Quarter Life Crisis: Step Three: Support

-8-

“I’m so fucking tired of this shit,” Marcus says.

“Tell me about it,” Sean mutters, turning the corner onto Richmond Drive.

There’s a moment of silence and Sean peeks over at his brother who’s watching him with a curious expression.

“I mean,” Sean says, shrugging. “Whatever.”

“Right,” Marcus says, shaking his head and turning to look out the  window.

They make another right onto Galloway, the main road leading to their parents’ house in Pinecrest. Sean glances at Marcus again, studying him sitting in the passenger seat, book bag lying across his lap like a blanket, t-shirt sticking to his skinny-but-muscular frame. On the shirt, Bob Marley’s smoking a joint the size of Sean’s arm, and he wonders if that’s what got Marcus suspended. But his brother’s smarter than that. Even if he seems to be trying as hard as he can not to act like it.

Sometime in the past couple of years, Marcus managed to switch from the hyperactive, enthusiastic, annoying adolescent he used to be, into the prototypical angry teenage fuckhead that he is right now; straight out of a Hot Topic catalog, complete with the chain-link hanging from his skinny jeans’ waist, a closet full of band t-shirts and a collection of multi-genre fuck-the-world music that puts Sean’s own iTunes library to shame.

About a year ago, Marcus caught their parents in a moment when they weren’t really paying attention to what he was saying (that’s the only way Sean can see it playing out) and managed to convince them to let him gauge his ear (for the uninitiated, gauging is basically the same thing as getting earrings, only replace the earring itself with a cork-like apparatus that stretches the hole in your ear to the point that you can stick a finger through it. Or two, or three. They smell like shit too). Their mother told Marcus to get the smallest one he could, which he did. For about a week. At which point he promptly moved up two sizes and got one of his friends at school to add in two studs on the top of each earlobe and an eyebrow ring and he claims he’s getting a nose ring next and Sean swears his brother’s going to look like a can opener soon if he keeps this shit up. On the very few occasions Sean comes over to the house to hang out, he always catches his mom glaring at Marcus like she wants to rip the piercings out with their dad’s pliers. It all gives Marcus this sort of crazy S&M look, but he can pretty much pull off anything he wants, which is one of the many differences between them.

Sean wants to say something to get Marcus talking, but he looks like he’s about to murder a puppy or something. If he scowls any harder, his eyebrows and lips are going to touch.

“You look pissed,” Sean says.

“Fuck ‘em. Fuck everybody. Everything. I’m tired of this shit. I just want to get the fuck out of here.”

“Out of where?” Sean asks.

Marcus throws his hands around the car.

“Here,” he yells.

“My car?” Sean says. “You’re the one who asked me to pick you up.”

“No, asshole,” he says. “Miami.”

“Gonna be kind of hard if you keep getting suspended.”

“I didn’t do anything,” he mutters. “Was just minding my own business.”

“I think they stopped punishing people for minding their own business,” Sean says. “For a while now, actually. Been—a couple of decades, at least.”

“All I did,” Marcus starts, pointing at Sean as he talks, “was expose the huge flaw that is today’s education system. If they don’t want people like me to take advantage of their loopholes, then they need to look at themselves and realize their inner workings are seriously defective.” He takes a deep breath before continuing. “These imperialistic institutions aren’t preparing us for anything but disappointment with their…lackadaisical approach to security and freedom. All they care about is order and conformity, and it’s pathetic.”

Sean ponders that for a moment, wondering if he and this kid are actually related.

“Preach on, brother,” he says.

“Fuck you,” Marcus says. “Fuck them, fuck it all to fucking fuckville.”

Sean’s brother in a nutshell: raging bag of hormones, revolutionary-speak, and profanity. The teenage Che Guevara with Tourette’s.

“I’m still lost as to why you’re even here right now,” Sean says.

“I just told you.”

“Really?” Sean asks. “I’m sorry, I guess I wasn’t paying attention then. I missed the part where you told me why you just got suspended for the third time this year.”

“God,” he says, turning and looking out the window again. “You sound just like Mom and Dad.”

The thought makes Sean shiver.

“Fine,” he says. “I won’t judge you. I’m just saying, if you want out of here, you might want to straighten up.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I’m one hundred percent sure Mom and Dad are going to disagree.”

“Mom will be over it by time I get home,” he says, then sighs the world-weary sigh only teenagers and old people can get away with. “Dad’s another story. He’s going to throw a shit fit.”

“Which leads me to ask, once again,” Sean says. “What the hell did you do?”

“Took some blank hall passes,” he mumbles.

“You took blank hall passes?”

He nods.

“And they suspended you for that?” Sean says. “How long?”

“Two weeks.”

“You got two weeks suspension for stealing hall passes?”

“From the storage closet,” he adds. “And a signature stamp from Cohen.”

Sean remembers Cohen. James Cohen to be exact, P.E. teacher and football coach; a tall, perpetually sunburned man in his early fifties with a loud, raspy voice who walks permanently hunched over like somebody shoved a metal rod up his ass then bent the shit out of it. Sean thought Coach Cohen had retired already, but he obviously hasn’t gotten tired of scaring the shit out of people’s children.

“You stole hall passes and a signature stamp?”

“Can you stop repeating everything I say in the form of a question?” he says, giving Sean a shot of his scowl. “It’s really annoying.”

“I’m sorry,” Sean says. “I’m just trying to get this straight. You stole some blank hall passes and a stamp to validate them.” Sean considers that for a second. “I get the appeal, and why Lawson would be pissed.” He glances at Marcus. “But two weeks’ outdoor suspension seems kinda…”

“Excessive?” Marcus says.

Sean nods. Marcus rubs his palms against his legs.

“I stole them three months ago,” he says.

Sean should’ve known it would be like this. Getting Marcus to tell you an entire story is like pulling teeth. Out of a lion’s mouth. While he’s awake and not sedated.

“Ok,” Sean says, trying to find some redeeming quality in the admission. “That was three months ago. Why punish you now?”

“I’ve been selling them.”

“You’ve been selling stolen hall passes?” Sean yells.

“You’re doing it again,” Marcus yells back.

“Marcus,” Sean says, throwing his hands up. The car swerves and he grabs the steering wheel and groans loudly. “Can you just come out and fucking say it then?”

“I stole a bunch of hall passes, stamped them, and sold them, okay?” he yells, then twitches around in his seat angrily for a moment before settling back down in his original position with his arms crossed.

Sean lets that sit for a moment, then clears his throat.

“How much is ‘a bunch’?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” Marcus grumbles. “A box of them. Like three hundred or something.”

“Three hundred,” Sean says, nodding. “How many did you actually sell?”

“I don’t know,” Marcus says, shrugging. “Most of them. People came by my locker between classes to put in orders, five dollars per pass.” There’s pride in his voice when he says that last part. Marcus, the young entrepreneur. The math on that says he’s made over a thousand dollars from this scheme. Sean can’t help but admire the little bastard.

“You’re right,” Sean says, shaking his head. “Dad is going to throw a shit fit.”

They drive in silence for a while through the back streets near Sideview High, and eventually Sean just turns the radio up, nodding his head to some new Flo Rida song as they pass upper-middle-class house after upper-middle-class house in the Pinecrest area.

Miami is sectioned like this: mini-cities in the larger city itself. When people who aren’t from Miami ask Sean where he’s from, he says Miami and leaves it at that. But people from Miami always follow up with “which part.” Anybody from around here knows that “which part” tells a lot about you. People from Little Havana (Northern Cuba) are way different than people from Homestead (Nascar’s got a track down there, and up until a decade or so ago it was mostly farmland, so you get the picture), who are a shit ton different than people from Little Haiti (self explanatory) or Kendall (People who want to look like they have money even though they typically don’t have any and receive a pile of credit card bills every month) or even West Kendall (People who want to live in Miami but came into the housing market too late to get anything near the main part of the city). So, pretty much, living in Miami is like living in a mini-continent. Sean thought this was all normal until he left for FSU, got to Tallahassee and realized America is America and Miami is…some other shit.

Sean’s parents and Marcus live in Pinecrest, one of the more affluent areas in South Miami, even though the prestige comes with its own brand of annoyance. Pinecrest has its own private police department, complete with gray cars (as opposed to the white and green vehicles issues to Miami Dade’s real Police Department) and, from what Sean can tell, Pinecrest cops’ jobs pretty much consist of hiding around corners and trees and bushes with radar guns, pulling people over for going half a mile over the speed limit.

