The group of not quite grown-ups sat sprawled around the floor in the half-packed bedroom, tired and sore from the day. Boxes in various states of fullness scattered about the room, light patches of paint scattered on the wall showing where posters had been removed. The only furniture left in the room was a stripped bed, and an oversized bean bag chair.
“Damn,” Rick said, from his spot on the bare mattress, “I can’t believe you’re actually moving out, kid.” He grinned across the room at the 20 year old sprawled on the window-seat, occupied rolling up a joint.
“Fuck you Rick,” Brent said good-naturedly, shooting his brother-in-law the bird without looking up, “You’ve been telling me to move out since I was sixteen.”
“Well…yes, but I was joking.”
“You just want second hit,” teased Cammy, from where her lanky body was cuddled into Brent’s knee. At 17 (or as she kept insisting, “Nearly 18!” It was starting to get seriously annoying. Honestly, Rick was considering investing in duct-tape.), she was the baby of the family, and had been hyper pretty much since Brent had signed his apartments lease.
“Maybe,” Rick grinned at her. Truthfully he was finding it hard to believe Brent was moving out, hell, he was finding it a bit hard to believe that Brent was twenty. Part of him still expected to see a hyper little kid with a gigantic mop of blond hair every time he looked at him. Well, he turned to regard the younger boy again, the hair hadn’t changed much, but the rest of him sure had. Brent was taller than him now, though not as broad. He might give him a run for his money in a couple of years, if he kept filling out the way he had.
His grin faded as he looked over to the left of Brent, at a skinny red-headed kid who was seemingly occupied staring at the wall and chewing rapidly on his fingernails. Billy was beginning to worry him. Rick had been expecting him to be conspiring with Brent on what they could get up to in his new, mostly unsupervised apartment-and/or jokingly threatening to kick his ass if he took his little sister there for the “alone time” Brent and Cammy had been whispering about for hours.
Instead Billy had been quiet and distant-the quiet wasn’t that unusual, the distant was. He was completely zoned out at the moment, not even listening to the conversations around him like he usually did if he wasn’t in the mood to talk. Honestly, he’d been acting off most of the day; Rick had even caught him feeding most of his lunch to the dog. He had figured he’d perk up when the work was over, but no such luck. “Aye! Billy, you don’t look so good dude. You should have Momma Lynn look you over when she gets home, man.”
Billy looked up and smiled faintly, not really meeting Rick’s eyes, “I’m just a little out of it today man. I think I need some air.” He stood up abruptly and walked rapidly out of the room, almost slamming into Alexis and Lily, the last of their little group, walking in as he left. Rick stared after him concerned, and when he looked away he saw that Cammy was chewing on her lip as she turned back from looking after her brother.
Alexis glared mildly after Billy, complaining, “What’s his problem?” as she crossed the room and lowered herself down on to the beanbag chair. She tugged her beanie down further over her dark hair, and crossed her arms over her chest, still glaring at where Billy had been.
Lily, the older of the two walked over and plopped down sideways in Rick’s lap, “oof, Babe, be careful,” he complained, “and yeah, Lexi he’s been acting real weird.” He caught Lily’s eye and frowned to show he was actually worried. Lily’s brow wrinkled in concern, and she nodded slightly after a moment of thought-yeah, he’d seemed off to her too. Billy was generally a resilient kid-which meant if there was something wrong he probably wouldn’t tell them.
Brent snorted, “He’s always weird. He’s 19 and he likes Simple Plan.”
His sister shot him a scathing look, “You used to listen to Chumba Wumba.”
“I was twelve! And they aren’t that bad.”
“They’re called Chumba Wumba.” Lily’s face clearly stated that this alone won the argument. To be fair, Brent’s choice in music had not improved much over the years. Everyone knew he still had all the Chumba Wumba cd’s from when he was a kid, and listened to them when he thought no one could hear.
“Lily, be nice.” Rick said snorting in amusement.
“Besides!” Brent half-shouted, clearly embarrassed about the Chumba Wumba thing, “I’m not the one who used to pretend I was married to one of the backstreet boys!”
Rick grabbed onto Lily as she attempted to launch herself across the room at her little brother, “Hey! Don’t elbow me, I didn’t say it!” He pointed at Brent, “Knock it off or I’ll let her go!”
