“Uh...” The word was stuck, caught in the space between tongue and throat, making me sound more like a broken record. How ironic. The man likely to over-think things now left with a mind as blank as a brand new canvas on an easel just waiting for one thing, one inspired spark to open doors to unlimited potential. Anything, a single word, that’s all I wanted—needed even; fine time for that little voice to zip its lip. The twin odors of skunk and alcohol making my eyes water and nostrils burn wasn’t helping either. “Uh...”
” The bespectacled behemoth folded his arms across his chest, brow creasing. “Speak up, kid, I ain’t got time to waste.
” Judging by his lack of any decent clothing besides the wrinkled wife beater, (what a horrible name) and the raggedy cut-off jean shorts, he seemed to have all the time in the world, not that you’d hear me say it.
“Kayla.” Her name struggled to come out of my mouth. “Kayla lives here, right?” Nice, real nice, I thought. Why don’t you just ask Otis the drunk here what two and two equals? Before another lager laced spewing could further the sinking feeling in me, I added “Only she uh, forgot this.” I set her case down just inside the door, wincing as I heard a soft squish of the carpet underneath it. Good job, child services, glad to see my tax dollars at work. I didn’t actually pay taxes yet.
The man inside stared at me for a long time, arms lowering to his sides. It didn’t seem possible for his face to twist any further. “Oh she did, did she? And where pray tell did she leave this f--king thing now? For that matter, who the hell are you anyways? One of the punks in that stupid little band she keeps wasting her time with?” Every part of his speech mirrored the ones I endured back home for far too long; the ignorant crudeness, overabundant obscenity, all of it... save for that offensive beer breath. Leave us not list his many demons (ha ha, very funny), Captain Bob never allowed drink to be counted among them. And much like the tirades of old, the desire to retaliate was met by the silent knowledge that opening my mouth was an act for which I’d surely live to regret.
“I’m a friend. School friend, that is. We’re in the same guitar class, hence the -” I looked down at the case. “- never mind, just thought she’d want it back.” Okay feet, anytime now. Come on. Time’s a-wasting. Just my luck, the road between brain and body closed for repairs yet again. How about pulling a couple puppet strings that help me for once?
“Kayla!” the man roared, loud enough to cause my heart to forget beating for a second. She appeared at the end of the short hall cringing at the authoritative bark like a beaten puppy; no longer the feisty, take it or leave it ’cause that’s just the way I am attitude rocking girl Systex had come to love - or at the very least accept. I seemed to be forgotten for the moment. Now if only my legs would stop pretending I was a statue. “Come get this goddamned thing before I throw it in the trash!” Jeez, even my own father wasn’t that vicious. For a minute, I almost wanted to forgive the desecration of my room.
Kayla scuttled up to the door, eyes locked onto the ground, looking up at me for not even a second while scooping the case into her arms like you would a baby. You couldn’t do a worse job masking the fear in her eyes as she mouthed a thank you at me. That’s not the frightened “uh oh, am I in trouble?” kind of fear most children show. It was terror, sheer terror. “Go,” she said to me, no sound coming out of her mouth. It wasn’t supposed to. “Go now. Run...” which is what she did, down the hall and out of sight, eyes never leaving mine once.
Oh, I wish it were that simple. Once more, I’d landed myself in another of life’s little f--k you situations. Instinct fighting instinct, a moral duality I was growing tired of navigating. I’d love to run. Something wouldn’t let me. How could anyone just turn tail and run after stumbling across and subsequently opening one of Pandora’s many boxes?
(You didn’t have to open it. You could have said no, taken the guitar home just like you wanted to.) You gotta hand it to the conscience, always ready and willing to offer such chestnuts... obstructive little bastard.
“Well what are you still doing here? You came, you returned that damn noisemaker. You can go now.” The elder Morton’s voice broke the trance, things felt out of place. Clearly, less than a split-second response wasn’t good enough for him, as he was quick to add, “Beat it! And stay away from her or else!”
Or what, I’ll - let me guess, live to regret it? “With all due respect sir, Kayla’s my friend. She likes to hang out with me.”
“I don’t give a damn if she does or not! I told you to stay away!” I almost wanted to laugh, my lips twitching in an involuntary smirk. “What’s so funny? You think I’m joking?”
“I didn’t say that -” Oh, what was the use? It was like arguing with a wall. No budging.
Once again, he disproved my theory of just how contorted a face he could muster, reaching behind the door, probably to swing it shut in my face was my first guess… until I heard the scream. “No! Dad, don’t!” Kayla was back in the hall, terror spreading her entire face like a dark shadow. “Richard, watch out!”
