Mr. Egbert was always there.
When Dave met his bucktoothed son on the first day of school, he was there.
When Dave tried to do something impressive off John's swingset and broke his arm, he was there.
When Dave got a call one stormy night, he was there.
When the caskets descended and “orphan” was add to Dave's vocabulary, he was there.
When Dave experienced his first crush three years later, he was there.
“Last one there is a rotten egg!”
“I can't believe you just said that. No wait, yes I can.” Dave pedaled a little faster, until he was at John's side.
It was autumn. The sidewalk was a golden leaf road that crackled under their tires as they raced to John's house.
Weekdays were Egbert days.
When the Strider family shrank, Dave and his brother had to leave the suburbs for the cheaper apartments in the city. The change of homes also brought with it the change of school districts. Dropping Dave off at John's in the morning and picking him up at night was the greatest gift his brother could ever give him.
Dave looked forward to weekdays the same way other kids anticipated weekends.
“I've got an unfair advantage here, Egbert.” Dave's pace was steady.
“Why's that?” John leaned into his bike as he went faster.
“You're already halfway there with the egg thing.” Dave turned off the sidewalk and with a burst of his legs, came back to cut John off.
“Ah. Hey!” John braked to avoid hitting him.
Dave coasted down to John's driveway, set his bike by the front step, and strolled up to the door. John threw his on the grass and bolted over, shoving Dave as he grabbed the doorknob with a victorious grin. It was given victory, but a victory nonetheless. John was still 12 so Dave let it slide.
When the door opened, the smell of home hit Dave like a refreshing wave. It crashed over him, and he took a deep breath, hoping the smell of the Egbert household would soak him hours after he left. It smelled perfect. Dave closed his eyes and walked into the living room. It was so familiar that he could navigate the whole house blind.
John threw down his bag, and by the sounds of it, darted into the kitchen.
The smell of fresh pumpkin bread beckoned and Dave followed. In the doorway he opened his eyes to see Mr. Egbert bent over the stove, armed with pink oven mitts. He pulled two loaves of bread out of the oven and set them aside to cool.
“Evening, Dave.” Mr. Egbert set the mitts down and wiped his hands on his dirty apron. It was white with a cheesy fake tie at the top. “How was school?”
“We dissected frogs today. It was super gross.” John spoke with apple chunks in his mouth. Only healthy snacks before dinner at the Egberts'.
“Just another day.” Dave shrugged his shoulders, walking over to the fridge. “Only sss---,” he caught himself. Cuss words were forbidden there, “sucky thing is we've got to go back again and again. Vicious cycle and all.”
“At least it's Friday.” Mr. Egbert smiled.
“Can we rent a movie?” John flashed the award winning smile he always did when he was about to get anything he wanted.
Dave opened the fridge as the two talked behind him. It was a huge fridge, much bigger than the one at his brother's place. The fact it wasn't full of dangerous objects doubled its size by default. There was an entire drawer stocked full of apple juice boxes. Dave grabbed one.
None of the Egberts drank apple juice.
“Dad.” John sighed. “I'm not going to get scared, trust me.”
Dave sipped his juice box and walked over to the counter to inspect the day's fruit basket yield. He picked an orange and took a seat across from John at the table.
“Mm. That's what you said about the other one.” Mr. Egbert put a few fingers to his chin, running over his light stubble.
Dave found himself staring from the side.
There was never a time when Mr. Egbert didn't smell like aftershave. Dave took a quiet breath to pull more of the smell in. The air around was alive with the scents of Mr. Egbert and they hung heavy and strong over the smell of baked goods. Dave's stomach did a weird flip and he focused on peeling his orange.
“Dave 's here.” John glanced between him and his father.
Dave got the message.
“Yeah. I'm here.” Dave turned his head to see Mr. Egbert place his pipe between his firm lips. Dave's eyes followed the curve of them, how they looked soft against the roughness of his face. “I'll hold his hand so he doesn't wet himself. Even cover his eyes during the scary parts.”
John responded with a slight narrowing of his eyes and a jut of his lips before flashing his father a convincing grin.
“How much homework do you boys have?”
“Not a whole lot.” John's voice was small.
“After homework.” Mr. Egbert moved back over the business side of the kitchen. Dave turned to watch him go, still whittling away at his orange.
Every step Mr. Egbert took was confident, strong, never faltering. The man was like a freight train, powerful, unstoppable, handsome, and always on time. Dave blinked at his own thought. Trains weren't handsome. Bad simile.
Dave's orange peel fell on the floor. He didn't notice until he was trying to peel the fruit itself and his fingers were sticky.
“You okay Dave?” John leaned across the table to inspect the scene.
“Yeah, man. Just got in the zone. You know how it is.” Dave sucked the juice off his fingers and looked back over at Mr. Egbert.
He wondered what the man tasted like.
“Fuck.” Dave hissed as orange juice seeped into fresh bitemarks on his thumb.
He snapped his head over at Mr. Egbert so fast his sunglasses nearly flew off. Mr. Egbert didn't seem to notice and Dave grunted, wringing his tshirt around his throbbing thumb.
“You okay, Dave?” John's stomach was on the table as he tried to see the other boy's hand. “You don't look so good.”
“What?” His face felt a little warm. Nothing some intense poker facing couldn't fix. “I'm fine, Egbert, jeez. Don't flip and call 911 or anything. I'm fine.”
“That must be a reeeally good orange.” John laughed and Dave rolled his eyes.
