He carried his body as if it ached, but even the purple shadows under his eyes didn’t detract from his overall beauty. Whitman had never seen a more gorgeous man, or one more in need of a nap, maybe twenty.
He heaved the box onto the checkout counter as if it held rocks and not sandwiches, and a tendril of straight black hair slipped from his hair tie.
“Someone placed an order from Molly’s?” The man pulled a receipt from his tight back pocket and scanned it. “A Whitman?”
“That’s me,” Whitman said. “How much do I owe you?”
Whitman slid two twenties across the counter. The man had a money pouch, but Whitman stopped him from counting out the difference.
“Keep the change.”
For the first time, the man’s eyes raised to meet Whitman’s. Whitman was not a man of few words. Words were his life, his love. But the tension that radiated from the honeyed depths struck Whitman dumb.
“Thanks.” The man spun on his heels and was out the door, leaving Whitman with his hand half raised in the air in farewell. He rubbed it across his bald head instead, though he doubted if anyone had been around to see the feint that they would have bought it.
Whitman picked up the box, which was as light as he had imagined, and carried it to conference room, next to the head librarian’s office, the only two closed-off rooms in the entire library, unless you counted the bathrooms and the “teen” room. Whitman had to laugh to himself once again at moving to a town so small, that the local teenage population used the library as their hangout.
Whitman had been hired as the new head librarian two months ago and a month later made the trek from Vancouver to the tiny town of Slat Creek, Oregon. He was pretty sure he had met the entire town by his second day, apparently a new librarian or a new resident of any kind was a big deal, not to mention he was replacing Mrs. Clemens, a Slat Creek library institution who had finally decided to retire after quenching enquiring minds for three generations. But Whitman had never laid eyes on the sexy delivery guy until today. From Molly’s, he made a mental note.
Whitman passed out the sandwiches and soups to Mrs. Clemens, the soon-to-be-former head librarian who was most certainly not called by her first name, Roy, the part-time weekend help, and Alyssa, the high school student who was interning at the library as part of her senior community project. Alyssa set hers aside to staff the front desk while the others held their monthly meeting, but they always got her food too, even though she was an unpaid helper. At his old library, if they scheduled a meeting over lunch, they wouldn’t have cared if you ate or not. What mattered was that everyone was able to attend, not that they were fed. There was something homey about the way Slat Creek ran things, even if he later realized that the funds came from Mrs. Clemens’ pocket and not the library budget.
“With graduation coming up,” Mrs. Clemens began, folding her notebook cover over her notepad to reveal her list of weekly meeting topics, “and summer fast on its heels, we have a lot of planning to do. First, the graduation reception. Normally, I’d send Alyssa to the city for the cake, but she’s one of the graduates.”
“I can bake something,” Whitman volunteered, because he loved to bake and because he hated store-bought sheet cakes with a fiery passion that only those whose sensibilities of what is tasty and delicious have been offended share.
“There’s no need.” Mrs. Clemens peered down here bifocals at him, as if she didn’t trust him to cook anything, much less something as important as the graduation reception cake. “I’ve already ordered the cake from the Thrifty Mart. We just need someone to pick it up that morning.”
Whitman agreed to take on the errand, since it seemed the others had a reluctance to drive into the “city.” Considering what they called a city was actually Copper Beach, a town of eight thousand, whereas Whitman had come from an actual city of over half a million people, it was yet another quaint, small town quirk that Whitman often found himself having a chuckle over. Most of these quirks were laughable. Others, such as the fact that there was no real grocery store in town, were not. Whitman quickly discovered that unless he grew fruits and vegetables himself, not likely considering he was renting the small apartment over the Slat Creek Antique and Native Art shop, then the only way to get decent fresh food on a regular basis was to go to the farmer’s market in the “city” and stock up every weekend.
“How many people usually attend the graduation reception?” Whitman asked.
The library lived prominently on the main street in town, and although the school ran a block down a perpendicular street, they shared a backyard that was the school’s track and football field. The library shared occupancy of the second nicest building in town with the post office, the first being the tribal and town building across the street. The reception was always held at the library because folks could easily walk from the gymnasium, where the ceremony would be held, to the library, which had the bonus of being one of the few buildings in town with air conditioning. The gym, he would discover later, did not.
“There are twenty graduates this year, assuming little Harold Weaver can get it together, and experience has taught us to plan for around eight guests per graduate. Plus, the community members who always attend for visibility, like the school board president and the mayor and the tribal chairman. All in all, around two hundred should be here.”
