It’s midnight when Jed skateboards home through town, a little buzzed from all the free beer and more than a little apprehensive.
He’s not sure how he feels about Sadie’s reaction to his proposal. He was sure she would bust out laughing, shocked but happy. He had visions of her yelling ‘Yes!’ out to the listening crowd at Santos and he’d skateboard in to applause. Then there’d be one of those movie moments where she run into his arms, he’d lift her up and twirl her around. She’d say yes again, and they’d kiss while people cheered then yelled at them to get a room.
Man, it didn’t work out like he’d hoped. Right now he’s not even sure she’ll be home, but where else would she go? God, she was mad. It’s almost funny, what a cock up. He isn’t looking forward to seeing her, and he’s delayed the confrontation by staying at Santos, where he could drink a few beers and make light of the whole thing.
The cool night air is sobering and as the beer makes way for awkward emotion, he’s overwhelmed. He thought it was pretty funny at first, then he was mad at her over reaction, now he’s not really sure how to feel.
There is no traffic at this time of night and the quiet roads allow him to weave smoothly on his board, past dark shop windows and cafe’s, businesses and offices. The few bars still open have pulled in their signs and are ushering out straggling drinkers. He had to stop by Beaujangles for his spare board after Sadie stormed off with his other one.
Jed doesn’t like to think too far ahead, hates to have to think about more than his moment, which for the most part works pretty well; until he met Sadie. As he glides smoothly down the moonlit street he wonders what all this means, and if she really doesn’t love him enough to stick around. The thought knocks the air from his lungs and he jumps from the board leaving it skittering on aimlessly before crashing into a street-side bench.
What if he’s wrong and this isn’t the real thing for her? What if he’s been reading her wrong all along? Maybe she doesn’t love him at all - maybe she’s just waiting until it’s time to move on again, find another guy on another fucking island. Shaking his head, he catches his breath, suddenly unsure of everything. He stands in the middle of the road, fingers laced together, hands on the top of his head pressing down the negative thoughts rushing in from all sides.
“I’ll be damned!” Breathing out slowly he lowers his hands to his waist and stands shaking his head wondering how the hell he believed she might really love him.
A car horn beeps loudly and he jumps but doesn’t move. Stopping behind him the driver rolls down his window. “What’s up bro? You need a ride?”
Jed turns to the bright lights, raising his palms. “Do I look like I need a ride? I’m thinking here man, give me a break.” He turns away but remains fixed in the middle of the road, hands on hips, thoughts on Sadie.
“Move your ass off the road then!” The driver honks his horn and Jed sighs and strolls back to the waiting car.
“What’s your name brother?” He leans toward the open window.
“Stanley. Now will you get off the fucking road and let me go home.”
Jed nods and thrusts out an open hand. “Good to meet you Stanley. Yu know much about women?”
Stanley takes his hand, mouth forming a wide grin, “Shit. I saw you standing there and knew it had to be women trouble.”
“You got it.” Jed leans in on the driver’s side window. “I just asked a girl to marry me and she damn well turned me down.”
Stanley chortles and hits the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. “Is that all? Oh boy, you got to get used to that kid. That’s the game. You’ve just got to try again.”
“Trust me, I’ve got three ex-wives and a fiancé, I know what I’m talking about.”
Jed smiles widely and slaps Stanley on the shoulder. “Stan, you’re the man!” He claps his hands together and points to Stanley. “Get on home now, to that fiancé.” Jed bangs on the car door and Stanley accelerates.
“You got to do it right is all. You even have a ring?” Stanley’s voice fades as the car lurches forward.
Jed stares at the back of Stanley’s shiny car. “No, I don’t.” He looks around for support but the streets are empty.
“I didn’t even have a ring.”
The apartment is dark when he gets home but he knows she’s there, the door isn’t locked. The simple gesture of the unlocked door gives him hope.
He creeps into the bedroom and peels off his clothes, before sliding under the sheet beside her curled form.
“You smell like shit.” Her voice makes him jump backward from the edges of sleep.
“Honey, I’m home.” He groans, shielding his eyes as she snaps on the light.
“What were you thinking?”
Jed takes a breath, wills his headache away and sits up sheepishly, eyes adjusting gradually to the glare. “Holy shit! You cut your hair.”