Brent snorted, “Which one was it again? Oh yes, AJ McClain, ‘I’ll be Mrs. McClain someday, I will!’” He looked at the ceiling, hands tucked under his chin, pretending to swoon. Lily growled as he continued, “We’ll have twins, and name them A.J and Lily Jr., and-”
“Warned ya,” Rick said as Lily flew across the room at her brother, Cammy giggling as she scooted out of target range.
“Shit, shit,” shouted Brent as she dove on top of him, “Ah! Quit pinching! The weed! Pause for the cause! It’s gonna fall, and go everywhere and you’re gonna owe me 20 bucks!”
Lily obediently paused, snatched up the magazine beside Brent that had the joint, shake and papers on it, and carefully handed it off to Alexis, who was laughing too hard to talk.
She then looked back at her brother who had used the brief break to catch his breath and was now trying to slide to the other side of the window seat. Lily grinned and said two words, “Wedgie Time.”
As Brent began making protest noises, Rick stood up, causing Lily to crow as she jumped on top of Brent again, knowing he wouldn’t hit her to get her off him, not hard enough to hurt anyway, “C’mon Rick, help me get him.”
As Rick approached Brent started to beg, only to sigh with relief when instead of helping Lily, he bodily pulled her off her brother, and laughing, carried a pouting Lily back to lay down with him.
“I finished rolling the joint,” Alexis teased holding it out towards Brent and snatching it away, “that means I get to light it!” she sing-songed at him, sticking out her tongue.
“Hey, no fair, I did all the hard work.” Brent complained, “All you did was pack it and put in a crutch.”
“House rules.” She said smugly.
“Lexi, give it back,” scolded Lily, knowing the two could go back and forth forever.
The girl rolled her eyes, put passed it back, “I was just teasing.”
“Sure you were, Lexus.” Rick grinned, “It’s a big joint, over a gram, it’ll go around, I promise.”
“Quit calling me Lexus!” as usual this request wasn’t even acknowledged. Alexis hadn’t really expected it to be, but she still scowled a bit. “Do I look like a car?”
“Yes.” returned Brent utterly deadpan. Lexi stuck out her tongue at him.
“Should we get Billy?” Cammy looked unusually hesitant, chewing nervously on a strand of red-blonde hair.
“He walked out of roto himself,” Rick shrugged his shoulders, from where he lay sideways behind Lily on the bed, playing with her curls. “Up to you guys I guess.”
“He just went outside right?” Lily motioned to the open window, “Somebody go and call for him.” She hesitated for a moment, biting her lip, “Does anyone else think he might be sick or something? He’s really pale, and when we came in it was almost like he didn’t even see me or Lexi.”
Alexis nodded, “Yeah, he has dark circles under his eyes too, he could be coming down with something.” She frowned quietly to herself for a moment, before shrugging, “Or maybe Brent’s right and he’s just weird.”
As everyone else snorted, or rolled their eyes, Cammy frowned and curled closer to Brent’s leg. Picking up on her body language, Brent nudged her gently, “Something really wrong with Billy, or something, sweets?”
She sighed, looking down, “I don’t know if I should say anything.” Since ordinarily Cammy couldn’t keep her mouth shut, this got everyone’s attention. Brent could tell just how tense she was, and found himself getting worried. Billy and him might tease the hell out of each other, and get on each other’s nerves constantly, but he was also the one Brent got into trouble with, and who he could call at two in the morning, who always had his back. His best friend, really.
“Shit…he was acting weird, wasn’t he?” said Alexis, glancing at the window as though it would tell her what was going on.
Rick shifted upright from where he’d been snuggling with Lily, honey colored eyes fixing seriously on Cammy, “He get himself in some trouble or something? He was acting kinda strange all day-nervous and twitchy.”
Cammy just shook her head, still looking down, and Rick and Brent exchanged looks, as Lily studied Cammy thoughtfully, the concerned frown growing deeper on her face. If she looked back at Billy’s behavior over the last few months, and compared it to Cammy’s…she was starting to see a pattern she didn’t really want to see.
“Look,” Rick said, in what at more joking times the kids referred to as his “Dad” voice, the one he’d totally copied off their Uncle Gav, “If he’s done something stupid, yeah I might kick his ass, but I’ll also help him.”
