Six

The next day, Rory found himself at Woody’s flat, a shabby bed sit near the gun quarter. Woody had drawn the tattered drapes on the windows but small beams of light managed to sneak through the holes in the cloth. A couple of empty beer cans lay sideways at the edge of his dirty mattress. Rory sat in a threadbare chair. The stuffing was falling out of rips in the seams of the cushions. Woody was laid out on the mattress, wearing only a pair of boxers and his boots.

The floor was covered with peeling, yellow laminate. The flat was a dump.

“No, I haven’t heard anything from him mate. No calls, no nothing,” Woody’s sinuses sounded stuffy from a long night of sleep.

He’d heard nothing from Bunk. The police officer hadn’t questioned him about the incident at the bar at all. Truth was, Rory’d woke Woody up from a heavy sleep brought on by a case of beer and a pretty girl.

“You should have seen her. Blonde hair, eyes of green, just mwah,” Woody said. He grinned.

He held his hands up and sliced the air, up and down, mimicking the curve of a woman’s body. Rory laughed.

“So where is she?” Rory said.

“Mmm, hadta’ get off to work,” Woody said. He sat up, grabbed a rumpled jacket off the floor and began to fish through the pockets. He checked his pockets for a few seconds and produced a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. He bounced the pack in his palm until a single stick popped up. He lifted the pack to his mouth, closed his lips around the cigarette and pulled the pack away from his face. It was a small ritual. He lit up and took a slow drag.

“Ciggy?”

Rory shook his head no.

“Boxing?” The cigarette bobbed up and down as Woody’s lips moved.

“Yeah. Oul’ John is on about the Olympics. Says I have a chance to get a spot on the team,” Rory said.

“You’d make us all proud Rory. All of us. Can you imagine going out there and just smashing them? Just beating the piss out of every one of them,” Woody grinned.

Rory didn’t smile, he grimaced instead.

“Oh come now, what? What’d I say?” Woody asked.

“It’s nothing mate, nothing at all. Just thinking. I know I can do it, just gotta train hard,” Rory said. “That’s where I was yesterday, all day at the gym – just working and taking care of everything. Then I came home and my da’s passed out, spilled his beer all over the floor. I cleaned it up so I didn’t have to walk through it the next morning.”

“It’s why I moved out man. Now I have the whole place to myself, my rules, my women, my way,” Woody smiled.

Rory didn’t mind if Woody’s place was a mess. That was just how it’d always been. What he did hate was beer-soaked socks.

“We don’t really talk much. He doesn’t do anything anymore. Just drinking. The least, the very least he could do is buy some groceries along with the beer,” Rory sighed. “I need to get out on my own and make some serious money, you know?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Woody took a drag on his cigarette.

“I need everything to not be so fucked up,” Rory grumbled.

“He’s the family you’re stuck with, but you and me – we’re the brothers that chose each other. That’s family too, yeah?” Woody grabbed Rory’s hand and performed a series of knuckles and palm slapping techniques.

“Yeah, brothers,” Rory smiled.

“If Bunk is looking for you, we should probably keep our heads down for the next little while, but I know a guy, maybe we can work something out for the both of us. On the other hand, there’s a meeting coming up. They’ve invited all of us from the neighbourhood, all the skins,” Woody said.

“All of us?” Rory said.

“Yeah, all of us…” Woody held his breath for a moment and scratched himself. “They were talking about how they need some work done and they were willing to pay.”

Woody finished his cigarette and dabbed it into an ash tray. The last bit of smoke curled out of his mouth and up into his nostrils as he exhaled and inhaled.

“That’s great. I’m ready to earn, get out on my own like you,” Rory said.

A frantic banging at Woody’s front door made them both jump.

“Yeah?” Woody called out. He remained seated.

A small, feminine voice sounded off and came muffled through the door. “Woody, open up. It’s Alice.”

Rory and Woody shared a look of mutual confusion. Alice was Rory’s girlfriend, so what was she doing here? Woody reluctantly pushed himself up off the mattress with a groan. He seemed to stumble for a moment, working to catch his balance. He’d drank more than he remembered.

He unlocked the door and opened it a crack, shielding his eyes from the sunlight. He turned around and walked away to retreat into the cool, comforting shadows. Alice stepped inside and saw Rory immediately.

“Who was she?” Alice demanded. She kicked Rory’s boot.

Woody sat back down on his sodden mattress and leaned on his side to open a small, mini-fridge. He pulled out a can of beer and popped the top. He took a long sip and let out a grunt of satisfaction.

