The car smelled of Taco Bell and lemon air freshener. It was obvious it had been cleaned - a white spot on the fuzzy tan car seat meant a stain had been there, and maybe bleach wasn't the best option to get it removed. James moved over so he was on top of it. He tried not to hug his backpack to his chest. If he just stayed still, and maybe if Marcus didn't talk, and all they did was listen to The Getaway, then maybe he could pretend it was just a car ride with his mom.
But that was just a maybe.
"I feel like a chauffeur."
Marcus looked in the rearview mirror, his eyes sparkling. He looked like a twin to Jake Gyllenhaal. His voice sounded like black and gold. James tried to reply, but his voice was roped in his throat and his lips refused to move. Marcus looked back at the road. James glanced at his fingers, paper white on the steering wheel. Dark Necessities hummed on the radio.
"I was thinking that I would buy tickets to go see Red Hot Chili Peppers, live, y'know. Haven't seen them for a while. They're in Europe for the tour but I bet I can take some vacay time off."
James stared at the suburban scenery. The houses that whizzed past looked like half-a-million dollar homes. The reflection showed Marcus slowly pull into a red light. He sat back in his seat, looking at James through the mirror.
"Germany should be beautiful this time of year."
He was still talking. He was trying. James snorted to himself. He should have tried harder long ago. James didn't want to do anything with Marcus. Not now.
He didn't answer. He hated that he liked the sound of his name in Marcus' voice.
His name dripping in black and gold.
He finally turned. Marcus was turned in his seat, glaring at James with heated eyes. Angry Jake Gyllenhaal.
"I'm trying to talk to you." He practically shouted. James didn't flinch. Instead, his eyes narrowed.
"You could have tried to talk to me before." He retorted. Marcus pushed a hand through his hair.
"I was busy."
James rolled his eyes.
"Seems like you're always busy."
"Well I have work to do, and I need to make a living."
"Oh, yeah? Same here. Did you know Mom has three jobs now?"
"No, she…” he sighed, “she never told me."
"You know why she never told you? Because you're always," James holds up his fingers, "'too busy'."
Marcus slammed his hand down on the center console.
"Damn it, James! CAN'T YOU SEE I'M TRYING?"
"I know you're trying but you could've tried earlier; hasn't that ever crossed your mind?" James felt his face flush red. "Has it never crossed your mind to maybe try and get to know us? MAYBE JUST EVEN A LITTLE bit?"
"That is what I'm doing now."
"Well it sure doesn't seem like it."
"Doesn't seem like it? Doesn't effing seem like it? I picked you up from school, I'M TRYING TO HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH YOU LIKE A NORMAL DAD. You are the one not trying!"
James seethed, "Do not make me the enemy here, you are the enemy!"
"I am not the enemy!"
"YOU BECAME THE ENEMY WHEN YOU WALKED OUT THAT DOOR!"
Marcus roared, turning back around and crashed into his seat. His face was in his hands, and James tried to feel guilty as he heard him sniff. Instead, he felt happy. He breathed heavily. After a while, Marcus looked out the window, his cheeks red. They sat at a green light with cars honking and driving around them. Silence engulfed them.
For once James didn't mind it.
"You know I work at Southwest? As a manager." He said it so casually. James saw him glance at the mirror. His eyes were puffy.
"They have," he cleared his throat, "a really fancy name for it. Publications technology manager. Big name."
The light had turned red again. James' head was against the window. Marcus looked back one last time, then sighed. The light turned green, and the car lurched forward. The rest of the ride was quiet. Even the radio was turned off.
Marcus dropped him off at the curb of the house. They both noticed the car parked in the driveway. Mom was home. As he climbed out, James could see the living room curtain flutter. He immediately put on a smile, waving goodbye to a confused Marcus.
"Put on a smile," James whispered through clenched teeth to him. He did, and James happily said he would love to see him again as he shut the door. He didn't know if Marcus caught the tight tone in his voice. Whatever. It didn't matter. He opened the front door and was greeted by a blast of cool air. His mom sat near the window in the library. She pulled on her hair, watching as the bile car pulled from the driveway and disappeared around the corner. James hung up the house key.
