The next morning Shane woke early, the faintest dawn light creeping into his window. He heard the shower running and looked at the clock. It was only a little after six. As he left his room, he saw a shadow on the carpeting. Bending over, he found two twenties — the money Scott had offered Kyle. He took it to the kitchen, tossing it on the table. The coffee was already dripping in the coffee maker. Shane grabbed a dish of cereal and sat down at the table to wait for the coffee.
Scott joined him as the coffee finished and poured them both a cup.
“Early appointment?” Shane asked.
“Just going to give Eli a ride home.”
“No. He wouldn’t. Have to make sure I’m not late, or I’ll have to search the back roads for him.” Scott’s eyes were puffy and his voice without any of its normal bounce and cheer.
Shane’s fears were confirmed. Kyle’s careless words had kept Scott awake all night. It was the very reason Shane had put off talking of his suspicions. He hadn’t wanted to burden Scott more. He’d hoped to be able to prove beyond a doubt. Speculation would just feed Scott’s insomnia and depression. “Maybe… maybe we need to replace Eli.”
Scott’s eyes took on a pained quality, and Shane knew he’d said the wrong thing. Scott cared too much for the kid already. “We’d never find anyone like Eli.”
“But if he wants more money….”
“He doesn’t want more money.”
“Eli said it wasn’t money.”
Scott shrugged and closed his eyes, leaning over the table. “I don’t know. Personality differences. You know how hard it is to learn to get along with Kyle, and Kyle is too caught up in his own problems to make a reciprocal effort right now.”
Shane prayed that was the case. He did like Eli. He wasn’t hard to live with, quietly going about his business. Breaking in a new roommate was a horror he wanted to avoid if at all possible. “Maybe. Anything I can do?”
Scott studied him and then smiled the weary smile he used often lately. “Yeah. Keep being steady for me. You’re the rock of this place, you know. It helps to know you’re my best friend.”
Shane smiled to hide the jab. Was he his best friend? Or was it Kyle? Maybe Eli had taken that place now. Even Dr. Thorton might… but Scott was in for pain in that relationship.
“What is it, Shane?”
“I’m just thinking of Kyle again.” And Shane chastised himself. Scott could take that wrong. He hadn’t meant the accident.
Scott wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. “I want you to be my best man, Shane,” he whispered.
Shane was surprised. “But Kyle….”
“I’ve known you longer.”
“By what, three months?”
Scott smiled, but then sobered. “I’m afraid Kyle will take it wrong now though. Before he wouldn’t have, but now….”
“Then ask Kyle.”
“I knew you’d say that, but it’s you I want. I know I can count on you for anything.” Scott stood and took his cup to the sink. “Anyway, I gotta go. Make sure Kyle gets that money for a taxi. Eli needs his sleep.”
“Sure, Scott.” Shane watched the kitchen doorway until he heard the front door open and shut. Scott was gone, but he’d left him with a gift. Scott had declared friendship before and been the best friend Shane had ever had, but Scott was friends with everyone. Shane had never had a close friend before Scott. Kyle’s friendship would have never happened without Scott smoothing the way between them. And now Scott had chosen him, of all his friends, to be his support, his best man. Shane vowed not to disappoint him.
Kyle came into the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee, spilling a little onto the counter. He set the mug on the table, sloshing more coffee. Kyle scowled and sat down. “Where is he?”
“Scott? He left early.”
“No, Eli. Stupid fool. Probably too dead to pedal home.”
“Scott went to get him.”
“Did he?” Kyle seemed to relax. “Good.”
Shane decided to pry. “Eli told you he wanted more money?”
“Isn’t that why he won’t quit? It’s the money.”
“So, you’re assuming that?”
Kyle gave Shane a withering look. “I’m not stupid. I know the kid better than you do.”
Kyle had never acted so condescendingly before. His look was a put down, telling Shane he couldn’t possibly ever be as smart as Kyle was, so don’t question him. Shane almost spurted out a sharp reply before he caught himself. He came back to his last thought. Kyle was afraid of being challenged.