Sadie sits up, pulling the sheet around her. “And?”
He’s shocked. It’s not that he loved the dreads, in fact he didn’t really care much for them, but she’d always had them…until now. “Baby… you look so…” He reaches a hand out to stroke the soft blond hair rising in tufts, the length barely past her ears.
“So what…what do I look like?” The question bristles with anger but she’s betrayed by her eyes, wide and brimming with tears.
“Beautiful.” He says the word quietly, carefully. “You look beautiful.”
Sadie starts to sob. He’s never seen her cry and for a moment he doesn’t know what to do. The sudden vulnerability makes him love her more. If there was ever a question that she was his girl, that eventually he’d convince her to marry him, it’s gone with the dreadlocks.
“I love you. Nothing else matters.”
She shakes her head and tries to push him away but he catches her hand and holds her steady. Moving closer he trails his fingers over her soft downy scalp then down, slowly tracing the steady flow of tears.
“I’m not ready for anything else Jed. What we have now, it’s all I can do, and if it’s not enough…” Her last words are muffled by another sob.
“When I’m ready I’ll tell you but you can’t do that… it’s too much.”
He shushes her with a finger. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to rush you. I just…”
“I love you Jed, but the forever stuff I can’t do. I won’t ever be able to give you what you need.”
“Okay, I get it. I understand, I’m an idiot.” She shakes her head in reply. “I understand you’re not ready, but I’m not afraid to say it Sadie.” He pauses, gathering his words carefully. “I need you. I want you here with me, but I won’t pressure you. I’m here, and if you go, I’ll still be here, waiting for you to come back to me.”
She rests her eyes on his face, so serious in his heartfelt declaration of love. The tension between them disperses as she smiles, letting the sheet that protects her slide slowly to the floor.
“I don’t want to go anywhere.”
“God, I hope you mean that.”
He catches his breath at the sight of her pale body, smooth and still in the low light. He wonders at her still serenity when his own body thrums in anticipation. Pushing her gently back on to the bed he runs a hand over the soft cap of short golden hair, down over her shoulders to her breasts where he lingers, trying to control his breathing.
“I can’t get used to your hair.”
She laughs as he kisses her. Slowly at first, each touch a request for forgiveness, permission, and understanding. This Sadie seems somehow smaller, softer in her vulnerability. It’s a way in, past the fortifications she’s built against him, it’s a chink in her armour and he loves her more for it. He loves her more and he doesn’t want to rush the makeup sex, he wants to drag it out, be with her like this forever. His face pressed into her neck her hands tracing lines on his back, her lips on his ear.
But it’s too much. His restraint takes off at a run for the bedside drawer where he keeps the condoms. He needs her, and his body can’t help but want her. She reaches for him, hand stroking and guiding and he follows her lead. She holds his shoulders as he sinks slowly into her. He catches his breath as she takes control, moving slowly, gradually, easing his rhythm to her pace.
When he comes he cries out her name, it’s the best sex of his life, he’d tell her but it might kill the moment. As ripples of exquisite release slowly fade to quiet calm, he opens his eyes to find her smiling up at him, face flushed but wet with tears.
I wasn’t sure what I expected. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. And here I am, in the dark in my bedroom, our bedroom, with the twins asleep next door; and so far I’m okay.
I’m waiting for the crescendo of wailing and thrashing, the disbelief and denial, yet I’m calm. Calm but wary that this might pass at any moment.
The house has been cleaned and cleared. It still looks and feels like our house, but traces of Evan are gone aside from a few photos in frames. A happy young couple outside a church in Belfast, another, taken on the back deck of this house - Evan with his arms around a very pregnant me, and a family shot - both of us with a swaddled baby in our arms.
I’m not sure how I feel about this cleansing, this removal of Evan, but my stronger self tells me this is another step forward. He is gone, that cannot change and I must live here without him.
Zoe brought us home from the airport. The twins have slept since our arrival, exhausted and overwhelmed from the journey. They didn’t register where we were or who was missing, but let themselves be tucked into little beds with fresh sheets. They must somehow recognise home, despite the long time away they are calm and comfortable and for that I am grateful.
Zoe was quiet and considerate. We probably said more in the hug we exchanged than in words. I know she expects little of me for now. Anxious of how it would feel to be here, afraid the twins would immediately ask for Evan once home, tired and wrung out, I was quiet. She squeezed my hand and brought me home.
