What could be more embarrassing than getting his own damn bill rejected right in front of the hot guy down the hall? It was like some weird euphemism for inadequacy and Bradley felt his cheeks getting hotter when the drink machine spit it right out back at him. On average, Bradley probably thought about hooking up with someone else maybe three times a year. At a bar, he could be hit on countless times before he finally went home with someone, or left alone just to be left alone. He wasn’t prepared to deny that he’d thought of Mischa in that take home for the night sort of way. Which was odd for Bradley, considering he just wasn’t that sort of guy. Usually, at least, but maybe it was because it’d been a while (longer than a while, probably) and Mischa was wearing those dumb tattered jeans that looked like he’d had them for years and worn them down to nothing.
The hand extended toward him surprised him, only just because it meant Mischa couldn’t be anything like Zoya. Who hadn’t offered anything more than a shrug when he’d offered her a job and sometimes didn’t even glance at him when he walked into work most days. “Just her co worker. She’s not really under me or anything, just takes my phone calls occasionally and reminds me when I should be working instead of playing Bejeweled on my phone,” Bradley said in his thick Irish brogue of a voice, giving Mischa’s hand a sturdy shake before letting it go and looking down at his crumpled dollar bill. He could tell he was grinning, but was struggling to force himself to look normal.
“Machine’s fuckin’ up,” he said, jerking his thumb back toward it, shoving his money back into his pocket and rolling his shoulder. “So, you might wanna try the one on the ground floor.” He looked back to it and then back to Mischa. “So much for connivance right? All I wanted was a damn root beer without having to drive.” He realized he was one, talking too much and two, complaining at that, so instead he shut his mouth, stepped to the side and gestured. “Unless you wanna give it a try.”
“Coworker,” Mischa repeated, admiring the strength in Bradley’s hand shake, “right.” For some reason, he’d always assumed the Irishman was Zoya’s boss. Maybe it was because he’d gotten her the job,. Or just because there was something in the way he carried himself, maybe the his walk or his posture, that gave off the “in charge” vibe. And for some (other, yet not entirely unrelated) reason, Mischa found some sense of reliefe in knowing that Bradley was, in no way, his sister’s superior. But he wasn’t ready to let himself go there. Not yet, anyway. Maybe ever.
“Yeah, she cracks a mean whip,” he laughed, brushing back strands of hair out of his face. It was too long. Unprofessional looking, his dad would say. And Mischa was suddenly very aware of how disheveled he must look, when normally he wouldn’t have given it a second thought. He stepped around the taller man, in a smooth motion approaching the problematic machine. “Bejeweled is my weakness too. That and Candy Crush. It’s amazing that anyone gets any work done when you can play that shit on your phone.”
Mischa pulled a dollar out of his wallet, keeping his back toward Bradley as he flattened it against the corner of the hard, plastic casing that advertised PEPSI© on the iconic blue can with condensation beading up on the sleek looking, iconic blue surface. “This one’s really finicky,” he muttered, slipping the bill into the slot. It made a low pitched, electronic humming sound, as if considering whether or not to deem the dollar worthy of being accepted. After a few seconds, when the machine hadn’t spat the bill back out, Mischa let a satisfied smile settle on his lips.
“You said Root Beer, right?” he asked, craning his neck to look back over his shoulder. His finger hovered over the button.
The cigarette in his mouth had to be old—stale from weeks, maybe months of just being left on the floorboard of some truck. He could taste it in the smoke, the way it sat heavy on his tongue, almost sticky. But Jesco couldn’t complain, the nicotine made him feel more relaxed, a little less tense with a stranger in his truck and after all, it was free. While he drove, Jesco kept one arm out the window and the other on the steering wheel like he had one eye on the road and the other watching the drunk next to him entirely too careful. Luckily for Shiloh, Jesco had a great memory. Once directions were said to him, he had them memorized and wouldn’t need to ask again. Which might have been lucky for Jesco too because by glancing over to the man in his car, he wasn’t exactly sure how long he’d actually be awake for. Jesco couldn’t imagine how he was even still awake with how much alcohol had to be in him, and truthfully, he wouldn’t mind if he fell asleep.
