If lunches with Ray are the highlights of my days, then coming home in the evenings are definitely the exact opposite. Especially on Fridays. After six hours of school and four hours of serving food and cleaning tables in a cheap diner, and with another hour or so of homework ahead of me, the last thing I want to deal with is blatant stupidity. Conveniently enough, that’s exactly what is waiting for me at home. Every day.
I drop my things off in my bedroom and then let myself into the house through the back door. The door has barely swung shut behind me before I’m met with the typical greeting of, “Finally home, are ya?”
My oh-so-charming stepfather is settled in his favorite armchair in the TV room, enjoying his typical dinner of frozen pizza and protein shakes. Doug Murdoch is a former sports’ star gone way to seed, and he clings to the last traces of his former glory by coaching the high school football and wrestling teams to mediocre success. And judging by the slur in his voice, he is at least halfway through the alcohol left over from last weekend’s basketball watching party. I swallow back a groan as I slip into the adjoining kitchen; Doug is not a pleasant drunk.
“Yep, eight-thirty, same as every night,” I reply. I open the fridge, looking for something relatively palatable to eat. In among the TV dinners, energy drinks, and Budweiser, I find some leftover rice and vegetables I made a few nights ago. I dig it out of the back and put it in the microwave.
“Don’ gimme that attitude of yours,” Doug growls, a piece of half-chewed pizza crust flying out of his mouth and landing on his University of Washington sweatshirt. Form a line, ladies. “You think you’re so damn special, doncha? With all your books and readin’. Well none that don’ mean shit and you’re gonna get outta here and figure out you’re useless. And I don’ wanna hear nothin’...”
I tune out at that point, letting Doug continue to rant himself into silence while I watch the Tupperware bowl rotate in the microwave. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before, honestly. Every time he’s had a couple drinks he takes out his pent up aggression by insulting me. He doesn’t even bother to come up with new insults anymore so it’s just the same old slurs over and over.
He hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when we actually used to get along. I mean, we weren’t best friends or anything, but we were pretty good at tolerating each other. When he and my mom first got married, he was actually kinda cool. He didn’t give me as much trouble about not being athletic, and he’d even tried (unsuccessfully) to teach me how to not throw like a girl.
And then my mom died.
After that, Doug got angry. I did too, obviously. I mean, she was my mom. The difference was that I got over it. He didn’t, holding on to it with an iron grip and using it as an excuse to be an asshole all the time.
The microwave beeps out a weak, plaintive cry and I perk up. I grab the bowl out, hissing as the hot plastic stings my fingertips, and find a spoon from the drawer by the stove. I make it halfway to the back door when Doug points at me and yells, “Dishes!”
“What?” I ask, hoping he doesn’t mean what I think he means.
“S’yer turn,” he says, brandishing his beer bottle like a conductor’s baton as he sweeps it from me to the kitchen and back. “Get ’em done.”
“Oh c’mon, I just got home,” I say, glancing anxiously at the mound of dirty dishes in the sink. “I haven’t even eaten yet.”
“You were s’pose to do ’em this morning,” he said. “You get ’em done.”
I groan and go back into the kitchen. It hardly seems fair that I have to do the dishes in the first place, since I very rarely get to eat at home anyway. I abandon my dinner on the counter and tentatively approach the sink.
I’m not even sure if Sherlock Holmes himself could decipher what strange foodstuffs are caked onto those plates. As far as I can tell, it looks like deep-fried pizza covered in spaghetti and smothered in chili and cheese. The end result is a mass of maroon and brown sludge that is somehow equal parts rock solid and gelatinous, and smells distinctly like vomit. All in all, not the sort of thing one wants to stick their hands into.
Doug has mercifully returned to watching his sports replays and muttering to himself, so I’m left to shovel forkfuls of rice and soggy veggies into my mouth in between hardcore scrubbing sessions. Ten minutes and several questionable food stains later, a steady bass throbbing begins to vibrate in the walls which signals the imminent arrival of my step-brothers. Because I haven’t already coped with enough general idiocy for one night.
The two thundering behemoths that crash through the door from the garage look exactly like Doug did thirty years ago; big and broad with short blonde hair, watery, bleached eyes, and perpetual looks of aggressive stupidity. The only visible difference between the two is that Bruce, the younger by a mere seventeen months, is about two inches taller than Sylvester. And yes, they are in fact named after action movie stars. My best guess is that Doug thought it would make them them more badass.
Personally I would just stick with the ass part.