Zoe is glowing, radiant in these last few months of pregnancy and I am so happy for her. I keep saying that to myself…I am so happy for her, so happy. So why do I feel sad? Why do I feel jealous? I don’t want another baby; I am genuinely happy for Zoe. It’s just that part of me can’t help but be jealous that her happy ever after is working out so beautifully, so to plan, where mine is beyond hope. Abandoned, lost - but not forgotten.
I jump from the bed feeling the imminent slide into despair approaching. I can’t slip, not this early. I’m doing so well.
Walking through the house from room to room I see that everything is almost as it was, everything aside from Evans studio. The chaos has been cleared. A couple of boxes line the walls and the shelves are bare. Two scented candles sit on the window sill happy in fulfilment of their mission to remove his smell; linseed oil and charcoal, wood glue and whisky.
I can’t stay here, not tonight, so I move back toward the den and the long glass sliders that lead to the deck and the garden beyond. From here I can see the glimmer of moonlight on water and it soothes me. Despite it all, the moon shines on dark waves as before. All is as it was.
Glancing over to Jacks’ house there is only darkness. No signs of life. I wonder where he is and how he feels. I wonder if he has moved on with his life, forgotten us, forgotten me. All the letters I wrote to him travelled back in my suitcase. Letters he’ll never see. I screwed things up for everyone, but none of it matters now. Despite it all, I miss him. His empty house fills me with sadness and I don’t know what to do.
Creeping back to check on Evie and Sunny, I reassure myself they are asleep and return to the garden, wandering out to the deck and following the path down to that place. The place where it all ended. I know I shouldn’t, I know it will be too much, but I need to go. I need to feel him and talk to him tonight. I need to imagine him listening.
I am careful and the moon is bright, I follow the path through the bush, listening to the noises of the night, just a little afraid. Too soon I reach the opening, the space where the trees clear and the ocean yawns below. Now I am afraid. I knew I would be but I force myself forward; as close to the edge as I dare. I watch the ocean below lap the rocks and gradually feel my fear ebb away. The scene is calm and quiet, and I feel the moment is meant as an opening.
My voice cracks in the quiet. A brief sound then nothing; an uninvited noise swallowed by the night.
I take a breath and try again, “Evan…”
I don’t know if I’m waiting for something, a reply from the heavens or a celestial thumbs up to carry on.
“I miss you. I’m sorry for everything. I didn’t know, I didn’t realise things were…so bad.” I catch my breath again and stifle a sob. “I want you to know that we’re here again because I love you and I want to hold on to my memories of you, of us and Evie and Sunny here, in our home.”
I stop for a minute but the silence around me continues like an ellipse awaiting its conclusion. “I need to carry on Evan.” I pause, unsure of what I’m going to say exactly, until the words push forth, pouring out.
“I need to carry on living without you. I want you be happy for me, no matter how things turn out. Do you know what I’m trying to say Evan? Goddamn you! I don’t know how to do this without you, but I have try.”
I’m sobbing but it doesn’t matter and there are no celestial cuddles of comfort delivered from on high.
“You really fucked things up…do you know that? Yeah? What’s that? You think I did too? Well you’d be right! But I stuck around, I’m still here, living with it. And you want to know what else? I never stopped loving you, ever. But you pushed me away and I fell in love with Jack. Is that so wrong? What’s so wrong in loving two people for different reasons? I never thought it would come to this.”
Now I’m really sobbing, all that cool calm stuff is gone with the wind, but it feels good to yell and shout at him like this. Like a normal argument, the fight we should have had but never had the chance to. And now that he’s gone all the unsaid words become hard and painful to carry.
I’m the one to blame, poor Evan was sick, I never noticed, I was too busy ogling the guy next door. Evan worked hard, while I frolicked around with my other fella. He never wanted to bother me with his worries and look what happened.
You see? This is how it can play out in my head. I need to yell and shout, just for a while and I want him to yell back. I want him to tell me I was a self-absorbed cow, that I couldn’t see his problems because I was so wrapped up in myself and my woes of being a mother. I want him to tell me he knew I was in love with Jack and wondered how long it would take before I messed up.