Jesco was okay with comfortable silence. For some reason, he had a feeling that Shiloh wasn’t enjoying it as much as he was, though, or maybe that it just wasn’t comfortable like it was for Jesco. All silence was comforting for him, though and it made him feel more at ease than the cigarette in his mouth did, with its stale terrible tobacco leaves. He operated better in the quiet, felt like he could think better when he didn’t have to focus half his attention on a conversation he didn’t care at all about. Most people could get a couple grunts out of Jesco on a good day, but now he felt like he was supposed to be talking. Instead, he looked over and let the younger man (he supposed he was younger, he looked younger) rest a little.
It wasn’t until he was driving along a stretch of road into a neighborhood that looked like it’d seen better days did Jesco start glancing over to Shiloh more. Wherever he was (and it wasn’t a place Jesco had ever visited before) was dilapidated at the very least. It appeared like it had once been a nice enough area, maybe suburban, a place people where people came to raise a family. But now, it just looked sad, like it’d fallen apart. Someone had left and it’d never gotten a nice enough attention afterward. “Uh,” Jesco started, withdrawing his hand from the window and holding the steering wheel with both. “Hey, kid,” he looked over. “Shiloh,” he paused, looked at him for a little. “Where do you live?”
He wasn’t sure when he fell asleep, or if he’d actually been asleep. The truck made for a bumpy ride but something about the motion seemed to ease Shiloh into a state of comfort. If the bartender was a dangerous man, he was damn good at hiding it. And at least he’d die drunk and hopefully unconscious. God willing. If there was a God.
Shiloh knew there wasn’t.
He’d managed to hold onto his cigarette, despite drifting off into the drunken void. A feat which was, altogether, pretty impressive. It had burned down to little more than ash and the smell of stale tobacco had consumed the cap of the truck, despite the open windows giving it somewhere else to go. His thoughts wandered around his head, settling on the pack of cigarettes he’d found in the glove box of his car. And as he rested with his head cradled in the strap of the seat belt, he wondered vaguely if old tobacco could kill him. Probably not before the arsenic and rat poison laced in it, was the last thing he remembered thinking before his mind went silent…
“—Huh?” he said, he jolted up at the sound of his own name. The motion knocking loose the cylinder of ash that was left of a cigarette he’d lit… how long had he been out? Shiloh tossed the butt out of the open window and made an attempt to scoop up the tiny pile of ash off of his pants leg. “Uh,” he stalled, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands. He mumbled a small “sorry” as he glanced around, gaining his footing in familiar surroundings. It was almost impressive that the man had managed to find the right neighborhood without having to ask twice, even more impressive that the man beside him hadn’t dumped him off in the woods somewhere, if only because Shiloh had a hard time convincing himself that stuff like that didn’t cross most peoples’ mind.
“Here’s fine,” he murmured, pressing his thumb into the seat belt release. “You can just stop here, I can take it from here.” He felt gross and groggy and they were still two blocks away from his parent’s house, but the fear that there was even the slightest chance that Jesco might recognize the infamous suburban two story turned his stomach worse than stale cigarettes and stale alcohol ever could.
"We need to stop meeting like this."
Jarvis hadn’t intended to be cute, coy, or referential. He meant every word of it, said in the most deadpan way he possibly could. He was seventeen and, frankly, his grasp of social cues was minimal at best. He knew no other way to get his point across without resorting to going stony. Emotion was a weakness he possessed in spades, and one of his few strengths was reigning it in. He hated being called sarcastic and snarky, hated his stoic view of emotion being mistaken for having an attitude — he was impassive, nothing more. Anything more was vulnerability.
The only thing that might have slipped through was utter resignation. They couldn’t keep booking Multi-Purpose Room 4 every time they needed to have a meeting. He knew it wasn’t as easy as going through the classifieds at the back of the paper, but they were too old to have a tree fort and too young and poor to join a country club. There had to be a better alternative. One that wouldn’t involve having to sign up with the mean receptionist at the community center a week in advance. They needed somewhere to call their own.
What they needed was a home.
And fast, because his parents were starting to get concerned by the burning plastic smells coming from their son’s bedroom.
He couldn’t rightly say why Jude was the one he thought to voice this opinion to, but the plan was already in motion and Jude happened to be there at the time. Jarvis sat perched on one of the rec centre’s tables, legs crossed and his backpack sitting on his lap, both hugging it against his chest and using it as a chin rest. “I’m tired of coming in here after the Homestuck fangirls leave their Doritos bags everywhere. I’m tired of the receptionist woman looking at me like I’m going to steal her pen. There’s a whole bin of pens behind her! I don’t need her pen!”
