Many hands got the painting done fast. It took longer to tape up around the edges. Everyone was proud of their work, and Lolly had a reservation at the best grille in Willowhelm to reward the guys, and her step-daughter too. Franco got the vibe that Lolly did her best to accept Hannah into her life, even if it was weird to think of what Justin did before they met.
They were all walking out to the car, when someone else passed by. They walked a large Malamute on a leash, and wore a violet coat.
Shark recognized her. He raised his hand in an apathetic hello, while Franco backed up in shock. He couldn’t believe who it was.
She walked by the mailbox, looking a little cautious on the Racket property. “I’m pretty sure none of you guys will kill me,” she said, with a laugh.
“Carmen?” Franco asked. His voice was loud with surprise. “Holy cr–I guess I didn’t recognize you.” She was a lot taller than he remembered, and filled out beyond the skinny build she had as a child.
It felt like an eternity to him, with time passing slowly as he admired how his childhood friend grew up too.
Up until then, things got lonely for Franco the teenager. Everyone else was ahead or behind him, leaving the young man to learn and be productive in different ways.
He still painted. Franco had an aptitude for that. At long last, he was old enough to enroll in the high school art classes that Shark taught. And he said that his little cousin would have gotten an A+ without the forces of nepotism too. Franco won third place with one of his best paintings in a semi-regional art show, which disappointed him. But regardless of that loss, he believed there was a future ahead of him, propped up on an easel.
That optimism lasted for about a month. No less than three adults convinced him not to get his hopes up. The fine arts were a crapshoot, and people like Amy and Shark were lucky to have paying jobs and riches to support their hobbies. Hobbies. Franco knew about Harwood, and asked why he ended up having a full career in the arts. As he was told, it all was in that marketable name he just happened to have. Harwood Clay sounded like a sculptor. Franco Ahmed Waverly Racket sounded like a mouthful.
He had to think hard about a backup trade, and Franco knew one other thing about himself: he dressed well. He had an eye for design and color, whether on the canvas or draped over the human body. How hard could making clothes be? One of the adults surprised him with the supplies, including that sewing machine that sold for half a thousand. Was it his parents? Who cared! He wasn’t weak enough to let them buy his love. Just smart enough to reap the benefits.
Did it sound bad? Of course. But no one complained about having an in-house tailor, for hemming long pants and mending holes. Franco learned the trade fast, but it was all because of his lack of distractions.
That afternoon offered his first one. He was lost for words, mesmerized by Carmen’s big, dark eyes.
“Yeah, other people live in this town. We’ll miss our reservation if we keep standing around, though,” Lolly said. “And I need their ribeye before they run out. That always happens.”
“You…you go ahead,” Franco said. “I’m not that hungry.”
They headed to the car. He heard Lolly say “He’s thirsty, that’s what.” Whatever. It was true.
Flustered, Franco said the first thing on his mind, once he approached Carmen. “I like your dog.” He extended a hand out for the dog to sniff. Its wet nose brushed against Franco’s hand. He loved that about dogs.
“We broke down our mums enough for one,” said Carmen. “Guess we wanted to be like you Rackets after all.”
“You don’t…but everyone loves dogs.” Franco had taken to scratching the Malamute behind the ears.
“So, best news. My mums are out on a date, and we have just a little more time until my older brothers move away. Want some wine? You always struck me as a wine guy.”
Older brothers could refer to a lot of people, for Carmen. Franco gave her a beaming smile when she mentioned wine. The most he got before that was a sip of champagne on New Year’s. But if he gave one of her brothers enough money, he could get that fine Merlot he wanted instead.
The weather could have been worse. That freaky April snowstorm was worse near the gulf, where his parents were staying. In Twinbrook, the most it dropped was an inch of wet snow, and they could see the road ahead of them.
Franco made conversation as they headed towards the shops downtown. Edmond, one of the older brothers, was up for helping two young teenagers get drunk. He would meet them there in an hour. So they walked at an ambling pace. The distance was under two miles. They could talk.
“Don’t your parents kind of hate me?” Franco asked. “Uh, but, I’m glad you don’t! I think.”
“They hate Rackets, it’s different,” she said. “Though I doubt I’d be here if your mum didn’t know my bio-dad. I’m up for drinking with one of you.”
“It sounds dangerous and exciting. I’ll be the biggest badass in school now.”
“That sounds overrated.”
“You’re not overrated.” Franco blushed at the statement. Yep, she was the only badass walking on the sidewalk that day. But he was too focused on her fluffy ginger hair to care. It looked so soft. Maybe she’d let him pet it. Maybe he’d get a kiss too, but like being a successful painter, it seemed unlikely.
They talked. Carmen had been thinking of the side of her family that the mums didn’t like to talk about. It was such an insult to them, to be ignored in favor of learning about a man that Carmen never met. But her, and her twin brother too, wondered if that meant that they were destined for great things. Their bio-dad was famous at one point, after all.
