Maybe Franco regretted signing up for the task.
Dressmaking was a lot of work, when he had to balance it with school and family and friends. With Jenni bailing (not for attending, though. Her choice), he had to measure yet another woman for a dress. Amy chose one of her old neighbors as her new secondary bridesmaid. Her name was Molly, she had a 21 inch waist, and had two kids with Amy’s ex. In spite of that, she and Amy got along just fine. And Molly would hide a gun under her dress, which was all the criteria they needed.
Once that was over, there were still more hiccups. Franco hated sewing ruffles, but guess what Amy’s dress required a layer of? One of his fabric orders got caught in the mail for an extra week. And just a couple weeks beforehand, Lolly said that he needed to find a design that was more forgiving around the waist. It turned out that Franco was getting a new cousin.
Just for once, he wanted a day off.
He thought that he would ask Amy for ideas. She was busy in her art studio, relishing a day off to spend among paint fumes. She also kept half an eye on her little Julian, who played with a toy truck on the floor.
Franco approached her. “Amy, do you know what I could do to feel like I have a day off?”
She gave him a chipper smile. “Of course! Your art portfolio won’t paint itself, and I think you have to start sending those in next year.” He had his eye on the Bridgeport Institute of Design, who demanded a lot from applicants.
“Like a real day off.”
“Oh…like, isn’t it just what you make it?”
“Maybe. But I’m just…out of ideas.”
Amy pointed towards the floor. “I bet Julian could give you some! I always have fun with my little man,” she said. “And you’re so good with your sister. He should be a piece of cake.”
Franco crouched down to get to Julian’s level. He hadn’t done much with that red-haired munchkin after his first birthday, but why not try again? “Hey there little man,” he said, in a gentle voice. “Why don’t you-” He was cut off by a toy truck being thrown at his leg.
Julian started to pout and sniffle. His expression got sour, with the way he frowned. His peridot-green eyes squinted just like his daddy’s did. “Uh, you okay there?” Franco asked. He smiled as much as his scowling Racket mouth would allow him to. But no luck. There he was, with nothing to do but listen to a screaming toddler.
Franco bit his lip and looked back at Amy. “Sorry about that,” he said.
“Not your fault. He can be even more like his dad sometimes. At least I find it cute.” She walked over to pick up her son. “I should be sorry. I’m out of ideas for you now! Unless you change your mind about the portfolio thing.”
“I’ll live,” said Franco. Once he got downstairs, he got an idea. He hadn’t spoken to Hannah in a while. She seemed a little surly over something, which he hoped would pass. Heck, maybe it passed already! He could have some fun with her. She could make any day feel like a day off.
Hannah seemed a lot better over the phone. All she wanted was for the two of them to be alone. Franco could manage that.
He picked Hannah up from her mum’s house, and they walked down the bridge towards the swampy unknown. The autumn foliage was gorgeous, and Franco tried to look at that more than Hannah’s skinny bird legs. She wore a miniskirt that day that showed them off. Sometimes, Franco didn’t know what to think about her sinewy limbs.
“So planning a wedding is pretty tough, I guess?” Hannah asked him.
He was looking off to the distance. “I’ll say, and it isn’t even mine.”
“God help you when you and Carmen tie the knot, right?” Hannah laughed a bit after saying it.
It felt like a sentence that was so…fundamentally wrong. When he thought about it, he and Carmen had been together for over two years at that point. They were friends ever since he was six years old. In terms of timespan, she was longer-standing figure in his life than Samira was. And Franco couldn’t imagine life as an only child anymore. But when he thought about it, he could stand life without Carmen just fine. Well, if it had to happen-
Which was such a bad thought! He had to be a good partner to her and think better ones. Like if the cookie jar full of condoms at home was still stocked for them.
“Yeah, that’ll be a doozy when it happens,” he said. “Why are we walking over there, anyways?”
Hannah shrugged. “I’ve never really been over there.”
The sun was already starting to go down, making the sky appear in a pale golden color.
Franco nervously adjusted the sleeves on his loose grey jacket. “So…uh, you had a good day at home, right?”
“She’s been better lately,” Hannah said. “Dad taking more stuff to court scared her straight. I…I might have a good life soon.”
He couldn’t describe how much he wanted to hug her out of joy right there.
Not too far later, and they found an abandoned building. It was new to Hannah, judging by the confident smirk on her face. “I wonder if it’s open,” she said. “Wanna go inside?” She didn’t see Franco’s wide, fearful eyes.
His mum told him about that place: Cooper’s Gentlemen’s Club. The name sounded nice, but “gentlemen’s club” was always a euphemism for a strip club. It used to be the Racket family’s bread and butter. They also trafficked women and girls, and the last manager of the place tried to choke out Annette.
He thought it was a smart idea to avoid it forever.
“I don’t know,” he said, dragging out his words. “…Fine. Only if it’s open.” It made sense for it to be locked. But Franco had to eat his words once the door swung open.