It dawned on him that he was ranting, but that’s how annoyed he was. “The Avengers have a tower and a Mansion,” he said matter-of-factly. “There’s got to be somewhere in Boston we can use that isn’t government owned and probably wired.” His finger spun around into a small circle. Call it a hunch.
Once ranting turned into outright anger, Jarvis realized he needed to compose himself. He closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, and counted to seven before releasing it. Zen. Cool. Collected. He remained stock still for a few seconds, channeling the anger into something more productive. Creativity. Slowly, a smirk crept up on his lips, and he peeked open one eye. “Wanna go house hunting?”
The community center had seen better days. Probably better funded ones, with better staff that did more than stare idly at their computer screens and give kids like Jude sour looks when they dared interrupt the games of Solitaire that reflected off the glasses perched on the sharp nose of the perpetually angry receptionist. “You’re friend’s already here,” she had told him without looking up from her game. Her voice was flat and her patient already running thin, even though it was still way too early in the day to be this irritated.
And sure enough, his friend was waiting for him. “Ugh, Jarvis, don’t.” Jude exclaimed, complete with a dramatic sweep of his hand to his forehead. The whole act was rounded off with a fake weak-in-the-knees stumble. “If this were a movie, you’d be hanging upside down and I’d peel away your mask and kiss you,” he laughed at the theatrical scenario running through his own head. It wasn’t what Jarvis meant, he knew. But that only seemed to make the statement all that much more hilarious. Jude pulled a chair away from the table and, in a smooth (practiced) motion, swiveled it so that it was facing the opposite direction. With his legs straddling either side of what was supposed to be the back of his chair, he slouched down low, folding his arms across the top and resting his chin in the crook of his elbow.
“You know, I still don’t know what Homestruck is?” he said, mimicking the disdain in Jarvis’s voice. “Or why those girls who leave here when we’re coming in always have weird hair. They have such strange hair…” Jude thought for a minute, chewing on the inside of his mouth. He watched his teammate compose himself. It seemed to take him no time at all to go from raving to chill, which was pretty impressive to Jude, who tended to get mad and stay mad.
When he spoke again, all hints of playfulness had left his voice entirely, “The Avengers have a Mansion and a Tower because they’re really fucking rich. Not to mention, backed by government agencies and shit.” His eyes darted around the room, following the motion of Jarvis’s finger. He’d never considered the possibility that the room could be bugged, just because, well, who would want to listen to all the other dumb stuff that took place in this room when they weren’t using it? There was a senior citizen chess club and an AP European History class from their school that always studied here on Fridays. Anything else that happened couldn’t me any more or less interesting than those. Surely a group of teenage superhumans was the most excitement the dingy community center saw all week.
“Who’s gonna rent to a bunch of teenagers?” Jude said, in a rare moment of realism. How many teenagers run around in spandex fighting muggers and dirt bags? He’d wager not many. They were a rare breed and someone willing to rent them a lair would have to be equally rare. A smile crept across his lips and he shrugged. “I’m stealing the receptionist’s pen on the way out.”
Elijah was, in fact, of a like mind: getting out to Brooklyn seemed like a much better plan than dealing with massive injuries both internal and ex-, but he was a bit biased. Fortunately, Elle apparently had his back on the decision, and if he’d been torn between possible ways to spend the evening, that made up his mind.
Some people couldn’t handle the city. They felt lost, felt small, felt as though they were too caught up in the rush of bodies and business not their own to stand it. The little artist had been raised amidst the bustle, though; perhaps his sense of size was skewed, or maybe he overestimated his own importance in the scheme of things, but New York—and everything that came with it—had never been his adversary.
It was, occasionally unfortunately, a mindset that carried over into a regard for the people of the city as well. Which meant that his own cursory inspection of the subway car was barely half as clinical as his companion’s, though he had the common sense to keep a grip on the handle of his bag. Thank goodness for small mercies. “Hm?” A slight lean to get a better look at the small screen before he nodded. “Yeah, between Bedford aaand… Kent, I think?” His lack of concrete directions was, in retrospect, not a thing likely to inspire confidence.
