“Are you excited about going home?” Mikey asked, and Raphael could have laughed.
“Not as excited as I was about getting the hell out of there in the first place.”
“Hah, for sure. But I was thinking about inviting Woody back with us, since he doesn’t have any plans. Do you think dad would mind?”
“Nah. You should be more worried about what he’ll think of your hair.”
“Puh-lease, Raph, I’m an adult. I can do whatever I want to my hair,” he said disdainfully—and then ruined it a moment later, with an anxious, “You don’t think he’ll hate it, do you?”
Raph glanced up from his laptop, into almond-shaped amber eyes just a few shades lighter than his own.
They were the lesser two of four brothers, and it made them close. Best friends in the trenches of the not-good-enough. Mikey had been so sure he couldn’t do it by himself that he never would have applied to his dream school if Raph hadn’t applied with him. The idea of getting as far away from South Dakota as the West Coast was enough incentive on its own; the fact that it would be for Mikey only sealed the deal.
Two months ago, Mikey sailed into Raph’s room with bleach-blond hair. Three weeks after that, while they were grabbing a bite to eat between classes, he tugged his shirt down to expose his collarbone, and the watercolor sea turtle newly tattooed there. Now, he was squeezed in next to Raph on Raph’s twin bed, in a sleeveless UCLA hoodie and a pair of his roommate’s cut-off shorts and a dozen woven bracelets on each of his wrists, happy and perfectly at home.
Michelangelo belonged to California. Going there for college was the best decision they ever made, and this confident, sunkissed version of his little brother was the one Raphael wanted to keep.
“If they give you hell, I’ll bleach mine, too,” he finally said, and it was the right thing to say when it made Mikey smile.
The dorm room door opened dramatically, stopping short of slamming into the wall thanks to the overturned skateboard jammed in the way, and a few seconds later there was a third body on Raph’s bed. Mikey giggled, drawing his legs up to make room, while Raph rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.
“I’m trying to write a paper here, Jones. Your bed is five feet in that direction.”
“That’s five feet I don’t got in me, bro,” Casey replied, and made a show of getting comfortable. “Besides, you’ve been trying to write that paper for like two days now, don’t make it about me.”
“And here I thought everything was about you.”
But Casey lifted his head with a slanting, sideways grin that took the wind right out of Raph’s sails. The guy was cocky and insufferable and had a fifth grade sense of humor—but he skated on the charming side of downright stupid, and he knew it. Raph had been roommates with him for three months now, and he still had absolutely no guard built against that grin.
And that was becoming a problem.
“What about you, Casey?” Mikey interjected. “Are you excited about going home for break?”
“No way,” was the immediate reply. “Given two choices, I’d rather chew off my own arm than cross the country to spend a week at my old man’s house. And I mean that.”
“Ugh, you dudes are a couple of Thanksgiving Scrooges. I’m going back to my room.” Mikey climbed over Raph to get out of the bed, jostling Raph’s computer and bumping Casey none-too-gently with a foot before he finally made it to the floor. And then he turned back graciously and wrapped octopus arms around Raph’s shoulders, hugging him tight. “I still love you, though.”
“Get off me.” But Raph was gentle as he shoved Mikey toward the door. “And call dad before you invite Woody, don’t just be like 'aw, it’ll work out,’ 'cause that shit gets us both in trouble.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll go call him right now. Later, skaters!”
With more room on the bed, Casey stretched out a little more, folding his arms under his head. “That kid sure has changed since he got here. We shoulda snapped a before and after picture.” Raph grunted noncommittally, and returned to typing. After a moment, Casey’s sneakered foot nudged his elbow. “Hey. How much younger is he than you? You’re both in the same year.”
“I’m a year older. But Mikey was born in the early spring, and I was born in late fall, so that put us in the same age group when school registration rolled around.”
“Huh,” Casey said, and then, “What about your other brothers?”
“What is this, Twenty Questions? I told you I’m trying to work here.”
“Dude, it’s like, five minutes till holiday break—no one cares about your stupid overdue paper. So c'mon, what about 'em?”
