By the volume of the slamming door and the weight of the thundering footsteps that followed, it was clearly not Scot at the door returning from Fabricland, or Sam getting back from his meeting in time for lunch. That narrowed down the possibilities to a likely one.
"In here!" he called out from the kitchen, and poured another cup of coffee.
A moment later, Ryan poked his head in the door. "Where's Scot?"
"Buying a zipper," said Eric. "Lots of sugar, right?"
Ryan looked at him, then at the cup, then nodded his head. "Well, shit," he said. "He coming right back?"
Eric nodded; 'coming right back' might have actually been an understatement. Scot was probably breaking every traffic law right now and if Eric's car came back with so much as a scratch on it.... Instead of dwelling on the possibilities, he looked Ryan up and down to try to decipher his dramatic arrival. Not that Ryan Burlington needed a reason to crash in their front door and look agitated.
"You get into it with your dad again?" he asked finally.
"My stepdad," Ryan corrected him immediately. "And no. Gimme that coffee."
Eric handed over the cup and leaned his butt against the edge of the kitchen counter, crossing his arms over his chest. "The zipper on Greta's dress broke," he said instead of asking him what was actually going on. "He wants to have it fixed before she gets here so she doesn't see it and think it was her fault."
Only Scot would sew his own girlfriend's dress for grad, but then that was probably why Scot had been offered a scholarship to Ryerson's School of Fashion Design in the fall.
"Greta's a twig, I could snap her in half," said Ryan dismissively.
"Right," said Eric. "So I hear you're going to grad with her best friend?"
Ryan made a face and sipped his coffee. Eric wasn't even sure he liked coffee, but he'd been drinking it for at least three years now and he figured it was better than than the morning beer Ryan used to ask for so he gave it to him.
"Tommy's pissed at me," he said finally.
"Because you're going to grad with Greta's best friend?"
"Katelyn," supplied Ryan, then sipped his coffee again, then the dam burst. "I mean, what the fuck does he think, that I'm going to take him to grad? We've had that conversation about twenty times. It's not like I'm doing Katelyn."
"Well, I'm sure that's a comfort to him," said Eric dryly.
"So now he's not talking to me," said Ryan. "How the fuck did you do it?"
That was the sixty-four thousand dollar question, wasn't it, and probably the reason Ryan Burlington made himself so at home there over the past couple of years: the answers that Eric might give him. Or if not answers, at least solidarity.
"I didn't date until my twenties," said Eric. For a certain definition of 'date' anyway, that including doing guys on the down low while trying to maintain an NHL career. "But I doubt that's the answer you're looking for."
"I mean, it's just grad," said Ryan. "I thought he understood."
The door opened and closed again, more quietly this time but Eric could hear Sam's voice even before he appeared in the kitchen. He thought he wasn't alone at first until he realised Sam was mid-phone call.
"No, I can't come to a meeting this afternoon," he was saying, dropping his bag on the kitchen table and barely acknowledging the two of them. "Scot's graduating and I'm not missing it. Scot? My kid? No, I can't reschedule it, are you joking?"
Eric gave him a half-hearted wave, which Sam returned before ruffling Ryan's hair—earning himself a scowl—and heading out the other side of the room.
"I'll email you the document right away," he was saying, "but no, you will not see me after lunch...."
"Just look what you have to look forward to," said Eric a few moments after he was gone, and finally picked up his own cup of coffee again. "You're seeing Tommy after the dance?"
Ryan shrugged. "I figured we were, but now I have no idea. Whatever. Fuck it."
"Need a refill?"
"I mean, you get it, right?" said Ryan, like Eric hadn't just spoken at all. "Like I could ever actually take him. I told him he could go with one of Greta's other friends but he was all like "fuck that" and "I don't want to hide" and so he's not even going to be there at all."
When the door slammed this time, there was a pattering of footsteps up the stairs and Eric nodded towards them. "Scot's home," he said, unnecessarily.
"You do get it, right?" Ryan persisted.
"I do get it," he agreed. But things were different now than they had been over twenty years ago, and just because he got it didn't mean he a hundred percent agreed. "Maybe you guys needed to talk about it a little bit more."