Franco, when recalling this day to me, was surprised that he remembered that. He was otherwise too focused on the way Carmen walked and swayed. She was so confident and, well, adorable. Her skin was blemish-free and glowed like fired pottery. And the way her upper lip curved…of course he wanted to kiss her.
The transaction at the shops was fast. Edmond knew where they kept the good wine. His good-bye conversation with Carmen took longer. After that week, it was off to the capital for a job and grad school that autumn. But surely someone else would buy them wine in the future.
Franco’s thoughts needed to rest. He put on his most stoic face, and prepared to face the weird smells of the Kindle-Drill household. If he remembered correctly, it was patchouli. Not his favorite.
“So I doubt your parents will mind us drinking,” said Carmen. “besides, aren’t they usually having sex and not caring about you anyways?”
“Don’t remind me–wait, my place? Aren’t you banned from there?” he asked.
“Duh. They’re not here tonight. I have time to come up with an alibi.”
“Well, my parents aren’t here either.”
“Wait. Pretty sure Sinbad’s at home tonight.”
“Don’t you two hate each other?”
“He’s nothing I can’t handle.” Carmen clenched a fist and grinned. “Really, he’s just a tiny man with a lot of mean words.”
“I hope they’re cool with another dog,” she said. “Cash needs some furry friends.”
“I think we’ll all like him,” Franco said.
As they thought, Sinbad was awake. Amy was too, and she had some sort of magic that calmed his tense mind. The reclined on the couch in their pajamas, with a cable broadcast of Wadjet Eye playing in the background. It was both of their favorites.
“Are you…not ready?” Amy asked her fiancé.
“No…yes.” His voice took on a meek tone that Franco had never heard before from him. “I just…really don’t wanna be like my parents. But sometimes I feel like the worst of both of them.”
She squeezed his hand. “Well, I think you’re already doing so much better.”
Franco tried to back up. “Should I not be here?” he asked them.
Amy almost jumped up at the greeting. “Franco! Uh, Shark said you were going to Pearlbrook, or Saint Dominic, or somethin’ like that.”
“They’re in Willowhelm, but I’m just here with a friend.”
Sinbad looked over his shoulder at Franco and nodded. That probably meant something good. Once he saw Carmen, though, his face went as sour as it usually did.
“Great,” he mumbled.
Carmen approached him with visible sass, stopping in front of the couch and putting a hand on her hip. “Hey there, big bro,” she said, in a sardonic tone. “You’re growing so old, that your little siblings are already sneaking alcohol.”
“I’m not in the mood for this,” he said. “I just want one peaceful night, not having to think about…all that fucked up-”
“Sinbad, you’re better than this,” Amy whispered. She kept stroking his fingers, trying to calm him down. “And she never asked for this either.”
“Yeah man, I didn’t ask to be your sister,” she said. She knelt down in front of the count, to try and get on his eye level. “Doesn’t matter than I actually have parents who love me, and that I don’t cook meth, or steal cars, or-”
Franco was wise in keeping his distance. Sinbad rose from his seat and snatched Carmen by the wrist. In spite of her boasting, Sinbad was an angry man and, while small, still bigger than Carmen. It looked like he had a good hold on her.
“Listen. Just because you have a nice life and get to bang my boss’ son doesn’t mean jack shit.” Carmen had a neutral look on her face, as if she was listening to what he had to say. “You’re angry about how I act? Why don’t you get some fucking perspective first.” He let go of her wrist.
She didn’t seem shaken. Carmen just crossed her arms and smirked. “Come on, I was just teasin’ you,” she said. “I’d almost think you grew up as an only child with that attitude.”
She and Franco escaped to the kitchen before Sinbad could do anything worse. Franco overheard the last bits of Amy and Sinbad’s conversation. “I mean, she was acting like a snot, and you didn’t hit her with a wine bottle, right?” She tried so hard. As for Franco, he would have been angry with Carmen, if he wasn’t blinded by attraction. Though, if only Sinbad was right about them banging–no, he should take it slower than that.
Annette never showed him where the good wine glasses were. He got out some cylindrical ones meant for milk or juice and hoped for the best. Carmen watched, after getting a bowl of cereal (she wanted to and he insisted; no one else was going to eat those corn flakes). She didn’t seem to balk at it.
“Believe me, I would’ve gone all out if I knew where everything was,” he said to her.
“I just wanna get tipsy,” she said.
“Maybe I’ll get lucky…and find my mum’s cognac. It’s probably somewhere around here.”
“I think this will do,” said Carmen. She took a glass off the serving platter and got started. “I always thought wine would be sweeter.”
Sweet or not, they both enjoyed their drinks, maybe just for the taboo. They had a few laughs about the ridiculous questions that Mrs. Morris gave them for Biology homework, and the alcohol took care of the rest of the material. Franco dropped any sort of melancholy or pretension, and laughed at everything. Even in hindsight, when he rated Carmen at about a 6, she was a 10 after two glasses of wine. He wasn’t expecting it to happen so soon.
