12th of May, 649
The living room at the Rodriguez family's house stunk of old pizza and booze, and Lucas shifted on the lumpy couch with miserable discomfort. Bobby had managed to get Stingray to agree to letting Lucas stay for a few days, and Lucas was grateful for the change of scenery. He hadn't been sleeping all too well, but he was happy to just have somewhere to be.
He knew that the Leonarts would've allowed him back at any time, but the idea of going there made him feel angry and, when thinking about Espee, just a tiny bit saddened. Ceres had tried to call a few times, but he'd been ignoring her - she'd even come by the house looking for him, but Bobby refused to let her in. Lucas had a moment of clarity in that instant when Bobby told her to go elsewhere and leave him alone - Bobby was a much better friend to Lucas than Lucas was to Bobby, and it made him feel pretty guilty.
Stingray was often drunk upstairs, talking on the phone or arguing with someone. He worked remotely for a company somewhere in Rigelios, and even though the orchard lands were his family's, he'd taken to outsourcing all of the real work on them in recent years.
Lucas had tried to avoid Billy when he came around - he lived in an apartment nearer to Joel's workshop, Bobby said, and Lucas had been nervous that he'd say something to get Stingray to send him home prematurely.
You'd run away for good if he did that, though, wouldn't you?
Lucas could hear creaking from the stairs. "Yo, Lucas, bro, you awake? You wanna play some games or something?"
Lucas yawned and sat up. It was nice having someone other than Ceres to talk to.
"Yeah, sounds good. You work today?"
"Nah, bro. I was gonna meet up with Melisara later maybe, you wanna come with? She got some cute friends."
What would Ceres think of this? How would she react?
"Huh? Wow, man, thought you'd say some shit about Ceres," Bobby said, sitting in a big plush armchair and opening a can of soda. "What? Don't look at me like that. It's breakfast, man. My dad, he gave up on cooking who knows how long ago. You want a frozen burrito or something?"
"That'd be great," Lucas said. "But uh, me and Ceres, well..."
"You're together, right? Everyone knows, bro."
Lucas had tried to keep it a secret, but he'd rightfully assumed it could never truly stay as under wraps as he'd hoped. He nodded slowly.
"Yeah, about that. I'm uh... not really sure about it," Lucas said, words leaving his lips faster than his thoughts. "I keep pissing her off. She gets all weird about every girl under the sun. It's shitty."
"Yeah, I hear ya, bro. You're young, I'm young, we ain't gotta deal with stupid shit like that. But like, you gonna cheat on her or what?"
"No," Lucas frowned. "Man, it ain't like that. She's always so mad about the idea of me cheating that she doesn't even pay attention to what's really going on."
"Man, that's stupid. I bet she's cheating."
"What makes you say that?"
"People always projectin' and stuff, man. They say that whatever they're most worried about is what they're up to, and that's called psychology, man. Learned it in Mr. Nunn's class. You should've taken it."
"Guess I missed out," Lucas shrugged.
"Whatever. So Melisara and me, we're a thing, right? She ain't gettin' mad about me hanging with her girls. Ruby? She's a Cygnus 10/10, bro, but I ain't tryin' to get in her pants. And her girl Josephine? She got boobs the size of your fuckin' head, bro. Probably crush a can of soup with 'em. Always wondered what they felt like, but I ain't gonna go honk honk or nothin'."
"Bobby, man," Lucas shook his head. "Always with the boobs, man."
"Sorry, bro. Just the way B-Money rolls, ya know?"
Bobby'd talked Lucas' ear off about his nascent rap career, and how he'd hoped to someday get a record deal in Rigelios - Lucas had heard some of his work, and while it wasn't bad, it also wasn't good.
"So like I was sayin', me and Melisara, we're like, almost a thing now? We make out sometimes, but like, it ain't official like you and Ceres. Melisara's cool with me being cool with her friends just like she's cool with mine. So to get to the point of what I was saying," Bobby threw up his hands dramatically, soda splashing out of the can and down his hand, "Ceres? She's fuckin' cheatin' on you, bro."
"Ceres isn't cheating," Lucas frowned.
"Yeah? Hold on a sec," he leaned forward, eyes serious. "Are you two even official? You've made out an' shit, right? You touch her tits? You fuck yet?"
