left room for curiosity.
Travis had once told him a story about a past that would have been classified as a nightmare. Granted, he’d been drunk at the time, but Kyle had no reason to doubt him. But that was the only time Travis had ever spoken of any of it, and after that, it was as if his past before walking in to town one day didn’t exist at all. It was possible that Kyle feared one day Travis would leave the same way, as if none of it had ever happened at all.
As if he wanted confirmation that this wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, Kyle lifted his phone from his pocket on the way to his car and tried Travis’s cell. It was a surprise when Kyle got an answer; Travis could forget about the phone for days without charging it. But just because he answered, didn’t mean that he had time to talk. Except to tell Kyle that it would be pointless to look for him at the club tonight, and that he couldn’t talk because he was on the other line with John Gordon. And then Travis hung up, and Kyle was left wondering even more about his friend, beginning with why he’d be on the phone with his more abominable employer this time of night.
How could anyone not like John Gordon? Forget he was rude, loud, and just plain mean. He was about to make Travis a profit. Not a fortune, but a tidy enough profit that he was considering a vacation free from all work for at least a few days, and that alone helped Travis forgive Mr. Gordon for taking two days to call about his offer. Not to mention, the old man had managed to make an offer of his own.
This was all fresh on Travis’s mind after another sleepless night and a tedious game of blackjack in a closed bar that hadn’t met his expectations, since by the time he reached home in the early hours of the morning his pockets were empty. Ryan wasn’t there, so he’d likely gone in for an early shift at his new job, and it left their living room free for Travis after a quick shower as he sat on the futon that doubled as their sofa with a towel around his waist, a glass of milk in one hand, and his phone in the other.
With tired eyes, red and protesting against his refusal to close them, Travis looked at the wall clock above the television, and at twenty minutes before five, he made a decision. It probably wasn’t the brightest thing to do, he was tired, after all. But the idea had struck him shortly after speaking to Mr. Gordon, and once Travis got an idea in his head, he had trouble letting go of it.
Clearing the scratchy feeling in his throat caused by spending the night in a room full of smokers, he slowly dialed information, which quickly connected him to the phone number of a particular pizzeria that didn’t close like the rest of them. A woman answered, and he scarcely avoided telling her that she sounded more perky than anyone should at that hour as she asked him if he wanted to try their extra-large pizza and wings special.
“No,” he said, yawning. “Actually, I don’t need to order. I was wondering if you could tell me the next time someone works.”
She was new, but she didn’t see why it would be a problem.
“Dennis,” Travis told her. “Tall guy... doesn’t talk much unless he has to, I guess. Drives a blue...”
She knew him, apparently, because he’d run out fifteen minutes ago and was due back shortly. Travis had been unprepared to that, and for a moment, wondered how important sleep really was as he decided whether or not to get any.
“No,” he finally said, holding his towel in place as he stood and crossed over to the kitchen, opening a drawer near the refrigerator. “Don’t tell him anyone called. But, I think I’ll order something after all. Do you take credit cards?” And when she said that they did, a credit card was exactly what he lifted from the drawer, but it was Ryan Sader’s name he recited when he read it to her.
Forty-five minutes later, Travis had made an effort to put on pants, had closed his eyes for a total of five minutes, and began to wonder whatever happened to delivery in thirty-minutes-or-less as he made sure Ryan’s card was placed neatly on the kitchen table, along with enough cash to cover what he’d spent so Ryan would know he’d used it. Travis was pulling a shirt over his head when there was a knock on the door, and when he unlocked and opened it, he’d somehow managed to wipe all signs of fatigue from his face to replace it with a cheeky smile.
The face greeting him, however, was not as friendly. There was first surprise on Dennis’s face, an obvious question of whether or not he was at the right apartment. Whether or not he decided he was, his jaw clenched in a straight, masculine line from his cheek to his chin; green eyes narrowed and he chewed at a bottom lip that was slightly smaller than the top before he finally said, “You’re not Ryan Sader.”
Travis’s smile only grew. “No. Not really. He’s my roommate. You know him?” he asked.
“Excellent,” Travis cut him off, and then gestured to the pizza Dennis was carrying. “Can you bring that in here?”
Still frowning, Dennis took a few steps forward, obviously not believing anything to be unusual about the request until he was in the poorly lit apartment and Travis closed the door. And locked it.
“What are you doing?” Dennis asked, definitely more annoyed than concerned.
With his hands still on the doorknob as if to defend it from anyone who might want to get out, Travis turned and leaned against it. “Actually, Dennis,” he said, once again sliding his eyes to the other guy’s name tag. “I’m making you an offer.”
In The Fish Bowl
With one sweep of his eyes, Dennis took in the apartment he’d made the mistake of walking into, and without being invited, walked to the kitchen table--or more accurately, a card table in the middle of the kitchen--dropped the pizza so hard that sauce spurted out the side of the box, and then walked towards the dark-haired guy between him and the door as if he had no intention of stopping at all. He did, though, a cautious four feet away.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked, and Travis laughed.
“That’s right. You never did ask me what my name is. Don’t you think that’s a little...”
“I didn’t care,” Dennis informed him.
“Hmm. Fair enough. Travis. Beltnick. But, Travis is good enough. Do you wanna sit down?”
“I’ll pay you to sit down.”
Dennis seemed to consider this, but then shook his head, even if he did seem more curious than he had a moment ago. “What do you want, Travis?”
“A rematch, actually.”
Dennis laughed this time, but there was no humor behind it. “You want to fight?”
Travis frowned, shaking his head as if he’d failed to make a point somewhere, and suddenly moved away from the door, grabbing Dennis’s tense arm as if it were an everyday occurrence before he more or less led him towards the futon. “No. No, not like that. I’m talking about a match. Kind of. Anything goes sort of thing.”
Dennis sat on the uncomfortable sofa only because he felt forced to, and found himself gawking at Travis, who’d ended up on the other end of it. “Anything? You want me to kill you this time, then?”
Travis snorted. “Just because you cracked my ribs once doesn’t mean I won’t surprise you later. “Look, you’re here because you’re the first person I thought of and...”
“I’m... honored?... Is there anyone I should call for you? I mean, are you on medication or anything like that?”
Not bothered by the remarks, but looking impatient, Travis ignored them. “It’s not like I’m asking you to do this for nothing. One of the guys I work for...”
“Someone actually pays you to be a dumbass?”
“No. I happen to accomplish that all on my own,” Travis said proudly. “I meant one of my legitimate employers. He’s strapped for cash. I might have put an idea or two in his head... but anyway, he wants to put something together for some of his friends. Rich idiots. It’ll be fun for them, my boss’ll get to bet on me and make some extra cash, and we get to split the admission fees sixty-forty. I get more ‘cause it was my idea, but you’ll still make a hell of a lot more than you do delivering pizzas.”
For an endless minute, Dennis observed Travis as he would a book that had a compelling cover, only to open it and decide that it was too much for him. Standing slowly, not really wanting to make any sudden movements, he started heading for the door, but Travis was on his feet in an instant.
“Okay, okay. Fifty-fifty,” Travis bargained.
“No.” Dennis moved faster, and Travis kept up. Though, this time he made no attempt to stop him.
“Hey, I get this is kinda a strange conversation to have at six in the morning, but if you’d just think...”
“It’s a strange conversation to have any time,” Dennis corrected.
“... but I’m not jacking you around here.” At the last moment, Travis stepped between Dennis and the door. “Okay, okay... I can’t do better than fifty-fifty, but what about a new car? You could use an upgrade, right? I can get you a deal. The guy I work for owns a dealership.”
Dennis stopped suddenly, and when his expression changed entirely into something that Travis couldn’t put his finger on, he felt a sense of accomplishment, because good or bad, he had Dennis’s attention.
“I mean it, I’ll hook you up tomorrow,” Travis said quickly. “How about something you’re not gonna slide all over the road in? Or...”
“Which dealership?” Dennis asked, now seeming less sarcastic and more serious.
Travis raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t there only one in town?”
Dennis’s eyes dropped, hiding his thoughts. “Yeah. There is.”
“Well, this fight thing, John Gordon’s gonna help make it worth our while. I can find someone else if you’re not interested, but at least think...”
“You should think,” Dennis suddenly interrupted. “I’m not doing it, and if you’re smart enough to take my advice, you won’t do it either. Or, anything else for John Gordon.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
If Travis hoped to get any explanation whatsoever, it was lost when Dennis brushed by him, unlocked the door and fled like the plague was on his heels. Sighing over his lack of progress, Travis closed the door, told himself better luck next time--because he’d make sure there was a next time--ate two slices of pizza, and finally went to bed.
