Chapter 13: Liam
“Where the hell have you been?”
This is what greets me when I step inside my apartment. I haven’t even closed the door yet, and already I’ve been bombarded with questions that I’m not even sure if I should answer truthfully. I’ve been walking in a daze, deciding to walk home instead of catching a cab, my mind replaying all that had happened down at Times Square.
Libby’s kiss, her blush, and the agreement to meet each other tomorrow.
The whole thing’s surreal - none of it seems as if it really happened. It’s not my life - it’s not something that can just happen to someone like me. The majority of my life has been the life of an adult, taking care of Jeremiah and keeping up house payments and electricity, but tonight it was as if I had the chance to live a small portion of the life of a normal teenager.
But once I twisted the knob and pushed my front door open, reality set in.
Jimmy was sitting at the table off to the right of the apartment, straddling a chair with his head in his arms. I look around the rest of the place, but neither Debby nor Jeremiah is in sight.
“Where’s Jere?” I ask, ignoring his question completely and shutting the door behind me.
“Upstairs, sleeping,” he mutters, clearly pissed. Taking a sip from his beer can, I feel him watch me as I relax at the sound of his news and go to the kitchen to clean up. I don’t blink when I hear the sound of the legs of his chair squeak against the kitchen floor, his footsteps sounding closer to me by the millisecond. I brace myself for one of Jimmy’s scoldings. I know I deserve it today.
But he doesn’t say anything.
His footsteps sound past me and out of the kitchen. I don’t glance up from the sink, but I listen closely to where his footsteps are headed: In Mom and Dad’s bedroom. Or, rather, his bedroom. At least now it is. He rented it out two years ago, with me needing help out on the rent and him needing a place to live after being kicked out of his sorority.
I shake my head as I stare down at the sink, mindlessly washing a plate Jere must’ve eaten his lunch off of. Today’s been one helluva day.
There’s something annoying about repetitivity.
The same routine every morning and the same result at the end of the day.
That’s why when I wake up this morning, I’m somewhat relieved that it’s not going to be like any other day. I drag myself out of bed and look blearily around my room, trying to figure out what it is I’m supposed to do on a day like this. Bentley made it clear yesterday that I was fired. I haven’t necessarily shared the news with Jimmy yet, but it’s only because I’m going to come up with a plan first.
I walk out of my room with heavy feet, wiping the sleep out of my eyes while I go down the stairs. The low murmuring of the television catches my attention, and I turn my head to the living room only to find Jimmy sprawled out on the couch, three empty Saint Arnold glasses toppled over on the carpet. He’s asleep, his socked feet dangling off the opposite arm of the couch his head is resting on, his mouth left ajar and his arm dangling off the side. He’s snoring, meaning he’s drunk.
He must’ve come downstairs late at night last night after our argument, or had gone off to a party and returned early this morning.
I shake my head and click the television off, giving Jimmy one last pitiful glance and then crossing the apartment to the kitchen. The kitchen’s my favorite part of the whole place - it’s the happiest memory I have of my childhood. We always dip-dyed our Easter eggs at the kitchen table, strung popcorn on fishing wires on the tiled floor, or did a family dinner where each of us prepared something we could all eat for dinner that night - Jeremiah being the exception.
It was Mom’s favorite place, too; whenever I needed her, I always knew to look for her in the kitchen first. It was one thing we had shared in common. I open the pantry door, finding the shelves almost completely barren. I shake my head and close the door, turning to the refrigerator with a small pit of hope.
And I’m not disappointed - there, at the back of the top shelf, is a tupperware box full of leftover pancake mix. Smiling in content, I grab the container out of the nearly-empty fridge and close the door, searching for the skillet and butter moments later.
Cooking is a sort of peace for me; it’s relaxing enough and keeps my thoughts reasonable. A loud sizzle comes from the skillet as I pour the mix in, sure enough making Jimmy’s snores slow to a stop and a loud groan replacing it. “Shut the hell up, Liam!” he grumbles, his voice strained as he stretches his arms above his head. “It’s too early for any of this crap.”
“Do you not want breakfast?” His moans stop abruptly and I hear him standing up from the couch, the patting of his feet sauntering closer to the kitchen.
“Dude, you’re making cakes?” I glance over my shoulder at him and watch as he attempts to fix the blonde nest on top of his head, his eyes staring hungrily at the fluffy pancakes sitting on a plate beside the stove. “What’s the occasion?”
I got fired, I think, but my lips stay sealed. I return to cooking and flip the pancake that’s sitting on the skillet, shrugging and hoping that the answer’s good enough for him. I watch from the corner of my eye as he shrugs it off, walking around me and snatching a pancake off the stack.