"That ain't your business, dude," Lucas said, a little more harshly than he meant to.
"Whoa. I ain't tryin' to piss you off. Forget I asked, bro."
"Sorry. I just like keeping some things private."
"Fair enough. But c'mon, dude. You gotta come with me today. Get yourself some breakfast and get cleaned up and we're gonna hang out down at the old millhouse with the girls. You clean up real good bro, but you wouldn't know it with all that grime-ass peach fuzz on your face."
"Thanks?" Lucas said, scratching his chin. He hadn't really been taking care of himself, he knew, but hearing it like that never felt good.
Lucas microwaved one of the burritos from the freezer and ate it at the counter in the kitchen, just staring off into space. The sink area was a mess - Espee would never allow it to look like that - but the grunting and grumbling from upstairs was enough of an explanation.
"BOBBY?" Stingray's voice slurred loudly from upstairs. "BOBBY, bring me some water, hurry up!"
Bobby shook his head as he came into the kitchen. "He's gonna freak out if I don't bring him some tequila or somethin', but I don't wanna. Your turn, Lucas."
"Yeah, you. I gotta eat, too. You're stayin' here for free, might as well pick up some of my slack. And besides, sooner we get the old man back to sleep, the sooner we can get the blazes outta here, yeah?"
"Fair point," Lucas said, scanning the cabinets for anything that even looked like a clean glass. "Man, y'all need some help or something? I know how to do dishes."
Lucas bit his tongue. He knew it hadn't been long since Wanda died, and while he didn't mean to offend, the look in Bobby's eyes gave him pause. He knew that pain too well.
"What you sayin'?" Bobby laughed. "Yeah man, it's a dump, but we got like, those plastic bottles in the fridge. Go on and take one to him, then get outta there, or he'll talk at you about nothin' til he's sober enough to wonder what the blazes he told ya."
Lucas held the cold water bottle in his hand and nodded at Bobby.
"You know where the shower is. Let's get outta here by like 1100, okay?"
Lucas stood at the foot of Stingray Rodriguez's bed. The room smelled like the house did, only ten times worse. It reeked of cigar smoke, booze, and Goddess only knew what else - there were bottles of what Lucas could only assume were urine stashed in a corner. Stingray had been at Joel's birthday party just two weeks before, but Lucas hadn't seen much of him in the days since.
"Wanda, that you?" Stingray said, squinting. "Oh. Sorry, still half asleep, man, uh..." He scrambled to cover himself with his sheets. "You didn't see nothin', uh... you got water, right?"
Lucas nodded and tossed the bottle on the bed.
"Thanks, kid," he said, cracking the top open and drinking half of it in one go. "Bobby said I gotta get outta bed today, but... I don't wanna. Tell him that for me, alright?"
Lucas looked around the disgusting bedroom. Framed photos sat on a dresser and were hung up along the walls of the room - Stingray, much leaner in the photos, had his arm around a smiling, beautiful woman. He looked upon Stingray in the bed, mostly naked, bloated, and enfeebled.
"I will, Mr. Rodriguez."
"Good. You tell that boy... uh... if he's with that girl... uh..."
His eyes were closed before he finished the sentence. Lucas slowly retreated from the bedroom and closed the door behind him.
"I look stupid," Lucas said, touching his hair as he looked in the mirror.
"No way, bro. You look fuckin' good. Just own it, alright?"
Lucas didn't feel good about himself, but he shook his head, sighed, and stepped back from the bathroom vanity. "Last time I let you convince me to do that," he said with a laugh.
"Girls love it, I mean, look at me," he said, pointing at his own. This made Lucas feel worse - Bobby'd done his hair almost identically to his own, and while for Bobby it worked, it didn't work at all for Lucas. The shirt that Bobby had let him borrow was a bit too big in all the wrong ways, amplifying the awkwardness.
"So uh... that Josephine girl? She single?"
"Tits over tens, right? Yeah, I think she's single. She just wants a guy who ain't gonna stare at her rack all day, but I mean, c'mon. She's gonna have to find a blind dude."
Lucas shrugged. "I dunno, bro."
