Deacon hated it. Working at a bar this close to campus meant that sooner or later some little asshole with a fake ID would saunter up to the bar, trying his best to look casual, and attempt to order a shitload of beers for his buddies--who would be clustered around a table in the darkest corner they could find, also trying to look casual.
Except this guy didn’t look casual.
He looked pissed.
He narrowed his eyes at Deacon like Deacon had already personally offended him. Okay, Deacon wasn’t one of those now-tell-me-all-your-problems bartenders who existed mostly on TV, but he wasn’t used to copping hostile stares like this one. Not this early in the afternoon.
The guy, all five feet eight of him, strode up to the bar, slapped down an ID, and issued a challenging look that fell just short of belligerent. “Can I get a beer?”
Deacon looked at the ID. Mark Cooper. An out-of-town address, but that accent was from farther away than Bedford. And then he saw the date of birth. Most useless fake ID ever. He slid the ID back to the guy. “Sorry.”
“No, look.” The guy’s forehead creased with a frown. He shoved the ID back. “It’s my birthday today.”
“Happy birthday,” Deacon said. “Come back in three years, and I’ll buy you a beer myself.”
“Un-fucking-believable,” Mark muttered. “In a country where they let embryos drive cars, I have to wait until I’m twenty-one to buy alcohol. What sort of place lets you drive and vote and fuck before it lets you drink a beer?” He glared at Deacon accusingly. “Well?”
Angry little bunny was angry. Deacon folded his arms over his chest and looked back at him. Couldn’t help the smile that turned up the corner of his mouth. “Um...happy birthday and welcome to the United States?”
“Fine,” Mark said. “Can I buy cigarettes, or do I have to be exactly thirty-eight and a half?”
Deacon ignored the sarcasm. “Sure.”
“Can I get a pack of Winfield Blue?”
“There’s a gas station down the street.”
“I can’t get cigarettes in a bar?”
Deacon shook his head. “You can smoke ’em here, though. Be glad for that.”
Mark sighed. “Seriously unbelievable.” He headed for the door.
Deacon watched him. Nice ass, clad in expensive jeans. A T-shirt that rode up and showed a band of flesh as he dropped a coin and bent to retrieve it. And a pair of shoulders squared rigidly as he shoved his money back in his pocket.
Angry little bunny was very
Deacon wiped down the bar. He looked up when he heard Mark’s phone ring, blaring out some song Deacon didn’t know. Mark stopped a couple of feet from the door, next to the pinball machine, and answered.
“Hi, Mum.” He angled himself toward the corner. “Can I call you back later? I’m pretty busy.” He dragged the toe of his sneaker across the worn carpet. “Yeah, I got it. Thanks. Yeah, Jackson’s been good. He’s throwing me a party. Yes, right now.”
Liar. Deacon felt a stab of sympathy for the kid.
“It’s fun, yeah.” In the dancing lights of the pinball machine, his expression was suddenly achingly wistful. “Okay, I’ll talk to you later. ‘Bye, Mum.” His shoulders slumped as he shoved the phone back into his jeans.
The kid turned.
“Let me buy you a Coke for your birthday,” Deacon said.
He saw the moment the refusal was on the kid’s lips, but then Mark shrugged and came back and sat at the bar. “Thanks.”
Deacon put the Coke on the bar, then reached behind the register and found Bill’s pack of Newports. Figured Bill wouldn’t mind. Flipped it open and held it out to Mark. Mark withdrew a cigarette, looking slightly less angry. “Thanks,” he said again.
Deacon took out his lighter and offered Mark the flame. Mark leaned forward, the cigarette dangling from his lips, his chin inches from Deacon’s hand. Then he pulled back, the tip of the cigarette glowing.
“So how come you’re not partying with Jackson?”
Mark blew out smoke. “You really want to know?”
Mark stabbed at the ice in his drink with his finger. “Because he’s my stepfather’s nephew, and I’ve met him twice, and he doesn’t want to look out for me just because Jim said he had to.”
Deacon slid an ashtray next to the glass. “You don’t have any other friends?”
