The boy sat there, staring at the white screen that winked smugly at him. Or at least, if laptops could wink, it would have. Might have even given him the bird as well for yelling at it earlier. Either way, the teenager's fingers weren't making magic words on the keyboard, his brain couldn't give anymore, and that screen was still sitting there flickering. Alas, Sal had to submit to the writer's block that had utterly defeated him.
"Sally! Could you get that?" The fifteen-year-old cringed at the sound of his old nickname, even from his own mother. Sal slapped his laptop closed, giving it an extra push as he stood up from his desk to run to the kitchen. As much as he hated being interrupted during one of his projects and talking to people he didn't know, he couldn't help but enjoy the freedom away from his computer for a bit. As he grabbed the phone, he rubbed his stinging eyes a bit, trying to erase the image of white screen from his vision.
"Hello, Tucci residence," he said into the speaker.
"Hey Sal! You think you could help me with something?" Sal couldn't help but smile at the familiar voice.
"Good morning to you too Jo,"
"No really dude, I need your help with something," said the teenaged girl on the phone.
"I'm doing great, thanks. How are you?" Sal's smile grew into a smirk, and he could almost picture his friend rolling her eyes.
"You're such a dork," she said.
"Thanks, You're pretty awesome too."
As Jo continued to tell him about her "crisis", Sal held the phone between his shoulder and neck so that his hands were free enough to pour himself a glass of milk. What a lovely morning it was so far. Nauseated from staring too long at a white screen, Jo complaining sweet melodies into his ear, all with a tall glass of cold milk to start off his morning. Could this day get any better for Salvatore Tucci?
"So if you could help baby-sit this weekend, I'd really appreciate it!" Apparently it could.
"You want me to help you what?" Sal choked on his milk upon hearing Jo's request.
"It'll only be a few hours," Jo clarified, "he's pretty laid back, and doesn't cry a lot." There was a pause. The smile was completely gone from Sal's face, and his expression was contorting into his infamous 'what the hell?' look. Sal wasn't one to get out a lot, much less baby-sit a stranger's child.
Sal was still not saying a single word, and Jo was getting ready to turn up the charm on her persuasion. She took in a deep breath and heaved out, "PLEASE!" She held the whiney, note until Sal gave in.
"Okay, just please don't do that,"
"YAY! So, you'll help me?"
"I'll think about it," Anything to get this crazy girl off the phone.
"Well, can you let me know during first period?"
"Today?" Sal took a sip of his milk while he poured himself a bowl of Grape Nuts. It was a bit of a balancing act Jo would have been proud of, simultaneously holding the phone and getting breakfast.
"Well, she likes to be notified really early. She's kinda anal that way. BUT she's really nice and so is Jeremy," Jo continued on a rant about the toddler and his cute little obsession with cars, and all the cute things he said, his cute "baby snore" among other cute attributes. As much as he wanted to get off the phone now, he couldn't help but be glad that Joseph Shaw was in a cheerful mood today. She seemed rather depressed ever since her grandmother died a few months ago. Not that he blamed her, Jo had told him thousands of times how she was such an inspiration to her in pursuing art and was there for her and her mom after her father past away when she was five. Jo's Granna also was the only woman over 50 who didn't pinch his cheeks telling him how "adorable" the name "Sally" was or ask him, "How do you say this in Italian? Can you say this in Italian please?" What was he, Google Translator? Sally hardly spoke Italian at all except when he went on trips with his Dad.
Jo's Grandmother at least had the decency to call him and his friend by their preferred nicknames, Sal and Jo. Back when he first started public school a year ago, Jo would invite him over whenever her Granna visited. They would go to the garage and Sal would just listen to the two banter as they painted. Sal saw where Jo got her sense of humor from when Granna asked if he would like to pose naked to help them. He refused, and she said, "Oh, it's just art sweetie. No need to be shy. And you don't have to worry bout' me son. I ave' seen nough naked men in my life. Ain't no surprise to me. Jo, on the other hand might look forward to it more than I would." Jo hushed Granna up.
"You can't just say things like tha-..ah who cares I've said worse to him," she forced a giggle, but was almost blushing as much as her blond friend.
"Oh! Does that mean you two are together then?"
"Wha-? Oh no, I already told you I'm in love with a cave troll," There was a pause before Granna exclaimed,
"So you are dating him!"
Jo and Granna had the same laugh, and Sal just rolled his eyes, knowing the two were just joking at his expense. He was used to that by now.
