Damn, it's hot today.
Record high temperatures in October. Low 90s.
Tulsa. Fucking Tulsa.
You shrug off your leather jacket. Toss it down by the tree.
The price of looking tough ain't worth this suffering.
You haven't been feeling tough these days anyway.
Coward is more like it.
Alone is more like it.
You can feel your shirt clinging to your back, damp with sweat.
You reach into your back pocket for your cigarettes. Light up, and lean back against the trunk of the tree.
Close your eyes.
Savor the shade.
You always seem to wind up here.
Here, on the wrong side of the gravel pathway.
The separation between you and them.
The barrier you haven't been able to cross in almost a month now. This is as close as you get.
You sigh heavily and just sit, staring at the stones across the way. You're not sure when you'll have the strength to stand back up.
Time doesn't seem to matter anymore. Not now that they're gone.
So you lose track of it.
The sun moves from high in the sky to close to the horizon, so you know you've been sitting here a while. Your hind end is sore from the hard ground and you're down to your last three cigarettes.
You're contemplating leaving – hunting down some action, or some booze – when you hear familiar voices approaching.
It's the middleman and the kid, and there's no escaping.
"Well, look who it is!"
You stand up; give them a wan smile and a hoarse "hey." Run your hands through your hair like you're not some scared animal ready to bolt.
"Where've you been, man?"
You flick your cigarette to the ground. "Oh, you know… around." And damn your stupid voice for cracking.
They look at you, sympathy in their eyes. And that ain't right. That ain't right at all.
You clear your throat. Pop a couple of knuckles. "Superman with you?" You look around.
"No, he's at home. He's—"
"Got a stick up his ass," the kid finishes.
He earns a swift tap in the back of the head for that remark.
"Temper's running wild," the middleman admits, scratching the back of his head. "So we're givin' him some space. We're on our way to the movie house and thought we'd..." he motions vaguely across the gravel path and his grin fades. "You know. Stop by."
You nod. You feel like you should say something – ask how they're holding up.
But you can't seem to form the words.
You're beaten to the punch, anyhow.
"He's been askin' about you, you know." There's that sympathy again. "Think he's worried."
And how twisted is that?
"I'm fine," you say, waving off his words with your hand. Clear your damn throat again. You weren't ready for this today. "I should probably…" You motion to the exit. "You guys – uh – have fun at the movie."
The kid speaks before you can make a getaway. "Wanna come?" His voice is hopeful.
You wring your hands. "Nah, I have other things to do."
The older one stares at you for a while longer, not believing. "Okay," he says finally. "Hey, don't be a stranger no more, huh?"
"Yeah, sure." You pull out another cigarette. Stick it in your mouth. "I'll catch you guys later."
You light up and walk away.
You can feel their eyes on you as you go.
An hour and three beers later you end up here.
On their stoop.
The door's open, but you linger outside the screen, almost positive you're going to chicken out. It fits your M.O. lately.
But then you've lifted your hand and your knuckles are rapping on the wooden frame of the door. It's a foreign action, and you realize you've never done that before. Not here.
There's no turning back now, because he appears almost immediately.
"Man, you know you don't have to knock—"
He breaks off when he realizes it's you.
"Hey," you greet lamely.
"Hey," he returns dully.
You swallow hard and push past him, letting yourself inside. "Expecting someone?"
"Uh, yeah, sort of." He lets the screen slam. "What are you doing here?" He heads into the kitchen. You assume you're expected to follow.
You take a quick glance at the TV room. It doesn't look different, but it feels all wrong. Too quiet, maybe.
You sink into a kitchen chair. He's leaning up against the sink, arms folded. He stares at you pointedly for a long while before you realize he'd asked you a question.
"Oh, uh, I ran into your brothers. Said you were wound up."
He scoffs a bit and turns around. He starts washing the dishes in the sink. "That doesn't really answer my question."
"Thought I'd stop by. Let you take it out on someone who actually deserves it."
He shuts the water off and bows his head. You could see the tension in his shoulders from a mile away and the gray shirt he's wearing is soaked through with sweat.
"Is that supposed to be some kind of apology?" he asks with a quiet growl.
He scares you into remaining quiet. But yes. It was your own flavor of apology. Never something you could do outright.
When he turns back to face you, you're hesitant to meet his eyes. So you look down at your hands.
"You don't owe me that," he says, and it's sincere.
And there he goes, earning your respect a millionth time over. Because, yes, you do owe him that. He deserves better than what you've ever had to offer.
You let out a nettled sigh, and take a good look at him. He looks exhausted and then some. "So – uh – how are you—?"
He curses. "I swear if you ask me how I'm holding up, I might actually give you that fight you came looking for."
He's going for subtle joking – an avoidance strategy – but you ain't having it.
"You look like shit."
It's meant to sound blunt, but it doesn't. It comes out gentle, and fuck, you didn't know you had that tone in you.
He's lost weight. A lot of it. His cheeks are splotched red. His posture is haggard. The circles under his eyes are so dark it looks like they're painted on.
A shiver runs through his frame, and given the consuming heat, that sends warning signals off in your brain like nothing else.
"You need to take better care of yourself."
He clenches his fists, gets defensive. "I'm fine."
He blinks. Turns his back on you again. Returns to doing the dishes. If he were a cartoon character, he'd have steam coming out of his ears.
You let out an exasperated sigh and stand up. Join him at the sink. Lean up against the counter and study his face.
It feels like you're standing next to a furnace.
