«A two-year-old is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.»
“Are you out of bed yet?” Altaïr yelled down the hall, pulling a shirt over his head and tousling his hair into an impossibly greater mess, “If you’re not up in five minutes, you’re both going to be walking to the university.”
Matching groans of disapproval came tumbling from the two bedrooms at the end of the hall and Altaïr chuckled softly. It was with no calm fondness that he remembered that age. It was a time of angst and confusion and just thinking about it gave him a headache. Watching his two younger cousins go through the same issues, however, was absolutely hilarious.
He wandered into the kitchen with a yawn, stealing a glance at the clock on his way to the coffee machine. He had got a good hour before having to go into work, but Sef and Darim didn’t need to know that just yet. It was far better to let them believe they were on a time crunch. At least then, they may actually get somewhere on time for once.
A sudden shout and the sound of the bathroom door slamming shut nearly made him pour the entire bag of coffee grounds into the filter basket and he rolled his eyes. In a few seconds Sef or Darim, probably Sef, would come meandering in howling to be fed like a wolf cub, as if he couldn’t grab a bowl and the box of chocolate garbage from atop the refrigerator and feed himself. The fact that this was Altaïr’s typical Monday morning was depressing in a way, but the kids needed to go to college and his flat was ten minutes from campus. It was just easier this way.
Like clockwork, the telltale scuffling of bare feet across the hardwood floor alerted Altaïr to the presence of another creature and he finished setting up the coffee machine before turning around.
“Cousin, I’m hungry,” Sef grumbled, rubbing sleep from his eyes with one hand and hiking up his loose pajama pants with the other.
He was small for his age, Altaïr thought, a little too thin. Although he was only two years Darim’s junior, he was several inches shorter and far more slender, a vision not aided by the fact that he chose to grow his hair long. Not that Darim’s was much better, but at least his hair was only unkempt as opposed to Sef’s, which was nearly past his shoulder.
No matter how many times Altaïr threatened to cut it, change the locks to the apartment, or was just plain rude about it, Sef steadfastly refused to have it cut, or even pull it up neatly into a hair tie. No, he preferred to pull it back into a messy bun. It was more fashionable, he said.
“The women in this household cook for themselves,” Altaïr shot back coolly, “And besides, you’re twenty. You should be able to scrounge up something by now.”
Sef collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table, arms stretched straight out in front of him, face resting on the table, and whined- an obnoxious sound straight from his throat that made the hair on the back of Altaïr’s neck stand straight up. He’d tried to hold out against it in the past, ignore it until Sef gave up or got tired, but it never worked in the past, and now was no exception.
Altaïr grunted in annoyance, abandoning his mission for caffeine and going to the refrigerator instead. The whining stopped at the same time as he pulled out the eggs and a loaf of bread, as was expected.
“Can you put cheese in it?” Sef asked, perking up considerably.
There was no point in arguing. Altaïr simply held in a sigh and opened the door once again for the shredded cheese before making his way over to the stove. He took comfort in knowing that this semester marked the halfway point for his cousins’ university experience. Two years from now, they would be moving on to graduate school, hopefully in another city, and he could revert his family-friendly apartment back into the glorious bachelor pad it once was.
Sef talked while he cooked- rambling about this or that happening at school and what an asshole one of his teachers was and how he liked someone in his class. Altaïr only half listened as he cracked six eggs into the pan, three for each hungry beast, and covered it before turning his attention to the toaster.
“-And then he told me he has a part time job at this coffee shop and I was thinking I could get a job there too so that I can start saving money for a car and-”
“So you’ll get a job making other people coffee, but you won’t cook your own breakfast?” Altaïr cut him off, shooting him a look of disapproval, “Why don’t you start by getting up early and making me coffee?”
Sef fell into a huff then, shoulders hunched and brow furrowed. “But that’s different. I would be getting paid to work there.”
“You think I don’t pay you? You’ve been eating my food for two years now. Sleeping in my bed, guzzling my gas, drinking my beer...”
“I could pay for my own food if I had a job,” Sef insisted, “And I only drank your beer that one time. The rest was all Darim.”
Altaïr had to turn his attention back to the eggs, facing away from his cousin so that he wouldn’t see his wide smile as he choked back a laugh.
“Weren’t you going to save your money for a car?”
The look on Sef’s face was too much to handle after that and Altaïr was unable to hold back snorting laughter. Sef’s mouth opened, presumably to continue his tirade, and Altaïr silently thanked whatever gods might be listening when Darim yelled rather rudely down the hall for Sef to, “Shut up and get over it already!”
In the giddy morning entertainment, Altaïr completely forgot about the bread burning slowly to a crisp in the toaster oven until the scent of charred toast suddenly wafted in the direction of his nose. He spun around on one heel and, without thinking, opened the toaster and yanked the burning toast out with his bare hand, singeing the tips of his fingers.