“Two hundred?” Whitman gawped at the number. “Isn’t that almost the entire population of Slat Creek?”
“About a quarter,” Mrs. Clemens said, “Graduation is almost like a town holiday, which is why this reception is such a big deal for us. It’s when we get a lot of the younger siblings to sign up for our summer events.”
Whitman had always loved the idea of the library being the focal point of a town; he just never dared to dream that he’d actually witness it first-hand. It was something magical, something that he had wished about his larger city library, but there, people only came in when they needed something, and left to take their books or do their research at a trendy coffee shop or any number of hipper places to hang out and study. Here, the library was the community, and Whitman felt like he was finally a part of something greater than himself.
* * *
With the lunch rush over at Molly’s, Travis helped Aunt Lucinda clean up and then took his sister, Caitlyn, home. Their mother was an only child, but Lucinda was one of those close friends that weirdly insisted you call her “aunt” and it stuck so well that Travis rarely thought of her as plain old Lucinda.
Aunt Lucinda had loaded him down with a paper bag of leftovers and unsold baked goods that would have to be thrown out or donated. One day, Travis was going to be tired of eating deli sandwiches, carrot cake and fudge brownies, but until that day, he was just thankful for the free food.
Caitlyn went straight to her room and shut the door, something that wouldn’t seem too abnormal for a teenage girl, until a few minutes later when the hallway reeked of pot and incense that she believed covered up the smell. Travis sprayed air freshener, a sad commentary on how fucked up both their lives had become in the past six months, then crashed on the couch, remote in hand. The hard lump of his wallet reminded him that he needed to put away his tip money, so before he even got a chance to get comfy, he was back up and headed to his bedroom.
In the back of his closet was a safe, like the ones in hotels except a little larger. He had purchased it last week, and it now held all of the knives and scissors formerly scattered around the house, his razor, and every medicine from the bathroom cabinet except his sister’s birth control pills. It now also contained his extra tip money, because he’d learned that if he left it laying out, Caitlyn would take it to self-medicate.
He was a shit brother, but he didn’t have it in him to send her to a treatment facility or a mental hospital. She had her reasons, and they were ones he understood. Ones sometimes he wished he could give in to as well. But he was all she had left. If he stopped being responsible for five seconds, their world would crumble even more than it already had, and he couldn’t lose her too.
Travis ignored the pot smoke as best he could, kept everything that could potentially be used for self-harm locked away, and turned on the TV to allow him some sort of respite from his shitty life. Other than the smell and the safe, everything about their house was exactly the way it had been for as long as Travis could remember. With the safety of the unnatural stasis of the house came the added problem that any second, he expected his mom to walk around the corner, book in hand, hair haphazardly thrown into a bun on top of her head, gnawing on something healthy like it was a requirement for her brain to function.
Every time he was disappointed.
After an episode of Wheel of Fortune, Caitlyn appeared and dug through the bag of food for a brownie.
“Work was good,” she said, and Travis refrained from saying that the job she did was one created specifically so he and Aunt Lucinda could keep an eye on her. She wasn’t allowed in the back of the restaurant unsupervised. Anyone working the register could wipe the tables and throw away trash, as they had in all the years before. But Caitlyn didn’t think she could handle returning to school just yet, and school didn’t exactly want her, or at least they didn’t want to be potentially held responsible for what she might do to herself while on their time and property, so a “job” at Molly’s was Travis’s only option. That, or worry for seven hours each day about what he might come home to.
“Did you take your medicine?” Travis asked as he reached for a half of a BLAT, bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, sandwich.
“It doesn’t work,” Caitlyn complained and pinched off a bite of brownie and stuffed it in her mouth.
“You have to give it time. It has to build up in your system. And who knows how adding pot to the mix might mess with what it’s supposed to do.”
Caitlyn rolled her eyes and pulled her legs underneath her. “I told the doctor. He accounted for it. Or he would have told me to stop. Besides, it’s the only thing that makes me happy.”
The painful prick of unshed tears behind Travis’ eyes was almost too much. He breathed through it and focused on the beginning of Family Feud, the only way he knew how to cope and keep from falling apart every other minute.
Caitlyn eventually left and went back to her room, and Travis made sure to set his alarms so that he could check on her throughout the night. The final alarm was for six thirty in the morning, when he would finally get up for real and get ready for another day of work and non-stop monitoring his sister.