After a minute of Rick staring patiently Cammy finally spoke up, “I don’t know anything; he’s just been acting weird. He’s been leaving the house at weird times, like three in the morning. He made Mom cry yesterday.” She sounded kind of angry now, “She just asked him where he was going, which okay, she ordinarily doesn’t bother, but still, and he completely blew up!”
“What? Your mom’s like, well, your mom, he can’t talk to her like that! I mean, maybe she’s not the nicest lady in the world, but still!” Brent snapped, half standing up. Cammy secretly thought that was more than a little bit of a gross understatement but didn’t say anything; she could not however suppress the snort that popped out. She pretended not to notice as Lexi shot her eyes in her direction, concerned. “I should kick his ass.”
“Sit down and shut-up,” Rick said, eying Brent seriously, “You aren’t kicking anybody’s ass, and Billy is half your weight anyway.”
“I said sit.”
“Fine!” Brent sat again, but his body language made it clear he was not happy about it.
“Can we please, just smoke the joint and try to have some fun? Please?” Cammy said, “I’ll talk about it later, I swear, just not now. This is supposed to be fun, remember?” She leaned her head against Brent’s knee again, and smiled wanly.
“Yeah baby, fun.” said Brent, kissing the top of her head, though his face still betrayed his annoyance.
“We’ll all talk to him later, trust me.” Lily’s eyes were narrowed in thought. Added all together she was starting to get a picture she did not like. Billy had been entirely too quiet lately…
“Whatever.” Brent mumbled around the end of the joint, lighting it and slowly inhaling. He smiled slightly as he exhaled, “I guess things could always be worse right?”
Rick nodded, “We’ll figure out what’s wrong with him, and like I said,” here he gave Brent a determined look, “If he needs his ass whupped, I’ll deal with it.”
Brent rolled his eyes, and waved his hand in agreement, coughing lightly as he held in the smoke from his second hit, passing the joint down to Cammy leaning on his knee. “Okay, okay, I get it.” He grinned sarcastically, “You’re the grown-up.”
Rick met his eyes and nodded seriously, “Damn straight.” He tried to stay straight-faced as he eyed Brent but couldn’t, snickering as he finished, “Me and Lily are the grown-ups, and you brats are the kids.” The “kids” let out a resounding chorus of boos, and someone (Rick’s money was on Alexis) nailed him in the forehead with a balled up piece of paper.
As he moved to retaliate, Lily jabbed him lightly with an elbow, and proffered the joint when he turned to her. “It’s burning, Mister Grown-Up.” Rick dropped the paper with a groan, and took the joint.
As he took his last puff and passed it to Lexi, smoke still filling his lungs, he pointed around the room with his other hand, “Just remember, I will always be able to kick all of your asses, and no matter how big you get I will always be bigger,” Everyone laughed, rolling their eyes and snorting, and Rick grinned in satisfaction, “Oh, I almost forgot, I’m also smarter, and better looking than all of you. And I always will be. Yep.” As the pillows he could have sworn were packed began bombarding him Rick laughed and hoped they hadn’t burned the carpet, because he had no idea where that joint ended up.
Billy paced up and down and down and up the cul-de-sac where it seemed he’d spent most of the past eleven years. Playing in the street itself; or at Momma Lyn’s with Brent and Lily, and the rest. There was even a little forest area in the back of the cul-de-sac with a creek and a few well-worn paths, and if you went far enough, it connected with the real forest-underbrush so thick and wild you practically had to climb over it, filled with hills and cliffs, and little valley pockets. They'd found a clearing once where almost all the trees were dead-and ferns covered every last inch of them, even up on the tops. If you hopped a few fences you could get there right from the backyard. He’d lost a shoe in the creek once.
If he went down to the woods he’d have privacy-and the neighbors would quit looking at him funny. He knew he look sketchy, he didn’t need gossipy old Mr. Monroe peering at him from his front window to tell him. Billy couldn’t help it, he had to move. If he’d stayed in the house any longer he would have screamed, and it didn’t help that his mind was getting sleepy now even if his body wasn’t.
But part of Billy didn’t want to go down to the creek, where he would have privacy to smoke something none of his friends would approve of. Part of him wanted to go right back inside and march up to everyone and empty his pockets-show them the dodi and small bag of white crystals-and just wait and see what they would do about it. They would do something-Rick would if no one else.
