“No, guys, I swear, you’re gonna - hey, man, what’s up, good to see you - you’re gonna love this. They’ve been planning this party for weeks, everyone’s going to be here, you won’t - hey, hi - won’t regret it.”
Shooting Skinny a dubious look, Shifty kept stride with Popeye as he led them up from his car through the throngs of people already milling about the front lawn and porch of the house. The bassline of whatever song was blaring from the speakers thudded through the floor, creeping up through the soles of their shoes. Nearly everyone they passed was clutching a plastic red cup, laughing or dancing along in the living room. It also seemed as though everyone knew Popeye, clapping his shoulder or waving as he passed by.
The trip to visit Popeye at college had been a carefully-planned one. Being the son of Harry and Kitty, some of their fathers’ closest friends, Popeye had been three years ahead of the boys in school and had frequently acted as an older brother towards them. Unfortunately, that occasionally meant being the type of older brother who was great to have around if you were in trouble or if you needed a hand with something, but was otherwise occupied with making an idiot of himself with his friends and never quite clear on where his true responsibilities fell. He was a good guy, though, and the boys had missed him when he’d moved away to go to college.
On his last visit home, though, he’d invited Shifty and Skinny to go up and visit him for a weekend, since they would soon be starting to look at colleges and were a little lost as to where to start. Speirs and Liebgott had been more than a little hesitant to let the boys go, seeing as they were well-acquainted with Popeye’s particular brand up entertainment, but after assurances from all three of them that they’d stay well out of trouble, as well as the all-clear from Lipton and Webster, they reluctantly agreed. They had spent most of Saturday just hanging out with Popeye, checking out his dorm and wandering around the campus, just enjoying being someplace new for a change.
Then eleven o’clock rolled around, and things changed dramatically.
“Here,” Popeye said loudly, handing each of them a cup and grabbing one for himself. He nodded towards a couple of guys who walked past them before leading Shifty and Skinny back towards the living room. “You guys didn’t tell your dads you’d be going out tonight, did you?”
“Are you kidding?” Skinny said incredulously. “We’re not idiots.”
“Good. Because the last thing I need’s for your dad -” He nodded towards Skinny, “- holding me down while your dad -” Nod to Shifty, “- makes decorations out of my manly bits for taking you guys to a party when I’m supposed to be the responsible one.”
“I’d be more worried about your mother finding out that you brought us here,” Shifty said, watching as a couple of guys hauled a keg in through the back door, knocking over a pyramid of empty cups that someone had set up.
Popeye visibly shuddered. “Don’t even joke about that. I think Mom’s the only one I’ve seen your dads actually shut up for, other than Lip and Web.”
“You’re not wrong,” Skinny said, taking a sip of his beer. “No worries, man, they won’t hear it from us. We actually want to go to college, and we can’t do that if we’re grounded until we’re 30.”
“Well, then -” Popeye said, holding his cup aloft and setting his jaw, eyes dancing. “Here’s to your first official college party.”
“Hoping it’s not our last,” Skinny added, tapping his cup against Popeye’s then Shifty’s before taking a gulp. Shifty made a slight grimace at the taste as he followed suit, but it passed quickly as a couple of guys came up behind Popeye and cheered loudly, shaking his shoulders and slapping him on the back.
The next three hours were a whirlwind of noise and movement. Popeye carted them around the entire house, introducing them to what seemed like three-quarters of everybody present that night, with his story about them beginning as ‘the kids I knew growing up who are like little brothers to me’ and somehow ending up a couple hours later as ‘two freshman from out-of-state who are living on my bedroom floor until they can find someplace else that will take them’. In truth, the story didn’t really matter, as Popeye was steadily putting back the beers and slowly losing track of who he’d already spoken to, introducing them to the same girl three times and getting their names mixed up twice.
If they were honest, Shifty and Skinny weren’t having a fantastic time. Popeye was so enthusiastic and seemed to be having such a good time that they followed him and smiled and shook hands as they went and laughed when someone told a story, but when Popeye went off to get another drink, they’d share a look that neither had to explain. Get me out of here.
