Cooler Than Me

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Dre knew he shouldn’t be here. Aunt Ruth did so much for them already, and he really shouldn’t take advantage. How could he have left the house when Sam was having a meltdown? As guilt threatened to overwhelm him, he checked his watch for the fifth time, wondering when Tristan was planning to make an appearance so he could go home.

“Dude, are you being lame again?”

Dre flinched as Jay slapped him on the back and nearly knocked him off the barstool. The doofus was wearing sunglasses indoors, the ones with one blue lens, and one red. Still, his lewd grin was unmistakeable. Dre definitely regretted whatever low point had led him to even consider sleeping with the biggest jerk on the continent. No amount of loneliness was worse than dealing with that smug slimeball.

With a huff, Dre pushed his hair out of his eyes and glared. “You’re such a douchebag, Jaylin. You know how the twins get when I leave them alone for too long. Plus with all the homework I’ve got – ”

Jay rolled his eyes, then cut Dre off with a kiss. Despite the emotional ambiguity, a wave of heat ripped through his body, stealing his breath just as surely as the contact of their lips. Leaving Dre’s head spinning, Jay pulled back with a grin.

“Blah, blah, blah. You’re an old man. Do you even know how to have a human conversation? Are you really trying to bail at 11:30 at night?”

Adjusting the hem of his shirt, Dre glared. “You said the party was starting at 11:00. I came early so I could at least try to get home before midnight. And don’t we both have that Econ exam on Monday?”

With a shrug, Jay signalled for a drink. Something bright-red with little swirls of gold. “A little brother only turns eighteen once, my dude. I’m sure you’ll be painting the town red with Summer and Sam when they finally become adults.”

Dre shuddered. “Absolutely not. I’m thinking more of a nice, civilized luncheon at the church before I drop them off at an all-girls college and get a house within a five-minute drive.”

“You’re going to smother them.”

“It’s not smothering when you care. I refuse to let them feel unstable for even a second. Which is why – ” he slid off the stool – “I should be getting home. Tell Tristan I say happy birthday, and make sure he gets this.” Dropping a card besides Jay’s drink, Dre turned toward the door.

“Aw, Dre, come on – ”

“It’s not my fault if people aren’t on time, Jaylin!” Dre couldn’t even believe he had to spell that out. “I’ll be awaiting your desperate request for help studying for that test. And I won’t dignify any other requests with a response, so don’t even try.”

Tapping out a text to Aunt Ruth to let her know that he was on his way back, he pushed his way through the thin crowd and out the door. Crisp February air nipped at his skin as he pulled on his beanie, and then his leather gloves. The thump of his boots on the white-dusted asphalt was the only sound as he travelled across the parking lot to the Vyrus. Until a voice called out to him from the darkness.

“Andre! Is that you?”

He stilled, his heart stuttering in his chest. There was only one person who called him that, and a shiver went through him as a slight, wintry breeze picked up. When he turned, sure enough, there was Fletcher, striding toward him from his beat-up green Jeep.

Dre stopped only steps from his bike. “Hi.” He cleared his throat, then tried again. “Yep.” Wow. Maybe he had forgotten how to have human conversations. 

Fletcher stopped a couple feet away, smiling. His bright blue pullover, purple jogger jeans, and red high-tops were an incongruous yet oddly appealing combination. He was the epitome of the casual punk-rocker. “Cool, we got here at the same time! I was worried I might be too early.”

“Right.” Dre tried to smile. “That would be…like, totally, lame.” He tried to not to visibly cringe. What was wrong with him?

A laugh vibrated the air with a sound like a finger trailed over the rim of a glass. “You sound like my little sisters. Katie says everything is lame. Mom says that she’s turning into a bad influence.”

“Katie’s not so bad. She’s a big help when it comes to the twins.”

“How are they doing?”

Immediately, Dre almost spewed the entire story of Sam’s Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt for Murphy and Summer’s first-place project at the junior science fair, and how they had both decided to go around the neighbourhood collecting old winter clothes for the church. How Sam was convinced she needed a bra like Katie and Summer had started studying trigonometry…

Don’t be lame.

“Fine,” he said, smiling as brightly as he could.

Instead of smiling back, Fletcher tilted his head. “Fine? That’s it? Usually, you have a lot more to say about them.”

Dre looked down at his boots. “I know. I talk about them too much,” he mumbled, wishing he could leave. “I know it’s boring.”

“Hey! I don’t think it’s boring.” Fletcher rubbed the arms of that puffy jacket, bright blue fabric flashing in the parking lot lights. “Why don’t we go inside? I’d really love to catch up.”

