By Mersera Alvaro
"Aiden would leave me with the bags," Kenny groused, shuffling his way up the steep staircase to the third floor of the apartment building with plastic, Winn-Dixie grocery bags hanging like dead weights from either hand, "That--"
"—Scholar? Genius? I'll have to take your word for it," Aiden unlocked the front door with the key, about ten yards ahead of his companion, who pulled his lips to the side of his face in disgust and screwed up his energy for the last flight.
"You could lend a hand, you know."
"Yeah. I know. Brilliant hearing, remember?"
"Sure," Kenny said, "Brilliant hearing, brilliant mind, brilliant pain in the—"
"—Pocketbook," Jenna suggested, stepping lightly up from behind with her considerably smaller load, "I don't really think we needed all of this to last you another month, Aiden." The two of them entered the apartment, leaving the door to swing open for Kenny's eventual, if not tedious, arrival.
"Of course we needed it!" Aiden exclaimed, blue eyes wide with disbelief, "These are necessities!" He flicked on the fluorescent lights without looking, grabbing his beanie from the top and scrunching it off of his head, dark hair standing on end with static electricity. He patted it down.
"You bought a hummingbird feeder," Jenna said, kicking her Rainbows off in the general direction of the couch, one flipping twice before landing neatly on the top of the TV set, "in the middle of January."
"Hey," he said, taking a bag from her right hand and tapping her nose with one, thin finger, "You'd be surprised what types of birds we get around here."
"Most of them are old," Kenny gasped, stumbling through the entrance. He hopped on one foot and negotiated with the front door until it clicked shut, then took a step, having not noticed until that moment that the end of his frayed scarf had caught in the frame, "Aww, shoot. Jenna? Hey, Aiden? Either one of you going to help me out?"
Jenna rolled her eyes with a smile indenting her cheeks, pulling away from her brother to march back to the front hall, "Just can't get through the day without some sort of mishap, can you?"
"It's a gift," he said, balancing his bags while she wrenched the heavy door back open, reclaimed his scarf, and shut it again.
"Well, send it back!" Aiden called from the other room.
"Hey, no one asked you!" Kenny yelled back, directly in Jenna's ear when she tried to bend down to relieve him of some of his groceries, "Sorry, Jen."
"No problem; Want some help?"
"Please and thank you."
He gave her the lighter handful, then rearranged the ones left over so that they were equally separated again, "Better, thanks."
They walked in companionable silence into the small kitchen directly open with the living room and dining area, separated only by a high ledge that could serve as an eating counter, with the sink resting just below it on the kitchen side. It made for easy plate washing, so that they only had to reach forward and drop their dishes in the sink once finished, and get them later in the day, after classes were over.
To Jenna's distaste, however, it did nothing to ease the smell.
"I'm opening a window in here," she announced, hands planted momentarily on her hips as she whiffed at the air, "It still smells like yesterday's ramen. This is disgusting," she continued, eyeing the mound of crumb-encrusted, chocolate syrup smeared, murky water-filled basin that should have been a stainless-steel sink, "How do you two live like this?"
It was an old routine that the three went through every time Aiden's little sister came over for dinner; Jenna would complain about how the boys didn't take care of their home, and the boys would be wordlessly thankful for the motherly memento. Kenny did not disappoint tradition.
"Well," the sophomore explained, head in a cupboard as he stuffed cake mixes and a super-sized bag of ramen packets in the farthest corner, "Aiden actually lives for this kind of life. I just put up with it 'til Christmas break."
Aiden paid the rent.
"Ugh," Jenna stepped to the small window between the pantry and the fridge, unlocking the top and bracing herself against the ledge, heaving the window open a good two feet. A blast of cold, but pure, wind exploded into the room, stirring up cookie crumbs on the floor and throwing paperwork on the kitchen table all over the living room.
"Oh, great!" Kenny ran into the living room, swooping down to hastily scoop up the papers and snatching the odd receipt out of the air, "Jenna! Close the window! It's making a mess in here!"
"It was already a mess," Jenna retorted, but dragged the sticking window back down. The salty, pungent smell of ramen returned within seconds, and her eyes watered when it kicked at her nose.