Dennis lost track of time easily. It seemed to be an inconvenient side effect of having no regular sleep patterns. But still, he managed to count two days since last encountering Travis Beltnick, nearly one week after he’d first met him.
It was a bright Friday afternoon, the streets covered in slush from melting snow since the temperatures had finally climbed above freezing. Traffic driving through town seemed heavier than usual, which could also be attributed to the weather as everyone emerged from the comfort of their homes to take care of neglected errands and recover from the perpetual boredom hiding from the cold had brought on. Today, Dennis was one of the errand runners, going to pick up an asthma prescription for the Chesleys’ son, Reilly. Ironic, since Dennis could still remember the days when he’d been the one causing Reilly’s asthma attacks.
Lately, Dennis had been doing a lot of thinking about those days. Not just Reilly; all of it. The days when high school was his playground and he was king, and nothing that crossed his lips was too cruel to snap at an unsuspecting victim. He supposed that he’d always known that he could be intimidating, and that most of the time the people he chose to make sport of were undeserving of that kind of attention, but it had taken him a while to figure out that there was something wrong with it. And the face of the bully he constantly hid behind--it hadn’t been brave of him, and it hadn’t made him a stronger person, the way he’d expected it to. It had all been cowardice on his part; hurting everyone who crossed his path was nothing but an easy way to deal with his own problems. But even while Dennis had never really admitted as much to anyone else, he saw things for what they were now. Maybe he was still living in someone’s basement, worked his go-nowhere jobs and didn’t know a friend from an acquaintance, but at least he wasn’t that person anymore, or so he liked to think. Even if he did feel like he was still dealing with the consequences of his past.
He found himself looking square into the green eyes of one of those consequences upon walking into the grocery store, where he’d hoped to make his way to the pharmacy and get out as soon as possible. But still, Ryan Sader made Dennis stop, as he usually did, just as Dennis usually always caused a pause in Ryan’s step. The look that passed between them was always the same: cold.
Call it an old school rivalry, or a deep-seated grudge. Either way, they didn’t like each other. For Dennis, this was as silly as it was reasonable. The truth of the matter was, apart from making a point to get on each other’s nerves when they were younger, he and Ryan had never been the kind of enemies that had a reason for hating each other. Not on a personal level, at least. That had been reserved for Ryan’s older cousin, Leo. There’s been a time when Dennis had a best friend who shared Ryan’s last name. But like everything else back then, Dennis had managed to destroy his friendship with Leo and make a new rival out of Ryan. But unlike most of Dennis’s past offenses, this one still bothered him. He figured that he was getting good at ignoring it, though, since he and Ryan had been able to pass without incident for over a year now. When it happened this time, however, it was almost an inconvenience since Dennis was suddenly feeling an unfamiliar urge to ask after Ryan’s apparent roommate. But, that was probably because Dennis was happy to blame the reason why he couldn’t stop thinking about his past on Travis Beltnick, who’d unwittingly brought it back to haunt him.
Dennis picked up Reilly’s meds in a more reasonable amount of time than expected and checked his watch as he headed out of the store, wondering if he should stop by the high school and see if Reilly needed a ride home; probably not. Reilly was graduating early this year (after having to wait almost a year to graduate at all for various health reasons) and left early almost every other day; and when Mrs. Chesley didn’t pick him up, she made a point to ask Dennis to. So, the rest of the day seemed as dead in the water as ever, not that Dennis thought much about it once he stepped outside the door. He was too busy coming eye to eye with another familiar face, and this one was decidedly more agreeable than Ryan’s. Dennis even tried out a smile.
“Getting groceries?” he asked, even as he realized what a stupid question that was.
Owen Doven shook his blond head and shoved his gloved hands into his pockets. “I came to see if Ryan was working.”
“Right,” Dennis nodded. Of course. Ryan was yet another reminder of why he didn’t call the one number stored in his cell phone besides work and home more often. “He’s in there.”
“Good... what are you doing?”
Dennis held up the pharmacy bag. “Reilly’s medicine.”
“Okay. Good--I mean, not that Reilly needs it...”
“Right,” Dennis said in way of understanding, and then fell silent. It didn’t take much for him to regret his recent venture into opening the lines of communication with Owen. This had been simpler, and not to mention a lot less awkward when their encounters started and ended with a simple nod of recognition. Now, he didn’t know how to act, or what to say, or what was supposed to end a polite conversation without making him feel like an idiot when he walked away. “I’m headed back to the house to bring it to him... Do you wanna come with?” he finally said, and quickly decided that that was not something that made him feel more comfortable in Dovan’s presence.
Owen’s response was in the negative, even if it only crossed his face. It was clear enough for Dennis, and quickly sent him backpedaling. “Never mind,” he said. “You were gonna see Ryan, right? I think he’s working up front. I should get going, anyway; I promised Mrs. Chesely I’d be around for dinner tonight, so...”
Owen reached out, briefly touching the sleeve of Dennis’s jacket when he tried to pass. “Hey, Ryan doesn’t know I was coming, and the only reason I did in the first place was because I was bored.”
“That’s okay,” Dennis said quickly.
“No, really... look, the thing is, Aiden’s kind of been with Reilly a lot lately.”
“Right,” Dennis agreed. Because it was true. Aiden visited the Chesleys a lot, but usually it was during the afternoon when Dennis was waking up before his night shift, so there was a minimum amount of contact. Which, suited him just fine. He was about as fond of Aiden as he was of Ryan.
“I just don’t wanna risk running into him,” Owen explained. “We sort of agreed to take some space and I think he already thinks I’m stalking him.”
“Why?” Dennis asked.
Owen smirked. “Because I kinda am.”
Dennis shook his head, seemingly unsure of whether to be amused or disturbed. “Well he’s not there now. I don’t think Reilly’s even home yet.”
Owen seemed to consider that. “I guess if I’m there first it’s not stalking.”
Dennis wanted to point out that if Aiden showed up it could be considered a worse offense than stalking. He was well aware of Aiden’s opinion when it came to the few times in the past that he and Owen had talked, regardless of no one bothering to tell him. But, he didn’t because he didn’t want Owen to think about that since he already seemed to be considering something else that Dennis counted in his favor.
“I’ll follow you over,” Owen finally said, and ten minutes later, Dennis was constantly checking his rearview mirror for a little black truck that made sharp turns and had its fair share of dents.
The Chesleys’ house was located towards the town’s higher elevation tucked onto the hillside. The winding streets and clustered, tall trees gave the illusion that they were in the middle of nowhere when really, they were less than a mile from the nearest convenient store. Before Dennis moved in, his parents--who ironically owned a house only a few stop signs away, though he often liked to forget it--had always complained about what an eyesore the Chesleys’ place was. Dennis had never really understood why it made a difference, because you could hardly see it from the road, anyway, but regardless, since the family had moved in they’d made a lot of improvements. Dennis was often proud that he’d been able to help with many of them, as it gave him a sense of accomplishment, even if he never did introduce the place as his own home. But still, when Owen commented on the improvements it brought a reluctant smile to Dennis’s face and made him wish his room was as impressive.
It wasn’t, of course. It was large, being in the basement, but other than a television, two mattresses stacked one over the other to make his bed, and a couple of wooden chairs, it was basically empty. He’d put up a few hooks by the door for his coats; he didn’t need a dresser for the rest of his clothes because the closet fit everything else just fine, and the only space his dog required was a plastic mat in the corner where he kept her food. But then, as Dennis was quickly reminded, it was surprising how much a small furball of a pet could make an empty room seem full.
She barked loudly, as she always did when someone she wasn’t expecting invaded her owner’s room, and Dennis was quick to shush her, not that it did any good. He didn’t bother trying again, but that seemed fine because Owen didn’t look ready to complain anytime soon as Dennis watched the blond kneel down to greet the little black dog, which became even more hyper once she realized that she was receiving attention.
“You still have Valentine,” Owen said, and for a moment, Dennis was surprised that he remembered her name. “Is she still causing you trouble?”
Dennis rolled his eyes at that. An inside joke relating to something that once upon a time, hadn’t been so funny. Valentine was one of the few things Dennis still had from his old life, and that he could credit to Owen. It was the first time Dennis had ever used Owen Dovan’s phone number, and that had been no easy task. Calling someone he considered an enemy at the time had been out of pure desperation. But, desperate he was. It was one thing for his parents to threaten to get rid of his puppy, but Dennis recalled being afraid of the way they would get rid of Valentine. To this day, he was pretty sure that his parents both still believed the dog had run away, when really it had been Owen, and as much as Dennis hated to admit it, Aiden, too, who’d gone through the trouble of helping him--and Valentine--out. They’d taken her to the Chesleys’ for safe keeping, and not so long after, Dennis had followed her there.