Watch out? For what, I wondered. At first I didn’t share Kayla’s frightened face, more puzzled by the hollow clanking noise coming from behind the door. With no mirror in close proximity, it was hard to say for certain, but it was a safe bet my expression was close to hers when I saw the sagging, plump arm come back into view, the faint glint of metal winking at me from his tight grip. The word Easton was stamped down its side in large block letters. “Get out! Get out! Get the f--k out of here, you punk a-s little m-ggot!” he bellowed, wrapping both hands around the neck of the baseball bat. The sagging muscles, what might have been muscles in a former life, rippled in the air as he swung the dented slugger through the air, aimed right for my head.
Everything played out before my eyes like a movie slowed down to one-fourth time. It could have been Kayla screaming. It could have been me. Sound lacked any crispness, any discernible clarity. The string of words mouthed at me no longer held to any form of English, drowned out by the alarm bells sounding off inside my head. RED ALERT! RED ALERT! BRACE FOR IMPACT! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! I REPEAT, THIS IS NOT-
The bat made a horrible whooshing noise, cutting through the air like a cleaver through a side of beef. The faint puff of cool air against my face brought the surreal feature presentation back to our regularly scheduled broadcast, already in progress. My brain yelled at me to duck. My body wanted to jump. I think the end result was somewhere in the middle: I fell from the stoop in a sharp, awkward somersault. While glad my feet finally moved for the first time since making what I viewed in hindsight as another terrific lapse in good judgment, it wasn’t quite the way I’d have preferred. The bat missed my ear my millimeters, a fact though relieving, did little to offset the pain from landing a-s-first on the walk. Kayla’s dad (an undeserving title if there ever was one) took on a baffled look. Were my adrenaline not in overdrive, overriding all other intellect, I might have found the expression comical.
The silver lining, if one was to be found in this sudden turn of events, was my crashing to the pavement. In spite of the brilliant stab of pain, the impact was enough to loosen the cogs and get things moving again. I was up on my feet, ignoring the throbbing in my lower back, and across the street like a bat out of hell without delay, leaving a trail of language unheard of since mistaking my thumb for a nail in wood shop some time ago. Given the choice between going around with a sore ass or a caved in skull, the former seemed a no-brainer. Soreness goes away in a little while. Broken bones weren’t as fast.
Too concerned about getting away from the little house of horrors alive, while also grappling with a nagging fear that Kayla would show up at tomorrow’s practice with the injuries I’d come close to receiving or worse, I didn’t notice the car on the opposite road now resting near the curb and came close to crashing into it. Cripes, don’t people know how to park, was my first thought. The silhouetted driver sat silent and unflinching behind the wheel. Shadows aside, I could feel him staring right through me. What did he want, a friendly greeting, perhaps an apology for almost damaging his precious ride?
(Just go. Get away while you still can. Curiosity killed the cat, remember. You got lucky once tonight. What is it going to take, an actual beating to get you to learn anything?)
The passenger window slid down with a soft hum before my hand came in to knock on the window. And I waited. Waited for the driver to move or speak. Waited for the little voice to tilt its head back and point an accusing finger at me and go “ha ha, told you so.” The driver soon deemed me worthy of an audience. “I wouldn’t have known that really was you if you hadn’t peeked through my window just now. You’re a hard one to find, Richard.”
That voice made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle and stand on end. “Michelle?” I asked. “What are you doing out here? I thought you were still living out on campus?”
“I might well ask you the same thing. I saw you go over to that house on the corner there, after that girl.” She paused, flicked on the inside light. I could see her much more clearly and asked myself how I confused a lady of her size for a man. Michelle couldn’t pose a threat to anyone. “She’s cute, what’s her name?”
“Michelle I’m not a retard so please don’t treat me as one. You didn’t blind me with your high-beams and then sit here in the darkness all this time just to ask me that. Now I’d appreciate a straight answer. Did Eric send you to keep tabs on me?”
Her answer was to open the passenger door for me. “Climb in,” she said, “and we’ll talk.” They always taught us in school never to get into a strange car. It didn’t matter if she was dating my brother (God knows why), wasn’t that close to her. Regardless of the oil and water relationship with my family, I did hold some moderate respect for the unofficial Demin motto of ‘Thou shalt keep thyself to thyself.’ Let them get married, (yikes, now there’s a thought!) then we’ll talk about opening up.
“I don’t really have time,” I told her. “I’m meeting my friend uptown at Contrast. I’m late.”
“Would this be the same friend you were with only moments ago?”
“Michelle, seriously -”
“I’m sorry. Come on. I’m going through that part of town anyways, I can drop you off. I don’t mind.” Dangle bait long enough and the fish shall bite. I got in, though not without hesitation and off we went into the Brentwood night. Things were quiet for a little while, that heavy, uncomfortable kind of quiet quickly climbing the ranks on my list of things that drive me bugsh-t.
“Well?” I asked.
“How long before the pumping for information begins?”
