"Your parents are more than capable of still fucking you up, even when you're a grown up adult with a job and a house and kids and shit."
Chuck gave me a look that said he didn't believe me, one rusty eyebrow rising upwards until it was almost under a mop of his not-quite-ginger red hair.
I could feel myself grinning. It was my I'm-about-to-convince-you look or, as Chuck liked to call it, my smug educated look.
He wrapped his fingers around his pint and took a big gulp, glancing towards the bar. There were three men there who were clearly looking for trouble. So muscular they looked top-heavy with Celtic tattoos peeking out of shirt sleeves. Chuck turned back to me.
"You're full of shit, Jake."
They were probably English. Cardiff City had beaten Arsenal, yet another win for the boys in red. I had very vague memories of Dad getting me to watch old, recorded matches where they played in blue, before they got into the premier league. He kicked up a hell of a fuss when the shirts changed colour like a lot of the fans did. Red was meant to be lucky. Maybe it was. They'd made leaps and bounds since the shirt change. They were playing Manchester United next week, and the bookies were as uncertain as everyone else over who was going to win.
"No, seriously. Like, they can probably fuck you up worse because you think you're away from it all. There you are one day, thinking you're all grown up and shit. Then your parents drop a bomb on you and you realise you're still a kid."
"Want another drink?"
I'd met Chuck little over a year ago, when I started working at a marketing firm in Cardiff. Fresh out of University, I'd been convinced I'd do something great with my degree. I wanted to do a Masters, wanted more letters after my name. Hell, I'd even thought I'd eventually do a PhD.
But I was stuck in this city in a crappy job that barely paid for my flat, let alone gave me enough to save up to do my History Masters.
My eyes followed Chuck as he went to the bar, as he squeezed in beside the three dickheads lingering there. One of them shoved him, the others laughed and I couldn't help but grin.
The tips of my fingers itched.
Chuck was like me. Displaced, stuck in a dead end job with no idea what he was supposed to do next. At twenty-seven, he was four years my senior. Like me, but with more life under his belt.
Two years ago, Chuck had left the army.
He never spoke about it, but flashes of it came out now and then.
Like when the peace in our city was about to be disturbed.
Chuck had his back to me and I could see the muscles under his shirt tense up. Dickhead One said something to his mates that made them burst out laughing. I got to my feet and walked towards the bar.
Just in time to see Dickhead One shove Chuck again.
In my crappy, going nowhere life, these were the moments I lived for.
Chuck turned and with all the precision and training the army had given him, he punched the guy. Dickhead One stumbled back, nose bleeding, caught by his mates. Dickhead Two, bald with a scar, looking like he thought he was the biggest bad arse in the place, snarled at my mate. Chuck stepped back. His face was red. Eyes wide and wild.
As Dickhead Two went for him I lunged forward, slamming into him with my arms around his waist.
I'm not the biggest guy or the strongest. Ever. My talents lie in academics. Always have. But Chuck had started taking me to the gym and I was getting a couple of muscles. Nothing to brag about but add them to the element of surprise and, well…
The guy knocked into the bar. I could feel his hip whack into it before I let go and stumbled back. Number Three let go of his mate and went for me. One went for Chuck while Two leaned against the bar looking from me to him as if he couldn't decide which one to swing for.
One other thing. I'm quick. Like, I could outrun Chuck. A great advantage when you're up against guys as big as these were. I ducked and swerved and laughed as I heard the bang bang bang of Chuck throwing punches, probably left, right and centre.
Adrenaline, baby. The drug Chuck had introduced me to.
The guy landed a punch and I went backwards, slamming into a table. I caught a glimpse of something shiny and green out of the corner of my eye, in his hand, and seconds later heard the smash.
Somehow I managed to roll off the table as he threw the bottle down onto it. Crouching, I looked to see Chuck with his fingers in Dickhead One's hair, lifting his head back and slamming it onto the bar. He shoved the man back. Dickhead One fell to the floor as I rolled onto my back, kicking my legs out and connecting with Three's stomach. On my feet I tried to duck as he swiped the bottle towards me.
A sharp sting across my cheek. It felt wet.
