Friday, December 28th

It's been a week. Christmas came and went. It was a family day that isn't important to anyone else. Now it's Friday the 28th, right in the meat of vacation. God it feels good, a whole week without getting up early and dreading going to bed early. Hardly working. New toys to tinker with. Football. Basketball. Hockey. All the good stuff.

The other Sinnotts are here, their flight came in yesterday, and they're staying until the morning of the 31st. As usual, I'm trying my best to impress J.R. with my knowledge of the world and appear the know-it-all of everything in town and how it works.

We're wandering downtown on a cold but clear day, just me and J.R. walking home after we all met for lunch at the lodge. I've got my school camera out with me, hoping that I can impress him with my ability to use something that takes more than a flip and the push of a touchscreen button; like I'm from an entirely different generation.

I line up a shot of a fierce eagle perched on a parking lot fence. Focus…focus…where's the focus? Is it in focus? I can't really tell. I hope so.

A truck roars by on the street behind us. "Peace, motherfucker!" someone in it screams at me, and I try not to flinch and give them a victory.

"Hey, joke's on you, it's not a video," I mumble, mostly to myself.

"Did people do that to you in school?" J.R. asks.

I raise an eyebrow. "Drive trucks through it?"

"No, do that thing where they yell in your face when they walk by. Older kids."

"Uh, they still do that to me. All the time."

"Why do they do that?"

"Because people are…assholes sometimes." We're at an intersection, and I don't have a real route for us to get home. Could go anywhere. "You want to see where I work? Ever been?"

We walk two blocks through a creepily empty district that's mobbed by people and bikes and busses in the busy season. We're in the dead of winter. No cruises, snowbirds are in Arizona or Hawaii or wherever, and everyone else is inside behind shades, squinting at the sun that dared to come out.

Out to the waterfront, boardwalk underneath us. Loud footsteps when there's quiet everywhere else. Voices stand out. "Do you like working?" J.R. asks me.

"Sometimes. I wish I didn't have to but it's nice to make money, you know? It's all your own."

"How do you do work and school at the same time?"

"It's tough to-"

"When do you get to like, play and do your homework."

I shrug. "You just don't sleep as much, it makes the day longer. And I can do homework at my job, nothing happens now." I give him a nudge on the shoulder. "You're lucky you don't have to get up early, get ready for that."

I can't tell if he was listening. "I'm not allowed to stay up to midnight."

"It's not that exciting."

He looks up at me. "Do you go get drunk?"

"What?" I blurt out, caught off-guard. "Do I- no, no, I mean, not everybody does that, I don't really like drinking that much."

"But you do sometimes?" he asks in a strange, drawn-out tone.

I wince. "So you're gonna be a cop too, huh? Like your dad?"

His voice goes back to normal and adds a squeak. "I don't know, I don't have to decide yet! But you're not, right?"

"Nah."

"How come?"

Here's the thing…I know why. I have a reason. But I don't want him to know. "I'm kinda afraid of guns," I fib. "Hey, here we are-" I start to say as we reach the Salmon King, and leave my mouth hanging open.

It's closed.

I mean, not closed, closed for good, I hope, just dark inside with all signs flipped from Open. I peer through the glass to see if anything looks wrong. Tables and chairs are still there, everything looks normal. "Huh." We don't ever randomly close on Friday afternoons. Strange.

"They closed?"

"I guess so, but that's not right, something's up. Let's go."

First stop: Up around the corner at Great Northern.

"Hey Becky," I say, after spotting her restocking a high shelf behind the counter. "Do you know if my store went out of business?"

She glances down. "Are you looking up my shorts?"

"No!"

"I'm kidding," she chuckles. "No, I didn't hear anything – hey, you're taking pictures?"

She's spotted my camera. "Yeah I guess. Just took it out with me and my cousin, nothin fancy."

"Oh!"

"Thanks, yeah, I didn't know if word got around or whatever, I'll go ask my bosses."

"Wait!" she shouts out from atop the ladder, almost losing her balance. "Are…you going to the games tonight?"

"What, basketball tonight? Uh," I look over at J.R., "wanna go see the high school game?"

"Yeah, I want to see the gym!"

"Guess we're going, then."

"Great! Oh, and the girls' starts at six, it's before the boys!"

I nod and corral J.R. back towards the doors. "Nice," I hiss in his ear, "you just got us roped into seeing the girls."

