A/N- We are JBKAF Productions. A partnership of authors that have an unnatural attraction to porches and brooding blond bad boys from Chino. Together, we are 472, drunken baby kangaroos. (I'm sure there are at least a couple of sharp and witty TWoPers who'll decode that in no time.)
We welcome you to The Chino. Please enjoy responsibly.
Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.
-- M.S. Merwin
I step off the bus and give the driver a farewell nod. I've been a regular passenger for the past two weeks, but only today did I learn that his name is Al.
I light a cigarette, cupping my sore hand around the delicate flame. I'm tired. I haven't been this tired in years. Fuck, I've never been this tired. Twelve hour night shifts at the factory are going to break me. I feel like I'm sleepwalking through my days.
I inhale the smoke and start the short walk home.
Home. Home is Chino again. It's morning and the sun only heightens the effect of the landscape on my mood. I live with Theresa now, not the Cohens. There are no gardeners here to make sure the grass stays green. There are no landscapers to take care of the weeds that manage to find earth through the sidewalks and concrete. I thought I'd left this behind but I'm right back where I started.
I have to pull myself out of this exhaustion. I'm off work for the night and I badly need the break. It's barely dawn but I'm looking forward to getting some rest.
Theresa's pregnancy is still understated. I can only see a change when she's sans clothes. She should be leaving for work soon. As long as she's mobile and not too tired, she's going to work at the restaurant as much as possible. I'd fight her on it if we weren't so desperate for the money. The baby's going to need things that we can't afford right now. We can't afford for her not to work. Both of our incomes are necessary.
I wonder what day it is. I left Newport at least two weeks ago. It doesn't really matter. I still have to be at work at six o'clock at night, six days a week. It's tedious, monotonous work, but it comes with the territory. I'm where I need to be. I can't let Theresa handle this pregnancy alone.
It's more than a pregnancy. It's a child.
I take a drag off the generic cigarette. Theresa hates that I'm smoking again but she seems to realize that it's one of my few pleasures.
I sit down on her porch - our porch. To say the least, things have changed.
I remember stolen kisses with Theresa underneath this very porch. We would hide from our brothers, Trey and Arturo, who were too stoned most of the time to do anything except harass us. We'd crawl under the porch, away from the harsh sunlight, lie on the cool earth and kiss each other until we were out of breath.
I think about Seth constantly. I wonder where he really is. I can only imagine what Sandy and Kirsten are going through. I haven't seen them in person since the wedding, but I receive phone messages at least twice a day. They say Seth left the same day; sailed off into the ocean, the crazy bastard. Summer was what Seth had wanted his whole life and he sailed away from her on his damn little boat.
No one's said it, but we all know it's because of me.
"Hey. When'd you get back?" Theresa sits down beside me on the porch and leans her head against my shoulder.
I answer her with a sigh as I flick the cigarette onto the dead lawn.
"I'll be home around three. I have a doctor's appointment." I put my arm around her. I know she's scared. She's not ready for this. Neither am I. It's coming anyway. We no longer have a choice.
It's not a choice, it's a child.
"Am I coming this time?"
She smiles at me. She's beautiful. That hasn't changed. I have.
"Yes, Ryan. You can come this time."
"Good to hear." I close my eyes and try to unwind. Despite all my efforts, I can't relax.
Not here in Chino. Not even with Theresa.
"We're out of milk," she states after a long pause.
She knows I'm tired but she has to go to work.
"Take Ma's car."
"Does it have gas?" We'd quickly fallen into a pattern of an old married couple that only talks about the household agenda. We haven't talked about anything important since she brought me back to Chino. It's still all too raw. So we've become domesticated. We play our roles.
"What do you think?"
I open my eyes and meet her stare. "I said okay."
Theresa smiles sympathetically and presses a grocery list into my hand. She hesitates and pulls my palm open. "You need lotion."
My hands are tough and coarse from the hard labor of my new job. They'd bled the first three days but the blisters have since turned to calluses - a reminder of how soft I'd gotten living in Newport. I can't imagine touching Marissa's skin or shaking Sandy's hand with these hands.
