I suppose it's like the ticking crocodile, isn't it? Time is chasing after all of us.
The place is laid back. Easy. A small beach town with only one road in, a small two-lane strip that doubles as the main drag, the double yellow in the center worn away for long stretches. The road is dotted with a handful of ma and pa stores in the few blocks before the land gives way to the ocean. There’s a bar or two, and a couple of surf shops. No clubs, no ocean condominium buildings reaching up to the sky, no t-shirt shops selling what tourists want. Anyway, there aren’t any tourists to buy the stuff, and the locals living on this small barrier island sure seem to prefer it that way.
Not a lot of news happens either. There’s one newspaper and even that only comes out once a week, written entirely by a journalist who retired ten years ago and still can’t manage to kick the habit. Surf’s up is a valid excuse to close up shop or call out of work, and no one locks their doors. It’s that kinda place.
It’s also not the sort of town that a guy, just shy of twenty-one years old, wants to spend his last couple of weeks of summer vacation. It’s Jared’s last free summer, the way he sees it. Next summer will be used up with an internship at some architecture firm, all in preparation for the summer after, when he’ll graduate and carve himself out a bit of the real world. Whatever the hell that means.
Only twenty, and his life is plotted out for him. It’s a straight shot drawn between point a and point b, and already Jared’s wishing for a few more zig-zags, all those last minute, tire-screeching left hand turns that might take him to places that aren’t on the map, not on the itinerary.
Instead it’ll be all right angles from here on out, starting with these two weeks. He’s signed up for what he is starting to think of as a form of indentured servitude, working with his uncle to get some practical experience doing a remodeling job on the vacation home the man owns.
Jared sits in the driver’s seat of the car, Black Flag buzzing loudly through the speakers. Henry Rollins is telling him to annihilate this week, and Jared wishes he could be somewhere else, a bigger town where the lights stayed on past nine o’clock and the bouncers didn’t check fake ID’s too carefully. Not here, a place where everyone is bound to know everyone else and definitely sit up and take notice of an unfamiliar face.
Fewer than a dozen cars are parked along the curb, most of them near a brightly blue colored building, a bar whose customers are gathered in the large covered outdoor seating area. There are a few folks walking up and down the sidewalk, some kids about his age in wet suits and toting surfboards, their sun bleached hair stiff from seawater and their skin tanned summertime dark. An older man walks beside his dog, no leash, his open Hawaiian print shirt blowing backward, his scraggly hair tied in a thin ponytail. A regular Jimmy Buffett type, with a brown bottle held loosely in one fist and an ambling way about him.
In front of Jared’s car, a young man steps into the road with easy strides, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him, a guitar case swinging slightly in his grip. Jared slams on the brakes with both feet, feels the effect of a mainline of adrenaline as the car rocks to a quick halt. "Whoa," he says on an exhale, his hand hovering above the horn.
The guy looks up, offers a smile and a wave soon after, oblivious to the fact that he had almost become a hood ornament on a dark grey SUV. Jared just waves back, a little stunned and shooting a silent thank you up to the great unknown that he’s got the reflexes of a kid who spent most of his formative years playing video games. The man’s smile brightens for a second, then he continues across the street without another glance back.
He starts off again, more cautious this time and hardly bothering with the gas pedal, and turns down the road that will take him to his uncle’s place. The houses are few and far between, ocean shacks separated by dunes and tangles of dry grass, salt-worn paint peeling off of the siding in blue and grey, variations on a theme.
Jared counts the house numbers until he reaches a place slightly larger than the rest, a classic Cape Cod style only this one sits up on stilts and has a wide porch that stretches toward the back. A place built for living outside, somewhat better kept than the others surrounding it.
Muscles aching and his spine popping, he mostly falls out of the driver’s seat, limps to the back and opens the hatch to load himself up with his backpack and suitcase. Nightlife in this neck of the woods seems a little skimpy, and he’s wondering if his uncle has a room set up for him yet, whether he’s got cable.
It’s hot out, hotter than it had been at his last stop a couple hundred miles north of here. It’s muggy too, makes everything look a little hazy and indistinct, like looking through a fogged up lens, the way the light reflects through the water particles in the air. The air feels like it’s surrounding him, like it’s a real and tangible thing with a mind of its own, and it’s trying to wrap itself around his body. Jared’s immediately covered with a thin layer of sweat that makes his scalp itch beneath his knit cap and glues his dark t-shirt flush to his back, causes the scuffed up combat boots on his feet to feel heavy.
The air smells sweet, like flowers and there’s a layer of salt underneath it that grows stronger the closer he gets to the house. The front door stands open, a note in his Uncle Jeff’s handwriting has been taped to the peeling wooden screen that tells him to head on in and pick a room, that he’s gone to the mainland for some supplies and that he’ll be back soon.
It isn’t until he drops his bags on the floor inside the door and wanders to the elevated back porch that the smell of the ocean hits him full on. And it’s then that he realizes how much he’s missed it. Rivers, lakes, tidal bays, they just don’t have the same kinda pull, always have seemed a little dull in comparison. Jared stands on the porch, leans his forearms against the splintered old railing, listens to the rhythmic sound of the waves coming ashore and the constant dry rustle of dune grass.