“Well, whatever it is, I hope it sticks around ’cause these are some damn good cakes,” he says, snatching two more off the stack and stalking back off to the living room. The living room is more like his bedroom than anything; the only reason he goes into his bedroom is for his clothes and sometimes sleeping when the couch is “too lumpy”.
Three pancakes later, I switch off the stove, rinse the skillet off in hot water, and then set the stack of pancakes in the middle of the kitchen table. Jere should be waking up any time now, his new alarm clock we bought for school supposedly going off at seven thirty in the morning.
I pull out one of the chairs and sit down, taking a cake off the stack and biting a piece off, trying to think of what I could do today. There’s no need to make it uneventful.
I could go stop by Juke Box Hero and pick up my guitar - it’s mine, anyway. Taking another bite, I look around the house. And maybe I can go for a quick trip to the grocery store; there’s only plastic bags, Frito chips Jimmy bought, and syrup in the pantry. Syrup.
“Jim, do you want anything from the store?” I call as I get up to fetch the syrup from the pantry.
“Uh.... Yeah, get some more Saint’s and toilet paper. We’re running low on both of those areas,” he replies, his voice stifled with the pancakes in his mouth.
“Ramen?” I suggest, eyeing the empty basket on the floor of the pantry that used to be piled high with packets of Ramen Noodles.
“No, man. Shit, I’m sick of those.”
To be honest, I was too, but Jere and I made it a routine to have it for dinner every Tuesday night. Every other night... well, we ate whatever we had. Jimmy made it a goal of his to make sure he was out of the house on those nights. “Nothing else?”
I close the door and set the syrup bottle on the table.
“Hey, where were you yesterday? You know, when you weren’t here?” His words were biting, but I brush them off.
“I was-” And then I stop. How did I forget? Libby? Our kiss? Our agreement? Shit. I hurry into the living room and check the wall clock. Seven twenty. I still have time.
“What are you doing?” I glance down at Jimmy, finding him staring at me with a perplexed look on his face. He’s splayed out on the couch again, one of his arms underneath his head with the other holding a pancake up to his face. One more pancake sits on his chest.
“I’ve got to be somewhere noon.”
“Speaking of noon, why the hell isn’t your ass at work?”
I hesitate. “Bentley’s letting me come in late.” I don’t know why I didn’t just tell him; it’ll give me an excuse to be out while I’m having coffee with Libby.
He shakes his head and redirects his attention to the television that’s once again turned on. “Old man lets you off too easy. If I were him, I’d make you scrub the toilet until I saw my own reflection.”
“Yeah, cause I know you really want that.”
He smirks. “You bet my fat ass I do.”
I grin and shake my head, sitting down on the individual couch that Jere usually claims. A faint buzzing goes off overhead and Jimmy groans; Jere’s awake. The alarm shuts off and the pitter-patter of feet echos above us, making it’s way to the wooden staircase.
“And the devil wakes,” Jimmy mutters, stuffing the last pancake in his mouth. I stare at him and a small grin tugs at my lips; I kick his head with my socked feet and he groans again. “Dude, I was kidding. Now stop before you give me a concussion.”
I raise my eyebrows. “You can’t get a concussion from me hitting your head with my foot.”
“You can if you’ve got a hangover.” I give him a look and he returns it, his expression straight and serious. “That’s right, Google it.”
“Shut up,” I mutter, watching as Jeremiah makes it down the last few steps. He’s wearing plaid pants that are so long they curl over his toes, and a white undershirt that’s got so many stains that I wonder why the hell I haven’t thrown it away yet. His hair is unruly, sticking up every which way, and his eyes are half-closed, hazy from sleep.
“Hey, bud,” I call, and he blinks his eyes wider, slowly walking over to my open arms. I pull him into my lap and sit back in my chair when he relaxes into me. “Are you falling back asleep?” I whisper and he fights a smile, feigning he’s fallen back asleep. He tries to hide his face in my armpit, but I laugh, tickling his stomach and making him giggle his small giggle that I’ve always loved.
“Stop it!” he laughs, squirming in my lap and trying to fend off my wiggling fingers. I hover them over his body and he flips out, rolling completely out of my lap and onto the floor. I pause for a minute, worry choking me, but he continues to laugh and scrambles to his feet, scurrying to the kitchen. “You can’t catch me!” he calls, and I hear Jimmy groan next to me in exhaustion.
Kicking him in the head one more time, I chase after Jere when he suddenly stops in front of the table. “Cakes!” he screams, and hurries into his usual seat. “Cakes, cakes,” he sings, squirming in delight and rubbing his hands together like he’s ready to dominate the powerless food.
Rolling my eyes, I ready his plate of breakfast and set it in front of him. He devours it before the clock strikes eight.
“Why’d you make cakes, Daddy?” Jere wonders aloud, wiping his sticky mouth on his arm and hiccuping lightly. “They were so good.”