Sean sets his cruise control at exactly thirty-miles-per-hour and leans back, watching the trees that shade each front yard pass lazily by. He’s about five blocks away from his parents’ house when he glances at Marcus and sees every muscle in his brother’s body tense with apprehension. There’s a thin layer of sweat on his forehead, and Sean’s about to ask him what’s wrong when he realizes he knows what’s wrong: he’s taking Marcus home. Dropping him off at one o’clock, so Marcus can wait the three hours for their parents to come home and bitch him out. Which sounds like hell to Sean. So he slows down and makes a u-turn, headed back South to Cutler Bay, towards his job and the mall.

Marcus doesn’t say anything, but Sean can see his body relax and the tension in the car lifts a little, Marcus’s shoulders loosening up as he leans back into the passenger seat. Sean feels this small wrenching in his gut when he looks at his brother. As much as he doesn’t want to, he understands why Marcus stole the hall passes. For high school students, popularity’s a valuable commodity, arguably more influential than money itself, and operating under the same dynamics: hard to obtain, easy as shit to lose. To Sean it seems like trying to be popular in high school is kind of like trying to pay off the national debt with a summer job at Wal-Mart: you’re not going to get anywhere unless you start stealing some shit and screwing people over.

Sean tries to remember what it was like for him in high school, if he ever tried to get up there in the popularity rankings. All he sees though is himself lying on the bed in his old room at his parents’ house, staring at the ceiling and wondering if he’d survive long enough to get out of here, the same “here” his brother wants to get out of.

Sean doesn’t think that’s something he should share with Marcus though, him being all young and impressionable and shit. They come to a red light and Sean clears his throat, turns the radio down.

“You know,” he says, searching for something inspirational. He’s got nothing though, so he just says, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

“What doesn’t?” Marcus asks, eyes closed.

“High school,” he says. “It can actually be more fun than not.”

Marcus turns his intense, hazel eyes on Sean, staring until Sean looks away sheepishly, remembering how he couldn’t make eye contact with Derek last night either. Marcus’s jaw line’s got peach fuzz around the edges, his hair cut so short it’s sticking straight up like a baby bird. It’s weird whenever Sean sees him up this close, because they look almost exactly like each other, a weird combo of their mom’s thin nose (Mom’s British, transplanted to the U.S. as a teenager in the 70’s) and their dad’s wide mouth (Dad’s Jamaican, also transplanted to the U.S. as a teenager in the 70’s) and pretty much right in the middle of their polar opposite skin tones.

“Was it more fun than not for you?” Marcus asks.

And the way he says it, Sean can’t tell if his brother’s being sarcastic or not, so he pauses. Marcus catches the hesitation and chuckles, looking out the window.

“Thought so,” he says.

Sean wants to say something back but the light turns green so he uses driving as an excuse to drop the subject, weaving through the back streets at the edge of Pinecrest, into Cutler Bay and out to US-1 towards Southland Mall.


-9-

Calling Caitlyn—cursing at her voicemail then hanging up and trying again—Lauren doesn’t notice she’s driving to Rick’s job until she’s sitting outside, staring up at the large “Kendall Toyota” sign out front. And, as luck would have it, the moment she does notice is when Caitlyn decides to answer the phone.

“What the fuck, Lauren?” she hisses, her voice low. “I’m at work.”

“What time do you get off?” Lauren asks, her voice monotone.

“In like an hour,” she says. “What’s wrong?”

“Can we meet after?” Lauren asks.

Caitlyn pauses for a moment, and Lauren’s afraid for a second that her sister’s going to decline.

“Sure,” Caitlyn says finally. “What’s wrong though?”

“I’ll tell you later,” she says quietly. “Meet me at Shambles when you get out.”

Lauren hangs up and sits for a moment, closing her eyes and taking deep breaths and waiting for her heart to slow down before she steps out of the car. Looking up at the building, she barely sees the words “Kendall” or “Toyota” anymore. All she sees is Rick. This place reeks of him, just embodies his very essence, from the cars displayed out front to the posters inside of mechanics working in factories.

Rick’s worked here since his sophomore year in college, originally as a mechanic’s apprentice with the intention of branching out and opening his own shop. That never happened, but he eventually became a full mechanic and works now in the maintenance bay doing engine work on pre-owned certified whatevers.

Lauren gets a head start in the parking lot, so she’s already full steam by time she reaches the main showroom. The receptionist frowns and purses her lips when Lauren storms past her towards the maintenance bay. Inside, she looks around for just a second before she sees Rick’s familiar head of shaggy blonde hair and approaches him.

Rick turns when Lauren’s about five feet away and his eyes light up, his face breaking into a smile. The sight of him makes her queasy.

“Babe,” he says, wiping his greasy hands with a towel, his face streaked with sweat. His jumpsuit is taut against his slight paunch, and the way he’s standing with his back arched so that his pelvis is thrust forward makes him look like his name should be Earl or something. It’s not that he’s gotten fat, he’s just out of shape, soft in places where he used to be rock hard. Lauren takes comfort in this as she stares daggers into his forehead.

“Hi, Rick,” she says curtly. Rick’s smile drops.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

“We need to talk,” she says. A few of the mechanics are chuckling and joking around with each other while others peer into the engines of various Toyotas and Lexuses and Scion. None of them seem to notice Lauren’s even there, much less how upset she is. Or maybe they do and they just don’t care. “Right now,” she adds.

“Yeah, but,” he pauses, glancing back at the car behind him. “I’m kind of busy. Can it wait until I get home?”

God she wants to hit him.

“No.”

Rick opens his mouth to protest but must see something in Lauren’s face that stops him. His pupils dilate and she wonders if he’s thinking about Natalie at this moment, if he can see what’s coming his way.

“Okay,” he says. “Give me a minute.” He points at a door near the side of the garage, a window next to it looking into a small room with a desk and another door on the other side leading out to the main dealership floor. “Go in Mike’s office. He’s gone for the day.”

Mike is Rick’s boss, a six-foot-tall, sixty-year-old head mechanic with pitch black skin who talks like he always has food in his mouth and shows Lauren pictures of his grandchildren every time she comes to visit. She likes Mike and wishes she didn’t have to confront Rick in his office.

Lauren walks in and sits in a chair across from the desk, fiddling with her purse. Seconds later she notices that her foot is shaking so much it’s like her leg is having a seizure. She readjusts herself and waits. Rick comes in two minutes later and pulls a rolling chair around the desk, sitting in it backwards and facing her.

“Okay,” he says. “What happened?”

Lauren doesn’t know if it’s the time she was in here by herself or what, but she’s suddenly lost for words. She knows what she came over here to confront Rick about, obviously. And she was all set to do it when she saw him out in the maintenance bay with the other mechanics standing around and the knowledge in her head that accusing Rick of fucking another woman in front of them would embarrass the shit out of him. But here, by themselves, it’s more of a personal issue. It’s something strictly between him and her. And she doesn’t want anything personal with Rick right now.

“Never mind,” she says, standing to leave. Rick grabs her hand and it takes everything for her not to throw it off.

“Babe,” he says, chuckling. “What the hell? What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m leaving,” she blurts out, shaking her head. “For a little while. Couple of days at least. And I’m taking Justin.”

Rick’s mouth drops open and he lets go of her hand, his eyelids fluttering. His greasy forehead actually brings out the blue in his eyes, which does nothing to help Lauren’s conviction. She continues to shake her head as if it will give her strength.

“I’m going to stay with my mother,” she continues. “Maybe a couple of weeks, or with Caitlyn maybe, I don’t know yet. I don’t know what—I’m just leaving.”

Lauren’s breathing hard now, the sound of her inhalations and exhalations the only sound in the room for a moment.

“You’re,” Rick says, pausing. “Leaving?”

“Yes, Rick.”

“Like—leaving leaving?”

Lauren groans.

“But,” he says, the confusion in his voice giving way to fear, making him sound like a little boy. “But, why?”

“You know why, Rick,” she says.

Which gets a contemptuous bark of laughter out of him.

“No, actually, Lauren. I have no fucking clue what the hell is going on right now.”

He’s good, Lauren has to admit. For a second, she wonders if she’s making a mistake. Maybe she walked into somebody else’s apartment earlier this afternoon. Or maybe it was her place, and maybe Natalie was fucking somebody else in her son’s room. Maybe—

Lauren squeezes her eyes shut until the cloudiness goes away. She’s not crazy. She knows what she saw. When she opens her eyes again, everything’s clear. She smiles at Rick and her heart quickens pace, her stomach, nose and lips going numb.

Anger. Pure, unadulterated anger. It’s the strongest the emotion’s hit her since she walked in on Rick and Natalie, and it sure beats being sad. She forgot how empowering rage like this can be.

