Lucas came home one weekend and immediately everyone knew something else had changed.
"Dude, you're like." Warren scratched his head. "What are you like?"
Lucas had smiled, and continued ringing through purchases while bored customers waited for him to hand their merchandise over. Warren was ignoring the line-up and staring at Lucas's face. "Do you have a hickey?" Warren finally asked.
"It looks like it from here," the girl buying three Elliot Smith records said helpfully. "It's a classy hickey, but yeah, if you bend to the side? Just barely visible, but definitely a hickey."
Lucas had smiled, again, and given the girl her records. Warren said nothing else; no one else was quite that tactless but Gina maybe looked at him sideways once or twice, Eddie grinned too long.
It was Deb that pulled him aside. "So is he a good one?" she asked, and then held a hand up. "I mean spiritually," and then rolled her eyes, because the new thing around the store was this whole spiritual trip where everything was an 'energy'. Apparently Gina met this sitar player that Jane used to date and then it was all downhill. There were even aromatherepy candles in the bathroom. Deb had bought them, which to Lucas signalled the end of the whole goddamned world.
Lucas crossed his arms over his chest. "You know," he said, and that was pretty much what anyone got out of him all weekend. On Sunday night, after the afternoon shift, he got back on the bus and drove out to college in New York, just like every other weekend.
"I have a genetics final," Lucas said. "I can't."
"What's genetics?" Eddie asked, and then as Lucas opened his mouth to explain, Eddie said, "no, I mean, I know what genetics is. It's not December yet, why do you have exams?"
"It's a midterm," Lucas said, and then, "but I have to study, I can't work Saturday. Sorry."
They started to notice when he stopped taking shifts about the same time they hired two new employees to cover the extra weekend hours. Staff turnover had always been fairly high at Empire, but lately they couldn't keep anyone around, couldn't make anyone stick. No one was willing to say that Joe had lost some of his focus. No one was willing to say it, anyway.
"So tell me." Gina didn't have any gigs this month. "Who is it?"
Lucas put his microbiology textbook down, into a pot of yellow paint. That would make the fourth time this shift alone he'd managed to get some color paint on the book - he put it gingerly in his bag, said, "what?"
"You never come back anymore." Gina picked up his highlighter, put it down; picked up his pen, put it down. "So who is it?"
"Who is what?"
"You've met someone in New York," Gina said.
Gina wasn't wrong. Lucas knew she knew that. He didn't answer her. He picked up his textbook, tried to wipe the yellow paint off and didn't succeed. Someone around the store was still an artist, even if it wasn't AJ - some things didn't change. There'd always be some wistful artist leaving paint everywhere, Mark would always be there. "I go to NYU now, Gina," he said, "of course I've met people in New York."
"So who is it that's keeping you from here?"
"No one," he started to say, but then she said,
"that's bullshit, but that's okay," and left him to study. His microbiology midterm was going to be even harder than genetics, and he'd only got about halfway through the book. The test was Wednesday, it was Saturday already. In two hours he had to get on the bus to get back to NYC. Lucas dropped the book, and stood up.
"Why don't you just replace the bike, already?" AJ sounded exactly the same on the phone as he did in person; somehow, the fakeness of the telephone line never translated him into something he wasn't. "You're wasting a fortune on the Greyhound, not to mention like two hours extra for the trip."
"It's not so bad," he said. Lucas took the kid's cds automatically, rang them through the register and took his money. "I can read."
"Of course you can read." The cds went into the bag; the kid took his cds and left. "I meant why don't you just buy a new motorbike."
Lucas transfered the phone to his other ear; the store, it being a Sunday morning, was pretty deserted. Joe hadn't shown up yet. "I can't--"
"--afford it yet." AJ sounded pissed. "Whatever, loser. Time was you wouldn't have possibly gone two weeks without your bike - it's already been nearly two years."
The bike, sold across the street six hours after losing nine thousand in Atlantic City, hadn't covered what he'd lost. Lucas still hadn't replaced it. "I've got a ride back," he said, "it's not a problem."
"Whatever," AJ said again. "Are you coming to visit next week?"
"Maybe," Lucas said. "maybe."
He had a Sunday morning shift. Lucas got on the bus Saturday night about midnight, and it pulled up at the dingy little station some time before six am. The store wouldn't be unlocked and he'd never been given keys again, so Lucas sat outside, thin backpack on the ground and arms clutched around his knees.
Joe showed up about nine, just as Lucas was dropping off to sleep, the sun finally warming the pavement. At least it wasn't full on winter anymore. "what are you doing outside?"