“Sup, faggot,” Sly says as he passes me, slugging me in the back of the shoulder so hard I nearly drop the slimy plate I’m holding. Bruce chuckles along as he copies the movement on my other shoulder. That is the general intelligence level of any interaction I’ve had with them since about seventh grade.
“What you boys home so early for?” Doug asks, sounding thoroughly disappointed that his progeny aren’t out tearing up the town.
“Just had to pick up some things and then we’re headed out again,” Sly says over his shoulder, already charging up the stairs to his room. “Party at Garrett’s.”
“The cheerleaders are all gonna be there,” Bruce chimes in eagerly and then makes what I assume is supposed to be a confidently seductive face. He looks like he’s having a stroke.
Remembering what Ray told me about Garrett Miller earlier this week, I hastily muffle a laugh. Doesn’t sound like the cheer squad is going to be leaving that party satisfied. Bruce casts a suspicious glance at me but I shrug and go back to cleaning. Before anyone can say more, Sly comes barreling down the steps into the main room again, none-too-conspicuously tucking something into the depths of his pockets.
“Right, we’re out,” he announces. “Later Dad.”
“See you boys,” Doug replies, his focus already back on ESPN.
Sly and Bruce slip through the kitchen and - after checking that Doug isn’t looking - grab one of the mostly-full bottles of vodka from the cupboard above the fridge. When he notices I’d seen, Sly steps up into my personal space and sneers. “You gonna narc?” he hisses, puffing himself up in a weak attempt at intimidation. He smells like tobacco and the heavy-duty mouthwash the kids from school use to mask their smoking. Needless to say, it doesn’t really work.
I snort and roll my eyes. “Please, my life would be better if you drank yourself to death.”
Bruce imitates Sly’s stance and leans in. “You’re such a fucking pussy,” he says. I’ve wondered more than once if there isn’t something seriously wrong with Bruce’s brain, because he doesn’t seem to be capable of independent thought. Everything he says and does is some sort of reflection of Sly, if not a massive exaggeration. He’s always the one to push it further, to pick more fights and womanize more girls and generally be even more of an all-around douche canoe.
Sly nods and grins, and with those clever parting words they leave. I wait until the bass beat, which has been running the whole three minutes they’ve been home, fades away down the block before going back to my dinner and the dishes. By the time I’ve put the last of them away Doug is snoring loudly in his armchair. I wash my hands a good twelve times and then escape into the backyard.
The daily rain has faded into a light drizzle, leaving behind just the heavy smell of damp earth. I take a deep breath and wrinkle my nose when I realize I can still smell the stink of the dishes. I look down at my work tee-shirt and wince; there’s several tacky patches of fabric across my abdomen, stained a sickly red-brown. “Great,” I grumble, tentatively touching one of the spots. It’ll definitely need to be washed - probably multiple times - before I go back to work on Sunday morning. As I mount the steps up to my room, I tug my shirt over my head.
Still clutching it in one hand, I push open the door and then immediately backpedal. “Jesus Christ,” I shout in alarm. There is someone sitting on the bed and it takes me five seconds too long to figure out who it is. “God, Ray, are you trying to kill me?”
Ray has doubled over laughing, now sprawled across the bed and staring at me sideways through smile-creased eyes. “You’re so jumpy,” she responds in amusement. “And isn’t it still a bit cold to be walking around shirtless?”
I glance down at my bare torso and then fold my arms across my chest awkwardly, feeling the heat rise on the back of my neck. “Oh shut up,” I snap, for lack of a better response, as I finally enter the room and close the door behind me.
Ray breaks into another fit of giggles and I toss my dirty shirt in the basket. “Very eloquent, Shakespeare,” she notes. “What took you? I got here right after you should’ve been off work.”
“Dishes,” I say. “And they were foul.”
“Gross,” she replies, wrinkling her nose. “Well trust me, I’ve got something to make you feel better.”
“You’re going to move so I can go to bed?” I suggest hopefully, heading for the dresser in search of a shirt that doesn’t smell like dumpster juice.
“Don’t be such a baby,” she says dismissively. “It’s not even ten, it’s a Friday night, and I know for a fact you don’t have to work tomorrow.”
“That’s why I was planning on sleeping in,” I point out but I’ve already resigned myself. Once Ray gets an idea in her head nothing short of divine intervention can get her to let it go, and sometimes even Jesus is helpless against her determination. I always pretend to be reluctant but really some of the best nights of my life have come from Ray’s boredom. Some of the most terrifying too, but that’s a different story. “Were you that bored at home?”