Maybe this place won’t be so bad after all. Not even a little.
“Chris!” Jensen shuffles around sheet music, moves empty beer bottles from one spot to another and kicks at a couple of dirty t-shirts on the floor. A few seconds pass with no sound of footsteps from above, so Jensen tries again, puts a little more drill sergeant into his voice. “Chris!”
His fingers catch in the small tangles in his hair as he rakes his hands through it, and that surprises him. It’s not long, not by anyone’s definition, but it’s starting to grow out some, sticks out in sloppy corkscrews, clumpy and stiff from the saltwater he’d picked up during his afternoon surf.
He should get it cut. He probably won’t.
Seems like the second shout does the trick. Heavy footsteps clomp down the stairs and the door bangs open with enough force to rattle the glasses and plates in the corner of the open room that Jensen calls the kitchen.
“Have you seen my picks?” Jensen asks, not looking up. He’s tearing apart the sofa now, upends the cushions and throws the pillows on the floor. Sliding a hand along the back, his fingers snatch up a lost five dollar bill and he smiles. Bonus surprise beer money.
“Seriously, brother?” Chris says, incredulous. “The way you hollered, I thought the goddamn house was on fire.” His voice is rougher than usual, his speech a little slower, and Jensen spares a quick glance in his direction. His eyes are heavy and red, his long dark hair held in a sloppy, crooked knot at the base of his neck.
“You shouldn’t be sleeping, anyway,” Jensen replies, turning to shuffle through the drawer in the end table. “Waves are breaking beautiful down at the washout.”
“Really?” Chris asks, perking up some. “Why aren’t you down there?”
“Work.” The word comes out like a curse, which, in a way, it is. “I’m playing two sets tonight down at the Jetty. Thus I reiterate. The picks.”
Chris starts going through cupboards in the kitchen. “Yahtzee,” he says triumphantly.
Jensen turns toward him to see Chris starting to look through the drawers in the old scratched up hutch in the corner, only now he has a joint stuck safely behind his ear.
“Dude, that’s my last one,” Jensen groans.
“Call it a down payment on all that back rent you owe me.”
“About that,” Jensen begins, but Chris just dismisses it with a wave of his hand.
“Hit me up when you land that billion dollar record contract, or as soon as you design the perfect board that’s incapable of wiping out or something. Here you go.” He holds a pick between his fingers and snaps it across the room like it’s a bottle cap. It flies past Jensen’s head and hits the wall, lands behind the couch.
Jensen levels a withering look at the guy. “Fucker,” he mutters.
When Chris snaps another in his direction, Jensen’s hand shoots out and he catches it easily. “Nice reflexes,” he observes.
“Like a cat,” Jensen says with a grin, and heads toward the door.
“You may want to put on shoes.”
Jensen pauses, scrunches up his toes and eyes the flip-flops that rest right beside his door. “Nah,” he says with a shrug and a shake of his head.
“You have no idea where the floor of that bar has been,” Chris warns, clucking a spot-on impersonation of a mother hen.
“It’s not like I go around licking the soles of my feet.”
Chris nods. “Valid point,” he concedes. He pulls the joint from behind his ear and lights it, closing his eyes as he exhales the first hit. Jensen dashes over, snatches it from his fingers and takes a long drag before handing it back to him. Just for good luck.
“Knock ‘em dead tonight, kiddo,” Chris says as Jensen walks through the door.
“You’re not coming?”
“Dunno, maybe,” Chris says noncommittally as Jensen closes the door.
Jensen smiles as he ambles down the sidewalk and his feet hit the pavement. He knows he’ll be there. Chris never misses a show.
Rose, the housekeeper who sometimes shows up next door, is bent over the trunk of her car, loading a large bundle of dirty sheets and towels. Jensen sits down his guitar and lifts the vacuum into the back for her.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” Rose says. “Looks like you’ll be getting a new neighbor. The owner’s in town, and he’s bringing someone down with him to do some work on the place,” she goes on, her southern accent slow and smooth as honey.
“How long this time?” Jensen asks.
“Two weeks, maybe? Not sure,” she answers with a shrug.
The house that he and Chris share has the dubious distinction of having a rental home next door. There are only a few on this thin strip of land that they call home, and Chris hates it. After all, he’s a native of this place, born and bred with a base distaste for out-of-towners. Luckily, they don’t get a lot of those here, and Jensen honestly doesn’t mind it so much. The renters mostly keep to themselves, and on the rare occasions when they don’t, they’re almost always decent enough folks.
Rose wipes an arm across her sweaty forehead, smoothes her hands over stray hair on her temples. “Sure is blazing out here today.” She looks westward. “Hopefully a storm will blow through, knock some of this junk out of the air.”
Jensen follows her gaze. The sky is a hazy non-color that it always turns in the summertime here. It’s as if the sun has burned so hot and so long that it’s bleached the blue from the sky. “Maybe,” he mumbles.
“What? You don’t like the rain?” Her eyes are bright and curious. “Or maybe you don’t like storms?”
“Not really a fan, no,” he says, a little embarrassed. Truth is, he never used to mind them. But that was before. A lifetime ago.
