Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Mikey sat alone at lunch the next day, as usual. He picked at the food on his tray, watching the people around him. He could feel eyes on him but every time he’d glance in someone’s direction they would avert their stare. The Kentlee Llamas were an unfortunately named football team, but their status as district champions was due to their vicious offense and mountainous defense. He might as well have painted a big red bullseye on his forehead.
Aaron’s nose was still swollen, with medical tape covering the bridge. The football player kept giving Mikey menacing looks from across the cafeteria. If the nose was broken, which it hopefully wasn’t, Mikey would never hear the end of it from his father or the principal. He fidgeted in his seat as panic crept up on him.
Suddenly he was aware of someone standing by his table, and he looked up to find two Juniors standing there, holding trays. Mikey recognized one as Jack Griffin, a small black-haired boy from an upper-class family. The other was a tall, lanky redhead who always had his nose buried in a sketchbook and seemed to be Jack’s only friend.
“Hey,” said Mikey.
“Hey,” Jack replied. “Can we sit with you? Our table is sort of...taken…”
Mikey followed his glance. The new girl, Sophie, was sitting by herself and flipping through a textbook while she ate.
“She’s not sharing, huh?”
“We didn’t ask.” Jack’s perpetually sad expression now held a tinge of discomfort.
“Yeah, have a seat. I’m Mikey, by the way.”
“I’m Jack and this is Zane.”
Zane smiled nervously before digging into his food. He had obvious bedhead and was more hair than boy.
Mikey watched them both for awhile before the silence started to bother him. “Jack, you were in the Chess Club last year right?”
The boy jumped as though Mikey had hit him with his lunch tray instead of starting a conversation. “I, uh, yeah. I saw you there a couple of times.”
“Do you still play?” Mikey asked.
“No, I’m terrible at it.”
It got quiet again. Mikey became aware of the sound of chewing from everyone at the table. He was getting bad vibes from the whole room now. It was only noon; a full day of this was going to drive him insane.
“Wanna hear a joke?” Zane said suddenly.
Mikey looked at him in surprise. “Huh?”
“Awkward silences kill me.”
“Okay, sure. What’s the joke?”
“The Kentlee Llamas.” Zane broke out in a grin, looking so pleased with himself that Mikey couldn’t help laughing. The tension broke, and Jack let out a chuckle. “Zane, you’re an idiot.”
“Takes one to know one.”
Mikey listened to the two banter to each other for the next 15 minutes. They appeared to have forgotten he was there, which worked for him. When the bell rang, he managed to slip away while they weren’t paying attention.
The walk home was less fatiguing the second time around. William’s dust-covered 2003 Cadillac CTS was parked in the garage when Mikey arrived. The battered blue car was a prime example of his father’s love for relics. He lightly tapped the hood as he walked by, then entered the kitchen through the side door in the garage. Vicki was loading the dishwasher. “Hey, hon, how was school?”
Before he could answer, Mikey heard movement in the doorway to the living room. WIlliam himself walked in, headed for the refrigerator.
“School was good. Hey, Dad.” It occurred to him that he hadn’t spoken to his father at length without conflict since before the trip to Guatemala. “How was the expedition?”
“Tiring.” His father fished a bottle of vitamin water out of the fridge. When he turned, he looked his age for once. There were bags under his eyes, his skin was devoid of its normal healthy color, and his normally inquisitive brown eyes were unfocused and dull. His hair was even in disarray.
Mikey followed him into the living room. “Find anything good?”
“Nothing of note.” He began to shuffle off to his bedroom at the north end of the house. It wasn’t like him to avoid talking about a dig.
“Hey, Dad.” Mikey trailed after him, noting how weak the man’s steps were. “I’m sorry about the fence. I’ll pay to get it fixed. I have some money saved--”
“We can talk about it tomorrow,” William interrupted. “I’m tired. Goodnight, Michael.”
Mikey stared after him. “Goodnight.”
William Harris woke in a pool of sweat. His limbs felt like lead. The glowing orange numbers of the clock on his dresser said it was 3am.
His normally strong frame felt powerless now, as it had for the past four days. He struggled to sit up, fumbling for the bottle of water on his nightstand. It fell to the floor. “Damn it…”
The urge to vomit hit him as he leaned off the bed to retrieve his drink. He fell limply back onto the pillow, and a twinge of fear hit him. He had been fully vaccinated before traveling, but there were always unforeseen risks. It had been easy to blame the fatigue on jet-lag, but this was something else entirely. He tried to recall the last time he had had a nightmare, and was unable. However, that was what had woken him tonight and his heart was still pounding from the feeling of being suffocated.