Billy knew he never would-knew he didn’t have the guts too. It had been so long now he’d kept his secret. But the wanting kept him from going to the creek and at the moment that was good enough.
Lynn Jacobsen stood with her arms crossed over her nurse’s scrubs, peering from her driveway to the rapidly pacing boy in the road in front of her. She wasn’t sure what he thought he was doing, but it was plain there was something wrong about the young man she viewed as her own son. Billy hadn’t even looked over when she’d driven into the cul-de-sac, and she’d waved and honked. She thought for a moment longer, nodded decisively, and scooping the bag of Chinese take-out off the hood of her car, turned towards the house. There was a time to delegate and a time to do things yourself, and Lynn prided herself on knowing when to do each.
She had the feeling it wasn’t a mothers’ touch Billy needed at the moment.
Rick walked out of the house, expecting to see Billy, who from the sounds of it was having some kind of nervous breakdown, still pacing in the middle of the road. His brow furrowed when the kid wasn’t there. He glanced up and down the cul-de-sac looking for anything he might have missed, before heading off towards the creek with a shrug. It seemed the most likely place for Billy to go if he was upset.
He wasn’t sure what was going on, but Rick was starting to get seriously worried. After getting his ass kicked by a bunch of pillows, he’d sat and caught his breath, and found his mind drifting back to Billy. As he thought he realized that it wasn’t just today Billy had been acting off, it had been going on for a while now, at least a few weeks, probably longer. Mostly it was little things; that seemed harmless by themselves. It wasn’t until he thought about them together, that he began to understand this might be serious. Added into what Cammy had said about him leaving the house at 3am and other random times, and the random outbursts of anger, and it was shaping up to be something fairly big.
Sure, plenty of nineteen year olds come in late, but how many go out at three in the morning?
Over the last few years, Billy had occasionally gone into weird moods, which generally resulted in him not showing up at the house for a few days, once for a week, seemingly over whatever had been bothering him. If he stayed gone longer, Uncle Gav or Rick would go hunt him down, or send in Mister Theo, who was always able to find Billy when they couldn’t.
Rick had always put it down to hormonal mood swings, or maybe family problems, but he rarely pushed. For as close as they all were, Billy could be an immensely private kid. Rick had always assumed though, that if something were really wrong, Billy would come to him. He thought the kid knew that when they talked about being a family, when Rick called him his kid brother, it was for real.
But now it seemed like something was really wrong and Billy hadn’t come to him.
Rick had been rather focused on Lily lately, he knew. Maybe too focused on Lily. They were planning their wedding, and had been talking about buying the house they were renting, but he knew that wasn’t really an excuse. He was kicking himself for not paying more attention to Billy sooner, for not noticing. If Billy wouldn’t come to him, then it was his job to go to Billy. He ducked under a hanging branch as he entered the wooded area, and turned down the twisty path that led to the creek. Rick wasn’t trying to be particularly quiet, but he supposed he must have been, because he saw Billy before Billy saw him.
What he saw made his blood boil.
He charged forward and without thinking twice grabbed the glass bulb from between the startled boy’s lips. Rick felt himself shaking with emotion, he didn’t even care that the heated end of the pipe was blistering his fingers. He stared hard at Billy who stumbled back a pace, shocked and scared.
“I…Rick…” Billy faltered, at a loss for words and truly terrified as Rick took a step towards him, still staring right in his eyes. He wanted to run, but Billy was certain that would not end well. Still, his eyes darted from side to side, almost involuntarily, looking for escape routes. Rick saw this and shook his head slowly.
“Do. Not. Even. Think. About. It.” Each word was enunciated fully as he took another step forward directly into Billy’s personal space, who was now fairly convinced he was about to die.
“How long?” Rick ground out, leaving Billy to stare at him in confusion, either too high or too cowed to think properly.
“Don’t give me that shit!” Rick flung the dodi to the earth beside them, glass exploding and showering their feet, “How long have you been fucking tweaking Billy?” Rick glared as Billy looked everywhere but at him. “Billy!”
“Four months.” Billy squeaked out, still not meeting Rick’s eyes, “I mean I’d tried it before then, of course, but that’s when I started doing it a lot.”