“Plenty,” Mark said. “They’re just all at home.”
. He said the word like it hurt.
“It’s hard when you first start at college,” Deacon said. “But it gets easier, once you put yourself out there and meet people.”
“I’m supposed to be rushing this week,” Mark said. “I don’t even know what the fuck that is.”
Deacon laughed. “Then why are you doing it?”
“It’s Jim’s old fraternity,” Mark said. “Alpha Delta Phi. It’s a tradition
.” Air quotes. “Jackson says I’ll for sure get a bid on account of him being in the frat, and Jim, but I dunno. Wouldn’t some prick trying to get in on his family name just make you not
wanna take him?”
“Worked for George W. Bush, didn’t it?”
Mark snorted. “I don’t care if I get in or not. Jim’s not my real family--and I don’t mean that in a whiny-little-kid way. Just, it’s true. But Mum says I ought to give it a go, as a kind of peace offering to Jim. I guess I haven’t been great to him lately.”
“So, where are you from, Mark Cooper?”
“I guessed that.” Deacon poured himself a Coke as well. “Where in Australia?”
“Place called Bundaberg,” Mark said. “It’s famous for its rum, which is another fucking thing you can’t get here.” He grimaced. “It’s not like I miss it, you know, but I miss my mates. I’m not usually... This isn’t how I imagined my eighteenth, I mean.”
“How did you imagine it?”
“We’d go surfing in the morning at Bargara,” Mark said. “Me and Baz and Richo. I had the best board--a Rip Curl DHD Pistol Whip.” He frowned. “Jim got it for me when he started going out with my mum. I gave it to Baz when I left.”
“You probably wouldn’t get much use out of it around here,” Deacon said.
“No, I wouldn’t.” Mark showed him a rueful smile.
“Good skiing here, though. And snow tubing.”
“Yeah. You get on a big inner tube, and you slide down a snow-covered mountain.”
“I hate snow.”
Deacon grinned. “It’s not so bad. Hope you have tire chains. Or do you have a car?”
“Not me. Not here. Jim’s letting me drive one of his around town.” He wrinkled his nose. “I’m not driving in snow, though. No fucking way. You ever see those World’s Craziest Drivers? It’s always
Deacon raised his eyebrows. “Not always, surely. Anyway, who hates snow?”
“Always,” Mark said. “And snow, God! We moved here in February, and it was supposed to be all nice and Christmas-cardy, you know? Instead we got that massive fucking blizzard, so I was stuck inside for a week with Mum and Jim, and no power. And then when it finally cleared or melted enough or whatever it does, I went for a walk into town to check the place out, and--” He shivered at the memory. “So there I was in, like, twenty-six layers of clothing, somehow still soaking wet, and my balls were screaming and trying to climb back inside my body.”
Deacon laughed, the sound filling the near-empty bar.
“Don’t laugh,” Mark said, fighting his own smile. “Mate, I nearly died
!” Then, losing the battle, he flashed a grin at Deacon. “Fuck my life, right?”
“Sucks to be you,” Deacon agreed.
Angry little bunny had needed to vent. And maybe just needed someone to talk to on his birthday to take his mind off his homesickness. Laughing at his own misfortune seemed to be a step in the right direction.
“You want another Coke?”
“Sure.” Mark looked down at his glass like he was surprised to find it empty. “My shout this time.” He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and set it on the bar, as though he was settling in for a while.
Deacon didn’t mind that. The place was empty except for a couple over at one of the corner tables who’d been sitting on a pitcher of beer for ages now, and Bill, who was a part owner in the bar and usually just helped himself anyway. Tuesday afternoons were hardly pumping, and it wasn’t every day that someone as cute as Mark Cooper brightened the place up.
Scruffy light brown hair with sun-bleached twists, hazel eyes framed by dark lashes, and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose. A crooked grin, when he showed it, that was utterly free of artifice.
“My advice?” Deacon said, setting the second Coke on the counter. “Don’t rush Alpha Delt if you’re not really into the idea of fraternity life. They’re, like, in it to win it.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re the frat boys you see in movies. Parties, girls, Hell Week, the whole deal.”