"Talk. Fuck. Whatever," said Ryan, and threw back the rest of his coffee. He probably would've slammed the mug back down on the countertop like he used to when he came over all pissed off about something, but after that one time he broke one he was a little bit more afraid of Sam than he used to be. "Thanks, I guess. See ya."
Getting a 'thanks' out of Ryan Burlington was more than Eric ever expected. He took what he could get, and felt marginally proud of his parenting skills for as long as it took for the front door to open again. He was long since used to the fact that nobody cared that they had a doorbell.
"Mr. McNally?" he heard Greta's voice. "Mr. Miller?"
"Scot's upstairs," he called out to her, but instead of heading up he heard her heading for the kitchen. Heard two someones, in fact, which wasn't what he'd been expecting.
The two girls who appeared were complete opposites, petite dancer Greta with her close-cropped hair and dark skin and her friend a tall, muscular and pale redhead.
"Katelyn?" he ventured, and got a silent nod in return. "What can I do for you ladies?"
Greta held up her phone. "Scot told me not to come upstairs until he said it was safe," he said. "Don't suppose you have any idea what he's doing?"
"I very rarely have any idea what Scot is doing in his room," said Eric, neatly evading the question. "Ryan just went up there, though."
"Ohhhhhh," said Greta as she tucked her phone away again. "Yeah, I heard there was a big blow-up this morning."
"Yeah?" said Eric. "Any details you want to share?" More than Ryan had voluntarily shared with him anyway. Forewarned was forearmed.
She shrugged. "I don't really know, except that Scot texted me and then Tommy texted me and Ryan hasn't texted me at all but I'm not sure Ryan can spell."
"Wow, you sure set me up with a winner," said Katelyn.
Eric's coffee-holding hand froze somewhere between countertop and mouth and he looked from one to the other, hoping that Katelyn knew what she was getting into. It was one thing to take a fake date to grad. Loads of people took fake dates to grad. It was another for her to not know that she was a fake date.
"Well, it's not like he could go with Carla," said Greta sensibly. "Everyone would know she was just doing Scot a favour. And you got a free dress out of it."
"Scot is pretty amazing," said Katelyn, and Eric breathed out a sigh and sipped his coffee.
"Yeah, he is," said Greta, and her smile suggested that she meant it for a lot more reasons than his dressmaking skills. Eric had to smile a little bit too. Two years and they were still going strong, and he might not believe in finding your soulmate in high school, but maybe those two crazy kids were going to make it.
"Speak of the devil," he said as a single set of feet came back down the stairs. Definitely not Ryan this time. In the background he heard Sam say, "What part of 'not today' are you having trouble with?" before Scot slid on sock feet into the kitchen.
"Come try on your dress one more time," he said, holding out his hand for Greta.
"I just tried it on last night! It was perfect."
"No, it was really good last night," said Scot. "Now it's perfect." Eric noted the complete lack of mention of emergency repairs. "Just one more time?"
"If you added bows or something, I'm going to kill you," said Greta, but she took his hand all the same and looked fairly pleased. "Katie, you coming?"
"Boring," said Katelyn, feigning a yawn. "I'll see it after l lunch anyway."
Eric had been planning a quick lunch for three, maybe even just sandwiches since there would be a banquet later. He revised his estimate for the second time, up to six now. If he threw in some of the wraps that were in the freezer, he should be able to make it stretch.
"We'll just be a minute," said Scot, and Greta actually giggled as they dashed out of the room. It probably hadn't occurred to her yet that they weren't going to be alone up there.
"They'd be just a minute," Eric echoed back to Katelyn, as if it was in any way necessary. "So...Scot made your dress too?"
"Hard to find anything to fit me right, you know?" she said, gesturing down herself.
"Not really," admitted Eric, "but I'm not the expert on women's wear that Scot is." Not the expert on women's anything, really. And even if he was, he would not be applying that knowledge to a teenage girl he just met.
"All I had to do was pay for the fabric," she said. "It was a pretty sweet deal."
Sam picked that moment to sweep into the kitchen and give Eric a quick kiss on the ear before stealing the dregs of his coffee. "Burns insists the papers need to be signed today, so I'll be right back. If I don't go back now, I swear he's going to parade up the aisle of Scot's gym to flag me down." Only then did he notice they weren't alone in the kitchen. "Hi," he said to Katelyn. "I...have no idea who you are."