“Absolutely,” she says and huffs dramatically. “Mom and Dad are gone for the weekend and Yas is at some party, no doubt with her legs up around some linebacker’s neck.”
I walk over and sit down on the bed by her hip. “Okay, what’s your big plan then?”
“I told you, I brought some things to cheer you up,” she says and bounces up off the bed, smoothing out her skirt. She walks over to the desk where an enormous canvas tote bag is sitting on the floor and drags it back to the bed. Then she hurries over and locks the bedroom door before coming back and jumping onto the bed. “I always love a little espionage before bed.”
“Should I be afraid?” I ask curiously, arching an eyebrow at her behavior. She’s always a little weird but sometimes she gets weirder than usual and it results in crazy happening. Crazy rarely ends well. The last time crazy happened I got a lift home from Tickuma PD and a six-month grounding from Doug the Slug.
“Of course not,” she says, giving me a strange look. She folds her legs up beneath her and then rummages in the bag. “Ready?” And she draws out a large bottle of Captain Morgan, the amber liquid sloshing inside the glass.
“How did you get your hands on that?” I ask in awe.
“You know how lenient my dad is on things like this,” she says. “As long as we promise not to drive or have sex, he doesn’t care if we drink. Well normally he prefers we do it in the house, but I figured this was okay. So I took this from the cabinet before coming over.” She hands the bottle to me with a pointed look so I can twist the cap off for her.
We’ve done this a couple times before, always in her basement. Normally it’s just a couple wine coolers or hard lemonade, stuff with an alcohol content that is hardly negligible. We never drink enough to get anything more than buzzed, never leave where we’re at until we’ve sobered, and most importantly never do stupid things we might regret in the morning. Although an ill-advised game of truth-or-dare nearly ruined that last one once.
“I have a hard time believing that your dad is so chill,” I say skeptically as I break the seal on the bottle.
“You just say that because you’re scared of him,” she says.
“I am not,” I say defensively.
If we’re being completely honest, I’m terrified of her dad. He’s six and a half feet tall, with a head like an Easter Island statue and a glare that could traumatize even the bravest guy. Also he hates me. Might be because I’m a boy and he doesn’t trust me around his daughter on default. Or it might be because all through junior high I had a massive crush on her that was obvious to everyone in the world except her. Probably that one, actually, come to think of it.
“So, what’s the occasion?” I ask before taking a swallow of the bright amber liquid. It burns a bit on the way down but it sends pulsing rushes of warmth through my body. “You got good stuff this time.”
“Oh I dunno, I can come up with something,” she says, plucking the bottle from my hand and sipping from it. She shudders as she swallows and then giggles. “The end of spring break, the fact that we’ve only got a few weeks left in this stupid school. The fact that I finally convinced you to go to a dance.”
“You’re real proud of that, aren’t you?” I ask in amusement.
“Incredibly,” she says smugly. She passes the bottle to me and I take another, deeper swallow. “Oh I brought something else to make you feel better.” She reaches into the tote bag and then produces a bulk-sized package of gummy bears.
“You’re ridiculous,” I say even as I grin. Gummy bears have become something of an inside joke between us. Opening night of her first leading role in a play, our final year of junior high, I had wanted to get her flowers but I’d only had a dollar twenty-five. Instead of the flowers, I’d bought the first thing I could find that was in my price range, and that just so happened to be a snack bag of gummy bears. Every occasion since then we had bought them for each other.
“I can eat them by myself if you don’t want any,” she says and shrugs. I know better than to fall for her theatrics so I reach over and trade the bottle for the bag. I tear the bag open and then lay it on the blanket between us, and we both lay on our backs to eat them. “Knew you’d come around,” she says, rolling her head to look at me and smirking. In response, I throw a gummy bear at her forehead.
For a long time we just lay there in the quiet, listening to the tap of the light rain on the roof and the branches of the elm tree tapping against the window, sharing the bag of candy and the spiced rum. This isn’t unusual for us, simply existing in the same space. Sometimes we just need a little peace. I let my mind wander as I stare up at the wooden rafters, aimlessly chewing the gelatin bears into a paste.
Ray startles me out of my musings when she suddenly rolls onto her side, propping her head up on her elbow to see me better. “So I read your new post,” she says casually.