Mark furrowed his brow. “What’s Hell Week?”
Deacon braced himself on the bar. “Seriously? You have no idea what you’re getting into, do you?”
Mark stared at him, long enough that Deacon’s stomach fluttered. Then Mark’s phone rang, a different ringtone this time, and Mark’s gaze snapped down as he fished in his pocket.
“Jackson,” he said, looking at the screen. “He’s gonna meet me here and take me back to the house for some rush thing. The fuck is frozen-turkey bowling?”
“Just what it sounds like.”
Mark set his cigarette in the ashtray and began typing. “I don’t know what it sounds like.”
“It sounds like it’ll involve a Slip ’N’ Slide, Crisco, ten two-liter-size bottles of pop, and a frozen turkey.”
“Great,” Mark muttered, finishing the text and putting away the phone.
Deacon took in Mark’s jeans and shabby T-shirt. “No offense, but you’re not exactly dressed for rush week, are you?”
Mark took a long sip of Coke. “I said I’d rush to make Jim happy. Didn’t say I’d put any effort into it.” Another sip. “God, have you seen
all the wankers in polos?”
“I’m told girls can’t resist a man in a polo. Especially with the collar popped.”
Mark barked out a laugh. “Not really the girls I’m here for, mate.”
Deacon tried not to feel too hopeful. Mark could just mean he was here to study. Speaking of which...
“What are you studying?” he asked and immediately regretted it when Mark rolled his eyes. “Sorry, you must’ve heard that a million times during orientation.”
“It’s all right. I haven’t decided yet. Just signed up for some required courses now. Maybe biology?”
“What? Is it called something else here?”
“No. Just trying to imagine an Alpha Delt bio major.”
“Okay, look, all I know about Alpha Delt is Jim liked it, and it’s, like, they do community service or something. So maybe it looks good on job applications.”
Oh boy. Secretly-not-so-angry misguided little bunny. “How long ago was Jim at Prescott?”
“Uh...I dunno. He’s maybe fifty.”
“Okay, well. A lot has changed since then. Alpha Delt used to be pretty service oriented, but now it’s a lot of rich kids, foam parties, pig roasts, and date-rape cover-ups. And I’m not just saying that because they’re Phi Sig’s sworn enemy, all right?”
“Is that...?” Mark trailed off as the door swung open and a tall kid in a dark polo and perfectly pressed khakis walked in.
Jackson Phillips. Deacon had seen him around before, but he’d never put a name to the face. Jackson was one of the less offensive Alpha Delts. Maybe because he didn’t look like a bro. He had an expression that managed to be chilly and slightly anxious at the same time. His shoulders stooped a little, and he had a long, thin nose and dark circles under his eyes that were noticeable even in the dim light of the bar.
Jackson nodded at Deacon, and Deacon might have been imagining it, but he thought Jackson’s eyes narrowed.
“Hey,” Jackson said awkwardly to Mark.
“Hey,” Mark said.
“Uh, yeah. Just lemme pay.” He opened his wallet and thumbed through the bills. “All your money is the same color, you know.”
“Yep,” Deacon agreed.
Mark extracted a ten and slid it across the bar. “It’s fucked-up.”
“Well,” Deacon said, ignoring Jackson’s stare, “I’m sure we didn’t do it just
to confuse you.”
Mark showed him that crooked grin again. “Okay, then. As long as you’re sure.”
Jackson frowned at Mark’s clothes. “You’ve got to change.”
“I know,” Mark said. He glanced at Deacon and popped an imaginary collar on his T-shirt.
Deacon laughed. Jackson looked toward the door.
“See you later,” Mark said, pocketing his change.
Mark made a face. “Thanks, um...?”
“Deacon,” Deacon said. “Deacon Holt.”
“Thanks, Deacon,” Mark said and, squaring his shoulders back into angry-bunny stance, walked with Jackson out of the bar.
J.A. Rock & Lisa Henry