Too late to back out, even so. “It’s mostly Manhattan that gets the attention, y’know? With all the business and stuff, paint’s not a good look.” A bump in the tracks made his backpack clatter, and Elijah was quick to clamp it between his feet, for all the good that did. “Besides, from the sound of things, Williamsburg used to have enough trouble with graffiti wars that cleanup didn’t need to get involved.
“You oughta hear some of the older taggers: a couple years back, there was a- a Dadaist movement that capped a whooole bunch of pieces, including a Banksy. Had a manifesto and everything.” He shrugged. “They’ve quieted down since then, but it’s hard to get motivation back up and running after a while.” Neither the most entertaining nor complete of stories, but backstreet gossip and retellings never were.
“Huh,” she said—half said? Made a noise?—as if she were turning the new information over in her head. Elle pulled her phone back towards her, shifting her hips to the side to shove it into the pocket of her jeans. Elijah was the history person. And the art person. He was basically the person. And Elle was, more or less, the tag along. It was a place she accepted, four steps behind him and just excited to get to watch. “So why’d they—”
The metallic sound of paint cans rattling against each other made Elle stop for a moment. Her eyes darted down to Elijah’s back and then back to her own. Rationally, she knew the subway cars made enough noise on their own to keep anyone around them from hearing. And even if other people did hear, what could they do about it? Still, she waited a short beat before continuing again.
“Why’d they stop? The movement. With their manifesto? Sounds intense.”
Her knowledge of graffiti culture was minimal, but growing. Elle had decided that if she was going to tag along with Elijah while he threw his stuff on walls around the city, she should probably know a thing or two about what he was doing. What she was getting herself into.
“He went this way,” Jude called out, shooting around the corner of a building into the narrow alleyway. He didn’t bother glancing back to see if his brother was behind him because he knew he would be. Oliver never stayed more than a few steps behind. His sneakers pounded against the cracked and worn concrete, sending powerful jolts up his frame, echoing off the walls that seemed to get tighter together the further they went. He’d lost sight of their target, a tall guy, spender with dark hair that poked out of the bottom of his ski mask. He had a gun, or something that looked like a gun—who really knew with muggers these days?—but Oliver and Jude had delt with worse.
He heard the rattle of metal coming from above. A fire escape, clanking hard like someone was trying very hard to get away from someone. There wasn’t time to slow down, Jude knew his own velocity would throw him off balance if he tried to put the breaks on now. The last thing he needed was to hit the concrete only to have his brother run him over. Now, that would be embarrassing…
It was a snap decision, throwing his body to the side. His shoes grabbed at the pavement beneath him as he spun around, kicking up dust as if he were a human turned race car from one of those Fast and Furious movies. His fingers dug into the ground and propelled him forward, scraping against the jagged surface of aging concrete. He’d worry about the stinging in his hand later, knew his body well enough to turn the pained feeling off as he flung forward, gripping the fourth step and scrambled up.
Jude’s arms did most of the work, pulling himself up instead of pushing with is legs. Still, the grit and grime soaking into open wounds on his palms made him cringe. He didn’t know what was entering his body, but he knew energy was being expended, already fighting off infection as he left a trail of bloody hand prints behind him. “You still with me?” he called behind him when he finally reached the first flat platform. His lungs were burning for more air, he could feel them begging to stop and rest for just a second. But at this pace, he could reach the roof and still have energy to apprehend the assailant before he actually needed to take a breather. Jude scrambled around the sharp turn and latched onto the next ladder.
Tex had principles. Maybe not morals, because who the fuck could have those in this hell hole where every day you spent wondering if you would be killing someone, or if someone would be killing you? Where you wandered around with a gun because it was as close to a bible you could get, considering half the others got puffy with condensation ruining the pages. So no, fuck morals. Tex had no morals. He had bullets, knives, letters from home and prostitutes. But he had did have principles, ones he followed very closely. And anyone who could take his insults without rising hackles and a clenched fist to his jaw were good people, point black. Anyone that was strong enough to throw a couple back themselves, hell, they were the few that Tex could consider friends. Isaac made him grin, his wicked tiny grin as he leaned against the wood frame that opened into their miserable little shack of a home.