She pats his arm reassuringly and nods. “It’s all that wind. I know it. But it’s like my mama used to say—wind is just a bunch of air that’s in a hurry to get somewhere else. That’s all. You get along now. Don’t want to iste your day talking to an old woman.”
“There’s nothing in this world I’d rather do, Rosie. But duty calls.” Jensen leans over and lifted his guitar case again. He sneaks in to land a kiss on her cheek before starting off again.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that one before,” she calls after him, and Jensen smiles to himself, her laughter follows him down the road.
The heat from the asphalt is almost but not quite too hot, and the sun on his shoulders feels good, eases that old nagging ache in his back. As he approaches the bar, he mentally catalogues his repertoire, building a set list in his head. Maybe he’ll try some new stuff out tonight, throw in a few of his original songs alongside the covers he usually plays for the Saturday night crowd.
A movement in his peripheral vision catches his attention, and Jensen looks up to see a dark SUV come to a stop beside him. He tosses a wave that way, and grins when the shadowy person in the car waves back.
Jared explores the main drag on foot, peeking into darkened shop windows. The only place that shows any signs of life is the Jetty, so he pushes past the batwing doors and bellies up to the bar. Thumbing through his wallet, he considers ordering a beer, but goes for a sweet tea instead.
There’s the hum of a guitar strumming in the back, random notes slowly gathering into the melody of a song Jared recognizes. He follows the sound past a set of dark, heavy curtains in the back and into another room. A small stage stands at the back and the room is dotted with tables. A single spotlight highlights the singer, his head bowed over his guitar as he sits on a barstool in the center of the stage. His bare feet are propped up on the rails, his knees poke through the holes in his worn jeans.
When the guy raises his head and starts to sing, Jared’s stomach drops as he pegs him for the man he’d nearly run over a few hours back, feels like it’s trying to drip through the gaps between the warped floorboards. He dives for an inconspicuous chair in the corner so fast that his iced tea sloshes over his fingers, makes them sticky with sugar and lemon.
Jared prefers punk to folk music, likes the pulling, pushing heartbeat of fast drums and a shredding guitar. Admittedly, he’s also a purist when it came to covering other people’s stuff, but there’s something about this cover, a slowed down honesty to the way the guy sings this song, like its spirit is still intact even though it sounds different. His rough voice reminds Jared of lonesome, far away dusty roads and too much time spent thinking. His guitar has seen it’s fair share of miles itself, various colored stickers pasted on to cover spots where the varnish has worn thin.
The song ends to scattered applause from the crowd, a few whistles and catcalls from a group of people gathered around a table right in front of the stage. The singer scans the room, squints past the spotlight, smiles and waves. When his eyes meet Jared’s, he seems to pause for a second. His grin slips a fraction, goes crooked and unsure, his hand stills and his eyes open wide for a split second. But then he seems to recover, places his guitar on the stand at the corner of the stage and salutes the back of the room like he’s got ten gold records under his belt and is playing a sold out gig at Madison Square Garden.
He steps off of the stage, stops at the crowded table to clink shot glasses with a shorter guy then downs three shots in a row. A young woman with dark hair and a wide, generous smile rises up on her toes to place a kiss on his cheek. His girlfriend, maybe, judging from the comfortable way he leans into her and drapes his arm across her shoulders, slides his thumb absently back and forth on the bare skin of her upper arm.
The noise level is growing proportional to the drop in the amount of liquor in the bottle on the table, and Jared watches them, maybe because they’re the most interesting thing going on in the place, and maybe because he’s a little lonely, missing his tiny group of old friends from back home and his new ones from school. And maybe because he can’t help but notice the way the guy’s eyes keep flickering toward him, latching on for a couple of seconds at a time.
There’s definitely something about him, something in the straight-backed way he holds himself, or how confidently he moves, or the way he looks everyone in the eye, bowing his head toward everyone, bringing them in a little closer as they speak.
Another flicker, and this time he catches Jared staring. He holds Jared there for a moment, shoots back another drink, one straight from the empty bottle this time, and walks over.
Jared sinks lower in his chair, glances backward even though he knows he’s backed up against the wall and there’s no one behind him.
“Have we met before?” he asks, squatting down beside Jared’s chair and placing a hand on the table for balance.
“Not really,” Jared says, forcing himself to maintain eye contact when his sight wants to wander down to the guy’s mouth, fixate on the way he draws his bottom lip through his teeth. When the man keeps quiet, Jared realizes he’s waiting for elaboration. “I saw you walking into town.”
“Okay,” the man replies. He blinks, shakes the puzzled expression from his face. Sticking out his hand, he continues, “I’m Jensen. Do you have a brother I may have known? A cousin or something?”
“I’m Jared. And no, not that I know of, anyhow.”
Jensen doesn’t seem convinced, and keeps peering at him, squinting with his head tipped to the side.
“Lucky, right?” Jared continues, more to escape Jensen’s scrutiny than anything.
“Radiohead,” Jared says. “The song’s called ‘Lucky.’ The one you just played.”
“Oh, yeah.” Jensen’s tongue darts out, hits his bottom lip for a second and Jared’s mouth goes dry. “Are you sure?”
“It’s definitely called ‘Lucky’.”