He voiced his concerns to Hannah. “Look, if you want the story, my grandparents owned this place,” he said. His face cringed as he looked around at the abandoned bars. At the stripper’s poles and walls full of old call-girl posters. “It was kind of disgusting.”
“Yeah, Lolly’s told me all about it too. She’s pretty paranoid about what happens to me,” said Hannah. “But…we’re alone here. I know it sounds really weird, but I feel safer alone.”
“Then why did you want to do this with me?”
“You’re different. I don’t need to act bitchy and threatening to ward you off…because you’re a safe person. Most people just love to prey on the nice, but you’re not afraid of that.”
“…And you are,” he said. Hannah nodded a little bit. “As I always say, wish I could help.”
He took a few steps deeper inside, while Hannah was enthralled at some pin-ups on the wall. Franco furrowed his brow and took a critical look around. The place was dusty and off-smelling, to say nothing of its wretched history.
There seemed to be a staircase in the corner, leading to a basement.
Franco crossed his fingers, praying for the same solitude that Hannah did.
The lights turned on by themselves once he was halfway down the steps. Nothing too unusual, though. Motion-tripped lights were commonplace since long before Franco was born. The basement still had the brick-laid walls and floors of upstairs.
And when he turned at the bottom of the stairs, he found the abandoned office.
It seemed like a silly idea, but the place must have been up for grabs. The shell of the building was fine, and maybe it could be turned into office space. His mum was right about him needing an space of his own one day, considering how tight it could get in his bedroom. And maybe the place could be redeemed from its past. After all, he liked to believe that he was on the track to being better than the average Racket.
He exercised a lot of caution with opening the door, and leapt back in disgust. It was filthy! Trash, old boxes, dirty clothes, and a used bikini. Maybe Franco would be better off finding a different building to settle his business in.
The desk was a mess, which was no surprise. An empty beer bottle, and a holding carton for coffee cups sat nestled together. An open notebook showed off some financial notes, and the cup sizes of strippers who were employed at the time. Funny enough, the pin-ups on the wall were the most tasteful thing in that office. Except, maybe, for the framed picture on the corner of the desk. Everyone had their clothes on in it.
Franco’s heart skipped a beat once he made out the faces.
The man on the right? No clue who he was, but he draped an arm around an old man’s shoulder. Even if Franco never saw old Racket family pictures, he could recognize that square jaw anywhere. But he knew about his family. He had all the background knowledge to know that it was Grandpa Max, looking smug at his greatest work. He stared straight into the camera with lots of pride. His left arm was around his wife, who looked just as proud.
There Franco was, standing in the center of his family’s greatest achievement. He hated being reminded of what it meant to be an average Racket.
He would have wallowed in his fears more, if it wasn’t for the sudden sound of a pounding bassline.
It came from upstairs, and it seemed like Hannah figured out the workings of the building fast. She was able to turn the stereo near the stage on. It played a bass-heavy pop song. Hannah wiggled her hips to it, but in a chaste way for the place she was in.
“How did you do that?” Franco asked.
“Controls near the dressing room, I guess,” she said. “They had a pretty nice setup here.”
He walked up on stage to join her. “I never thought you’d be much for this kind of music.”
“I need to know about all of it! You know, for sound engineering and the technique and stuff…look, Franco! I’m a musician. Not an elitist.”
“Hey, I’ll trust you on that. Any way to see what they had on the playlist, though?”
There was a computer in the dressing room that controlled it. Franco took out his phone and plugged it in, to “cleanse” the place with the sounds of jazz. “Time After Time” by John Coltrane set the mood well. He put a few other slow pieces in the queue as well.
“You wanna have this dance?” he asked Hannah. He even extended his hand out for her. She laughed at it. “I’m serious. I mean…just to practice before December.” The school always threw a Winter Ball for the freshmen and sophomores, so they wouldn’t feel left out when prom rolled around.
“Well…here, though? Isn’t this your family’s den of sin, or somethin’?” she asked.
Franco gave her a warm smile. “We’re alone now, right?” They both looked around the room. Still alone. “I…I sometimes like doing things alone too.”
“But together…together with me.”
He shrugged a bit. “Yeah. With you.”
He closed his eyes, in order not to think about it being Hannah. Even if his hand was just inches away from her ass, it didn’t count if he wasn’t thinking about Hannah! He would dance all the same moves with Carmen when the time came.
Franco even tried to convince himself that she was ugly. Remembering her with his eyes closed, and of her flat chest. Those twiggy legs and jutting knees, and how he could feel the bumps of her spine at that moment. But nothing could convince him that Hannah wasn’t something…perfect.
So he spun Hannah around and stopped trying to think of other people.
However, it remained chaste for another song or two. That was, until he bent her down for a dip. Franco came up with a question that was too awkward to ask, and that was an actual bad thing to think about.
So he leaned in closer to Hannah, and would only stop if she said no.
