I knew better than anyone that Jake craved that normalcy. People tiptoed around him, always worried about offending or upsetting him, like he was some fragile flower. And at times, he did seem shaky. But there was also a strength to him that defied all logic. What he had endured was beyond what any human should have to endure, yet he was still going… still surviving.
After Jake greeted the family, he and I walked over to Keith and Quinn.
“You look like you’ve had a good day,” Keith sarcastically commented.
A genuine smile formed on Jake’s face. He replied with just as snarky a tone. “Do I?”
“Oh, yeah. You’re just glowing.”
“Uh-huh. Scoot over,” he said as he settled into a seat beside Keith. Of course he would pick that one. Jake had always looked up to Keith, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous at times. Where Jake often had a level of disdain when interacting with me, he always treated Keith like his shit didn’t stink. I’d smelled it… it did.
I hadn’t always been Jake’s right-hand man. When he was just getting popular and I was too young to go on tour, Keith had been the one to travel with him. Yeah, that had been a clusterfuck. Keith had only recently come off his first rehab stint, and traveling on a rock and roll tour was just the push he needed to jump right back into the druggie lifestyle. A second rehab followed, and Keith was never invited back.
I took my seat next to Jake, but because his back was to me, I was effectively shut out of the conversation. “Sit back,” I complained. “I can’t hear.”
Jake groaned as if my request was totally unreasonable, but nonetheless he leaned back in his chair to accommodate me. His eyes focused on my face and I saw them squint as he studied me with interest. “Hold up. What happened to your little baby beard?”
“You mean the one that looked like pubic hair growing all over his face?” Keith added, helpfully.
“That would be the one.”
“Mom made me shave it off… some bullshit about shaming the family name. I don’t know, I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“Why? Do you like it?” I asked, theatrically rubbing my hand over the smooth skin.
“Well, I mean, it doesn’t look like you crawled out of a gutter anymore.”
“Sweet.” I nodded as if his opinion really mattered.
Jake grabbed a chip out of a basket and dipped it in the salsa. “So where’s Sammy?” he asked Keith.
“She’s flying in tomorrow.”
“Wait. Was that allowed?” Jake asked in a raised voice.
“Not for you, it wasn’t.”
“Well, shit.” His eyes narrowed in on our mom as he gave her a dirty look. “It shouldn’t be allowed for Sam either, then.”
“Do you see a ring on her finger?” Keith asked, smugly.
“No. Do you see a ring on mine?”
“You were born into this family. There’s no escape."
Jake stopped his conversation with Keith. “What are you leaning on me for?” he bristled, pushing me off him.
“You keep turning your back. I can’t hear,” I said, straightening up.
“You’re, like, lying on top of me. It’s annoying.”
“You want to talk annoying? I’ve watched you double dip not once, not twice, but like fifteen fucking times.”
“I wasn’t double dipping.”
“News flash. When you dip a chip twice, that’s double dipping,” I challenged.
“If you must know, I took a bite, flipped it, then re-dipped it, asshole.” Jake’s words dripped contempt.
“That’s still double dipping,” I mumbled under my breath. Jake ignored me and turned his back, shutting me out of the conversation again. My instinct was to smother him in a big, gushy hug to really piss him off, and I would have had we been alone, but since there was a rather large audience, I refrained.
“What took you so long, anyway?” Keith asked.
“Honestly, I have no good explanation. Today just sucked ass. So many damn delays. I’m surprised I even made it.”
“Like you had it so bad,” I scoffed. “You didn’t have to drive seven hours in a car with Quinn.”
“Wait,” Quinn, sitting on the other side of Keith, objected. “What did I do?”
“Seriously? The chipmunk song?”
“Oh, yeah,” he grinned.
“Do I even want to know?” Jake asked.
“Not unless you want him to sing it for you.”
“Oh no, I don’t want that. Never mind.”
“You guys just don’t appreciate good music, the way Jake and I do,” Quinn joked.
“Do not drag me down with you!” Jake exclaimed.
We all laughed. Jake leaned back in his chair, stretching out. I could see the stress lines in his forehead slowly receding. His tight shoulders opened up and gradually relaxed, and the forced smile he had carried since arriving had disappeared completely. This was a good start. Maybe a more pleasant mood would follow.
“Anyway, I have a game for us to play later.”
“Shut up, Quinn. No one’s talking to you,” Keith kidded.
“Seriously. It’s fun.”
I glanced around. Neither Jake nor Keith looked the least bit interested in Quinn’s version of fun, so I took pity on him. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s your game?”
“Oh, god no!” I blurted out, laughing.
Looking confused, Jake asked, “Bean what?”
“Bean Boozled,” I answered. “It’s that game where you spin the wheel and there are two jellybeans on each stop. One is a good flavor like peach or blueberry, and the other is like vomit or baby wipe. And you don’t know what you’ll get until you put it in your mouth.”
“You’re joking, right?” Jake asked, not seeming amused.
“No. Sadly, I’m not. And apparently, the flavors are pretty spot on, too.”
Jake had a confused look on his face as he shook his head. “And this is supposed to be fun?”
“That’s what the kid says.” I shrugged.
“It is,” Quinn tried. “It’s really funny, I promise.”
“No offense, Quinn, but I wouldn’t play that game if you put a gun to my head,” Jake countered dramatically. Seriously? Did he have to use that reference?