“You’re telling me you have no clue why your wife would come to your job and tell you that she’s leaving?” Lauren cocks her head to the side. “No clue at all? I’ll give you two guesses.”

“Seriously, babe,” Rick says, smiling. And she wants to punch him in the face. Right between the eyes. She wants to aim for the bridge of his nose and punch him there with every ounce of strength in her body, so it hurts him for weeks afterwards. “I really don’t know what’s going on,” he says. “But if you just calm down, we can talk about it rationally. I’m sure there’s an explanation for whatever’s going on.”

And Lauren opens her mouth right then with the intention of lying to him and telling she fucked somebody else too. The idea just pops into her head and takes hold, and for a moment she can even see it actually happening. She sees herself kissing the guy at her job earlier, Linus, going back to his place and making out in the living room before moving to his room, leaving a stream of clothes in their wake. She sees this, and she wants to tell Rick about it, in detail. That is her full intention when she opens her mouth, some instinctual urge to hurt him like he’s hurting her. But the moment she imagines herself in somebody else’s bed, her anger loses steam and she only lets out a slight whimper. Plopping back into the chair, she drops her head, a lump rising in her throat. She bites her tongue, swallowing thickly.

“I saw you,” she whispers.

“What?” Rick says. Then, noticing her expression, he gets up from his chair and crouches in front of her, so his face is level with hers and about a foot away. This is a bad move on his part, especially when he says: “Babe, saw me what?”

“Don’t ‘babe’ me,” she yells, jumping up. “I saw you!”

“Saw me what?” he yells back. “Saw me where?”

“With Natalie!” Lauren laughs, and the gesture hurts her face. “In Justin’s fucking room. Where the hell else, Rick?”

There’s silence for a minute, Rick standing there shuffling his feet as Lauren turns away, looking out the office window out into the mechanics’ bay. A few of Rick’s coworkers crane their necks to see her and Rick in the office, and suddenly she has the audience she wanted when she came in.

“She’s eighteen,” she spits. “Barely even eighteen. And she’s our son’s babysitter.”

Ricks mouth hanging open, there’s this little clicking noise coming from the back of his throat as his mind works for an excuse, like his whole body’s had a system crash and is rebooting to come at this all again.

“I—” he starts.

“I trusted you,” Lauren says. “I trusted her. With my family.”

“Lauren—”

“How long?” she asks.

“What?”

“How long, Rick.”

Rick stutters and shrugs and Lauren laughs.

“Don’t act like you don’t know,” she says. “You’re the numbers guy, remember? Never forgets a date? Always knows how much money’s in your pocket? So goddamn sweet with all your anniversaries and Mother’s Days and all that bullshit!” Lauren laughs again—cackles, actually—and even she has to admit she sounds crazy. But she can’t stop herself.

“Three months,” he says quietly, to the floor. He raises his head slowly until his eyes meet hers, then his face sort of deteriorates into this grotesque contortion. “Babe, I’m so sorry. I don’t even know how it started, and I’ve been trying to end it for”—he looks away, deep in his head—“Forever now, it seems.”

“Three months,” Lauren says, nodding. “Three months. Natalie turned eighteen two months ago.”

“I know,” he whispers.

“I could have you arrested,” she says quietly. “I should.”

“What?” Rick says, his head snapping up, mouth dropping open.

“Ar-rest-ed,” she repeats, pronouncing each syllable slowly. “Statutory rape? Natalie’s mom could press charges and have you thrown in jail. And for what? For some young pussy? With a girl barely out of high school?”

“Laur—”

“Was it worth it?”

“Come on, Lauren.”

“Was it worth it!” Lauren screams, then drops her voice to a whisper. “You’re a pervert. You’re disgusting. She’s a child, and she’s your son’s babysitter.”

“She’s eighteen, first of all,” he snaps.

Lauren takes a step back, putting a hand  to her chest.

“Are you actually getting mad at me?”

“I know this is fucked up, Lauren,” he says, holding up a hand. “But acting like this isn’t going to fix shit. We need to talk about this rationally.”

“Rationally?” she shrieks. “You cheated on me! With a minor! Last time I checked, that’s grounds for divorce and felony charges.” Lauren turns around and puts a hand to her forehead. “God, I feel so stupid. I married a rapist.”

“I didn’t rape anybody,” he yells.

“Statutory rape is still rape.”

“It wasn’t statutory rape either,” he says. “Can you stop saying that?”

“How the hell do you figure?” Lauren says, turning on him with fists clenched.

It’s pretty weird to watch somebody talking themselves deeper into a hole, especially when you can see in their eyes this little light of thought that you know is an internal voice screaming for them to shut up, even as their mouth keeps opening and closing and the tongue keeps forming syllable after syllable. This is what happens to Rick right now. Lauren can see it in his face, which does nothing to lessen the effect.

“It’s not illegal,” he says. “Not in Florida. If both people are over sixteen and under twenty-four it’s consensual.” He pauses for a second before continuing, “I didn’t look it up. I mean, I did, but not because of Natalie. It was back at FIU. Mel—you remember Mel, right? Gel Mel, with that hair thing and the sister, Patty—you used to hang with her sometimes, right? Yeah, um, he messed around with some high school girl on his twenty-first and was freaking out so we all looked up the law and found out that there’s this age of consent thing. It’s the only reason I know, I swear.”

Rick finally shuts up when he sees Lauren’s face then looks away, playing with his fingers like a reprimanded child. From the corner of her eye, Lauren can see about five mechanics whispering to each other and staring in the window. She turns and stares at each and every one of them, meeting their eyes one by one. Then she takes a step towards Rick, cocks a hand back and strikes her open palm against his face as hard as she can.

The blow rocks him, knocking him into the desk, his knee bouncing off the wood frame. He curses loudly and grabs his leg with one hand, his other hand rushing up to his cheek which is already starting to show an angry red palm print.

“Fuck you,” Lauren says, spit flying from her lips. She wants to add something else but can’t think of anything so she storms out of the office and into the maintenance garage, past Rick’s stunned coworkers. She’s almost outside when she realizes that she parked on the other end of the dealership and makes her way back into the office where Rick is still holding his cheek. He flinches when she walks in and past him, out the door onto the dealership’s main floor room and towards her car.


-10-

Marcus sits across from Sean in the Starbucks at Southland mall, both of them sipping Grande Caramel Frappuccinos and people-watching. At 2 pm, the mall’s pretty dead, mostly people Sean’s age walking aimlessly with friends or girlfriends or boyfriends, glancing in windows with that I wish I could afford this shit look on their faces.

Marcus takes a sip of his drink and glances at his brother.

“I’m just starting to wonder what’s the point of all this,” he says.

Sean looks at him blankly. It’s the first thing Marcus has said since they walked into the mall.

“Excuse me?”

“The point of it all,” he repeats, as if he’s talking to himself. He’s studying a painting on the wall of an elephant with “Kenya” written above it. “I just don’t see the point.”

And it’s at that moment Sean realizes something he’s never noticed before: his brother’s eyes have serious bags under them. Like, I-haven’t-been-sleeping-well-for-a-long-time bags. And his shoulders have this slouch, not like a slouch in this moment but a practiced one, a slouch that’s been settling up in his shoulders for a while now. And Sean swears he sees faint wrinkles at the corners of Marcus’s mouth. Sean didn’t notice it all before because he’s so used to seeing the same things in his own mirror, but seeing it on Marcus now does something to him, makes him notice other stuff too. Marcus used to be so hyper when he was younger, like a miniature coke addict, just harassing the shit out of Sean and whoever he had over, be it Leon or Derek or whichever one of his high school friends came by the house to play video games and hang out. Now he looks like he’s trying to slip through the cracks in the tiles. Part of this can be attributed to him being a teenager (those bipolar bastards), but this is more than that.

“You’ve got a really bright future, Marcus,” Sean says, putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. Marcus looks at him. “You know you do, I don’t have to tell you that. You’re going places, if you act right. You keep pulling this shit though and they’re going to expel you, and then what?”

“Exactly,” he says. “Then what? What does it matter?”

“Didn’t you just hear me?” Sean says, a little annoyed. “Bright future and all that?”

“Yeah, but, what I’m saying is, who gives a shit about my ‘bright future’?”

“I do,” Sean says. “Mom and Dad do, though I know you think they don’t.”

“That’s fine,” Marcus says, shifting around in his seat so he’s fully facing Sean. “But who out there cares?” He points at the window, puts his drink down and shakes his head. “What about after all of this? I mean, I’m supposed to bust my ass here to go to college, right? Then bust my ass in college to get a job then bust my ass at work until I retire and bust my ass to stay alive, and—I never really had a choice when I was born, huh? That’s just, like, what I’m supposed to do. And I just want to know, who really fucking cares?” He scratches his head and looks at Sean from the corner of his eye, waiting for a response. Sean’s got nothing though, so Marcus just sighs. “No disrespect, dude, but you did the whole college thing and got your degree and now you’re a fucking bartender and hate your life. Is that where I’m headed?”