“Judging by your tone, I figured you didn’t want to talk.”
“Not about everything. You still haven’t said why you were waiting to see if I really was me.”
She smiled. “Well Richard, I really do hope you stay yourself, you wouldn’t make a very good somebody else.” Oh brother, I’d heard that precious little tidbit my whole life. It was like elementary school all over again. If I didn’t want to be like Captain Bob, Eric or Billy Carmichael the third grade bully, why in God’s name would I want to be someone else?
“And no, by the way,” Michelle added, bringing another classic interior conversation to a close.
“No to what?”
“Eric did not send me to spy on you and even if he did, I would tell him no.” That news was of some comfort. “He is concerned about you though. So is your dad.”
“Oh man -”
“Hey, don’t go shooting me, I’m just the messenger. It’s none of my business whatever issues you have.”
“But Eric makes it your business anyhow by kvetching about me non-stop, right?”
“Your words, not mine. I do wish it didn’t have to be this way between you.” I decided against offering up any further criticism of my brother. One grows tired of being stuck on repeat, and of being lectured by someone barely five years older than he. “You know you two are more alike than you realize.”
Please tell me I didn’t actually hear those words uttered. The thought of me and Eric sharing anything in common other than blood and last names did not compute. But Michelle made a good point to some extent. I didn’t hate him. I hated the way he thought, what he stood for, the way he viewed me and judged what I held dear. I didn’t go about trashing things important to him, even though half of them made my stomach knot. I kept a lid on it, showed discretion. It’d be nice to see him return the same courtesy just once.
Although most coffee shops in Brentwood called it a day around nine or ten o’clock, Contrast Café, true to its name, threw caution to the wind, staying open till one or two in the morning most nights only to open up again at six in time to welcome the steady influx of early birds and soulless businessmen requiring their usual cup of liquid sanity and copy of the daily Brentwood Voice. Gotta check those stock numbers! Sometimes the café was as empty as the little cup near the cash register reading ‘All donations go towards the Employee Therapy Fund.’ Other times it was full to capacity with hordes of peculiar people. Hipsters shooting pool and pretending to really know ‘what’s happenin’, intellects in wool sport coats and open collared dress shirts playing chess or divvying up cards for their fiftieth game of euchre, aspiring writers off in the corner surrounded by multiple legal pads banging out that blockbuster screenplay while trying to look confident in the face of another deadline. And then there were guys like me—the outsiders who didn’t fit into any societal niche; the ones who looked upon these kinds of people with varying degrees of amusement, disdain and a secret longing to be understood and accepted, all the while raising a defiant finger at conventionality.
Michelle parked in the adjacent lot and we got out. She walked in front, held the big glass door open, bidding me entry to the only place in all of Brentwood outside of Cage Records where Richard Demin made regular public appearances. Of course it was Damien behind the counter, the man never seemed to sleep or have any hobbies outside of coffee and metal. If he wasn’t behind the counter grinding beans or steaming milk, he was apt to be sharing the front of the moshpit with other dedicated headbangers at every metal show Brentwood hosted, raising horns, high-fiving the crowd surfers and anyone else looking for a little camaraderie. “Uh oh, here comes trouble,” he said when he first saw me.
“Yeah, yeah, judging by how empty the place is, figured I’d come give you something to do.”
“Always got my back, don’cha?”
“That’s me, Mr. Friendly Neighborhood himself.” Eww, that last one made me wince. Maybe I should leave comedy writing to the pros.
“Your partner in crime’s over there,” Damien said, pointing at an occupied table next to the row of couches in the lounge corner of the café, a large newspaper hiding all but a pair of hands.
Damn, Adam had beaten me here after all. “Has he been waiting long?”
“Maybe a half hour, though he doesn’t seem bothered.” That was fine for Adam but it was me who was bothered, pangs of stupidity and regret stabbing at me for sticking my nose in where I shouldn’t have. Just because my conscience didn’t speak was no guarantee it was cutting me any slack. How do we go about this? Run myself down again, that same old song and dance? Maybe the cheeky route, ‘girls, what do ya do with them, am I right?’ Or maybe he would just shrug and leave it at that.
“So, what can I get for you this time, maestro?” Damien said, resting a tattooed arm against the register, revealing a guitar with blood-red teardrops dripping down it - interesting design. “Usual heavy on the foam, extra shot flavor of the month? Or are we shaking it up?” His eyes wandered while I thought. “Are we gonna go for that second green tea? He didn’t know whether to pre-pay for yours or not when you left.”
“The hell you talking about, man?”
“Not you. Her,” he nodded past me. I turned and looked at Michelle, who seemed a little distracted.
“What? Oh, no thanks, one was enough.”
