Heading up the stairs to Martha and Jodi’s place, Keith made Craig carry the booze. There was a lot of it. Craig tucked his hands into the cardboard handles of the beer case, tipping it toward him so the bottles of whiskey on top didn’t roll off and shatter on the steps. By the time he reached the apartment, he was gritting his teeth. He set the booze on the kitchen table and surveyed their companions. Martha and Jodi were both about twenty-one. Jodi waited tables at Denny’s, Keith had said, but that was all he knew about her. Keith had met them when they were in the audience at a show for his local metal band, Wasted Youth, when it promoted its EP, Rock Hard ‘90. Keith wanted to bang Martha. He’d only invited Craig so the group would have an even number.
Martha and Jodi teased and frizzed their blonde hair into puffy halos. Most of the girls Keith knew did that. They wore tight jeans and listened to Poison and Def Leppard. They wore jackets with leather tassels and stayed faithful to the fashions of the glam metal era. Keith also wore his hair long and his jeans tight, his sleeves cut off to show his new rose tattoo. He was like the Ken to their Barbies.
Their apartment was tiny, its wallpaper peeling and the linoleum of the kitchen floor stained an eggshell colour. Jodi spun around from her spot at the fridge.
“This is your brother, Keith? He’s cute.”
“So cute,” Martha agreed, walking over and brushing Craig’s hair out of his eyes. “Look at the blue eyes on him. And those eyelashes. Almost like a girl.”
Keith chuckled from behind her and Craig shot him a flat glance as he gave him the finger. “Yeah, that’s Craig,” Keith said.
“How old are you?” Martha asked, touching Craig’s arm.
“Fifteen. How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” Martha said. “Jodi’s twenty. You should never ask a woman her age, but we’ll let you off this time.”
Jodi nodded at the beer. “You want that in the fridge?”
Craig shoved the case across the table at Jodi and followed Martha and Keith into the living room. A sunken couch sat along the wall and a mismatched chair sat near the window. Cinderella’s “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)” played on the stereo.
“I love this song,” Martha sighed, sinking into the couch.
Leave it to a girl to like the ballads, Craig thought. “My favourite is the first track on the album,” he said. “They’re no Metallica though.”
“Metallica.” Martha made a disgusted grunt. “I hate Metallica. The guy sounds like he’s constipated.”
Craig sat cross-legged on the rug, looking across the coffee table at Keith and Martha on the couch. With that placement alone, he knew they’d have sex by the end of the night. Craig knew he looked fifteen – his eyelashes were long, his grin boyish – but he could read dynamics between people. “Who else is coming by?” he asked.
“Just a few friends,” Martha said. “Three or four more people.”
Jodi appeared from the side and set a whiskey and Coke in front of Craig, the ice cubes clinking in the glass. “Your brother says you like these,” she said as she sat on the floor next to him.
Craig cleared his throat and looked at the glass. “Thanks.” Already, the ice cubes were melting in the heat of the booze. The drink smelled potent and sharp, and when he took a sip, it bit back.
He must have flinched because Keith laughed. “Craig can’t handle his booze.”
Craig bristled. “I can so, asshole.”
“Do you shave yet?” Jodi asked, brushing his face with the backs of her fingers. “You look so young.”
“Yes, I fucking shave,” he said, and everyone in the room laughed.
“He’s a virgin though,” Keith said, and Craig felt his cheeks flush under the weight of high-pitched female laughter.
“That’s so cute,” Martha said.
Craig kept his head down and took another long drink. He felt the burn of three pairs of eyes on him. “I keep telling him to get laid, but he won’t do it,” Keith said.
Craig glanced up at him. That was a lie. Craig had dated a couple of girls – one when he was thirteen that lasted half of the school year, and one earlier this year who’d made out with him while her parents were away – but none of them had made it to sex. Keith liked to switch the narrative in these situations though. It tested better with the audience.
“Yeah, Keith got laid when he was a fetus,” Craig said.
Keith put a cigarette in his mouth. “Not a fetus. Thirteen. Tammy Maynard while her dad watched a Bills game in the next room. He was so drunk, he would have kicked the shit out of me on the spot.” He lit his smoke and dropped the lighter on the coffee table. “Craig’s an egg head anyway. We always tease him about it. He’s going to become a lawyer or a high school principal or some other asshole. What was your average last semester? Like 98 percent?”
“Shut up,” Craig said, grabbing Keith’s lighter and pulling out a cigarette of his own. “And it was 91.”
“I admire that,” Martha said. “My teachers in high schools were idiots. They never taught me anything I needed to know. I remember sitting in English literature and thinking ‘when the fuck am I going to need this?’ You know?” She drew out the “fuck” so the vowel extended, and her eyes fixed on Craig’s.
