Chapter 37: Liam
It’s Jere’s third week back at school, the first grade, and not having him within arms-reach gives me the type of loneliness I try to avoid by all means. Without Libby around to hold my hand at least once more, or surprise me with a casual peck on the cheek, Jere has been my everything. He always has been, but now I think he’s starting to see me as overbearing and possibly annoying.
The sound of Libby’s name has been lost on my lips for two months now, but everyone else has conversations about her like she’s never left.
Have you heard from Libby? How is she? Is she going to that college? The one her dad wanted her to go to, or the one she actually wants to go to? What is Texas like? How’s her mom?
I’m on my way back to the shop while these thoughts come to mind. These questions haven’t been asked, besides the first one - and the answer is plain: No. No, she has not reached out to any of us since she’s been gone. It’s like we’re now nothing compared to the grand scheme of things - just like her father said.
I hope she’s happy.
Maybe she has a boyfriend now. One that smiles at her like she’s the world, and doesn’t make pitiful deals with her father for information on their dead parents. If they’re even dead at all.
Cal has called, but I’ve never answered - even with the possibility of it being Libby, I try to avoid picking up the phone with that caller-ID.
I’ve thought about a lot of things over the last two months, and have remembered every moment, every touch she gave me in her presence.
And I’ve come to realize that her dad was right - she deserves better than everything we can offer her in our world.
And I think she’s finally realized that, too.
I didn’t know Bentley was sick until the first day we had the courage of going to Cornelia’s again.
“Wanna go grab coffee with me?” he asks me one day while I’m in the back room, trying to clean and sort out the disheveled pile of CD cases and vinyls for once. I don’t hear his question at first, as he asked from the front counter of the shop, but when he shuffles up to the door and asks again, I can’t help think about the last time I went there with him - the day I met Libby.
I hesitate, but the look in his chalky gray eyes tells me that it’s not a question on whether I’m going or not. Nodding, I stand up from my position on the floor and follow him out of the closet and to the front counter where my bag is kept.
“Is everything okay, Bentley?” I can’t help but ask as we exit the store together, him locking the door as we’re the only employees who work here.
I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary about him, but now that we’re talking one-on-one for the first time in a while, I begin to notice the changes. The way he walks - it’s more of a slower shuffle; the way he breathes - faster, almost a wheeze; the way he talks - his voice more cracked than its usual hoarseness.
But he only says, “Let’s wait ’til we get some coffee in our system before we talk ’bout this crap,” and continues to slowly shuffle beside me. This doesn’t alarm me at all.
As our feet pat against the cool pavement and the wind blows us a small breeze, I’m reminded once again of how it’s no longer summer. It’s almost every day that I have to convince myself to be in the here-and-now, but... how can I do that when everything is so shitty these days?
Jimmy is bringing a guy over for dinner tonight to meet “The Family” (A.K.A., Jere and me); Jere is on the Honor Roll’s list for the first grading period; Debby is coming over to the shop more frequently, towing behind home-cooked meals for my house; and Bentley is... well, he’s about to tell me, it seems.
When I find that we are approaching the cafe, I hurriedly hold the glass-paneled door open for him. He gives me the tip of his invisible fedora and winks before walking into the cozy shop.
My first step onto the brown carpet brings back all of these feelings inside me, awakening parts of me that have been hiding for so long, and when Bentley claps me on the back I know that this feeling is mutual.
“Get me my ushe,” he says as he slides his hand off my back and hobbles over to the same table by the window we sat at all those months ago.
“Mr. Nottes!” My head snaps to the sound of my name, stunned to hear it coming from someone in this shop. But when I see that it’s the woman who works here, Jenny, who called, I find myself smiling.
It’s not often you find a face that you enjoy seeing, but don’t know. Jenny is just one of those people. I don’t know her - hell, I’ve only seen her that once - but seeing her familiar face again is what I surprisingly need at this very moment.
“Hey,” I say, my mouth forming a half-smile. “I’ll, uh, get Be-”
“Mr. Bentley’s ushe?” she laughs, and it’s cute - one of those laughs that chime, almost musically. “I’ll get right on it.”
She doesn’t even take the time to type it into the register, but instead begins brewing the old man’s coffee. “What’s the total?”
She waves me off with her hand and grins at me. “He’s already paid.”
I’m about to ask how when she takes the mug with the knitted-sweater on it and places it on the counter in front of me. Completely baffled, I ask, “What the hell is this?”
Another laugh. “A coffee-cozy!”
I must’ve given her a look because her laugh only grows louder. ”Okay,” I draw out as I slowly take the cozied-up coffee mug from the counter to take to Bentley.
“Talk to you later, maybe?” she calls after me as her laughter dies.
This makes me smile. “Maybe.”
When I make it to the table and carefully set the mug in front of him, Bentley gives me a half-hearted smile in a silent thanks. I slide onto the chair, somehow a little more perked up than I was before, but when I glance back up and see - really see - my boss with the most lost expression in his eyes, my heart drops.
“What is it?” I find myself asking after a few long moments of silence. I need him to talk. He gives me another half-smile, his thin lips stretching to where it looks almost painful. His eyes aren’t crinkled though, so I know that the smile isn’t real. His eyes are always crinkled. “Bentley.”
“Son...” he says, but then stops with a sigh. It’s like this conversation, despite us sitting down, is exhausting him. “Son,” he tries again, and his gray eyes flicker to my blue ones and then away, as if it physically pains him to look at me. “My lungs are collapsing.”
He must take this as an act of shock, and maybe it is, because he continues. “I know this isn’t exactly an... ideal way to die-”
“Ideal?” I repeat, astonished with his choice of wording. I shake my head, my hair brushing my forehead. It’s getting long now, and this is the only thought that processes through my head as he continues. Fuck it, I’m gonna shave it when I get home.
He sighs again and I can tell that this may be harder for him to tell me than it is for me to hear it. “Nottes, I’m checking out. And I’d like to give Juke’s to you, but... remember the last time we were here? I know you do.”
I don’t acknowledge him. I just keep staring at the stupid motherfucking coffee-cozy.
“I want for you to go to college.”
“If you don’t find yourself a college to go to, you’ll have to find a new job instead, ’cause I’m not employing idiots.”
I’ve completely forgotten about that word - not a thought towards it since that measly hour before Libby saved my sorry ass. “I can’t.”
I can almost hear Bentley roll his eyes. “We are not having this quarrel again.”
I notch an eyebrow and look at him. “‘Quarrel?’”
He shrugs. “Urban dictionary.”
“Anyways,” he grunts, “you’re going.”
“Over my dead body,” I try and retort, but it comes out weak.
“Actually, over mine."
This stops me. “What?”
He grumbles something under his breath, something like “dumbass,” but I ignore it when he tells me once more, “I’m dying.”
I didn’t know Bentley was sick until today.
But a part of me wishes that I’d never known at all.