Henry rolled his coffee mug back and forth between his palms.
The sun stagnated just above the tree’s crown like a half-dead helium balloon caught in the branches. He couldn’t seem to will it to move. It felt like it’d been noon for a year.
He felt a warm grip on his shoulder. Alice dropped down on the bench beside him. “Yum,” she said as Frank slid a plate of eggs in front of her, “Nancy, you’re a dream.”
Frank didn’t reply. He was still sulking. He’d probably be sulking for a while yet.
“So what’ve you boys been talking about while I was off?”
Henry watched her eat. She even made eggs look good. “You, mostly,” he said.
She lit up at that. “Really?”
Frank sat down on the bench across from them with his plate.
“Frank holds you in high regard,” Henry said, sending Frank a wink.
“Frank?” she said, flashing that smile, “Wait a minute. It sounds like you two are bonding.”
“Well, we sure are,” Henry said, smiling, “Frank’s a great guy. He really watches out for you.”
“I know,” Alice said as she poked a forkful of egg into her mouth, “He’s a pain in the butt most of the time, but in his best moments, he’s a peach.”
“So what do you do, Henry?” Frank asked as he worked the fork through his eggs, “For work, I mean. You do work, right?”
Henry caught the look that Alice surely didn’t, but grinned back at Frank just the same. The man didn’t give up. In a way, he respected him for it.
“I’m not currently employed,” Henry said.
“Unemployed?” Frank said, shrugging his eyes, “Well, that’s quite the surprise.”
“It’s voluntary. I’m taking some time.”
“To travel?” Frank said, snorting.
“Yeah, that’s hilarious, Frank,” Henry said, “Nice shot.”
“How old are you, Henry?” Frank asked, “Fortyish?”
Alice flicked a bit of egg at her brother. “Don’t be an asshole.”
“Thirty-four, actually,” Henry said.
“Really? Thirty-four. I wouldn’t have guessed that.”
Henry looked at Alice. The sun was focused on her like she was the only person on the planet. Maybe that was why it was so stubbornly refusing to move. He forced his eyes away from her.
“I’m taking a sabbatical,” he said, “I needed some time out of the machine.”
“What did you do?” Frank bit off a piece of bacon. “Before your sabbatical? If you don’t mind me asking, of course.”
“Yes, Henry” Alice said, pushing her face into his, “Do tell. It’ll save me a game question later.”
“I worked with newspapers.”
“Delivering them?” Frank said. This time he winked at Henry.
Henry looked at him. He had to admit, the man could be pretty quick. “Another nice one, Frank.”
“Not if it’s true,” Frank said as he sparked up a fresh smoke, “If it’s true, it’s just sad.”
“I’m a web designer, actually.”
Frank blew a stream of smoke up over the table, then took another bite of his eggs. “Where did you go to school?”
“U of M.”
“University of Malawi?”
“University of Michigan.”
“And when did you start your sabbatical?”
“Friday,” Alice said.
Henry looked over at her. She smiled too sweetly up at him, and then she patted his cheek.
“How could you possibly know that?” he asked her.
“Through the simple powers of deduction, my dear Watson.”
“Seriously,” Henry said, “Help me improve my firewall. How’d you know that?”
“The going away party?” she said playfully, “It was yours, wasn’t it?”
His amusement soured. “Game on, Alice?”
“Certainly not. Besides, it’s your turn anyway. I can’t call it.”
“Whatever are you two talking about?” Frank asked too loudly, “Please resist speaking in code at the table. It’s rude, and you’re both sufficiently irritating without it.”
Henry seized the opportunity to change the direction. “Frank,” he said quickly, “The eggs were great.”
“Better than the soup kitchens?”
“Funny. Seriously, I appreciate the ride, the sleeping quarters, the food. You’ve been very generous.”
“I have indeed.” Frank stuck the cigarette back in his mouth and smiled around it at him. It didn’t exactly radiate warmth.
“Look,” Henry said to him, “I’d like to contribute something to the tribe. I don’t want to freeload.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alice said. She slipped her hand up over his shoulder. “You’re a guest. We won’t hear of it.”