“I don’t hate my life,” Sean says weakly. Marcus presses his lips tight together and Sean looks at the floor.

“Mom and Dad did the college and career thing,” Marcus says. “And they act like they’re happy. But they’re just—I don’t know. It’s like they’re going through the motions for our benefit or something. And even if they are actually happy, I just don’t see myself following them. It’s just so…boring.” Sean looks up at him in time to see his eyes glaze over, his mind going back to some distant place. “And Leon,” he says quietly. “He did it all and now he’s dead. And people are going to eventually forget he ever existed.” He looks at Sean and his eyes are moist. “So I just want to know, seriously, what’s the fucking point?”

And the feeling Sean gets right then is like being punched in the stomach with a sledgehammer. It takes all his strength not to double over in front of his brother. He forces his eyes closed and takes deep breaths until the feeling goes away. When he recovers, Marcus is back to staring at the Kenyan elephant and Sean tries to think of a sufficient response, something uplifting, but he can’t because Marcus is right—which pisses Sean off—and also because Sean now knows why Marcus has looked so damn depressed for the past year, the underlying fork in the road that he couldn’t pinpoint before. And it hurts Sean so much he can barely breathe.

Sean knew Leon since middle school, and Leon’s house was always a bummer with his mom and dad going at each other like rabid dogs half the time, so Leon was always at Sean’s place. Leon actually lived with them for a couple of months back in eleventh grade after his mom died and nobody could get in touch with his dad—who’d hit the road a year earlier (Sean used to think the guy was a douchebag, and still does a little. But after seeing how messed up he was at Leon’s funeral, Sean’s starting to think the saying “there’s two sides to every story” is more true than he ever could have imagined. Leon’s mom wasn’t the easiest person to deal with). Leon’s mom’s younger brother eventually ended up moving down from Chicago to stay with Leon, and things got kind of cool after that. Leon’s uncle was chill, and there was Derek completing the trio, so that last year of high school was fun.

But Marcus—he was so young to Sean back then that Sean never really figured him into the equation. It’s not like they could talk to him about girls and losing their virginities and getting ready for college and all that when the kid was like ten. But they did talk. And Marcus was there, literally all the time. Perpetually in Sean’s room, sitting in the corner throughout most of their time in high school, just waiting in the background with his eyes wide, listening, taking mental notes. And when he got to middle school and started seeing all the shit they’d been talking about, Sean and Leon gave him advice where they could—not like they were experts themselves, but they’d seen some shit by then at least.

Yet even with that history, it never occurred to Sean that Leon’s death might have affected Marcus too. Listening to him now though—and looking back at those years in high school and college—Sean can’t think of any way it couldn’t have affected him. Sean closes his eyes, tries to remember Leon’s funeral, where Marcus was sitting, what his face looked like. He wants to say Marcus was teary-eyed but stoic, jaw-clenched, brave. But he can’t be sure. His memory of that day’s clouded in a haze of Xanax and alcohol.

Suddenly, Sean smacks Marcus on the back and hops out of his seat. Marcus jumps, startled, and looks up at Sean as he nods towards the door and walks out. Marcus catches up a second later and they walk through the mall silently, pointing at things they want in store windows and grunting, weaving in and out of the thickening crowd of people.

Eventually they pass by a GameStop and Sean pauses to watch a group of kids playing tennis on a Nintendo Wii. They’re jumping around with the controllers, flailing their arms in the air as if the tennis racquets are actually there. They look stupid. They also look like they’re having a shitload of fun. Marcus smacks Sean back on his shoulders—hard—and Sean turns to him, raising his fist like he’s going to punch him. Marcus leans back, laughing.

“Shit, man,” he says. “It’s your birthday.”

“That it is,” Sean says, lowering his arm and turning back to GameStop. There’s an ad for Rock Band 3 on display, a picture of the fake instruments the game comes with: guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, microphone. Sean thinks back to playing Guitar Hero last night and how much fun he had, and he has to smile. Then he remembers trying to fight Derek, and his smile disappears.

“Happy birthday,” Marcus says. “I didn’t get you anything.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not,” he says. “Taking care of it now. What do you want?”

“Nothing,” Sean says.

“Don’t start with that shit,” Marcus groans.

Sean looks at him from the corner of his eye and starts walking.

“Seriously,” Marcus says from behind him. “What do you want?”

“Seriously,” Sean says. “Nothing. I’m too old for birthday presents.”

“Bro, you’re twenty-five.”

“Thought that was old for you people,” Sean says, smirking.

“You people?”

“Your kind,” Sean says, motioning in Marcus’s direction. “Teenagers.”

“Nice,” Marcus says, chuckling. The sound gives Sean an uncomfortably pleasant pang in his gut, and he wraps his arms around Marcus’s neck, getting him in a weak headlock then lightly smacking his cheek and pushing him away. They keep walking through the mall, stopping in the food court when the smell reminds Sean that he hasn’t eaten shit since he woke up. He buys a slice of pizza from Sbarro and gets Marcus an ice cream cone from Orange Julius, and for a second he actually feels like a good older brother.

“Seriously, Sean,” Marcus says, licking his ice cream cone. “What do you want for your birthday?”

“Nothing,” Sean says, frowning. “What do I look like taking my seventeen year old brother’s measly allowance.” Sean shakes his head. “I don’t need anything.”

“You forget,” Marcus says, leering at him. Actually fucking leering, creepily. He licks his ice cream cone again then reaches in his back pocket and pulls out a wad of bills, secured in a money clip. “Up until today, I’ve been the official provider of Sideview High’s legalized truancy.”

Sean can’t help laughing at that one.

“Straight fucking hustler,” Sean says, shaking his head. “Is that really a money clip?”

“Chrome,” Marcus says. “Gotta keep the cash secure.”

“I still don’t want anything.”

“I saw you staring at Rock Band,” he says, then shrugs, his bottom lip jutting out in probably the weakest DeNiro impression Sean’s ever seen. “This, this I could do for you.”

“You’re an idiot,” Sean says, pushing him. “And no. Shit’s like two hundred dollars.”

“You’re my brother,” Marcus says.

Sean studies his face, sees that he’s serious, and feels that same uncomfortable wrenching in his midsection; not as serious as before, but enough to make him stop smiling. He’s getting sick of all this sentimental shit.

“You’re not spending two hundred dollars on me,” Sean says.

“You suck,” Marcus says, genuinely disappointed.

Sean’s still staring at Marcus when they walk by Guitar Center, and he turns his head at just the right moment—just as they’re passing the window display—and his left foot freezes in midair. He stands unbalanced for a second before backpedaling and stopping in front of the glass.

People throw around the word beautiful like a dirty rag doll, applying the label to shit that’s really just cute at best. Half the time, whatever they’re referring to is actually mediocre. There’s only a couple of things on this planet Sean considers genuinely beautiful: the sky during a Miami summer afternoon, right before the storms hit, when it’s gray and cool and windy and God hasn’t yet sneezed on the entire city; that feeling he gets right after he’s heard a new song he knows is going right to the top of his “Current” playlist on iTunes; and taking a really good, clean shit, the type where you feel like you lost five pounds and barely have to wipe after.

And now: this guitar sitting in the window at Guitar Center.

Dark blue metallic finish, gleaming pick guard, that whammy thingy that they’ve got on the game controllers in Guitar Hero that gets you more points when you wiggle it around. This thing is the definition of beauty, sitting there on its rack looking smug, the instrument version of a really hot chick walking through the mall in a mini-skirt knowing damn well what she’s doing to every guy she passes. The strings running up the front look like lanes on a German autobahn, no speed limit just an open stretch for Sean to do whatever he wants, and he involuntarily whispers:

“I’d drive my fingers all over that thing.”

“What?” Marcus says.

Sean looks at him, startled.

“Nothing,” he says, walking into the store and yelling, “Come on.”

The name on the sign in the display window says the guitar’s an Ibanez GRX-20 and it’s on sale for $150. Sean has no idea if $150 is a lot of money for a guitar. He doesn’t know shit about guitars actually, other than what he’s learned from Guitar Hero (which is absolutely nothing except how to press buttons really fast). All he really knows for sure right now is that he wants that thing.

They walk past the guy up front standing just inside the theft detector and Sean thinks the guy’s staring at him until he realizes he’s just got a lazy eye and is actually staring at the computer in front of him.

