Bill snorted, hand in the popcorn, eyes glazing over as he was forced to sit through his stepsister’s favorite t.v. program.
It was a Saturday night, 1990-something. Two Eye, Alabama. Two Eye was a tiny community, not even big enough to qualify as a one horse town. No, it was a run down trailer park next to a church against a cow pasture backdrop. It was a thirty minute school bus ride to Greenwood, not that Bill counted them [he did].
“Now our next guest is….” Shayna sat up, leaning closer to the RCA.
Bill glanced at his watch. Forty five more minutes until SNL. Until then he had to put up with In Living Color. Which could be funny, though tonight he felt they were floundering a bit.
Keys jingled in the lock and the front door swung open and his stepfather Ray lumbered in, his police uniform still freshly pressed. He was a giant of a man, though Bill though of him as big black Teddy Bear. But he could turn into a grizzly if need be.
“Hey Daddy!” Shayna said.
Ray stepped towards her and Shayna got up for a hug. “Leelee’s got some fried chicken in the fridge.”
Bill watched in silence. He felt awkward witnessing the dad-daughter moment. As if Ray read his thoughts, he glanced over and nodded at Bill.
“Did she make any of those baked beans?” He rubbed his massive paws together.
Bill nodded. “Yeah. Tater salad too.”
“Mmmm.” Ray closed his eyes as if he were thanking God, then hurried into the kitchen.
His mother padded out in her long thrift store nightie. “Hey baby.”
“Darlin’.” Ray called from inside the fridge. A minute later he emerged with a paper plate that was five seconds from buckling under the weight.
“You gonna eat it all?” She teased, wrapping her pale arms around him.
Bill marveled at the contrast of their skin color, though his big brother would probably sneer. Shayna glanced at him and he shrugged.
“Ew.” she said. “Old people.”
Bill laughed and gave her his popcorn. “I’ll be back at midnight. Got some homework.”
“Nerd.” She stuck her tongue out at him.
He got up and stuck his ass out, letting a fart loose.
“EWWW! You nasty!”
Ray looked up, fighting back a smile. He remembered being a young man.
“It was the beans! I swear!” Bill threw his hands up.
“It smells like somethin crawled up there and died!” Shayna said, coughing.
“Good god boy, you been eatin cabbage?” Ray said.
Bill winked and walked into his room, sat down to read his National Geographic. Maybe ten minutes had passed before he heard a soft knock at the window. He peered out through the dusty glass to see Ruth staring back at him on her tippy toes. He came to the window and opened it. She grinned and he helped her climb up and over.
As he closed the window he felt her tan freckled arms wrap around him. She buried her face into his back and sighed.
Bill calmly stood there, rubbing his hands over her forearms, his touch bordering on tender until she pulled back. He waited. Maybe she’d talk tonight.
He led her to his bed, ignoring her tear streaked face and went to close the door, then decided he didn’t want to face the wrath of Ray, his mother or Ruth’s parents. Particularly not her father. Not again anyway.
So he sat next to her and she began to talk about her new job. It was like old times again plus the giant purple elephant in the room. He would fiddle with his hands to keep from touching her and she would hide her pain through laughter. Bill felt anger rise within him. At her. At himself. At whatever was coming between them. At whatever reason she had for climbing into his room in the middle of the night. It was becoming more frequent and she seemed on the verge of breakdown every time.
But she wouldn’t cry. Not in front of him. He knew she’d been crying and he fought the urge to hold her. Fought the urge to sob himself. All he really wanted was her to be happy again. He hadn’t seen her really smile in months. Bill wanted to talk to Leelee and Ray but wasn’t sure if he wanted their lecture on the birds and bees.
She was asleep again. Bill dimmed the light and set his wrist watch, though she always snuck out sometime during the night. He was determined to catch her before she left. He was determined to catch her if she fell too.
But Ruth didn’t want to be caught. And when he woke shortly before 2:45 a.m., she was gone again. The scent of her Dollar Store perfume lingered on his pillow as Bill climbed back into bed.