I didn't have much in the way of a wardrobe, hoped that what I'd chosen was good enough. I assumed that we'd end up in a fairly nice place, but I knew enough about this town to know that even the classiest places had fairly relaxed standards. As long as you weren't in shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, they would probably seat you. I'd opted for a standard uniform I relied on for things like awards banquets: white long-sleeved dress shirt, royal blue tie - blue and white were the school colors - and navy slacks over black dress shoes. Every time I wore it, I made sure to get it dry-cleaned so it would be ready for the next time I needed it. The shirt covered the worst of the scars on my arms. I couldn't do anything about my face.
When I was done, I went downstairs; as I reached the bedroom level, I could see that Lyndon's door was open, but I could hear the shower running. I kept going.
The three of them - Bryce and his parents - were seated in the living room when I made it to the ground floor. Bryce noticed me, smiled.
"You look nice, Omer."
"Thanks. I wasn't sure if …"
"No, it's good."
His parents stood as I entered; his father extended a hand, which I took. "You must be Omer," he said. "I'm Kenton Parrish." Kenton Parrish was a twenty-five years older version of his sons: the same blond hair, the same blue eyes, the same long, narrow face. He was still handsome, even with the wrinkles at the edges of his eyes and mouth, even with a few age spots here and there. His grip was still firm, but he didn't have the perverse need to squeeze the other guy's hand until it hurt; if he wanted to play that game, I could, and would probably leave him with a couple of sprained fingers. Kenton turned to his wife. "And this is Elizabeth." There was a slight mismatch, I thought, and wondered if Elizabeth was the replacement wife; she looked too young to have given birth to two sons. Everything about her seemed careful and deliberate: the cut of her obviously colored blonde hair, the expertly-applied makeup, the plumped lips, the smooth, blank plane of her forehead, the tautness of her chin. She was beautiful, but there was a brittleness to her that told me where she'd be in ten years, when the limits of artifice ran up against implacable late middle age. Probably thrown over for wife number three. I wished her well.
I took her hand, was tempted to lean over and kiss it, but held back. "Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Parrish. Both of you."
She smiled; her teeth, as well, were polished to diamond brilliance. "I understand that we have you to thank for squiring Bryce around campus today." Her voice was a pleasant, throaty contralto.
"Yes, ma'am. I was glad to do it."
"Well, it was a very thoughtful thing to do, son," Kenton added. "I hope he wasn't too much trouble."
"No, sir. Well, apart from that unfortunate incident involving the neighbor's cat, and the bicycle …"
Bryce smiled. "Omer! You said they wouldn't mind. I'm sure it's okay. It didn't look that crooked."
Luckily, everyone chuckled. I glanced quickly around the living and dining rooms; it looked like Bryce had performed a quick cleaning and had stashed all of Lyndon's various belongings safely out of eyesight. "Can I, uh … get anyone anything to drink? We have beer, maybe some wine, or I could make cocktails?" In the kitchen, next to the refrigerator, was a well-stocked bar that even put the one at Two Keys to shame. More of my rent money, I imagined; most of it was top-shelf, or near enough.
"Oh, no," Elizabeth cooed. "We'll wait until we get to the restaurant."
"Which I hope to do sooner rather than later," Kenton grumbled. "If Lyndon ever gets his ass down here." He glanced at his watch; even from across the room, I could tell that it was expensive.
"Kenton … language …" She turned to me. "Please excuse my husband."
I watched a frown flicker on his face, some kind of irritation. He opened his mouth to say something, but then we heard someone come down the stairs. Lyndon.
He stopped when he saw me, frowned. "I'm ready to go … but what is he doing here?" He, of course, directed at me. Lyndon's face was set in a grimace, his voice low and angry.
Whatever invective Kenton might have directed towards his wife was, instead, tossed his son's way. " He's here because I asked him to come with us to dinner. He was nice enough to show your brother around campus today." I wondered if Lyndon noted the stress on the pronoun. He stood up. "Shall we?"
