Home > Opposite of Always(10)

Opposite of Always(10)
Justin A. Reynolds

I get it.

“So, as punishment, your mom and I have decided to . . .” Dad looks at Mom for crime-to-punishment value assignment.

“Put you on probation,” Mom says.

“Right, probation,” Dad confirms. “Otherwise known as thin ice. You slip up again in the next few weeks, and it’s no cell phone, no parties, no . . .”

“Life,” I finish. “I understand. And thank you. For the suspended sentence.”

“Don’t thank us yet. It comes with community service, too,” Dad says.

I suppress a groan.

Dad and Mom look at each other again, I suppose to reestablish their parental telepathy. “That’s right,” Mom says, still studying Dad’s face. “You’ll be cutting Ms. Nolan’s grass for the next month . . .”

“Which includes picking up after her dogs,” Dad adds.

This time I groan. Ms. Nolan is a pleasant woman, but she doesn’t believe in pooper scoopers. Her yard is more crap than grass. “C’mon, guys. She has like forty-three dogs over there.”

“You made your bed, mister,” Mom says.

I sigh.

“You know you can always invite your friends here, Jack. We want to know the people in your life,” Mom says.

“I know. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I hope you got your money’s worth,” they say, eyebrows raised.

Which to answer would be the equivalent of sprinting in dress socks through a field of black ice that’s also encrusted with land mines. So, I keep my head low and cultivate a look that I hope conveys my sincere remorse.

“I’m sorry, guys,” I say for the dozenth time. “Disappointing you really sucks.”

“Well, as long as you learn from this experience,” Mom says. I wag my head as she wraps me in a hug and Dad pats my head, and I keep wagging as they shuffle out, until Dad pauses in my doorway.

“Jackie, so, did you or did you not purchase milk for the family?”

Crap, I’d forgotten to stop by the store on my way home. “Negatory, Dad. Sorry.”

“Right,” Dad says. “Suddenly, I’d like cereal, too.”

FRANNY: Hey, man, how was your big date?

I fall backward into my bed and I close my eyes and I’m back in the gorges, except the sun, clouds, and river rock are all puffy, pastel marshmallows, the sky twinkling with sugar grains, and silver spoon trees swaying in the frosted sugar breeze and singing about love, about happiness. Kate and I in the middle of it all, drifting lazily down a milk river, our butts flopped in giant Froot Loops. We’re holding hands and partly singing along, partly laughing, because what’s going to happen when our cereal tubes get soggy?

But it doesn’t matter.

When we’re together, how could anything else matter?

ME: Worth every penny.

FRANNY: Knew it would be.

FRANNY: So . . . I have big news.

ME: All the Wentworth players contracted encephalitis so you win the state championship by default?

FRANNY: The Coupon’s coming home.

ME: Are you kidding me?!?

FRANNY: I’d joke about this?

ME: So he got out? Just like that? They let him go??

FRANNY: End of the month.

ME: WTF?!

FRANNY: Right. TF.

The Coupon’s A-Coming

The Coupon is Franny’s nickname for his dad. Coined back in fifth grade, when his dad, yet again, cut out on him, this time on the eve of his first ever game. Which especially sucks, watching your best friend’s heart repeatedly smashed to smithereens, since Franny is the most loyal person I know.

It’s true. No exaggeration.

Franny and I date back to—as so many friendships do—the playground. For most kids, the playground is a magical place of shiny aluminum slides and rusty chain swings. A place to make friends and run free.

For me, it was a place to get my ass kicked. Recurrently.

Enter Franny.

Even as a kid, he was intimidating. Hell, he towered over most of the parents, and his voice, at seven years old, was already deeper than most dads’, mine included. On more than one occasion he saved me from imminent doom. Which I couldn’t understand. I mean, what could I do for him, other than split my red Popsicles and single-leggedly lose every three-legged race for us?

Winning games is easy for me, he’d said one day after hitting our baseball so deep we spent all of daylight trying to find it. But that’s why I like you. You don’t care about winning.