Sal was pretty sure that Granna hoped that her granddaughter and her BFF would become "more than friends" so to speak, but Sal for certain didn't want to get into any mess like that anymore than dating his cousin or sister. He was sure that Joseph would probably laugh at the idea, and she had. "Dude, promise me we won't ever become one of 'those' couples," she told him once.
"Well, what kind of couple would you like to be?" he said back with a wink. She jabbed him in the shoulder harder than normal for that.
Anyway, back in the present, Jo was still ranting Sal's ear off.
"I think you two would really get along," she went on, "You guys have the same personality types. Y'know, you spend most of your life in your houses obsessed about things to excessive extremes,"
"Oh, boy it's like we're twins," Sal got an idea, "Hey, how bout this. I'll ask my mom if it's alright to come and help you out this Saturday-," he paused to let Jo have a happy sigh of relief before he added the dreaded word, "IF,"
"If what?" Sal could almost hear that whine in her voice again.
"If we study today instead of Friday at the library," Sal prepared his ears for the whine.
"WHAT?! But the test isn't til' monday,"
"Well... that means we have three days to study," Jo groaned, and Sal was glad he wasn't the only one who dealt with the procrastination monster.
"Yep! And having to baby-sit would take away one of those days. Therefore, we should start today so that we'll have enough time," The two were silent for a bit until Jo spoke up in defeat.
"Fine. But, can we eat outside again today?" Sal knew the drill of this routine.
"Yeah, are the cheerleaders giving you a hard time again?" he asked.
"No, I'm just afraid that if I'm forced to stay in the room with them for too long, I'd end up punching them all in the face,"
"Well, you seem to be cheerful today," Sal teased.
"I just hate what they did to you last week,"
Sal merely shrugged, though he knew Jo couldn't see him.
"It's not the first time I was asked to join the squad,"
"They made you a custom cheerleading outfit. A dress complete with sequins spelled out in your name," Sal hated to see Jo in such a fowl mood.
"At least they were nice enough to pick out the right size,"
"Stop it," there was a slight giggle, and Sal saw that as an invitation to continue.
"You're right though, the school colors would totally clash with my skin," he said.
"Shut up you dork!" She failed at hiding her laughter.
"Thanks," The two laughed together, and Sally forgot his little balancing act. Next thing he knew, tiny, brown grains were running about the linoleum floor like it was freaking doomsday. A new voice intruded the conversation.
"Salvatore Alan Tucci! What happened?" Sally knew there was nothing that was going to stop the raging tornado from waltzing into the kitchen to inspect the mess. Thank God it was only cereal this time.
"Nothing Mom, I got it," Sal tried to cover the speaker of the phone with his hand, suppressing a cringe at the sound of his mother's yelling. He should have been used to it by now, but given that she was normally a calm woman it was unsettling to hear her mad. He could only hope that Jo couldn't hear that.
He could hear her footsteps booming down the stairs, into the hallway, and barging in to the kitchen. Sally was not going to look up at her. Nope. He was content shoveling up grains of cereal in the scoops of his palms. The phone dangled over the edge of the counter, swinging back and forth on it's twisted cord, Jo's silence on the other line. Her fainted "hellos" appeared occasionally, and the only reason she didn't hang up was because she knew that all she had to do was wait.
Sal could feel his mother's eyes burning laser holes into his back. No matter what he did with this situation, it would be wrong. Scoop the cereal with your hands, wrong. Scoop it with a dust pan, wrong. Sweep it, wrong. Get the vacuum, wrong. It was only when he dared to look at her slippers stained with purple die did he figure out how to make the dictator, neat-freak leave. He looked up at her face, strands of blackish-purple hair sticking out of his mother's towel, which of course was stained with the same color. At first, his face was deadpan, no sign of emotion save for the early morning dreariness of his eyes. He scooped up some of the grape nuts (along with a few pieces of lint and hairs), cupping them in his hands like he just found a fuzzy cute puppy. Then the corner of his mouth twitched into a lopsided smirk, as he put the mess into his bowl, making a big emphasis on delicately sweeping any excess crumbs off his hands. The woman could no longer keep that frown on her face, resorting to leave the room with a sigh, barely hiding a smile that crept at the corner of her mouth.
After his mother left and Sal finished saving the Grape Nut people from the zombie lint, he went back to his conversation. He heard her snickering on the phone.
"What?" he asked.
"Oh nothing, I just like that you always find a way to make someone laugh,"
"How'd you know I was making my mom laugh? You can't see what I'm doing..." Sal couldn't resist adding, "Or can you..?"