We're clear through the doors, back out onto the sidewalk. "Is that a bad thing?"

"Girls basketball sucks."

"Why?"

"It just does, it's boring and clunky and they only score like, twenty points."

"Is she a player?"

"Who, Becky? Yeah."

"She likes you," he grins.

"Huh?"

"I can tell."

I brush J.R. off and set our path for Murph's, a place I've only actually been to once before. He lives in the downtown core, but up the hill a few streets, where chunky office buildings give way to tall, narrow houses and tacky apartment complexes, and the streets begin to give way to staircases. There's a couple of street signs that literally point you up a staircase.

"Are we in someone's yard?" J.R. worries as I lead him up an ascending boardwalk cutting between houses on the hill.

"Nah, this is a road."

"This isn't a road!"

"Don't worry about it. It's got a sign and everything. Murph lives right up there." I point to the top.

The staircase empties out up into an intersection, and we follow the new street up to his duplex.

Honest to god, his house…it looks like you're entering into a dungeon, or troll hole. His apartment is the bottom floor of a little house that may or may not be leaning over. It's on a hill, but something doesn't seem level. I duck my head and walk down a few steps from the sidewalk to the front door; the basement level of the house is squeezed into the ground and doesn't match up with the top floor, like this was some old spring house or mining site that they decided to build a house on top of.

"It's not as scary inside," I assure J.R., and ring the taped-on doorbell.

"Come in!" Murph yells from somewhere beyond.

I force the somewhat jammed door open and poke my head inside. "Hey Murph? It's Kurt." I can't see much. It's dark, but there's a light on in the kitchen at the end of the hall.

"Hey, Kurt! Come on back!"

"Uh, what's going on with the store?"

"What?" he yells.

I glance back at J.R.. I told him it wasn't scary, but it still might not be a place that a kid his age needs to go. God knows what's going on back there. "Stay behind me," I whisper to him, and we walk inside, finding ourselves in a low room, their de-facto mud room.

"Murph?" I call out. "What's going on?"

He leans back in a chair to stick his head out into the hall. "What's up?"

"Sup?"

"We're…playing Yahtzee and watching Pokemon," he stammers.

"What are you really doing?" We keep walking forward, slowly.

Murph cracks a smile and shrugs his shoulders. "We're playing Yahtzee and watching Pokemon."

We enter the dim, grungy kitchen. Murph, a guy I don't know, and Jeremy the Grizzly Bear are sitting around a card table with a game of Yahtzee spread out and a cartoon on pause. "Oh."

"What, you thought we were shooting up or something?"

"You're a weird dude Murph."

"Who's that?"

"I'm his cousin," J.R. speaks up.

"Alright, cool. What'd you say, something store? Hey, you want some mac and cheese? We got a pot going over there."

"Uh…okay. Did you know the store's closed?"

He cocks his head at me, then turns back to the game. "What, the Salmon King? Yeah, Boss closed it up until the weekend, said no one was coming."

"Oh, good."

Murph waves us over. "Come on man, sit down, we're just getting started."

"Oh, nah uh, our parents are prob'ly waiting for us and all, just trying to figure out ah, the work…thing."

Murph spins back around to J.R.. "Hey? Can I tell you something about your cousin Kurt? He's scared of bears. He cried like a little girl when we had one come in."

"Oh my god, enough about the friggin bear already-"

"Wait, you're Murph?" J.R. asks innocently. "You're the guy my Uncle said peed his pants that day.

Nameless bro, Jeremy, and I all burst out laughing as Murph turns red in the face.

"I knew it!" Jeremy shouts, standing up and pointing at Murph. "I knew it! I knew it!"

"Busted," Nameless says.

"Aw, get outta here Curtsy, no one asked you to come," Murph snarls, mostly kidding.

"Curtsy?" I repeat on loud. "We don't need your fancy dice games, we're outta here, come on J.R.!"

Back out in the street, I'm not sure he understood. "Is he mad at us?"

"No, he's just playing around, he's a good guy."

"But he lives there?"

"Yeah, that's…that's what happens when you move up here without a plan. Hell…heck that's probably gonna be me this time next year."

I crop Murph and his friends out of the dungeon and insert myself, in an image in my head.

Oh, crap. I can't live like that, not there. Did I really have the notion of striking it out alone with Murph? I'd be screwed.