Naturally, he was wrong. I did care. I just realized winning wasn’t a particular strength of mine, and so I gradually grew accustomed to its antonym.

But that’s Franny. Give him rain, he’s pointing out the rainbow. Which is useful, because he’s had more rain than anyone I know.

“Guess I thought this day would never come,” Franny says, leaning against my back-porch post. He flings a rock over the fence and into the old cornfield. We used to ride our bikes back there, racing along the furrowed rows, jumping over the mounds of dirt, motocross stars in the making. I listen for the rock, but I don’t hear it hit ground.

“It’s been, what, six years?”

“Eight,” Franny says. He casts another rock. “I barely remember him. And what I do remember, none of it’s good.”

“What’s Abuela saying?”

Franny shrugs. “It’s her son, you know, so she’s all sorts of conflicted. She told me that she won’t let him live with us if I don’t want him to.”

“What do you want?”

“I don’t know. She’s happy that he’s coming back. But she’s sad, too, because she thinks I haven’t forgiven him. I know what she wants me to do. I mean, you know how she is, always talking, Francisco, be the bigger person. Which is bull. He’s had a lot more time on this earth to figure things out, but because he’s blown every opportunity, has ruined every good thing in his life, I have to be bigger. Where’s the goddamn sense in that?”

He slumps onto the stairs. “But I tell him to stay away and I’m the bad guy. I let him back in and I start the countdown until he messes up again. I’m screwed no matter what. Story of my life, right?” Franny says, smiling. Except I know his real smile. His happy smile. This isn’t that. This is his I have to be tough, I can’t let anything faze me smile. This is the smile that I see most.

“You can’t worry about what anyone else thinks,” I tell him. “You have to do what’s right for you.” Which I realize is easier said, but it’s true, even if it sounds like Afterschool Special Soup.

“I just have a bad feeling.”

“What do you mean?”

He chews on his lip. “I don’t know. Like, something bad might happen.”

“Then maybe you should tell Abuela no. That you don’t want him in the house.”

Franny nods. “Will you come over still? You know, if he’s around?”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Since when do we let The Coupon decide anything for us?”

“You’re right! The Coupon can kiss my ass.” He laughs. “Sometimes I forget that about you, man.”

“What?”

“That you’re the toughest nerdy guy I know.”

It’s my turn to laugh. “Thanks, I think.”

He stands back up, his shadow stretching out deep across the yard, throws a rock so hard, so far, I’m pretty sure it’s still climbing long after we walk away. “It’s definitely thanks, bro,” he says, looking away from me. “It’s definitely thanks.”

I shove my hands into my pockets. “So, I’m on probation for the foreseeable future. And apparently, I’m also a dog wrangler now.”

“That’ll teach you to steal your mom’s car.”

“Hey, I asked!”

Franny grins. “Jillian says Kate’s pretty hot. You really like this girl?”

“Think so, yeah,” I say, playing it cool.

“Yeah, well, you’re a good kid. Mostly,” he says, tousling my hair in that big-brother way that he sometimes assumes, even though technically I’m older by four months. “I’m sure your folks will let you off early for good behavior.”

“They were pretty disappointed.”

“Disappointment’s their job, man. As long as you can still practice, we’re all good.”

“Right,” I say. “The band.”

Some Joy for Your Toy

You might not know from looking at us. If there’s a mold for this sort of thing, we probably don’t fit it. But the three of us are in band. No, not in a band (at least until just recently). In band. As in at school. You have Jillian on the big bad bass; Franny doing his thing on drums; and me holding down the trumpet. I won’t kid you, though. We mostly suck. Well, to be fair, I suck. Jillian is pretty good and Franny holds his own. But it’s not fair because Jillian comes from a musically inclined family, and Franny is one of those Good at Everything people.

That said, what I lack in natural talent (a considerable deficit), I make up for in (near) tireless effort. And for the last three months, we’ve been practicing harder than ever. Because in just a couple months our own newly formed band, JoyToy, will have its world premiere performance.

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