"I wasn't talking about your mom," she said.
"I know," he said.
They hung up soon after that, saying their goodbyes and the like. Eventually his mom returned to the kitchen while he ate his cereal (post removing the lint of course). She stared at the bowl as if it would leap out and eat her any second, standing far away while she retrieved orange juice from the fridge.
"Hey Mom," Sal asked between bites, "how do you feel about me babysitting this weekend?"
Sal was just finishing throwing out the nasty notes that had been collecting in their respective lockers since first period. They had some particularly crude ones this time, though as usual they were never creative. Go f*ck yourself f*ggot. Stupid p*ssy names. Kill yourself b*tch, gayest name ever! Could these kids at least have come up with anything more amusing than this trash? It was like they were telling the same joke over and over again hoping it would stay funny. Such a pity. Good handwriting and paper wasted. Sal thought it best to make sure Jo didn't see any of these. She was already about to lose it with the other kids getting spit-balls stuck in her black hair. Her hair was so thick, it got tangled just from moving. Jo was still pulling out balled of pieces of dry paper from last week. Sal was just about to dispose of the trash properly, when one of these pieces fell onto the ground next to the can. He dumped the trash, and picked it up, but the message caught his eye. Your parents must not love you for giving you such f*cking stupid names. Sal could tell that Jo was rubbing off on him, cause he suddenly felt like punching someone in the face. He tore up the note, making a similar emphasis as he did with the cereal earlier as he brushed the trash off his hands. He headed towards the library where he knew Jo would be waiting for him outside.
Sally wasn't sure why fate decided that he or Joseph would have mixed up names. Jo's parents were very, as his mother put it, "free as a monkey piloting a helicopter". They thought it was weird that society would decide that names had to be gender specific. Both of them liked the name Joseph, and decided it would be okay to name their firstborn that no matter what gender they were. Imagine the doctor's surprise. It was also the name of Joseph's father, and ever since he died, Jo wore her name proudly. She has told Sal more than once that once she was old enough, she'd get a tattoo of his name and his dates of birth and death on her shoulder blade. Sal thought that was sweet, but he had a thing with needles, and wasn't sure if he'd get one no matter how much he loved his parents...or at least his mom anyway. Sal was born in Italy, his American mother having met his father there on a trip. They married a year later, and conceived their son, Salvatore, about and hour after the ceremony. They named him after his paternal grandfather (whom Sal barely remembers), and divorced when Sal was five. Sal would visit his father once a year, but there was always an awkward distance between the two. Sal often wondered if it was because his father saw him as a mistake he never should have made. Perhaps he was reading into the one-word conversations too much. Growing up, no one thought it was weird to call little Salvatore "Sally" for short. That was until after the divorce and Sally and his mother moved back to America. Imagine the surprise of the American 1st grade teacher when the little six year old told his whole class that they could call him "Sally" if they couldn't pronounce his actual name. Sal had been homeschool ever since, that was until he insisted on attending high school. Hence, the bullying returned, but to Sally it was worth it for Jo. Not wanting his mom to pull him out of school again, he kept it a secret.
Sal took the usual way out the back of the school to head to the library next door. It was much easier to avoid people that way. It always weirded him out that the school was neighbors with a cemetery. Especially since it looked all clean and polished up front, while the back looked like a scene from that Michael Jackson music video.
"BOOM!" Sally felt someone jump him from behind, and he squealed a noise that he wasn't sure if it was possible for his voice to make. Jo's jump scare nearly toppled him, and with that all the rage from the note became directed towards her surprise. "I can't believe you keep falling for that cave troll," she said.
"I can't believe you still think it's funny!" he brushed himself off. Not looking her in the face.
"Okay, chill dude. It's not like I broke your neck or-," Jo shifted uncomfortably.
"Look, let's just go to the library," Sal began marching off. He noticed Jo give him a "what the hell" face before he brushed past her. She followed after him, not saying a word as they took the one minute trek from their school to the library next door.
"Sal, what are we even reading?" Jo asked, as she lounged on the couch, legs apart, the heavy textbook splayed in her lap.
"We're studying literature," said a Sal, his eyes never leaving the pages of his book in his lap, legs together. They sat in the love seat couch area near the children's section. They liked it in this area of the library best since not only was the couch heaven to sit in compared to the skeletons of chairs they're required to endure throughout classes, but it was quiet and normally void of other teenagers from school.