I’d finally finished up my newest blog post that morning and submitted it just before school, a lengthy evaluation of the inadequacies of the education system in preparing us for the real world and in its limited abilities to nurture all types of talents and aspirations instead of just those that steered toward menial, traditional jobs. It ended with my own personal struggle with finding the help and guidance I needed to fulfill my own career, and the constant worry that I was doing the wrong thing in following it. The whole thing ended up being much more open than I normally was and had left me feeling a bit vulnerable, but I was too pleased with the way it turned out to delete it.
“Yeah?” I prompt, unsurprised by her admission but nervous all the same. It’s more daunting to have something so honest read by someone who actually knows me instead of just the faceless screen names on the internet who occasionally comment. I can’t bring myself to turn and face her, watching her out of my periphery as I lift myself up on an elbow and take a long drink of the rum.
“How can you write something so brilliant and still not believe that you’ll get somewhere as a writer?” she asks, fixing her piercing, pale gray eyes on me so intently that I can feel it. “I don’t understand you sometimes, Jakey.”
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. “So, you liked it then?” I ask.
“Of course I did,” she says breezily. “I keep telling you you’re an amazing writer and that was some of your best. You’re normally a bit disconnected and sarcastic, but that was - genuine. You write your book with that much conviction and people will be falling over themselves to publish you.”
I snort. “Yeah, if I can actually think up a book to write,” I say dryly. I’ve tried several different times to write a novel but I never had much luck with it. I’ve come up with dozens of ideas and even started a couple of them but I inevitably get frustrated and give up on them. My computer hard drive is filled with countless first chapters for novels that will never get finished. It doesn’t matter the genre or plot, they always seem fake and contrived once I start putting them on paper. None of them felt right, in the end.
“You’ll figure it out,” Ray says unconcernedly, reaching across to pat my hand. She then promptly snatches the bottle away from me for herself.
The rain sets in properly outside and Ray settles herself more comfortably on the bed, using my stomach as a pillow and dragging my throw blanket over her as the temperature drops in the thinly insulated loft room. We’ve finished a good half of the rum bottle and I’m feeling pleasantly fuzzy and contented. Definitely toeing that delicate line between tipsy and drunk, just out of it enough for the world to start looking fascinating and slantwise.
“Hmm, I love th’sound of the rain ’n’ere,” Ray murmurs, her head a comfortable weight on my stomach as she rolls onto her side to face me. I fold my arms beneath my head for leverage and squint down at her. “Rain on wood, s’pretty.”
“You’re drunk,” I say with a laugh. It takes a certain level of inebriation for Ray to lose the excellent diction that years of theatre has impressed into her. We drank relatively the same amount but I have a good six inches and twenty pounds on her that works in my favor.
“No,” she retorts indignantly and then seems to pause and consider it. “Maybe a li’l. S’fine. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Damn right you’re not,” I say. Ray giggles and nuzzles her head into a better position. “But thanks,” I add and see her wide gray eyes open curiously. “I do feel better.”
“S’cause you’re drunk too,” she slurs with a smile. “And ’cause I’m awesome and the bestest best friend of all time.” I chuckle at her complete lack of modesty, but I’m silenced when she reaches up and threads her hand with mine. “You’re a real close second though,” she finishes and squeezes my fingers.
In another time, a few years ago, having her look at me like that would’ve sent my stomach into backflips and all the other horrible things that happen when you’re attracted to someone. I remember countless little touches that had crushed me in waves of nausea and butterflies and blushing. A few years ago, a smile from her made my entire day. It’s hard not to be attracted to her, really. She’s the real life version of the manic pixie dream girl; that girl who is so incredibly fascinating that everyone loves her, but she doesn’t quite belong to this world so no one actually gets her.
I thought for a while that I might’ve had a chance. After all, no one in the world has ever been there for me so unconditionally since my mom died. The only reason I gave up was that Ray insisted that she didn’t want a relationship of any kind; it isn’t fitting for people of the arts, she says. She is content with the unattached lifestyle of the rich and famous, while I’ve always leaned more towards monogamy and 'til death do us part. I accept that nothing like that is going to happen between us, whether I want it to or not.
Besides, she really is the bestest best friend, as she declared herself. It isn’t worth risking that on a relationship I know would be doomed from the start.
So I return the squeeze of her hand and smile. “Yeah, love you too, Ray.”
She giggles even as her eyes are drifting shut, the warm weight of the alcohol dragging her down into the embrace of sleep. I smile, rubbing my thumb across her knuckles in a steady rhythm, and let myself float away too.