Merriell didn’t know what to think of Gene-Baptiste’s newest boy. His red hair and dark eyes reminded him easily of a few ghosts, but Babe Heffron was all smart-ass smirks, harsh vowels and a body full of attitude. He brought a buddy along with him, a guy named Ralph Spina, a bit more jumpy than Heffron, but kind of like his own version of Burgie. From what Merriell could puzzle out there was a guy named Bill out there too; he sounded like Babe’s Gene-Baptiste. There was a Julian too, always getting his ass in trouble, which made him Heffron’s own Leyden.
He wanted to hate the kid, find something wrong and lacking in his patient eyes and charming laugh, but he couldn’t get anything but genuine off of him. And that pissed Merriell off even more. It wasn’t a chance of losing Gene-Baptiste, that would never happen, but Merriell didn’t want to see a repeat of the Craig Schwetje Debacle. Fucking’ frat boy morons.
Merriell knew when it was time to ask for some help. Always needed more reinforcements no matter where he was in life. He could hear sounds coming from the kitchen downstairs, curse words flying as the person below moved around an unfamiliar space. He shook his head. He had no mind for dealing with new people so early in the day. He grabbed his bag and made his escape through the open window.
Gene-Baptiste was already giving Spina the tour, so Merriell was able to sneak in through the backdoor.
“Merriell Shelton, why you under my desk?” Eva Thibodaux asked.
“Need some advice, thought I’d come to you,” he said. Merriell didn’t like to piss off Eva, her granddaddy was their landlord and contrary to what Burgie liked to say, he wasn’t that stupid.
“Why’re you coming to Eva for advice, what you do?” Remy Whitman, one of the LPNs, asked.
“Maybe ‘cause she minds her own business,” Merriell said.
“You saying I’m a gossip?” Remy asked.
“It’s the truth,” Eva said. She shoved Remy off her chair and pushed Merriell out from under her desk.
“I was sitting there,” Merriell said.
“And now you ain’t,” Eva said, sitting down. “What you need?”
“Gene-Baptiste’s new boy, you think he’s good people?” he asked.
Eva shrugged. “I can’t rightly say, but he don’t seem like that frat boy Gene brought home. You got a reason to be concerned?”
“Normally you just meddle if you think you need to,” Remy said.
“No one asked you,” he replied. He picked at a rough patch on his shoes. “Gene don’t usually act like this.”
“You think he’s twitterpated or something?” Remy asked.
Eva shook her head. “How many times do I have to tell you, no sane person quotes Bambi.”
Remy held his arms out. “You see any sane people here?”
Eva and Merriell both shrugged.
“Gene’s more guarded than he’s been in ages,” Eva said, “he’s only been himself these last seven months or so.”
“That’s my point. Gene don’t jump into shit like this anymore. He said he wanted to live a simpler life for a bit, but ever since I got back he’s been talking about this Heffron kid like the sun done shine out his ass.”
“Maybe Gene just likes him,” Remy said, “that happens sometimes, you know. People just click and shit. It doesn’t have to mean there’s something else going on.”
“Well, I don’t like it,” Merriell said.
“Shelton, when do you ever like anything,” Eva said.
Merriell was cut off by a puking kid and his parents coming in through the doors. He ducked out before anyone could get him to clean that shit up.
Heffron was a stubborn shit and didn’t scare easily at all. He stuck around in the face of Merriell’s worse and laughed at Gene-Baptiste in one of his temper tantrum fits. Anyone who could laugh when staring down Eugene Roe’s pissed off face was either crazy, stupid, brave, or a combination of all three.
It hurt something in Merriell’s soul to admit that he might even like the guy. He just needed to make sure he wasn’t finding something good in Heffron just because he reminded him of a memory. He needed to talk it out, but Gene-Baptiste was a no-go. Which meant he had to go to Burgie, because Burgie always knew what to do.
Merriell curled up next to his bed letting his feet rest on the cool floorboards. It was too damn hot to sleep right now and he couldn’t stop thinking.
He pulled out his phone and called Burgie. “I need you to get down here,” he said.
“Fuck, Snaf, it’s 3 in the morning,” Burgie muttered on the other line.