There were screams around us and someone yelling for us to stop as I turned and saw Chuck throw another punch, this time at Dickhead Two. Two went down, and I turned just in time to see Three go for me again.
Before the bottle could cut me Chuck appeared. He kicked the guy's stomach and once more Three clutched it, falling to his knees as Chuck punched.
From somewhere outside I could hear sirens. I was on my knees, not sure how I got there, thinking I must have dropped as Chuck kicked. He grabbed my shoulder, yanking me to my feet and dragging me to the door.
I could feel blood dripping down my cheek as the sounds of sirens grew louder behind us. Blue light bounced off the walls of the other pubs and clubs around us. Chuck stuffed his hands into his pockets and walked, fast. I followed, trying not to grin or whoop or let out any of the excitement curled up inside me.
We made it to my flat and Chuck said his goodnights. There was a bruise forming under his right eye, and his lip looked a little swollen. Work was going to be fun on Monday.
I headed inside, checking my phone as I did so. Two missed calls, one answerphone message. I kept it on silent when I was out with him. There was really only one person who would call. My little sister was busy with her A Levels and Mum was busy packing everything up and moving out of the house I'd called home for twenty-three years.
I called Clara back, figuring the answerphone message would just be her asking where I was.
"Hey, baby!" she cooed, the delight lifting her voice up. "You and Chuck still at the pub?"
"Nah. We…left." I groped in my pocket for my keys as I stepped into the lift. "You can come round though, if you like."
It was how I liked things. No shitty chit chat in the pub, no pretending to be interested in what her friends had said or how one of her friends was getting married and I should so come to the wedding. Just Clara brining her pretty face straight to mine, maybe watch a film or something before getting to the reason I kept her around.
Chuck kept telling me to end things with her. Kept me telling me I was screwing her up, this pretty nineteen year old who had taken a gap year and was leaving for University in September.
The way I saw it, I was doing her a favour. Least I acted treated her decent. She'd meet bigger douchebags than me once she got to whatever University she was going to.
"Okay, baby! Want me to bring anything?"
I lightly pressed a finger to my cheek. "Chinese?"
"Sure! See you a bit."
I'd managed to dodge the whole relationship conversation. She wanted to have it. Had wanted to have it for about nine months now.
Truth was I'd been there, done that, couldn't be bothered with that shit. Did not want to go through it again. Anyway, it'd be downright cruel to send her Uni with a boyfriend. She was too bloody good not to screw around if she was in a relationship. Screwing around was one of the best things about my third year and I'd just ended up pissed off I hadn't been able to do it before then.
The fridge was full. One of the perks of having a job. Along with the fact that though it was crappy and not greatly paid, it still covered a flat for one. No annoying flatmates judging me or stealing my shit. I glanced inside, spotting the few bottles of wine I'd brought for when Clara came over. In the door sat two bottles of Coca-Cola and a lemonade. The rest was food. Veg in the bottom drawer, meat on the bottom shelf, butter and cheese and milk and all that other crap.
I closed the door, reached into one of the cupboards and brought out the whiskey. The whiskey was as much a part of the flat as the faded paint on the walls and the shitty, slightly uncomfortable sofa. As much a part of me as my mop of brown hair and light blue eyes, inherited from my father, the kind of eyes girls went crazy for.
I held the bottle, checking to see how much was left. "Miss you, Dad," I muttered, before pouring a shot out. Not too much. Didn't want the stuff to run out, though the level of alcohol hadn't even reached the label yet.
The TV sat in the corner of the room and I flicked it on as I walked towards the sofa. Saturday night, reality TV shows filled with people who were under the misguided belief they could sing or dance or do both. I set the tumbler down on the coffee table, pulled a small box towards me and flicked it open.
The smell wafted out instantly. I had approximately twenty minutes before Clara turned up and I was going to enjoy every bit of it.
Some girl on the TV was crying, each tear in the standard HD glory. As a kid, I'd laughed at Dad when he said he'd grown up without HD. Didn't even have ancient DVDs when he watched Aladdin and The Lion King. Sometimes I tried to imagine what it was like, picturing grainy, flat characters moving on a poorly rendered landscape.
My shock at my grandparents' growing up with black and white TV is something my family still talk about.