“No, not the song. Your cousin. Maybe I’m a little drunk.” Jensen chuckles to himself and rubs a hand across his eyes. “Sorry, let’s start over, I’ll recap. Here’s what we know. You’re Jared, I’m almost positive I’m Jensen, you aren’t related to anyone I may or may not know, and you like Radiohead.”
“Well, who doesn’t? But you left out the part about being a little drunk,” Jared reminds him.
Jensen laughs outright then, a deep infectious sound that makes Jared smile right back at him. He claps Jared on the shoulder with enough force that it rocks him sideways a little. “I thought that was obvious.”
Another man, the guy who had served Jared his sweet tea earlier, comes up behind Jensen and grabs him by the shoulders. In a flash, Jensen stands and spins toward him, fingers pressed hard into the flesh of his upper arms. Jared’s never seen a person with that much alcohol in his bloodstream move so fast.
“Steve,” Jensen says, relieved as he flattens his hand in the center of Steve’s chest.
“So is my board ready yet?” Steve’s mouth is drawn down in a scowl, his eyebrows bunched, but his serious expression doesn’t stand a chance against Jensen’s grin.
“Meet Jared,” Jensen says. “He doesn’t have a cousin, and he likes Radiohead.”
“Who doesn’t like Radiohead?” Steve grins at Jared.
“My thoughts exactly,” Jared interjects.
“But don’t change the subject,” Steve says, facing Jensen once more.
“Soon, I swear,” Jensen groans.
“Dude. It is just a ding.”
“A ding? It is more like the Jolly Green Giant took a bite out of it.”
Steve ignores him and continues, “How soon is soon? Have you seen the waves out there?”
“You mean this afternoon? Did you see it? They were awesome. Perfect sets rolling a half mile out. Fucking beautiful.” Jensen gets a dreamy look in his eyes for a flash, then deflates when Steve sighs loudly and crosses his arms over his chest. “And I was out there when I should have been working on your board. I know, I know. Tomorrow. It’ll be ready tomorrow.”
Steve rolls his eyes and finally notices Jared’s empty glass. “Get you another?”
Jared shakes his head, tips his chin in the direction of the door.
“Leaving already?” Jensen asks.
“Early to rise,” Jared explains.
“Will I see you around?”
And then Jensen does that thing, tilts his head in close, glassy bright eyes peeking up at him, and Jared’s tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth in an unexpected way as his heart jumps up, starts beating all wrong in his chest.
To his right, Steve hums loudly, spins on his heel and walks over to the table where Jensen’s friends are still gathered, only quieter now and trying to not stare too openly.
Something’s going on, and Jared can’t suss out exactly what. It’s like he’s on the outside of an inside joke.
“Probably,” Jared answers finally, trying to sound casual rather than clumsy and tongue-tied. “This town’s only so big.”
“It’s plenty big enough. For me, anyway.” A shadow seems to darken his face for a moment, and it’s as if Jensen wants to say something else, something close, maybe private. But it’s gone in a blink, knocked out of the ballpark with a bright smile and a hand wrapped warm around Jared’s shoulder. “I’m playing here tomorrow. You should come. Drinks are on me.” With a final squeeze of his shoulder Jensen turns back to his friends.
Just as Jared is about to escape toward the door, Jensen calls after him, “Who the hell wears combat boots at the beach?”
Jared looks down at his feet, polishes the toe of one boot with the heel of the other. “I do.”
Jensen licks his finger and draws it through the air. A point in Jared’s favor, and already Jared’s wondering how he can earn another. “Fair enough.”
Half past six on a Saturday morning, and already Jared regrets picking this bedroom. It faces the ocean, with floor to ceiling windows that flank the doorway that opens directly onto the porch. The incontrovertible fact that the sun unfailingly rose in the east should have been a deciding factor, but had managed to escape his mind the day before.
To make matters worse, there’s the sound of work going on outside, some sort of drill or sander that by itself possibly could be ignored were it not combined with the blazing sunlight that pours through the sheer curtains at the windows. A bright light that is magnified by the white walls of his bedroom.
He stumbles toward the door, eyes squinted half shut, intent on closing the shutters on the porch and heading straight back to bed.
The early morning air gathers the skin on his bare chest into goose bumps as he crosses the threshold, the screen door banging loudly behind him. The high buzzing sound stops, and allows the rhythmic crash of the wages to take center stage.
Tall palmettos frame the house and mostly block the view of the neighbor’s place. Jared bends over the railing and leans far enough to nearly tip his balance, trying to catch sight of the person who’d been making the noise, but can only see vague flashes of movement.
The buzzing starts up again. Irritation flares hot and Jared marches down the wooden stairs, dune grass prickling the soles of his feet and his ankles and he crosses the short distance between the houses.
“Hey.” Jared’s shout dies in his throat before it ever really starts.
Jensen’s bent over a couple of sawhorses with a surfboard propped on top of them, turned partially away, a white mask hiding his nose and mouth. The early morning sunlight turns the tips of his messy hair lighter, reflects off of the thin layer of white dust that surrounds him.