Lucas gestured to the door; "I can't get in."
"Yeah, but I mean," and Joe finally unlocked the door - warmth, precious warmth, and Lucas rushed in - "you could have come by the apartment, it's not that much farther to walk."
"Yeah," Lucas said.
"Lucas," Joe started, and Lucas braced himself - he wasn't sure whether this was going to be good news or not. "Lucas, you can always come home, you know that, right?"
Lucas swallowed. "yeah," he said.
"Well, good," Joe answered, and he made his way to the back room, and Lucas followed. "And you can bring whoever it is with you, you know," Joe called over his shoulder. "I had AJ and Cory staying with me last month. Jesus."
Lucas grinned; that would have been exciting and awkward all at the same time. "You're a superb human being, Joe."
"Yeah, say that to my ex-wife," Joe said, emerging from his office with another set of keys for the count-out room.
Lucas crossed his arms over his chest. "I did, you might remember."
"Yes, you did." Joe squinted at Lucas, Lucas swallowed again. "I mean it, you know. You've still got those keys."
"Yeah," Lucas said. "Maybe."
Joe turned away, going out to the front of the store again. Lucas stayed rooted to the spot. "Yeah," Joe said, but he was already moving away.
Warren was sitting on the counter. "What's he like, come on. Tell me." Lucas stared at him, and Warren shrugged. "Gina told me. What music does he listen to? Not that fucking teenybopper shit, right?"
"No," Lucas said immediately. "The closest we get to that is at clubs. No, he listens to Rancid and Sparklehorse. Lots of stuff."
"Okay then," Warren said, and apparently was satisfied. Lucas kept ringing in the girl with the mowhawk's cds, including a Patsy Cline, and was grateful.
"Are you coming out tonight?" Deb asked, pulling her coat on. "We're going to Birko's show after closing, should be fun."
"I--" Lucas said, but hesitated. He had an organic chemistry exam the day after tomorrow, but Birko and Gina were on-stage in a club that took five hundred people. Organic Chemistry really was only hydrogen, oxygen and carbon all wrapped up together anyway, at least that's how he'd attempted to explain it to Warren, not that he'd been listening.
"Come on," she said, and tugged on his sleeve. "I have to write an article on the band, it'll be fun."
AJ and Corey and Eddie and Warren and the night manager and Mark were all sitting around the booth when he and Deb showed up, and it felt like a reunion of sorts, except no one else had really gone anywhere. "Dude," AJ said, "I didn't think you'd make it."
"It's a big show, right?" he said.
AJ shoved Mark over, lightly, and made room for the two of them. "Yeah, but." AJ shrugged. "You're never around much, man."
Deb smiled, smug, and rubbed Lucas's head. "He wanted to study," and another round of beers came to the table, "but I convinced him otherwise."
"Whatever," AJ replied, "I'm just glad you're here."
"Yeah," Corey echoed, and Mark nodded, and Lucas felt two inches tall until Birko came out on-stage. It was a good show. It was a great show. He thought about the bonds between hydrogen and oxygen and carbon through most of it.
"It's like," and Lucas held the door open to pour AJ into the cab, "It's like this."
"Right, man." He got him inside, and then tumbled in himself. They hadn't closed a joint down in a long time; and then there was still Joe's place afterwards, even if he hadn't said yes yet. Joe wouldn't lock them out, and besides, Lucas had keys.
"It's like this." AJ sat up with difficulty. "You have to be here, or not, man."
"Here." AJ pointed, for emphasis. "Or there," and he pointed out the window. "You could get a job in New York, you know."
"You could get a job in Boston," Lucas retorted.
"I have one," AJ replied. "I do. But you," and AJ rubbed his eyes, stared at Lucas. "You have to be here, or not."
Lucas swallowed, clasped his hands in his lap. It was incredibly hot in the cab, and the ride felt like it was taking forever, longer than it should, Joe's apartment was only a ten minute walk. "Maybe I'm not ready to leave yet," Lucas finally answered. He bit his lip. "Damnit. Maybe I don't want to."
AJ blinked a few times, and Lucas looked at him - AJ had a sad look on his face. He told Lucas, "You said 'yet'. Damn."
"What are you doing?" Joe asked, coming into the break room.
"Oh," and Lucas put the resume behind his back. "Just making a few copies."
"Schoolwork?" Joe asked.
"Sure," Lucas said. "Yeah."
Joe looked at his watch, and put a hand on Lucas's shoulder. "Doesn't your bus leave in an hour?" Lucas nodded - "I'll drive you."
Lucas put the copies in his bag, zipped it closed, and followed Joe out.