Carey’s leg bounced as the call rang through. It was answered faster than expected and he had to quickly clear his throat.
“Hi,” he purposely smiled, knowing it would come through in his voice, “is there a Mr Jesse Musgrove there?”
“Uh… my name is Carey Miller. I just need to talk to him.”
Carey paused, chewing on his lip.
“It’s kinda personal,” he tried to work around, “I don’t know if he’d really…”
He heard the door opening behind him but tried to stay focused.
“I don’t know if he’d really want me to share it.”
“Where are you from, Carey Miller?”
He could hear a scornful tone in her voice now and closed his eyes.
“LA, east side,” he relented.
“Yes,” he frowned as he felt a hand on his head, “can I talk to him please?”
“He’s not here right now.”
“Can I ask when he’ll be back?” he looked up at Emma as she stood over him.
She looked worried.
“No,” the call ended suddenly.
Carey sighed and pulled the phone from his ear.
“That didn’t sound good,” Emma was sympathetic.
“It wasn’t, and that was my last few dollars,” Carey admitted, rubbing his face, “I need to put more money on this thing.”
He set the Nokia aside and put his head in his hands.
“Maybe you should put the stalking on hold for a while,” Emma suggested, “you’re stressed enough with your studies. Just take a break for a while so you can focus on one thing.”
“This is all I can focus on,” Carey shook his head, “ever since I saw that wedding article… this is all I can think of. I need to talk to him. I need to see him.”
“I get it. You need to know that he’s real.”
Emma took a seat opposite him and he had trouble looking her in the eye.
“Of course there’s something else you need to focus on,” she clasped her hands.
He looked up, and the look on her face told him he was in trouble.
“What happened at the aquatic center yesterday?”
Carey grit his teeth.
“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine,” Emma shrugged, “but you know it’s going to drive me crazy not knowing and I’m going to start asking around for another job for you starting tomorrow so knowing what happened might help that…”
“I had a misunderstanding with the boss,” he avoided eye contact again.
“Something about shift times and not falling asleep on the job,” Carey’s voice was quiet.
Emma paused, thinking that over.
“You’re stretching yourself too thin,” she shook her head, “I knew we couldn’t afford this place.”
“We can afford this place!” Carey insisted.
“Care you don’t have a job!” she scorned, “how are we supposed to afford rent next week on my casual salary alone?”
Carey hesitated, unsure if he should bring it up or not. In the end he knew he couldn’t hide it from her.
“I already asked Mark for money,” he admitted.
“Are you kidding me?!”
“It was a backup plan, I wasn’t going to let us starve,” Carey defended.
“Do you even care where that money is coming from?”
“Of course I care,” he scorned, “but I can’t control Mark!”
“You’re enabling him.”
“What else was I supposed to do? Let them put us on the street?”
Emma scoffed and stood from the chair. She went over to the kitchenette and began to fill a saucepan with water from the sink. He looked over at his college textbooks and knew he needed to get some study done before he slept.
Emma set the noodles on the stove before turning back.
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate him trying to help,” she corrected, making him look up, “but how long before Mike breaks down that door and calls you an accomplice?”
Carey didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.
“I can’t do this on my own,” she shrugged, “and I never want to make you choose between me and Mark, but… what he’s doing is dangerous, and I hate it when you get involved.”
“I’m not getting involved,” he assured, “Mark’s problems are Mark’s problems.”
“Taking his dirty money is getting involved,” Emma pointed out.
“It might not even be dirty money,” Carey quickly said, “we haven’t exactly kept up with his business ventures lately.”
“Is he even alive?” Emma felt she should ask.
“I spoke to him today,” Carey confirmed, “so… yeah.”
Emma bit her lip while they stared at each other. He was already worried about what she’d say next.
“You do know it’s a problem that I have to ask that, right?” she checked.
“I’ve tried,” Carey insisted, “he’s not going to rehab, and he doesn’t see the point in working at McDonald’s while he’s bringing in so much cash doing what he’s doing. How else can I talk sense into him?”
“There has to be a way,” she shook her head.
She moved away from the stove as the water began to boil and Carey started to move his paperwork from the table so they had some room.
They didn’t say another word to each other as they ate. It wasn’t enough to fill their stomachs, but it was all they could afford. After they ate Emma shifted to the mattress on the floor nearby to read while Carey continued his studies at the table. Emma fell asleep long before he did, and he made sure his alarm was set for school in the morning before sneaking under the covers beside her.
In the morning Carey tried not to wake her as he got ready and headed out soon after the sun rose. His college campus was only a short walk away, but he had to walk through a rough neighborhood to get there. Apart from his backpack he was usually able to somewhat blend in by keeping his hair tucked under a black beanie and wearing fingerless gloves with a long-sleeved hoodie. Now that the weather was getting cooler it was even easier to concentrate on keeping his head down. He’d still find trouble on occasion, and when someone suddenly grabbed him by the arm his left hand reactively formed a fist.