Theresa stands and kisses my cheek chastely. "Two forty-five. I'll pick you up."
"I'll be awake." Sleep is an anomaly. Time away from work is time that can be spent searching for Seth.
She turns and starts for her car. I watch her walk away. She stops and turns. "The Cohens called again. And Summer."
Theresa hesitates. "He didn't call, Ryan. I'm sorry."
I don't answer her. Seth's okay. He has to be.
I watch her drive away before pushing myself up onto my sore feet and opening the squeaky screen door. I should probably look into oiling that.
I notice a scribbled note on the counter. Jotted down are the exact times of when the Cohens have called. Last night at 5:00. Again at 6:30. Once more at 10:00.
I've asked Theresa and her mother not to talk to them, to let the machine get it or tell them I'm out and take messages. They reluctantly comply and don't ask questions. I have to do this on my own time.
I've only talked to Sandy a couple times since I left. He sounded tired. Worried sick. His son's been missing for over two weeks and not a word's been heard. I can't help but think it. I don't want to, but the thought's always lingering at the back of my mind. I don't know what I would do if that were the case. I won't think about that. I can't think about that.
"Morning, Eva. How're you feeling today?"
She smiles and gently pats my shoulder as she shuffles toward the stove.
I had no idea of Eva's condition until I came back. She's diabetic and she's not well. Things have gone downhill in the short amount of time that I've been here. She hasn't been to work at all this week and though she doesn't complain, I can tell she's in constant pain.
I lean heavily against the counter and scrunch the note containing the messages in my hand.
The kettle starts to scream. Eva pours the water into two mugs containing tea bags. She grabs the milk carton out of the fridge and shakes it.
"I'll go to the store," I assure her.
"Get some sleep first."
She removes the tea bags and places a cup in front of me. Smiling, she once again pats my shoulder and gingerly walks back toward her room.
I don't like tea. Never have. But every morning it's the same thing. I come home, she makes me tea. Every morning she looks worse - stiffer. Every morning I'm more tired.
I take a few obligatory sips before dumping the rest down the sink.
I wish I had some coffee - even Kirsten's coffee. I'd gladly sip around the grains for a cup of her coffee.
I turn on my laptop and close my eyes as I wait for Windows to load. I check my email.
Twenty-four new messages. I hold my breath as I open my inbox and quickly scan the names. Hoping.
I never thought I'd want to see the words "Captain Oats" so badly. I compose yet another letter. It's a variation of the same thing every time.
Where are you? Your parents are scared out of their minds. I'm scared…
Please, Seth, write me back when you get this. I just need to know you're alright.
I scan the other names. Sandy, Kirsten, Marissa, Summer. There are multiple notes from each of them. I can't read them now.
I grab Eva's car keys off the counter and pat my back pocket to make sure that I have
Theresa's grocery list. I might as well get it over with.
I stop by Eva's room and knock lightly on the door.
I push it open but hold my place in the doorway. She's in bed. She's almost always in bed. I wish I could do more for her. The sun pouring in from the window streaks across her bedspread. She raises a hand to block her eyes from the brightness.
"I'm gonna go to the grocery store. Do you want me to pick up anything? Anything you need?"
"No, sweetie, but thank-you. I wish you would sleep."
"I will," I reply with a forced smile. She disapprovingly shakes her head from side to side.
"I'll be back shortly."
The grocery stores are modest, unlike those found in Newport. There are no aisles devoted to tofu or alternative milk products. There are two kinds of apples, not six. Just basics and bare necessities.
I shuffle through the aisles and pluck assorted items from the shelves. I doubt they even have these brands in Newport - too low class. I don't have to search for the cheapest generic brand; it's all they carry.
My eyelids feel heavier by the second and I'm starting to doubt my ability to make the five minute drive back home.
"Eddie." I'm suddenly more awake.
I've seen Eddie a few times since coming back home. He's been surprisingly pleasant. Guilty. I can see it in his eyes. He knows I know he hit her. He knows I want to kill him for it. He wants to kill me for being with her. But he also knows that I'm his only connection to her. And I also know that he might be this baby's father. It's best that we all remain alive.
