Scott leaned back in his chair and glanced at Marc. The guy didn’t look good. His skin was some scary mash up of green and gray—as if he were about to hurl all over the card table.
“Hey, man, you all right?”
Marc blinked and straightened up. He glanced back at Scott but then pinned his eyes to his hole cards. “Yes. Fine.”
Yeah, right. Marc hadn’t even touched the Sam Adams in front of him—it seemed to be the only beer he liked, so Scott kept it in stock for the weekly game. And Marc hadn’t grabbed his usual two slices yet either.
But what could Scott do? If Marc didn’t want to admit he wasn’t feeling well, that was his business. So Scott turned his attention back to whatever was going on further around the table.
Not much. Chandni was throwing her cards down. Again. “I’m out.”
Gary grunted from across the table. “Are you ever going to do anything but fold?”
“Yeah, chica.” Rachel elbowed her. “Did you come here to play?”
“I called last time!”
Rachel gave her a look of disgust. “I raise. Marc?”
“It’s to you,” Scott explained.
“Oh. Uh . . .”
Rachel tapped her fingers on the table. “Fold, call or re-raise, Marc.”
“Right. Sorry. I fold.”
“Me too,” Scott said. “Marc, you sure you’re okay?”
“Actually, um . . . .” He dropped his cards and then pushed himself up and out of his chair. “Excuse me for a minute.”
Scott watched him hustle down the hallway toward the bathroom. He kept his eyes on him—for a moment, he was seriously afraid the guy wouldn’t make it. He looked shaky on his feet. Two seconds later, though, he was slamming the bathroom door behind him. Everyone jumped a little at the noise.
Chandni tucked a stray strand of hair—how did it manage to break loose from that tight braid?—behind her ear. “Marc looks awful.”
“Yeah.” Rachel nodded. “Like shit. I’m pretty sure he’s barfing his brains out right now.”
“Stomach virus.” Gary adjusted his glasses. “It’s flying around our whole school—three other teachers are out with it and the kids are dropping like flies.”
Rachel shifted and leaned over Marc’s chair. She widened her eyes into a mock-sultry look. “Scott, can he stay here tonight? You have an extra bedroom.”
“Yeah. He probably shouldn’t drive home.”
She leaned closer. “Can he stay for a few nights?”
Chandni gasped. Scott shifted to stare at her, but she looked away and tried to pretend that she was coughing.
Scott turned back to Rachel. “Uh, what’s going on?”
“Nothing. It’s just that, you know.”
“I know what?”
“Marc works right here in town. Staying here would be—Ow! Chand!”
“Chandni, stop kicking Rachel.” Jesus, you could tell that Gary was used to dealing with fourth graders. His exasperated tone said it all.
Rachel scoffed. “Come on, Chand. Everyone else knows.”
Scott stared at each of his friends in turn. “What’s going on?”
“Marc’s between apartments, that’s all,” Rachel explained. “He should be settled in a month or two. But he has to couch surf for now.”
“Between apartments?” Scott felt his eyes go wide. “Fuck, you mean he’s homeless?”
She shrugged. “Temporarily. Yeah.”
“You heard he was laid off, right?” Gary put in. “No tenure. So when the budget crunch hit—and it’s all because of that charter school—”
“Never mind the charter school,” Rachel interrupted.
“Do you know how much our Board of Ed has to fork over for every kid who goes there—”
“Gary! Still not the point!” Rachel rolled her eyes and turned back to Scott. “Marcos is only a substitute this year, and no guarantee that he’ll get his official teaching spot back. Things were already tight with him and—look, can he stay with you or not?”
“Yeah, of course.” The words came out without even thinking about them, because another question kept whirling through Scott’s brain. “He could have stayed since this first happened. Why the fuck didn’t he ask me?”
Rachel’s face turned red. Which was bizarre—she never blushed. “Well, um. It’s just that, uh—”
Chandni cleared her throat. “I thought you guys hated each other in high school or something.”
“We did. But that was high school. It’s been years.”
No one said anything.
Scott swallowed. “Rach, when you brought him to the game that first time—when was that, two years ago?—he didn’t run screaming.”
“When he found out you were our host?”
“Yeah. And I tried to talk to him about it once. About what happened in high school, I mean. But he shut me down.”
“Idiot.” She gave him a weirdly affectionate smile as she reached over to touch his cheek. “That doesn’t mean he forgot all about it.”
“So what, he’s got a grudge against me all this time?”
Rachel let her hand fall. “This is Marc we’re talking about. I know he seems all smart and fun, but trust me—he can stay angry forever.”
Oh God. Marc rested his forehead against the bathroom sink, hoping that the cool porcelain would somehow soothe him. No luck. He was going to vomit again—and worse. For the past five minutes, he’d had it coming out of both ends.