"Did you guys get everything put—Hey. What happened in here? Someone open a window?" Jenna's brother entered the scene from his room, reading glasses back on and a black hoodie pulled over his polo.
"Brilliant deduction, Captain," Kenny said from the floor of the living room, still piecing out the different essays and assignments, "Any other tokens of wisdom you care to throw at us?"
"Don't mind him, he's just worn out from Roster's last class," Aiden assured his sister, who had seemed caught-off guard by the other man's sarcastic tones, "He'll be fine once he gets something to eat."
"Or if you help me out in here," Kenny hinted, waving a handful of white, printer papers and torn-out notebook sheets at his friend.
Aiden wrinkled his nose.
"I didn't make this mess."
"But you made that one," Kenny pointed at the kitchen, "So if you're volunteering to clean it…?"
"I'll help you," Aiden said hastily, walking quickly to crouch next to him, and began picking up items at random, "Where does this—What is this?" he paused over a wrinkled sheet, eyes scanning the first few lines before Kenny, moving faster than either of his friends had ever seen, ripped the paper out of his fingers and stuffed it into the front pocket of his neon-orange Wal-Mart brand jacket.
"Nosy," he said, making as if to turn around after another pile of work.
"What was that?" Jenna asked, lips slowly stretching to their right corner in scheming delight, "A love letter?"
"Personal," Kenny said, "Where'd you put the hummingbird feeder?"
Jenna told him that she had put it in the coat closet, and he left the living room without further comment.
The next time Jenna heard anything about writing from either boy was when she visited them again one week after. She had left her piano rehearsal in a rush to meet up with them in time for lunch, cheeks flushed in the sharp January air, breath smogging up the small space of the tiny, unheated Toyota. Until she rolled down the windows and let the freezing thrill of winter wind to sweep throughout the compartment, she couldn't even see out of the front windshield.
Stomping up the apartment stairs to the third floor, she fumbled with her key copy and shoved the door wide open.
"Guys! Did you guys bother cleaning up the kitchen at all, or are we eating out?" Jenna bounded through the entrance and kicked the door shut with her high heel, peeling off her thick woolen gloves as she went. The apartment looked much like it did one week prior, with pizza boxes and homework paraphernalia decorating the interior. The cheerfully colored hummingbird feeder sat propped up by the back door, like it had been put there so that it wouldn't be forgotten, yet the two occupants couldn't be bothered to pursue setting it up.
A small, crashing sound, like something dense was being dropped on the floor, reported from behind Kenny's door, and she cautiously stepped over a pile of discarded Christmas tree lights, edging her way to the handle.
Just as she was about to move closer, the door jerked back an inch or so on its hinges and her older brother's head poked out, his hair frizzing up again, his eyes shifting.
"Is Aiden here?" he asked, trying to look behind her without retreating from the security of his wooden barrier. Jenna felt her eyebrows float up her forehead.
"Like I would know. What are you doing in his room?"
Aiden's eyes crept to the front door, found it secured, and grinned down at her, opening the door a bit wider and holding out a hand in welcome, "Come check this out. Hurry up," he added, when he saw her hesitation to enter their friend's room without said friend present. Having grown up with Aiden, she knew he could not have asked for permission before barging in.
After all, Aiden paid the rent.
Jenna allowed herself to be bullied into entering the room, but held herself as aloof from the cramped space's belongings as she possibly could. It was a cozy sort of room, with math texts piled up by an old Hewett Packard at the corner desk, whose fourth leg was propped up with a couple of coverless novels to compensate for the inch or so that had been broken off in the move. The bed was, unexpectedly, made, with a harmonica sitting on the pillow. Along the walls, a couple of bookshelves had been wedged determinedly in, swamped with loose papers, thick tomes, books on science, poetry, a couple of faded comics, and one colossal monster as thick across the spine as her hand was long. The gold print across the side read, Funk and Wagnell's Unabridged English Dictionary.
Several more papers littered the brown-carpeted floor, and Aiden sat in their midst.
He patted the ground next to him, "Here, sit down and check these out."
"What are they?" She stiffly lowered herself into a crouch next to him, uncomfortable about sneaking through Kenny's things in his absence.
