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Small Clubs Down

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The cabin, if it could be called a cabin, was disappointingly cold when they stepped inside. If the outdoors had been a freezer they had merely crossed into the fridge.

“Can’t your dad afford to heat this place?” Kevin asked incredulously, pulling his hat back down over his ears from an aborted removal.

“Sorry, guys, no one’s been in here since last February,” Davis said, hurrying them all inside so he could shut the door.

They all stamped the snow off their boots and breathed the frozen air out of their lungs as they looked around, luggage getting side-lined as they tried to decide whether or not to remove their jackets.

“Cabin” was a bit of an understatement. When Davis had described it to them all it had been with words that implied barely large enough to fit a small family let alone nine adult men, but even from the entranceway it was clear they would have no trouble finding space for all of them.

“Now there’s not a lot of rooms,” Davis said to the bewilderment of his guests, “so we’re going to have to double up. Except… I guess one person. Odd number…”

“I wish Neeley could have come,” Schrader muttered, “he would have loved this.”

“Yeah, well, he’s not,” Kevin said.

“Touchy.”

“Cold, actually. Davis?”

“I’ll turn the heat up once we all get settled in,” Davis assured them. He appeared to be the only one brave enough to remove his gloves and if frostbite didn’t set in Kevin would eat his hat. Even with gloves on he wouldn’t trust his fingers to lift a mug of something hot, something he longed for dearly, but until the feeling returned he was determined to keep them safely tucked away in his pockets with the gloves firmly on. “We can set up a fire, if you want,” Davis continued as he removed his boots. “It’d at least get the living room warmed up.”

“Where is that?” Michaels asked before scurrying off through the doorway Davis indicated.

Only the four of them had managed to fit into Schrader’s car and Kevin sorely awaited the arrival of the only person coming he was actually looking forward to seeing again.

Since their return to Utah five years ago Arnold had valiantly tried to keep in contact, but with school and looming career choices it had been damn near impossible. They hadn’t exactly lost contact, but it took a lot of searching to find these days. If there was anyone Kevin missed it was him. The big lug. Or... short lug he supposed.

“I guess we get first choice of rooms, eh Price?” Schrader said with a grin. And they had only been together for a couple of hours, but that smile was so familiar to Kevin and so unknowingly missed that it managed to melt some of the ice that had swallowed him and Kevin returned the smile warmly.

“D’you think it’s too early to claim the solo room?”

“I would think as the host,” Davis said, coming back through the door, “I would get that luxury.”

“I could fight you for it,” Kevin offered and Davis laughed.

“Maybe later when everyone is here to defend themselves. In the meantime take your stuff off and we can leave our bags on the landing.”

“I’ll take off my boots, but the coat is staying, thank you very much,” Schrader said and Kevin was grateful he had taken the precaution of wearing his thermal socks that day.

After depositing all their boots in a mudroom and lugging their things upstairs they returned to the first floor where Michaels had managed to get a fire going in a rather impressive faux stone fireplace. The whole room was impressive to match and Kevin was almost relieved that Davis was so out of touch with what normal people possessed that he would consider this to be modest.

“What’d you say your dad does again?” he asked, throwing himself onto the sectional.

“Government work. Boring stuff.”

“In Washington?” Schrader said, landing upside down to Kevin’s left.

“He wishes.” Davis took a seat and set his feet on the glass coffee table, considered his toes for a moment, and then swung them back down and stood up. “I’m gonna make some hot chocolate.”

“Did you turn the heat up?” Michaels called out to Davis’ retreating back.

“Yes.”

“Be strong, Michaels,” Kevin said. “You’ve got the fire.”

Michaels, who was sitting on the floor, arched his back towards the glass door of the fireplace and gave a feline grin. “And I’m not sharing.”

The ceiling of the living room was indicative of the slanted roof of the building and sported a large, mostly triangular, window looking out over the woods that surrounded the cabin (more of a manor, really). The sky was white and the trees were white and the light streaming in was white and soft. It hurt to look at, but having just been outside in it, Kevin would rather be looking.

He wasn’t much of a skier, if he were being honest, but that wasn’t really what this trip was about. The pretense of skiing was there, sure, but the core motivation of the trip was simply this. Seeing friends. Reuniting after the longest five years of Kevin’s life.

After returning from Uganda he had almost immediately packed up again and went right off to LDS Business College, earning a degree he didn’t want in a subject he didn’t like and making his father proud. And after that it was all one big question mark. He had the degree, but what was he meant to do with it?