“Nah,” Dennis finally answered. “She’s mellowed out a lot. She just gets excited around company.”
Dennis, who’d dropped Reilly’s prescription on the table in the upstairs living room without running into anyone before leading Owen downstairs, made his way to the bed when he saw a page of notebook paper on his pillowcase.
“This isn’t bad,” Owen remarked, shedding his jacket. “I’m surprised it’s so warm down here. Our place is only half the size of this one and we need a space heater in every room even with the heat running.”
“I’ve never had a problem,” Dennis replied, but it was clear that his attention was more on the piece of paper in his hand than it was on Owen.
“If everything alright?”
Dennis nodded, crumbling the paper in his hand and sliding it into his pocket, but when he looked at the blond again, he found that he had his full attention, and shrugged. “Note from Mr. Chesley. My mom tried calling, is all,” he explained, and then waved off the look of concern on Owen’s face, thinking about how odd it was that Owen being concerned for him wasn’t really odd at all. “She’s been calling here lately. It’s kinda strange, because I didn’t even know she knew where I was living. I don’t plan on calling her back.”
“Good,” Owen blurted without thinking before he had the decency to look embarrassed about it. “I mean... I always thought it was good you moved in with the Chesleys, you know? I only met your mom those few times...”
“And I’m sure it was enough,” Dennis pointed out, the lines of his face showing hints of amusement. “Please, feel free to say whatever you feel like about either one of my parents, alright? I could care less, anymore.”
Owen studied Dennis for a long moment, giving Dennis the feeling that he wanted to argue with something he’d said. But ultimately, Owen turned one of the wooden chairs in the room backwards to straddle it, and didn’t. “Why do you think she was calling?” he asked curiously.
“I don’t know. My brother could be in trouble again, but like I said, I don’t really care.”
Owen nodded thoughtfully. It had been a while ago, but for a whole week all anyone could talk about was how Dennis’s brother, Lyle, had ended up back home after losing his football scholarship to steroid use.
“It could be they’re having problems with money,” Dennis suddenly said, and gestured to his mostly empty surroundings. “But I don’t know what they’d expect me to do about it.”
“Why would they be having that kind of trouble?” Owen asked.
“I don’t know. It’s just something I heard. So are you working anywhere tonight?”
Owen shook his head. “I’ve been at the club three weeks straight. Chris is making me take a night off. You?”
Dennis took a seat on his bed and pulled his pillow into his lap. “Called in sick.”
Owen grinned. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. Turns out delivering pizzas is more hazardous than I thought,” Dennis remarked, but something in his tone suggested that he wasn’t entirely joking. Owen waited for him to elaborate, and when he didn’t they fell into another of their uncomfortable silences.
“This is kind of weird again, isn’t it?” Owen asked, though he didn’t sound like he minded it.
“Yeah. Again,” Dennis agreed as his dog jumped towards him and he dropped the pillow in time to catch her. “I don’t know... should we just sit here?”
Owen grinned. “No.”
“It’s just... I don’t really know what people do anymore, you know?”
“No,” Owen said again, and for a moment, Dennis was afraid that he’d have to explain it to him before he added, “Let’s take Valentine for a walk. People do that, right? Walk their dogs.”
“Yeah,” Dennis agreed. “And it’s not weird, right?”
“Right,” Owen stated.
So that’s what they did.
It was like falling from a top bunk in the middle of the night, weightless and tense, disoriented as he awaited a foul landing. The muscles in his back jolted, as if preparing for a knife to strike him there and his breath caught, moments of panic seizing him as he reached that place between asleep and awake where he felt conscious but paralyzed.
Travis opened eyelids heavy with the same sweat that had found its way beneath his covers to drench him in his bed and he gripped the flashlight that never seemed to make it out of his hands, no matter how much he tossed. The beam of light was aimed at his chin in the otherwise dark room, and for a moment he was still as he looked over the shadows cautiously, too afraid they’d come to life if he turned his flashlight on them.
Closing his eyes, he carefully reminded himself of where he was, who he lived with, and that he was in a room of locked doors and windows. He was still shaking, even when he was calm, and his eyes drifted to the glowing numbers on the clock.
He didn’t know what day it was, or how long he’d slept. It was four o’clock and dark when he’d last gone to bed, and now it was past eleven, dark again, and he was sure that he was late for something, just as he was sure that he’d long ago passed his usual four-hour mark when it came to a good night’s sleep. Plain and simple, he’d crashed, and he still felt too heavy to pull himself out of bed, exhausted from the only nightmare he ever had.
But, all of this had been bound to happen, and he knew it. He’d been pushing himself with long nights and busy days, and the recent cold front had only made it worse. It was possible that he was getting sick, too, but it wouldn’t matter if he was because he’d simply refuse to believe it.
Disgusted by what felt like sludge covering his entire body, and unsettled from his dream and not fully knowing how long he’d been out, Travis forced himself from bed, keeping his flashlight safely with him until he made it across the room and hit the switch.
The light on the ceiling was much brighter, painful to his eyes, but it effectively woke him enough to cross his room, open his top drawer, and switch the batteries out in his flashlight before he stripped the messed and no longer suitable sheets from his bed and traded them for the clean set in his closet. His next stop was the bathroom adjoining his and Ryan’s rooms, and almost an hour later he was stepping out of a cold shower into a room free from fog. He was still blue-lipped and trembling when he combed back his hair, and didn’t bother with dressing in anything more than a loose pair of cotton boxers before he ventured out of his room.
His throat was parched and his stomach felt empty as he made his way through the living room, waving halfheartedly at the guy sitting on the futon--a guy who was not his roommate--made it to the kitchen and emptied the carton of fruit punch in the refrigerator without bothering with a glass.
God, he’d been thirsty. And ravenous, so much so that the fruity beverage actually hurt when it hit his stomach, and when it proved not to be enough, he grabbed a plastic cup from the cabinet and filled it up. He drank slowly this time, allowing his surroundings to catch up with him.
Finally, with the cup still at his lips and his long throat tilted back to accommodate the slow-running water moving down it, he cut his eyes towards the guest on the futon, who had paused in flipping through one of the three photo albums with him to regard Travis with a certain amount of curiosity and concern. He’d said hello, Travis realized. In fact, that’s why Travis had waved to him in the first place, before he’d deemed his thirst more important than the whole apartment burning down would have been. He lowered his beverage and swallowed hard, testing his throat before he finally spoke. “What day is it?”
His guest on the sofa raised a sharp, black eyebrow and tucked a thick strand of dark hair behind his ear.
Travis thought that over and frowned; he was late getting somewhere. Hell, he was an hour late leaving from where he was supposed to be. Lacy was going to kill him.
“Ryan took off for a few minutes. Kyle needed help with his car or something. He should be right back.”
Travis tried to figure out whether or not he’d asked the question that had just been answered, but ultimately gave up and shook his head. “Sorry. I’m... waking up.” He took his drink closer to the living room, glancing down in the process to make sure his one article of clothing was still in order before he got too close to the futon. “Aiden?”
His guest nodded, and Travis’s mouth turned up in a way that suggested he was proud of himself for knowing that.
“I don’t know who Ryan usually has over here,” Travis admitted. “We keep different schedules. What are you doing?” He looked over the back of the sofa, cocking his head at the pictures in the album Aiden had open.
“Just putting some stuff together for work,” Aiden replied.
“Did you take those?” Travis asked of the pictures that all seemed to have been taken at some sort of formal party.
“Huh,” Travis responded, and didn’t seem to notice the way Aiden’s brow shot up again, this time from either offense or annoyance.
Aiden closed the book and put it aside, obviously interested in changing the subject. “So, look, Ryan said you wouldn’t care if I crash on your couch tonight.”
“Really? Why would you want to?”
Aiden shrugged. “I’m between places right now. I was house-sitting for Ryan’s cousin, but he got back tonight and I wanted to clear out.”
“Yeah....,” Travis replied, resting his elbows on the back of the futon and bringing himself closer to Aiden’s dark eyes. “But isn’t this your building?”
Aiden smiled. “I’m renting every unit right now. I’ll probably be renting somewhere else first thing tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Travis’s eyes unwittingly wandered away from the bow-shaped mouth he’d been watching in a near predatory way over the toned body clad in clothes that hung over muscles in a flattering way before they settled on Aiden’s neck, a spot above the collar bone that he imagined was sensitive. Even if Travis didn’t really notice what he was doing, Aiden did, and his head seemed to pull back as if the boundaries of personal space had been violated. But, if Aiden had commented, Travis likely would have insisted that it wasn’t his fault. He was full of energy again, some nervous and some otherwise, and plain and simple, he always thought about sex after his nightmares because that was what took his mind off of troubling thoughts the fastest. “Yeah. Stay, whatever,” he said, suddenly standing upright to step away from the couch. “Sleep in my bed if you want,” he added as he headed back towards the hall.