“Your big dick?” Tex joked, voice high and teasing, loping into the shack. “Your giant ginger dick? I could not miss that big ol’ cock, you motherfucker. Swing it like a baseball bat at the gooks next time we’re on the battlefield, might give some of them slant eyed fuckers a concussion. We’ll win the entire war with that thing, broth-a,” Tex said, his combat boots punctuating each word as he walked over to his friend (and what a word to be said in Vietnam) shuffling the cards more. “I’m playin’ with you, we all know it’s like a roll of dimes when it’s hard, you ain’t foolin’ nobody.” More shuffling of the cards in his hands, letting them slide together. They were so beat up by now, puffy like the bibles from heat, dirty from being played on the ground most of the time.
He tossed one onto Isaac’s chest. An ace. “I promise I’ll stop making fun of your dick if you come play a fucking round with me,” he said, arms dropping by his side, eyes wide, mouth gaped open like an idiotic child who wanted attention—which sometimes Tex was. But if he was a child, he was the Antichrist just waiting for his father to bring him home to hell. “I wanna play across the nurses station, ‘cause sometimes you can catch Nurse Babe cleaning and she always leans over real nice when she starts cleaning and it gives me wank material for weeks.” He punctuated that with a hand on his crotch, grabbing fabric and grinning wider.
In the beginning, Isaac was certain he was going to hate Tex. Most days he still wasn’t sure why he didn’t. He was abrasive and rude and loud. Not to mention the slurs that flowed freely from his mouth, each one making Isaac’s skin crawl like he was covered cockroaches. Tex was exactly the type of person he would have withdrawn from, avoided like some unholy plague. If anyone had asked (and some people already had) why he put up with the man’s insults and still called him a friend, Isaac couldn’t have given any straight answer. Maybe it was because Tex was the first person he’d spoken to when he was dumped on his ass in the middle of the base. Maybe it was the slight feeling of protection like maybe no one was going to fuck with him if he stayed slightly behind the other soldier.
Isaac never spent much time thinking about it. It was nice to have a friend. Especially after months had passed since he’d arrived in Vietnam, and still not a single letter from home had arrived with his name on it.
“You keep yelling about my dick,” he laughed, letting his feet fall to the side of the bed with a thud that kicked up dust on the packed dirt floor, “and everyone’s gonna thing you’re getting it.” He moved the book he’d given up reading to the side as he sat up, palms braced against the flimsy mattress. “’Prostitutes? Tex? Nah. He spends most of his time with his mouth on Ginger’s dick. I hear that kid’s really packing it.’” There was the simple fact that maybe the jungle had made him just as crude as his companions. Whether they weren’t educated enough to filter their thoughts (his mother’s voice was in his head and that made him cringe even more than Tex’s flippant use of the word “gook”) or they’d just stopped caring. Because why the hell should they? And why the hell should he.
It only took Isaac a few seconds to get on his feet, ducking under his cot to find his helmet and his riffle, two things that were never out of arms reach. “One of these days, Nurse Ryleigh’s gonna kick your ass for staring at her.” There was a half empty pack of cigarettes and a Zippo (not yet engraved like those belonging to other soldiers—Isaac figured he hadn’t earned the right yet) in his helmet. He fished for one cigarette and clamped it between his teeth. “I bet she could, you know. She’s gotta be pretty tough right?” He said through his teeth as he rolled his thumb over the strike wheel and filled his lungs with the sweet smoke that he’d never craved before coming here.
It was so useless to deny that he was good looking and Zoya always tried to pick out the shallow flaws that made men uglier to her. It was mostly those big blue eyes, though. Dreamy, she thought, and so damn blue. They were dreamy and soft looking, full of mischievousness and glee like hidden behind them lay all those playful evil thoughts. About her, maybe. She could only hope and she could only wonder why she would hope for anything out of him when he was so clearly below her maturity level. Which was saying something, considering Zoya didn’t particularly consider herself mature at all. Zoya watched, never blinking, as he dragged his duffle bag back with his feet, finally paying more attention to her and the situation than to his dumb game. The sound of scraping fabric against their tile floor made a shiver run up her spine and her teeth clench.
She rearranged herself, walking so she was in front of him, stepping back so she could lean against the wall. Zoya folded her arms over her chest and stared down at him. She was short, even in her heels, but with him on the ground it was hard to survey and carry on any sort of conversation, half a mind to tell him to stand the hell up when she was speaking to him. “I’m not impressed at all,” she retorted with a quick, sharp raise of her eyebrow. Zoya stood for a moment, chewing on nothing in particular before she gestured at him. “Well? What sport do you play?” she asked, snapping her finger and pointing at the duffle bag again as though he should have already told her by now.