Eli came in, and Kyle immediately stood. “Where have you been?”
“Change your clothes. We have an appointment at nine.”
“Wait,” Shane said. “Eli can sleep. Scott left taxi money — from insurance,” he added so Kyle couldn’t protest the money.
Kyle gave Shane another withering look. “What insurance money? Did he take it from Eli’s wages? I don’t think so.”
“Yes,” Eli said. “That’s where it came from. Take the taxi.” He left the kitchen doorway, heading toward their room.
Kyle followed. “You’re supposed to be with me!”
Shane glanced at his watch, relieved it was time to go. He’d let the two of them work it out, and he prayed Scott was right about Eli.
It was the lull between beginning of the month hustle to get out last month’s statements and mid-month reports. He completed everything that needed to be done by three again. He couldn’t take off early two days in a row though, and he began the tedious, but necessary file weeding and maintenance.
At four thirty his phone buzzed. He picked it up. “Yes, Betsy?” he asked the receptionist.
“Call on line two. Ms. Amber Greystrom.”
“Thanks.” Shane waited until Betsy sent the call through, briefly wondering what possibly could have happened to cause her to call. “Hello, Ms. Greystrom?”
“Hi, Shane. I’m calling as a friend, not a paralegal.”
“Really? When did we become friends?”
Amber gave a small laugh. “You are a man of bristles, aren’t you?”
Shane felt a pang of remorse. “I’m sorry. Friendship is important to me. I don’t use the term lightly.”
“I understand. I’m actually calling on behalf of an acquaintance of my father’s — the man with your same last name. He’d like to meet you.”
“Look, I don’t know my father’s side of the family. The meeting is pointless. I couldn’t even tell him if we were first cousins.”
“I understand, Shane. I’m not close to my real father either, but I think you should meet him; let him explain things. Could you come to dinner tomorrow night?”
She made it sound like he’d be having dinner with her. He remembered the turnovers. “Are you cooking?”
“Mom and I will be.”
“You’re inviting me to your house?”
Shane was speechless.
“Shane? Are you free tomorrow night?”
“Is six okay?”
“Yes. Where?” After he got her address, he hung up, still stunned that the beautiful woman would ask him over. He tried to put it into perspective. It was just because her father’s friend wanted to meet him. But still… The familiar hope washed over him. Maybe this time… He tried to crush the thoughts. Not again, Lord. Please. I can’t go through this again. Not with everyone else hurting. Scott needs me to be strong and not strung out over some stupid jerk of a woman no matter how beautiful she is or how good she can cook.
Shane went home at five. The apartment was silent. No one was home and the forty dollars lay on the kitchen table just as he’d set it that morning. Kyle couldn’t have made the kid drive him without any sleep, could he? And if the first appointment was at nine….
He heard the door, but it was Scott. “They’re gone. He didn’t use the money.”
Scott sunk into the kitchen chair. “Which hospital?” he said neutrally.
“Back up, Scott. I don’t know where they are.”
Scott looked up, his face revealing an anguish Shane had never seen except right after the accident. “I can’t handle this right now, Shane,” he whispered. “There’s too much. Kayleigh and her brother; Bert’s back is worse; the two programmers in my department both gave notice this week; and… and now Kyle’s becoming an insensitive jerk. Eli, that poor kid. Shane, let him know you don’t mind him here. He thinks you resent him. He was about broken last night. I could see it in his eyes, but he wouldn’t say it. He never says it. He has no one. Kyle acts like he’s accepted him as his brother, and then he about kills him, not letting him sleep. And I can’t say anything!” Scott put his head down on his arms.
Shane placed a hand on his shoulder, hoping it offered some comfort. He didn’t know what else to do. Scott bled for everyone. He cared too much about the people he called friends. Why did Dr. Bernard Thorton have to be on that list?