"Before you ask, it was a good car ride." He said. Mom didn't answer, just pulled one strand at a time. James stiffened when she turned to look at him.
"Good," was all she said. She rubbed her eyes, "do you need a ride to work?"
"No, I can walk. What are you doing home so early?"
Mom puffed her bangs from her face. Her lips were cracked, and she had bags under her eyes, but he didn't see any streaks of food or pen ink smudged on her face. That was a good sign.
"Boss-man had me sent home early." She sighed, abruptly walking into the kitchen and flicking on the lights as she went. James followed her, then switched them off. That was not a good sign.
"Don't 'Oh Mom' me. He thought I looked a little tired so he just had me sent home for the day - good thing too, I need to get ready for the night shift at Sonic." She opened the pantry door. The heavy smell of peanut butter wafted into the room. James wrinkled his nose as she took out a half-eaten jar of Jif.
"I thought you had the night off...?" He asked. Mom spooned a hunk of dry butter into her mouth.
"Oh, I did, but then Angela had to take time off - the poor girl was knocked up a few months ago at a party, poor, poor thing," she smacked her lips. "Anyways she started her morning sickness today, customers complained, she was given some leave, I volunteered, case closed. The girl is only sixteen, can you believe that?"
James pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Yes, mom, I can. But why did you volunteer? You said you were going to take the night off for some rest, remember?"
"Yeah, mmpf, but the girl needed help."
She started to walk away from him. James knew she was looking for her keys. He threw his hands up in exasperation.
"You know what? Fine, okay. Go to work, but make sure to tell Gus that you're taking the shift or he won't pay you."
"Yeah, I know."
She went into her room with the jar of Jif in her hand, spoon hanging out of her mouth. James ran his fingers through his hair. She was supposed to take the night off. That was their deal. He still had a part-time shift but afterwards they promised to finally have some time - family time, like all normal families with both parents do. Instead, he stomped up the stairs and into his room. He let his backpack slide from his shoulders, then glanced at the clock.
He had at least two hours before work.
His fingers dug into his pocket, and they pulled out the crumpled picture of the daisy. He ignored the mess of paint on the carpet as he pinned the paper to the wall. Then, getting out a fresh canvas, he went to work.
The flower painting turned out prettier than the one in the art room.
His mom was gone when he came downstairs later in the evening. It was a quarter to six when he finally stopped on the painting. James didn't want to be late again, so he quickly washed off the paint, wiped his wet hands on his jeans and grabbed his uniform from the closet. He didn't lock the door when he left.
"Ma'am, it's broken."
"What do you mean? I know I'm swiping it right."
"No, ma'am, I mean, it's broken. You have to use another one. You can use the scanner over there."
"Why don't you guys just leave it on? It would be easier for us customers to use it."
"Because it is broken, ma'am. We placed a sign so customers won't use it. You can use that one over there."
"No, I always use this one. I want to use it."
"Ma'am, it's broken. You have to use another one. You can use the scanner right over there."
"I don't have to do anything. You know what, I'll just go somewhere else."
James watched as the woman stomped away, leaving a SORRY! game box on the counter. He sighed. It was always the same. Wednesday night and he manned the store alone. Again.
"I know what you're thinking, James. Stop throwing a pity party for yourself."
James looked to see a swishing blonde ponytail in front of him. He pushed it away, smiling.
"My knight in shining armor." He chuckled. Chloe turned around, fluttering her eyelashes at him.
"Dang right, I am. I'm the prince in this fairytale." She said. James had a hard time trying to stop his smile from engulfing his face. Chloe was the 'assistant manager' at the Kroger he worked at. 21 years old and had started her career in retail. James thought it was a waste of time but she thought 'communicates and works well with different kinds of people' would look good on her resume. James didn't argue.
Usually she only worked weekends, so seeing her now on a weekend night was a surprise for him. She pushed the board game under the counter, then looked up at him. James bit his lip. He couldn't lie. She was beautiful.
"You can curse if you want. Nobody is listening." James said as she walked around one of the checkout counters. She frowned at him.
