He walks by the place without giving it a second thought, his head bent down and his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his jeans, barely feeling the damp, biting wind that has been steadily picking up for the last half hour. And then something catches his eye and against his better judgment he takes a cautious step back, peering through the dirty windows. The mellow luster of beaten-up green felt stares back at him, and he's sure it's calling his name.
A pool hall, one of those old-fashioned, no-frills kinds, the kind he knows like the back of his hand. And just when he's starting to think that it's safe to take a closer look at the ragtag crew playing inside, he feels a warm rush go through him and his heart begins to pound hard.
He was young-probably wasn't even in middle school-when his dad sent him to a dive just like this one to pick up his daily numbing potion, because he was tired and in a bad mood and he didn't feel like getting it himself tonight. It wasn't a good day. Were there any of those even left?
And standing alone on this dark, slick sidewalk tonight, after having once again wandered the streets for hours in search of information that never quite pans out, he feels exactly like he did back then; afraid and drawn in all at once, and like he wants to be anywhere but home, and this place looks as good as any to keep him from getting there.
That first time-it still seems like it happened yesterday.
It was The Four Aces, just around the corner from his old house.
Make it a six-pack of Schlitz, Seeley-you got that straight? Schlitz, six-pack, ice cold; don't mess it up. And get back right away.
He remembers being torn between the terror of walking all by himself into a place that had bars on windows he couldn't yet reach and a grate on the door that wouldn't let you see who or what was inside, and sheer gratitude that he was getting the chance to leave the house, even if it was just a temporary reprieve.
Mrs. Ryan was keeping Jared overnight because it was young Patrick Ryan's 5th birthday and he wanted a sleepover to seal the deal. Even though Jared and Patrick weren't the best of friends and never would be, no matter how close to each other they lived, he figured that Mrs. Ryan felt bad leaving Jared out of the mix. All of the other boys were probably going to end up running and screaming out in the yard at some point and Jared was bound to find out, and Mrs. Ryan always had a soft spot for his younger brother.
He, on the other hand, didn't get an invite-he was too old. Maybe Mrs. Ryan didn't think he needed the time away from home as much.
Instead, he got to sit on the couch in the living room all by himself, waiting for his dad to get back from the barbershop, turning the TV on almost as loud as it would go to one of the few nighttime shows he was allowed to watch that didn't involve some type of ball getting thrown around. He kept ratcheting the volume up higher and higher, hoping to drown out the forbidding silence that had snuck in the minute the sun started going down, until he finally heard his dad's keys jangling in the front door. The sound went back down fast.
Who could have guessed that his home would end up turning into such a threatening place, with mysterious noises and darting shadows taunting him whenever he was alone, when it had been a safe haven of sorts before?
Not perfect, never that, but even with all the craziness that sometimes went on in their household, his mom had somehow managed to make him feel like she would always be standing between him and whatever bad stuff was out there in the world, and sometimes way closer than that, too.
But that part of his life is over and done with.
Their family now consists of a man overburdened by guilt and grief and demons from an irrelevant war that no one wants to talk about-a man who works late, because that's when all the working folk want to get their hair cut and he needs the money and maybe he doesn't want to go home either-and two young boys who are learning way too fast how to fend for themselves.
The Four Aces-got it.
So he says he'll do it, swears he won't screw it up, and maybe that'll make his dad happy and the rest of the night will go okay between just the two of them.