The first time Shane had heard of Bert Thorton’s back troubles, he knew he’d found the missing piece of the puzzle. High on prescription pain killers, Bert Thorton had rammed Scott’s car, and now faked friendship, either to find out how the case was against him, to assuage his own guilt, or to get Scott’s signatures on those receipts for the money he’d been giving. Shane had warned Scott not to sign anything, but last week Scott admitted he gave him signed receipts. Maybe Shane should reveal what he knew to Amber and see if those could be used against Scott to get out of being sued.
Scott lifted his head. “Thanks, Shane. I better mix up a couple boxes of hamburger casserole.” He stood.
Shane watched him go to the refrigerator and pull out two pounds of hamburger. He was too broken to hear the truth now. Shane could do nothing. But tomorrow maybe…. “Hey, Scott. Can we switch? I’ve got dinner out tomorrow.”
Scott shrugged. “Sure. Kayleigh called off our date. You have a date?”
“Wouldn’t call it one.” He took the hamburger and broke it up in a mixing bowl. “Just meeting an acquaintance of a relative of an acquaintance.”
“Boy, that’s about as blind a date as you can get without going to the personal ads.”
Shane laughed. “I think it’s a man. We have the same last name, so I don’t anticipate any intimate moments.”
“Really? A lost relative, you think?”
“I doubt it. All my father’s people are from New York. Bet there are about thirty Lewises in the phone book and only a fifth of them are related to each other. But it’s a home cooked meal. The woman preparing, I’m told, is very good in the kitchen. I’d like to find out.”
Scott smiled, relaxing at the table. “You’re such a connoisseur. I’m surprised you haven’t gotten down and begged Eli to stay.”
Shane grinned. “Kyle suggested he cook all the time. That was a tempting one.” Scott’s smile started to dim. “But that’s not fair, so he’ll have to suffer with my burgers and frozen French fries tonight.”
“Hey, those burgers are art. The only thing you can get right in the kitchen.”
Good. He’d snapped back. Shane worked hard to keep the mood light for Scott until he heard the door.
Kyle stopped in the doorway. Then he looked back. “Where are you going? Take the time to eat. You’re being rude.”
“Hey, if Eli wants to eat nuked burgers and fries later, it won’t bother me,” Shane said.
“I want him with the family.”
Eli had hesitated behind Kyle. His eyes had large bruises under them from lack of sleep. “Go to bed, Eli,” Shane said. “Before you fall over.”
Kyle came to stand before Shane at the stove. “Don’t do that again.”
“Do what? Chill out.”
“I’m training him. Don’t interfere.”
Shane looked at Scott’s ashen face. If Scott felt he couldn’t speak, Shane had to. “He’s not your basset hound. Show a little compassion.”
“You don’t know anything about it.”
Shane moved the skillet from the heat. “Yeah. Where’d you hear that? From me. And what did you say?” He looked straight into Kyle’s scornful eyes. “What did you say to me?”
“This isn’t the same.”
“Shit it isn’t. You said, ‘Stop feelin’ sorry for yourself. Nothing’s a good excuse for acting like a jerk.’ You’re acting like a jerk, Kyle. Knock it off.”
“You don’t know anything….”
“I’m just repeating you, Genius, so if it’s not sound advice, consider the source. Now let me finish up here.”
Kyle stood and stared for a minute. “I’m not a jerk,” he said, and then left the room.
Shane replaced the skillet and flipped the meat. Scott’s hand rested on his shoulder. “Thanks,” he whispered. “Keep standing up to him. He needs it.”
“Why don’t you say anything, Scott?”
Scott turned away and shook his head.
“Wait,” Shane said, catching him before he moved off. “What was that? Tell me.”
“He’s just frustrated. He doesn’t mean what he says, but… but I can’t… can’t stomach that he even… even in anger thinks it’s my fault for the way he is.”
Had Kyle been that insensitive? “Scott….”
“He didn’t mean it. I know he didn’t. He apologized and that was almost as hard. He’s just frustrated, but… but don’t let him take it out on Eli. He’s looking to control his life. You can talk to him; he has nothing on you.” Scott’s plea came in a choked whisper. “He needs to hear you though. Don’t let him become like Ian.”