"No seriously Sal, what are we reading?" Jo sounded ready to throw the book at the author's head if she didn't receive an answer ASAP.
"It's a classic," Sal replied.
"It's freaking boring,"
"Boring or not, we still have to study it,"
"The guy who wrote this must have been sick in the head,"
"He did have depression,"
"Seriously though, the guy just killed some old man for having a gnarly looking eye," Jo held the book away from her as if it were infested with maggots,"Everything this guy writes makes me want to gut something. Or stab my eyes," Sal understood if someone didn't have much taste for Poe, but he felt Jo's harshness a bit of an annoyance.
"People find this to be fascinating literature that delves into the darkness of human psyche," said Sal, "Like it or not, people do enjoy this, Jo,"
"Those people are sick too," Jo shot Sal a challenging gaze.
"So, you're saying I'm sick then," Sal was having enough of this day. He nearly jumped at the sight of Jo's eyes being only inches from his as he looked up, narrowing them at him. Sal figured that if it was a staring contest she wanted, then he'd give it to her. Jo won by grabbing a hidden book that Sal had placed over the textbook he was supposed to be reading. "Hey what are yo-,"
"So this is what you've been reading," Jo kept dodging Sal's attempts to grab his precious treasure, "This whole time, I was reading about serial killers and you were reading...wait, what is this" much to Sal's horror, she was actually reading it.
"For your information, I was already finished studying," he snatched it from her.
"You're such a dork. If you want to hide something like this past me, you better use non-middle school tactics."
Sal glared at his study partner, clutching his notebook to his chest. He knelt down on the ground, a guilty lull in his motions has he organized his things again.
"So, what was that you were writing?" Jo folded her arms across her chest.
"None of your business, that's what," Sal never looked up at his friend. He didn't want to talk about this now. He hated feeling her gaze upon him, and he tensed up his shoulders a bit, picking up papers and notes that scattered about the floor.
"Sal...really what was that?" Jo asked, kneeling down to help him.
Sal didn't answer. He refused. He didn't want her to find out like this. Not in the middle of his crisis. He blushed when their hands brushed against each other's briefly, and he was forced to look into her eyes. The tops of their heads were barely inches from touching to a point where it was either a safety hazard or...something he really didn't want to think about. But he couldn't help but notice the way her green eyes held so much honesty and glittered with life, and the urge to push her bangs back to get a better look at them nuzzled in the back of his mind. He wanted to look away to shake off that feeling, but he couldn't pull his eyes away from her gaze. He felt his cheeks growing hot as she touched his hand. It wasn't like they were related or anything, but it still felt really creepy.
"Sal, listen," she said, "I know you probably don't want to tell me every little thing that you think about, and honestly I don't think I want to know that either,"
"Oh trust me, I'm sure you don't want to know what I think when I'm in the bathroom," Sal just wanted to leave the awkwardness behind and get back to writing. He had a zombie apocalypse he wanted to write and didn't want to leave the protagonist hanging.
"Really though, you can't be a cave troll forever. I can understand if you aren't ready to share something, but I honestly wish I knew what my best friend was like under the covers," now it was Jo's turn to blush, "I mean, of a book. Book covers, y'know what I mean."
"I know what you meant but I'm never gonna let you live that one down," Sal chuckled. They both stood up, gathering their respective papers.
"Oh come on! Way to ruin a moment,"
"If you two won't be quiet, you will be asked to leave!" a sharp whisper came from behind. It was the Severus Snape incarnate, Mr. Wallace Crew the librarian. Anyone who came to this library knew not to push his buttons, or call him his nickname to his face. The teenagers stayed silent in his presence, waiting for the creature to walk away.
Most preferred to call him "The Crow," and for a good reason. He wore the same black turtle neck everyday, and had beady, black eyes that looked down on you as if you were a fly on his cereal. His nose was long, and tilted at a sharp angle with a small dent on the bridge. He was tall too, so when you looked up at him as he turned his nose at your "filth" you could see the tiny tendrils of nose-hairs sprinkled with boogers and dust. His fingers were long and boney, and Sal had heard people compare them to those of a clawless goblin. The way he fidgeted, twirling his fingers around each other in knots, plucking helpless books off the shelves. He might as well have had claws, and God forbid if he ever pointed one of those long, gnarly fingers at something you're doing wrong. You could be damned to hell on sight. Or worse, banned from the library. Thus, the nickname.
"If I catch you two making a ruckus again," he raised one of his fingers and Sal squinted in fear of 'the point of death', "I swear you will be given a strike," Sal was relieved the man only gave them a nonthreatening, wobbly finger wag, his index looking more like a cooked noodle instead of a goblin claw.