Jared freezes, can’t do much but stand and stare, watch the way the muscles in Jensen’s upper arms and back shift beneath his shirt as he works the sander over the surfboard. Try and play the Rorschach game with the dark patch of sweat that has formed on the back of his light grey t-shirt.
His shirt hikes up as Jensen reaches a little further across the board and puts the small of his back on display, one perfect cut of hipbone and now there’s a bell-clear fantasy building in Jared’s head, one that involves finding out exactly how well his hand would fit over that particular jut of bone.
Jared bites down hard on his tongue when Jensen turns to him, cuts off the sander and says “Hey,” as if it’s perfectly normal to have a veritable stranger staring at his ass in his back yard well before the day has even gotten its land legs.
He removes his mask, drops it to dangle around his neck. “So it’s him,” Jensen continues. “I mean it’s you. Jared. You’re him.” Jensen lets his gaze travel downward, lingering for a second on Jared’s bare chest before coming back up to meet his eyes.
Embarrassed, Jared crosses his arms, drops them, then crosses them again. “I think it’s me, or, ah, him. Little too early to tell,” Jared answers, and it’s like he’s come in halfway through a conversation that he had no hope of understanding in the first place.
“Well, I hope you’re you. Otherwise that would be awkward.” Jensen frowns for a second, gives Jared the opportunity to entertain the notion that Jensen’s probably still a little drunk from the night before, despite his clear eyes and sure movements. Or perhaps he always talks in circles, which will make things interesting.
“I guess it would be awkward?” Jared says. It came out as a question.
“What I’m trying to say—badly it would appear—is that you’re the new guy. Next door,” Jensen finishes hiking a thumb in the direction of Jared’s place.
Jared chuckles in relief. Hang around long enough, and Jensen may eventually start to make sense, he’s certain of it. “Word sure does get around fast around here.”
Jensen waves his hand toward the ocean, “There are hardly a dozen houses on this stretch of beach. You tend to notice when something changes.”
The expanse of beach is deserted, only a couple of sets of footprints in the compressed sand to show that anyone is ever there. In the distance, Jared can barely make out a lone figure standing near the surf. Perhaps someone’s fishing. Too far away to be sure.
“Is it always this empty?” Jared asks.
“It’s a busy day if I see twenty people on the beach all day. You’ll see more folks down at the washout,” he points north. “Best surfing on the island. In the whole state, if you ask me.” Turning back to the surfboard, Jensen wipes a hand across the freshly sanded patch. “A ding,” he says to himself, then laughs, a low husky sound. “First coat of paint, and then I think I’ll go for a swim. Wanna join me?”
Jared squinted at the water, then shook his head. “I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.”
“Work?” Jensen asks, raising his eyebrows and fiddling with a setting on a paint sprayer.
“A day full of demo. I’m helping my uncle with some remodeling next door,” he hikes his thumb over his shoulder. “Knocking down walls, putting up new ones. Basically I’m on board to make sure the roof doesn’t cave in on him. A swim does sound nice, though.”
“If you go later, don’t go by yourself,” Jensen warns. “There are rumors of big fish.” He holds his arms a few feet apart.
“With fins,” he adds. “Sharks. Have someone keep an eye out for you.” Jensen places the mask back over his nose and mouth, runs a hand one more time over the repair in the surfboard and starts painting.
“Little ones mostly, but I won’t say they don’t eat much.” Jensen waves him away. “Get to work. The days get hot around here real quick.”
The smell of coffee and breakfast cooking greets Jared as he returns to the house. He grabs his old Misfits t-shirt and pulls it over his head as he makes his way to the kitchen.
His uncle’s sitting at the kitchen table, newspaper spread out before him and a steaming cup of coffee sitting across from him. “You’re up early,” Jeff notes as Jared scrapes the chair back and slumps down in it.
“Not by choice,” Jared says.
“That kid next door,” Jeff says knowingly. “Buy yourself a set of earplugs.”
“So this morning isn’t a one time deal?”
“Not by a long shot. He’s always got something going on. And he’s an early riser.”
“Good to know,” Jared groans and takes a sip of coffee.
“So, Mr. Future Frank Lloyd Wright, where do we start?” Jeff asks, waving a hand expansively toward the living room.
“This place was built in the thirties, right?” Jared says, trying to dredge up everything he’s ever learned about the colonial revivalist building style. He’d learned about it in an eight o’clock class. He’s kinda screwed.
“Thirty-three, I believe,” Jeff tells him.
“So I don’t suppose you have the original blueprints.” It isn’t actually a question.
“You’re two for two.”
“Then it’s back to the drawing board. Literally,” Jared says. “I’ll get my drafting supplies.”
“I always knew you were a good kid.” Jeff grins, white flash of teeth buried behind his beard. “No matter what your mother says about you.”
“Looking good there.” The screen door slams behind Chris as he inspects the paint job on Steve’s surfboard. He has his wetsuit on, half unzipped in the back with the top hanging loose around his hips. He hands Jensen a cup of coffee, tendrils of steam rising lazily from it.
“I give Steve three weeks until it’s back, if I’m lucky,” Jensen replies. “Guy couldn’t manage to avoid the sand bar out there if his life depended on it. Sometimes I think he actually aims for it. He should really get a spare board.” Jensen takes a sip of coffee, eyes rolling back at the taste, black, hot and strong. Just right. “You’re up early.”