Ian — Kyle’s revenge-seeking younger brother. That Kyle would turn was frightening, but the same attributes that made him a strong leader, could also make him a controlling monster without the charity he used to have.
They heard a noise and turned toward the kitchen door. Kyle appeared a few seconds later. “What’s burning?”
Shane whirled back to the stove, but it was too late to save the meat. “Can we pretend we cooked out on an over-heated grill?”
Kyle grinned. “You’re a rotten cook, Shane, but I’m too hungry to care right now.”
Scott smiled also. “We’ll suffer through.”
Shane served them and then sat down. Kyle prayed, and Shane was surprised to hear him ask for forgiveness and for wisdom. Scott was right; Kyle was struggling with things Shane knew he’d never want to deal with.
Kyle tried to remain amicable the rest of the evening, but several times he mentioned Eli’s rest derogatorily. Once was when they thought to read, but then didn’t want Eli to miss the next section of the book.
“Maybe we should just plan our nights out on Tuesday and Friday like we used to, and make sure we’re all home Monday, Wednesdays and Thursdays,” Shane suggested.
Kyle loved the idea, but then he was stuck home every night. Scott went out the most now, but he agreed to the restrictions.
“And don’t forget Saturday. No dates on Saturday,” Kyle said.
Scott hesitated. “Well, we’ll be in Ohio in a week for Shar’s wedding, and aren’t your parents coming the next weekend?”
“Is Kayleigh coming?”
“I hope so.”
Shane almost pursued it, but then realized she must be jerking him again. Scott wouldn’t give up, so Shane could do nothing.
Shane decided to treat Kyle and Scott to ice cream since he’d murdered the hamburgers, and when they returned they went to bed.
The next day Eli was in the kitchen fixing breakfast, and he and Kyle seemed to get along well, even joking about going down to the apartment complex’s pool behind the third building over.
Shane had another slow day at work. So slow, in fact, that there were rumors of layoffs. But Shane had four years of seniority now. His first year he’d been sent home a lot when the lulls occurred; today he decided to go home an hour early.
The apartment was empty when he arrived. He went to his bedroom and began searching his closet. He was unsure what he should wear. Maybe the suit he’d made a habit of working in was too much for an informal dinner. Some of his co-workers thought it was too much for the office, but Shane had always emulated Scott, even though he knew managers usually dressed a step above accountants. Scott knew all the little social rules that Shane always had to think about. He wished he could ask Scott’s opinion tonight, but he couldn’t admit he was going to Ms. Greystrom’s house without revealing he’d gone to the lawyer and why.
He chose a pair of pleated slacks and short sleeved shirt. Then he sat at the small table at the foot of his bed and put in his contacts.
He heard Eli and Kyle come in. Rather he heard Kyle. “We’ll go shopping Monday for the wedding.”
“I’m not going to the wedding.”
“Oh, right. Don’t start this. You have to go.”
“I don’t have to go. I’m not going.” Eli went into Kyle’s and his room. Kyle followed, neither looking into Shane’s room or seeing him. Both wore their swimming trunks.
“You have to. It’s your job.”
“My job is to help you when Shane and Scott are at work. I’m not your permanent slave. I’m taking the weekend off.”
“You’ll come,” Kyle said in that condescending voice. “You won’t disappoint Scott.”
Eli faced Kyle. “I won’t go. I don’t need to be berated, harassed, and treated like the stupidest person who ever lived. I don’t plan on being in public with you any more than I have to.”
Eli grabbed his clothes and went into the bathroom. Shane could see Kyle slowly sink down to sit on his bed. He rocked a little, jerking as he only did when he was extremely upset. Shane wanted to go to him, but he hesitated, not knowing how to comfort him. He heard the bathroom door open and stepped back, so Eli wouldn’t see him.
Eli went back into the bedroom. He studied Kyle.
“I’m sorry,” Kyle said meekly. “Don’t leave me.”