“Welcome to Guitar Center,” he says lazily. Sean doesn’t respond, just walks past him towards the information desk in the back where this gothic looking chick’s leaning against the counter popping gum in her mouth and flipping through a tattoo magazine. Sean pauses to look back at the display window guitar again, then looks at Marcus.

“I’m getting that,” he says, pointing at it, glancing at the gothic chick and repeating to her, “I want to get that.”

Marcus glances at the guitar, licking his ice cream cone.

“You know how to play?” he asks.

“No.”

Marcus thinks about that for a second.

“You going to learn?”

“If I’m buying a guitar then obviously I’m going to learn.”

“Not necessarily,” he says, and Sean opens his mouth to tell him that’s stupid, then realizes it isn’t.

“You think I shouldn’t?”

Marcus looks at the guitar again, licks his ice cream cone again.

“You know,” he says, shrugs. “Shit.”

That’s all Sean needs. He turns back to gothic chick—her name’s Wendy, and she’s actually pretty hot when you look past the pitch black hair and makeup and those vampire mark tattoos on the side of her neck. Sean opens his mouth and starts talking and promptly proceeds to embarrass the shit out of himself. At first, he pretends he knows what he’s talking about, until she gives him this look that says “quit bullshitting me,” at which point he pretty much breaks down and starts gushing over the Ibanez GRX-20 like a schoolgirl, which Wendy—a surprisingly shrewd salesperson—uses to take advantage of Sean in every way possible, convincing him to buy a bunch of shit he’s pretty sure he doesn’t actually need:

  • Boss DS-1 distortion pedal (“The thing that makes electric guitars sound really crazy and angry,” Wendy says tiredly. “Which is the effect I guess you’re looking for if you’re referencing…um…Guitar Hero.”).
  • Guitar string cleaner
  • Two boxes of medium guitar picks
  • Box of hard guitar picks (“For when you get a little better,” Wendy says. “Then you can choose your preference”—the way she made it sound, Sean got all excited and was about to ask her if there were any expert level guitar picks for when he got really good, but then he realized she was talking about the actual texture of the picks and felt really stupid).
  • Guitar strap
  • Three rolls of plugs and cords
  • Actual Guitar-Hero-like whammy bar (sold separately, the thieving bastards), and
  • Marshall MG10 Guitar Amplifier (to be honest, Sean didn’t know that an electric guitar needed an amp. He thought you just plugged the damn thing into a wall and started strumming).

In the end, what started out as Sean coming in to the store to buy a $150 guitar turns into a shopping spree that ends up costing a little under $600 (Sean lets Marcus pay $100 of it just so he’ll shut the hell up about the birthday thing), which is pretty much all his half of the rent. Which is due in a week.

“I’ll pick up a couple of extra shifts at Shambles,” he says out loud, to himself, as he and Marcus are loading all his purchases into the back of his car. Marcus looks at him from the other side.

“Huh?”

“To make my money back,” Sean elaborates.

“Ok,” Marcus says, smirking. “Uh…good for you?”

“I just,” Sean starts, then waves it off. “Never mind.”

Marcus tosses the bags inside the car and slams the door as Sean stands on the other side and rests his brand new guitar on the backseat of his car like a baby whose diaper he’s changing, then slips into the front seat. Marcus inhales the last bite of his ice cream cone and hops in the passenger seat, turning and touching all of Sean’s new things with his sticky hands, which makes Sean want to punch him in the mouth.

“Don’t touch that,” he says. “And why’d it take you half an hour to eat an ice cream cone?”

“You judging me now?” Marcus asks. “I was enjoying the experience.”

Sean adjusts his rearview mirror so it’s pointing at his new guitar. Marcus notices and looks back at it again.

“You really going to play that thing?” he asks.

Sean puts on a pair of sunglasses he got for five dollars at the gas station last week, turns to Marcus and shrugs nonchalantly. Marcus laughs and Sean turns up the radio and they both jam out to Korn and Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit and a bunch of other angry music in celebration of Sean’s new purchase, both of them all smiles and hand claps until they pull into their parents’ driveway and the mood shifts dramatically.

Marcus sits holding his book bag against his chest, staring at the front door of the house like it’s the gate to hell. And Sean can’t blame him, especially when the door flies open and Mom steps outside with Dad close behind. Dad stops short in the doorway, but Mom walks up to Sean’s side of the car with her arms crossed. He rolls the window down and she crouches, giving Marcus a murderous look before smiling at Sean.

“Hi, honey,” she says, putting a hand to the side of Sean’s face. “Sorry about this,” she adds, nodding at Marcus like he’s a wart on Sean’s face. And Sean notices from the corner of his eye that Marcus has opened his mouth to say something, so Sean flicks his head around and glares at him until he closes it.

“No problem, Ma,” Sean says, still staring at Marcus. “We talked. It’s not as bad as it seems. Go easy on him.”

“Uh huh,” she says, glancing back at the house where Dad’s still standing with his arms crossed tightly across his chest, his eyes closed to slits. Dad’s a dark dude, not just his skin but all his features. Everything about him looks like it got removed and dragged over rocks before somebody strapped it back onto his skeleton. Along with the accessories—the tattoo of a cross on his bicep, the thin scar on the side of his neck (Sean’s heard four different stories about where his dad got that scar—knife fight, bitten by a snake, mauled by a wild boar, stray bullet in a drive-by just barely nicking him—which only makes him think it was probably something stupid, like he fell on a stick when he was 12 or something), the way he’s always walked with a limp like he injured himself in war or something, even though Sean knows for a fact his dad’s never even driven by a military base. And sure, the man’s all “upstanding citizen with moral values and rules and consequences and blah blah fucking blah” now, but Sean’s pretty sure his dad used to be an angry teenage fuckhead too back in his day. Probably worse than Marcus and Sean had ever been, to land a chick like their mom. Because Sean admits, it had to have been the swagger that got their mom to settle with him.

It’s not something Sean likes to think about too much, because then he’s got to think about the pictures all around the house, of his mom and dad when they first met, their mom drop dead gorgeous with her thick brown hair puffed up, flawless features and a sly smile on her face, their dad next to her with an afro and a leather jacket and the same sly look on his face, as if they’re conspiring together; pictures that make Sean think of his mom as one of those chicks who are attracted to bad boys. Which makes him think about the other stereotypes about those types of women that nobody wants to associate with their own mother.

Sean turns to Marcus and motions for him to get out, whispering “Good luck” before turning back to their mom, who’s staring in the backseat of the car.

“What’s that about?” she asks.

Sean glances back at the guitar and smiles.

“My new hobby,” he says.

She smiles and touches his cheek again.

“You need to come by more often,” she says. “We don’t get to see you enough. You’re neglecting your family.”

“I know, Ma,” Sean says. “I will. Gotta work a lot though.”

She gives him a pouty look then smiles, pats his shoulder and steps back from the car. Sean waves to his dad, who nods in his direction then blows him a kiss—fucking awkward—and steps to the side as Marcus brushes past him. Sean reverses out of the driveway and his mom waves. He honks then drives off, towards his job, the only thing really on his mind the new toy lying on the backseat.


-11-

The bartender waves a hand in Lauren’s face and she jumps, startled.

“Everything ok over here?” he asks, and she looks down at her half-finished Long Island then forces a smile and nods. He smiles back and studies her for a moment then walks away and Lauren goes back to staring at the flat screen TV on the back wall of the bar, people milling about the restaurant around her, enjoying happy hour. Technically she’s in the same boat as them: she just got off work and she’s here, at Shambles Bar and Grill for happy hour. She’s not in the slightest bit happy though, so she can’t help feeling like she doesn’t actually belong.

At the thought, Caitlyn walks in and sits at the bar stool next to her. Or, rather, that’s what Lauren assumes she does. What it actually seems like to her though is that one second she’s sitting alone, and the next Caitlyn’s just…there. Holding a hand up and waving for the bartender to come make her a Cosmo.

Caitlyn has this tendency to kind of breeze in and out of rooms, like a vampire or a gust of wind through an open door. She’s already kissed Lauren on the cheek and gotten her drink before Lauren even really acknowledges her presence. By then, Lauren’s unconsciously finished her Long Island and looks up in time to catch the bartender as he walks away from her, having dropped off  another drink. She’s feeling a little bit of a buzz, and this is Caitlyn—the girl who grew into a woman beside her, under the same roof, the woman who Lauren trusts with her life and her deepest darkest secrets even though she aggravates the hell out of her sometimes—so Lauren sees no problem in forfeiting all initial pleasantries and blurting out:

“So, I walked in on Rick and Natalie having sex this morning.”