I want to scream at the unfairness of fate that we can’t ever have that fight, that I can’t take the rap or give it back. Or that together we can’t share it out, and later work it out and maybe be stronger together in the end.
I hate it all and I cry for it.
I cry until I’m done and I’m calm and the ocean remains, gentle and quiet.
I walk slowly back up through the bush and into our house where I crawl into bed and find deep, dreamless sleep.
Here, the water feels different. Despite the heat of the day the ocean is cold and the waves small and insubstantial. The tide’s roll on to the sand leaves dirty lines on the beach, no seaweed or shells, just a film of the city absorbed by the sea to be washed back on the shore.
A swim seemed like a good idea. After the plane and the city traffic, he’d made his way to the beach. He’d left his pack on the sand and walked to the water to try and wash away the travel and let the beat and rip of the ocean fill him with the spirit he needs to deal with Raife. Now, treading water looking back at the beach littered with bodies, he wonders why he came. Santa Monica Beach couldn’t be further from what he’s used to and he doesn’t like it.
Instead of a spiritual boost from nature, he feels weighed down by people. Toned and tanned, beautiful people litter the sand, oiled and postured for maximum sun. Bikini-clad bodies jump and dive for volleyballs; tight asses and breasts that don’t move. There are no kids, no dogs, none of the usual associations of the beach and home. Here the beach is a grooming ground, everyone behaving as though someone is watching, as though someone else cares.
Jack exits the water and dresses on the sand, aware of the eyes of others. He doesn’t fit and he’s glad. Its 4pm and he knows if he walks inland toward the bars and clubs of Santa Monica he’ll eventually find a trail that will lead him to Raife. Raife’s been playing gigs in this part of Los Angeles for years. It could take a while, part of him hopes it does. He’s not sure he’s ready.
Bikes, power-walkers, joggers with headphones and rollerblading women crowd the beach path. He waits - bemused - unable to traverse the concrete ribbon that wraps around the edge of the beach, separating it from the palm trees and busy road beyond. The smell of the ocean is gone, replaced by gusts of sweaty armpits and expensive perfume.
Jack is alone, a fact felt more keenly by the crowds. He’d always been fine with the uncomplicated position of solitude, but since Billie something has shifted, the feeling is no longer peaceful. Sadness has settled where there used to be relief. Here in LA the sadness is weighty, amongst the sheen of effervescent smiles and surface-deep perfection.
He walks for a while before heading inland toward Santa Monica Boulevard. He needs the movement, meditative steps through unfamiliar streets to steady his head and settle his body after the flight.
Gradually the light softens as he veers inland. There is no peace to be had in this beach community. Noise is everywhere; car horns and voices, the thrum of traffic and loud blare of stereos. Pale evening’s fall into night ignites sounds less familiar in St. Cloud’s sleepy city; raised voices, deep bass, tinny speakers and breaking glass. During his walk from beach to boulevard, Jack has decided one thing: he needs to bring Raife home.
By 11pm he’s been in almost every bar on the Boulevard and he’s beginning to wonder if maybe he got it wrong. Tired and hungry he buys a slice of cheap pizza from a street side vendor and sinks to a bench on the sidewalk. A reflection catches his eye from across the street. A bright shop window, gleaming glass and clean white lights illuminate the man, bearded and unkempt, elbows resting on knees, a picture of dejection. A guy who’s had it hard, needs a good scrub and a sleep. Of course it’s him, and the realisation makes him blink in surprise. Shaking his head, eyes still on the unfamiliar reflection he smiles wryly; he really does look like shit.
The pizza’s gone but he doesn’t move from the bench, not immediately. It’s easier to sit a while and imagine that maybe this past year has been a bad dream. But then he’d have to give up the memory of the night with Billie, and despite everything he’s not ready to do that.
“You looking for spare change man? This is my area! You best move on.”
A teenage kid with a nose ring and a sleeveless shirt scuffs a worn sneaker on the sidewalk as he stops in front of the bench and eyes Jack suspiciously.
“Don’t worry kid, I’m not staying” Jack stands and the boy grins loosely, several missing teeth pock mark an attempted smile.
“Wise move dude, I’m bad ass. Got a reputation around here. Don’t wanna have to rough you up for getting on my area.”
The confidence of the skinny teen makes Jack return the smile, the kid’s no threat. He pulls a crumpled note from his pocket and thrusts it in the boy’s hand which is already open in anticipation. “Here, rent for using your bench.”