“Too shy to continue a conversation?” she continued, hardly giving him room to speak with wide eyes on him. “You can whistle at me but not talk to me? Men,” she scoffed, but her tone was surprisingly teasing, like she was doing just that—teasing. And was she? Maybe. Instead of insulting and yelling at him, maybe all she was doing was engaging, in the first time, some mean spirited flirting.
Colt wasn’t sure if her sharp tone was supposed to carve her quick response into a dagger aimed at his chest or if it was meant to match his easy tone. Colt wasn’t sure which and honestly couldn’t figure out which he was supposed to be internally hoping for. “Hockey,” he stated, raising his eyebrow curious as to what her next response would be. He nodded his head towards the doorway, where a worn out stick was leaned against wood, cradled in the angle where door met frame. “Bruins winger,” he continued, wondering if she’d know anything about the team or the position. She didn’t look like the hockey type, though the kick-his-ass-for-cat-calling type suited him just fine.
“C’mon,” he laughed, waving his hands in front of him as if to surrender. Or maybe defend himself. He wasn’t sure which he should be doing. “I wouldn’t have whistled if I didn’t wanna talk to you.” Half true, though she didn’t need to know that. Initially it had been an impulse. Eyes had traveled up and down toned legs, sent a signal to his brain, elicited an external response that he would swear he couldn’t have stopped even if he wanted to. “If I wasn’t trying to get your attention, I would have waited ‘til you were out of ear shot.”
His cellphone vibrated in his pocket, rattling against his thigh at the most inopportune moment. He’d never been so pleased to have forgotten his keys, but damn if his friend didn’t have the shittiest timing for bringing them back. He ignored the call, bracing his hand against his bag and pushing himself to his feet. “Colt, by the way,” he said, holding his hand out to her as he rose. From his previous angle, craning his neck back to look up at her dangerously sharp features, she’d looked like a giant. Now, as he came to his full height, he realized that she was several inches shorter, even in heels.
This was supposed to be for connivence. That was the entire point of a soda machine. So that Bradley wouldn’t have to haul his ass all the way out to the parking garage, sit in the middle of Boston traffic (in the car he spent far too much time in already) just to pay for an over priced soda at the local 7-11. This was supposed to be easier than that. And yet, there Bradley was, flattening and re-flattening his dollar bill against the corner of the soda machine just like how he saw some twelve year old boy do it once in order to get the creases out so the god damn satanic thing would finally accept his payment. “I jus’ want a root beer,” Bradley pleaded with the machine, furiously rubbing the billy clenched in either fist. The corner was folded down slightly when he tried to shove it into the little slit and once again, the demonic machine spit it back out at him.
“Son of a fucking quaker whore,” —a string of harsh gaelic he’d never say in front of someone’s mother— “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you and yer little fuckin’ money family. I’ll find all the little coin children and kill them too,” Bradley snarled in a harsh brogue toward the ugly green piece of paper, straining his body against the sharp corner of the machine just like that little kid had. Once that was done, he inspected the one dollar bill for any imperfections, smiling triumphantly. The damn thing was about as flat as it was going to get and Bradley once again, tried to slide it into the slit, feeling hopeful at first before watching it feed back to him in a defeating way. Just when he was about ready to start punching the machine, he caught movement from the corner of his eye and stopped in an attempt to make sure his neighbor wouldn’t think of him as some strange angry person that yelled at inanimate objects.
Mischa, last name something Russian he couldn’t pronounce, was Zoya (a scary stick thin woman with a fierce face and even fiercer eyes) older brother and that was about all Bradley knew about him. Except of course, that he wore suits some days and other days, when Bradley was lucky, he wore those tattered jeans that hugged him thighs and ass in wonderful, heavenly ways. Despite Bradley finding no luck whatsoever with the soda machine, he was finding all the luck in the world with Mischa’s outfit. Hopeful he’d walk past to the elevator so Bradley could crane his head around and watch him go, all that hope drained out of him when he realized Mischa was headed his way. Likely to get a soda himself. Muttering a curse under his breath, Bradley attempted his bill again, only half hoping it wouldn’t work again so he might have some reason to talk to the mysterious man he’d only ever spoken a few words in passing to.