He put a hand to his forehead; it was feverish. Clearly, he had caught something in his travels.
The nausea finally subsided, allowing him to take a few sips of water before pressing the bottle to his head. Drowsiness finally began to return; he made a mental note to book an appointment with his doctor.
Jack Griffin and Zane Ackard continued to join Mikey at lunch for the remainder of the week. Sophie seemed comfortable at what had been their table, and they obviously enjoyed Mikey’s lack of conversation.
He ended up walking out with them at the end of the day on Friday.
Jack snuffled, trying to clear his sinuses; his nose tended to whistle from congestion lately. He complained often that his spring allergies were kicking in early.
Hidden away in the bathroom before last period, Mikey had taken a generous hit from his last joint, so the nasally quality of Jack’s voice was now amusing instead of annoying. Then he caught the word ‘job’ and his ears perked.
“Yeah, dad’s kind of screwed,” Zane was saying. “Two guys have quit in the last week and a third is out sick.”
“Where does your dad work?” Mikey had been trailing behind but now he sped up to match Zane’s long-legged pace. The boy was easily 6’2.
“The lumber mill outside of town. He runs things when the boss is ‘out for lunch’.“
“Why the air quotes?”
“Guy drinks a lot and then falls asleep in his office.”
Mikey chuckled. “So what jobs are open?”
“Just a general hand, I think. Are you needing a job?” Zane glanced down at him.
“I kind of need to pay to repair a fence.”
“A fence?” Jack echoed.
“I crashed my bike in my driveway. So I also need to repair my bike.” He kept walking, then noticed the other two were staring. “What?”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “You wrecked on your own property and you have to pay for it?”
“Yeah, my dad is...it’s a long story. I just wouldn’t mind having a job anyway.”
Saturday morning, Mikey met with Richard Ackard, a cheerful man who was essentially an older version of his son--red-haired, lanky, and with a nose you could write a novel on. Mikey was put to work immediately as a trainee, primarily carrying boxes and stacking wooden casks. The work was menial but he appreciated the physical labor for a change.
Sunday was spent trying not to move his aching arms, and he returned on Monday after school, eager do more. Richard seemed pleased.
When he walked in the front door at 8pm, tired and happy, he found Vicki sitting at the kitchen table with her head in her hands. She looked up; her eyes were red and puffy.
“Vicki, what’s wrong?” He’d only seen her cry once or twice since she started working there.
She took a shaky breath. “Your dad went to the doctor today. He hasn’t been feeling well and he thought he caught a virus and…”
Mikey’s pulse quickened. “What is it? Malaria? Did he pick up some sort of bacteria?”
She shook her head. “They didn’t find anything bacterial. They ended up doing a CT scan. It’s cancer.”
“What?” Mikey stammered, panic clear in his voice. “Dad is the healthiest guy I know.”
Vicki buried her face in her hands. “I don't know. It’s a new kind and it’s near his brain.”
Mikey finally unfroze his legs and went over to her, wrapping his arms around her dainty shoulders. Cancer. The word sank in like an anchor. The image of his father shuffling away to his room echoed in his head.
“Where is he now?”
“In bed,” Vicki sniffled. She was crying freely into his chest now. “They’re starting chemo tomorrow but they don’t know if it will even do anything…”
“He’ll be okay,” Mikey lied hoarsely.
Vicki stood, scrubbing at her eyes. “What do we want for dinner?”
“Anything. Do you need help?”
“No...go on up to your room, okay?”
He nodded and went upstairs. Instead of going to his room, he continued up to the third floor. The smell of history hit him as he pushed open the rarely-used oak door. He flipped on the light; a row of ceiling fixtures flickered to life, casting warm light over the room. There were aisles of display cases containing antiques and relics, most of which William had dug up himself and then purchased. The center of the wood floor was covered by an authentic Persian carpet. An ancient Chinese Dun hung on the far wall, surrounded by more old shields from other cultures.
Mikey knew the story behind every trophy and curiosity. He’d spent hours in this room when he was younger, listening to his father’s stories. William had been to all corners of the world. His job hadn’t gained him fame or respect but it had shown him things that defied description – according to him.
Mikey ran his fingertips along a clay urn from Cairo. Dust had collected on it. Vicki and William had agreed that she didn’t have to touch this room when she cleaned the house, for fear of breaking something priceless.
It had been years since he had been up here with his father. Those were the days when he was still a good son.
He grabbed his phone from his pocket, scrolled through his contacts, and sent a text to his weed dealer asking for ‘notes’ tomorrow. Turning, he went down to his room and flopped onto the bed, trying to push all thoughts out of his mind.