The next contestant started singing. She actually wasn't too bad. Glancing up I saw a hot blonde with her eyes closed, singing some love balled from a couple of years ago.
I returned to the task at hand, taking the grinder from the box, unwrapping the plastic bag and pouring about half into the grinder. I leant back as I twisted it. In a very strange way, I loved the sound the plastic made, scraping together as it did its job. Putting it aside I pulled out a couple of papers, licked the ends, stuck them together, sprinkled tobacco down the middle as I listened to the judges' comments.
They were gushing over her, saying she was the best they'd heard the whole show.
The smell appeared again as I opened the grinder, taking out the flakes of green and putting them over the tobacco. Mentally I ran through the snacks I had in the flat. Crisps in the cupboard, a tube of Pringles and some dips in the fridge. Chocolate, because Carla loved chocolate when she'd had a few tokes. Frozen pizza and Southern Fried Chicken in the freezer. Just chuck in the oven, leave for half an hour and done. Easy, simple.
Well, Clara was bringing Chinese.
I lit the joint and sank into the sofa, grinning to myself as a long haired metal head appeared on screen. Hair was thick and brown, and he walked on with a massive shit-eating grin, the exact kind of don't-care-what-you-think attitude that was so rare on these type of shows.
He began to sing and I couldn't help but sit bolt upright, jaw hanging open.
Shit, man, that dude could sing.
And not Hell's Carriers or Four Horsemen like I expected, but fucking opera.
I began to laugh, loving this kid and loving the pure expressions of shock on the faces of the four judges. Far as I could tell, these kind of shows had been around forever. Mum loved them. Used to watch them on Saturday nights with Dad, with him grumbling about them constantly and her just singing along and enjoying it.
Now she watched them on her own. Or with my kid sister when she wasn't out.
I made a mental note to visit them next weekend. It wasn't exactly far. Just fifteen minutes on the train, check in on Mum and maybe cook her a meal and watch shitty talent shows with her. Pop into Becky's room and see if she had any new posters up on her wall, see if she still had an infatuation with Prince George. That kid definitely had his mother's looks.
Kid. I scoffed at the thought. Darling Prince George, poster kid for good kids everywhere, was my age. Mum always commented there must have something in the water the year I was born. Everyone was pregnant; her, her friends, her co-workers and even Prince William's wife.
I tapped my free fingers on the table, clutching the joint in the other hand. If I asked my kid sister anything about the prince or what latest actor was in her favourite TV series, she'd rattle off a list of facts I could never remember. She knew the latest gossip, read the trashy magazines while protesting that that was exactly what they were, but still reading them anyway because she just had to know who William Take was sleeping with or what latest bitchy thing Carol Jones was saying.
She had a good head on her though. Made me proud. Made me smile at the thought of her.
She was clever and kind, beautiful to boot, a killer combination.
I knew a lot about my kid sister, but sometimes I just felt like I didn't know enough.
The knock at the door yanked me away from my thoughts. I put the joint to one side before answering. Clara held up a bag of food, a big smile on her face as she stepped in and planted a kiss on my cheek.
"Hey, babe," she said, heading straight for the kitchen/living room, inhaling deeply as she did so. I shut the door and followed her, feeling just a bit pissed off at the thought that I'd now have to share my joint.
Or maybe not.
Clara was dishing the food up by the time I got back, and I fell onto the sofa, grabbing my joint.
She glanced up from the plates and frowned.
"What happened to your face?"
I touched the cut while resisting the urge to grin. "It's nothing. Me and Chuck got into a fight."
"Again?" She came out from behind the counter, walked straight to me and perched on the edge of the sofa, reaching out and gently wiping blood away. "He seems to get you into an awful lot of fights."
"Dickheads can sense something," I said. "Like, they can tell he has some training or whatever. They go for him looking for a fight. He doesn't look for one."
I sounded like a kid explaining to their parents that they didn't start fights.
Clara sighed, got to her feet and headed back for the counter, grabbing the food and brining it over. She put it in front of me with a knife and fork.
"How's your mum?"
I shrugged, thinking of the move. She'd told me about it a few days ago, had been trying to sell the house for months apparently and just managed to do so. Her and Becky would be moving into a two bed flat.