"These," Aiden said triumphantly, picking up and waving a sheaf of papers like a banner beneath her nose, "are genius. That's what they are."
Jenna looked blankly at him.
"Look," he prodded the first line of what appeared to be a sort of poem, "It's about love. But it's really an innocent take on it. And this-!" he shoveled a few piles around until he excavated a battered, yellowed page, "-This is a really great short story about a kid who's mom goes over seas without him because he missed the boat (it's complicated) and he has to find a way to survive in 1940's Sweden by himself. I loved the twist to the ending…"
When Aiden's light eyes glazed over and locked onto the text, slowly trailing from side to side in hypnotic lines, Jenna kicked his knee with her heel.
"So what's your point? Or are you just being nosy again?"
He scowled, "The point, little sister, is that Kenny's been holding out on us."
Jenna gave him a "go on" motion, circling on hand through the air.
"All right, then. You know that paper I found when you guys messed up the living room last Saturday?"
"It was already-"
"But you remember?"
"Well, yeah. Kenny seemed pretty uptight about it."
"That paper," Aiden said slowly, enjoying drawing out the subject, "was this."
With a flourish of his hand, he pulled a new, white, half-folded piece of computer paper from beneath the bed spread and shoved it into her hands, "Read it and be amazed!"
One look at the first line, and she was amazed; "Written by Kenneth Peterson."
She polished off the first page and immediately flipped the paper over, hungrily looking for a second. Half of a second, maybe. It was disappointingly blank though, and she looked up at her brother, meeting his understanding gaze with alarm.
"That's it?" she demanded, "He just left it like that? Did you find another page?"
"Trust me, I looked," Aiden ran a hand through his hair, platinum strands sticking out like little bits of bleached hay in a messy stack, "I looked everywhere. He never finished it."
"But," Jenna looked sadly at the trailing sentence at the very end of the page, "I really wanted to know what happened."
"And it's only the first page," Aiden grinned, smugly, like he had caused her reaction himself.
"And it's only the first page," Jenna agreed. She had never particularly liked reading, she had several bad teachers to thank for that, and preferred to count figures. The few things she did read were limited to People magazine and the directions on the back of cold medicines. To find herself so easily immersed in a studied story of poverty and class struggles was both strange and exhilarating, "Has Kenny taken classes for this kind of thing before?"
"Accounting," Aiden shook his head, "Guy's a math nut like me."
"But he writes so… I don't know."
"Like he's been writing for a while?"
Aiden only grinned at her and said it was exactly like he'd been writing for a while.
The two had gone their separate ways, with Jenna to go out and buy lunch for the two, and for Aiden to stay behind and clean up the mess he'd made of his classmate's room, before Kenny returned and ate Aiden alive for messing with his stuff. With only five minutes left until Kenny was supposed to come back from an Honor's meeting, Jenna unlocked the front door and walked smack into a raging war zone.
"Just forget about it! I shouldn't have said anything!" Kenny was barking over the counter, tossing his dish into the already stuffed sink. Aiden was at the table on the other side, looking put-out but determined.
"Don't have to get so worked up, man."
"Worked up? You just waltzed into my room and decided to start sniffing around my things? How am I supposed to act, you freaking moron!"
"Um…" Jenna sheepishly backed against the metal door, "I guess Kenny's home?"
"You think?" Aiden muttered, eyeing his friend's brick-red face in wonder and apprehension, "Kenny here is, apparently, an aspiring writer behind the scenes, who is opting for an accounting major instead!"
"I'm not an aspiring anything!" Kenny turned back, dark eyes narrowing, "Why can't a guy have a side hobby?"
"Hey, this is more than a hobby! You could turn this into a career! It's a great idea. Really! All you need is an editor, a publisher, and you're set!" Aiden was obviously growing more and more attached to the idea, the longer he went on. His hands had come up and were doing odd, exaggerated movements in the air while he spoke, "You'll be absolutely famous within a year of your first book! Autographs, fans—someone will probably make a movie out of it eventually. I mean, really. It's really, really great, Kenny! A phenomenon!"
"Man, you read the first, what? Two lines? Come on…" Kenny was looking anywhere but at Jenna, trying to calm himself down without giving his friend too much room to swing around his wild ideas.