Henry lost his breath at her touch. It took him completely by surprise, and it irritated the living hell out of him. “No,” he said less firmly than he’d planned, “I insist. I want to pitch in. I have—”
“Absolutely not,” she said, “You wouldn’t have been hitchhiking in the middle of the night if you had money to—”
“Nonsense!” Frank said, “I think it’s a grand idea. This a communal outing, correct? Everyone contributes? What can you donate to the tribe, Henry? Besides free labor, I mean?”
Henry leaned forward onto the table. “Well, here’s the problem, Frank,” he said, watching him closely, “It seems I may have misplaced my car.”
“Your car?” Frank said, “What’s that have to do with anything?”
“As it turns out, my wallet is in my car.”
At first, Frank only looked at Henry. Then he started laughing.
“I do have a twenty I can throw in,” Henry said.
Frank was still laughing. “A twenty? Are you joking?”
Henry had to bury a grin. God, this guy was easy. “Well, I know it’s not a lot, but it’s all I’ve got on me.”
“Silly boy,” Frank said, “Do we look like we’re short on cash? We’re all professionals in this tribe, and we’re most assuredly not on sabbatical. Don’t fret yourself over this. It’s our pleasure to contribute to the underclass. Even homeless drunks need a night out now and then, right?”
Alice heaved her fork at him. Frank dodged it so well he ended up on his back in the dirt behind the bench. “Goddamn you, Alice!” he shrieked from the ground.
“You’re a real jerk, Francis,” she said, “And now you’re exactly where you belong, down in the dirt like the pig you are.”
Henry seized the opportunity. He got up and crossed around the table, and he threw a hand down to Frank.
Frank looked up at the hand, and then he looked at Henry.
“Come on, Frank,” Henry said, pushing his hand closer, “You’re going to get ants on you down there.”
Frank accepted the offer.
“That was bullshit, Alice,” Frank said as he settled back in his seat. His face was a blood storm.
“How can you be so rude?” she snapped at him, “Henry’s our guest. Don’t treat him like he’s a… a… ”
“A bum?” Henry finished.
Silence filled the table. And then they all started laughing.
“Well,” she said, smiling at Henry, “I didn’t mean—”
Without thinking, Henry threw his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her in. “Forget it,” he said, still laughing, “It was pretty damned funny, actually.”
When he realized what he’d just done, he quickly recovered himself. Unfortunately, she continued leaning into him even after he’d rescinded the offer of his arm. He cursed himself an idiot. Careless acts like that were going to get someone killed.
“Frank,” he said quickly, “Would you consider something in trade?”
Frank brushed the dirt from his cigarette. “Sure,” he grumbled, “Whatever.” He grabbed the lighter and relit.
Henry got up and retrieved his gear from the van. He brought it back to the table and opened the paper bag.
“I swear,” Frank said, “You’d best not be pulling out any cigar butts or half-eaten sandwiches.”
Henry set the pill bottle on the table between them.
This apparently piqued Frank’s interest. “What’s this?” he said.
“Vicodin,” Henry said, “Eighteen tablets, high strength.”
Frank’s face melted into a state of reverence usually reserved for people who have suddenly and inexplicably found Jesus. “Vicodin?” he practically shrieked, “You have Vicodin?”
“That’s what the little brown bottle says.”
Frank looked at the label. “Eleanor Grandhart,” he read. Then his eyes narrowed suspiciously and turned back to Henry. “Exactly who is Eleanor Grandhart, Henry? Are these stolen?”
Henry just shook his head. Was there any winning with this asshole? “No, Frank. They were given to me.”
Henry thought about Josho. As he did he felt a spark of hope that the man fared well on his journey. The sentiment surprised him.
“By a good friend,” he said, finally, “I have more than plenty of flaws, but theft has never been among them.”
That was apparently all Frank needed. The angst in his face melted away to pure joy. Henry could hear the angels singing on high.
“Take them if you want them,” Henry said, “With my thanks.”
Frank poured the tablets into his palm and rolled them around. An instant later, he was smiling at Henry like a moony schoolgirl. “Why, Henry,” he said, giggling, “Maybe I don’t hate you after all.”