Sal and Jo nodded simultaneously, and Mr. Crow left them alone.
Jo looked back at Sal, and Sal knew by the look in her eye that she was never going to drop this unless he told her the truth. So he did.
"So this is your cave then," Jo roamed about Sal's room, and Sal made sure the door was left wide open per his mother's request. He immediately skipped over to the bookshelf to show her his "secret". To think that yesterday would be the day he actually told her.
"Yep, this is where the magic happens." He pulled a book from the shelf, his heart now in his throat. He wasn't so sure if it was because he was looking over his old crappy writing or that he was going to show it to his best friend.
"That's what she said," Sal ignored Jo's remark. Showing her the book.
"So you wrote this?"
"When I was 13, yep," He let her hold it and sift through the pages. He hoped fate would have the mercy that she wouldn't read it out loud.
"So, this is what cave trolls do all day,"
"This is what homeschoolers do all day,"
Jo smiled, and Sal could see that her eyes were reading the pages.
"I think my cousin recommended this to me once. I've never been much of a sci-fi fan, but is it okay if I borrowed this?"
"Sure, if you can get it past my mom. She loves that thing more than I do,"
"She might have to watch out for me once I'm done reading it,"
"Oh please, you haven't even read it yet,"
"Don't shoot yourself in the foot so quick Sal," Jo closed the book. As she looked up at him, Sal couldn't quite place exactly what her expression was. It didn't really matter cause he really wanted to get back to writing, and was already on his computer.
"It's just that it's the only book I've written." He said, returning to the white screen that tormented him yesterday. "I haven't finished another story since."
"Why not?" she asked.
"Cause, every time I try, I just end up staring at this thing for hours." He gestured towards the screen, "I'll have all these ideas, and I put them down on paper, but I have no clue how to string it all together. It's like trying to make a fire without a match."
Sal bit his lower lip to keep from crying. He felt his nose and eyes tighten a bit, but he felt he managed not to let Jo see him that way. Then again, she'd already seen so much. He still didn't look directly in her eyes, but he could see her edging out in the corner.
"Why didn't you want to tell me before?" she asked.
"Well I haven't told a lot of people. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but I'm not the attention seeking type,"
"I mean, why haven't you told me you were going through this," she reached her hand to touch his knee, "Cause you can, y'know, tell me stuff." He still was ready to look at her. All he could do was stare at that dumb screen. "You know, if it makes you feel any better, after Granna died I didn't want to paint ever again. It was only after I realized that painting was like having her with me again that I started back up. Painting, drawing...she was the match that lit my fire up so to speak. Maybe instead of trying to force the match to light, let it go for a bit. Let that fire come to you,"
At this point he felt brave enough to look at her. He wasn't sure what it was, but her smile made him forget the screen for a bit. "That fire will come back again one day. Who knows, maybe in a way you didn't expect." It wasn't that simple though. It couldn't be could it. Nonetheless, Sal nodded and smiled. Her optimism, though not always solving his problems, was encouraging. She suddenly stood up and reached over to hug him, and he blushed in her tight embrace. He lightly patted her back cause he figured that was the polite thing to do, but the awkwardness of staring at her face yesterday still hadn't rubbed off of him yet, and he almost felt like he was committing an act of incest here. She pulled away, still smiling. Then she said something he never expected her to say.
"Now come on, let's get to studying."
Saturday was here, and Sal met up with Jo back at the graveyard behind their school. There was his friend, leaning against the building wall. Sal didn't know why Jo liked to meet him out here. Maybe it was because she usually found a pleasure in jumping out from behind the bushes or somewhere yelling some random phrase she heard online. Not today though. She was too busy listening to "Demons" on her iPod shuffle.
"Hey," he tapped the sophomore on the crown of her dark head. She looked up at him, and he could see that there's was a little wetness trimming her eyes. They were red and puffy, and they refused to meet his. Sal wasn't sure what to say, but he believed the appropriate phrase was, "You... okay?" he asked.
"Sure," her voice was so strangely mellow. She motioned for him to come along and he followed along side her.
Jo never cried. At least, not in front of other people. Sal had thought she was tough enough to give Chuck Norris a run for his money. Either she was really happy or pissed, and to see her this way was almost unnatural. He lived with his mom most of his life, so it wasn't like being around an alien or anything like that. This is Joseph Shaw though. She was like a fire cracker. You never knew if she was gonna blow up or fizzle out. He figured though that before he said anything stupid he'd be quiet until he figured out what to say. Though it was hard seeing that she kept wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her flannel shirt that she wore religiously. It was her father's.