Rick was still trying to make sense of that “of course”, because, seriously, what the fuck, when Billy spoke up again “What-what are you going to do? Are you gonna tell? I-uh, I mean…” Billy trailed off, rubbing at the back of his head, and biting his lip.
Rick thought to himself for a moment longer before answering, almost not believing the words that were coming out of his own mouth, “I’m not sure of everything that’s gonna happen, but I do know I’m gonna whup your ass. When I’m done you aren’t ever gonna do something this stupid again. You know how I feel about fucking meth, kid.” Before Billy could ask what that meant, Rick had a tight grip on his upper arm and was using it to propel him over to a fallen log a little farther down the side of the creek bed. When Rick set down on the log and tugged Billy to the side of him he was utterly baffled.
It wasn’t until Rick had yanked him over his lap and clamped an arm around his middle that he realized Rick had been being literal.
“What the-Rick are you fucking spanking me man?” Rick found himself fighting a snort at the absolute disbelief in Billy’s voice. It was all very surreal and for a second he felt ridiculous, but as he let his eyes drift over to the shards of broken meth pipe, he concluded that it was also very necessary.
“Yeah, Billy-boy, I guess I am.” With that he raised his right hand and let it fall with a resounding WHAP square in the center of the younger man’s ass. Billy squawked a bit in surprise, but didn’t fight him-as he let his hand fall again Rick hoped that meant he’d made the right choice.
“I can’t say I’d ever expected it to happen before today, but I can tell you now, if you ever touch meth again this is what will happen every time.” Rick swatted lower and from side to side as he spoke, smacking particularly hard on his last two words. He continued peppering the younger man’s backside, and was surprised when Billy didn’t protest except to squirm and try to shift his backside away.
Billy bit back a groan as Rick concentrated on the very top of his right thigh for a moment, trying to ignore the building sting and heat, before blurting out, “Okay I get it, I fucked up! I’m sorry, it’s enou-gh!” His voice broke on the last word, and angry as he was, Rick felt like utter shit. It wasn’t like he wanted to make the kid cry-but he also didn’t think it was enough. This wasn’t a gray area-he got on the kids asses if they smoked weed more than a few times a week. Billy damn well knew better.
“Nope, Billy, it’s not. I’m glad you’re sorry, but you’re right,” Rick paused as he concentrated on laying a series of smacks along the crown of Billy’s ass, making Billy drum his feet into the ground. “You seriously fucked up. It’s not like this was the first time either. Four months!” Rick felt his temper rise again as he thought about how long Billy had been putting what amounted to poison into his body, and his hand cracked down harder than it had yet, again and again, all across the crease where Billy’s butt and thighs connected.
Billy howled, and was suddenly bucking and kicking, fighting as hard as Rick had expected he would at the beginning, “Please bro!” he wailed snot and tears clogging his voice, “I’m sorrrry! I’m so, so, sorry!!!” His sobs broke off slightly to teary whimpers as his body slumped, the fight leaving him as quick as it entered, and Rick paused, torn. That had to be enough right? God knew his hand was burning; Billy’s ass couldn’t be in any better shape. He nodded to himself, moving his hand, now blistered and red, to rub gently at Billy’s back.
“Alright, buddy, were done. It’s gonna be okay, you’re okay now. Shh-shh, Billy-boy.” If Billy hadn’t been crying quite so hard, he might have felt strange comforting a nearly-grown man like a small child, but it was so obvious his brother needed it Rick didn’t think twice, just kept his hand steadily going up and down Billy’s back, murmuring comforting nonsense.
As Billy’s sobs calmed and his breathing became even, Rick levered him up, standing with him, and pulling him into a tight hug. Frankly, Rick needed the hug as well-it had sent a bone deep surge of fear through him when he saw Billy, though anger had definitely taken over. “Never again. I won’t stand for it Billy.”
Billy tried to answer, and felt his throat clogging and tears filling his eyes again. He settled for nodding his head from where it was pressed into the top of Rick’s shoulder. He NEVER wanted that to happen again, and he remembered Rick’s promise at the beginning. Billy had been expecting to feel angry this whole time, yet it hadn’t happened. He mostly felt relieved he didn’t have to lie anymore. He wasn’t quite sure whether that should bother him or not, but for the moment he just didn’t want to move. His ass hurt like a motherfucker, and he hadn’t slept properly, or really much at all, for weeks now.