The boy sniffs and nods, pocketing the note quickly, staring at Jack suspiciously. “I don’t do no favours, you don’t get nothing for this.”
“I get that.” Jack turns to walk away.
“You one of them undercover’s trying to catch me out?” The scrawny teen’s voice follows him. “I’m too smart for that shit.”
Jack waves a hand and keeps walking, pace steady, determined to leave LA as soon as he’s done. Smog from the city has settled on his skin. He feels unclean. He’s sick of checking bars, ordering beers he doesn’t drink and sitting like a voyeur, watching the crowds for Raife.
Three girls pass; arms linked, drunk and giggling, barely twenty. God, he feels old. One turns back, smiles and blows him a kiss. Eyes drawn to retreating behinds; short skirts and tanned legs, his response is physical, breath catching he stops abruptly and closes his eyes. He sees Billie, more clearly than in a long time and the chaos of pleasure and pain is everywhere.
When he opens his eyes the girls are gone but Los Angeles still looms before him, and somewhere out there Raife, his brother, waits for him.
He hears the music before he sees the club.
The steady drumbeat pulses under the rhythm of a bass guitar, sounds merge seamlessly. A lead guitar rises and there’s melody amongst the stirring depths of the heavy beat. They’re good, and he’s ready to stop cruising the streets. The music guides Jack off Santa Monica Boulevard and under the neon sign, into the bar where the music is loud but the crowd sparse.
It isn’t what he expected. The band plays in a corner behind a small dance floor where a few people are dancing or just watching the musicians up close. A long liquor bar lines one wall, brightly lit serving hatches line the other revealing a busy kitchen within. Waiters move around taking orders and delivering food to tables, people eat, drink and listen to music. Instead of the stale liquor smell of most bars the smells here are incredible; chipotle chicken, peppered steak and fried calamari. The atmosphere is a chaotic blend of restaurant, beach bar and live session; and it works.
Above the small stage where the band plays is a neon sign in scripted writing: The Virgil.
Jack wanders through the small crowd, past tables of couples and groups of friends sharing food, toward the bar where he finds a stool and orders a beer. He might stay a while, screw Raife; maybe he’ll actually finish this beer and enjoy the music. He’ll find someplace to stay and start again in the morning. The urgency he felt only an hour before has faded. He’ll find him, just maybe not tonight.
The lead guitarist strums a few final chords before moving to the mike to thank the audience. There’s a chorus of applause and a few hollers for more. Jack claps warmly, feeling himself finally relax.
“Thank you so much.” The guitarist nods modestly. “We thought we’d give you guys a treat tonight.” Much clapping and whistling ensues. “We’ve got someone joining us for a few numbers. He hasn’t played around here for a while, but I know if you’ve heard him before, you’ll remember him.”
More whistling, the barman is nodding and smiling and the crowd keep clapping.
“We bumped into this guy a few nights ago and persuaded him to come join us. We’re hoping he might stick around.”
Jack sips his beer, more interested in the crowd than the next act. More clapping as the hotly anticipated musician heads on to stage but Jack isn’t watching, distracted by the barman who is juggling three liquor bottles.
A sudden quiet in the room unsettles him; maybe he’s not quite as relaxed as he thought. His eyes move over the crowd of people and tables till his gaze comes to rest on the darkened stage area where the band have been joined by another figure sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar resting on his lap.
The bassist hits a chord and the band follow, in a flash they are bathed in light and for a moment Jack is back on the bench in the street, shocked at his reflection in the shop window. But this time it’s not a reflection, this image is Raife. A worn, hollowed out Raife, bedraggled and unshaven but smiling, blinking in the bright spotlight before moving his gaze to his guitar, he taps his foot and begins to play.
Shock is quickly followed by relief as Jack watches his brother do what he does best. Raife plays and sings and his low melodic voice fills the room. Sounds of the crowd, the kitchen and the busy bar are silenced by the ragged beauty of his voice. And in this moment everyone in the room is feeling something unexpected but equally powerful.
The simple melody and sound of Raife’s voice captivate the crowd and a magic rests around the bar. Each response to the sound can be read in expression; wistful, dreamy, emotional, entranced. Faces glow as his sound captures memories or inspires dreams for projected futures. Raife owns the room. His guitar’s even sound smoothes the rough edges of his voice as he leads the audience chord by chord.