"Do we really have to walk?" he asked, trying to break the silence, and maybe distract Jo from something else.
"It's only a block and a half away," she replied. "Besides, you could use the fresh air cave troll."
Sally rolled his eye's, "Sure thing drill sergeant."
"Nice comeback dork,"
"Jerk," The 15-year old boy shrugged away from Jo's hand messing up his blond hair, "You're so mean! I'm delicate," He was smiling, not just cause they were having fun, but Jo was smiling too. Her color seemed to be returning to her face.
"And you're so dense!" Jo paused. Sal could have sworn he heard Jo muttering "So am I" under her breathe. He ignored it for now. He wanted to make sure he had the right thing to say to her before he asked. For all he knew, she would probably just deny that anything ever happened and that'll be the end of it.
They came up to a house, and by the way Jo was turning towards it Sal figured that this was where they'd be babysitting. Then she crossed over not towards the door, but onto the side of it. ...on the lawn. Tracing's of Sally's "the hell?" look began to make an ugly appearance. Especially when Jo dashed behind the house and toward a fence about 7 feet tall. She climbed effortlessly over the posts and onto the other side.
"The heck are you doing?" Sal asked.
"It's shorter this way. Otherwise we'd have to walk 12 more blocks,"
"It's fine cave troll! I take this shortcut all the time. Never been caught,"
"Just hurry over before someone sees us," Sal had never hopped a fence before, or climbed a tree, or went hiking. He spent most of his activities indoors. That's why Jo had dubbed him "cave troll." He grimaced at the sight of a spider eating a fresh catch under one corner of a post.
"Here, catch," he tossed his backpack over to her. He heard her yell in pain, and he was sure he'd pay for that when he got over on the other side.
"Here goes nothing," He placed his hand a good foot away from the spider web, trying to keep the eight legged carnivore out of his mind. He got his other hand up, and soon had both his feet off the ground on the plank just above the grass. Then he reached both his arms, one by one to the top of the fence. He had a fleeting thought of the spider crawling over to his arm, down the sleeve of his T-shirt, and dancing under his armpit.
"WILL YOU GET OVER THAT FENCE ALREADY? WE'RE GONNA BE LATE!"
"I'm trying okay! Shut up,"
"Is this your first time?"
Sal didn't answer, he just struggled to pull himself up. "It's just a spider. Get your ass up there, or you'll have it handed to you by the drill sergeant."
"Sal...answer me, is this your first time?" She didn't seem very mad that time, and he could hear the same urgency in her voice that his mother sounded like whenever something in the house broke. He heaved himself up as hard as he could until the top of the fence could stab at his midsection. He flashed a smile, and she shook her head with her arms crossed over her chest.
"You had me worried there, bro. Now get over here,"
"Well, excuse me princ-," Next thing Sal knew he was staring at the grass, and a sharp pain hit him all over his front half.
"OH MY GOSH!" Jo rushed over to him, and he could feel her hovering over his body. "Sal are you okay?!" He decided it was time to payback for all those jump scared. "SAL! ANSWER ME NOW OR I SWEAR I'LL GIVE YOU MOUTH TO MOUTH!"
"Hi," he laughed. Blowing in her face. She punched him hard in the shoulder, and he was starting to think that maybe now wasn't the best time to pull that joke.
"You're such an asshole sometimes!" She said, "Don't scare me like that,"
"That hurts!" Sal clutched his shoulder tightly. It wasn't that bad, but it was bad enough for him to know that he crossed a line.
"Serves you right." she said.
"What is going on here?" The two looked up to meet the eyes of the perplexed voice that interrupted their argument.
"Oh, hi Mrs. Gifford," Jo stood up, pulling the injured boy up with her.
"Do you usually hop the fence to get over here?" The woman asked. Sal could tell by her outfit that she probably worked at the hospital.
"Maybe...," Jo tried to direct the conversation to something else, "This is Sal," she gestured to her friend who interchanged between rubbing his forehead and his shoulder.
"Hello," he said, "You wouldn't happen to have an ice pack would you?"
The "patient" held a bag of ice that concealed a small, purple bump on his forehead. When Mrs. Gifford asked him how he got those bruises, he decided it best to leave out the part about Jo hitting him. The nurse concluded that neither his head or shoulder injuries wasn't that serious. Meanwhile, Jo held a glare with Sal, as if her eyes held a target towards his head. The boy caught notice of this, narrowing his eyes to mimic her expression. Jo couldn't take it anymore, and light laughter soon exploded out of her face.