Admittedly, the drink machine hadn’t been his planned destination. The little nook in the wall that housed convenient snacks (over-priced, but still convenient) just happened to be across the hall from the elevator. It was Saturday afternoon, the kind of day when Mischa couldn’t be bothered to put on decent clothes just to hop in his car and drive fifteen minutes to browse aimlessly at Barnes and Noble’s out of nothing but pure boredom. His flip flops made almost no sound on the carpeted hallway except the splatting noise of them hitting the heels of his feet as he rounded the bend in the hallway. He was greeted by the harsh sounds of a man’s voice seething words he didn’t understand.
“Privet,” he muttered cautiously in Russian, easing into place behind the man. The, strangely, familiar man. It wasn’t until he was standing almost directly behind him, that he recognized the guy. He was Zoya’s boss. Or, her coworker at least. The guy who’d gotten her the job at some detective agency downtown. They’d seen each other in passing, on days when they both happened to be in the hallway at the same time. Or other times when he’d visited his sister for lunch or picked her up from work. It seemed strange now that the two had hardly ever exchanged more than three or four words to each other—just a friendly hello or a wave as they passed each other on the elevator.
Just last week, Zoya had sworn she’d caught the man checking Mischa out in the hallway. An accusation that he still wasn’t prepared to allow himself to believe. “This machine’s kind of a bitch sometimes, man,” he said, watching over his shoulder as it spat out the dollar, probably not for the first time. “Bradley, right? Zoya’s boss?” Neither was really a question, though the inflection at the end of both sentences would have lead anyone to believe otherwise. Mischa offered one hand to Bradley while the other dipped into the back pocket of his worn out, faded jeans.
"Lena." Émile repeated her name, smiling at the weight of it in his mouth. It was a good name. He’d never quite met a name he thought was bad, but some of the American ones could be incredibly bizarre. The first time someone had introduced herself to him as Jynx, he’d done a double take, unable to keep the shock off his face. That sort of thing simply wasn’t allowed in France. You didn’t make up names, give your children appellations like Pepsi or Scorpio when there were perfectly good, normal names to use. It stunned him that this was an acceptable practice, and though he’d never think of someone’s name as wrong or unusable, Émile had trouble reconciling himself to it. “It’s good to see you again.” He was sincere in saying so. The unpleasant sort of people who came in, Émile did his best to forget entirely, keeping around only memories of those he’d liked working on. There was no value in keeping around the memories of things that made him unhappy. The most they could do would be to make him unhappy again in the future, and that was well worth avoiding.
Her nervousness was palpable even from across the counter, and Émile gave her a reassuring smile. “It’s fine. I don’t have anything scheduled for the rest of today. So long as the tattoo you want touched up isn’t completely out of my art range, I’d love to go over it.” He didn’t bother mentioning that he usually didn’t take walk ins. The studio itself did, passing people between different artists when they just showed up out of the blue, given that the artist they wanted might be busy and some weren’t all that picky, but Émile had never taken part in that. His own variable health didn’t allow for such freedom. A good day could turn bad all too quickly if he went maxed out his available energy, and he would still need to get through the rest of the afternoon and evening. In this case, though, all it would do was make the girl feel bad for asking something that Émile was willing to give, which seemed unkind and petty. Causing harm had never been Émile’s style, if it could possibly be avoided.
"Why don’t you show me your tattoo?" With a gesture towards the back of the shop, Émile moved out from behind the counter, heading towards the entrance himself. "I can take you to where I usually work." She’d been there once before, if his memory had fixed her in place alright, but he had no expectation that she’d remember. Émile could not have, with a place he’d only been once, maybe twice, and he was more than happy to take the lead.
“Thank you,” she said, following after him through the back corridor. The relief in her voice was obvious, though she still worried that she might have come at a bad time. There was still the fear that she could have caught the artist on his way out the door. Done with his day and headed home to whatever waited for him off the clock. She had to put it out of her head though, because if she let herself worry about it too much she’d end up pulling her hair out before the whole thing was over. “It’s really simple. Kinda dumb, actually. I got it when I was eighteen.”