Shifty’s phone read just after one-thirty when he looked up to see himself surrounded by people grinding to the music and pounding back mixed drinks, but no one he recognized. Skinny had said he was going to find a bathroom and come right back, but that had been fifteen minutes ago, and the last he saw of Popeye had been nearly an hour ago when a group of very large, muscled boys had descended upon Popeye with whoops and hollers and had all but lifted him off his feet and carried him off around the corner to who-knows-where. He’d been fine for the first few minutes, idly swirling the dregs of his cup while leaning against the wall and half-heartedly trying to bop his head in time to the music (and failing spectacularly), but after a while, his awkwardness was beginning to grow uncomfortable, even to him.
Navigating through the crowds took some careful maneuvering and a couple of near-misses from others’ drinks, but he eventually emerged onto the second floor of the house, glancing around for where the bathroom might be. It near nearly as busy up there as it was downstairs, but with considerably less room to walk around. He wedged himself against the banister by the landing of the stairs and tried to call Skinny, but no one picked up. Pocketing his phone and refraining from sighing, he decided to try his luck at checking the doors on the floor.
The first one, after politely stepping around two extremely tipsy girls and peering inside, was a linen cupboard of sorts that only seemed to house toilet paper and a couple of plungers. The next one was locked, but Shifty decided against knocking. The third one, however, was not only unlocked, but lit by a light as well. Creaking the door open and cautiously stepping inside, Shifty began to glance around. “Skinny?”
“Oh my god!”
He didn’t find Skinny. What he did find was a pair of nearly-naked partygoers who were apparently about to get down to business when Shifty had entered the scene. He felt an immediate dose of panic settle cold and heavy in his stomach, making him freeze and stare at the couple in wide-eyed horror. “Sorry! I’m - I’m sorry, I’m just looking for a - friend, he’s not here, I don’t … I don’t think, he’s -”
“Get out!” the guy yelled as the girl frantically tried to cover herself up with the bedsheets. But Shifty seemed to be rooted to the spot, every nerve in his body telling him to bolt into the hallway but his feet being seemingly unable to cooperate. He scrunched his eyes up and held a hand out in front of him as if to placate them.
“I didn’t mean to walk - I’m sorry, it’s an honest mistake, I’m -” He was cut off by the high-pitched sound of protest the girl made as she huddled further under the blankets, followed by the guy hurling a pillow at Shifty. It missed him, bouncing off the wall to his right, but he remained immovable. He’d thought that the idea of watching your life flash before your eyes right before death had always seemed like a bit of an exaggeration. At that moment, however, he was preparing himself to be tossed out of a second-story window by a pissed-off, clothesless guy who was, as he found out when he cracked his eyes open, nearly three times his size - all muscle. Shifty’s first thought was that he’d lived a good life, with very few regrets.
“Shift, what -” There was a sudden tug at his sleeve that pulled him off-balance and through the half-open bedroom door and into the corridor. Gathering his wits, Shifty blinked to see Skinny quickly yanking the door closed behind them and spinning Shifty around to face him. “What the hell was that?”
“I’m not going to survive college,” Shifty said, sounding just as weak and terrified as he felt. “I’m doomed to spend my days as an awkward, hopeless virgin whose only joy in life is when the two-for-one waffle house coupon comes in the mail.”
“You’re not dying a virgin if I can help it,” Skinny muttered, rolling his eyes and turning to drag Shifty back towards the staircase, winding between the people.
“Where’d you even go? I tried calling you,” Shifty said, raising his voice as they reached the first floor and the music’s volume returned to full blast.
Skinny shook his head. “Some girl was absolutely convinced that I’m in her Thursday morning Psych lecture. Took ten minutes just to explain to her that I’m not even out of high school yet.”
“Really? You didn’t even go for the ‘I’m totally in college, what are you talking about’ ploy?” Shifty said in surprise. He raised his eyebrows. “Might’ve had a better night that way.”