Shane was shocked. Kyle was giving in.
Eli sat beside Kyle, placing his hand on his back. “I know,” he said softly.
“I need you.”
“Then why, Kyle? You know I’ll do anything for you. You don’t have to act like I’m stupid.”
“Why don’t you quit the store? Just quit.”
“This isn’t about me quitting. It’s about the way you treat me in public.”
“I’m sorry. Please come.”
Eli was silent for a long while. Then he said, “Just ask when you need something. Don’t use that tone and tell people I’m an idiot.”
“But… You must come.”
“Not if you’re telling Scott’s family I’m an idiot.”
“I won’t. I promise.” Kyle grabbed him. “I can’t go without you. You know that. They’ll all see I’m stupid. Eli, I can’t go without you.” His voice rose in panic. “Please, Eli.”
“Sssh. Sssh.” Eli said softly. “Rest. I’ll go, as long as you don’t call me an idiot again between now and then.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
Eli helped Kyle change into shorts and then he had him lay down. “Now rest.” He turned on the CD player beside Kyle’s bed, which softly played Brahms.
“Where are you going? Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t. I’m just going to study for my final.”
“Study in here.”
“Okay. You rest now,” Eli said, as if soothing a distraught child. “I’ll be right here.”
Eli left Kyle. Shane could no longer see him from his room, but all was silent. Shane sat down in the chair by his bed. Scott was right about Eli. He was positive neither one had seen him; this had not been staged for him. Eli cared for Kyle as a mother with a strong-willed five-year-old. The thought scared Shane. Maybe Kyle would never be as he was.
He changed as quietly as possible, but as he transferred his change and keys to the pockets of his new pants, Eli looked in. His eyes opened wider in surprise. Shane motioned him into the living room.
“How long have you been home?” Eli asked in a low voice.
“Since before you.”
Eli closed his eyes and shook his head. Then he sat on the edge of the couch. “Don’t let Kyle know,” he whispered.
Shane sat in the chair. “How bad is he really, Eli? He won’t recover, will he?”
Eli glanced toward the bedroom. “He is recovering. Every week, he’s a bit better. He’s just scared. He’s better than he thinks.”
“He’s just scared,” Eli repeated. “He’d be fine without me. He placed too much pride in the wrong things before the accident. He’ll adjust eventually. If I don’t go to Ohio, stay close to him. Scott will need to be with his family.”
“You really won’t go because of Kyle?”
“What choice do I have? He’s putting me down, hoping to hide his inabilities. I can’t let him do that. It’s not good for either of us.”
Shane had to agree. “I’ll back you up. If you can’t go, I’ll stay close.”
Eli seemed to relax. “Thanks. He’s really better than he thinks, but he’ll be more comfortable with someone close.”
Scott came in then, smiling with a cheerful hello. Shane stood. “How do I look? Okay for meeting strangers?”
Scott studied him and then grinned. “Yeah. Who knows? You actually might find you like this long lost relative.”
“I think I might go for the cook. She’s the real reason I said yes.”
Scott laughed. “The truth comes out. The way to your heart has always been through your stomach. Let me know if her food melts you.”
Shane decided now was a good time to let both Scott and Eli know he’d accepted Eli. “Eli’s cooking has melted me. It’s gonna be hard to find anyone who can match him. I would have had to refuse the dinner invitation if it had been for tomorrow. Can’t miss your cooking.”
Eli didn’t speak, just watching Shane.
“So you’re glad he joined us?” Scott prompted.
“Yeah. Two less days a week I have to worry about food poisoning.”
Eli laughed. Then he shrugged. “If you guys want, I can cook more. Kyle said we should since we don’t pay rent.”
Shane looked at Scott, hoping he’d accept.
“How about… you let us know if you have class or need to sleep, and we’ll take our turns on those days.”
Shane smiled. He knew Scott wouldn’t let Eli do all the work, and his solution was practical. “Well, I’m going to take one last look in the mirror and take off.”
Go to Chapter 3
© 2014, 1999 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.