“You said to call you at any time.”
“Nobody ever means that,” Burgin said. There was rustling over the line, and he could hear Florence muttering in the background.
“You living in sin?” he asked.
“You trying to make me come there just to kick your ass?” Burgie asked.
“I know Flo would do a better job of it.”
“Snafu, why’re you waking me up?”
Merriell fiddled with a gum wrapper he found behind the bed. “’Cause I need you to come here. Got a person you need to meet.”
“Christ, is this about Heffron again? Don’t you remember the conversation where you promised me you’d leave the kid alone and let Gene make all his own mistakes?”
“He looks like Sledge,” Merriell muttered.
The line went silent for a good two minutes. “You and Roe are so fucked up.”
He didn’t bother to deny the truth. “So, you coming?”
Burgin sighed. “I’ll be on the road in an hour. Make sure me and Florence get a clean room to sleep in this time.”
“I’ll even put a mint on your pillows,” Merriell promised.
He couldn’t stop his smile as Burgie proceeded to curse him out.
Gene took Florence, Babe, and Spina up to Lafayette for a tour, which left the house to Burgie and Merriell. He was thankful that he didn’t have to ask for the time, Gene just knew, like always.
“So?” he asked, lighting a cigarette in defiance of Gene’s No Smoking sign.
“I think you’ve got a death wish, but that’s nothing new,” Burgie said.
“Gets me through each day, doesn’t it?” Merriell asked.
Burgie knocked his feet off the table as he sat down. “Never change, Snafu.”
“So,” Merriell repeated.
“They may be similar in looks but Heffron curses worse than you do,” Burgin said.
“I didn’t notice.”
“You wouldn’t,” Burgie said.
He fiddled with his lighter. “You think he’s going hurt Gene-Baptiste?” he asked.
Burgie shrugged. “That ain’t for you to decide, Snafu. If it happens, it does. I don’t think the guy came down here for head games though. He’s here for Spina and for Gene. And I don’t think he’s the kind to sit back and let propriety get in the way of what he wants. I don’t see him pulling that stoic bullshit either. He takes Gene head on, and I think you got to respect that. Takes you head on too.”
Merriell smiled. “Noticed that, did you?”
“Lesser men have fled in despair from even the hint of your wrath. You just annoy Heffron.”
“I annoyed you too.”
“Why you putting that in past tense?”
Merriell threw his lighter at him.
Burgin laughed and kicked at Merriell’s feet. “It’s going to work out. He seems like a good guy. Just don’t try and make it too hard on him.”
“You not going to tell me to be nice.”
“I know better.”
Merriell stubbed his cigarette out. “I appreciate it, Burgin.”
“Can’t let you fuck up too many lives on your own.” He sighed. “Now about Sledge.”
Merriell rolled his eyes. “I didn’t say we could talk about that.”
“He’s looking for you, Snaf.”
He felt his shoulders go tense and had to consciously relax them. It was too early in the morning to deal with this bullshit. “Don’t want to be found yet, and you can tell him that.”
Burgin stared him down. “You’ve got until his birthday. He’s having a small reunion for his party. Your ass will go there willingly or I will strap you to the back of my pick-up and drag you there. We clear?”
Merriell gave him a lazy salute in response.
“Why do I put up with you?” Burgin asked.
Merriell laughed. “Fuck, Burgie, you think I’d ever actually tell you that? I’ve got you trained, can’t let you go now.”
“Love you too, Snafu.”
Merriell just leaned back in his chair and watched Burgie make their lunch. It was good to have him and Flo here, always nice to have the family around. Merriell liked it when the house was full. He never did learn how to be comfortable with the emptiness of a quiet home. He could easily get used to all these people in his life. Even if Spina was too attached to his knitwear and Heffron thought Spaghetti-O’s made a decent dinner. It was a change he could get behind.
As long as no one broke his Gene-Baptiste again. Then there would be blood.
“You’re looking evil,” Burgie said as he slid a turkey sandwich across the table.
“Just thinking about the future,” he said.
“Should I be terrified?”
“I promise not to raise too much hell.”
“Oh Christ,” Burgie said with a groan.
Merriell just smiled and ate his lunch.