It was just a kiss on the dance floor, and Hannah didn’t flinch away from it either. She put an arm around Franco’s shoulder and puckered up too. They held it for a while, or at least for what felt like it. As much as Hannah liked it, it soon hit Franco as to what he really did.
He got to his feet and pulled away. His eyes went wide with shock, but he knew where the blame was.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” he said to Hannah, even if she wasn’t the biggest victim in that moment.
“…What happened in here stays in here?” She looked as guilty as he did, nervously clenching her fingers.
He nodded. “Sure. Never again.”
If only that was enough to make him feel better about being caught up in the moment, though.
Franco needed an adult. He got home and called out for his parents, who must have been out or doing dreadful things. Some music played upstairs…instrumental chiptunes? Amy tended to paint to those, as they helped her get into an energized mood. It was best not to distract her from that.
If Sinbad wasn’t home, Franco wasn’t sure what he would do with himself and his guilt! And even if he was there, Sinbad existed more as a troubled friend of Annette’s. He had his moments of being a good guide to Franco. Apologizing for cussing out his little siblings in front of him, assuring him that he was trying his damndest to be a better person. Still, the man didn’t raise him like every other adult did.
But Franco didn’t like being alone with his thoughts and neglected by the world. He crossed his fingers for finding Sinbad.
The door to Julian’s room was open, and the house’s two toddlers played with dolls together. Sometimes, having two little larval people around felt like having an infinite playdate. The kids would play, and the adults could enjoy their own lives too.
No one would leave the house to them, though. Dressed in his most fatherly ghoul-print shirt, Sinbad watched from a rocking chair in the room. Or watched as much as he could while engrossed in a book. He looked up and nodded at Franco.
“Are you busy?” Franco asked. Sinbad put his book down.
“Funny how I can get so lost in my dad’s piece-of-shit adventures,” he said. “Eh…language aside, I wish he never met my mum. I don’t know if she ruined him or he ruined her, but…”
Franco’s face contorted in frustration. “I’m sorry. I really shouldn’t bother you after that.”
“Look, it’s fine,” said Sinbad. “I know that I’m angry about him knowingly knocking up my mum, leaving her, faking his death to her so he could cry in Troy’s arms, or…” He stopped for a moment. “What do you even know about this? It’s all stuff in the past now. So what’s eating you? You look…troubled.”
He buried his face into his hands. “I did a horrible thing to…well, to Carmen.”
“But you were with Hann-oh. You…well, you used a rubber, right?”
“What? No.” Franco stepped back, but realized that he needed to choose his words better. “It was just a kiss.”
“And you’re crying to me over that? I dealt drugs at your age. I actually cheated on someone I loved.” said Sinbad. “And…it’s not what gets to me the most.” He got up from his seat to continue.
“I mean, we’re all gonna do stupid things. I just don’t think you can get hung up on them forever. Especially not giving a friend a smooch,” he said.
“So what’s always getting you riled up?” Franco asked him.
Sinbad just looked down at the journal on the floor. “The stupid shit that adults do.”
“Even if you come out of it?” Sinbad nodded without any hesitation.
Franco had a lot of heart, but Sinbad’s problems were…Sinbad’s problems. Ones that his mum could try and tackle with her wild spirit, but Franco couldn’t comprehend them himself.
So instead, he did his homework in the dining room. It was where Sagebear lay down and chewed on an old newspaper. Maybe he could reward himself with her wet doggie kisses for every three questions about Death of a Salesman he answered. She was the one girl Carmen wouldn’t mind him kissing, after all.
His parents also got home around that time. It turned out that they were on a date after all.
I don’t like you saying those things about yourself. Like, I shouldn’t have to even tell you why they fucking TERRIFY me.
Franco never heard his mum speak that way to dad. To others, all the time. But they ceased any meaningful arguments before Franco could remember much at all.
He needed to finish those questions for the next day, but he listened in to what went on behind his back.
“I don’t want you to die, and it sickens me that you want that for yourself,” Annette continued. She got down on one knee, to better look Bill at eye-level. “Can’t we just be rational adults about this? You are about everything else!”
Franco turned his head back for a second. Bill didn’t even look angry. Just…resigned and weary.
“I just mentioned it as an option,” he said.
“I just don’t…look, this isn’t about me. Can we just try sleeping this off, though? We all love you here.”
Annette lowered her voice. “I just want you to be happy, but don’t say those things in front of our kids. They’d rather you live too.”
If there was one thing that Franco would agree with his mum about, it was that.
A/N: Let’s get jazzy!
Franco’s character really forces me to listen to some more jazz, just to get the references right. Not that I’m complaining.
I don’t want Sinbad’s perpetual daddy issues to clog up the story, but he can’t be hung up on a past he never knew forever (plus I have fun writing his dad’s history, shut up-). And I think it helps for him and Franco to talk, because they both want to escape a past that their ancestors laid out. Whether it’s sex trafficking or just being a somewhat terrible person.