Copyright © 2012 JL Merrow
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Tuna fish is not my favourite thing to smell first thing in the morning. I’m strictly a coffee-and-that’s-it-till-eleven sort of guy. I forked the can into a breakfast bowl while trying not to breathe. Perhaps worried by my show of aversion, Wolverine sniffed at it suspiciously before graciously deigning to eat. Relieved, I switched on the kettle.
Then I groaned, remembering the coffee situation. Was it possible to die from caffeine withdrawal? Why the hell hadn’t I driven around last night until I’d found a twenty-four hour Tesco? My preference for sleep seemed utterly absurd in the cold light of morning. In the end, I made myself a cup of organic decaf with three heaped teaspoons, hoping against hope the hippy manufacturer had been too laid-back to bother getting all of the precious pick-me-up out of the stuff.
Eight thirty a.m., I was standing in my boxer briefs in front of Jay’s wardrobe with a grumbling case of indigestion brought on by too-strong coffee, wondering what the bloody hell to wear. Obviously I’d brought clothes with me. It was just…none of them remotely resembled anything Jay owned, or seemed in any way suitable for my new career. I’d brought a suit, because—actually, why the hell had I brought a suit? I couldn’t see that going down too well in a bike shop. I’d packed some other stuff too, chinos and casual shirts—but none of that seemed right, either.
I could have borrowed something of Jay’s, I guess, but I’d have looked ridiculous—the jeans were all too short, and everything would be too baggy around the middle. Not that Jay’s fat, by any means, just solid and muscular in a way I could only dream of. Growing up (and up, and up) I’d heard all the beanpole jokes I could handle.
I could hear Jay’s voice in my head, last time he’d come to visit me and Kate, asking incredulously, “Don’t you even own a pair of jeans?” and I had to concede, maybe he’d had a point. In the end, I selected an old-ish pair of chinos and my least favourite Ben Sherman shirt.
And made another shopping list.
I got to Knight Rides—that’s the name of Jay’s bike shop—by nine fifteen, feeling like I’d already been up for half a day. Jay had told me opening time was nine thirty, but I didn’t want to be still pratting around trying to work out how to plug in the cash register when the first customers arrived. Turned out I’d been a little optimistic about how keen Jay’s customer base was. By the time Matt fell in the door ten minutes late, I’d been sitting behind the counter twiddling my thumbs for the best part of half an hour.
Consequently, when after his dramatic entrance he just disappeared into the back room, I felt cheated. Several people looked in the door or even stuck their heads into the shop before catching sight of me and doing an abrupt about-turn. Why? Did I look that off-putting? Or were they just thrown by not seeing Jay?
I wandered disconsolately around the shop, straightening all the handlebars of the row of a dozen or so bikes Jay had on display and whistling at the price tags. I rearranged the hanging bicycle locks in order of size, then colour-coded the helmets. When Jay got out of hospital, he’d probably kill me for messing up his displays. I checked my email to see if the recruitment agency I’d signed up with had got in touch. No luck there, but there was a tweet from Kate saying she’d be round for the rest of her stuff tomorrow.
I supposed I should be grateful she hadn’t broken up with me on Twitter. How would that have gone? @WhatK8did => @MagicBeanCounter: Am leaving you for @AlextheGr8. Sorry. #ItsNotYouItsMe. Looking at it that way, perhaps it was inevitable they’d ended up together. After all, they both had an “8” in their names.
I was a bit reluctant to leave the till unmanned, but, reasoning that we did, after all, have a door with a bell on it, I eventually meandered out to the back room. Matt’s hands were already black with oil practically to the elbow. He grinned up at me from derailleur level. “How’s it going? You find everything all right?”
My instinctive reaction would have been to smile back, but it was tempered by a couple of circumstances. For one thing, I hadn’t been aware there was anything I was supposed to be looking for and was racking my brains guiltily for any essential duties I might have neglected. For another, I was shocked anew at the way the black eye distorted his boyish, friendly features. “It’s a bit slow out there, actually,” I said, trying not to stare.
“Yeah,” Matt said, his voice muffled as he solved my problem by bending low over the gears he was, presumably, fixing. I was worried his shaggy brown curls would get irredeemably entangled in the chain. “There’s never much doing on a Wednesday. Everyone forgets we’re open at all, what with the half-day closing.”
“We have half-day closing?” I asked stupidly.
Matt looked up, a smudge of grease on his freckled nose. I fought the urge to wipe it off for him, because blokes don’t do that for each other. “Yeah, didn’t Jay say? We close at one on a Wednesday. I’m surprised he didn’t tell you not to bother coming in until tomorrow.”
I wasn’t. Bloody Jay.
“Oh, well,” Matt carried on, “maybe he wanted to start you off gently?”
“What, Jay?” I raised my eyes briefly heavenward. Thinking about my past with Jay often prompted a heartfelt prayer for strength. “Like he did when he thought I should learn how to swim and shoved me off the end of Bournemouth pier?”
Matt laughed. “Did it work?”
“No.” I grimaced at the memory. “Luckily there were some anglers there, and one of them jumped in to save me. I was only five.”
“Bet Jay got into trouble with your mum, then.”
I cast my mind back and hit a blank, apart from a vague memory of Mum telling me I shouldn’t have been pestering my brother, anyway. “Doubt it. But the angler gave me a dead crab to take home.” I brightened. “Mum must have been horrified, but she just had to smile and say thanks, seeing as he’d just saved my life. And Jay was really jealous.” I’d kept the crab in my bedroom for a couple of weeks, until it mysteriously disappeared—by which time the smell had been so rank even I didn’t miss it.
Matt sighed. “Must be great, having a brother. Apart from, you know, him trying to kill you and all.”
“Er, yes. I think.” My turn to sigh. “I suppose I’d better go back and make the place look open.” I took a step back toward the door. Matt nodded and bent low over the bike once more, his baggy jeans slipping halfway down his arse to reveal stripey underwear that reminded me of one of the throws in Jay’s living room.
I caught myself staring, and shook my head. What the hell was I thinking of? Time to get back to work.