"Don't scare me like that anymore," she said between giggles, "You could have told me you've never climbed fences."
"You wouldn't have listened anyway." Sal said with his usual, teasing smile. Jo knew what he meant though, and there was a bit of edge to his words. Like suddenly pricking your finger while sewing.
"You're probably right." Jo replied.
Sal didn't feel like engaging in the trail of playful insults. The woman that they'd soon be sitting for had went up the stairs of her condominium. She was going to fetch her son from his just finished nap, and then head for her job at the naturopath clinic. Sal had a few moments alone with Jo, and he kinda of had an idea of what to say now. There was only a small window of time though. He had to act quickly.
"Hey Jo," he began, "um..." he took a quick breath, his friend's attentive, green eyes catching him off guard, "You all right?"
"I'm fi-," the girl was interrupted before she could lie.
"No really. Are you okay?" Sal waited. Jo had clamped her mouth shut, her jaw tight and her eyes still. C'mon Jo, don't do this to me! "What's wrong?"
"Hey!" a cheerful voice came strolling down the hall. Within the speaker's arms, a small and drowsy toddler suckled on a pacifier, big blue eyes staring at the sitters as best as he could keep his eyes open. "He slept for a few good hours, so he should be fine until bedtime. There's leftover coleslaw and chicken in the fridge, which you guys are welcome to as well, and he takes a bath just before bed.
"Sounds good Rina!" Jo's voice showed no hint that Sal's confrontation affected her at all. The nurse handed over her son, Jeremy, to Jo, and the little guy welcomed her embrace like a dear friend, tiredly nuzzling up to her.
"You sure you'll be all right?" the mother turned to her recent patient. Sal hesitated a bit, still a bit shaken from the events over the past couple of days.
"Oh yeah, I'm fine," He smiled. Grin and bare it. Grin and bare it.
"I know it's just a couple of bruises, but you let me know if you feel anymore prolonged pain, throbbing, dizziness, anything that feels fishy, let me know,"
"Yes, ma'am," said Sal.
With that, Sal and Jo were left with Jeremy, who was a bit more awake now. He had given his momma a hug, and knew the drill. "Down," he said pointing towards the floor. Jo responded to the request, and Jeremy crawled toward a small box filled with toy cars. He began to ritually line them up, putting the yellow car next to the cement mixer, all the race cars in front, and the school bus and fire trucks scattered in the middle and the back rows.
"Jeremy," the toddler turned his head at the sound of his name, "this is Sal, can you say hi?" The little boy just sat there. Sal stared at Jeremy, and Jeremy stared at Sal.
"Hi," Sal's voice cracked. He hadn't baby-sat anything bigger than a puppy before, but he figured he might as well say something. Jeremy didn't reciprocate. Instead he stood up to waddle over, holding a red fire truck in hand.
"Are you gonna help me race all the cars?" the toddler's voice was muffled by the pacifier collecting spit in his mouth. Sally smiled.
"Um, sure. Why not?"
The teenagers aided Jeremy in lining up the cars, preparing for a big race that would take place in the living room and kitchen area. They each were limited to about 3 cars a piece, then the rest were just up for grabs. They crawled on their hands and feet, running as many cars as they could along the carpet and linoleum, avoiding pieces of uncooked spaghetti and other leftovers. Little half-moon toenail clippings managed to make an appearance as well, which Jeremy found a liking to at one point or another. Sal nearly panicked at the sight of the little guy raising the piece-of-human towards his mouth, but Jo calmly snatched the piece and threw it away. "No sweetie, yucky." she said. Sal hadn't heard her talk like that before. Somewhat babyish, like a talking squishy bunny toy. It was kind of adorable, though he'd never say that to her face.
They were just about to set up another round, and Jeremy was relining up all the cars. "We have to line up all the cars. We got to race them!" Sal was glad to see Jo smiling again. She loved this, and though he was exhausted and head throbbed a bit, he was willing to do 100 laps around the kitchen for her if he had to.