For the past six months he had been working in sales at an insurance firm, calling up unsuspecting phone book names and offering them packages that even to him sounded like a bad deal. Before that it had been six months of job hopping, going from this restaurant to that clothing store, until his dad had said, “Kevin, I have an interview I want you to go to,” and his fate had been sealed. He hated it. A whole year of trying to sell things to people who would rather he just be quiet. Though he supposed his whole religious career had been preparing him for that.

It was exhausting, however, to know he couldn’t continue doing what he was doing and to simultaneously be aware that he didn’t know what else to do. Passion? Kevin had plenty of that, but what was he meant to direct it towards? Things were easier having his dad make all the decisions for him, but how long could it go on for? How long could he live like that?

Davis handed him an orange mug full of hot chocolate and Kevin delicately set it down on the table with a “Thank you,” and quietly hoped his fingerprints hadn’t been burnt off.

“It’s supposed to snow tomorrow,” Davis said, taking a seat on the perpendicular arm of the sofa. His blue mug didn’t seem to bother his fingers in spite of the steam pouring off of it and he appeared to have shed his jacket as well. “We probably shouldn’t ski in it, but there’s plenty around the cabin to do. We’ve got board games and card games and everything, and we’ve got firewood to keep us going all week.”

“Have you got Dutch Blitz?” said Michaels.

Before Davis could reply there came a knock from the door. All four men’s faces lit up and Davis leapt to attention, barely getting his drink down onto the table before he bounded to the door. The other three waited with baited breath.

They heard the open and moments later there drifted in a sea of excited voices, flooding Kevin’s brain with memories he hadn’t thought about in years, the familiarity achingly strong. Moments after the voices, the cold drifted in as well.

“Shut the door!” Kevin called out.

“Kevin!” came a familiar cry.

There was a fumble of noise as Davis yelled, “Boots!” followed by a cry of anguish, more fumbling, and then the banging of socked feet on hardwood.

Kevin barely had time to consider whether it would be safer to stand or sit before Arnold came charging through the door looking like the happiest man sized golden retriever in the world. It was inevitable that the contact would be painful, but Kevin wasn’t quite prepared to be knocked to the floor and crushed.

“Arnold,” he croaked against aggressive hugging, carpet hard against his back and Arnold’s voice assaulting his ears. When he realized attempting to get Arnold off was a fruitless effort he gave in and returned the hug as warmly as he could. It felt good to be smothered by his best friend again.

Beyond the floor, there were slightly more restrained greetings and hugs. Feet milled about on the other side of the coffee table. After a moment someone said, “Need a hand, Price?” and Kevin only waved them away. He hadn’t lived with Arnold for two years without learning how to handle him.

“Buddy,” he said. “I’m really glad to see you too, but I would appreciate being able to breathe.”

He patted Arnold’s back and then held his arms wide as Arnold stumbled to his feet. He helped Kevin up almost violently before pulling him into another spine-snapping hug.

“Kevin, I missed you so much,” he said. “It’s been so long and I have so much to tell you, but first I need you to know I love you and I missed you and you look so good and I can tell you’ve been working out because I can feel your back muscles have really developed since last time I hugged you and good for you for staying healthy and fit and you’d better keep doing that because you have to live forever and outlive everyone here because I need to see you way more often because I missed you so much, Kevin.”

“I missed you too,” Kevin said with a laugh.

“Hey, Kevin!”

Kevin maneuvered himself and Arnold around so he could get a look at Poptarts. He was grinning wildly at him and seemed to be one of the few who had managed to remain near identical to his 19 year old self. Still soft-faced and bright-eyed.

“Hey, Poptarts,” Kevin said.

“Gosh, it’s so weird to be all back together again,” Poptarts said, unconcerned with Arnold who hadn’t made any indication he was about to let go. “It’s really great, though, don’t get me wrong. You know, no one calls me ‘Poptarts’ except you guys, but hearing it again, it’s like none of us were ever apart! Feels right. You look good, though. You working out?”

There were a couple more, Hey, Price’s, from Zelder and Church, and Kevin did his best to reply to them as Arnold’s arms squeezed the breath out of him. As the room settled into old conversation it was like they had never been apart and an odd sense of home filled Kevin.