“Excuse me?” Aiden blurted, obviously at a loss for how to take the invitation. Perhaps that’s exactly what Travis intended to happen, because the grin he threw over his shoulder managed to be sly and playful.
“I meant because I’m not gonna be using it,” he explained, but was quick to boldly add, “I mean, if you really wanted, I’d visit for a while, but it wouldn’t be to sleep.”
It had been a while since Travis had so openly flirted with anyone, or had been interested enough to do so, so he was pleased to see that his ability to shock hadn’t faded much. Aiden was definitely shocked, and maybe a little interested, Travis was pleased to discover.
“Ryan didn’t tell me you were into...”
“Not his fault,” Travis interrupted, still backing away as if this part of the conversation wasn’t worth his time. “Don’t think I ever mentioned it to him.”
“Then how’d you know that I was?” Aiden asked.
Travis shrugged at that. “I didn’t.”
Aiden opened his mouth, closed it again, and when Travis left him there in the living room to return to his own room he was confident that Aiden was flustered enough to pick up their conversation later. Not to say that Travis wasn’t open to visiting his unexpected guest a little more just then. As it happened, he really did have something more important to do that involved making sure his extra-long nap hadn’t cost him one of his jobs. He’d missed his entire shift at the video store, and was surprised to find that the expected, irate message from Lacy was nowhere to be found on his cell phone. So he called her.
He was surprised when she was more worried about whether or not he was okay than why he’d missed his shift, and during their conversation he’d carefully managed to figure out that Ryan had called in sick for him. It was a surprise, but appreciated. Travis could only guess that his roommate had been unable to wake him for one reason or another, and then covered good since Lacy bought it, and Travis had no reason to correct her way of thinking. He told her he’d see her tomorrow, and then turned his attention to the one message he did have on his phone.
Travis had been indifferent towards Phil Clayton before, but now the guy’s voice sounded like an irritating nag as he told Travis to call him back because he wanted to meet on Tenth Street again. It was obvious that he’d recruited new highschoolers eager to worship him. It was always funny to Travis, how many people would show up just because they knew they’d get to hit him for the right price. But, Travis figured that he was fair, and if he kept teaching these idiots the right way to hit--also for the right price--then there was always the hope that some day one of them would stop worshiping Phil long enough to beat the crap out of him. At least, that hope was there now.
Part of him didn’t want to, but Travis called Phil back. A buck was a buck, after all, and it had been a slow week. In fact, he was pretty sure he’d lost money during a few of his gambles, though he was too afraid to make an accurate count to be sure. There was no sense in getting himself down, after all.
But, there was also no sense in being polite to Phil when he informed Travis that he should have called sooner.
“I promised these guys you’d show up,” Phil complained.
“You should have checked with me before you promised,” Travis responded. “It’s your problem, and if I feel like showing up later on and catch you anywhere near me, that’ll be your problem, too, after the other night.”
“Hey, you made your money!” Phil shot back. “You can’t be pissed at me because I sent you after an easy fucking target and you fucked it up!”
“There was nothing easy about him,” Travis said evenly. “And I’m not pissed because he hit me.”
“No, you pussy. I’m pissed over how you split on me.”
“Oh, come on, Travis! It’s not like you didn’t get ho--”
Travis hung up on him and stared at his phone for a whole minute, half expecting Phil to call back, but when he didn’t, Travis shrugged, put his phone down and got dressed as if getting ready for the day at midnight was normal for everyone. But, he felt tired doing it.
Too bad that was unreasonable. There was no reason to feel tired, Travis told himself, because he refused to believe that he actually ever got tired. He’d feel better when he got going. He had to. It didn’t matter that for once, he wanted to spend an entire evening there in his apartment. Cook an actual meal over a frying pan. Turn on the television for a while. Hell, he could even spend some time getting to know his hot landlord, not to mention his roommate, in a setting that provided peace and comfort.
Travis knew better than to allow himself any of that, though. Peace and comfort meant sitting still, and sitting still meant more time to think, and too much thinking left him vulnerable to thoughts more serious than he preferred. But, no matter how much he tried to run from the invisible troubles sneaking into his mind, he knew that it would be happening more frequently now. At least, for the next twelve days. His recent nightmare was proof enough of that.
Checking his pockets to make sure that he had everything of importance, Travis stopped in front of his door to stare at the small, but effective lighthouses calender pinned to his door. His working schedule was filled out for the rest of the month, and he singled out the date to confirm that he had three shifts tomorrow--two at the video store, and one at the dealership. Not much time for sleep there. Good. Flipping the page up to look at the next month, he found that February was empty for now, except for the sixth, which he’d circled twice with a blue crayon. He frowned, now wishing that he hadn’t bothered. He also wished that he didn’t know that it was twelve days away without having to look, because if there was any indication that he’d been thinking too much, that was definitely it.
Travis dropped the page, opened his door, and headed towards the living room. Even before he made it down the short hallway he could hear voices that told him Ryan was back. He was telling Aiden about the trouble he’d gone through helping Kyle and Nicky break into Kyle’s car and how neither of them wanted to admit locking the keys in it. But, when Travis reached the living room, Ryan didn’t look nearly as irritated as he sounded as he sat cross-legged on the futon across from Aiden with his fingers working busily at the controls of a video game.
“Whoa,” Ryan remarked once he noticed Travis, but didn’t stop playing, or look away from his game for more than a moment. “You’re up.”
“Yeah,” Travis agreed. “Thanks for covering with Lacy. I owe you one for that.”
Ryan snorted. “Tell me about it. She hung up on me twice before I even got your name out.” He glanced over his shoulder long enough to flash Travis a dubious look over the subject of Lacy, but then looked Travis up and down as he stood there fully dressed in his snow suit. “Are you leaving?”
“Yep,” Travis replied, but instead of reaching the door, he moved behind the futon and rested his elbows over the back again, this time between Aiden and Ryan.
Ryan rolled his eyes. “And here I thought you were actually sick for once.”
“I don’t get sick,” Travis replied to Ryan, but his attention was deliberately on the guy who wasn’t his roommate. Aiden was looking back again with wide eyes that were now knowingly suspicious. “So, have we decided if we’re having a sleepover yet?” Travis said in such a blatant way obviously meant for Aiden’s ears that whatever Aiden had been bracing himself for came to tint his cheeks with a pink hue. And, whatever he’d been preparing himself to say was lost on the tip of his tongue, giving Travis the accurate impression that Aiden Knightly wasn’t accustomed to forward flirtations from complete strangers.
When Aiden seemed unnerved enough to suit Travis, he winked at their guest, laughed out loud, and didn’t bother sticking around to address the bewildered look on Ryan’s face when he finally looked up from his game to try to figure out what had Aiden so flustered.
Maybe it really would be worth his time, Travis thought as he stepped out into the cold, to spend more time at home running afoul of Ryan’s guests. But, not tonight. He headed to Kyle’s apartment first, only intending to say hello. Travis had been too busy lately to spend any real time with his friend, but he supposed it was just as well since Kyle had become busy with his cousin moving in. Still, though, Travis made the effort to pay him a visit, and he didn’t decline to lengthen that visit when Kyle asked if Travis wanted to go to the club with him and Nicky. Lacy wasn’t there to dance with this time, but on a busy Friday night, Travis had no trouble finding a few partners. He managed to stay occupied for a good hour before he slipped out of the club quietly and made it down to Tenth Street where he managed to make back some of the money he’d lost over the past week between his own activities and pitting two of Phil’s little friends against each other in a fight that wasn’t altogether fair since one of them had been coached in the past by Travis. The arrival of the police department sent everyone scattering, and encouraged Travis to get home three hours before he was supposed to be waking up for work.
By then he had a worse black eye than he’d had in a while, and a sense of satisfaction in knowing that Phil had been intimidated enough to stay away from Tenth Street tonight. The apartment was warm when Travis stepped inside, the television had been left on at a low volume, and Aiden Knightly was sleeping soundly on the futon, which he’d likely determined to be safer than the unoccupied bed in Travis’s room.