“Fuck!” he spat, dropping the blackened squares on the counter in lieu of thrusting his hand into the sink and turning on the water. As if he didn’t get burned enough at work, now god was just making his life difficult on purpose and he did not find it amusing in the least.
Sef began giggling at the table and Altaïr glared over his shoulder, his expression quickly changing to one of approval when Darim reached over and cuffed his little brother on the back of the head. Family was a beautiful thing.
“Darim, the skillet,” Altaïr said, still running water over his hand.
Within moments, the brothers were seated at the table, calmly eating their semi-scorched breakfast while Altaïr sipped leisurely at his black coffee. It was official, he was going to be late to work yet again, but it was such habit at this point that rushing the rest of the already rushed morning seemed almost like a travesty.
After scarfing down his eggs in record time Sef darted out of the kitchen to the bathroom, long, dark hair billowing behind him like a horse’s tail. Altaïr watched him go, sucking on his teeth in objection. His hair was going to go. One way or another, it was going to go.
Altaïr finished his coffee and placed both his mug and Sef’s discarded plate in the sink, making a mental note to remind Sef that washing dishes was on his list of chores. He padded to his room, reflecting on how domestic his life had gotten recently. It seemed like just yesterday he was bringing people home nearly every night, a different trick for every day of the week. Men, women- it didn’t really matter back then.
Now he was practically ‘dad’ to his two cousins, an appalling thought when he considered that the age gap between Darim and himself was only a scant five years. It could all be chalked up to the simple truth that the boys grew up differently than he. Where he had been forced into a part time job before he even made it out of middle school, Darim and Sef had practically everything handed to them. Darim had even waited a full two years to start university so that he and Sef could begin at the same time.
And here was Altaïr, working at a motorbike repair shop without even a high school diploma and no formal training to his name. But he had a nice apartment with nice things, a decent paycheck, good friends. Well, most of them were good. He was self-sufficient, something that Sef was lightyears away from. Darim was maybe not such a lost cause.
The bed in the center of his room, a king-sized monstrosity, was unmade and disheveled, same as it had been for a week or more. He collapsed at the head of the bed to fumble around the side table for his phone. He had only a vague memory of having plugged it in the night before and breathed a sigh of relief when he found it wedged between the bed and the table, fully charged.
A quick glance over his call and message history was all the rest of the assurance he needed to know nothing stupid went down the night before- drunk texts and calls and such- and he slipped the phone into his back pocket along with his wallet.
Sef and Darim were both in the main entrance when Altaïr went to pull on his boots- Sef with his messenger bag and Darim with his sports duffle. If they hadn’t been his cousins and Altaïr didn’t know them personally, they would never be the sort he would associate with, they looked like such snobs. However, family was family and he loved them dearly for the most part if not all the time.
“Ready to go?” Altaïr asked, not bothering to tie his laces as he grabbed his car keys from their hook and opened the door, “Got all your homework?”
“Homework is so high school,” Sef replied, rolling his eyes, “And we were ready before you.”
Darim followed his brother out the door, nudging his shoulder none too gently as he went. “Don’t be such a dick.”
The ride was long, painfully so, and Altaïr was ready to throw them both out of the car by the time he pulled up to the university. Sef, over the past year, had undergone some kind of strange transformation that had indeed turned him into a little shit, and he never failed to get a rise out of Darim these days. It was like he took genuine pleasure in baiting his older brother into arguments (he called them debates) about everything from the Cuban revolution under Che Guevara to the significance of the tree at the end of their street growing at a slight angle. It was infuriating.
As a result, he didn’t even wait until the two had stepped entirely away from the car before driving away, tires screeching. It wasn’t good for the poor Mazda, but any damage it sustained could be easily fixed, not to mention worth the trouble just to get away from his cousins.
The minute he was out of eyeshot of the campus, he reached over into the glovebox and pulled out his pack of American Spirits, wedging one between his lips while he dug around for his lighter. The window creaked down slowly, just another thing to repair, and he lit it with great relish, taking a long drag and holding it for a moment before exhaling slowly, blowing the smoke out the window. He figured that by now, both his cousins had probably discovered his bad habit, but he still wouldn’t allow himself the luxury of indulging in front of them. He’d promised their mother that much.
Greasy Monkey, the bike shop, was only a mile away from campus. It was the same distance as the one between the good and bad sides of town and, not surprisingly, Altaïr’s work was in the latter.
He finished his cigarette in the car and dropped the butt in an empty coke can before stepping out, leaving his keys in the glove box. He’d punched in enough years with the shitty little mechanic shop that everyone recognized his car on sight and shared the common understanding that touching Altaïr’s shit was absolutely off limits on pain of losing an eye, or a finger, or even a limb.
“You’re late again, fuckhead.”