Raph seriously considered kicking him off the bed, but he knew Casey would just take that as an invitation to start a stupid wrestling match, and then Raph really wouldn’t get anything done. And Casey was irritating, but that was just his default setting; there was real interest in his face, like Raph’s homelife and Raph’s family were the most conversation-worthy topics in all of L.A.
And that look on his face, coupled with the happily hateful way he talked about his dad, made Raph’s automatic annoyance relent a little into something kinder.
“Don and Mikey are twins,” he replied grudgingly. “The non-identical kind. But Don’s a literal genius, so he skipped like a hundred grades. And Leo’s two years older than me.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Casey said. “I mean, I have a sister, but she lives with an aunt in Jersey. We ain’t close like you guys are. We would never have gone to college together, that’s for sure.”
“Mikey’s always wanted to come here,” Raph muttered. “And I didn’t care where I went, s'long as Don and Leo weren’t there.”
Raph could take an engine apart and put it back together, and he could coax a skittish mare in from the meadow without a rope or an apple or any tricks up his sleeve; Mikey could make, and his half of the garage looked like it belonged in a magazine or a museum—clay sculptures and painted canvases and stacks of loose-leaf notebooks filled with sketches only Raph had ever seen.
But everyone in their hometown was good with machines and farm animals. Everyone knew someone who was 'good at art.’ Leo had been homecoming king and captain of the baseball team. Don had been student body president and valedictorian. Their talents earned them trophies, and pictures in the newspaper, and they didn’t mean to cast such long shadows, but their brothers were effectively overshadowed anyway.
Raph would take a bullet for any member of his family, no exceptions (and he had taken a kick from a horse for Donnie once, he still had the lightning-shaped scar on his shoulder to prove it) and he loved them more than he knew what to do with.
But when Leo went to State, and Donnie enrolled at NYU, they took their shadows with them. And for Raph, it was like seeing the sun for the first time in years.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, they’re great. We may not be living together anymore, but we all talk constantly—on Skype, and Facebook, and—like, look.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and unlocked it, holding it up for Casey to see a message thread. “Leo texted me like nine hundred times today about some guy he met at a mixer, because he’s a dork. I can’t wait to see 'em again,” Raph admitted, flicking a quick look at Casey through his dark fringe. “They’re just—y'know, perfect. Kinda gets old constantly trying to live up to all that.”
“Nobody’s perfect, bro. I bet you had some stuff they were jealous of growin’ up, too.”
“I seriously doubt it.” Glancing back at his paper, Raph admitted defeat. Saved it, e-mailed it off, and then washed his hands of any and all schoolwork for the next nine days. Closing his laptop, and leaning over to slide it just under his bed, safely out of the way of stomping feet and constant shenanigans, Raph turned a question over and over in his head before he finally let it leave his mouth: “Are you really not goin’ anywhere for break?”
“Oh, yeah. The whole point of going to school in California was so I would literallynever have to see my dad again,” Casey said cheerfully. “I’m just gonna kick it here and munch solo.”
That damn grin again.
And eyeing his friend warily, Raph could picture exactly how a week on his own would play out.
Their Xbox was a duct-taped, hardly-functioning piece of shit, which would mean that Casey would be mostly bored. And their mini-fridge contained nothing more substantial than Rockstars and Little Debbies, which would lead Casey to order from his favorite textbook-health-code-violation Chinese restaurant until he ran out of money, and then he would starve. And all of their friends were going to be gone for a week, which would leave Casey to his own devices.
A bored, hungry and unsupervised Casey Jones was one of the most dangerous things Raph could come up with.
And since Raph had a self-destructive streak a mile wide, and an utter lack of any functioning sense of self-preservation to go with it, he took a deep breath, flopped back onto his pillows, and told the ceiling, “Y'know, Mikey’s a pretty good cook.”
“Yeah. We all have to go to the store with him two days before Thanksgiving to help carry, because he buys such a shit ton of food.” Still carefully not looking at his roommate, Raph added, “And you could meet Spike. You ever been on a horse before?”
Casey didn’t answer for a minute; then he levered himself up on his elbows and stared at Raph from the opposite end of Raph’s tiny bed.