In The Fish Bowl
Nicky Davis opened the door of the theater and followed Lacy out into a cold, but bright afternoon. She wrapped her arms around herself, tightening her white coat, and as he caught up he reached out to lift her hood over her head. She smiled at him, nudged his shoulder with her own, and together they made their way across the parking lot walking in crooked patterns which effectively caused passersby to move in wide circles out of their path. As they closed in on the gray junker that Lacy fondly referred to as her car, she suddenly broke away from him to jump directly into a puddle of sludge and freezing water, destroying the red boots that Nicky had purchased with her that morning, and then she cracked up over it.
Lacy Chapman was the only girl Nicky knew who would do something like that, and he supposed that it accounted for one of the many reasons why he loved her. She knew when to have harmless (and occasionally messy) fun, and she knew when to act like a lady. She was smart, and sincere, and simply put, she was easy to be with. She was his friend, and while he’d wondered more than once if the love he did feel for her leaned towards the romantic side of the emotion, he’d always been as interested in being her friend as he was in dating her.
This time, spending the day with Lacy had been strictly friendship, and since Nicky felt more relaxed than he had since arriving back in town, he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. She was just as perfect as she’d been when he’d left four months ago, whereas everything else... was everything else.
When Nicky had left his dad’s house, he’d been surprised to discover that he thought of this town, and these people in it, as home. It was a surprise because he’d only moved there a year-and-a-half ago after tracking down his best friend, Owen Dovan. He’d only meant to visit that summer, but with his parents’ divorce creeping into every aspect of his life, he’d quickly found himself in town more and more often, until he finally transferred to finish out the rest of his high school existence with people who he actually liked. He’d lived with Ryan Sader and his family for a while, since Chris Dovan already had a full house with Owen, and Aiden, too, back then. By the time he’d graduated, he was working construction for Jake--a good friend, and coincidently, the boyfriend of Owen’s second brother, Tony; he and Ryan had moved into an apartment together; he’d been dating Lacy; was preparing to start college in the fall; and he was close to friends that he hadn’t had growing up.
But then, his dad had called and for what felt like a split second, Nicky had left everything in an attempt to salvage his dwindling relationship with his family, a relationship that had only seemed salvageable because at one time, it had been the most important thing in his life. If he’d known that attempting to fix a rift between himself and his father would only deepen it, he probably never would have left in the first place. And, if Nicky had known how much things were going to change he might have come back sooner.
At least with Owen and Aiden, Nicky had seen things coming. He’d grown to think of them as one, the kind of couple that was always together unless separated by work or different classes. He’d been surprised when Owen had called to say that he and Aiden were splitting up--something about needing to figure out who they were away from each other--but he’d known ahead of time what to expect. What he hadn’t counted on was everything else. He couldn’t go back to his old job for at least another month until Jake and Tony came back from their trip. Hell, he couldn’t even call Jake and ask for it back because the two of them had decided to communicate by one-way postcards in order to guarantee their privacy. He supposed the couple deserved it, having been so busy the last time he’d been around them, but their absences hadn’t inconvenienced just him. Chris, who preferred to enjoy his nightclub more than having to run all of it, was lost without both of them. He was used to Tony helping him to run the club, and while Owen was doing his best to fill his big brother’s shoes, it wasn’t the same; and without Jake, who’d worked for the brothers even with his contracting jobs, Chris was down his favorite bartender. Though, Nicky liked to think that his own cousin, Kyle, was filling in well enough. But, it was clear that those who weren’t there were being missed.
Nicky supposed that he was lucky that Kyle had a spare room since Ryan had already filled his with someone else. But, he didn’t like feeling like he was imposing on his cousin, and he tended to feel that way more when he was constantly there in the apartment as Kyle came and went from work. But unfortunately, Nicky hadn’t yet worked up the energy to actively search for another job, and going out with his friends seemed difficult because most of them weren’t speaking to each other. Owen refused to go anywhere where Aiden might be, and since Aiden knew it, he’d been avoiding just about everyone except for Ryan and Reilly--someone who Nicky knew very little about, apart from the fact that Reilly was perfect for Aiden’s avoidance purposes since he didn’t really associate with any of their friends. And of course, there was the rift between Lacy and Ryan to be considered because it had successfully placed a gap between everyone; the two of them had always played an important part in keeping everyone together, and now everyone, including Nicky, had been splitting time between the two of them.
But he didn’t want to think about that today. He’d started off his morning shopping for shoes with more females than he could keep up with when he’d joined Lacy and her friends, and he would be the first to admit he’d enjoyed all the attention. Later on he and Lacy had broken free from the group to have lunch where she all but insisted that he tell her about staying with his dad; so when Nicky had listed his complaints, he didn’t feel like he was bothering her with it at all. Afterwards, when she told him that she knew it would all work itself out eventually, he believed her because he knew she believed it, and he even felt better. Though, all of Lacy’s random silliness probably had something to do with that, too. They’d seen a movie together, and now upon Lacy’s suggestion, they were heading to the house that Owen and Chris shared hoping to drag Owen away from the self-induced depression he was likely experiencing on the sofa as he flipped through the disaster channels.
They were still making their way through town, singing horribly out of tune as they made up words to a song neither one of them knew, when Lacy hit the brake hard at a yellow light, causing Nicky to brace himself. Nicky looked at her first to see if she’d lost her mind only to find that someone else had when he looked out the front window.
The tall young man with broad shoulders and a dark head of hair who’d run carelessly in front of the car, flashed a bright carefree smile at them, and blown a kiss at Lacy before taking off again, took Nicky a moment to place.
“Travis,” Lacy grumbled as she was forced to wait through the light, and then drove through with noticeable caution.
“What’s with that guy, anyway?” Nicky remarked.
She sighed. “I don’t know. He’s probably late for work again. I hope it’s not at the video store because our boss is supposed to be in today.”
“Probably wouldn’t bother him, though, right?”
“Right,” Lacy admitted, with a roll of her eyes. “But, that’s Travis.”
“Yeah... so, it true he lets people hit him for money?”
“Kyle told you?”
“He said something,” Nicky explained. “I saw Travis this morning and his face was all messed up.”
“If you get used to Travis, you’ll get used to that, too,” Lacy replied. “My advice--don’t try talking sense into him. He won’t listen.”
“So he really does let people hit him?”
“More than that, I think,” Lacy said thoughtfully. “He tried explaining it to me once. It’s mostly dumb kids looking for more than a punching bag. They pay Travis to tell them they hit like girls and then pay him more to teach them how to do it right. He’s making bigger bullies out of bullies. It kinda sucks.”
“What the hell makes someone do something that stupid?” Nicky remarked, looking over his shoulder as if he expected the idiot in question to be there waving at him.
“I dunno. The same thing that has him challenging guys twice his size to these stupid street fights. He says he makes money off it, like he needs it or something. But the strange thing is, I’ve never actually seen him spend any of it. I mean, he can’t have any more bills than the rest of us, and he’s already got two jobs. Won’t keep a bank account... he’s kinda weird.”
“Kyle seems to like him.”
Lacy nodded. “So do I. He’s just a little hard to get to know. Secretive.”
“So you don’t trust him?” Nicky asked, unsure of how he felt about this guy visiting his cousin and living with one of his best friends.
“No. I didn’t say that,” Lacy replied. “Actually, I think Travis can be a really good friend. He might not know it, but he is. I think the problem is that he doesn’t trust anyone else. I mean, that’s how I see things at least. With Travis... who knows. I’ve never met anyone who likes getting hurt before.”
“You really think he likes it?”
“I think, he does whatever it is that he does... for more than the money.”
Nicky let the subject of Travis drop as they reached Owen’s neighborhood, though, he doubted that this conversation with Lacy would be the last in which Ryan’s new roommate would come up. After all, Kyle seemed to have formed some type of attachment to the guy, and Nicky wasn’t sure how he felt about that just yet.
The house that Chris and Owen Dovan lived in was located in an unlikely place for two bachelors, set in a neighborhood prone to attract retired couples and their cats. But still, they were likely more appreciated by their neighbors than the last tenants, Ryan’s cousin Leo, and Jake, who’d made a habit of throwing parties that often became loud and overextended. Owen and Chris didn’t have time for parties, and when they did they usually held them at The Shadow, so if the brothers had any visitors, it was generally family, or a few guests who were always welcome, and rarely knocked.
Nicky didn’t bother knocking when he reached the front door until he realized that the door was locked, and then he was surprised when there was no answer. He would have said as much to Lacy if she wasn’t busy studying the vehicle parked next to Owen’s truck in the poorly shoveled driveway.
“I know this car from somewhere,” she remarked.
“Owen’s not answering,” Nicky said, but with no intention of giving up and driving away. He moved to the garage, punched in a four digit code, and he waited with Lacy as the door lifted. It wouldn’t have been the first time either of them had entered through the back door. But then as they soon discovered, they didn’t have to go that far.