The song finishes and the room erupts in applause. Raife bows his head gracefully before raising his eyes to the crowd. His smile is dazzling; his smile has always been dazzling.
Caught by the scene Jack can’t look away although he wants to leave, wait outside and talk to him when it’s over. But he stays, transfixed by Raife’s glow. As Raife’s eyes pass the spot where Jack sits he stops, gaze directly on his younger brother. He sees him, there’s no doubt, but his expression remains the same. Lowering his head, he strums one long slow chord then begins finger picking the guitar till it sings. When he joins in, the effect is breath-taking.
Later, when the crowd have made him play just one more for another hour, Raife finally exits the stage to huge applause. The remainder of the band are forgotten and Jack has lost sight of why he’s here.
Raife looks like shit that’s for sure, but he seems to be managing just fine, still able to turn on the magic. Just like when they were kids. Raife always had a following; kids that wanted to be his buddy, just to bask in his glow and maybe try to score a few of the girls left in his wake. Socially Jack didn’t even have to try, as Raife Kelly’s kid brother everyone wanted to be his friend. He was admittedly one degree removed from the main attraction, but those kids were happy to settle for second best.
Jack shadowed Raife for the first seventeen years of his life. Sometimes because he wanted to, and others because there was no place else he fit. He was Raife’s brother and this gave him status. He admired Raife, loved him, but Raife was reckless, he’d do anything to get what he wanted and more than anything he wanted to cut loose, be free of small town St. Cloud, party and play music.
The energy in the room has changed. Things relax and bluesy jazz floats through the sound system. The stage area has been cleared and filled with tables and chairs already occupied by cocktail drinking LA residents. The barman is busy but beelines toward Jack with an already open bottle, smiling in admiration. The beer bypasses Jack and slides to a stop to his left where Raife eases into a stool beside him. A quiet moment passes as mentally they circle each other - like dogs before a fight.
“What you doing here Jack?”
Jack surveys his brother for a moment before answering. “I thought you’d tell me.”
Raife shrugs. “Nothing to tell, same old shit.” He sips from his beer, eyes still straight ahead.
Jack swallows his frustration. “So what’s with the calls? Are you in trouble?”
Raife turns to face Jack igniting his million-dollar smile, “Just wanted to see if you’d come.” He slaps Jack on the shoulder then pulls him into a half hug. “…and here you are.”
Jack rubs a hand over his eyes and exhales slowly. “Where are you living?”
Raife ignores the question and takes another swig of beer. “How’s Mama?
“You should come home and see her.”
“Hey Jonas!” Raife calls out to the barman. “Get my brother here another beer.” Jonas is quick to respond but Jack raises a hand.
“I’m good, thanks.”
Raife laughs. “Are you?
“I don’t drink much.”
Raife nods slowly eyeing Jack carefully, expression steely and clear despite his haggard demeanour. “Of course you don’t.”
Jack is suddenly bone tired. “Raife, I don’t know what the hell is up with you, but for some fucking reason I’m here. Don’t tell me you don’t need me because I know you do. I’m tired and I need to get some rest.”
Raife’s eyes narrow and a smile twitches around the edge of his lips. “Poor Jack, he’s come a long way to rescue the black sheep.”
Jack stands wearily, this is going nowhere. He needs to get out of this bar before he hits Raife or drowns his sorrows.
Raife grabs his shoulder. “Where you going? I’m messing with you. Take it easy.” He stands, pushing his empty bottle across the bar to Jonas who watches them with interest. “Wait here while I get my stuff.” He squeezes Jack’s shoulder and heads to the back of the club where he disappears back stage.
Half an hour later he hasn’t returned.
“You okay man, can I get you anything?” Jonas is hovering, anticipating drama.
“I’m good.” Jack rubs a hand over his eyes. “Can you check if Raife is still back there?” Jonas shrugs and heads backstage whilst Jack stands surveying the thinning crowd. Not a great start to the fraternal reunion.
Jonas is back moments later, palms raised “He’s gone man. No-one back there now, just the manager and he said Raife left half an hour ago.”