This time, Dre couldn’t hide his cringe as he glanced at the door of the bar. He started to say that he really needed to get home to his family, but then remembered that Fletcher thought he was on his way in, not out, and then didn’t know what to say.

“Or why don’t we just sit over there?” Fletcher nodded toward a nearby bench under an overhang. “Just for a minute? I’d love to check in.”

No. He should definitely say no, and go home, and get some studying done. Dre berated himself as he sat as far away from Fletcher as possible. He played the same reminders in his head – Fletcher was his group leader. Dre was nothing more than one of the many sheep he was helping his father and Pastor Anderson shepherd. Fletcher was essentially perfect, and Dre was more flawed and broken than a living human had a right to be. Fletcher was light and happy, and Dre felt like he was stuck in tar that he could never quite get off, no matter what he tried.

“It’s funny, isn’t it,” Fletcher started, huddling on the bench. Dre wasn’t surprised that he was cold, dressed as he was. “Tristan is celebrating turning eighteen by drinking his face off and seeing how many times he can get laid. I remember you turning eighteen and sitting in a courtroom, waiting to find out whether you were going to get custody of your sisters. Tristan is celebrating becoming a man by shirking all responsibility. You celebrated by taking on even more.”

“It is funny,” Dre agreed in disgust. “Who’d want to sleep with Tristan? He’s such a loser, like his brother.”

“He’s a lost soul,” Fletcher chastised with a grin. “A work in progress, like the rest of us. And don’t come at me with that. I know Jaylin is one of your best friends.”

Dre begged to differ, but decided it was better not to argue. Fletcher saw the good in everyone, no matter what. “I’m just saying, you might want to keep an eye on him in there, otherwise Kirkby might have a population boom in the next nine months. God knows Jay isn’t helping.”

“Not everyone can be as responsible as you.”

Even though Dre had heard variations of this praise for the last few years, it always sounded different coming from Fletcher. He couldn’t help the slight glow that lit deep in his belly, and he sat up a little straighter. “It’s not responsibility if it’s family,” he muttered modestly, running a gloved finger over his elbow.

Playfully, Fletcher nudged Dre’s boot with sneaker. “See what I mean? You know what being a real man means. I’ve always admired that about you. Ever since the twins came along, you’ve done nothing but put them first. Ever since your mom – ”

Fletcher gasped as Dre’s hand smothered his mouth. Eyes wide, he stared, and Dre suddenly realized what he had done. His heart was pounding. He had his other hand fisted in that electric blue shirt, and right above the other heartbeat that seemed to match his own. Quickly, he withdrew to the other end of the bench once again.

“I…I’m sorry,” he panted, shakily smoothing down his hair. “I didn’t mean to do that that. I…I just don’t want to talk about…her.”

Whistling, Fletcher pressed a hand to his chest. “No worries, dude. Wow, I forget how strong you are. Packing heat under there, aren’t you?” An ill-aimed punch ended up connecting with one of the spikes on the sleeve of Dre’s leather jacket.

Automatically, he grabbed Fletcher’s hand as he grunted in pain, just like he’d grabbed Sam’s hand when she’d sliced her finger on a Valentine’s card earlier today. Great. Not only had he physically attacked his Young Adults group leader, he’d also managed to injure him while sitting still.

“Are you okay?” Intently, Dre turned the hand over and brushed the small red mark on the back of Fletcher’s fourth knuckle.

“Totally fine, totally fine,” he said breezily, flexing his long musician’s fingers. “That was my fault. A dumb idea. What’s up with that jacket?”

Dre tried to match the tone. “Oh, you know. Spikes to protect my soft side.”

Fletcher raked him with his eyes. “Do you have any soft sides?”

Once again, that heat, building internally and making it slightly more difficult to breathe. The way Jay looked at him was nothing compared to this. How could he explain that he had to stay in peak condition in case one of his mother’s enemies tried to come for him or his sisters? Or, even worse, that he trained even beyond necessity just so that he didn’t end up putting a gun to his head to finally silence the internal storm?

“Everyone has a soft side,” Dre whispered, then realized he was still holding Fletcher’s hand. Quickly, he dropped it.

Fletcher poked the offending spike, then fingered the leather. “This feels pretty vintage,” he commented. “Rad.”

Vintage. That’s what he’d tell Aunt Ruth the next time she called it ratty and old. “It was my dad’s.”

Fletcher’s eyebrows knitted together, and he did that thing with his eyes again where he seemed to take Dre in with a single glance. “Really? It seems a little…small.”

“Oh. I meant, it was Sean’s. Aunt Lilah found it for me a few years ago.” Aunt Ruth had been quite upset at this encouragement of Dre’s bike-riding delinquency. “Your mom hates it. She thinks biking is going to turn me into a Hell’s Angel.”