Owen was in the garage, and he wasn’t alone amongst piles of tools and stacks of wood. He and the owner of the blue car parked next to his truck were on either side of a wooden chair, sanding it down. He looked up at Nicky and Lacy as if he’d expected them to be there all along. “Hey, look what we made,” he said, indicating the chair. But, the chair didn’t seem as nearly interesting as the we involved.
“I knew I knew that car,” Lacy whispered to Nicky, who had a strange look on his face as he continued to watch the situation before him. “That’s...great, Owen,” she said slowly, and then regarded his guest speculatively. “Hi, Dennis.”
Dennis, who had noticed the arrival of Owen’s friends much more than he let on, seemed to understand the strangeness of the situation, even if Owen did not. He tried to give Lacy a nod, but it turned up awkward. She was also one of the people who he no longer knew how to talk to. In fact, now that he thought about it, he’d never known how to talk to her in the past, either. It was a miracle she’d never slapped him for some of... no, he thought. Never mind. She had slapped him.
As for Nicky, Dennis didn’t know him, only that he was friends with everyone who he wasn’t friends with, and that the guy had never liked him. Given the look on Nicky’s face, Dennis could assume that that hadn’t changed much.
“We’re gonna make five more of these,” Owen said, still talking about the chair. “Maybe a table. Shit, do you have any idea how much you can do with wood?”
Nicky cleared his throat, Lacy snorted at that, and even Dennis covered his mouth and feigned a yawn to cover his amusement. Owen rolled his eyes at all of them and stepped forward to grab Lacy’s hand. “Come sit down,” he insisted, more or less flinging her into the chair.
“Oh. Okay,” she said, even as she sat stiffly and became the center of attention.
“What do you think?” Owen asked.
“Um... not bad. Not bad. Could use a cushion, maybe.”
“Huh. We’ll get some,” Owen announced after a moment of consideration, and then looked curiously between Nicky and Lacy. “What’re you guys doing here?”
“Actually,” Nicky replied, “we were thinking about skating or something. Wanted to know if you wanted to come with.”
Owen thought about it for a second as he looked at the mess in the garage, and finally shrugged. “I guess.” He looked at Dennis. “Wanna go?”
This was met with an awkward silence by everyone else in the room as Lacy and Nicky exchanged more bewildered glances.
“No,” Dennis said quickly. It was obvious that he hadn’t expected the invitation, and probably shouldn’t have been surprising that it made him uncomfortable.
“You sure?” Owen asked. “Maybe...”
“I’ve still got stuff to do today,” Dennis cut him off. “I need to go, anyway.” He was already grabbing the heavy jacket he’d left hanging on an upright board. “Um, I’ll see you, Owen,” he added, not sure how else to excuse himself, and he was in his car and gone no sooner than Owen had said his own goodbyes.
Owen watched the blue car disappear, not seeming to notice the confused and somewhat frustrated looks now aimed in his direction, at least until Nicky finally spoke up with the inevitable question, “What the hell was that?”
The sun was setting, and the snow-covered ground had set a gray hue over the town. Travis hated this part of the day the most--the thirty-five minutes between day and night. It happened earlier this time of year and always managed to make him feel cold both inside and out as he bundled tighter in his jacket and tried to ward off deep yawns that forced him to slow down.
He’d spent the last five--maybe six (he didn’t really know at this point) hours at the Gordon Dealership. It had been busy, even for a Sunday, and Mr. Gordon had even called in extra help for all the customers. Unfortunately, the business hadn’t put the old man in better spirits. He’d stomped into the lobby shortly after Travis had arrived, yanked the dark sunglasses Travis was using to cover his black eye from his employees face, said a few choice words, and then ordered Travis to put them back on. But, the only two sales that day were made by Travis, and he had two more potential customers who’d promised to come back later in the week, so he wasn’t the one who received the majority of Mr. Gordon’s wrath. Travis felt sorry for the other two sales associates, though. They’d already lost their full-time positions, and when they did come in they always threatened to quit. Usually, that’s why Travis didn’t mind attracting Mr. Gordon’s harsh words and disruptive outbursts upon himself. He could take it. Just, not today.
Today Travis wanted quiet. He’d developed something of a migraine earlier in the morning, and even his own thoughts felt too loud in his head, so when he spotted an older woman popping back aspirin on the city bus, he didn’t hesitate to make friends with her to get three pills out of the deal. It came with a price, though, as he listened to her talk about her daughters for the next ten minutes--one of course, who she insisted would be perfect for him. He was thankful when they reached her stop, but not when she asked if she could have his phone number for her daughter. Deciding not to be rude, Travis gave her a number. It just happened to be Kyle’s, just as the name he gave her was.
He made his way to the back of the bus to stand when more people got on. It was colder in the back, but not as noisy. That alone was enough to keep him there as he needed the quiet in order to think. It took him a few minutes to remember where he was supposed to be going next. Home. Go home, Travis. And then, no, he firmly told his conscience, which sounded an awfully lot like Kyle.
He was pretty sure that he had no working shifts for the day, but that didn’t mean he was finished, and Mr. Gordon had made that clear enough throughout the day. The old man had done his part in getting his rich friends excited about this fight that Travis was supposed to be taking part in. In fact, he’d done it faster than Travis would have thought he would. He even said he had a place to hold it in, since there was no way Mr. Gordon or anyone he associated with would be willing to stand out on Tenth Street with the drunks and the kids who for all intents and purposes should be tucked into their beds with mommy and daddy behind the door. Travis didn’t have a problem with this. What he seemed to be having trouble with involved living up to his part of the deal.
He’d promised a fight. He was pretty sure that he knew a few guys who would be willing to act as the other party in it--if they could sober up long enough, that is. But, he hadn’t bothered to ask any of them just yet. And, that was because Travis hadn’t given up on the person he already had in mind, even if that person wasn’t cooperating in the least.
Travis had thought of tracking Dennis down a few times since they last met, but he’d kept coming up with reasons to put it off, either because he was too busy, or because he didn’t feel like tracking down Dennis at work again. Travis imagined that the last time the guy’d felt ambushed, and that was no way to make friends. But, when Travis spotted a familiar blue sports car stopping at a red light across the street from the back of the bus, worrying about rudely ambushing someone became the last thing on his mind.
Tightening his backpack over his shoulder, Travis pulled the cord, indicating to the bus driver that he wanted to stop. But, he hardly waited for the next stop as he ran to the front of the bus and tipped the driver to let him off right then and there.
He moved out onto the street, keeping a good eye on the changing lights as he made his way through the intersection, slipping on ice and catching himself on the cars of disgruntled drivers. He ended up behind the blue sports car and ran up to the passenger side, grabbed the door handle, and let himself in with an exhausted plop onto the front seat, much to the driver’s blatant shock.
“Hey,” Travis said breathlessly, and then pointed ahead of them helpfully. “Green light.”
Dennis hit the gas more out of instinct than wanting to, and as he crossed the intersection he looked wide-eyed and open-mouthed at his passenger, who seemed oblivious to his bewilderment as he shook out of his heavy coat and shoved the dark beanie from his head into his backpack.
“What are you doing?” Dennis finally demanded.
Travis ran a finger beneath his straight cold nose, reddened from the weather, and then held out his hands to warm in the blowing air from the car’s heater. “Don’t know. Why don’t you tell me--where’re we going?”
Dennis narrowed his eyes and sent a threatening glare in Travis’s direction; one that had little effect and was hard to pull off in the first place, given his need to watch the road. “Have you lost your mind?”
“Could be. So seriously, where’re we going? I was trying to head in the other direction.”
“I don’t give a fuck where you were heading!” Dennis blurted. “What are you doing?”
Travis shrugged. “Trying to make a new friend. Why? Is this weird to you?”
Dennis looked like he was either going to laugh or curse, the way his face was turning an unpleasant shade of red. But, when he spoke, he managed to keep his voice controlled, if not completely calm. “What. Do. You. Want?”
“I was wondering if you’ve changed your mind about my proposal yet.”
“Is this some kind of joke?”
Travis shook his head. “Not really. Why, do I sound funny?”
“You sound crazy!”
“Some could say the same of you. Really, is delivering pizzas that much fun? Because I’m telling you, in an hour you’ll make...”
“So you haven’t changed your mind yet, then?” Travis asked, unable to hide his disappointment. “Will you at least tell me why?”
“If I do, will you leave me alone?”
Travis considered the question. “No. Nope. Better not promise anything I can’t stick to.”