It was a very specific familiarity that could very well have set tears in his eyes if he hadn’t been so busy trying to extract himself from Arnold’s grip, and he could see exactly what Poptarts had meant. There was a moment as they all came in of the overwhelming feeling that something was off – natural, he supposed, after years apart and now being together again in such an unlikely place – colder, fancier, fewer uniforms. But quickly the feeling was overturned by the sense that this was how things were supposed to be. All of them, together, no matter where.

And some of them were a little softer around the middle, or a little thinner in the face, and many had new hairstyles and Church looked like his was beginning to thin, but they were all the same. The feeling of them was the same. And even though Kevin wasn’t sure exactly what to say it didn’t really matter because they were there and they were happy.

“Hey, Price.”

And that voice, that one particular voice, set something else in his chest. A feeling he hadn’t had in years. And when he turned around and found McKinley standing behind him looking like he was trying to restrain his excitement the feeling enveloped him entirely and he couldn’t stop himself from grabbing him into a big hug and laughing.

“McKinley,” he said, cheeks aching from his smile. He pulled back and found McKinley to be smiling just as large, excitement too big to contain after all. “Gosh, it is so good to see you!”

“It’s great to see you too. It’s been so long.”

“Yeah, and thanks to all of you for helping bring things upstairs,” Davis said dryly from the doorway. “McKinley and I were so grateful for all your help.”

“Oh, don’t be so sour, Davis,” McKinley admonished. “They’re excited to see each other! I didn’t mind helping you out.”

“I’m not bringing it all back down at the end of the week, is all I’m saying.”

Church swept Davis away into conversation and McKinley rolled his eyes to Kevin. “Five seconds in and it already starts.”

“Why are you still wearing your jacket?” Poptarts asked, suddenly by McKinley’s side as though he hadn’t already spent two hours in a car with him. “You guys just get here or what?”

Kevin looked down and realized that Poptarts was right. His jacket, still zipped all the way up, was indeed on his person, gloves peaking out the top of his pockets. “It was still cold in here when we got here,” he explained. “It’s only just warmed up, I hadn’t gotten around to taking it off yet.”

“Want me to take it for you?” Davis asked from behind him, already thoroughly exhausted with his hosting duties.

“No, it’s fine. I can take care of it.”

On the way to the mudroom he collected Michaels’ and Schrader’s coats as well and barely avoided stepping in several puddles left behind by the excitement in the hall. The mudroom was just far enough away that when the door was closed it cut off the mess of voices and Kevin was eager to get back so as not to miss anything. But partway through wrestling Michaels’ coat onto a hanger the door opened, letting in the noise for only a moment.

McKinley stood by the door. His smile was smaller than it had been in the living room, more fond than excited, and his hands were tucked carefully behind his back as he leaned against the wall. “It really is good to see you again,” he said.

Kevin’s chest was warm and he found himself oddly bashful, a little glad to find himself alone with McKinley, but nervous too. He hadn’t expected it to be so soon into the week and, if he were being honest, he had worried it wouldn’t go well. Not that they had parted on bad terms, but having been apart for five years there was always the concern that it would have been too long. That friendships would fade and chemistry would decay and words would no longer match up quite right.

He smiled. “It has been a while, hasn’t it.”

“I’m glad you were able to come. Wouldn’t have been much fun without you.”

Kevin wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, so he focused on his task instead.

“Listen, Kevin,” McKinley said, looking down at his feet. The tone of his voice made Kevin nervous, but he tried not to let it show. “I don’t want things to be weird. We’ve only got a week, I really want it to go well.”

“We all do.”

McKinley nodded and pursed his lips. There seemed to be more he wanted to say, but he never opened his mouth to say it.

“Connor.” He looked up. “We’re going to have a great time.” Kevin finished what he was doing and walked back over to the door, placing a hand on McKinley’s shoulder. “It’s really great that you’re here.” And he gave him a meaningful smile before opening the door and ushering them both out into the havoc.

They spent the afternoon crowding the living room, catching up, reminiscing, and reminding one another what it felt like to be 19. Over the course of conversation it was revealed that Schrader was working part time at a Popeye’s as he worked toward finishing his bachelor in nursing, Davis was applying to schools to get his law degree, Zelder was working at his father’s auto shop that he was going to take over when he turned 30, Michaels was getting a degree in library sciences (a subject that was quickly declared by half the group to be “not a real science” to which Michaels hotly disagreed), Church was working for the city of Hell, Michigan (another raucous conversation piece) filling potholes and doing general maintenance, Poptarts was hopping between majors at a state college and sincerely considering going to cooking school instead, and Arnold had recently moved out of his parents’ house and into his parents’ basement, which he was inordinately proud of, as he attempted to figure out a career for himself.