"Ryan's date," said Eric. Sam furrowed his brow and looked back at Eric again. "Ryan's grad date," he clarified.
"Oh!" said Sam, getting it. "I...think everyone else is upstairs?"
"Greta's trying on her dress," said Katelyn.
"With Ryan there?"
"Apparently he's in crisis," said Katelyn with a shrug. "They said they'd be right back. Um, could I get a glass of water or something?"
"You're the worst host," said Sam, elbowing Eric before turning to open the fridge. "Scot would be ashamed of you."
"Scot's frequently ashamed of me," Eric confided in Katelyn. "Athletes are apparently boors who can't be trusted with basic hospitality."
"Which you have just proven to be correct."
"I play basketball," Katelyn told Eric, which shouldn't have been a surprise, and finally smiled back at him as Sam handed her the water. "I got an athletic scholarship to UBC."
"One of my people!" said Eric, as Sam rolled his eyes good-naturedly, then scowled as his phone rang again. "Don't worry about lunch," he said to Sam before he answered. "Meet us at the school if you have to."
Sam nodded and didn't answer the call till he was out of the room again.
"You've met Ryan?" Katelyn nodded and Eric could absolutely read that look on her face. He knew it well. "He's not as much of an asshole as he seems," he reassured her. "If you're into sports, you'll probably have a lot to talk about."
"If I'm into hockey, you mean."
"He watches football, too?" offered Eric, as small consolation.
"It's okay. I am into hockey. And I figured if he's Scot's friend he can't be all bad," she said. "If I can't take my actual boyfriend to my grad, at least I can go dance at someone else's."
"God forbid anyone have to go to grad alone," said Eric. "What would the neighbours think?"
"It's nice to find someone who's taller than me," said Katelyn. Okay, yeah, Eric could get that. He'd been that guy. Frankly, he'd practically been Ryan Burlington once, in another life.
When the door slammed this time, Eric assumed it was someone going out, since Joey Morita would never slam the door and Carla was helping decorate the gym and the rest of the usual suspects were already accounted for.
Except one, it turned out. Eric's mental lunch ticker went up again. Maybe there were some pizza pockets left. Some fish sticks buried at the back of the freezer.
"Hey," said Tommy, stuffing his hands in his pockets when he found Eric in the kitchen. "I'm just gonna..." And he thrust his thumb in the direction of the ceiling. "He is here, right?"
Eric had known Tommy practically from the moment he and Ryan had met. After all, it wasn't like Ryan was going to bring him back to his place; he had enough friction with his stepdad without bringing that into the mix. Eric got that too. Tommy was a good kid, smart, track star. Basically, nothing at all like Ryan Burlington. He was pretty sure it was mostly physical attraction between him and Ryan, but that was none of his business. Teenage hormones were a mystery.
"He's helping Greta into her dress right now," said Katelyn. "Possibly letting Scot stick pins in him."
"Good for Scot," muttered Tommy. "I, uh, don't think we've met?"
"Right," said Eric, who really wished he were anywhere but the middle of this right now. "Tommy, Katelyn. Katelyn, Tommy."
"You're her," said Tommy, his voice going flat as he looked her up and down. Katelyn crossed her arms over her chest. "You're not his type, you know."
"Well, obviously," she said, meeting his eyes and not backing down. "You must be the reason he's upstairs crying to Scot right now."
"You don't know what you're talking about," said Tommy, clenching the edge of the countertop and, Eric noticed, flicking his eyes towards the stairs the moment she said 'crying'. An overstatement, but not fundamentally incorrect. "And you don't get to take my boyfriend to grad just because you don't have one."
"For your information my boyfriend is at university out west," said Katelyn. "I don't want your stupid boyfriend. I'm doing you guys a favour."
"Doing him a favour, not me."
The glass probably just slipped, since no one made any kind of threatening motion towards anyone else or even so much as raised their voice, but whether it just slipped or not, the moment it shattered at Katelyn's feet she let out a little shriek and jumped back and, startled, Tommy yelped too.
A moment later three sets of feet came tumbling down the stairs.