“Yeah, no. There weren’t a lot of horses in Brooklyn for a young Casey Jones to play Lone Ranger with, kemosabe,” was his smartass reply, and Raphael felt himself grin. “Don’t lie, I know you did. And—look, dude, are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Raph replied easily, warmed to the idea, warmed by the way it made Casey’s face light up. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Woody had a car, a fuel-efficient little Honda Fit, and the drive from California to South Dakota took about two days. They left in the middle of Saturday, when the four of them realized they had nothing better to do and there was no point waiting around until break officially started, so they pulled down the long drive in front of the farmhouse Monday evening—the sunset was painting the sky in pink and orange, and already there were figures waiting for them on the porch, waving widely with both arms.
And that was when Raph found himself mirroring Mikey’s ten-thousand-kilowatt smile; and when Mikey fell out the passenger-side door before the car had rolled to a complete stop, Raph was right behind him, and their brothers met them in the middle of the yard.
“Oh, my god, Mikey, look at you—”
“Raph, you’re almost as tall as me! When did that happen?”
Mikey was laughing, shoving Leo’s hands out of his hair, and Raph returned Donnie’s tight hug with equal force. God, he had missed them.
“Dad’s inside making dinner,” Leo said, trading Mikey to Don for a chance to wrap his arms around Raph in turn. The twins were already talking at about a mile a minute, squeezing each other for all they were worth, and Leo added, “We didn’t expect you for at least another hour!”
“Yeah, well, we weren’t expecting Casey to channel his inner Speed Racer when it was his turn to drive this morning,” Raph replied wryly, muffled against Leo’s broad shoulder. When they parted, Raph continued, “I never believed in God till today. It’s a literal, Biblical miracle that we managed to avoid every speed trap in the state of Wyoming.”
“We like to call that skill, Raph,” Casey said loftily, a few bags strung over his shoulders while Woody unpacked the trunk, and Raph realized there were still introductions to be made.
“Oh, yeah—guys, this is my roommate Casey Jones,” he said, stepping back and encompassing their college buddies in a wide gesture of his arm, “and Mikey’s roommate, Woody Dirkins.”
Mikey pulled away from Donnie with an 'oh, yeah!’ of his own, and tugged Woody over by the arm to meet him. Donnie’s eyebrows went up when Woody reached over to shake his hand, and he arched a knowing look at Mikey that made the kid’s tanned face flush red.
“Nice to meet you both,” Leo said genuinely, shaking Casey’s hand with that charming country hospitality he’d probably never outgrow. “Now c'mon inside, everybody. Go unpack and get settled. Pork chops and sweet potatoes on the menu tonight.”
Mikey gasped in real delight. “And cornbread?”
“And cornbread,” was Leo’s indulgent reply. “With blueberries.”
Mikey whooped and snatched a few bags off the ground, beating feet up the porch steps and slamming through the screen door. Easy-going Woody shook his head and followed at a softer pace with Donnie, the two of them talking in voices that were similar for all their fond exasperation.
Raph lingered, taking in the yard—the clusters of goldenrod along the base of the old wooden post fence, the wheel ruts in the worn dirt path that winged out toward the barn. Everything smelled like late apple blossoms and fresh mown hay, and for all that he’d been convinced that he hadn’t missed it, Raph was somehow soglad to be home.
“Dude, you gotta get me a pair of overalls and a bandanna, like, yesterday,” Casey said from beside his shoulder. “I see chickens over there—just loose, random chickens, right over there—and it’s like, I dunno, it’s bringing out the farmer in me. I need to herd them back to safety.”
“Oh my god, Jones. You’re not going to herd those chickens.”
“Not without overalls and a bandanna, I’m not.”
Leonardo wasn’t even trying not to laugh at both of them on his way back up to the house, and Casey squawked indignantly when Raph gave him a shove in the same direction. It was cool outside in the fall, but content and comfort were expanding warmly in Raph’s chest, and for this brief pocket of time he was perfectly at peace, and he didn’t shrug him off when Casey threw an arm around his shoulders.
“For real, though, Raph—thanks,” his friend said genuinely. “For inviting me. I haven’t had a Thanksgiving in years. This is gonna be an awesome week.”
And then Casey grinned at him, familiar and devastating, close enough to lean into and kiss—tearing through all of Raph’s feeble defenses the way he always did, until the only thing left to do was say a prayer and grin right back.