“Or late. Depends on who you ask.” Chris grins at him.
As if on cue, the sound of a car engine jumping to life in front of the house cuts through the quiet of the morning. There’s a telltale rattle as the driver shifts between first and second gears. Jensen recognizes it immediately.
“You got good ears, brother.”
“I’m a musician, it’s what I get paid good money to do. Or in my case, not so good money. Whiskey’s free though. But Beth? Again?” Jensen jabs Chris in the shoulder. “That’s more than two times. Maybe four, even. Damn near a marriage proposal in your book.”
“I hate you.” Chris glowers at him.
“I hate you more.”
“Sure you do. I heard you talking to someone this morning,” Chris says, changing the subject so fast Jensen almost bitches about whiplash.
“I met the neighbors. Or one of them. The temporary one. Again, I suppose.”
“The day you start consistently making sense is the day I sprout wings and fly the hell away,” Chris shakes his head. “The temporary one?”
“Yeah. The guy from the bar last night. Jared.” Jensen tries to hide the smile that creeps across his face. He likes the name, likes the lazy shape of it in his mouth.
“Whoa, slow down there. I’ve seen that look before, brother,” Chris says, a warning through and through.
“What look?” Jensen says innocently.
“That one.” He shoots a finger in Jensen’s direction. “And it hardly ever ends up good.”
“Give me a little credit, Chris. He’s not gonna be here long, and I’m not an idiot.”
“You just make sure it stays that way.” Chris brings the topic to a close as quickly as it had come up. He goes over to the rack of surfboards next to the house, runs his hand along each one almost lovingly.
“It’s calm out there today,” Jensen says as he stares toward the shore, sipping his coffee. “Good day for the long board. Easy to get it past the breakers.” He tips his head back for a moment, lets the sound of the surf and the warmth of the sun wash over him.
Chris comes up beside him, stands close, reaches out to put a warm hand on the back of Jensen’s neck. They both stand silently, watch as the sun creeps a little higher over the sea.
Jensen has seen a bit of the world in his day, more of it than he’ll readily admit to, more of it than most. But nothing he’s ever seen could come close to this place, not by a long shot.
Finally breaking the silence, Chris says, “Kinda makes you wonder why people have to go into a church to pray, y’know? When there’s someplace like this in the world.”
“Amen.” Jensen smiles.
Jared walks along the shoreline, picking at a loose flap of skin on his palm. His hands are sore where new calluses are forming, the shape of a sledgehammer’s handle wearing its way into his palms.
He takes off his shirt, formerly black but now a definite shade of gray due to a thick layer of plaster dust, and tucks it into the back waistband of his cargo shorts.
The sand is afternoon hot, burning into the soles of his feet, and Jared veers toward the water. With the waves lapping at his ankles, he crouches down and runs his forearm beneath the surf. He’s got a red, irritated patch of skin from where he’d tangled with some insulation earlier in the day and the saltwater stings. He’s thinking of kitchen medicine, how his mamma once told him that saltwater can cure just about anything and so he keeps at it.
A shadow falls over him, and in his peripheral vision Jared sees a surfboard being planted next to him in the sand.
“Ouch,” Jensen says, bending over him with his hands on his knees. His hair is spiked up sloppy and wet, small streaks of water still running in trails down his wetsuit. He pulls Jared’s arm out straight and says, “Fiberglass.”
“Yeah,” Jared replies. “How’d you know?”
“Had the worst fiberglass burn of my life from an old and sadly mistreated surfboard one time. Right here.” Jensen runs a hand along the inside of Jared’s thigh in a way that makes Jared’s breath catch in his throat and spreads a slow, warm sensation all over his skin. His cheeks start to feel hot, and it’s not just from the sunshine.
If Jensen notices, he doesn’t let on. “There’s only one way to take care of it. You’ve gotta get the fiberglass out before the itch sets in. C’mon.” He grabs his board and starts back in the direction of his house.
Jared gapes for a few seconds. His wetsuit leaves precious little to the imagination, and Jared stares at his wide back, the gentle taper into his thin waist, the roll of his hips as he walks with his surfboard tucked beneath one arm. Then there are his shoulders, and well, Jared is goddamn confident that he could write a dissertation on the man’s shoulders. Might even be able to apply three years of architecture training to the endeavor.
Jensen glances behind him, smirks as he catches Jared’s stare. “Hey, you coming?”
Jared scrambles to catch up, the sand clinging uncomfortably to his wet feet and clumping between his toes. Jensen starts up the dun leading to their houses in easy strides and Jared falls even further behind, slips backward a bit as he struggles up the slope.
“Put those legs to use, Stretch,” Jensen calls to him, deepening his voice, putting some force behind it, and Jared swore he sounded just like a drill sergeant. The change is surprising. Goddamn sexy, too.
“Shut up,” Jared pants as he reaches the top.
“Now you’re talking.” Jensen goes to the rack next to his house, props his board in an empty slot. “Cop a squat,” he waves to a couple of chairs, and takes the steps leading up to his door two at a time. He disappears into the house, emerging after a minute with a couple of beers between the fingers of one hand and a roll of duct tape in the other.