"Is everyone okay?"
"It's nothing, said Katelyn, raising her hands against the onslaught. "Don't come any closer."
"What did you do?" Ryan asked Tommy, whirling around to face him. "God, I told you it was just a thing for tonight."
"I didn't do anything!" he said. "Why would you even think I did anything?"
"What are you even doing here?"
"I was going to apologise, but now I'm just leaving. I don't know why I bothered."
"Whoa, whoa, hey, hey, everyone take a breather," said Eric, holding up his hands like he was coaching the team. "I'm going to clean up that glass, and the rest of you are going to talk to one another like the rational human beings that you are."
"Are you sure you're okay?" Greta said, moving closer despite what Eric just said.
"Seriously," he said. "Floor. Glass. Sharp. Ow."
"I'm fine," said Katelyn. "I just broke a glass, you don't need to freak out. Sorry, Mr. McNally."
"Don't even worry about it," he said. "So far there's no blood and I'd really like to keep it that way if it's all the same to everybody." And if they got that he was talking about more than broken glass, so much the better.
"Don't go, Tommy," said Scot, even though Ryan should have been the one to say it. "Ryan doesn't want you to go."
"Then Ryan can tell me that," said Tommy, "or are there too many people here right now for him to do that?"
"Come on, that's not fair," said Scot, but wisely he backed away to help Eric with the broken glass because this was definitely not his fight.
"You think I don't wish it were that easy?" said Ryan.
"Wish granted," said Tommy. "It is."
Eric bit his tongue hard. "Scot, I got this," he said quietly. "You want to take the girls back upstairs?"
"The girls can handle this just fine," said Katelyn, because they were in a crowded kitchen and there was not actually any such thing as quietly.
"Can you just stay out of it?" said Tommy. "Please?"
"Work your shit out," said Katelyn after a moment, "and let me know if I still have a grad to go to."
"Come on," said Scot, after a few moments of silent communication with Ryan. "Let's let Eric clean up. If you cut your feet, you can't wear your new shoes and I cut the dress to hang properly with the shoes, you know that."
"What are you going to do when I decide to go barefoot halfway through the night, huh?" said Greta, but she, of everyone, seemed most willing to let things sort themselves out.
"You didn't cut mine for heels, did you?" said Katelyn. "You know I only wear flats."
"Of course not," said Scot, "you're statuesque. And also, you told me about twenty times." He ushered both of them neatly out of the kitchen and, from the sound of it, back upstairs. Three down, two to go.
Down on the floor sweeping up broken glass was apparently out of sight, out of mind—despite the tinkling pieces—because Ryan and Tommy resumed their conversation as though the room had just cleared out. Or maybe Eric was just one of the only people on the planet Ryan was actually comfortable being himself around.
"You know I'm not into her," said Ryan. "You totally know that."
"No, you just want everyone else to think that you are."
"Not everyone," said Ryan. "It's just...it's just tonight, okay? It's the last time I'm going to see a bunch of guys from the team and it's just a stupid dance anyway. You don't even want to go."
"That's not the point," said Tommy. "I just want you to want me to."
"You think I don't want you to?" said Ryan, and for the first time Eric felt like he really shouldn't be hearing this because even he'd never heard Ryan quite like that before. Just like, when Scot had first come to them, no one had ever heard him being quite like that with Sam.
"I don't know what to think," said Tommy. "I was one thing when you were going without me. It's another that you had to, like, recruit someone else to go with you instead."
"It wasn't like that," said Ryan. "And it's done now anyway. So."
"Yeah, so," said Tommy, and there was a long pause, in which Eric made an effort not to drop anything. Or breathe.
"Listen, we're going to Fran's on College after, okay?" said Ryan finally. "It'll probably be packed."
"And what, I get to wait at home by the phone?" said Tommy. "Fuck that."
"No, I meant, you should come," said Ryan, and sighed, and grabbed Tommy's sleeve but didn't pull him right out of the room. "I don't want to spend tonight without you, okay? I'm not doing this because I'm an asshole."
"No, I know," he said. "It's just. You're graduating. What does it matter anymore?"
"After," said Ryan, as close to pleading as Eric'd ever heard him. "I'll kiss you in Fran's, I swear to god, just let me get through grad. It's going to be stupid and awful anyway."