Skinny glanced around and began to tug Shifty by the arm towards the front door. “If I’d have done that, you’d still be stuck in that bedroom about two seconds away from becoming a stain on the carpet.” He made an apology to the group of people standing in the way as he turned the doorknob and stepped out into the cool night air, waiting as Shifty followed suit before walking over to an unoccupied corner of the porch. He folded his arms and tucked his hands as far into his sleeves as possible. “Popeye?”
“No clue,” Shifty replied as he zipped his jacket up to his neck. “Haven’t seen him since the Walking Muscles hauled him off.”
“Fantastic.” Skinny paused. “I take it he didn’t give you his keys at some point tonight?”
“I was gonna ask you the same thing,” Shifty replied dully. From inside the house, there was the sound of something breaking, followed by a loud group cheer.
Skinny sighed. “Awesome. So our only way back’s disappeared into thin air, we can’t go back inside because there’s a cockblocked sasquatch who’s probably out for your blood, and if we call our dads to pick us up we’ll be locked in your basement until our kids graduate from high school.” He leaned back against the porch railing. “Got any ideas?”
There was a long moment when Shifty just stood there, hands in his pockets, eyes distant as he thought over everything. Pursing his lips and nodding down to the lawn where it was a little quieter, he pulled his phone out and looked pointedly at Skinny. “Only one thing we can do.”
| | |
If there was one sound Babe hated above all others, it was the noise his cell phone made when he left it on vibrate and he got a call. Every other phone on the planet seemed to have a moderately-unobtrusive vibration mode, alerting someone that they had a message while not being too disruptive. His phone, however, buzzed for all it was worth, sounding as though it was trying to rid itself of every scrap of technology inside by vibrating twice as hard and ten times louder than was strictly necessary. He’d even gotten into the habit of leaving it on top of an old washcloth when he went to bed, cutting down on the noise it made against his bedside table.
Of course, it still wasn’t enough to bring him from a dead slumber when it started going off at two in the morning.
He blindly dragged a hand out to his right, knocking against a spare set of Roe’s reading glasses before finding his phone and yanking it towards him by the power cable. He knew it was a phone call because the buzzing would stop after a moment if it was an email, and seeing as there was no one he could think of from work who would logically be calling him in the middle of the night, he tried to blink his eyes open and squint at the screen.
His stomach automatically dropped. He’d gotten enough late-night phone calls from his friends in his time to know that they never meant anything good, so being on the receiving end of one from his godson was reason to grow increasingly concerned by the second. He sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed, wanting to take the call outside the room as Roe was a notoriously light sleeper and would only slip into his Protective Mode if he knew Babe was getting calls from the boys when the majority of the sane people in the area were asleep.
Quietly stepping into the hall and easing the door closed behind him, Babe hit the ‘answer’ key and held the phone to his ear. “Shifty?”
”Hey, Uncle Babe,” came Shifty’s distant-sounding reply. There was a definite thudding in the background that could only have been music. Shifty sounded as nonchalant as was ever possible for him, though. ”I’m, uh … I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
“You mean besides my nightly habit of sleeping? Not a single thing.” He rubbed a hand across his face as he padded barefoot down the hall to the living room, dropping onto the couch. “What’s going on? I thought you boys were visiting Popeye this weekend.”
“Oh - we are, in the strictest sense, I guess, it’s just …” Shifty trailed off. “Well, I suppose we’re in a bit of a jam right now.”
”Don’t say that, he’s gonna freak -” Babe heard Skinny hiss in the background. There was a brief scuffle. A moment later, Skinny came on the line, sounding as calm as ever. ”Good morning.”
“Neither of you is instilling me with any great confidence right now,” Babe said flatly, propping one foot up on the coffeetable as he tried to wake himself up. The panic that had jolted him out of bed was slowly subsiding, seeing as the boys didn’t sound as if they were in any immediate danger, but he was still fighting the rush of adrenaline that came with getting an unexpected phone call in the dead of night.