Jared doesn’t know exactly what Jensen has planned, but he’s certain he doesn’t like the looks of it.
Jensen pulls his chair across from Jared’s, opens one of the bottles and hands it over. The other one he holds against the red patch on Jared’s arm. When he catches Jared’s doubtful look he says, “Field medicine.”
“Beer and duct tape?” Jared asks.
“Don’t knock it. It’ll cure what ails ya.” He removes the bottle, presses his palm to Jared’s arm for a second, seems satisfied and pops the beer open, taking a long swig before tearing off a couple of strips of tape. “The cold from this bottle will constrict the skin and stop the fibers from working in deeper,” he explains. Before Jared can protest, Jensen slaps a piece of tape to the spot. “The tape will yank ‘em out. And that bottle,” he nods toward the beer Jared’s holding, “will make it so that you don’t hate me too much when it’s all says and done. Drink up, kiddo.” He places a finger at the bottom of Jared’s beer and tips it up toward his lips.
Jared takes a long pull from the bottle, sputters and hisses, “Son of a bitch,” when Jensen yanks the tape off without warning. He run his fingers along the spot. Sure, the prickly feeling is gone, but it’s been replaced with a burning sting. Jared thinks that maybe Jensen’s going for some sort of diversionary tactic, make him forget about the pain in his arm by putting a bigger one in its place. “Where’d you learn how to do this, anyhow?”
Jensen flashes a heart-stopping grin and smoothly avoids the question. “You’d be surprised what you can do with limited resources. I once fixed a guy’s transmission with a sawed off broomstick and a bungee cord.”
When Jared rolls his eyes, Jensen waves a finger at him. “True story. Dude drove it like that for another twenty thousand miles.” There’s another flicker; another one of those shadows moving across Jensen’s face and that small slip of his smile.
But the look passes quickly, makes Jared wonder if it was ever there at all. Jensen finishes off his beer, licks his bottom lip with a loud, satisfied exhale. “I gotta get ready,” he says, pushing up from the chair. “You coming tonight?” Jensen asks, eyes wide and hopeful.
“Drinks are on me,” Jensen reminds him.
“About that,” Jared begins, looking down at his hands, embarrassed. “I’m a few weeks shy of legal,” he admits.
Jensen shrugs it off. “You’re with me, which means you’re with the band. Such as it is. A different set of rules apply. Besides, Chris, my roommate, he’s in tight with the owners of the place. Blind eye and all that. You should come, that way I know that at least three people will show up. Well, one of them works at the bar, so he’s sort of contractually obligated to be there.” Jensen heads toward the back door, pulling the zipper to his wetsuit down by the cord as he goes, exposing the tanned, freckled expanse of his upper back. “I’m on at nine. Which usually means ten,” Jensen calls from the doorway. “See you then.”
“Good set tonight,” Chris greets Jensen with a slap to the back as Jensen steps down from the stage.
Steve slides past them, collecting empty glasses and bottles from the tables. “Good show,” he agrees. “Long show,” he adds with a wink to Jensen.
Jensen grabs the beer Chris is holding, takes a sip from the bottle and hands it back to him. He swallows slowly, uses it as an excuse to keep his mouth shut.
He scans the room, waves a couple of times as people tip their glasses toward him, a smile plastered to his face. It’s the usual Sunday night crowd of old school surfers, full of sun bleached hair and deep dark tans, familiar faces all around, but not the familiar face he’d been hoping to see. Someone’s missing. It shouldn’t be a big deal. He tries to convince himself that it isn’t. It shouldn’t be. Screw it, maybe it is.
Chris looks at Jensen, over to Steve as he heads behind the bar, and then back to Jensen again. “Something you’re not telling me?” he asks.
“I’m an open book,” Jensen replies.
“You and I both know that’s bullshit,” Chris says, planting a hand on his hip and shifting his weight between his feet.
“Maybe I’m just a little off tonight.” It isn’t a lie. Or at least it’s pretty damned close to the truth.
The change in Chris is immediate. A worried crease between his eyebrows and he takes Jensen by the wrist, thumb pressed lightly to the inside, like he’s about to take his pulse. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Jensen says and shakes free of Chris’s hold. “Yes,” he repeats, a little more definite the second time around. “It’s not that—“
“Hey you,” a voice pipes up from behind him and a set of tanned arms wrap around his waist from behind. The soothing smell of vanilla fills Jensen’s nose and he grins. A real one this time.
“Sophie,” he says, and plants a kiss to the top of her head.
“New song tonight. Second to last one,” she says. “I like it.” She gives him an impish smile. “Your boy’s got the voice of an angel,” she tells Chris in a teasing, singsong voice.
Jensen laughs. “Yeah, the voice of an angel who’s spent too much time breathing sand and fiberglass, and who’s had cheap booze burn his throat to hell and back more times than he can count.”
“Look who’s here,” Sophia says to Chris, nodding over her shoulder.
Chris is still staring at Jensen, cool and clinical, like he’s about to pin him up like a butterfly or put him under a microscope. He blinks a couple of times, shifts his gaze to see Beth standing at the bar, and his expression softens. “Don’t think you’re getting out of this,” he says to Jensen, handing him what’s left of his beer.