Why’d this have to happen here? It couldn’t hold off till he got to Gary’s place? He hated—hated—humiliating himself in front of Scott.
Okay, okay. He had to pull himself together. Maybe he could take something? What were you supposed to take for a stomach virus? And what the hell could he possibly hold down? Nothing, probably. So much for that.
Somehow he managed to push himself up, set his clothes right and rinse up. Gary was a good guy—he’d agree to leave the game early. And once Marc got to Gary’s place, he could grab a bucket and just die quietly on the couch.
Right. That was a plan. Marc opened the bathroom door and started down the hall. He had to go slow, because he was still queasy. But that was all right. He could make it back to the living room, get Gary, get his coat, and get out of here.
Marc stopped short at the sound of Scott’s voice. He looked up to find the guy right in front of him, with this condescending concerned look in his eyes.
“Hey,” Marc managed. “Sorry, but think I need to get going.”
Scott, being Scott, wouldn’t accept that. Of course not. Nothing could ever be easy with him. “Ah, look, why don’t you stay here for the night? I got a spare room—it’s all set up.”
Jesus, couldn’t the guy just shut up and get out of the way? “No thanks. Really, I’m good. Just got to get Gary—”
“No!” Oh, fuck. His stomach was at it again. “I don’t need to stay.”
He started to push past Scott. That was his intention. But the guy half blocked him—if it weren’t for that, he would have made it all the way to the kitchen. Or maybe back to the bathroom. Either way, he wouldn’t be standing here, bent forward, vomiting all over Scott’s jeans and shoes.
Fuck, fuck, fuck! Marc could feel his face turn from green to bright red and back to green again. “Oh God! I’m sorry. I’m so—”
“It’s okay!” Scott was actually laughing. Well, half-laughing, anyway. “I work for NJ Transit, remember? Drunks hurl on me all the time.”
“I’m not a dru—”
“I know. Just meant that I’m used to this, that’s all. Here, let’s get you back to the bathroom.”
“Hey guys, what’s going on?” Oh, no. That was Rachel coming toward them—and that was her pulling up short. “Oh my God. I’ll get towels.”
“Thanks.” Scott half-guided and half-pushed him.
Marc would have shrugged off his help, but he wasn’t sure that he’d make it back on his own. He tried to say something about Gary—about how they came to the game together, not about how Marc was couch-surfing at his place—but he was hurling again before the words came out.
Well, at least he made it back to the toilet this time.
Scott gave up on convincing Marc to stay the night; he left that to Rachel and Chandni instead. Somehow those two wrangled a yes out of him. They even got him to hand his car keys and wallet over to Rachel. Marc’s car was parked at Gary’s place, so Gary drove Rachel there to pick it up and drive it back. Chandhi, meanwhile, left on her own—but not before checking on Marc one last time.
Once she was gone, Scott changed and cleaned up as best he could. He was just walking out of the kitchen when Rachel stepped back into his apartment, carrying a leaf bag and a back pack.
“Clothes and stuff for Marc,” she announced. “I think everything he owns is in his car.”
“Yeah, well, that goes along with being homeless.” He took the bags from her and set them in the hallway. “Where’d you park?”
“There was a spot right in front—but you have alternate sides tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah, but I’ll pull his car into the driveway when I leave for work.”
“Okay. Jesus, where is he? Still hurling?”
“Probably. He hasn’t come out of the bathroom yet.”
She dropped Marc’s keys and wallet onto the poker table. “You’re sure he’s alive, right?”
“Yeah. And pretty sure I can steer him into the spare bedroom whenever he’s done puking his guts out.”
“Good. Will you let him stay for a week or two?”
Scott shrugged. “He can stay as long as he needs to. But I can’t force him, Rach.”
She moved closer and wrapped her arms around him. “I know. But try.”
He kissed the top of her head. “Help me talk him into it. Stay over tonight.”
“Can’t. I work early tomorrow.”
“So do I.”
“I know. So let’s not distract each other.”
He snorted. “Trust me, I’m too tired to distract you tonight. But stay over anyway.”
“No! Stop getting all domestic on me.” She pushed away from him and flashed him a wicked grin at the same time. “Save that for Marc.”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Want to talk to him before you leave?”
“Nah. Just text me tomorrow to tell me he’s still breathing.”
Marc was standing up straight, staring into the bathroom mirror, when the knock came. Well, almost straight. He was leaning against the sink, but only a little.
“Hey Marc? You okay in there?”
And there was that condescending concern in Scott’s voice again. “Yes. I’m fine, thanks.”
“I got the room all set up for you, okay? A couple of your bags are in there. Some bottles of water too, so you don’t dehydrate or anything.”
Marc forced himself to walk over to the door. After a second’s hesitation, he opened it.
“Hey,” Scott said. “You look—”
He smiled a little. “I was going to say better than before.”