Lena eased herself into the chair, a familiar seat that she’d been in not all that long ago. “I really appreciate this,” she said, probably not for the last time, as she eased her delicate ballet flat off her foot. She leaned forward to roll her boot cut jeans just above her ankle, so Émile could get a good look at the thing on her foot. It was a sparrow, just a simple black outline with something akin to a paisley design swirling inside the thick black contour lines. “It’s really not much,” she shrugged, leaning back to let the artist examine it.
“But, I mean, if it’s going to be there, it might as well look nice right?” she said, laughing nervously at herself, as if already bracing for the pain of the needle that would come. “It’s just getting a little faded. Someone told me after the fact that foot tattoos fade really quickly. That would have been nice to know before I got it.” Lena laughed again, casually leaving out the fact that the ink marked the single, solitary act of rebellion that she’d ever committed. So, naturally, it at least held some sentimental importance.
One would think that with a job like ‘bar owner’ that Jesco would be at least a little comfortable around people; at least a little skilled with them as well. But he wasn’t. And that worked out well for his job, incredibly enough. The Blackhouse Pub was located on the outskirts of town, a little ways. Just enough that most people could drive home drunk and not crash and die, though Jesco tried hard not to let them leave when they were stumbling the way his drunk stranger was. Called their wives to get them or girlfriends, siblings or aunts. Anyone sober and in charge. But the best part was that no one really needed to talk to him. His bar was kept open by regulars that came in, got the same drink every time, drank until they didn’t want to drink anymore and left. Jesco didn’t need social skills just to fill a glass up with whiskey and leave someone alone. He certainly was wishing he had some now with Shiloh in his truck.
It was a nice name. Reminded him of that sad dog movie, though the man next to him was pretty damn sad looking too, so it seemed to fit. Droopy eyes, dark half moon marks under each. His skin was pale, almost greenish. He looked sick, but that was to be expected of someone who was so drunk they could hardly handle a walk across a parking lot. Jesco felt sorry for him and for some reason he couldn’t stop staring at the way his lips curved around the cigarette that hung just as pathetically from his lips as the leather jacket he wore. “Uh,” he paused, looking down at the pack of cigarettes, slowly pulling away the safety that was his bar. Jesco shrugged, reached for them and nodded. “Yeah, I—yeah, I smoke, you can…too.” He fumbled to get one out of it’s beaten down carton and into his mouth.
Instead of asking for Shiloh’s lighter, he found the pack of matches in the left breast pocket of his army green jacket and pulled them free. He could do an easy and nifty trick where he lit a match against the strike pad with one hand, but he doubted Shiloh would be impressed or even paying attention, so instead he let go of the steering wheel for only half a second to hold the packet of matches, light one and then hold it to the end of his cigarette. Hands back on the steering wheel and correcting its path on the road, he inhaled harshly. “You’ll have to give me directions,” Jesco said, taking the cigarette and hanging his one arm out the window of the truck. “I don’ go out this way much.”
With Jesco’s spoken permission he ran his finger over the wheel of the cheap lighter. The flame cracked and fizzled and burned low against the metal. Almost out of fluid, but enough to ignite the end of his cigarette and that was all that mattered for the time being. Shiloh watched out of the corner of his eyes as the other man lit his own cigarette before inching his hand across the empty center of the truck bench to retrieve his pack. The smoke that filled his lungs was almost a relief. Anything was better than the nasty humidity that hung around the night air. Being outside at any point in mid-summer Alabama felt like getting spit in the face repeatedly. God forbid it actually rain. That was like standing fully clothed in a luke warm shower that felt more nasty and refreshing. It left his lungs feeling sticky—at least smoke was dry.
“Left at the light,” he muttered, pressing his head against the window that felt cool against his temple. His words came around the cigarette, held between his lips, “Interstate going towards the city, four exists down then take the first right.” He spoke slowly, hoping he wouldn’t have to repeat himself as he watched the bar and his truck fade away into the distance. The truck moving over gravel felt jarring, and more than once his face collided with a little too much force into the plate glass window.
But the movement, all together felt soothing and Shiloh’s eyelids were heavy with sleep and rum and whatever burning hot alcohol he’d found to drink when he crawled into the back of his truck. He took another drag on his cigarette and for the first time noticed that it left a stale taste in his mouth. He’d found the pack in his floorboard and wondered how old they were in silence. Awkward silence. Silence that probably should have been filled by conversation but instead was interrupted by the sound of burning paper and tobacco and steady rhythm of tires moving across pavement.