The three of us sat in the back seat of Mr. Parrish's car, a black Mercedes SUV, top of the line, its rugged, somewhat antiquated styling belying the fact that it probably cost about as much as my father's house was worth. I sat at one window, Lyndon at the other, with Bryce sandwiched between us. I hoped he didn't mind. I certainly didn't. I liked the feel of his body alongside mine.
Once we got started, Mr. Parrish glanced in the rear view mirror. "I thought we could go to Malone's."
Malone's was a well-known local steakhouse, probably the best one in town. I had never been there; the cheapest cut of meat on the menu was twenty-five dollars … and anything you might want to add to that was a la carte. I hoped that Mr. Parrish was paying; given what we were riding in, I was pretty sure that money was no object for the Parrishes.
"Omer? You know anything about it?" Mr. Parrish asked.
"Ah … no, sir." I chuckled. "A little beyond my budget." At that, Lyndon snickered, but said nothing. "But I've heard good things about it."
Mr. Parrish must have made reservations; the moment we were in the restaurant, we were whisked to a table in a secluded corner of the place. I suppressed a grin when I saw that Lyndon ' s father and mother made sure that he sat between them, trapping him here … something symbolic about it. That, of course, put Bryce next to me, something I didn ' t mind at all. As we got comfortable, it seemed that he went to some trouble to make contact with my leg even though he had plenty of room to spread out, something that I might have only imagined …except that he gave me a quick glance - barely more than side eye - before turning to his menu.
Nobody noticed this little bit of theatre, although I could see Lyndon staring at us. I returned his stare until he looked away. I had a feeling he was just beginning to understand the thing unfolding between me and his little brother.
We studied our menus for a few minutes; a server brought us waters and a loaf of warm bread, took orders for drinks. I considered just having a salad; it was one of the cheaper things on the menu, so if this was Dutch treat, I could manage to pay for it. But, then - as if reading my thoughts - Mr. Parrish looked over at me.
"Get anything you want, son. My treat. We owe you at least that much."
I got another glower from Lyndon over that … that was twice that his father had addressed me as son, and I wondered what Lyndon made of it. For that matter, I wasn't quite sure what I was supposed to make of it, but I let it go. "Thank you, sir." I still wouldn't go overboard, and I didn't want all that much to eat, any way.
We made small talk while we waited for our drinks; Mr. Parrish dominated the conversation, which revolved mostly around their day at the track. I tried to be polite about it, but the names of the horses and the jockeys and the owners - important to him, for whatever reason - just went in one ear and out the other. What I did notice was that he seemed deliberately to be avoiding what I knew most of us wanted to hear: what he had decided to do with Lyndon.
For his part, Lyndon just sat there, pulling apart a dinner roll and crumbling it onto a plate, until his stepmother took it out of his hands and put it out of reach, as if he were a three-year-old exhibiting bad manners, needing a pointed hint from an adult.
Luckily, our drinks arrived; I'd opted for a draft beer. Both Mr. Parrish and his wife got Manhattans; Bryce, a soda. Lyndon had made a bid for a gin and tonic, but his father overruled him and he ended up with iced tea instead.
Mr. Parrish took a sip of his drink, set it down, turned to face me and Bryce. "So, Bryce … your tour went well, I take it?"
The boy nodded. "It did. We went by the architecture building and then engineering and then the Commons for lunch. I didn't get a chance to talk to anyone, though."
"I told him that I knew some architecture students, that I could have him talk to them," I offered.
"Good, good. So, you like it here, Bryce."
"I do. Omer took me down to the Grove, showed me the lake."
Mr. Parrish smiled. "The Grove. I haven't been there in years." He glanced at his wife. "You know, that's where I proposed to your mother." He reached across Lyndon, who made a face and leaned back while his father squeezed his mother's hand. I guess she really was mother to Lyndon and Bryce; Mr. Parrish must have married her when she was twelve … or she had access to some very good plastic surgeons.