Jack nods slowly in response. “Thanks.” Face set, he hoists his pack on to back and strides out into the night. Jonas is calling something after him, but he doesn’t care to listen. He wants to go home, to be anywhere but here. But here he is, bound to the brother destined to despise him.
Anger rises slowly with each step, anger reserved for Raife, red and fiery hot but always tinged with the cooling haze of guilt. No matter how much of a dickhead Raife can be, how self-indulgent and bitter, Jack will always wear it. He’ll restrain his first impulse because Raife deserved better and Jack is at the heart of it.
Outside the cooler air does nothing to diffuse his mood. Despite the ocean’s proximity the air smells heavy with city life; garbage and hot tarmac, exhaust fumes and frying food. It’s 2am and Jack’s angry and beat. Tomorrow he might feel ready to deal with Raife again but tonight he’s had enough. Let Raife play his games, he won’t run after him, not this time.
He doesn’t know where he’s headed but knows if he walks long enough the anger will eventually seep from his soles. He needs to move and let the tangle of emotions teased out by his brother unravel. It’s always the same; Raife creates an internal maelstrom Jack is unequipped to deal with. All tied to one cruel flash of fate. The past can’t be undone and around Raife he can’t hide, because Raife hasn’t moved on. Jack is mired beside him and together they are toxic.
Eyes gritty with weariness and city air he shuts them tight and in the dark behind his eyelids he sees her, just a flash of dark hair and pale skin. A face divided by an angry red line. A contrast of beauty and tragedy, eyes mocking and lips pale. The image is gone as quickly as it appears but it takes his breath away. The proximity to Raife brings her back and the walls he’s erected around himself shake with the pressure of memories grown tired from neglect. He doesn’t want to remember, but the truth is, he can’t ever forget.
Following the lead of night traffic that flows steadily despite the hour, Jack begins a slow walk uptown. He needs to find a place to stay, he’s too tired to deal with it now. The streets are littered with people out at night for all the wrong reasons and he doesn’t want trouble. Making a snap decision he changes route, veering off the main drag, taking the quieter route that leads behind the bars and clubs.
He’s only a few blocks away when a familiar voice raised in anger stops him in his tracks. Again, the voice answered by others, one, two, now three different voices shouting, cussing, a loud bang against metal and the singular thud of fist against bone. Instinctively, he throws his pack to the ground and runs toward the sounds; an alleyway between the back entrance of two bars. Yellow security lights illuminate the dark, throwing the sprawling figures into a jaundiced glow. Three flailing bodies dance awkwardly in and out of the shadows. He doesn’t have to see their faces to know Raife is amongst them.
Here lies a pause in time, a moment he will think about after the event has passed. Jack pauses by the entrance to the alleyway, seeing Raife amidst the chaos, watching fists reign down on him. Time stops, and maybe the passing is a mere second, maybe simply the pause between thought and action, but Jack does stop. He stops in the shadows and witnesses the blows to Raife with a brief trace of satisfaction.
Something bigger than resentment takes over. In seconds Jack is in the midst of the ugly brawl, it becomes his fight, in that moment the fight is the reason he’s here. It’s his chance to make up, to make amends and to release the anger that’s been simmering for months.
Raife recoils, huddling against a dumpster, bruised and bloody. There’s a second, maybe two when Jack believes he can change everything by fighting for Raife. The men come at him on both sides and with every punch he feels something wretched leave his body; an ugly exit given freedom through violence.
It doesn’t take long, in minutes they’re gone, running, and afraid, this wasn’t what they’d bargained for. The alleyway glows yellow and Raife cowers against the dumpster. Adrenalin coursing, Jack scoops him up under the arms and drags him from the harsh light onto the side street. “We need to get out of here, where do you live Raife?”
Raife’s head lolls, blood oozing from his bottom lip. “What you doing here Jack?”
“Where do you live? We need to move before they come back.” Jack drags Raife toward his abandoned backpack.
Raife’s face breaks into a garish smile, teeth coated red with blood. “You’ve still got it.” He grabs Jack’s forearm hard, face suddenly serious. “Now get the hell out of here, you think I can’t handle myself?” He slumps down on the sidewalk. “Always the tough guy.” He raises his face. “Come on then, give me what you got, I’m ready for you champ.”