“It’s nothing we probably can’t figure out on our own,” Skinny said easily. “It’s just that Pop seems to have disappeared, and he’s taken the car keys with him. It’s our own fault, really, we’re at this party-type-thing and if we’d just had kept the leash on him like Dad suggested -”
“Skinny,” Babe cut him off suddenly. “Do you need me to come pick you up.”
Beat. “I’m real sorry, Uncle Babe.” The false bravado he’d used before dropped from his voice, honest sincerity replacing it.
Hauling himself to his feet, Babe picked his coat up from where he’d left it draped over the back of the armchair when he’d gotten home from work that afternoon and awkwardly began to put it on while balancing his phone against his shoulder. “Don’t apologize. I’m just glad you boys called rather than trying to find a ride home by yourselves.”
“Well, we figured you were a better bet than calling Uncle Ron or Dad,” Skinny said in an off-hand manner.
Babe froze, feet half-stuffed into the first pair of shoes he came across (which, thankfully, turned out to be his own rather than Roe’s). He closed his eyes and breathed an honest-to-god sigh of relief. “I am going to thank the lord every single day that you boys were raised with enough common sense to not go calling Ron at two in the morning from a college party you’re stranded at.”
He heard Skinny wince. “When you put it like that …”
Glancing once down the hall to see whether he’d woken Roe up, Babe picked his keys up off the counter and headed towards the door. “Just give me an address and hang tight, okay?”
“Alright. Thanks again, Uncle Babe,” Skinny said. He heard Shifty chime in with a ”Thank you!” in the background.
“Don’t mention it,” Babe replied as he slipped through the door and quietly locked it behind him. “To anyone.”
| | |
Skinny appreciated the small mercies of the night that made the mess he and Shifty found themselves in just a little bit easier. Not only had they neglected to take their bags out of the trunk when they’d arrived at Popeye’s dorm that afternoon, but Popeye’s car was so decrepit that they barely had to jimmy the lock at all before it popped open and they could retrieve their belongings, making a clean break and not needing to return to get their stuff the following day.
They’d hoped that the party would begin to die down a little bit by the time Babe showed up, maybe bringing about the reappearance of Popeye so that they could explain they’d be getting a ride home with Babe instead of staying over. But half an hour later, when they saw the familiar green Toyota rounding the corner, the party had, if anything, gotten its second wind. There appeared to be twice as many people in the relatively-small area of the house, the sound of breaking class and shouting more apparent than ever. They’d ended up sitting on the curb as far from the party as possible, standing up and nearly smiling with gratitude as Babe tapped the horn twice and pulled over to the side of the road.
Shifty climbed into the passenger seat and lobbed his backpack over his shoulder as Skinny got into the back seat, slamming the door behind him and slumping down, eyes fixed on Babe in the rearview mirror. “We owe you our lives.”
Babe smirked. “Your first college experience not exactly how you’d planned?”
Shifty shook his head vigorously as he clicked his seatbelt into place. “It was fine up until a couple hours ago. Then it all went …” He wagged a hand in the air, trying to find the right description. “... Nuts.”
“Oh, I have no doubt about that. I haven’t forgotten what college was like.” Babe ducked his head to glance over at the congestion around the house, squinting his eyes. “No sign of Popeye yet?”
“Not since around midnight. We got our stuff from his car and shot him off a text to say we were leaving, then stayed out of harm’s way.” Shifty slowly relaxed into his seat, eyes closing of their own accord. “This is exhausting.”
“What, parties?” Babe asked as he checked over his shoulder and eased the car into a u-turn.
Shifty shook his head. “Higher education.”
“Yeah, we ever going to get some stories from when you guys were all in college together? Dad tells me to knock it off every time we bring it up,” Skinny piped up from the back seat.
Babe hazarded a look to Skinny before he turned his eyes back to the road. “You’re not getting any stories if we can avoid it at all.” He looked both ways before spinning the car onto the main road and settling back, one arm resting on the wheel while he wearily rubbed at his forehead with his free hand. “I think Joe’s just waiting for one of you to mess up royally and get a girl pregnant or something so we can say ‘At least we never screwed things up that bad when we were your age’.”