“Who was who?” Rory said. He remained seated.

“The girl you were with last night,” Alice’s voice raised up an octave.

Woody shifted from side to side and peeled his sweaty ball sack from the side of his thigh by opening his legs wide. He said nothing and sat awkwardly to bear witness to Alice’s latest outburst. He’d had enough of her theatrics as of late, but Rory, apparently, had not.

“There was no girl last night. I was at the gym, you can ask any of the boys,” Rory said defensively.

Alice’s shoulders rose and fell with excitement. Her eyes glared accusingly.

“I called your home late last night and you didn’t answer. Then I heard you had a girl on your arm yesterday, snuggling up to you in broad daylight!” Her words were filled with spiteful venom and true belief.

Woody half-finished a second sip and tried to contain his swallow at the latest accusation. Rory with another girl? He couldn’t believe it. Rory set his hands on the arms of the chair he was sitting in and stood up. He towered over Alice in height, but her fury made her seem bigger.

“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to or what they told you, but they are full of shit,” Rory said.

Rory’s face became filled with an exasperated anger.

“The slut at the diner. They said she put her head on your shoulder and that you left her a huge tip! What the fuck’r you tippin’ her for?” Alice fumed.

“Sharon?” A moment of clarity illuminated Rory’s face.

Woody burst out laughing during his third sip and sent beer through his nose, spilling onto the ground. This only served to infuriate Alice further. She would not be dismissed by Woody of all people. He was childish and irresponsible.

“What the fuck is so funny?” Alice seethed.

“Sharon? From the diner? Sharon Smith … and Rory?” Woody wiped beer from his upper lip. “That’s rich.”

“Fuck you Woody. You shite. This isn’t funny,” Alice said.

“Sharon is one of my best friends,” Rory started to explain.

Woody fell back on the bed, cackling with laughter and wheezing from the beer that tingled in his nose and throat. Alice stomped her foot and emphatically pointed the way outside.

“I’m not standing here in front of him, talking about this, in this stinky room, any longer,” Alice stormed from the room.

Rory wasn’t sure if she was mad or embarrassed or what. He looked at Woody with mild exasperation and Woody rolled his eyes in return. Rory followed Alice out onto the front stoop. The bright light made his eyes ache, but she was right, the fresh air was better than Woody’s foul, sex-scented flat.

“What kind of friend is she?” Alice sneered.

“What does that mean?” Rory said. He was annoyed with the semantics of her accusations.

“Did you two used to shag? Do you still hook up?”

Rory scowled. Sharon and he had been through a lot. He felt a moment of exasperation boil over.

“No, we haven’t. It’s not like that – you know – how long have you been on about this? You tried calling my house last night? You stop by my place this morning? The gym? Now Woody’s? Stomping around the neighbourhood, pissed off … because of some shit someone said? Where’s the trust? You’re acting crazy,” Rory said.

He immediately regretted saying the word crazy. Alice’s eyes filled with rage.

“You. Don’t. Get. To. Call. Me. Crazy!” Her words came out at a staccato pace. “You’re out noodling with some slut and I’m supposed to remain calm and pretend like it’s okay you’re messing around with some other whore?”

Calling Sharon a whore was perhaps not the wisest selection of words on Alice’s part, Woody thought. He could hear the argument through the door. He took a long gulp of beer and sighed.

“Don’t call her a whore,” Rory growled.

“Or what? Why are you defending her? You’re my boyfriend. Some guy puts his hands on me and you beat the living shit out of him,” Alice’s voice undulated with a fevered pitch. “She put her hands on you, and I just have to accept it? I don’t want you talking to her anymore.”

Rory didn’t like ultimatums. Not when it came to Sharon.

“You don’t get to tell me who I can and can’t talk to,” Rory said. He stared at her, his face becoming cold and impassive.

“You don’t get to dismiss me. You aren’t even listening to what I am saying. You just call me crazy because you need to make me feel bad even though you’re wrong. You are with me, there shouldn’t be any doubt,” Alice began to ramble. “You just want to tear me down, call me crazy so you can feel good.”

“I didn’t say you were crazy like that,” Rory back-pedaled.

“So what kind of crazy am I then? You can’t take those words back. They were said. It’s out in the world … and now I know what you really think of me,” Alice said.

Rory said nothing. He tried to remain calm. This seemed to anger Alice further.

“Don’t even give me that look, you’re just doing it again, shutting down, making me feel small,” Alice said.

“No …” Rory started.