"And I want to read more!" Aiden threw his arms wide, welcoming anything Kenny might choose to toss at him, "I'm positively hooked!"
"Stop messing around. It won't go anywhere. Just drop it, will you?" he collected himself and stocked past the siblings to the back door to snatch up the abandoned feeder, allowing the freezing evening zephyrs to storm the apartment once more without bothering to shut it.
Aiden attempted to pin the table piles down before the winds got to them, slamming a heavy Calculus book on top, before following his friend outside. Jenna, not wanting to miss the discussion, grabbed her Rainbow off the TV and its twin from the back couch cushion, hopped around in crumbs that stuck to her feet while she put them on, then ran out after them. By the time she had gotten there, her brother and her friend were already in another heated argument.
"—Easy for you to say!" Kenny snapped, feet planted wide and hands fisted in his pockets, his breath escaping in the porch light like ghosts, "You grew up with money!"
"Money has nothing to do with it!" Aiden said, one hand firmly grasping the railing ledge hanging over a three-story drop, the other pointing at his friend, "I went into this because it's what I like to do! You'll be miserable if you seriously go with your major! Jenna, go back inside," he added, flicking a momentary address to his little sister.
"I'll join in if I want to," she said, crossing her arms, "Kenny's my friend, too."
"Writing won't get me anywhere, Aiden! You think I like living like this? You think I like wearing junk—" he retracted a hand to pull the flimsy fabric of his orange jacket forward in distaste, "—like this? What if I want, I don't know, a car, down the road? Or a house? What if I want to get married at some point? You think some shaky writing spat is going to help me out?"
"Kenny, just take a chance, will you? This isn't the first time you've written something, I can tell. You love writing! Do something with it! Jenna, really, go on back inside. We'll be inside in a moment anyway."
"She can stay out here if she likes," Kenny said.
"I think you should go for it too, Kenny."
"Scratch that last. Go inside like Aiden said."
"Just try to publish some stuff while you're in school, why don't you? I think dad might know some people that can find you an editor."
"Don't you get it, Aiden? I don't want to get a job where I'm always depending on people, or struggling to get by! I want a steady career like everyone else and I want to get there on my own!"
"Kenny, you're not like everyone else," Jenna stressed, trying to be encouraging with a bright smile, "I think you're amazing."
"Go inside, Jenna," the boys chorused, both looking out into the woods behind the apartment building. She huffed and re-crossed her arms, toes curling from the biting cold of the frozen, wooden planks beneath her feet. No one spoke for a long while, their heavy silence making the birds in the woods beyond complex to seem obnoxiously loud.
"Are you going to put up the hummingbird feeder?" she asked finally, when the sun had fully disappeared below the trees.
"I don't know. Maybe not. Not like we need it, anyway," Kenny nudged the package with his toe in thought, and his facial muscles seemed to have relaxed at the change in topic.
"I was just wondering," Jenna said, "Because I thought I saw a humming bird just now."
"What?" Aiden asked, pulling his glasses down his nose to see farther away in the dusk, "Where?"
"Well, there wasn't really one," she edged towards the door, "But wouldn't it be great, to see them from time to time through the back window? I mean, eventually, it would learn that something worthwhile was here for it to take. And each time we fill up the feeder, more could come. And then they'd lay their eggs nearby, so that their babies would come to feed from it. There'd be a lot of them," she opened the door to the apartment, a wave of heat enveloping them all for a moment, before the cold elements washed it away.
"But you'd have to put something out there for them first. Right? Kenny?"
He stared at her for a long moment, "But…the cost..."
"I can help pay for it," Aiden piped up
"Wouldn't it just be great in and of itself, to see that bright, flash of color from the window while you're at the table doing homework? And for a moment, you're happy. That's all it's supposed to be about. That's the beauty of it—that one, gorgeous chance."
"It's not even really my money we'd be spending," Aiden recalled, looking a little bemused at the thought, "It'd be dad's bar tab."
Kenny dropped his head to look at the box, and then looked back up at his friends after a spell. He gave a small, closed-lipped smile.
"I'll think about it. Definitely think about it."