My oldest sister had her earplugs in and slept the majority of the trip. A nurse, Emma had just come off a night shift before making the thirty-minute drive from her house in the valley to ours. I actually hadn’t seen her since returning home from Europe. Neither one of us could be bothered to make the trip, nor were we particularly enthusiastic to see one another whenever our paths did cross.
Since Emma was zonked out most of the time, she really should have scored low on my informal behavioral graph. However, because she sporadically awakened from her hibernation to growl menacingly at the rest of us, I had no choice but to add points to her overall total.
Keith was chugging right along, being his normal jovial self, and would have scored low on my sibling resentment chart had he not brought the sunflower seeds into play. The suck-crunch-spit combo was bad enough, but once stray bits of slimy seeds that hadn’t made it into the narrow spout of the water bottle started landing on the back of my neck, I lost it. Keith had definitely tipped the scale, and not in his favor.
But, as it turned out, the youngest McKallister boy had us all beat. Evidently, sixteen-year-old Quinn was going for gold. On his Spotify app, my little brother had successfully discovered the world’s most annoying song: I Like to Move It, sung by the Chipmunks. Not only did we get to hear the song in its original glory but we also got to hear Quinn’s unbelievably grating rodent version.
I had to admit, it was funny the first time. But not so much after the third. By the sixth time, I was looking for blood. Regrettably, with Quinn sitting in the back row furthest from me, I was too far away to do any real damage.
“Oh, my god,” I yelled. “Would somebody please hit him?!”
Without missing a beat, Keith reached out and smacked Quinn.
“Ow!” he screamed, punching back.
“Quinn, if you sing even one more note of that song, I’m dropping you off at the next rest stop!” Dad threatened.
“Keith hit me! Don’t you even care?”
“Actually, I do. Thank you, Keith.”
“You’re welcome, Dad.”
I laughed. Over the years our dad had morphed from concerned, doting father to just one of the guys. It was as if seven kids broke the ‘dad’ right out of him.
“Way to be supportive of my singing abilities,” Quinn grumbled to whoever would listen, which happened to be no one. “You wouldn’t treat Jake that way.”
“Jake doesn’t sing like a goddamn chipmunk!”
After arriving at the hotel in Arizona, Keith and I decided to make a clandestine beer run. Wandering the aisles of a local grocery store, Keith was acquiring quite a stockpile. Liquor aside, he was throwing chips, candy, and baked goods into the mix.
I flashed him a quizzical look. “You’re not planning on getting crossfaded tonight, are you?”
“I mean, the amount of liquor and munchies you’ve got here makes me think you might have a secret stash somewhere too.”
Keith laughed. “You’re shitting me, right? Do you know what Mom would do to me if she found out I brought doobies to Mitch’s wedding?”
The thought did actually make me cringe. Mom would definitely not appreciate a stoned Keith. None of us would, really. Keith had a sketchy past when it came to drugs. A few months after Jake’s miraculous escape, Keith had decided to add his two cents to the tragedy by going off the deep end himself… and weed was the least of his problems. Two stints in rehab followed before he finally got himself back under control. He’d been clean for about four years now, and when I say clean, I mean it in the most liberal of terms. I guess you could say Keith was ‘California clean,’ in the sense that he, along with a fair portion of the population in this left-leaning state, didn’t actually consider pot to be a real drug. Although Keith could occasionally be found toking up or drinking heavily at times, he made a concerted effort to keep that behavior away from our parents, who were not as liberal in their beliefs when it came to Keith’s unhealthy pastimes. So when Keith claimed that Mom would not appreciate such conduct, it was no joke. In fact, I suspected if he got caught with weed at Mitch’s wedding, we’d probably be planning his funeral soon thereafter.
“Sam’s been on a health kick lately, and she won’t allow any crap in the house. I haven’t had sugar in a month.”
“So you plan to eat all this by tomorrow night before she gets here?”
My eyebrows arched in response.
“What?” he asked, sounding genuinely surprised that I cared.
“Dude, grow some balls. I’d never let a chick tell me what I can and can’t eat.”
“Uh huh, just you wait.”
“For what? To be castrated by my girlfriend? No, thanks.”
“No – to love someone enough to want to change for them.”
“You’re not changing!” I exclaimed in a high-pitched voice. “You’re literally hiding five pounds of junk food from her.”
“Exactly. I love her enough to eat this away from her and never let her know.”
At the checkout, Keith pulled a trashy magazine off the rack with Jake’s picture on the cover. He shook his head. “What’s this bullshit?”
“More of the same, I’m sure.”
I watched Keith flip through the magazine until he came to the article featuring Jake. I studied his face for a reaction. First came the clenched jaw, then the furrowed brows and flaring nostrils. When would he learn? Keith had been gripping the sides of the magazine tightly before he slapped it shut and replaced it on the rack.
“Why’d you look in the first place?” I shrugged.
“I don’t know. I guess I was hoping it might be a positive article for a change.”
I shook my head. I’d learned a long time ago not to take the bait. Nothing that was written about Jake was true, so why bother stooping to their level and reading the lies? “Yeah, it’s not gonna happen.”
“Does he see this crap?”
“He can’t not see it.”
“How does he react to it?”
“I don’t know. He doesn’t say.”
Keith gave me a curious look. “Ever?”
“You know Jake. He doesn’t exactly share his feelings.”
My brother shook his head. “You’d think after all this time it would get easier.”