"Hey Jo?" Sal asked his friend while the toddler was distracted. He gulped a bit, her hazel eyes focused on him, "I just...," He muscled though his hesitation, "this is gonna sound super cheesy, but I just want to let you know that you can tell me anything. I don't care if you need me to do this again, or you're on your woman's week and need to rant...it doesn't matter to me. I mean it does if it matters to you, but you know it doesn't matter to me in a bad way. You hear what I'm saying?" Jo's face remained emotionless, so Sal decided to finish up, "I'm just saying that if you need anything at all, I don't care how crazy it is or how personal. Just tell me and I'll listen. Just like when you listened to me yesterday. Deal?"
Jo's lower jaw quivered, and she clenched her teeth. She didn't bother to wipe any tears from her face, she didn't mind that Jeremy was watching, she didn't consider her own strength and weight on Sal's frail body as she tackle hugged him. She held him and sobbed and sobbed until her eyes ran out of tears. She unleashed everything she held up inside her right into his chest. Sal pulled her head away to look at her freshly teared eyes, holding her face in his hands. It melted him as she told him that her mom couldn't afford to keep the apartment they lived in anymore, and that she got fired from her job last month.
"We had a fight," she said, pushing herself up from Sal's body a bit, though he still held her. He didn't care how awkward it was or how Jeremy was looking at them all concerned, "She's been selling stuff behind my back to get by, including some of Dad's and Granna's old things. She said that I needed to help pull my weight, and put art on hold. She didn't mean anything bad by it, but she was selling Granna's art on eBay... I know it sounds selfish, but it just-" Sal pulled her in for another hug, "I just don't know what to do. We don't have any relatives that live close by, and I'm afraid of what's going to happen if we can't afford rent. And how dare she sell Daddy's and Granna's things. If anything, she shouldn't have gone behind my back like that. She's never done that before." Sal just continued to hold her, and just Jeremy sat there staring at them. Sal could tell the 2-year old knew something was wrong, but didn't know what to do about it.
"Hey," Sal motioned for Jeremy to come over into the group hug. The toddler was hesitant at first, but he slowly scootched himself on over, holding onto one of his cars. He leaned himself against Jo, who had stopped crying. She turned to allow the little guy crawl into her lap to cuddle.
Sal got it then. He could see that Jo wasn't just afraid of losing the people she loved. She was losing herself. Her fire. Her Granna was a fire that kept her going, and now it was like she was losing her all over again. Sal could relate, even though he doesn't connect much with his father, a part of himself died after the divorce. The way his mother smiled wasn't quite the same, and growing up only seeing his dad once a year made him feel that half of him was missing. Half of Sal always felt not quite there. But ever since he met Jo, there were moments he felt whole again. This was one of those times.
He watched her holding Jeremy in her arms, kissing the top of his head.
"Hey," he said, speaking to Jeremy, "You wanna hear a story?" The little boy shrugged, and Sal took that as a yes. "Well once, there was a girl made of fire who was friends with a boy made of water. The girl had a beautiful bird that was born from a volcano that she loved dearly. One day this bird died, but the girl was able to keep one of its feathers. She thought she could use her magic powers on the feather to bring her bird back to life, but it never worked no matter what spell she used. Her water friend wanted to help, but he was worried he would hurt her since he was water and she was fire." At this point Jo was listening intently. "But he did his best to stay her friend anyway. Even when she accidentally singed him once," Sal caught Jo smiling a bit, "One day Jo-...I mean the fire girl, lost her precious feather, and she feared that would mean her bird was gone forever. Her friend then told her that her bird was no gone, but merely free. Free to fly around the world. And wherever the bird was, the fire girl's heart would also be flying right beside her." Sal smiled, and blushed a bit when he said, "And so would the water boy," Sal reached out for Jo's hand, and she gladly held on to his.
"That was a very cool story, wasn't it Jeremy?" said Jo.
"We still have to race all the cars," Jeremy replied, inspecting the car in his hands. Sal and Jo both chuckled.
"You could stay with us," the words seemed to fly out of Sal's mouth on instinct, " I mean...y'know if things get bad. And of course I have to ask my mom, make sure it's okay. But we have a guest room...and don't say that you don't want to impose cause you wouldn't be. Mom loves you,"
"I know, I love her too,"
"And I...love you,"
"Jerk." They embraced. He burried his face into her hair, and he could feel the wetness of her tears and snot seeping through his shirt. He didn't care. The awkward-incest incident from the library was pushed far away from Sal's mind. Jeremy squirmed a bit between the couple, not wanting to get squished. He sat himself down back on the ground, "Is Jo and Sal gonna come to Jeremy's house again?" Jo looked at Sal who nodded.
"Yeah Jeremy," she sniffed.
"Good, cause we still need to race all the cars."