His eyes are trained on the dirty plates in front of him, but you can tell that's not where his mind is. He's been scrubbing the same plate for nearly a whole minute now. Harsh, angry scrubs. You're surprised it hasn't broken in half.
He's biting down on his lip, trying to keep whatever emotion is in him from emitting.
His eyes are glassy with unshed tears.
He looks so fucking tired.
And eventually, you can't take it any more. "Oh, for heaven's sake," you growl, and shove him away from the sink. You turn off the water forcefully.
He stares at you dumbly, hands dripping with soapy water.
"Go sit down."
He doesn't move.
You throw a dishtowel at him. He catches it.
That's when he obeys and turns on his heel silently.
You curse his stubbornness under your breath as you hastily finish washing up the dishes. When you're through, you hunt down an empty cup and fill it with water. Then you join him in the TV room where he's sitting on the couch, bent forward at the waist, head in his hands.
You cautiously join him, sinking carefully into the space beside him.
His breath hitches, but that's the only acknowledgement he offers.
You squeeze his shoulder; get him to take the water.
He's got tear tracks on his cheeks, and fuck, you didn't sign up for this shit.
You run your hands through your hair as he drinks. It's all starting to hit you. What it means to be here without them.
Her knitted afghan.
They're both taunting you.
You want – need – out, or you're going to lose it.
You're plotting your escape – your excuse – when he speaks.
"I need you to go."
And you hate him for it, because he's giving you an out. One you don't deserve.
"Okay," you say. It's too quick. Too eager. You stand up, scratch the back of your head. "Um…" Take care. Get some rest. Quit running yourself into the ground.
You don't speak it, but he answers you anyway. "I will."
You nod and mumble a clumsy farewell.
Then you get the hell out of dodge.
You practically stumble over the guest coming up the front steps as you leave. You're so anxious to get away.
"Whoa, slow down there," he says, grabbing you by the arm and bringing you to a halt at the base of the steps.
He's got a six-pack tucked under his arm, a cigarette tucked in his ear, and smile so big he could've passed as a clown.
"Where're you racin' off to?"
"Uh, nowhere," you say honestly. You catch your breath before greeting him. "Hey."
"Hey yourself, stranger," he returns. "Finally decided to show your face around here, huh?"
You pop your knuckles, look down at the ground. "Yeah."
You can feel his eyes trying to read you. He pats his pack of beer. "Well, hey, if you don't have anywhere to be, why don't you come back in and have a cold one with me an' Superman?"
You grab the beer out of his hands. "This piss-water is the last thing he needs," you tell him bluntly.
He's not fazed. "Oh yeah? Why's that?"
He's dog-tired. Drained. Think he's made himself sick. But you can't say all that without sounding uneasy. So instead you settle with: "Go in there, and you'll see what I mean. He ain't doin' too good."
He quirks an eyebrow. "If that's the case, then why are you bailin'?"
You hesitate and look longingly at front door. "I ain't what he needs either."
"And you think I am?"
You nod gravely. "Compared to me? Hell yeah."
You shove the beer back into your friend's hands, then take a bottle for yourself.
"One for the road," you say coolly.
And then you leave.
Shouldn't have come here in the first place.
You hope you can get upstairs without having to talk to anybody.
You just want to crash and forget any of this ever happened.
No such luck.
You hear your name being called and then a hand's on your shoulder and then a big nose and some grease is asking if you want to shoot some pool with him and a few of the Brumly gang.
"'C'mon, man, we need to represent!" he insists.
"Not feelin' it tonight." You push him away from you.
He scoffs. "Yeah. And what are you feeling? Blowing me off so you can get blazed and brood all night instead?"
You head for the stairs. "Yeah, sounds about right."
He curses after you. "This shit is gettin' real old, man."
You answer by flipping him the bird over your head, and take the steps two at a time.
You've just come down from your high – from forgetting – and you're lying in bed, desperately trying to fall asleep, when there's a knock on the door.
You groan. "I told you I ain't interested in playing pool! Get fucking Merrill to play with you if you're so desperate!"
The other side of the door is quiet for a beat.
You sit bolt upright in bed.
You hastily make your way across room and swing the door open. You don't care that you're clad only in a pair of boxer shorts.
Your stomach turns to ice when you see him standing there with a busted lip and a black eye.
And what kills you the most is that he doesn't seem bothered by it.
"Jesus, kid" you breathe, reaching a hand toward his cheek.
He pushes your arm back down. "I got away early," he assures you. "I'm good."
"Bull." He should know by now that you can see right through him.
He swallows and looks up at you earnestly. "Really. I just need a place to crash. Startin' to rain out there."
Good, you think. Get rid of the heat.
You grab a towel and tell him to go get washed up.
Then you crawl back in bed and wait for him to return.
When he does, you tell him to kill the light. You throw a pillow down to the other end of the bed for him. Because of the heat, covers aren't an issue tonight, and you don't mind sharing your mattress.
He doesn't take up much space anyway.
He climbs into bed and you both lie there in silence, trying – and failing – to fall asleep. The heat is too much, the thoughts swirling around in your brains are too much.
You can practically hear your guest thinking so hard.
"What's on your mind, kid?"
He sighs and takes in a deep breath before responding: "Do you ever feel… just… remarkably inadequate?"
You snort softly, in spite of yourself. Because he can't possibly know how much you identify with those words. He can't know how much you needed to hear them – to feel like you aren't alone.
"Yeah, kid," you tell him softly. "All the time."