As Chris shoulders past him, Jensen hums a few bars of ‘Here Comes the Bride,’ opening his eyes wide and innocent when Chris mutters something Jensen’s probably better off not hearing.
“What’s up with him?” Sophia asks when Chris moves out of earshot.
Jensen just waves it away and drains the bottle. “You know how he is. Meaner than a mother bear with a thorn in her paw.” He bends over and hefts his guitar case.
It isn’t much of an answer, but Sophia lets it slide. “Care to walk a gal home?” she asks instead, threading an arm through Jensen’s.
Jensen steers them toward the bar. “I’d be honored,” he says, “but give me a second.”
Ducking behind the bar, Jensen takes a napkin from the stack, fishes around the register until he finds a pen and scribbles out a short note. He finds a five-dollar bill in his pocket and turns to find Steve eyeing him curiously.
“Do me a favor?” Jensen says, handing the money over.
“Sure thing,” Steve starts, then folds the money and shoves it into the waistband of Jensen’s jeans. “But your money’s no good around here.”
Jensen starts to protest, but Steve holds up both hands. “Call it a down payment on fixing my board.”
“You already paid me,” Jensen points out.
“This is for the next time.” Steve looks at the napkin Jensen set down on the bar and nods thoughtfully. He reaches above his head for a glass then trails his fingers across the row of bottles. They stop along the top shelf at a bottle of whiskey.
“The good stuff,” Jensen says.
“Nothing but the best, my friend,” Steve replies.
Jared stretches, rolls over in bed and cracks an eye open. It’s dark. Really dark. He looks at the clock.
“Shit,” he mutters, feet hitting the floor. “Crap.” He rakes a hand through the tangles in his hair and blinks at the clock for a second, waiting for it to change its mind. It sticks to its guns, adamantly declares that it’s well past midnight. “Oh, crap.” Tripping across the room, he grabs his knit hat, shoves it onto his head and finds his keys. “Shit,” Jared adds again just in case the universe isn’t sure where he stands.
Jeff’s asleep sitting up on the couch in the living room, head tilted sideways in a way that looks like it would really hurt in the morning. Jared tiptoes past him, checks to make sure the door is unlocked before closing it softly behind himself.
Jared curses himself again on general principle as he starts his car and gets it rolling. He’d meant to go to Jensen’s show. He really had. But the one beer that Jensen had given him turned into three more from his uncle, and with a belly full of supper, his bed had turned into an undeniable siren calling out to him, and a one hour nap had turned into more sleep than he’d perhaps gotten his entire freshman year at college.
Dashing through the doorway to the bar, Jared slides past a man with long dark hair and startling pale eyes. Jared recognizes him as one of the guys from the night before. He looks up at Jared, seems to pause for a split second before the woman at his side drags him outside by the elbow.
The place is oddly subdued, even for a Sunday, and Jared’s stomach sinks in disappointment at the absolute lack of music coming from the back. There are only a few folks sitting at the bar and a handful of people scattered at the tables.
Steve is drying and stacking glasses behind the bar, and nods to Jared as he walks over, taking in his swollen, bloodshot eyes. “Rough night?” Steve asks.
“Nowhere near it, actually,” Jared answers. “Jensen left.” It isn’t a question. “And I’m an asshole.” That also isn’t a question.
“You just missed him, and you’re probably not.”
Blinking, Jared says, “Huh?” Nobody makes sense around here. Has to be something in the air.
“An asshole. Jensen’s a pretty good judge of character, believe it or not, so I’d bet you’re probably not an asshole. Anyway, he left with Sophia about five minutes ago. Here,” Steve says, sliding a shot across the bar to Jared. “He left this for you in case you showed.”
Jared picks it up, sees a note written in neat, slanted capital letters on the cocktail napkin.
Better late than never. No worries. –J.
He knocks back the shot, folds up the napkin and shoves it in his front pocket.
Steve pretends not to notice. “You could probably catch up with them,” he says. “They’re walking back to her place over on Arctic. It’s a block up from your road.”
“Maybe,” Jared says. He licks the traces of whiskey off of his bottom lip. It tastes good. Smooth. Expensive. “Do you have his number?”
Steve laughs. “Jensen? He doesn’t have a cell phone. I’m not even sure he has a television. Get you another?” He holds up the shot glass.
Jared shakes his head. “Is drinking all you guys do around here?”
Steve holds his arms out expansively, looking around the bar. “When in Rome,” he says. “Besides, it’s not like we’ve got a movie theater or anything.” He pours himself a shot in Jared’s glass and drinks it. “But no. We also surf.” Planting his forearms on the bar and leaning in toward Jared, Steve’s expression turns serious. “Listen, go find Jensen. He waited around for a while here for you, kept on tagging extra songs onto the end of his set, just in case you’d show.”
Jared considers it. It’s bad enough that he’d missed Jensen, even though he technically never said he was coming. Missing the show is one thing, but to top it off by showing up just in time to cockblock him would be downright unforgiveable. “I’d just be a third wheel,” he tells Steve.
“Far from it, trust me,” Steve replies. “Now get outta here.”