"Yeah, I'm just teasin'. She's super cool, you'll like her. She writes an' shit, like books and all that. Asked her to write a rap with me and she just laughed and told me to grow up, like... yo, you're eighteen, you're not much older than me, get off your cloud. Ain't you always writing shit down?"
"Cataloguing, not writing," Lucas said, giving himself a sidelong glance in the mirror. "I wouldn't say I like writing, I'm pretty bad at it."
"That girl Justine who tutored you was, though," Bobby laughed. "She graduated Billy's year; did you know they dated? She's cool too. Way too old for us dumbasses though." He winked at himself in the mirror and Lucas sighed.
"So Josephine man, you stare? You get busted? Man, you're done. But she's pretty cute too, for whatever that's worth. I know you like a girl with brains and looks, I mean, Ceres is pretty fuckin' cute, y'know? Sorta lackin' in the assets, but..."
"Shut up about Ceres already."
"Oh, uh... yeah. So I mean, not like I'm gonna go an' try an' get her if you break up. Bros and all that stuff, y'know? Besides, I got Melisara. She's already talkin' 'bout our future, smart girl. Got everything all planned out."
"Oh yeah? Well that's good? C'mon, hurry up, let's get outta here before your dad wakes up again."
"Okay, okay. So what we're gonna do is we're gonna take his truck across the farm, keys are in the ignition. That's unsafe or whatever but who cares, right? He certainly don't. Go down there and I'll meet ya, okay? I'm gonna call Melisara an' see what's goin' on. Don't wanna sit down there all day if ya know what I mean."
The sun shone down through the maple leaves on the big tree near the mill house as Bobby and Lucas sat atop the parked truck. The girls were running late, Bobby'd said, so the two just sat outside waiting, listening to the sounds of nature around them.
"You ever think you're gonna get outta here?" Bobby asked, staring off at the horizon. "I mean, I know you ain't from here, but do you ever think about leaving again?"
"All the time. Not that I hate it, but it's... well, it's just not me."
"Yeah. You're from Noctavia. I ain't from here either, you know that, right? My dad brought us up from Fornacis when we were little. Little coastal town called Niandra. Man, I miss the ocean."
"Oh? I think you've talked about it before. I've never lived near the ocean. What's it like?"
"Real pretty. Used to pass out on the beach all the time as a kid and when I'd wake up, Billy and his friends would've buried me under a foot of sand. Like clockwork, man. The first few times it's scary, but Billy'd never let me get hurt, no way." He took a long drink from his water bottle and put it behind him on the roof of the truck. "You got siblings, right? Where they at?"
"I don't, actually."
"Oh, well, that kinda sucks. Nice having a brother. Ceres ain't got siblings either, does she? Y'know, people used to think you two were siblings."
"People were gettin' all weird an' shit when they'd talk about it. Said your kids would have like, three eyes and one leg? Stupid. I made sure to put 'em in their place, though." Bobby laughed as he shadowboxed. "But we ain't gotta worry 'bout that place any longer, huh? I won't miss it."
"You want to go to Rigelios, don't you?"
"Oh yeah. Me an' Melisara were lookin' for somewhere to live out there. Maybe get some roommates, our own little slice of Elysium, or whatever. Heard the city's a nice place to be, and they got beaches real close."
"Rocky ones," Lucas said, taking a swig. "Mormont wasn't too far from the beach, but it's in the bay with the Cerulea Isles and Lili Borea and all those places. Cold as Corybas' frozen ass in the wintertime."
"Blech," Bobby shook his head. "No white sands? No beautiful sunsets? How you supposed to take a pretty girl on a date on a beach full of rocks and shit?"
"I don't know. I haven't lived there since I was eight. Bigger fish to fry."
"Yeah. I hear you. Besides," he laughed, "that'd be freakin' weird, dude."
Lucas looked at him and laughed and Bobby gave him a hard pat on the back.
"But you're like, an adult now. You gotta think about these things. Psychology, remember?" He nudged Lucas. "Look out over there, I think that's them. Jeez, Melisara drives like a nutcase. You should see her on the highway."