“You know, we-we-we could go upstairs. I bet there’s a lot of fun up there.” His voice never sounded so cheerful.
“Dude, I know you’re trying to get laid,” said Carmen. “Whatever. Show me what you got.”
He led her by the hand into his bedroom, to show her his pride and joy: the sewing machine. She seemed taken aback by how mundane that was. “Really, I’ve been workin’ with the embroidery settings on that. It’s-it’s gonna fuckin’ rock once I get the hang of it.”
“Man, you have a dirty mouth tonight,” said Carmen. “You’re just so…weird. I wish I saw this side of Franco more.”
He seemed to have noticed some stitching went wrong on the dress he had on the form. Or maybe he remembered that his thread scissors were on the floor. Carmen had to walk over to the front of him to get him to respond to her.
“Look, I know what you want tonight,” she said, languidly pointing a finger at him. “And-and I’m up for that. Dating Franco…Azmal…Racket. Yeah.” She got the first and last parts right, which is what counted.
He gave her a sappy, romantic look. “Aww, wait, really?” he asked her, acting coy. Yep, it just took two glasses for the teen.
“Sure thing, marshmallow.”
He lifted Carmen off her feet–even if it was just a few inches off the ground–and held her close for a long, sloppy first kiss. It was one of those awkward ones where they both had wide-open mouths. Franco maneuvered himself in awkward ways to avoid stabbing her with his fangs. He’d get used to that, right?
Carmen pulled herself away, just by a few inches, and still kept an arm around Franco’s shoulder. “We’ll…we’ll see what happens in the morning.”
And quicker than Franco thought, morning came.
He rubbed his eyes and squinted, both due to the morning light and the massive headache he had. His glasses were in place. All his clothes were too, down to his boots. Morning came, but he didn’t. Carmen was clothed too, so it must have been a different kind of night.
They left the door open too, open enough for Amy to greet them. “Rise and shine! Glad to see you kept yourselves safe,” she said, giving them a friendly wave.
“Thanks,” Franco said. Carmen started to wake up too. “Carmen…what happened?”
“I think we just groped at each other a bit and then passed out,” she said. “You’re really cuddly, though.” She poked his belly, assuming that Franco didn’t notice that.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I mean, you feel nice in a way too.” Even though they were both barely in high school, Carmen had something resembling a feminine shape to her. Her waist nipped in a bit. To Franco back then, it felt good.
“Thanks, I try.” She got up off the bed, holding her head with a similar headache. “Crap…got any ibuprofen?”
He found Amy, who kept a store of it for her own womanly aches and pains. Franco took two tablets of that and waited for it to…not work at all. Carmen got fast relief. If he didn’t think she was so pretty, he might have been mean and jealous about that.
Franco drank some water from the bathroom sink, took a quick shower, and found his way downstairs to breakfast. Shark returned from Willowhelm and survived. He pointed Franco to some delicious grilled skewers he took home, and to bagels on the counter. Sinbad was still asleep, but Franco had noticed before and he and Shark stopped being friends. Or at least stopped being in the same room together. Even before he knew of their affairs, he had some guesses as to why they became sudden enemies.
He enjoyed a bagel loaded with cream cheese and lox from the fridge. The lox was close to the end of its time, but Franco was starving after missing dinner the night before. Meanwhile, Carmen enjoyed one with peanut butter and struck up a friendly conversation with Shark. He seemed into it, by the tone of his voice, unlike he was with anyone outside of her family. Franco kept his mouth shut. After all, he couldn’t control a 40 year-old.
Franco started to look at his phone, immediately noticing a notification for a missed call. It came from his mum’s cellphone; her main one, as she emphasized. Annette didn’t care enough to hide those shames, now could she? She left a voicemail.
Without much else to do, Franco stepped out to listen to it.
Hey honey. It’s your mum. Just making sure that everything’s okay at home…I’ve really been worried about everything. I know I didn’t say much about why we left, but I guess it’s good to be transparent, right? Your father might be dying, but we’re not sure. I felt like everyone hated me, and I’m gonna try to do better by you guys. Uh, you might…never mind that one. We’re okay for now! I’m feeling better about things…I wanna check out this brunch place in the old fishing district. Has a live jazz band and everything. I guess I’ll see y’all later.
“Well that’s heavy,” Franco said, deleting the message. She’d call again if things got dire. After she left in some sort of secrecy, perhaps it was an improvement to call in the morning. In one small area.
Was that nice? Maybe. It wasn’t like he had much faith in her promise to do better.
But Franco had a lot more going for him in his life than hatred. After brushing the taste of breakfast out of his teeth, Franco turned on the telly, to the Music Choice station. Sunday morning felt like a good time for jazz. Carmen followed, and they shared some more kisses.
He could have made a regretful decision under the influence of that wine. But for those teenagers, it felt pretty good while sober too.