When it came time for McKinley to tell them all what he had been up to in the past five years his answer was oddly cryptic. “I went to school,” he said, “and moved away.” As the others moaned and called out for more details, McKinley masterfully diverted attention on to Kevin who fumbled to make it clear he was still figuring things out and wouldn’t be making phone calls for the rest of his life.

“Journalism,” he said, “is something I’m thinking of. Maybe radio.” And it was a lie, but it sounded good coming out of his mouth and he was almost convinced to actually put those two options down as real possibilities. He could do radio, he thought, he was great at talking.

They talked for so long that the sun went down and they were forced to turn on the lights and stoke the fire that had settled into embers at their lack of attendance. They made pizzas and continued to talk well into the night, learning more about each other and remember more about themselves. “My sister, Fizz, just started her mission a couple months ago,” Michaels said. “She was sent to China, but I don’t remember what city.”

“My brother’s been on his for a year now,” Church agreed. “He went to Denmark. Sends us souvenirs every freaking week.”

And by the time they were even considering bed it was already well past midnight.

“How are we doing this?” Zelder asked. He, Arnold, and Michaels were all sat on the floor, the sectional full, but with the fire at their backs they didn’t seem to mind. “How many rooms are there?”

“Well, there’s five,” Davis said. “One of them’s only got camp beds, though.”

“We’re sharing, then?”

“We could just do companions again,” Davis suggested. “Might be easiest.”

“No,” Michaels piped up. “I’m not sharing with Zelder again. Zelder, I love you, you’re like a brother to me, but you snore and I already put up with that for two years, so it’s someone else’s turn now.”

“Wouldn’t be fair for Schrader to get a room to himself, either, just because his companion couldn’t come,” Poptarts said, to which there was a rumble of agreement.

“I think it’s perfectly reasonable,” Schrader said.

But McKinley, the leader in him somehow reignited by their company, spoke up with an, “Okay, alright, there’s only one way to settle this.”

“Oh, God,” Church said, collapsing onto Davis’ lap, and after a moment there was a groan across the group as they all realized exactly what was about to happen.

“Davis, do you have a pack of cards?” McKinley said.

“Yeah,” Davis said, pushing Church off of him and onto Kevin before getting up and leaving the room. He returned moments later with a deck of cards, blue with yellow carnations on the back and smelling like cigarette smoke, and he tossed them to McKinley who appeared to be the only person not entirely defeated by the approaching activity.

“You all remember the rules?” he asked as he shuffled.

They all gave reluctant affirmations.

“Good. Then I’ll deal the hand.”

The name of the game was Small Clubs Down. Otherwise known as the Make Neeley Cry Game (due to a common effect observed over the course of the games existence), it was a game the group had made up in Uganda specifically for the purpose of making decisions. After realizing that none of them knew any games that involved ten players (none of them were versed in poker in spite of Davis’ insistence that he had played it before and just couldn’t quite recall the hands) they had been forced to innovate and the result had been both horrifying and deeply competitive.

It was a bluff game similar to P.I.G. with elements of President, but convoluted enough that it had taken two full years to perfect. Needless to say, the rules were etched in all their brains, possibly permanently, and without Neeley present it was impossible to say who would lose.

“Winner gets the single room, two first losers get the camping beds,” McKinley declared, and before they knew it they were all too focused on the game to remember how much they hated it.

In the end, the winner was none other than one Connor McKinley, which earned several calls of “Rigged.” But he took it with only the slightest condescending satisfaction, and told them they were all welcome to visit him in his “private room.” The losers, of course, were Kevin and Zelder.

Kevin remembered being better at the game, but he supposed that after five years he was bound to lose some skill. But he took his punishment in stride and soon found himself carrying his luggage into the spare room. Or rather, Davis called it a spare room, but it was clearly a storage room that had been cleared out to make space for the camp beds.

“We’ll rotate,” Davis promised, but Kevin knew better than to believe that.

And as he lay awake that night, listening to Zelder snore, he wondered if God was punishing him for his indecisiveness in the face of his future career. Then he reminded himself that God didn’t exist, but that a perfectly good sofa did, and he took his pillow and his blanket and he went downstairs.