"I really like it here, Dad." Bryce said. Careful, I thought. Don't push it, kid. Mr. Parrish didn't look like the kind of guy who would put up with bullshit.
"Well, it's a good school," Mr. Parrish replied. "But you haven't seen any other ones. We should look around at a few. What about Morgantown?" He chuckled. "Cheaper for me."
"They don't have an architecture program, though."
"Well, architecture …" his father mumbled.
"It's what I want to do," Bryce countered. "They have a good program here."
Mr. Parrish glanced at Lyndon, who lowered his head, played with his flatware; I wondered if Elizabeth might take that away from him, as well. "Well, that's a problem, son." And I knew what was coming, as did Bryce. Mr. Parrish went on. "Your brother … won't be coming back here next semester. He'll be in Morgantown." He pulled a face. "If I can pull some strings and manage to get him in, that is."
I kept my face neutral during all of this; inside, of course, I was cheering.
Lyndon - who certainly must have seen this coming - muttered " … fuck …" and looked like he wanted to storm out, which made me understand why his parents had put him between them.
Bryce glanced at Lyndon, then at me, and then, finally, turned to his father. "I'm not Lyndon, Dad."
I held my breath, watched Mr. Parrish's face. He seemed to be trying to come to some decision. Then, to my surprise, he looked at me. "I understand that you're going to be here for a couple more years, Omer?"
Bryce's leg squeezed against mine. I ignored it. "Yes, sir. Going for a master's. And then maybe a doctorate, after that."
"In engineering, right?"
"Hard enough to get through that, I should think, even without your wrestling career. How did you do with your undergraduate?"
"Not quite a 4.0, I'm afraid. 3.95, or thereabouts."
Mr. Parrish glanced at Lyndon. "Impressive. Very impressive. Nice to see that you didn't waste your time at school."
Lyndon graced us with another muttered "… fuck …" and an eye roll. Elizabeth turned to him. "Stop it!" she hissed, digging her well-manicured nails into his forearm, eliciting an "Ow!" from him.
"Thank you, sir."
He chuckled. "Look, Omer … if we're going to go on with this, I could at least have you address me as Kenton."
What? "I … yes, si-, er, Kenton. Thank you."
Beside me, Bryce shifted. "Dad …?"
"I'll be blunt here, Omer. I … well, Bryce seems to have his heart set on coming here, but … well, you can understand why I and his mother might be a little … uh, leery of sending him off to college. But …" He sighed. "But he's right. He's not his brother, and I should give him credit for that. And maybe I'm trying to hedge my bets, here. I … well, if it's not too much to ask, I wonder if I might get you to step in as a … well, not a chaperone, really, but a … a guide, or something like. Do you know what I mean?"
My heart was hammering so hard in my chest it was a wonder that no one else could hear. "I think so, sir. I would be glad to do it. If Bryce wants me to, that is. I want it to be his choice."
Mr. Parrish - Kenton - nodded. "Of course." He turned to his son. "Bryce?"
"That would be more than okay with me, Dad." Bryce turned to me. "Thank you, Omer, for agreeing to this."
Kenton looked at Elizabeth. "Well, I guess that's it, then."
I cleared my throat. "I'll be looking for a place for next year. I'll make sure to find a place big enough for the both of us."
"Well, Omer … you can leave that to me. I can make some calls when I get back to Morgantown. I know some realtors here."
Bryce and I looked at each other, still a little stunned at how things had turned out.
The rest of the dinner went well enough. Everybody - well, except for Lyndon, whose black mood hovered like storm clouds over his head - chatted about this and that. The food was excellent, of course. Kenton picked up the tab, as Bryce had said that he would. I decided not to bring up the issue of the rent money that Lyndon had pretty much extorted from me; it seemed petty to me at this point. I would find a way to make it work.