"Fuck 'em," said Ryan. "I'm graduating. I never have to see them again."
Eric could have told him that even if he did—and he probably would—that it wouldn't be as bad as he was thinking. That people could surprise you in the best ways sometimes. That Ryan had a lot of people who had his back. But instead he just smiled to himself and looked away and let them have their moment.
Which is not to say he didn't breathe a sigh of relief when they finally left the room, letting him finish his clean-up job.
"You need to use a piece of bread," said Scot. "To get up the last bits of glass."
Eric looked up to see Scot leaning against the wall behind him. "You need to stop lurking."
"I'm not lurking, I'm observing," he said, then crossed behind him to get the bread. So he wasn't kidding about that.
"Everything all good, then?
"I don't know, you tell me," said Scot. "Is everything okay now?"
"I think they're going to be fine," he said, grabbing an empty cereal box from the recycling to pour the glass into before it hit the trash. "For now, anyway."
"Greta's dress is fine now," said Scot as he got down on his knees on the floor. "You can't even tell I had to fix it. You won't tell her, will you?"
"Because of her ego, or because of yours?"
"Of course I won't tell her," said Eric, wrapping an arm around Scot's shoulders when he stood up again and kissing the top of his head, just because he still could. Scot didn't even squirm away, which was nice.
"So what are we having for lunch? We're going to need our strength up to get through tonight, you know."
Eric almost corrected him to 'this afternoon' because he did not need to be reminded of what Scot might be getting up to tonight, but that was a conversation he didn't want to have. Have again, anyway. Especially without Sam to be the sensible one.
"I'll figure something out," he said. "Unless you're volunteering."
Any other day, even now, Scot would be all over that. But not today. "Greta is waiting for me upstairs," he said. "I should get back before she worries something is wrong."
"Of course," said Eric, and with one more squeeze he let him go.
While he was at it he mopped some spilt coffee off the countertop and opened and closed the fridge about five times, never finding that something had miraculously appeared to make his job easier. Frankly, lunch was probably the easiest thing he was going to have to deal with today.
After an entire morning of door slamming and people yelling and teenage feet thundering all over his house, Eric found the silence unnerving. He was pretty sure nobody had actually died, but he felt a kind of parental obligation to at least check.
Ryan and Tommy were on the couch, talking quietly with Ryan's hand on Tommy's knee, looking comfortable the way Eric rarely saw him. Katelyn was in Sam's office, smiling into her phone call and, Eric assumed, enjoying a long distance call with her boyfriend. Scot and Greta were in the upstairs bathroom, in front of the mirror with Scot's arms around her and Greta beaming at her finished dress which really was as perfect as Scot said it would be.
He was halfway back down the stairs when he saw the front door open; if he hadn't been, he probably wouldn't have even heard it.
Sam held up two enormous pizzas which was just about the biggest 'I love you' he could have given Eric right then.
"Forgiven for missing half the big day?"
"I had no idea how I was going to feed a house full of teenagers," he said, taking the pizzas out of his hand when he reached the landing and giving him a very enthusiastic kiss. "And you're done now?"
"Signed, sealed and delivered," he said, "and if they call me again they can go to hell for all I care. What did I miss?"
"Oh, just the usual," said Eric. "All kinds of drama and a bit of hurled kitchenware."
"Okay, broken glass. But I stand by the drama."
"They're teenagers, it's what they do," said Sam. "Anything serious?"
"Nothing I couldn't handle," said Eric.
Which, much to his surprise, was actually true. When the requirement was simply to be there, which was not as simple a thing as it sounded, Eric stepped up quiet nicely.
"I'm not ready for him to be gone," said Sam softly, wrapping his arm around Eric's waist.
"Then it's a good thing he's going to be living at home while he goes to university," said Eric. "We get him for a little bit longer."
"I won't be ready then, either," admitted Sam.
"Neither will I," said Eric. "Let's worry about that when the time comes."
In a few moments Eric would call out "Food!" and have every one of them descend on the kitchen again, but for now he allowed them all this moment of quiet, the eye of the storm before the tornado of graduation day started up again.
They were all going to need it.