A spurt of pink liquid flies in a perfect arc from Caitlyn’s lips back into her glass and she chokes. Lauren pats her on the back until her light coughs subside and she turns to Lauren, her upper lip curled, eyes wide, face red, eyebrows raised comically.

“Excuse me?”

“Please don’t make me say it again,” Lauren whispers.

“Who the fuck is Natalie?”

“Justin’s babysitter,” Lauren says. “You’ve met her. Dark hair. Nice body. Young.” Lauren takes a long swallow of her drink. “They were in Justin’s bedroom.”

Caitlyn’s lip curls a little higher, which Lauren thinks shouldn’t be physically possible.

“He was fucking her?”

“To put it bluntly,” Lauren says, nodding. “Yes.”

“Hold on,” Caitlyn says, turning and picking up her martini glass. She throws her head back and downs the drink in one gulp, her wavy blond hair tossing back over her shoulders. A few men’s heads turn towards her automatically, which—of course—Caitlyn doesn’t notice. “Let me get this straight. You come home—”

Caitlyn doesn’t finish, pausing and staring at her empty glass with her mouth open. Lauren can tell she’s working out the situation in her head, and she gives her sister a moment. Finally, Caitlyn looks up, eyes wide.

“In Justin’s bedroom?” she hisses.

“The facts aren’t that complicated, Cate,” Lauren says, then chuckles at the absurdity of it all. “At least they weren’t on the bed.”

“Wait,” Caitlyn says, holding up her hand and closing her eyes again, dramatically. “I met this girl. She looked like a kid.”

“She is.”

“How old?”

“Eighteen, now,” Lauren says, knowing where this is going. “Just turned eighteen two months ago. They’ve been going at it since July.”

“Got him,” she says, snapping her fingers and snatching her phone up from the bar. “Fucking sex predator.”

Lauren thinks back to Rick’s little confession in his boss’s office.

“It’s not illegal,” she says, trying and failing to hide the contempt in her voice.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” she yells. An older couple turns and scowls at them from a booth a few feet away, and Lauren can’t say she didn’t expect this sort of reaction at some point. Caitlyn’s adept at causing commotion even when she doesn’t have a legitimate reason. She’s got one now, so there’s no stopping her. “His balls should be handcuffed to a fucking wall,” she says, cupping her hands as if she’s actually holding a pair of testicles. “With an overweight guy named Bubba making sweet, sweet love to his virgin asshole.”

“Stop it, Caitlyn.”

“Are you smoking crack, Lauren?” she hisses. “Why isn’t the SWAT team storming your place right now?”

“It’s not illegal, Caitlyn,” she repeats.

“I heard you the first time, Lauren,” she says, patting Lauren’s leg as if she’s a child. “But, you see, sis, it is. It is very illegal. Last time I checked: under eighteen girl plus over eighteen guy equals Bubba getting laid.”

“According to Rick, not in Florida,” Lauren says, taking a sip of her drink which tastes even better than the last one. “Sixteen is the age of consent.”

“He told you that?” she says, then bursts out laughing.

“Glad you’re entertained by all this,” Lauren says, scowling.

“I’m sorry,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s just…holy shit, this fucking hillbilly state we live in. Rick’s got balls.” Her face turns dark all of a sudden. “Exactly why they should be forcibly removed.”

“You’ve got a real thing with that, don’t you? Some sort of castration complex?”

“Seriously,” Caitlyn says, waving her off. “What are you doing about this? You can’t just brush this under the rug like you always do.”

“I don’t brush things under the rug,” Lauren says weakly.

“He needs to be punished,” Caitlyn says, then her eyes light up. “Does he have any money? I thought you told me his family was loaded. Get a really good lawyer. Take him for everything.”

“Caitlyn,” Lauren says. “Rick’s a mechanic and I’m a pharmacy tech, and we have a son together.”

“Well,” Caitlyn says, slumping her shoulders. “You’ve gotta do something.”

“I am,” Lauren says, pointing at her drink.

“Besides that,” Caitlyn says, rolling her eyes.

“I’m leaving,” Lauren says. “Took Justin already. Staying with Mom for a while until I figure things out.”

“Uh uh,” Caitlyn says, shaking her head emphatically. “Out of the question. You can stay with me.”

“Which would be so much better, right?” Lauren says, sarcastically.

“You’re goddamn right. Mom is a fucking psychopath.” She says this as if it’s a matter of fact. For two people who are so much alike, Caitlyn and their mother find it very hard to get along. “You don’t need to be around her shit right now, Lauren, let me tell you. You can stay with me until you’re ready to take action against this asshole.”

“Thank you, Caitlyn,” Lauren says. “But—no offense—I don’t want to stay with either one of you for any extended period of time.” Lauren runs a hand through her hair and touches her other hand to the sweating Long Island glass. “I just need to figure things out.”

“Castration is still an option,” she mutters.

Lauren opens her mouth to tell her sister she should seek professional help when her phone rings again. She pulls it out of her purse and gets a glance at the caller ID before Caitlyn snatches it out of her hand, staring at Rick’s number. Lauren reaches over and snatches it back.

“Let me talk to him,” Caitlyn hisses.

“No,” Lauren says, pressing decline then turning the phone off and tossing it back in her purse. “You are not allowed to talk to him right now.” Lauren points at her. “Matter of fact, you are forbidden to talk to Rick for the foreseeable future.”

Lauren can hear Caitlyn grinding her teeth, something they both do whenever they get angry, something passed down by their mother either through genetics or just proximity to her overpowering personality. It’s been a mutual habit for some time now, ever since they were young. Caitlyn never used to be this way though, when she was a kid. In fact, anybody who knew her as a little girl would meet the current version of Lauren’s sister and—aside from the looks—find it pretty hard to put the two together. Lauren was the tomboy growing up, Caitlyn the prototypical girl’s girl throughout elementary school: giggly and dreamy, taken to wearing flowery dresses no matter what the occasion, trying on their mother’s makeup in her bedroom en route to her faux wedding ceremonies. She was also—and here’s the clincher—the definition of a daddy’s girl.

Then their father died and their mother started in with her man-bashing. At first, Caitlyn was just upset about it, all the time, constantly yelling at their mom to stop talking bad about their dad. Then she started changing. At first it was the clothes. She stopped wearing dresses, then makeup, and at one point in her senior year of high school she chopped off all her hair (though she cried about it for an hour afterwards and grew it right back). And all the while her beauty was impossible to hide, which did nothing but make her even more intense. Guys would approach from all directions, most of them getting an earful before scampering away, chastised, self esteem dropped to new lows. Occasionally though, one would get through the outer shell and Caitlyn would actually start dating him. Most were short-lived relationships though, always ending badly: a couple of shattered car windows, a completely broken down bedroom door, and one particular incident that resulted in the guy in a hospital room with a concussion and twelve stitches in his leg.

Caitlyn says she’s the way she is because complete independence is her life goal. Even her current situation was fueled by this fierceness in her—living on her own in Kendall, working as a waitress at Hooters (the disparity between her job choice and her overall mentality towards men doesn’t seem to bother her; she thinks it’s fitting that she gets to use men’s “stupid fascination with tits and ass” to “steal” their money from them, as she puts it) while she finishes up her nursing degree. Caitlyn doesn’t have to work. She could be living at their mother’s house and have everything paid for, no questions asked. Her mom’s offered, many times. If she wanted, she could even keep the apartment she has right now and their mom would pay for that too. But living at home wasn’t good for anybody after Caitlyn graduated from high school. There were times during Caitlyn’s freshman year at UM—the first few months of which Caitlyn still lived at home with their mother—that Lauren would pass by and swear somebody had been murdered. And having their mother pay for her apartment was never an option for Caitlyn.

Lauren’s tried to talk to Caitlyn about her attitude, tell her that she might want to get some help with her anger issues. It isn’t healthy to be this pissed off all the time. Caitlyn responded by saying therapy was created by men to make women look crazy.

Caitlyn downs her second Cosmo and waves rudely at the bartender who comes over, smiling. The expression is reflected everywhere on his face but his eyes, which Lauren notices are sadder than anybody’s their age should be. At first glance it seems to be a sadness born from this job, the tired creases at the corner of his eyelids lending to that theory. But there’s something more in them, and Lauren has a feeling this guy is sad about a lot more than his job. He’s cute though, in a grungy sort of way. He’s wearing the same Shambles uniform as everybody else in here, but he manages to make his seem like it was lazily thrown on from the floor of his bedroom. Tall and skinny with almost boyish facial features. Creamy skin the color of a mocha frappuccino.