Dennis rolled his eyes. “Look, John Gordon is the type of man who’d put two roosters in a box and let ‘em peck each other to death. That’s all you are to him, a fucking cockfight for his friends. And you’re an idiot if you go through with it because whether you think so or not, it’ll fuck you up. Maybe not the fight, but he will.”
“So... you’re saying the only reason you won’t do this is because of Mr. Gordon?”
“No. I won’t do it because it’s stupid, and it’s illegal, and because I don’t play anyone’s pit bull, no matter how good the money sounds.”
“It wouldn’t be like that...”
“That’s exactly what it is,” Dennis snapped. “A fight--like the one you’re talking about, you’re letting every one of those assholes own you, win or lose. It’s their game, not yours, and when it’s all said and done they don’t give a fuck about what happens to you.”
“So? It won’t matter by then. I’ll do my thing, take the money and run. It’s nothing. That’s how you’ve gotta think of it.”
“No, you’ve gotta start thinking, asshole. Nothing ain’t nothing with a Gordon.”
Travis sighed his frustration as Dennis turned off the main road. He figured that he was about to be dropped off on the wrong side of town, but when Dennis kept driving up a hill, Travis sat back in his seat. “What’s with everyone hating on Mr. Gordon, anyway?”
“You’ve met him, right?”
“I know the guy’s a little... he’s a prick. But it isn’t like the guy’s not going through a rough time, and I’m the one who came up with the whole fighting thing, so ya can’t argue that I’m being corrupted...”
“No. Just stupid...”
“... but seriously,” Travis continued, not bothering to be insulted. “Where does everyone get off knowing what a jerk he is when they stay the fuck away from him?”
Dennis was silent for several long moments, the muscles in his jaw clenching as he ground his teeth in a way that made Travis a little nervous as he realized that the road they were on kept going up, and the tall trees surrounding it blocked off the view of the city. He’d lost complete track of where he was, and didn’t really care for it.
“I’m not everyone,” Dennis finally said.
Travis, who was still attempting to figure out his surroundings, looked over at him. Dennis was staring straight ahead now, partially covering his mouth with his hand as he seemed to when deep in thought, and when the setting sun hit his profile between passing trees his features looked tense, and his short hair became sandy white waves still messed from the last hat he wore.
“Okay,” Travis said. “Go on then. Explain to me what makes you the expert on John Gordon. Tell me what’s wrong with him, other than that he’s an asshole. We already know that.”
Dennis dropped his hand onto the steering wheel to make another turn, and shrugged one heavy shoulder. “He’s my dad,” he said in words that sounded strained to his own ears. “What’s wrong with him? Where do you want me to start?”
Travis blinked, looked forward, as if the winding road would actually help him clear his thoughts, and then back to Dennis when it didn’t work. “Wait. So, let me make sure I understand what you’re saying here...John Gordon actually reproduced?”
Travis shook his head. “Well, wonders will never cease, I guess.” Mr. Gordon having any form of offspring just plain struck him as odd. Unnatural, even, though he figured it would be cruel to say as much. “Brother or sister?”
“You said twice,” Travis reminded.
“I have a brother,” Dennis supplied. “I’m surprised he hasn’t been working with you at the dealership.”
“Uh-uh,” Travis replied with a shake of his head. “Minimum personnel only. Your old man’s so hard up right now he wouldn’t give his own mother a job unless she could close a deal.”
Dennis almost smiled at that. “He wouldn’t give his own mother a job, anyway.” He was silent for a moment, and then his next question seemed as forced as his admission to being a Gordon. “Why’s the dealership in trouble?”
“Oh, it’s not. It’s more like Mr. Gor--your dad going broke because of his divorce.”
“They’re getting a divorce?” Dennis asked, more shocked than fazed.
“How could you not know your parents are getting a divorce?” Travis responded, but before he thought to get an answer, his attention was turning to the tall house at the end of the driveway they’d abruptly pulled into. “Hey, where are we?”
“Huh?” Dennis responded distractedly as he cut the engine clear of the garage. “Oh. Home, I guess.”
Travis opened his mouth to respond, but didn’t get a chance to before Dennis was out of the car and headed towards the house, leaving him in a rush to get his coat back on before he left the car for the cold air. Looking around, Travis still didn’t have a damn clue where he was, and he didn’t even want to begin wondering how long it would take him to walk back home. No. This would definitely not do.
“Hey!” he called to Dennis, moving his long legs in equally long strides to keep up. “Hold up a sec. I know I did that whole thing where I jumped in your car and all, so technically I brought whatever I get upon myself, but you really have to take me back...”
Travis was cut short when the sound of mixed laughter caught his ears and drew his attention to the side of the house. It had also brought Dennis to a stop, too, and Travis was able to catch up to him in time to watch a line of three tiny, smiling people come around the house in colorful snow suits with sleds dragging behind them. They weren’t really small in height, at least where the two adults were concerned. It was their tiny features: noses, eyes and mouths, all pink from the cold; and curly blond hair--though the woman’s seemed darker than the man’s--that made them all look like something off the cover of a Hallmark card. “What’s with the happy elves?” Travis remarked to Dennis, who shot him a dirty look.
“I rent a room from them,” he said informatively.
“Dennis!” The woman called as soon as she saw them. “You’ve got to come sledding with us! I’m making hot cocoa and then we’re going right back out.”
“Uh, that’s okay, Mrs. Chesley...” Dennis started, but was quickly interrupted when the group of three got closer to them.
“Who’s your friend?” Mrs. Chesley wanted to know.
“Uh...” Dennis seemed lost, obviously not ready to consider Travis a friend of any nature.
“Travis,” Travis said helpfully.
“Yeah,” Dennis agreed. “Travis... these are the Chesleys, Deanna and Paul, and...”
“I know you,” Travis suddenly said, pointing to the smallest of the bunch. The blond hair, bright blue eyes and glasses perfectly fit for hiding behind were all easy enough to recognize. “You were at the club with Aiden.”
“Club?” Mrs. Chesley repeated, looking at her son in bewilderment.
“The one Owen works at,” Mr. Chesley said helpfully. “I told him he could go.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Chesley replied, though it seemed obvious that she and her husband would be exchanging words about that later. “You know Aiden then, Travis?”
“Oh. Yeah. He slept on my couch last night,” Travis explained, and then ignored the strange look Dennis was giving him to flash one of his more charming smiles in Mrs. Chesley’s direction. “Deanna. You know, I can’t remember the last time I went sledding. Are you sure it’s not getting too dark?”
“Oh, we have another hour, at least,” she insisted. “We’re gonna get warmed up before we go back out again, though. Are you coming then?”
“I’d love to,” Travis said cheerfully, and then took it upon himself to step forward and open the front door for the entire family. His eyes met Dennis’s for a brief moment, and it seemed that Gordon was none too happy with him. Good, Travis thought. Maybe the guy would be more than willing to throw a few punches at him before the night was over after all.
The club was slow, the music not quite as loud as it was on most nights. It would stay that way for another hour, Kyle decided, when the crowds started coming in. In the meantime, he carried a tray of drinks out to a group of women celebrating a birthday and stayed to talk to them for a while, making them laugh when they offered to buy him a drink and he had to explain that he was old enough to serve it, but not drink it.
He left their table after offering a free round in honor of the birthday girl and made his way back behind the bar. The new girl--older, probably in her early thirties--who Chris had only hired over the last weekend seemed to have things well under control, so indicating to her that he was going to take a break, Kyle grabbed his phone out of the plastic box he kept under the bar and headed up to the second floor, which was used only for small parties, and often doubled as an office and a quiet place where Owen and his friends did most of their studying. He dialed Travis’s number, received no answer, and by the time he reached the top of the stairs, he was staring at his phone as if everything bothering him was answerable to the thin piece of technology. He nearly laughed upon looking up to find Chris sitting at a disorganized table with the exact same look on his face as he glared at his own phone.
Looking up, Chris smiled. “Travis?” he asked.
Kyle nodded. “You?”
“Owen,” Chris replied, sighing. “I don’t know what to do with that kid. I tell him to take some time off because he’s looked like a zombie ever since breaking up with Aiden, and he decides it’ll be a good idea to turn my garage into a workshop. You wouldn’t believe all the crap that’s in there right now. He made one little chair and he’s already talking about furnishing the whole house. Here, I want you to look at this.”
Kyle moved to the table when Chris held out a long, laminated menu, tried to figure out what he was supposed to be looking at, and then finally shook his head. “We don’t serve more than half of what’s on here.”