I smile, taking his plate to the sink and rinsing it off before the syrup’s stickiness overpowers the sink’s brush. Quickly trying to come up with an excuse, Jimmy saves me by saying, “Because he likes to spoil you, ya little brat.” I shoot him a glare from around the corner of the kitchen.
He holds up his hands in innocence and Jere laughs, running over to him and playfully punching him in the chest. “That’s,” hit, “not,” hit, “very,” hit, “nice,” hit, hit, “Jimmy.”
“Oof, oof, oof!” Jimmy feigns hurt, rolling off the couch and dramatically crying, “You win! I’m sorry, brother!” Jere smiles, obviously pleased, and crosses his arm across his chest. “Now get off me you little twerp,” Jimmy mumbles, gently pushing Jere over to where he could get back up on the couch without chance of being annoyed (again) by him.
“Good job, little man!” I call, and Jere looks at me with the epitome of happiness shining in his eyes. He giggles and runs over to me, giving me the biggest of high fives. I mess my hand through his hair and he sighs, a yawn escaping from him. Squatting down to his height, I ask the inevitable. “You want to go to the store with me?” He nods excitedly, his blue eyes shining once again, hopping up and down in excitement.
“Alright,” I sigh. “Let’s go get dressed.”
“I need to head over to Bentley’s,” I announce, looking down at Jimmy as he lounges on the couch in the same exact position I left him in when Jere and I left to go to the park and grocery store.
“You’re not leaving me with him again, are you?” I raise my eyebrows and purse my lips. “Dude, I took care of him all day yesterday.”
“Yes, and thank you,” I say, having to force the words out. It’s not considerably easy to thank a man like Jimmy. “But I need to go to work, and you’re the only person who can help out.”
“What about Debby?”
“She’s gonna help out on the weekdays.”
I owe so much to that woman; we wouldn’t be living this life without her in it. He grumbles incoherent words and I hurriedly think of something so that I can leave - I only have so much time to stop by Bentley’s before I can go to Cornelia’s Coffee Creation. My stomach swirls at the thought of heading there; I don’t know what I’ll do if Libby’s not there like she promised. When I’m with her.... I don’t know. It’s like I’m not me when I’m with her; like this isn’t my life.
“I’ll stop by Game Stop on the way home and get you a new game.”
He smirks. “Deal.”
I grin victoriously and call up the stairs, “Bye, Jere!”
“Bye, Daddy!” he calls back down from his room. He’s most likely playing with his action figures that Dad had left behind for him.
I grab my backpack and slide my arms through the straps. “Don’t get lost like yesterday,” Jimmy calls before I close the door.
I wave down a cab at the end of the street, slipping into the backseat and giving the driver the address to Juke Box Hero. This driver’s silent, unlike many of the grouchy men I usually end up opening the door to. She stops in front of the store and I hand her the money, stepping out of the cab and slamming the door shut.
But when I face the store again I feel a moment of hesitation; will Bentley be mad at me because I came back? I’m only getting my guitar, but can I even glance at him knowing I won’t see him again? Of course I’ll see him again, I assure myself. He is, after all, Jere’s “Baba.”
I roll my eyes at myself and open the door, finding Bentley sitting on the stool behind the counter, playing my guitar. I pause by the door, watching him carefully as he plucks the strings graciously with practiced fingers. “You’re late.”
I jump, his voice scaring me out of my reverie. “Late for what?” I ask, slipping my hands into my back pockets and sauntering closer to him.
He glances up from the guitar’s neck and looks me dead in the eye. “For work, what else?”
I furrow my eyebrows, completely confused and utterly speechless. “What work? I thought I was fired.” It’s not like the words he said yesterday were exactly easy to forget.
He shakes his head, grumbling incoherent words and setting my guitar back in its usual place behind the counter. “You must’ve misunderstood me, son.” He looks up and rests his arms on the counter, giving me a look of amusement and sadness. “You have the rest of the summer to try and get into a college. I don’t care how you do it, and I don’t care which one it is, but by the time the school year starts I don’t want you to be here - I want you to be getting a proper education.
I stare at him utterly confused. This was absolutely not the deal. But instead of arguing with his logic, I nod and ask, “May I at least have the rest of the day off?”
He notches an eyebrow. “So long as you want today’s work cut from your paycheck.”
“I’ll work twice as hard tomorrow - I swear it. But I made plans today with someone last night when I thought that I didn’t have a job anymore, and-”
“I guess you’ll just have to give them a rain check. Now go get to work.”
His words are final. There’s no getting out of it unless I really did want to be unemployed. My mind flickers back to Libby; there’s no hope that she’ll wait for me. I hope I’ll run into her somehow again - that she’ll find me like she did last night. I gulp and nod, following instructions and walking to the back of the store to the storage closet.