“Another Cosmo?” he asks Caitlyn. Lauren’s not aware that she’s waiting for another situation where a guy makes the mistake of blatantly flirting with Caitlyn until the bartender barely gives Caitlyn a once over and, instead, winks at Lauren. It’s a corny move but it makes Lauren’s stomach flutter a little, especially considering Caitlyn’s sitting right in front of him and he couldn’t possibly know about the latent feelings of inferiority Lauren tries so hard to hide.

“Yeah, another,” Caitlyn says, then puts a hand on Lauren’s shoulder. “Keep ‘em coming. Hers too.”

The bartender raises an eyebrow in Lauren’s direction, as if asking for affirmation. Lauren shrugs.

“No problem,” he says, walking away.

“What’d Rick do when you caught him?” Caitlyn asks.

“Nothing,” Lauren says.

Caitlyn’s head snaps around so fast Lauren can hear her neck crack.

“What do you mean?”

“Technically,” Lauren says, sipping her drink and avoiding Caitlyn’s eyes. “I didn’t catch him.”

“You just said—”

“I said I saw them doing it,” Lauren says, feeling the tension surrounding them immediately rise. “As in saw. Not caught.”

Caitlyn’s confusion turns to shock, then red-faced embarrassment and she surveys the restaurant as if she’s suddenly ashamed to be here with her sister.

“You mean,” she says, whispering now, which is so ironic it’s laughable. “You saw them fucking and you didn’t say anything.”

“I did,” Lauren protests. “Just…not right then. After I calmed down, I went by his job.”

Caitlyn bursts out laughing and pats Lauren on the back.

“You’re adopted.”

“Caitlyn, stop it.”

“No,” she says. “There’s no way you’re my sister. No fucking way.”

“What was I supposed to do then?” Lauren asks.

“You, quote, unquote, ‘saw’ your husband having sex in your two year old son’s bedroom with the babysitter and didn’t confront him right then and there?” She grinds a hand through her hair. “What, you didn’t want to interrupt them?”

Lauren almost tells her yes, but shuts her mouth instead. Caitlyn gets herself so wound up sometimes that it’s almost impossible to reason with her.

“I slapped him,” Lauren says finally, sheepishly, trying to appease her sister.

“What?”

“At his job, when I confronted him about it. After he told me about the statutory rape law, I just kind of…lost it and slapped him as hard as I could.” Lauren brushes a piece of lint off her pants’ leg. “It felt good.”

A smile slowly creeps across Caitlyn’s face.

“Ok, not adopted,” she says. “Just stupid.”

Lauren smiles and takes Caitlyn’s hand when she holds it out. They squeeze each other and Lauren grabs her Long Island, downing the rest of it and sliding the empty glass away from her as the bartender returns with another round.

“Where’s Justin now?” Caitlyn says as the bartender puts the glasses in front of them. Lauren’s eyes meet his for a second as he’s turning away and he smiles, his teeth showing a little. Lauren’s face gets hot all of a sudden, and she can’t tell if it’s him or the alcohol.

“At Mom’s,” Lauren says.

“Good,” she says, standing and grabbing her drink. “Let’s go find the son of a bitch so I can hit him too.”

“Caitlyn,” Lauren says, exasperated. “We just had a moment. Can we leave it at that? This isn’t about you. Stop trying to turn it into your personal vendetta session. It’s my marriage. Let me handle it.”

She throws her hands up in the air.

“Why the hell’d you tell me then?” she whines.

“Because you’re my sister,” Lauren says quietly.

Caitlyn sits down at that, pouting. They drink in silence for a moment, the hum of conversations filling the empty space between them.

“You know,” Caitlyn says finally. “I warned you.”

“Don’t start, Caitlyn.”

“No,” she says. “I did. I warned you. I told you the day he asked you to marry him. What did I say?”

“A bunch of incoherent shit,” Lauren mutters. “You were drunk.”

“I said don’t be with him because of the baby. It won’t work. But no. You didn’t want to listen.”

“I wasn’t with him because of Justin,” Lauren says, though she’s not sure that’s true. “I loved him.” Pause. “I love him.”

“Really?” she says. “What’s that even mean, Lauren?”

“Are we really going to get started on this again?” Lauren asks tiredly. “This ‘what’s the meaning of love’ crap? I get it. You don’t believe in love. You don’t believe in relationships, you don’t believe in whatever. I do though.”

The sisters go back to sipping their drinks, brooding.

“I’m just saying that I think you sold yourself short,” Caitlyn says. “You never needed a man to live your life, and you still don’t. Look at me.”

“Yes,” Lauren says sarcastically. “Look at you.”

“I’m single and perfectly fine. I’m young, successful, and happy, and I didn’t need a man to achieve any of it.”

“But don’t you ever get lonely?” Lauren asks.

“Sure,” she says. “That’s what Bob’s for.”

Lauren rolls her eyes. Bob’s Caitlyn’s name for her vibrator, an acronym for Battery Operated Boyfriend.

“Ridiculous,” Lauren says. “You know that’s not normal, right?”

“And what you’re going through right now is?”

She has a point. Lauren opens her mouth to respond but downs half her drink instead. The bartender sees this and comes over, and Lauren’s compelled to ask him his name.

“Sean,” he says. “You?”

Lauren tells him and he smiles, then looks at Caitlyn curiously as she stares at the TV with a blatantly disgusted scowl on her face. Sean the Bartender looks back at Lauren and—without even realizing it—she’s suddenly twirling her hair around her finger, smiling and blinking her eyes way more than she normally does.

“How you two doing over here?” he asks.

“Fine,” Lauren says. “Thank you, Sean.”

He smiles, and Lauren giggles, and she can feel her sister’s eyes burning into her. Sean frowns.

“Everything ok on your end?” he asks Caitlyn.

“No,” she says, and she’s about to do that thing she does sometimes where she brings people into situations that have nothing to do with them then spends the entire time berating them for their opinion, so Lauren kicks her in the leg before she can say anything. Caitlyn sucks in a pained breath and Sean cocks his head to the side. Lauren keeps smiling, twirling her hair.

“She’s just upset,” Lauren says, then leans in and whispers, “Man problems.”

“Oh, got it,” he says, nodding sympathetically towards Caitlyn, who’s rubbing her leg. He puts a hand on top of the one she’s using to hold herself up, patting it. Caitlyn looks at his hand as if it’s a snake. “Don’t worry,” Sean says. “Everything will turn out okay. It usually does.”

There’s this awkward moment where everybody kind of waits for somebody else to say something, then Sean laughs, a quick blast of amusement that stops as abruptly as it started.

“Let me stop bullshitting you,” he says, shrugging. “Life’s shit, wall to wall. Drink up.”

Sean grabs Lauren’s glass and walks away, leaving Caitlyn with her mouth hanging open (a definite accomplishment on Sean the Bartender’s part). After a moment, Caitlyn looks at Lauren.

“What the fuck was that about?” she asks. Lauren shrugs, too busy staring at Sean’s ass, which doesn’t seem flabby at all.


-12-

Sean slaps the beer tap off and slides the mugs of Bud Light over to Rob and Pete. He’s about to head back to the service bar so he can make whichever server’s drink order just came through the ticket printer when Pete says:

“I remember when I was in high school, man. Always used to wonder, man, like, what was the point?”

Rob, adding his two cents, says:

“So righteous, bruh. Scary, but righteous.”

Sean pauses, turning back to them. They’re both wearing Miami Heat jerseys, Rob a number three Dwyane Wade, Pete a number six Lebron James. Both of them need a shave and Sean can almost smell that sweaty beer stench he knows is there—the smell that alcoholics always have, whether or not they’re drinking or just showered or whatever—only he’s not close enough to them to actually smell it so he knows it’s just his imagination. The two stop talking when they notice they’ve got an audience, and Sean kind of wants to add a line or two to the conversation, but Rob and Pete don’t know when to shut up and Sean’s got drinks to make. Behind him, he can hear the server ticket printer losing its mind, so he nods at Rob and Pete and turns away.

At the service bar, one of the servers—a guy named Gabe, 35 years old, working here since he was 17—steps around the corner, the collar on his Shambles Bar and Grill polo popped up, which would make him look like a weird, Puerto Rican version of Fonzie from Happy Days if his arms weren’t the size of tree trunks and his hair didn’t have like a pound of gel in it so it spikes up about three inches straight into the air. Instead he looks like he fell off the set of Jersey Shore, landed on his head and bounced to a stop in Shambles.

“Sup, bro,” he says.

Sean nods and grabs the tickets from the printer and sees the first order is for three Pina Coladas for one of his tables.