Theresa won't talk to him. I don't blame her. For her sake, I hope he's not the father. At least I know I'll never hurt her. Either way, this baby's mine now, regardless of paternity.
It's my responsibility, not Eddie's.
She knows better than to speak of him around me. She says I have a blind spot where he's concerned, that I haven't tried to understand, but all I need to know is that he hurt her. I don't care if he loves her. I don't care if she loves him. It's the one thing that Theresa and I cannot talk about. There's a mountain of things that we don't talk about, but Eddie's the one thing that we can't talk about.
I owe it to her to keep the peace.
"And the…." He can't finish his sentence.
"Fine. As far as I know."
"Do you think she'll talk to me? Just over the phone or something?"
I don't know how many times I'm going to have to tell this guy that she's done with him.
Deep breath. Keep the peace.
"Can you tell her…tell her that I…," he stumbles on the words.
He nods. He must understand.
I bow my head and wait. I can never tell if he's going to walk away or go ballistic on me.
Right now, I'm too tired to care.
"All right. Take care of yourself. And tell her.… Tell her." He backs away slowly before turning.
I can't feel sorry for Eddie. He's off the hook. I'm playing his role now. I don't want to; I have to. It's the right thing to do. I have to keep telling myself that.
I load the groceries into the car and settle back into the worn driver's seat. Rolling down the window, I light another cigarette. I lean my head back against the headrest and savor every long drag. If I would let myself, I'm sure I could fall sleep right here, right now.
The thought is too appealing and I have to force myself to turn the key. The engine grumbles, but finally turns over. The rattling is like a lullaby and I wish I could let the gentle vibrations lull me to sleep.
If I'm lucky, I can work in a couple hours of rest between phone calls to marinas along the southern coast. Seth couldn't have gone too far. That boat of his wouldn't allow for it.
I take the final drag off the cigarette as I pull the old car into the driveway. Kids are playing on the lawn next door. I try not to look. That house. It's a place I try my hardest to forget. Now it's so close. Unavoidable.
I quietly place the food in the fridge and cupboards, careful not to wake Eva if she happens to be asleep.
Wandering into Theresa's room - our room - I grab the stack of weathered papers from the drawer in the nightstand. The multiple pages contain lists of all the marinas, boat shops, repair shops, hotels, motels and hospitals within a five hundred mile radius. All the names on the first three pages have been crossed off. No one by Seth's name, or matching his description, has been mentioned.
I'm sure that Sandy and Kirsten have an extensive search party in action, but I can't sit around and do nothing. I did this, now I've got to fix it. When I do find him, and I'm sure I will, I'm going to punch him. He could have thought of something else to get back at me that wouldn't have hurt his parents like he has.
Swiping the phone from its cradle, I head back outside and cringe as the screen door squeaks loudly upon my exit. Eva surely would have heard that.
I set up shop on the top step. Flipping the pages to where I left off yesterday, I begin to dial. I give the same spiel every time. I think I could do it in my sleep.
Nothing. Another number. Nothing.
I'm no longer disappointed when they say they haven't seen or heard of him. I'm not expecting them to. I just need to know I've checked. It's a process of elimination. He can only be so many places.
The sound of a wailing child from next door catches my attention. A little boy is sitting in his sandbox just off the porch. The front door's open so, I assume, his caregiver can keep an eye on him.
He's maybe two - two-and-a-half at the most. I don't know why he's crying. He doesn't appear to be hurt. Hungry? Maybe. I don't know. Should I know? Is every child different?
A chill runs up my spine at my own lack of knowledge. How are we going to do this?
His sobs get louder and louder until a flustered woman, no older than twenty-five, emerges from the house. She scoops him up from behind and starts bouncing from foot to foot while cooing softly into his ear. Her actions seem to pacify the child and his crying quickly tapers to a dull whimper.
She seems to know what she's doing. The woman must sense my presence because she glances over in my direction. Once establishing eye contact, she smiles apologetically and turns back toward the house with the little boy in hand.
I close my eyes and let my upper body fall flat against the warm wooden boards of the porch. Reaching blindly into my pocket, I pull out another cigarette. This whole idea gets scarier by the minute.