Federico’s greeting was far from affectionate if taken at face value, but seeing the playful glint in his friend’s eye served to slightly brighten Altaïr’s otherwise dismal morning.
“Blame the kids,” Altaïr replied, expression crumpling quickly into one of exhaustion, “They’re such terrors at that age. I don’t think I was ever that bad. Hell, even you weren’t that bad.”
A laugh came bubbling from Federico and he shook his head knowingly.
“That’s because we were forced to grow up. We didn’t take the easy way,” he stated, tone frank, “And I’ve got a little terror of my own, remember?”
Altaïr’s brow crumpled as he tried to remember the kid’s name. “Ezio, isn’t it?” he finally said, “He’s in the university too. He’s probably friends with Sef, I’m sure they’d get along great.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. Ezio’s getting better though. Ever since Giova- Dad gave him the same bullshit ultimatum he gave me, he straightened up a bit. I guess he’s the smarter one.”
“You’re being unfair to yourself.” Altaïr swung an arm over Federico’s shoulder and pulled him into a loose hug. “You’re too much of an asshole to be stupid.”
Federico shoved him away with a mocking laugh, “Same can be said for you, bastardo. Now get to work before we both get fired.”
An old Aprilla Pegaso was waiting in Altaïr’s bay when he finally got around to the actual work part of his job. Even from a distance, he could tell it was in decent condition for an older bike, probably from the early ‘90s. He didn’t even bother to glance over the paperwork for it on the way over, he simply sat down in the seat, twisted the key in the engine, and gave it a little clutch. The engine roared to life with all the stuttering thrumming it could manage, going nearly steady for a good ten seconds before choking itself off and winding down before dying.
Five minutes and a haphazard examination of the fueling system later, Altaïr concluded that his gut instinct had been right- a combustion issue with the deteriorating piping- and only then did he look over the file he’d pulled from his inbox. Right at the top, his boss had written ‘Transmission Issue?’ in red letters. However painfully tempting it was to pull out his own pen and add a big, fat ‘NO’ to the question, he was able to fight the urge and fill out the rest of the form properly.
“You’re like a savant with this shit,” Federico shouted from his bay, impressed by the speed with which Altaïr worked, “Remind me again why the hell you aren’t working at the Ducati place on the other side of town.”
Altaïr smirked. “Because you’d miss me too much, and I’m not that much of a snob.”
The answer seemed to satisfy Federico enough that he fell silent, going back to work on his own enigma- a Harley fresh off the line with a fluid leak from somewhere. That’s what the boss had written on his file in his own words, with his own stupid red pen, and now it was up to his underpaid peon to fix it. It was a flawed system, but no one complained. That’s just the way things worked.
Time flew by fast in the shop. After the Aprilla came one of those lightweight Japanese bikes that some poor kid had dropped, probably on his first outing, and the frame ended up getting all kinds of bent out of shape. And then came lunch, more work, smoke break- it all blurred one hour into the next until Altaïr’s phone was quite suddenly vibrating incessantly in his pocket until he was forced to pull it out and yell at it only to find he had worked a full hour longer than scheduled.
Of course, that also meant he was almost an hour late to pick up Sef, the lazy one, from campus and now he was expressing his contempt at being forgotten. Altaïr dialed up his number and hit the call button, wedging his phone between his ear and his shoulder so that he could toss a tarp over his latest project and tie it down.
“Where the hell are you?” Sef’s annoyed voice came through the ear piece louder than Altaïr had been expecting and he cringed.
“Sorry, Sef, ended up working late by mistake,” he apologized, completely insincere, “I’ll be there in ten.”
“Don’t bother, I ended up going to a friend’s house anyway.” Sef paused for a minute- either to let the information sink in or because he was gathering the stones to ask a favor, and probably an inconvenient one. Altaïr put his money on the favor. “Can you pick me up in like an hour?”
And there it was- the truth was out. Altaïr groaned inwardly. It wasn’t as if he had choice. He couldn’t just say- sorry, Sef, but not today. That wasn’t in the playbook.
“Yeah, fine,” Altaïr grumbled, “Where are you? and where’s your brother.”
“I’m not Darim’s keeper,” Sef replied in a whine, “How am I supposed to know? I’ll text you the address to Kadar’s place in a second. Talk to you later.”
Altaïr hated how much he let himself spoil Sef. A proper parental figure wouldn’t have succumbed, he told himself, a real parent would have demanded that he come home, or at least told him to take a bus. There was only so much of the ‘dad’ persona he was willing to let himself take on, however, and what he did not want was to be pigeon-holed as an asshole for the rest of their stay.
He approached Federico with a sour scowl.
“I’m heading out,” he grumbled, “The youngest has need of me.”
Federico clapped him on the shoulder, grinning widely.
“Safety and peace.”
Altaïr shrugged off the farewell, opting for a more colorful single finger salute as he left the shop.