She slapped him across the face. It echoed off the sidewalk and the walls of Woody’s flat. Rory felt his ear ringing and the hot sting of an open-palm slap to the face. He opened his eyes to see tears daring to fall down Alice’s cheeks.

The slap hadn’t surprised Rory. He could have easily moved out of the way but he did it to prove a point. He leaned into the slap before she was able to deliver the full force of the blow. Her small hand crashing into his face probably hurt her hand more than it bothered him. He was a boxer, getting hit in the face wasn’t unusual.

Her voice wavered. “Asshole.”

“Okay then,” Rory waited for her to choose to do something else. He stared at her for what felt like an hour, but in truth, was possibly five or ten seconds. The tension was thick and heavy.

“What does that mean? ‘Okay’?” Alice mimicked Rory’s words by deepening her voice.

Rory took the bait.

“Not screaming at you like a fuckin’ ape doesn’t mean I don’t care. Not throwing a tantrum like a child doesn’t mean I don’t care about you,” Rory raised his voice.

“I’m angry because I care so much about you. I love you. Only you can make me this angry,” she stopped screaming and switched to speaking gently in cooing, baby tones.

He wasn’t sure how to take it. Switching from an attack to some twisted emotional ploy was confusing for him. She was being honest to herself but Rory felt she was lying. He said nothing. He let seconds pile on top of each other, one by one – the fight was on its way to a furious boil, roiling and bubbling. He breathed in and out, slowly, inhaling and exhaling to the limits of his lung capacity to hold his words.

“I’m in control of my behaviour. You’re a spoiled brat,” Rory said.

“A brat? How would you know who or what I am? We barely spend any time together! All you do is box and dick around with Woody and Blue,” She said.

“Boxing is going to put food on the table and a roof over my head. It’s my ticket to a better life. I won’t apologize for any of it. I don’t have to,” he said.

“Your ticket? To where? You’ve never even left this neighbourhood, let alone Birmingham. You don’t even have a clue,” She said.

“I’ve nothing left to say to you,” Rory’s voice was low and monotone. She’d hit him one already. He rationalized that she didn’t deserve more words. He didn’t want to feed her needy insecurities or honour her attempt to sop up attention. Her hysterical outburst had failed.

“Fine! Fine then! Don’t even try to talk to me. Just do what you always do – shut down. Pretend like you don’t care,” Alice said.

Rory cared, but she had exhausted him. He said nothing.

“See? You can’t say anything because you’re an emotional cripple,” she spat on the ground.

Alice, satisfied she had the upper hand, moved to slap him again. He caught her wrist in his meaty palm and brought her swing to a full stop. His grip was firm, not withering or crushing, but enough to prevent her from hitting him again. Rory instinctively turned his hips to prevent exposing himself to a blow to the groin.

“You let me go Rory Cooper or I’ll tell everyone you laid your hands on me,” Alice hissed.

He released his grip. She snapped her hand back toward her chest and cradled it gingerly. She turned on her heel and began to storm off down the street. Rory watched her walk away. He rubbed his cheek where she’d slapped him, it felt hot where she’d hit him. Again, he said nothing and simply watched her leave.

She stopped about half a block away and turned to face him. He thought he could see tears streaming down her face. Her black eyeliner was running in streaks.

“That was a test!” She said with a shriek. “ You were supposed to come get me before I walked away and tell me you love me. You can’t even do that! You won’t even fight for me.”

Rory turned his back and walked inside Woody’s flat. Woody had managed to put on pants and a shirt during the course of Rory’s argument with Alice. He’d settled himself into the dumpy chair and was lacing up his boots.

Woody looked up at Rory and gave him a pinched, laconic smile. He waggled his eyebrows up and down.

Rory sighed.

“I don’t know if you want me to say something pithy and trite to illuminate some sage wisdom about the nature of your relationship but far be it for me to –” Woody started.

“Shut up Woody,” Rory mumbled.

“Okay,” Woody said.

Rory stood there, emotionally drained by Alice. He just stood there, staring at the floor, as if in shell shock.

“Putting up with that must mean the sex is fantastic,” Woody joked.

“Shut up Woody,” Rory said.

He looked up at his friend and couldn’t help but smile. Woody winked earnestly and made the motion of cupping an imaginary pair of balls with one hand and stroking a shaft with the other. He stuck his tongue into the side of his cheek and bobbed his head up and down, making a brief slurp and gagging noise followed by a burp.

“Fuck off Woody,” Rory laughed.

Six

Mage: The Gun Quarter MattBarton