Homework followed. It was like some kind of mental cocktease. A reminder that even in the comfort of home, school still had its claws in deep. It was even worse at John's where Dave was surrounded by good smells, good food, good company, but algebra demanded his full attention. Homework was absolute torture.
The guard didn't look so bad, though.
Dave found his eyes wandering over to Mr. Egbert as he prepared dinner. His sleeves were rolled up, exposing his muscular arms. He looked strong, yet worked with a delicate touch.
With a low cough, Dave looked back at John, whose pen was stuck in his mouth the same way his father had lipped his pipe. Moments like that, Dave was thankful for his shades. He stared as John ran the pen over his parted lips, bumping his teeth before closing his mouth around it. Dave imagined Mr. Egbert instead of John.
Heat hit him like a punch in the face.
He coughed again.
John glanced over.
Dave pretended not a damn thing happened and continued battling algebra.
Dinner was the best thing he ever tasted, again, as always. Chicken pot pie, homemade. As much noise as John made about his father's baked goods, even he shut up and called for seconds. There were always seconds, and thirds, and leftovers. Their fridge was huge, after all.
Mr. Egbert was so polite, so proper at the table, even though he was in the company of kids. It made Dave feel like he was an equal, like every meal he was graduating from the Thanksgiving kid's table. He was 13, time to sit with the men.
A burp escaped John and he giggled.
John didn't count.
After the movie was obtained, popcorn popped, the boys settled on the couch. The movie was terrible. John's movie choices were never not terrible. The only reason Dave ever let him pick was to avoid the whining. Mr. Egbert read in the kitchen.
The clock on the cable box flashed 8:00. Mr. Egbert appeared out of the kitchen and pulled his hat off. His thick hair fluffed out. It was short, but still had so much volume. Dave assumed he wore hats to avoid the mess that was John's hair. It must have run in the family.
Like some kind of fatherly clockwork, Mr. Egbert always took his hat off at eight o'clock, unless he was out of the house. Dave liked to think he was giving the hat a rest after a long day of holding back the beast that was Egbert hair. Battle well fought, soldier.
Dave bit his lip to keep from thinking about how Mr. Egbert's hair would feel between his fingers. The sheen made it look soft.
By bedtime, Dave was exhausted. Bro gave him the okay on sleeping over, not that he ever said no. Dave settled under his pony patterned blanket. John's bed was equipped with a roll out years earlier, and Dave was glad for it, though in the back of his mind he knew why.
He knew why he kept spare clothes at John's house. He knew why he stayed for dinner every weeknight for the past three years. He knew why the fridge was kept stocked with his favorite foods. He knew why they gave him free roam of the house like he lived there too.
Mr. Egbert felt sorry for him.
Everyone felt sorry for him.
Where ever he went, everyone who knew toed around the subject like Dave was thin ice waiting to crack. When people told others why they should be cautious, they'd look at him with sad eyes, a frown, and an obligatory “oh”. Mr. Egbert was the only person who never directly talked about it. He was just there, like he always was, willing to listen to the things Dave never wanted to say.
“Dave?” John leaned over the side of the bed.
“Are you okay? You're moving around a lot.”
Dave blinked in the darkness. He hadn't realized he was tossing and turning like a fish out of water. No matter how he shifted, he didn't feel comfortable.
Life didn't feel comfortable.
“Do you miss them?” John's voice was barely above a mumble.
He was toeing the ice.
Dave sighed through his nose.
“What kind of question is that?” What he meant was that John knew the answer full damn well and should shut up and go to sleep.
“Well.” John wiggled back so he was peeking over the bed. “I noticed you acting kinda funny tonight.” Dave tensed. “Around dad.”
Dave's breathing stopped.
“Yeah?” He exhaled slow and steady, running his fingers through his hair to emphasize cool. “I didn't notice anything funny. But you're the funny guy here. You're all about funny. You know funny. You live and breathe the shit. Cut you open and you'd bleed peanut can snakes and rubber chickens.”
Dave could have kept going for hours, but they both knew his game. It was pointless, a waste of breath and time.
“Is it because of your dad?”
Dave's teeth ground against each other.
“Because you miss him and maybe.” John wiggled farther away, out of line of the glare that pierced through the darkness. “Maybe you see my dad as a replacement or something?”
Dave sat up.
John pulled his covers up to his chin and frowned.
“Your dad.” Dave's voice was low, cold, and very serious. “Or any man, will never replace my dad. Got it?”
“Yeah. I got it.” John smiled to combat the tension. Dave let him and he fell back twice as exhausted as before.
Dave wasn't sure when sleep welcomed him into its embrace. His mind was going at lightspeed and picking up power. He replayed the night's events and the events of years past over and over. Mr. Egbert's face kept appearing, like sunshine through storm clouds. Sunshine that gave storm clouds what for then passed around cupcakes and hugs.
The tune of his heart picked up its pace when he thought of Mr. Egbert's hands, big, strong, gentle, gliding through his blond hair as the man whispered, Everything's okay. I'm here.
Realization hit him like a cheap shot to the groin.
Dave coughed and rolled over with his back to the snoring John and his eyes wide and bloodshot towards the wall. His heart pounded in his throat, threatening to strangle him. He thought of Mr. Egbert again, his hands. Dave closed his eyes and swallowed, picturing those hands petting down his sides, humming one of his ridiculous melodies soft and low. His tense muscles went lax, but his heartbeat stayed strong.
God damn it.
He had a crush.
On his best friend's dad.
God FUCKING damn it.