“You know?” she repeated, as if she wanted him to agree. “You don’t use it, you know?”
“Yeah.” Craig’s eyes drifted down Jodi’s back, where her spine formed a ridge under her shirt and her low belt line exposed a little circular tattoo there. A yin and a yang. “Nice tattoo.”
Jodi glanced over her shoulder and touched the small of her back. “Thanks. Do you have any?”
“I have to wait one more year. The age limit’s 16.” Craig picked up his glass, eyed the level of liquid and downed it, making a warm pool in his stomach. “I’m gonna get another drink.”
He started to climb to his feet but Jodi put her hand on his knee. “I’ll get it,” she said, taking the glass.
“No worries. I’ll get it for you.”
Craig sat back down and tapped his cigarette in the ashtray. Behind him, Tom Keifer of Cinderella sang about going the last mile home. The booze wouldn’t hit him for a couple more drinks, but the smoke was thick and burned his throat. When he exhaled, he added to the light cloud forming in the living room. A book of matches sat on the table in front of him.
“I’m between jobs,” Martha was telling Keith. “I was working in retail. I’m not a retail girl. People being shitty to you. Making minimum wage.”
Craig grabbed the matchbook and opened the flap. Inside was an ad for a career college. Get a diploma in just six weeks.
He closed it and watched Jodi return. Her hips were thick but her stomach was flat, and her full red lips red made Craig think of a porno. “Thank you,” he said when she handed him the drink. His mom called this first sip “sucking the top off it.” She did it every night when she came home tired from her secretary job, putting a cold cloth on her forehead and her stocking feet on the coffee table as she sucked the top off her first of the night. On the stereo, Tom Keifer screeched about how it was a long cold winter. Craig watched Jodi purse her lips and blow a smoke ring.
Two hours later, the remaining sun had died from beyond the living room window and a sheet of starless black had replaced it. Six more people were there now, one of whom was a guy named Reginald with his head shaved into a Mohawk and a live snake around his neck. His pockmarked cheeks caved with every drag from his cigarette.
Craig watched Reginald flick ashes in Keith’s nearly empty beer. Craig reached out and pulled the bottle away. If Keith noticed, he’d fight the guy. That meant Craig would probably have to jump in at some point, and he was too sluggish to fight someone tonight.
He ambled into the kitchen. Jodi and Martha stood at the counter with another friend. “This is Keith’s brother, Craig,” Martha said. “Isn’t he a cutie?”
“Aww, yeah,” said the friend.
Craig reached in the freezer for more ice cubes. He was on his fifth whiskey and soda, the chatter and the music humming in his head. He squinted at a misspelled note someone had pinned to the fridge with a Denny’s magnet.
“Need to get groceries,” it read in a swirly feminine font. “Let me know when your back. M.”
“Do you have a girlfriend, Craig?” the friend asked.
Craig sauntered two steps before leaning heavily on the counter, glancing sideways at them.
“Does your brother?” Martha added, and the girls laughed in unison.
In truth, Keith had many girlfriends. One was four months pregnant. But Craig smiled and forced a shrug.
Reginald appeared in the kitchen, sleeveless shirt showing a large tattoo on his arm of the devil giving the finger. Its script contained another misspelling: "Deth before dishonor."
Keith appeared around the corner behind him. “We need more Coke. Who can drive my car?”
Jodi stepped forward. “I can drive. I’m not drunk yet.”
Keith shoved Craig. “Take my brother. He can help.”
Craig opened his mouth to ask why he needed to help carry a single bottle of Coke, but Jodi grabbed his shirt to pull him toward the door. “Let’s go. It’ll be fun.”
Craig stood in place, tilting his head back and downing more than half a glass of whiskey and soda. He set the glass down hard and Martha applauded. “The kid can drink.”
“You’re fucking right, the kid can drink.” Craig grabbed his denim jacket and followed Jodi out the door and down the metallic-sounding steps to the ground floor.
Keith’s car was a Lincoln so old that it had an eight-track player. The front seat went all the way across, unbroken from door to door like a bench. Jodi hauled the door shut behind her and looked at the dashboard. “How old is this car?”
“1977?” Craig guessed.
She turned the key in the ignition and the dashboard lit up, the speedometer a looming red, the clock white with an analog face. He watched behind them as Jodi pulled out. Craig had seen her drink at least three beers, but he didn’t mention it.
“Where are we going?”
“Let’s just drive around for a while,” Jodi said. “You wanna?”
Craig sat back in the seat, yanking the seatbelt around him and fastening it at the clasp. Before their father went to prison, this had been his car. Craig remembered riding in the roomy back seat with his brothers, kicking the back of the seat and staining it with the dirt on the toe of his sneaker, listening to his father curse. He remembered the thick stench of booze that drifted to the back seat, and the cigarette smoke that permeated the torn upholstery.