Bobby waved as the beat up silver car approached. It kicked up a cloud of dust as it parked near the truck, and Melisara got out of the car first with a wide smile on her face. Her front teeth had a small gap and Bobby'd once told Lucas that it was her "ticket" into modeling - Melisara was shorter than both of them, curvy and, as Bobby lovingly referred to her, "thick". Her hair was tied up in a bun and she wore bold pink lipstick, which smeared off on Bobby as she gave him a smooch.
Ruby was a whole head taller than Melisara, and about even with Lucas. She was dazzlingly pretty, as Bobby had repeatedly told Lucas on the way over. Her brown hair was cut short in a bob, and her light blue eyes stood out against her tan skin. She was from Tansar, in the deserts to the south of Cygnus, Lucas knew. He'd always been intrigued by people from there. She was thin, thinner than Ceres, but he could see the definition in her arms. She'd been the volleyball team's ace in school days, and Lucas could see why.
Josephine was last out. She was about Melisara's height and wore a baggy sweatshirt. She didn't make eye contact with either of the boys but gave a furtive wave at them as the five started talking. Lucas was intrigued by her silence and her appearance - she had dyed black hair covering one of her eyes, and like Ruby, had the same bright eyes and tanned skin - the contrast was striking. He noticed she kept glancing over at him as Melisara and Bobby led the conversation, and he decided to glance back, at which point her glances stopped altogether. She whispered something to Ruby, who just smiled at her.
"So when are you moving?" asked Josephine, who now sat atop the truck with Melisara. "Meli said you're thinking about the end of the month? How're you gonna get the money for that?"
"My dad," Bobby said. "Mom's life insurance, rest her soul, but I apparently get a cut. It'll be enough to go and find somewhere to live at least for a few months til I get a deal."
"You should probably work there, huh?" Josephine said quietly. "Like, what if it doesn't work out?"
"Can't crush a guy's dreams like that, Jo," Bobby shook his head. "Melisara's got some job leads, anyway. I can stay home and work on my beats and my poetry," he said, and Melisara gazed at him lovingly.
"He's too good not to get signed," Melisara swooned. "Jo, you know Bobby's stuff. He's better than half the shit on the radio, they'd be crazy not to."
"What you think, Lucas? They gonna put my name up in lights in Rigelios?" Bobby asked, surprising Lucas from his trance. He'd been imagining what Josephine looked like under that sweatshirt from Bobby's earlier description and lost himself for a moment as she spoke. She had a soothing way of speaking that he really liked. He found that he couldn't look away from her, and it really wasn't the worst thing in the world...
"Yo, Lucas, I asked you a question!"
Lucas turned towards him and felt his cheeks flush. "Man, I don't know. That kind of stuff's all about who you know anyway."
Bobby frowned. "Bro, don't be a buzzkill. You know I'll get the connections. I'm B-Money, dude!"
"Yeah, if the B is for Broke," Ruby said, rolling her eyes. "If you ain't gonna work, then what're you gonna do? Sit home and let Melis do all the work?"
Melisara turned to Bobby, who was now also blushing.
"Like I said! No shame in stayin' home and perfecting your craft. I mean Lucas does his woodcarving and stuff like that, right? You gotta be getting better at that?"
The girls and Bobby turned their attention on Lucas.
"Sometimes? I haven't done it in a long time, though. This place isn't really all that inspiring."
"Psh, half my shit's about how much I hate it here," Bobby shrugged.
"Right? This place is lame," Melisara added.
"It could be worse," Josephine murmured. "Could be that one place in the Minervas that's always underwater."
"Clothos?" Lucas said, surprised.
"Yeah, that's the one. You know about it? Horrible floods, all the time."
"How do people live like that?" Bobby shook his head. "Yeah, maybe you're right. This place is lame, but at least it's not always drowning."
Josephine shot a smile at Lucas. He was surprised anyone from the area even cared about the world outside their small town, and it made him hopeful that he'd get some time alone with her in the near future.
The afternoon blew by faster than Lucas expected it would, and by the end of it he found himself on the tailgate of Stingray's truck, waving goodbye to the girls as Melisara blew Bobby kisses.
As they watched the beat up old car recede into the afternoon sun, Bobby gave Lucas a playful slap on the back of the head.
"Bro, I told you! I told you!"
"What did you tell me?" Lucas said, rubbing his head.
"I said that Josephine was your type, man! And did you even get her number?"