Mostly, Billy was just glad Rick had bothered with him, hadn’t just sent him away in disgust. Rick’s arms tightened around him, and he said firmly, “No. That’ll never happen. You fuck up again, we’ll deal with it again, but you’re not going anywhere kid.” For a moment Billy’s sleep deprived brain seriously considered the possibility that Rick was a psychic, before realizing he must have spoken out loud.
“I really am, so, so, sorry.” Billy’s voice was muffled from where his head was still buried in Rick’s shoulder, and Rick couldn’t help but chuckle as he moved a hand up to ruffle Billy’s hair.
“Yeah, I bet you are Billy-boy.” Rick pulled back a bit, disentangling them enough so he could look Billy in the eye, but keeping his hands on Billy’s shoulders. “Hey,” he said when Billy immediately looked down, “Look at me man.” Rick nodded approvingly when Billy looked up, feeling the muscles that had tensed when he pulled away relaxing as he did. “We’re going to get through this, we’ll figure things out, we always do. Through Hell or high water…” He trailed off, waiting for the younger man to complete the sentence.
“We take care of our own.” Billy said it quietly, tiredly, and then seemed to slump even more, making Rick tighten his grip on his shoulders for fear he would collapse right in front of him.
“That’s right. That never changes, not ever. We still have to have a long talk about this, and decide just how were gonna get you clean. You’re going to tell me how all this started, and what the hell you’ve been doing for the past four months.” Who exactly was selling to him would be nice to know too. They lived in a little tiny college town with only about 8,000 people, less than half that on school breaks, and most people would have known better. Rick was generally considered a person not to be fucked with, and this definitely counted as fucking with him in his book. Billy groaned a bit, but nodded, it wasn’t like he really had a choice and he knew it.
“That can wait for tomorrow though, we need to head back before they send out a search party. Momma Lynn brought home Chinese food, and you need to eat whether you’re hungry or not.” Before he could continue Billy was shaking his head, and he stopped, glaring a bit, but letting him speak.
“There is no way I can eat more than a bite or two of anything, you know what that stuff does to your appetite…” He trailed off as Rick’s resolute expression didn’t change.
“You mean meth? ‘Cause that’s what you were smoking, not “stuff”. That’s exactly why you need to eat, you might not feel hungry but I bet your stomach is pretty damn empty right now.” Rick sighed as Billy’s face showed how anxious he was. “Look, just try all right? It’s not like I’m gonna funnel it into your mouth, bro.” Rick gently cuffed him on the shoulder, “Come on, they really will send someone to look for us if we don’t hurry.”
Billy wiped his eyes one more time, just to make sure, and let Rick guide him up the trail-Rick didn’t seem to want to let him out of his sight, and Billy supposed he couldn’t blame him. It was kind of nice, really.
They were just stepping onto the sidewalk when Billy suddenly turned bright red and halted where he was, making Rick nearly run into him. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you gonna tell?” Billy looked at him pleadingly, and Rick grimaced. “Ah, come on man!”
“Look, look,” Rick motioned at Billy to calm down, “I’m not gonna tell the brat brigade, or anything, but I’m not gonna lie to Momma Lynn. She’s going to ask, she saw you pacing and was worried. I have to tell her. I won’t tell Lily unless she asks, but I can almost guarantee she’s going to want me to tell her right along with Momma Lynn. And you know Momma Lynn is going to tell Uncle Gavriil, and Mister Theo.” Billy groaned and buried his face in his hands.
“They’re going to kiilll me.” Rick rolled his eyes at Billy’s theatrics, gently shoving him forward.
“I’m pretty sure the worst non-law involved consequence already happened.” He shook his head, wondering for the first time if his godmother and girlfriend might not be pleased with how he’d handled things.
“Yeah, about that, my ass hurts.” Billy grinned sheepishly at him over his shoulder, letting him know he wasn’t mad, and Rick laughed out loud.
“Good. Now, home. March.” He pointed forward and Billy rolled his eyes, but walked quickly.
He wondered if he should tell Rick just how long he’d been awake now-he was pretty sure he was starting to see things, unless a bat had really just swooped down in front of them…