"God is always listening, you know." She said, smiling midsentence when a frat boy hauled a six pack of beer on the counter, "hey Matt, what's up?" The frat boy shrugged and started to talk about college. It was a hint for James to monitor on his own line. The first few hours went by slowly. Mostly only drunks or college boys from the university down the road, and one old woman who needed directions to her home. James didn't care. He did this for the money. Chloe, on the other hand, chatted with every person that walked through the doors and even offered the old woman a ride home. When she came back, a smile still secure on her face, James put down his phone and looked at her. She paused from fixing her ponytail.
"What?" She asked, her cheeks tingeing pink. He scrunched his shoulders.
"You're such a..." he sniffed, "I don't know.."
"A nice person?"
"No, that's not an insult."
She stuck her tongue out at him. He retorted and tried to contain his laughter.
"You're such a dork, Smith." Chloe grinned as she pushed a strand of hair behind her ears. He almost melted inside.
"Well, you're a nerd. And dork means whale penis."
"No, it doesn't. Look it up, you dork, it just means a silly person."
"I think you are the only person who still uses the word 'silly'. So not cool."
"I'm on a new wave."
"Am I interruptin' somthin'?"
Both noticed Zack standing in James' line, holding a six pack of beer and grinning. He still wore the clothes from yesterday. Chloe softened her smile until it went from genuine to how-can-i-help-you. Zack heaved the beer on the conveyor belt.
"This is for the you-know-what tonight at the you-know-where." He whispered as James scanned the price tag. "You should really come, James. Bring the blondie-hottie with you."
James shot him a disgusted look. Then he felt Chloe's gaze on him, and he stopped handing the beer back to Zack.
"Can I see your I.D.?" He asked. Zack's eyebrows lifted. Without arguing, he pulled out his wallet and flipped to his I.D. James squinted at it.
"Really?" He looked at a hundred watt Zack. "Jerad Padovanii? I didn't know you were Jewish." Zack put the wallet back with a wink.
"Oh, I'm full of surprises, James."
With that he took hold of the beer, trotting out the exit. Chloe watched him go with a curious expression.
"He looks pretty young to be 21." She said with a cocky smile.
"Yeah, well, he won't age well when he's in his fifties."
She clicked her tongue.
"What was that about a party?"
James was taken aback. He didn't remember mentioning a party to her.
"Pfft, a party? What? Where'd you hear that?" He joked. Chloe reached over to punch him in the shoulder.
"I'm blonde, twenty-one and a college student. I'm not stupid."
"Shush with the insults, and tell me what party." She leaned against the counter, obviously not wanting to go anywhere. James licked the inside of his lip.
"Aight, fine. It's a homecoming party for the high school Zack and I go to."
"Central, yeah, I know. Where is it?"
"I don't think I should be telling you."
"Well, why not?"
"Because you're, well," he stopped, trying to think of a way he could make this sound non-insulting, "well…"
"A good person?" She finished.
"Yeah, that. All Christian and stuff."
"Hey," she said, edging on a defensive tone, "I go to parties all the time. And besides, if you leave me here, and you don't finish your shift, I'll tell the manager on you."
James jaw dropped. Chloe was feistier than he thought. He felt his stomach flare up.
"Like hell you would do that."
Chloe shrugged, folding her arms, "tell me."
"Alright, alright, it's over in the Trace Ridge resort."
Her eyes widened.
"Whoa, cool! The one Wilson owns?"
James smiled, "yeah. Apparently, everybody is going." He rocked on his heels. "And before you ask, no, I don't think I'm going so you're welcome, you don't have to man this ship alone."
Chloe nodded, a strand of blonde hair falling into her eyes. James resisted the itch to push it away.
"Why aren't you going?" She asked after a while. James sighed, looking up towards the ceiling.
"I don't know. I hate parties. I hate everything about them. I just don't like it."
She nodded again, "ah. Well, would it help if I went too?"
James looked back down into her face. She was smiling softly. Not a cashier smile, or a tight -how-can-i-help-you smile.
This time, it was genuine. He mirrored her.
"Yeah, I might like that."