“Hear that, Shift?” Skinny said, reaching a hand over to smack against Shifty’s shoulder. “Even our dads want you to get lucky.”
“I … don’t even know where to begin with that one,” Babe said slowly. He merged lanes and brought them up to speed, taking a deep breath through his nose and turning the air conditioning up a couple notches to keep him alert. “Have you given any thought to how you’re going to explain the fact that I’m gonna be bringing you home tomorrow rather than Popeye?”
“Yeah. I’m just telling Dad that Popeye’s piece-of-shit rustbucket of a car crapped out on us and we had to beg you for a ride instead,” Skinny answered. He rested his feet against the centre console between the front seats, ignoring the disapproving glance he got from Babe.
“You might wanna phrase it differently,” Babe said, “but yeah, I’ll vouch for that. Get your feet down, this ain’t your Uncle Lip’s station wagon.”
Skinny dragged his feet back to the floor, turning to watch the streetlights pass out the window instead. They drove in relative silence for a few minutes, the only sound being the whirring of the fan, despite the fact that it was chill enough outside to give the boys chills along their arms.
They were about ten minutes away from Babe’s apartment when Shifty turned to him, eyes bleary from exhaustion. “You don’t think … did you tell Uncle Gene that you were coming to pick us up?”
Babe glanced at him from the corner of his eye, flicking to look out the window before double-taking back to Shifty. “Are you seriously more worried about that than the possibility of your fathers finding out where you’ve been tonight?”
The resounding silence was all the answer he needed. A look to Skinny in the back seat showed him that he was keeping his gaze downward, pointedly not saying anything. Shifty, on the other hand, was watching his with baleful eyes. Babe exhaled slowly, easing to a stop at a red light before speaking. “If there’s one thing you should know about your Uncle Gene, boys, it’s that he will always know. Always. I’ve got nearly half a lifetime of living and breathing next to him, and lemme tell you something - it don’t matter whether you’re half a world away or you’re sneaking out of an apartment at two a.m. to pick up a couple of kids from a party, if there’s something to know, he’ll be on it.” He rolled the car through the intersection as the light turned green, glancing around as he went. “Hell, he’s probably been up since the moment you two set foot in that party. It’s that weird … Cajun sixth sense thing he’s always freaked us out with.”
Shifty blinked and turned his head to look through the windshield. When he spoke, his voice was hushed. “Think he’ll be mad?”
Babe huffed a quiet laugh. “He won’t be mad. He’ll just be glad you two are alright.” He guided the wheel around, turning the corner to head down the main road to the apartment. “Course, you should look forward to a bit of a pep talk from him before we take you home in the morning.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Skinny mumbled, rearranging his seatbelt so he could lean against the door and shut his eyes for a few minutes more.
| | |
Babe’s prediction hadn’t been wrong. In fact, the moment they stepped in the door, Babe only marginally more alert than the two boys who were dragging their feet behind him, the first thing they saw was a flannel-pant-clad, bedhead-sporting Roe sipping water in the kitchen, eyeing them as they entered. Babe looked over to the living room to see that the pullout couch had been made up with blankets and a couple of pillows, and the armchair was reclined all the way with the same additions. Babe wished he could say he was surprised.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Babe said haughtily, tone not quite carrying the amount of bravado he was going for. He dropped his keys on the table by the door and toed his shoes off as he made his way over, leaning against the counter and watching as the boys wearily followed suit with their shoes and dragged their backpacks over to the living room.
Roe just gave him a half-smile and turned his attention to Shifty and Skinny. “Evening didn’t quite end how you’d imagined?”
“To put it lightly,” Skinny said, words beginning to slur together. He abandoned his bag by the television. “We’re sorry about all this, Uncle Gene.”