"Bobby, bro, I'm with Ceres."
"Nah, dude. Listen. I got this extra sense, y'know, like I read minds? Psychology, or whatever? She's into you like crazy, she couldn't keep her eyes off you!"
"I don't think so."
"Oh yeah? So why was she talkin' to you so much? Why did she start laughing randomly at everything you said? Melisara don't even do that, bro."
"She's just being nice," Lucas shook his head. "Not everything like that has to mean a girl's into you."
"Well, maybe with that one it does!" Bobby hooted. "Oh, brother. Man, you gonna tell me next that you've never been with a girl other than Ceres, huh?"
"Not exactly, but yeah, you're not too far off."
"A dude then? 'Cause I don't judge, alright? Love is love."
"No, it's not that. I was close with someone before Ceres, but we didn't ever date."
"Oh. Yeah, I mean if you made out or something, that counts," he said, nodding in agreement with himself. "Lots of things count. She lets you grab her boobs? You're her boyfriend. Hold her hair while she pukes? Boyfriend. It's easy, bro."
"I don't know if that's exactly how it works, but I don't know enough to tell you you're wrong?" Lucas shrugged. "But man, she ain't into me like that that quickly."
Bobby's SGNL device buzzed, and he looked at it with a mischievous smile. "Maybe I should just ask Melis what she thinks, what do you think?"
"Please don't," Lucas shook his head. "Man, I keep saying, I'm with Ceres."
"But you don't really like her. She treats you like shit, dude."
"You keep saying that, but it's different when you're in it."
"She give good head or something? I could see staying with a girl who treats me badly if she's good at that, but like... teeth?"
Lucas gawped at Bobby, who just laughed.
"Man, I'm fuckin' with you. I get it. Sometimes it takes a long time for someone to realize they're in over their heads."
"You know it, bro."
"Well, we better head back before my dad gets all pissed at me for being gone all day. Wanna bet on if he's awake or not?"
"I'd rather not," Lucas said, slipping off the tailgate and getting into the truck.
"Suit yourself," Bobby shrugged. "Sometimes you gotta just cope if you know what I'm sayin'."
Lucas nodded wordlessly as the truck kicked up dust and they headed back towards the house.
"Hello? Lucas? What's going on, where are you?" Ceres said on the other end of the SGNL line. Lucas felt cotton mouthed. It was late - just past 2300 - he'd been mulling over things ever since they'd returned to the house, where Stingray had finally mustered the energy to come downstairs to make dinner for the family.
Lucas lay on his back on the couch, covered with a wool blanket. "I'm fine. I..."
"Fine? Fine? I've been worried sick about you. Mom's worried sick about you. When are you coming back?"
"No, don't cut me off. I have a right to know where you are. Are you just sleeping on the street or something? Did you go to Bobby's? Did you talk with that slutty bitch Ruby?"
"Ceres," Lucas said, more forcefully.
"Don't cut me off! Look, I'm stressed out enough between taking this exam for the Academy and dealing with whatever meltdown you're going through. I don't need this out of you, I need your support!"
"Ceres, let me talk!"
"No! You think you can just go and screw around and act like you're not a total jerk? Do you know how much I've cried the last few days? You act like I'm dead! You don't care about me at all, and I hate that I even considered giving you my virginity and thinking about it grosses me out and I just want you to know that..."
"Ceres. If I didn't care, why would I call you?"
"I've called you fifteen Goddess-damned times today, you ass! You ignored them or just laughed when I called, didn't you? Stupid Ceres having a breakdown like a moron for thinking that maybe her boyfriend cared about her at all? How do you think you make me feel?"
"I want to break up," Lucas said, more coldly than he wanted to. "I don't want to do this anymore." The silence on the other end of the line resonated as if it would never end.
The line went dead, and Lucas rested the SGNL on his chest. Things were about to change, he knew, but maybe, just maybe, they'd be changing for the better.
- Connecticut / Colorado
- Oh, Mother Betsy
Nick and Chris have known one another since the days of the "Tornado Club" in 1996. They've come a long way from eating pizza and watching Twister in Matt's basement.
Both have been writers for a number of years - and when the COVID-19 pandemic came and lockdown followed, both committed to putting Nick's vision of Feystorm to the page.