Marc smiled back as he leaned against the door frame—but the smile didn’t last for long. “So I guess you heard?”
Scott’s hazel eyes were soft now. Almost sickeningly soft. “About the homeless thing? Yeah.”
What was there to say back? Nothing. So Marc just nodded.
“You know you can stay here for as long as you want, right?”
“Marc, I’m not the same guy I was in high school. I don’t—I don’t get like that.”
Damn it. They weren’t supposed to talk about this. There was supposed to be an unspoken agreement between them to forget all about that incident. But apparently that agreement didn’t exist. “You don’t go into blind rages and beat the shit out of honor students anymore?”
“Or anyone else? Anger management courses must be more effective than I thought.”
Scott didn’t rise to the bait. He looked down at the floor instead, as if he were counting to ten. And when he looked up, his expression was even. “It only happened that once, Marc. And it’s on me—I get that—but it had nothing to do with you being an honor student.”
Fuck. It was hard to stay angry at someone who wouldn’t play along. Besides, he didn’t have the energy to stay angry. Not now. Not with his stomach still doing somersaults. “Actually, I’m aware of that.”
Scott raised his eyebrows.
“What? I’ll admit it.” Marc paused to put more of his weight against the door frame—he was too tired to stand up on his own. “I was insufferable.”
“I still shouldn’t have lost it like that.”
“No. But I goaded you into it.”
“No, you didn’t—look, it doesn’t matter now. Are we good?”
How was he supposed to answer that? “We’ve been good for a while. I don’t care about that incident.”
“Then why don’t you stay here? Long enough to get back on your feet, I mean.”
Marc didn’t answer. He walked past him instead—and somehow managed not to throw up on him again. “The bedroom over here?”
He stepped inside and sat down on the bed. Scott followed as far as the doorway. Then they both kind of stared at each other.
“You know what?” Marc asked.
“You turned out to be the smart one. No college loans to pay off, railroad job with reasonable security, good health care, decent pension . . . fuck, you know how jealous I am of you?”
Scott grinned suddenly, and any lingering awkwardness vanished. “Trust me, Marc, you’d hate Transit.”
“Yeah, but you don’t. I just mean—I don’t know how to say it.” He paused for a deep breath. For a moment, he thought maybe the nausea was back, but no. No dry heaves either. “You, ah, you did things the right way,” he continued. “Never got in over your head. Never reached for the Ivy Leagues only to find out that you couldn’t hack it—and that you didn’t want an Ivy League kind of career anyway.”
“Look, you like teaching, right?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
“So hang in there. The jobs will come back.”
“I know. But I have a lot of debt to deal with in the mean time. And so many other expenses—”
“You’ll be okay, Marc.”
He scoffed. “Easy for you to say. Unless you’re going to let me marry you for your health insurance and your pension—”
Scott laughed outright at that. “You better try just living with me for a couple of months first.”
Marc managed a grin. “Yes. Besides, I think Rachel would object.”
“I doubt it. She’s not domestic.”
“No? Her loss.” He put his hands on his face and breathed in even deeper this time, still testing himself, still making sure the nausea was at bay. “You know, I’ve even thought about going back to my country. Better health insurance down there.”
“Really? You came over when you were little though, right? I mean, you don’t even remember living in Argentina.”
Marc sighed as he put his hands down and looked up at Scott. “Uruguay. I’m from Uruguay.”
“Shit.” Scott shook his head, half-rueful and half-exasperated with himself. “I was doing pretty good there.”
“Yeah, you were.” Marc smiled. “And, hey, at least you got the right continent.”
“True. I’m almost impressed with myself.” His face turned serious. “This is a real invitation, Marc. Stay here for a couple of months, at least. Longer if you need to. No rent or anything—we’ll work something out down the line. That’ll give you some time to figure out what you want to do.”
It was a generous offer. And there was no particular condescension in it. Had Marc only imagined that condescension before? Maybe. “You sure? This isn’t just a guilt offering for what happened back in high school?”
“I don’t know.” Scott shrugged. “Can’t hurt to clear up some karma, right?”
“So you in?”
Good question. This might be a disaster. But now Scott knew the truth, and the world hadn’t ended. Somehow Marc hadn’t died of humiliation. Besides, he couldn’t afford to pass up a couple of months rent-free. “Yeah. I am.”
Scott narrowed his eyes. “That’s a real yes, right? It’s not just that you’re too sick to think straight?”
Marc managed a shaky laugh. “I don’t think so. But we’ll find out tomorrow. These things only last twenty-four hours, right?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Me too. And Scott?”
“No worries. I’ll let you get some sleep. Need anything else?”
Marc grimaced as he felt the bile creeping back up his throat. “Yes. A bucket would be good.”
© 2017, Jennifer R. Moss. All rights reserved.