“Better here than some place you don’t know,” Roe replied. He put his own glass down before turning to the sink and picking up two more full ones, carrying them over and placing them on the coffee table. He gave both of the boys a significant look as they reached for them. “Don’t you ever go worrying about calling us if you ain’t feeling comfortable somewhere. You got that?”
Shifty hesitated from taking a sip of water. “Yes, sir,” he said quietly. Skinny nodded.
Straightening up, Roe took a deep breath and glanced at the clock. “Right. Get some rest, it’s well past the bedtimes of all the sane folks ‘round there parts.”
“Let us know when you come across one of those people, will you?” Skinny said good-naturedly. He smirked to Shifty before lowering himself onto the pullout bed, cradling his glass of water in his hands. “Night, Uncle Gene. Uncle Babe.”
“Sleep tight,” Babe said to them, turning to follow Roe down the hall and flicking the light off as he went. Behind him, he could hear Shifty and Skinny quietly bickering over the arrangements (”Why do you get the bed?” “Cause I got here first. Why, you wanna snuggle up next to me instead?” “Are you kidding? You kick around in your sleep like a mule, I’ll be black and blue for days. Dad’ll think you let me get beat up.” “Then quit your yapping and get in your chair like a good boy, huh?” “... Night, Skinny.” “Night, Shift.” “Asshole.” “You love me.”). Stepping into the bedroom, Babe eased the door closed behind him and let out a heavy sigh, running a hand through his hair and glancing up at Roe as he headed over to his side of the bed and got under the covers.
“Sometimes it gives me the creeps, how much they’re like we were at their age,” Roe said as Babe shrugged his jacket off and dropped it on top of the laundry hamper.
Snorting quietly, Babe got into bed as well, flopping onto the pillows and letting his eyes fall shut. “No kid raised by this group of guys is gonna end up completely normal, Gene, that much is a fact.”
“Suppose you’re right,” Roe said under his breath, lying down and tugging the comforter up and over the both of them. There wasn’t much light in the room, only a faint glow coming in through the blinds from the street below, but he could still see Babe’s face easily enough, eyes trailing from his forehead over his eyes to his nose and mouth. After a few seconds of silence, he let his hand drift up to brush a stray piece of hair from Babe’s forehead. “You ever wish we’d gone that route?”
Babe’s eyes fluttered open, eyebrows furrowing in faint confusion as he tried to focus on Roe’s face. “What’re you talking about?”
“All … that.” He flicked his eyes in the direction of the door, hand ghosting through Babe’s hair. “The kids, the family …”
“You mean, like, adoption?” Babe felt his attention give a valiant effort to wake up once more, sensing this to be a fairly important conversation that should probably have taken place when he wasn’t high from exhaustion. He looked over Roe’s face, seeing the carefully-neutral expression he held there. “What brought this on?”
Roe shrugged one shoulder. “Just a question.”
Pausing for just a moment, Babe brought his hand up from under the covers and reached up to tangle his fingers in with Roe’s, stilling his movements. He did his best to be as alert as possible as he caught Roe’s eye. “Are you happy? Right now - are you happy?”
Roe hesitated before letting his thumb rub mindlessly against the back of Babe’s hand. “Yeah, I’m happy.”
“Well … good.” Babe guided their hands towards the pillow so he could drop a gentle kiss to the back of Roe’s hand, keeping their eyes locked. “I got all the family I want right here. Long as you’re happy, then I’m good. Course,” he added, tone falling flat as the sound of hushed talking drifted in through the door (”Damnit, Shifty, just get over here, the bed’s plenty big enough and your shuffling’s gonna keep us both up all night.”), “those two are kind of a group effort, I don’t mind saying.”
“Mmm,” Roe hummed, shifting on his pillow and letting his foot find Babe’s ankle under the covers. “Sounds about right to me.”
Babe smiled sleepily and adjusted his head to a more comfortable position, keeping their hands together just beside the pillow as he closed his eyes again. “As long as Ron doesn’t find out about this. Then they’re on their own.”
Roe’s only response was a quiet chuckle.
| | |