Jack slaps Raife hard across the face with the back of his hand. “Wise up! Tell me where we’re going or they’re coming back, with their friends to kick our asses.” The slap sobers Raife enough to slur an address Jack can barely understand. A street name, not much, but enough. He manages to hail a taxi, hoping Raife will remember where he lives on route.
Cool air from open windows and the cabs dark interior shifts the energy. Rap plays on the radio and the cab driver’s head nods to the beat, he doesn’t turn to look at the brothers or talk. He drives. Jack slumps, exhausted and bruised against the vinyl seat and Raife lets his head fall into his hands as downtown LA flashes past; a blur of street lights and neon signs serenaded by car horns and the angry rap beat.
The cab takes West Olympic Boulevard heading to the Pico suburb. West 11th was the only information Raife offered and as they reach West 11th Street he signals the driver to pull over outside a liquor mart. Raife exits, his movements slow and wary, unsure of who might be waiting to greet them. Jack pays then follows down the side of the liquor mart where Raife fumbles in a darkened doorway. A buzzer panel is lit by a narrow strip of light, names and apartment numbers form a line below; Raife’s name isn’t there.
The door opens on to a flight of stairs, lit by a single low bulb. Four flights up they follow the dimly lit corridor to another door which Raife unlocks on to a single bedsit room. He flicks on an overhead light and locks the door behind them. He’s quiet now, his movements seem sober and assured.
Jack drops his pack on the floor, eyes alert, still wary, but the small room reveals no surprises. A bed against the wall under a curtain-less window and little else. A few possessions lie scattered, and a small counter with a sink holds the remnants of last night’s takeaways. The bottom half of the window is covered by the square grate of an air conditioning unit but the room is hot and stuffy.
“It doesn’t work.” Raife gestures to the air con unit and Jack nods, wondering why he’s explaining the shitty air con when so many other questions need answering.
“Is this your place?”
Raife shrugs sinking on to the edge of the bed. “A guy I know let me have it for a few weeks, I played in his bar. I’m between apartments.”
“Right.” The air is thick with unsaid words but it’s late and they’re bone-tired and bleeding.
“You have any ice?” Jack asks, the light revealing the swelling around Raife’s eye and jaw.
“Are you kidding? I don’t even have a refrigerator, the place is a dump.”
“You’d better get cleaned up.” Jack gestures to Raife’s face then heads to the sink to run water over his own swollen knuckles. Raife nods, cocky backchat gone, he bends down, removes his boots and sinks back on to the unmade bed. Jack throws a cold cloth on to his chest. “Here, clean the blood off.”
Raife grimaces as he dabs the cloth around the cut by his right eye. “I had it under control.”
Jack doesn’t look at him, scooping water on to his face and hair he rubs his eyes. “Right, next time I’ll leave you to it.”
“You should have. I’m really screwed now.”
“Looks like you were screwed already. Hey, and by the way, you’re welcome.” Jack dries his face and sits on the opposite side of the bed, kicking off his boots. “Who were they anyway?”
“I owe them money.”
“Of course.” Jack sinks back, feeling like he hasn’t slept in years. “Why’d you take off? Do you know how much that pissed me off?”
Raife lies back carefully; estranged brothers side by side, unexpected intimacy in siblings relegated to strangers. “There’s your answer.”
“You’re an asshole.” Hands behind his head, Jack closes his eyes and city street sounds recede as he drifts reluctantly toward sleep.
“You knew that already, so why did you come?” Raife’s swollen eyes are closed too, both supine bodies still and finally relaxed, feet dangling off the end of the short mattress.
Jack breathes in slowly, “Because it’s time.”
There’s a long pause, as Jack pulls the words from the middle ground between wakefulness and sleep. “For you to come home.”
The sound of the word home drifts into quiet surrender as Jack falls deeply asleep. Raife opens his eyes, focusing on the cracked ceiling and bare light bulb. He breathes out; long and low, his exhale disturbing stale air in the dark room.
“Home.” He echoes, trying the word for size, there’s comfort in the soft vowels. He watches the cracked ceiling until his gritty eyes become heavy. “Home.” Night pulls him closer to sleep and he speaks quietly as he drifts.
Unheard, the word floats around the grey room alighting on Jack’s sleeping form. But Raife’s moment of sentiment has passed. His legs twitch with the beginnings of guiltless slumber and gratitude falls flat on sleeping ears.