“I know,” Chris replied. “Not yet, anyway. It’s one of Owen’s projects. He realized there aren’t any half-decent restaurants within a block of us and he thinks we’ll increase profit if we start serving lunch before the club opens. We’d have to bring in enough business to cover at least four hours of labor and expenses to open that early, but he thinks it’ll work, and I think it’s gotta chance.”
“Yeah? So when do we start?”
“I don’t know yet,” Chris replied as he took back the menu and kicked out a chair to invite Kyle to sit. “I think I’m going to talk to Owen first. If he can handle it with school I’ll put him in charge of it. Maybe then he’ll leave the garage alone and we can park our cars in it again.”
Kyle smiled. “I think he can handle it, and hey, don’t get too upset about the garage. At least Owen’s out doing something productive. Nicky’s getting bored at the apartment, and Travis... well, Travis is Travis.”
“Why don’t you tell Nicky to come work here? He can help Owen out, and it’ll keep him busy until he goes back to school.”
“I thought of that. The problem is, Nicky wants to do something on his own. He was so proud of himself for getting a job with Jake before Jake even knew about it.”
“He can’t go back there?”
“They’re short on work because of the season and told him he’d have to wait for Jake to get back.”
Chris shrugged. “Offer him a place here, anyway. Maybe he’ll take it until he finds something else, and you’ll have one less thing to worry about.”
Kyle nodded. “Yeah. Okay... look, I want to thank you for offering Travis that job. I’m sorry he... he’s Travis.”
Chris laughed. “You keep saying that.”
Kyle rolled his eyes. “I know. And sometimes I think I shouldn’t worry about him, you know? It’s not like he’s always had someone trying to look out for him before.”
“Maybe that’s why he needs it,” Chris suggested.
“Maybe. But he sure as hell doesn’t like it. You know, the only reason he turned down this job is because he knows I’m the one who wants him to work here. He won’t even consider the fact that he’d be better off working full-time here than he is at both of his other jobs... and I keep thinking, if he’d just settle down in one place maybe he’d knock off all that other crap he’s into. You know the other night when he was here, I saw him charge some poor woman for a dance.”
Chris snorted, shaking his head. “Well, you did say you wanted him to work here... just do me a favor and make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
“Already taken care of. Look, I’m gonna get back downstairs. Should be getting busy soon.”
“Come get me if you need me,” Chris said.
Kyle nodded and headed down, dialing Travis’s number once again, only to make him ready to dump his phone in the nearest waste bin when he reached the bottom of the stairs.
Travis was pretty sure that he’d succeeded in giving the Chesley parents a heart attack. Twice each, for sure. Of course, he refused to believe that this was all his fault. He was just trying to have a good time, and it wasn’t as if he’d told Reilly to get on his sled past that first time. Reilly had simply been smart enough to figure out that he got the best ride with Travis, who’d quickly discovered that the narrower part of the hill in the Chesleys’ back yard took him straight down to the highest drifts and best chances of catching air. Besides, Reilly was enjoying himself. His laughter was that of a child’s, unabashed and open, but he didn’t seem to be the fragile boy everyone treated him as. He also sat perfectly with Travis on the sled, adding just enough extra weight to send them flying down the hill.
Travis was succeeding in having fun, too. He realized that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been sledding was because the closest he’d ever come to it was sliding down an icy street on a garbage can lid as a boy. But, it was easy enough to get the hang of, and even when it became too dark to see the trees he didn’t want to stop. But of course, by then Mr. and Mrs. Chesley wanted to get inside, and so did Dennis, for that matter. It was obvious enough that taking a sled down the hill was considered a waste of his time, though he’d tried it out twice that Travis had counted. Travis was a little surprised when Dennis chose to wait when the Chesleys finally called Reilly in. Travis had said that he was going down the hill one more time, and Dennis had made his way over. From the look on his face, there was half a chance he was going to tell Travis to make sure he didn’t come back up the hill, but Travis didn’t let him get that far.
“Get on,” he commanded, as soon as Dennis was in earshot.
Dennis stopped on the packed snow, if only because Travis had told him to do otherwise.
“Get on,” Travis repeated, making room on the sled. “I’ll show you how you’re supposed to do this.”
“You think so?” Dennis responded, his brow lifting below the blue ski-cap Mr. Chesely had given him to wear.
Travis nodded. “I do. You’ve been pussyfooting around this hill for the last hour.”
“Yeah. Whatever,” Dennis said, stepping closer to the edge of the hill. “I have a better idea.”
“You put the sled away, I’ll drive you home, and you promise to stay away...”
Travis must have lost interest in what Dennis was saying because after studying the tall imposing force that stood above him carefully enough to make a few carelessly guessed calculations, his hand flew out, he grabbed Dennis Gordon’s wrist and with one strong tug, pulled him completely off balance.
Travis managed to keep Dennis from hitting the sled face first, or from going straight over it, but the force of his body sent them sliding down the hill sideways, Travis laughing and Dennis cursing before they straightened out. But still, together they were too big and the first bump they hit sent them both rolling down the hill ahead of the sled, Travis sliding to a halt before running head first into a tree, and Dennis into a snowdrift that wasn’t as nearly as packed as it looked.
Gasping and unable to suppress the deep chuckles escaping him, Travis ran forward and didn’t waste time in digging Dennis out, only becoming more amused when he caught his victim spitting snow from his mouth. When Dennis looked up at him, Travis held out a helping hand as he caught his breath, but it was rebuffed when Dennis shoved it aside and struggled to his feet, everything in his posture looking ready for retribution. But, Travis was more interested in what he saw in the guy’s face, because even if Dennis refused to laugh... something in him wanted to.
But instead, Dennis righted himself without any offered assistance and started trudging up the hill, leaving Travis to jog after him.
“Oh, come on! You’re not mad!” Travis informed him as he caught up and placed a hand on Dennis’s shoulder.
The only response he received was when Dennis turned suddenly and shoved him backwards. Travis landed conveniently where the sled had stopped, belly down, and the snow toy took him down the hill all over again. He was still laughing ten minutes later when he caught up to Dennis again at the front of the Chesleys’ house where he was slowly stripping off and shaking out his layers of clothing. He paused when Travis got closer, his expression cautious and accusing.
“Tell the truth,” Travis said. “Do you smile when no one’s looking?”
“Tell the truth,” Dennis retorted. “Do you like it when people want to do violent and unpleasant things to you?”
“That depends. Have you changed your mind yet?”
Dennis’s mouth clamped shut, and as he shook the snow out of his sweater he turned away from Travis in an obvious dismissal. “Do you ever listen?”
“Sometimes. He’s your dad. So? You didn’t even know he was getting divorced, which tells me that you probably never see him, so there’s a chance he won’t even recognize you if...”
“There is no if,” Dennis snapped. “Drop it! Alright? You don’t know him, you don’t know me, and you have no idea what I went through to get him out of my life! Fuck you if you think you’re going to bring him back now!”
Travis took a step back. “Wow. You’re upset.”
Dennis huffed his exasperation, and the action of removing his shoes became a violent action as he continued to avoid Travis’s eyes. “What has to happen to get you gone? You need me to drive you home, or wherever the hell else you need to go?”
“I could walk,” Travis mused, understanding that he’d worn out his welcome, and not letting on that he minded... if he actually did. “But I got a little turned around on the way up here, and it’s dark now, so you’d probably have to point me in the right direction.”
Dennis looked over his shoulder long enough to realize Travis would actually start walking if told to, and once again found himself shaking his head. “You’re going to walk? If your fighting bullshit works so well for you, why don’t you have a car?”
“Because I don’t have a driver’s license.”
Travis might have explained that announcement if Mrs. Chesley hadn’t suddenly opened the door to look at the two of them. “Oh, Dennis, do that in here,” she insisted when she saw what he was doing. “We’ll mop up later.”
“That’s okay,” Dennis insisted. “I can...”
“Just come in,” she pressed, moving outside to herd him in, and while she was at it, she waved for Travis, too. “Travis, I want you to stay for dinner. It’s the only way we’ll get Dennis to sit down and eat a meal with us, and Aiden should be here any minute. We’ll all have a nice meal together.”
“Actually,” Dennis said quickly, as if it were important to come up with a quick excuse, “I told Travis I’d take him home.”
Travis raised an eyebrow at Dennis. “You never said that.”
Dennis glared at him. “Well, I will.”
“No need to put yourself out,” Travis remarked. “I can get a ride back with Aiden.”
“It’s really not a problem,” Dennis said forcefully.
Mrs. Chesley laughed.
“Then we all know someone will get Travis home. After dinner. Dennis, please go dry off before you make yourself sick.”
“I’ll go with you,” Travis offered, and if it were possible, Dennis had the nerve to look like his night had gotten worse.