A heart-stopping grin and a comforting squeeze on the arm. “I don’t think that’s possible. Hence what I was getting at before. I think you’re incredible, because I could never try to parent my sisters, as much as I love them. So, when I ask about your family, I really mean it, okay?”

Dre quirked a smile, every ounce of his brain laser-focused on the warmth on his arm. “I don’t think you know what you’re asking. I could talk about the twins all night.” 

“Well, isn’t that just your luck! Mom sent me to make sure that you don’t come home until at least one.”

“Um, I don’t think so. Fletch, I’m sorry, but I was actually on my way out when you got here. This isn’t my scene, and I really don’t want the girls to think I abandoned them. I told your mom I was on my way home.” He tapped his watch to prove it, then groaned at the message on the home screen.

If you walk through that door, you’re grounded. I’ve hidden your computer, and you’re not getting it back until you have a good time.

“For crying out loud,” Dre muttered. “She’s starting to act like Aunt Jeni. Why can’t people just leave me alone? Why do they have to make it so hard for me to look after the girls and get my schoolwork done? Why do they insist that I have to socialize, or whatever? It’s really not necessary, and – ”

This time, it was Fletcher who silenced him with a hand to the mouth. But his touch was much more gentle. And very cold. “Dre. Calm down. Look, you know that we all think you’re brave and responsible. But this isn’t good for you. You need to take time for yourself. Time to just be a kid.”

“I come to group every Thursday, and church every Sunday. And I’m not a kid. Didn’t you just say that I’m a man?”

“Yes. But you’re also just twenty years old. You are a kid. And while the last thing I want is to see you getting sloshed and dancing on the bar, I do want to see you relax. I want to see you get rid of these.” He flicked one of the spikes again, scowling slightly as though he now had a personal vendetta.

Suddenly, Dre wondered what his life might have been like if his parents had lived. Any one of them, really. Susan and Tim. Sean. Ben and Lanie. Or, whatever that whore was calling herself nowadays. Where would he be now? Would he have ended up like Jay and Tristan, carousing his way through college? Would he be like Fletch and his sisters, perfect paragons of a church family, going on international missions and leading the next generation of Christians? Would he still be on the fast-track to finishing his degree? Would he be able to sleep at night without taking multiple doses of pills, and wake up without a dozen espresso shots, wishing for something stronger? Would he be in that bar, right now, functioning like a normal young adult and having a light drink, dancing and not worrying about anything more than Monday’s exam?

“What do you like to do for fun?” Fletcher pressed.

His introspective mood popped on a sudden, sharp spike of mischief. It was Dre’s turn to take in Fletcher with his eyes.  “I don’t think you can handle my kind of fun, Choirboy.”

Fletcher’s eyes rounded dramatically. “What, like reading a textbook in bed instead of at a desk?”

Slowly, Dre unzipped his jacket. Slipping it off, he tossed it to Fletcher. “I won’t be needing this. But you might.”

He was gratified to see Fletcher finally put something warm on. The jacket was a little big on him, but they were more or less the same size. Fletcher may not hit the gym twice per day, but he was no slob. No, far from it.

He easily fell into step as they returned to the Vyrus. Swinging a leg over, Dre brought it effortlessly to life. It’s barely audible murmur and smooth purr felt like taking a breath he didn’t know he was holding.

“I’ve never been on a motorcycle before,” Fletcher said, hugging himself in Dre’s jacket. Oh, yes, Dre liked the sight. Very much. Too much.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Dre reasoned. “But either I’m going for a ride in the mountains with you, or I’m going home to fight with your mom until she gives me my computer. And if she finds out you failed in your mission…”

Again, he felt proud of himself when Fletcher quickly got on behind him. He’d managed to engage in yet another successful interpersonal exchange, all in the space of a few minutes. Banter. Repartee, even. But really, he shouldn’t be surprised. Fletcher was easy to be around. It was why he was such a popular leader.

“Dear God in Heaven,” Fletcher mumbled, wrapping his arms around Dre’s chest in a near-death grip. Was he shaking?

Turning around, Dre pushed him back until he could see his face. “I’ll keep you safe, Fletch. I promise. Okay?”

Taking a breath, he nodded. “Alright. I trust you, Bookworm.”

Happiness felt like a bubble so full that it was about to burst. After they’d put on their helmets, they took off, Fletcher’s screams of terror eventually morphing into whoops of exhilaration.

Did Dre push the bike just a little to make Fletcher hold on tighter, squeeze in closer? Maybe. But did they die? No.

Suck on that, Jay. Who’s the cool one, now?  

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~ Romans 15:13

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