Jodi drove out of the downtown toward Robert Moses Parkway, which stretched along the Niagara River. Craig slumped and crossed one leg over the other so his ankle rested on the opposite knee. Leaning his head on the seat, he watched traffic lights blur past.
Jodi rested her hand on his leg. “Are you drunk?”
“I’m about halfway to hammered.” He looked over and saw the blue glow of the streetlights on her features. Her lips were naturally pursed. Her nose was pointed and pert. Her breasts made a smooth pair of curves under her shirt, and he slid into an upright position. “You?”
“Not really.” She drove until she reached the mouth of a turn off, a spot where a dirt path headed riverside. Silhouettes of abandoned factories dotted the stretch. Across the river, he saw the Vegas-style neon lights of the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
He didn’t have to ask why they stopped. The car went dark when Jodi killed the engine, and he expected it when she turned in the seat and fixed him with a look. Without asking, he shifted closer. He wasn’t sure if she kissed him or vice versa, just that he tasted waxy lip gloss and beer.
Craig wondered how this had happened. Had they drawn straws? Had Keith put her up to it? Somehow he doubted it, but there was a sense of duty to this nonetheless, a methodology in the perfunctory way she pushed her tongue in his mouth. Their group included Craig now, and everyone in the group got laid. It was someone’s duty to initiate him.
Without a word, Jodi high jumped over the long back of the seat and landed. When her head popped up, it formed a dark bump against the back window. “Come on.”
Craig looked back at the keys dangling in the ignition. He looked out at the winking lights casting patterns on the river. This was his moment – the moment assigned to him by older social peers – and he clumsily scaled the seat like a fence.
He tasted lip gloss and beer again. He heard soft breathing and an occasional high-pitched vocalization, like a period at the end of a sentence. He felt curves and soft skin, and the thick scrape of blue jeans, before she pushed his head down as if she was dunking him underwater. Then her stage whisper was the only sound as she issued directives for the next tense, breathless half hour. ** Craig followed Jodi up the steps holding a bottle of Coke against his hip. The grinding music was audible halfway up, and a wall of cigarette smoke greeted them inside. He felt looser somehow, his limbs more languid with each step as he watched her body's natural sway.
Keith stood against the counter belly-to-belly with Martha, his hands lazily clasped over her tailbone as they kissed. Craig made it all the way to the fridge before Keith spotted him and leaned over to punch him in the arm. “Hey.”
Martha rested her head against Keith’s chest. “Did you have fun?”
“A lot of fun?”
“Yeah.” Craig set the bottle inside and grabbed a beer before he shut the fridge, looking at the note as he took inventory. Someone had touched him. He’d touched that person back. He’d been inside of her - infiltrated someone at long, glorious last - yet it seemed matter-of-fact now, like a finished track meet.
“Yeah," he repeated. "We had a whole lot of fun.”
He unscrewed the beer cap and headed into the living room where Reginald held court on the sofa.
Craig sat next to him, setting his beer on the table and pulling out a cigarette. Jodi crossed the room and sat on the other side of Reginald, slipping easily into the man’s waiting arm.
Craig watched the snake’s head curl, its long, lithe body twitch to the side as its tongue flickered.
“I was talking about my DUI,” Reginald said, “and that bullshit lawyer who couldn’t get me off. Lawyers don’t care if you get off. They just want your money. Just like everyone who wears a fucking suit.”
Craig took a long drag of his cigarette and looked around the room. A water stain wound its way across the ceiling and pooled around the old chandelier. He would never live here, he realized. He would never spend more than a year working at Denny’s.
He reached for his bottle and saw Reginald flick his ash in it, bits of dusty gray coating the surface of the liquid inside. Anger flickered in him as he reached over and grabbed it, standing and heading back to the kitchen.
Keith was still kissing Martha against the counter as Craig reached the fridge and paused to look at the note. He grabbed a pen off the table and speared the little square, drawing an apostrophe straight and hard like an arrow and an E twice the size of the R before it.
“You’re with an apostrophe,” he said. “That’s what you learn in fucking English class.”
He dropped the pen on the table and opened the refrigerator door, at first going for a beer and spotting a chilled bottle of whiskey instead. He grabbed it for himself and stepped back to the middle of the kitchen. Standing in the middle of the slurring crowd, feet planted firmly, posture unwavering, he stared at the modified version of the note and caught with certainty a glimpse of his future power.
About the Author: Samantha Craggs is a writer, editor and journalist living in southern Ontario, Canada. She likes live music, shooting pool and road trips. She tweets at @samcraggs.
Story Song: "Master of Puppets" by Metallica