“Gabe, quit pushing frozen drinks,” Sean says. “They’re fucking annoying to make.”

“Just keeping you on your toes, bro,” he says. Sean scowls at him and Gabe grins back at him, his big white teeth gleaming against his tanned skin. Sean makes the drinks and barely places them on the service bar before Gabe snatches them out of Sean’s hand, still grinning as he turns and gangsta-limps over to his table. A kid runs screaming in front of him and he almost drops the drinks, and Sean laughs loudly so Gabe can hear him. He shoots Sean a glare and continues walking, another kid speeding behind him like it’s a fucking Manhattan intersection.

It’s kid’s night here right now and the Heat are playing the Orlando Magic on TNT so the restaurant’s pretty busy. A couple of people have already gotten drunk enough to act like idiots and get themselves thrown out by Shambles’ GM. The place sounds like a zoo and all the servers are walking around with these shit-eating grins plastered across their faces even though Sean knows for a fact that most of them want to shoot the people sitting at their tables. In the face.

In other words, business as usual.

Sean’s starting to make the rest of the drink orders when he looks down and there’s a chubby Asian kid standing right in front of the service bar, mouth hanging open, eyes wide. Sean glances at the next ticket and sees it’s for an Oreo milkshake, and would bet money it’s for this kid. Normally, just a kid’s presence would make Sean want to spray him in the face with seltzer water, but he’s thinking about his brother and high school and college and the conversation Rob and Pete are still having a few feet away from him, so he ignores the kid.

Rob and Pete are regulars, so it’s not like he hasn’t heard them go on their quasi-philosophical drunken rants before. They have one every day. This one’s different though. It’s hitting a little closer to home.

Sean finishes the chubby Asian kid’s milkshake and smiles when the girl who’s serving the kid’s table comes over to get it and very subtly pushes him out of the way. There’s a guy sitting near the TV who needs another Miller Lite so Sean heads over to the taps and gets caught in the spider web that is Rob and Pete.

“Don’t you miss it, Sean?” Rob blurts out, his words slurring so it sounds kind of like “Dawn you mix it?”

“Miss what?” Sean asks. He’s fluent in drunk-speak.

“High school, man,” Steve chimes in. “No worries, man. High school was cool, no worries, no problems. Totally Bob Marley.”

In his head, Sean sees his brother’s drawn face.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” he says. “Depends on what you mean by problems.”

They nod like Sean just said something profound and Sean uses the pause to break away, drop the Miller Lite off, make sure the two hot sisters at the end of the bar—who are still in the middle of the heated discussion they’ve been having for the past hour—are ok, then hit it to the back storage room where the ice machine is.

The ice machine is Sean’s oasis in this desert he calls his job. It’s the one place where he can hide from the chaos going on out front every goddamn night. It’s hidden in the storage area behind the kitchen, near the freezer and the back door leading out to the dumpster. Sean comes back here sometimes just to think, on the nights when the drunk people get too loud and he wants his own drink so bad he’s ready to strangle anybody close enough.

A few minutes back here with the restaurant noise far off in the background, the ice machine chugging along and the cooks yelling at each other always calms him down. Usually it’s anger he’s trying to get away from. Right now, it’s more the surprise at how shitty he just felt standing in front of Rob and Pete while they talked about high school.

And anger, yeah. A little bit of that too.

Sean grabs a bucket and starts scooping ice into it and thinks about how much different high school was from college. College was a shitload of fun while he was there, the exact opposite of high school; a huge blur of colors and warm feelings and smells all wrapped up in a burrito of artificial “free will” with a side of “false hope.” The only thing that really sucked about it was when it all disappeared to some deep, dark place in his intestines a few months after graduation.

Sean should have seen it coming though. He remembers during orientation at FSU, standing in the back with Derek and Leon, scanning the room and looking at all the hot freshman chicks, the orientation leader introducing the vice president of some department or other who came up and stared at all of them until the whole room started murmuring. Then he cleared his throat and said:

“The next four years are going to be the best years of your lives.”

And Sean’s sure he meant well, but…who says that?

What the fuck does a person have to look forward to after college if they bring students in with shit like that?

And then they tried to cover it up once Sean got closer to his senior year by talking about all the opportunities he’d have now that he was almost done, but they weren’t fooling anybody. They told him he could do whatever he wanted after college, and of course the illusion was great while it lasted. But now, after the fact—working at a place where Sean’s job is to get people drunk, a job that doesn’t need or give a shit about his psychology degree—college reminds him of one of the many one-hit wonders over the past decades, those musicians who appeared with something that seemed so timeless at that moment, creating a storm of activity right before disappearing into oblivion.

Sean picks up the ice bucket, which he’s overfilled so the ice is falling over the sides. He doesn’t notice he’s standing in water that’s pooled half an inch deep in a concave part of the tiled floor until it’s too late and he slips, spilling the entire goddamn thing everywhere. He spends the next two minutes kicking ice into the drain next to the ice machine, cursing under his breath then refilling the bucket again.

Back up front with the refilled ice bucket, he dumps it in the three different coolers surrounding the bar, checks on everybody’s drinks then goes back to service bar where—surprisingly—there aren’t any drink orders in the ticket printer. All the guests are lost in their own conversations or watching the Heat game, so Sean stands at the end of the bar, looking out the window across the restaurant at his car sitting out in the parking lot, and pictures his new guitar lying in the backseat. He really wants to leave and go start learning how to play it.

Suddenly, Rob—of the Rob/Pete duo—accidentally-on-purpose drops his beer mug on the tile surrounding the bar stools and it shatters. Everybody in the restaurant goes quiet for two seconds, then Rob laughs—a loud, barking sound—and a majority of the guests in the restaurant let out a harmonious “ooooooohhhh” and start clapping.

Sean grimaces at the sound of breaking glass, knowing he’s going to have to be the one who cleans it up. The service printer goes off and he looks over to see that, while he was daydreaming, six ticket orders came through. He grabs the stream of paper and almost yells in frustration when he sees they’re all for kid chocolate milkshakes. He looks up just in time to catch another little chubby kid—this one red-haired with freckles—standing on the other side of the service bar and looking Sean right in the face as he reaches over and pulls lemons out of the garnish tray, dropping them on the floor and promptly stepping on them.

Sean has no fucking clue why he’s doing this.

All Sean knows is he’s suddenly struck with that same urge from earlier, in his car, when he wanted to just drive away and never look back. Only this time he can imagine himself reaching his destination and walking out with his guitar, shacking up in some motel and living with minimal accommodations, growing a beard and going swimming on the beach during the day, smoking weed and playing his guitar all night. The thought makes him happy.

It hits him in that moment—really hits him—that he’s spent the past three years since graduation zoning out behind this bar and reminiscing about things he’s not old enough to be reminiscing about yet, all while serving people drinks so they can get drunk and try to fuck each other or yell play calls at sports games on a TV that can’t respond to them.

Up until now, Sean thought all of this was semantics. The prelude to his real life. It’s not though. If he doesn’t do something, he’ll be fifty and still standing here, sliding beers to retired cops and janitors and going home to drink his own liver dead, smoke himself into oblivion and stare at the yellowing degree hanging crooked on his wall.

Sean’s about to pull off his uniform and hit the front door running when a lemon smacks into the side of his head. He turns and angrily searches for the chubby red-haired kid but he’s gone back to his seat, so Sean spins back towards the other end of the bar where the two hot sisters are still sitting, the brunette standing with her hands in the air like she just scored a touchdown. Sean walks over to her, his anger slowly receding with each step.

“Did you just throw a lemon at me?” he asks.

“Awesome throw,” she says. Her eyes have that glazed look he knows real well, from working here and looking in drunk people’s faces every day (also staring at his own face in the mirror, but he’s not about to admit that to himself). “You gotta give it to me, that was an awesome throw.”

“Why would you throw a lemon at me?” he asks.

“Was trying to get your attention,” she says. “You looked pissed off.”

Her sister, the hot blonde, digs through her purse, obviously drunk her damn self.

“I’m guessing you two need another drink,” Sean says.

“Well, yes,” Lauren says, smiling and twirling her hair in this way that makes Sean horny for some reason. “But that’s not why I called you over here.”

“Ok,” Sean says. “What then?”

Lauren gives him a mischievous grin and Sean completely forgets that a moment ago he hated everybody and everything and was contemplating quitting his job and moving to a secluded beach.

“I just wanted to know,” Lauren says, pausing and looking at her sister whose done digging through her purse and squints at Sean like she doesn’t know where he came from. She glances at Lauren and shrugs. Lauren nods and looks back at Sean, smiling. “I just wanted to know what time you get off work.”

Click to Read Step Four