"I just can't afford it anymore, Jake."
I knew exactly why she hadn't told me before. I was pissed. That house had everything. Memories and mementos and things that had belonged to Dad which she'd now have to throw out. His bookcase and all his books on the World Wars, on Ancient Greece and Rome and the Tudors. The formation of America and Great Britain and Australia.
I was determined that whatever could fit in my flat would be moved here. It would become part of the flat, part of the inheritance from my father. Like the whiskey. Like my hair and my eyes and…
I glanced up at the TV. The show had finished and the news was on. Clara had spoken, not like it had been a surprise, but like she expected it coming.
Tensions mounting scrolled across the bottom.
Between who, I wondered. Since the scandals that had taken place over the last few decades, pretty much everyone was pissed with the US. I wasn't quite sure what kicked it all off. Chuck would know. Mum would, too. It all started when she was younger, when she was having me. Something about spying and America snooping where they shouldn't be. Whistle blowers harboured in countries and America trying desperately to get them onto home soil.
My History course, thanks to my choice of modules, didn't really cover recent history.
"What now?" I muttered, as Clara reached for the remote and turned the sound up on the TV.
A while back, a few guys were caught bragging in a bar about activities they should not have been bragging about. The US was using the 'net to keep track of people's movements, while other countries still sent in spies, James Bond style.
Well maybe not James Bond style. But yeah, still sending spies into other countries. To me it just seemed old fashioned. But these guys weren't stupid. They spoke so many different languages that it was hard to tell which country they were from. That, I had heard from Chuck. No idea what he'd actually done in the Army, he never talked about it, but he'd somehow acquired contacts that knew some serious shit.
Clara inched closer to me on the sofa, and not in a about-to-have-sex way. She reached out and clasped my hand, and when I looked, her face was a picture of terror. Mouth jammed shut with bottom lip quivering, eyes just a little wide, face pale.
The spies, three of them, white, black and Asian, spoke English, Chinese, Mandarin and Russian among others. With no trace of an accent in any language. So yeah, considering none of the countries could be sure of what these men looked like, they were all freaking out.
No wonder tensions were running high.
"Clara, what's wrong?"
She turned her head slowly towards me, blinking as if she had forgotten I was there.
"My mum…she's…she's in Russia."
I squeezed her hand, thought it wasn't enough and wrapped an arm around her shoulder instead, drawing her close to me. She turned her head into me, wrapping her arms around me and taking deep breaths.
"It's okay," I whispered, kissing the top of her head. "It'll be okay, Clara."
I knew what was ahead of us for that night. Clara thoughtful and quiet, needing nothing more than me holding her. No sex. She wouldn't be in the mood.
And strangely enough, I was fine with that.
X X X
Clara lay with her head on my chest, fast asleep. My arm was wrapped around her, palm flat on her back as I stared out the window. I always left the curtains open. From where I was, I could see the stars bright against the dark sky. To me it always looked like they were watching us. Admiring us maybe, or judging. Criticizing the way we had destroyed our planet.
My generation grew up on the mantra it wasn't me. We glared at the generations before us, our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who had ensured the doom of our race. They had voted in the wrong leaders, used the wrong fuel, argued and grumbled among themselves and where did it get them all?
Not that they would live to see it. We might. We bore the scars of our fathers all too clearly. The wounds they had inflicted were entrenched in the earth. And there was nothing we could do to stop it all.
Now, we were potentially standing on the brink of war. If it erupted, we'd have more in common with our great-grandparents than any generation closer to us.
My University lecturers had told us the Cold War ended in 1989. I didn't think it had ended, really. It had hibernated and maybe changed, but it was still there, still under the surface of every country in the world.
And when things went wrong, fingers hovered over big red buttons and all we could do was wait for the shit to hit the fan.
A/N: So yeah, this is the third version of Into The Night I've posted on this site. Just got it into my head to rewrite it, and Jake & co will not let me rest and write something else. If you've read this before, hope this version makes more sense, is better explained, all that sort of thing. If you haven't…well, I hope you enjoy reading about these characters for the first time. As always, constructive criticism is very much welcomed. (There is a poll on my profile page that could do with a few votes so if you have a moment, please check it out. Thanks.)