That’s when things stopped making sense. It hadn’t registered that Michelle had come into the café, she was supposed to be, what was it, passing through? And what did Damien mean, he? The sound of a rustling newspaper got my attention. I looked over in time to see it wasn’t Adam waiting for me. Adam didn’t wear a blazer, didn’t even own one last I checked, and he didn’t carry a briefcase, which I now saw for the first time sitting by one of the empty chairs. Sometimes in moments of great shock and surprise, there are brief periods where your brain disconnects from your body and things just function autonomously while you watch and feel, touch and move without control. It’s like being in a waking coma of sorts. And it was the only reasonable explanation to why I walked over to him instead of staying put or going to another part of the café, which was my intention. He set his cup down, folded his hands and looked up at me and spoke. Neither pleasure nor anger present on his face.
“Hello Richard. You’re a hard one to catch up with,” echoing Michelle’s earlier comment.
Michelle! That... that... woman! I stared at her sweet-as-honey sympathetic face. While no doubting the authenticity and good intentions she may have had, it did very little to neutralize my caustic stare. This was all a setup, lead the lamb to the f--king slaughter. I trusted you. Oh no problem Richard, I was headed that direction anyways, just passing through. God, I am so f--king dumb sometimes! All she could do was stand there and look concerned.
“Well. Well.” Words seemed to fail me, cascading around my mind, the desired words eluding me like the grapes hanging just above the fox’s reach. “Quite the family reunion, this is.”
“If that’s your way of saying hello, then it’s nice to see you too. You’re looking—alive.” That was my brother for you, never able - or willing - to actually pay the compliment. “So this is how you choose to spend your life on the run.”
“On the run - what am I, a fugitive?”
“Let’s not get into that. Come have a seat. I think you and me should have a little talk about some things.”
“Oh I think not.”
“Eric, we can go through this until the cows come home. You and I both know how this is going to end.”
“So you can predict the future now? I was not aware you possessed this telekinetic power.”
“Keep up the bullshit Eric and I’m walking out of here right now!” Back behind the row of mammoth machines, Damien filled a little metal cup with finely ground espresso, screwed it into one of the spigots, pushed a button and slid a large cup underneath it without once averting his gaze from me, or the table. Like an old pro.
Eric looked pained. “What has happened to you, Richard? Where did things go so wrong, that now you’ve become so contemptuous of your own family?” For a moment, I could swear that was legitimate sorrow in his voice. I didn’t buy it. After reading the borderline fury in my face, he softened his tone. “Just sit. Please. If you want to leave once your friend comes, then so be it. Go. But you’ve got the time, right? Surely you can meet me halfway here.” He pulled one of the polished hardwood chairs out from the table and gestured for me to join him.
“Wait.” I sidestepped the chair, making a beeline for the cash register. If I was going to be subjected to this cabaret, then a strong beverage was a necessity. “Yo Damien, hit me. Don’t be stingy with the shots either. Hell, just throw a good five or six into a cup and pass it my way.”
He stood there, holding a bag of beans, looking at me as though I’d just eaten a cockroach. “Yikes. Pretty sure that much juice -” he called it juice, “- would cause a hummingbird to flat-line.” Then he took a closer look. “Who died, man? You look like you’ve been told you’re out of the will.”
“No I’m pretty sure that’s a given as far as I go. You said partner in crime, thought you meant Adam.”
“Oh. Sh-t. Sorry, bud,” he said, looking unimpressed with himself, “Haven’t seen Adam since I got here, if anything that guy asked if I’d seen you, said you guys needed to discuss some things.” Oh, I bet he did. “Seemed familiar to me now I think about it, he comes and goes with a couple of city bigwigs. I didn’t picture him being related to you. What is he, the mayor’s bitch or something?”
I was surprised to find in spite of my sudden sullen mood, I could still laugh. “Well I wouldn’t say it to his face, but... We may share blood and surnames but that’s it.” I pulled a crinkled bill from my wallet, slid it over the counter, turned towards the table.
“Hey!” Damien called. “You didn’t order anything. What did you want?”
I could care less if I was sipping mocha or macchiato. “You’re the artist, dude. Surprise me.”
“Uh, well okay I guess. What about your change, though?”
I wanted to ask if I looked like I gave a damn about a few silly coins. But I knew better. Damien was the only good guy in my eyes, until Adam arrived, which I prayed was soon. “Call it my contribution to staff therapy.” I went back to the table while the ancient looking cash register screeched, buzzed, dinged and swallowed my money, spitting a chit out of its little printer which Damien took, tore and tossed into the trash. Michelle now sat opposite Eric, still looking at me as though trying to apologize while listening to whatever my brother was babbling about. Apologies were about the second to last thing I was interested in hearing. Three guesses as to what was atop that list and the first two don’t count.
Congratulations, I cursed my conscience. You got your way. Looks like I can’t run anymore. Are you happy now?
The little voice did not respond.