The ride back was quiet; blame it on full stomachs and more than a little bit of alcohol, not on any kind of residual awkwardness at the state of things, although that still played a big part in this. Bryce still sat between Lyndon and me; for his part, Lyndon stared out of the window at the passing cityscape, nibbling on a fingernail. I almost felt sorry for him; it was all too easy for college students to let things overwhelm them … but this was different. Lyndon had had the brass ring nearly in his hand, and had fumbled the taking of it. I still couldn't imagine what other outcome he could have expected; fathers forgave their children a great deal - I was testament to that - but this was something that would take Lyndon a long time to get on top of.
If he ever could.
Kenton guided the Merc to the curb, put it in neutral. "Okay. I … I guess we'll see you tomorrow, Omer."
"I'd like to thank you and Elizabeth again for dinner. It was wonderful."
"And we want to thank you for agreeing to room with Bryce in the fall."
"Absolutely …" Elizabeth murmured.
"Okay. I … well, you have my number. I'll be glad to help with the move." I opened my door. At the same time, Lyndon opened his, put a foot out and onto the ground.
"Lyndon." Kenton's voice was eerily quiet.
"Where are you going?"
"Well … to my room, I guess."
"Mmm, I don't think so. Not tonight. You're going to stay with us at the hotel."
"What? No fucking way!"
With that, Kenton got out of the car, went over to Lyndon's door, braced himself in it. "Let me tell you something, son. You don't get to do this, any more. You don't get to make the decisions. Not about anything. You're done with that, so don't worry. From here on out - until I think you've learned your lesson - you do everything I tell you to do. And I mean everything. So get back in the car. Do you understand me?"
"I asked you a question, son. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir," his voice nearly inaudible.
"Good." Kenton got back behind the wheel. I stepped out, fumbled in my pocket for the keys.
And, then, from Bryce. "Dad? Do you mind if I stay here tonight?"
Kenton pulled a face. "Do you want to?"
"Well, my stuff is here, so, why not?" He glanced at Lyndon. "I can sleep in Lyndon's bed tonight."
Elizabeth chuckled. "Of course. That couch is … I think something died in it." Not entirely outside the realm of possibility, but I didn't think now was the time to bring it up the things that couch had been party to.
Kenton smiled. " I don't mind … but you should ask Omer if he'd mind. He might want some peace and quiet after the past few days."
Bryce turned to me, made puppy dog eyes. If he'd whined and wagged an imaginary tail, I would have lost it. "It's okay with me," I said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.
He scrambled out of the car and we went up to the house, side by side. Behind us, the Mercedes rumbled away from the curb and towards the hotel.
Inside, I locked the door; Bryce went over, gathered up his stuff, went upstairs to his - well, Lyndon's - room. I made sure everything was secure, then went up the two flights to my room.
I shut my door, turned on the desk lamp, sat in the chair, trying to understand exactly what I'd just agreed to. Babysitting, again, for quite some time, if it came to that. Did I mind? Not really. Whatever might happen would happen. It seemed that I could be bought for the price of an eight-ounce filet mignon and a baked potato. And a beer.
I got up, went over to my bed, slipped off my dress shoes and socks, then started shedding clothes. I looked around my room, imagined that I would probably have to start packing in the morning if I couldn't make a deal with my landlord about maybe staying on another month or so, until Kenton arranged for a place; was he really going to buy Bryce a house? It wouldn't take long to pack; I didn't have much stuff.
I slipped naked under the covers, picked up my tablet, starting surfing. It was late - almost ten o'clock - and I knew it would be best if I went to bed sooner rather than later. Tomorrow would be a busy day, trying to pack Lyndon up.
I reached over, turned out the light, plugged my tablet in to recharge it overnight.
There was, then, a light rap at my door, tentative and unsure. And then a voice, and a simple phrase, all of five words, one that I hoped to hear.
"May I come in, Omer?"
I smiled, even though he couldn't see it. "Absolutely."
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