He stopped himself the moment he realized it was his brother who’d tried to pull him into the alley. With a quick look around to make sure no one was watching, he followed him.
“Hey,” he returned once out of sight, “sorry about this. The guy was a fucking jerk.”
“Aren’t they all?” Mark was rubbing his nose as he fumbled inside his jacket.
Carey waited anxiously for Mark to find what he was looking for, before quickly taking the envelope and hiding it inside his hoodie.
“Do you need more?” Mark sniffed, his eyes droopy.
“This should do for now,” Carey assured, “thanks.”
Mark nodded, expecting him to just walk away.
“Are you high?” Carey frowned, looking him over.
“Does it matter?” Mark avoided eye contact, knowing his eyes were bloodshot.
“Mark it’s seven o’clock in the morning.”
“Well it’s 7pm somewhere.”
Carey rolled his eyes and looked back down the alley.
“You haven’t called.”
“I ran out of money on my prepaid,” Carey admitted right away, “but thanks to you I can put more cash on it now.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Carey hesitated, not really wanting to leave him yet. He hadn’t seen him in a few days and he wasn’t looking any better than the last time.
“How’s Dad?” he asked.
Mark rubbed his nose again before lifting the front of his shirt a little. Carey winced when he saw the bruise running down his brother’s side.
“Still pretty strong,” Mark smirked when he saw the reaction.
“You can afford to leave, why don’t you?” Carey didn’t lose the look.
Mark broke into a laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Carey tried to catch his eye.
“You are. Pretending it’s that easy.”
“It really is!” Carey insisted, “can’t one of your friends set you up with a place until you find one of your own?”
“Dude I’m nineteen years old.”
Carey rolled his eyes.
“At least you had someone to leave with. Though I’m surprised Mike and his cronies haven’t found you yet,” Mark thought out loud.
“I’m sure they aren’t far away,” Carey looked back over his shoulder again.
“When’s the last time you slept more than five hours?”
“Why?” Carey gave him the suspicious side eye.
Mark smirked knowing he wasn’t going to answer truthfully regardless. He again fumbled in his jacket and pulled out a small bottle with no label.
“It’s just caffeine,” Mark assured, finally looking his brother in the eye, “you’re not gonna OD on it. Here.”
He handed him the bottle and Carey reluctantly took it.
“Only take one or two every six hours,” Mark insisted before turning to walk away.
Carey quickly hid it inside his jacket with the envelope of money.
“Thanks!” he called after him, but Mark didn’t look back.
Again checking to make sure no one had been watching, Carey continued on his way to school.
On the way home Carey detoured to see the owner of the apartment, using Mark’s money to pay a month advance in rent. With still some time before the stores closed he quickly bought some credit for his cell phone and some food. He paused for a long time in the candy aisle but finally decided against it. He wasn’t sure how long this money would last them, or how long it would take to find another job. He did grab a newspaper so he could start the search for one at least.
By the time Emma got home from her afterschool job it was well and truly after dark. Carey had taken a break from studying to keep circling jobs in the paper and to look through his filing for his résumé.
“Hey,” he greeted as she came through the door.
“Hey,” she returned, sounding tired.
Carey momentarily felt a familiar pang of regret hit him in the chest. She was only sixteen, and she was already living as though she were middle-aged and in poverty.
Before he could shake the feeling off she set a flyer on the table beside him.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“The coffee shop across from school is hiring,” she held back a yawn as she walked over to the closet to change, “hours negotiable. Might be worth looking into.”
“That sounds good,” he looked between the flyer and the other jobs he’d already circled.
He figured he should probably apply for multiple right away. He’d gotten his last job through the college and hadn’t really had to outright apply for something before. He wasn’t sure what his chances would be.
“Do you have time to go down there tomorrow?” Emma asked, pulling her pyjamas on.
“I can make time,” Carey was half telling himself, “I can catch the bus on my lunch break or something.”
He ran his fingers through his hair as he debated what to tell her about Mark. She came over to set the noodles cooking on the stove and he managed to avoid eye contact before pulling himself together.
“So the rent’s paid up for a month, plus the week we’d already paid,” he informed her, “and we have enough food for maybe two weeks. If I can get a job in the next few days we’ll be fine.”
“Good,” was her short response as she went back to cooking.
He bit his lip, knowing that she was just tired. He quickly began to pack up his work while making sure not to lose the flyer. He’d aim for the coffee shop the next day and apply for the other jobs after his day at college.
After dinner they separated across the room as usual to focus on their studies, but Carey could only keep looking at his cell phone. He’d put the extra credit onto it when he’d gotten home but he wasn’t sure how much more he could annoy Chelsea Musgrove before she called the police. Three times now she’d found a reason to hang up on him and he wasn’t sure what else he could do to get through to Jesse.
But he had to keep trying. Even just for the chance to hear his voice.