My fingers ran back and forth over the buttons of the game controller. No matter how swiftly I pressed combos, dashed, jumped and shot, I could not beat Sam. My eyes were starting to hurt from staring at the screen for so long. With a quick jump and strike, his little yellow ninja struck my purple one down with a finishing blow, ending the battle. The health points displayed at the top of the screen revealed the massive gap in our skills.
Sam had beaten me again.
His hands were relaxed and his posture upright, as though he wasn’t trying. I would have thought he’d be bored, but his smile said differently.
“One more round? You’re totally getting better.”
Even as a winner, he was a nice, understanding guy. But I had had my fill.
“No, I think I’m done. I’ve been beaten too many times today.”
Not that the game was in my possession at home, I didn’t own any video games besides a handheld I bought way back. So of course, Sam had a major advantage.
“You don’t even care that you lost, do you?” Sam asked with a grin.
I guess I didn’t. But it was a video game, was I supposed to be upset over something that in retrospect wasn’t important?
“Sam!” we heard a call from downstairs to which he quickly got up to answer.
Opening the bedroom door, Sam looked toward the direction of the stairs and yelled back. “What’s up mom?”
“Your dad is home with the groceries, can you help him?”
“Coming!” he quickly turned back toward me and spoke in a quieter voice. “Hey my dad got snacks, if you want some?”
“Sure,” I said, quickly standing up. I followed my friend down the wooden stairs and took in the living room I found myself in. After all the time I had spent with Sam in his house, his room was the only one I was familiar with. The stairs led down to the front door and the living room. Walls painted in a soft green with dark brown wooden floors, tan colored couch and a dark red recliner, facing a fireplace. Everything about the Christ’s home, felt comfortable. There was just a glow about it that I found relaxing.
My socks slid against the wooden floors as Sam and I rushed out the door to meet his dad. In the driveway, Niles Christ stood at the passenger door grabbing bags of food.
I’d met Sam’s father a few times. The two were very much alike in appearance and manner, though Niles was … calmer, I guess the word was. He didn’t tease as often as Sam did, but held the same gentle and reassuring tone. Every time I came across Niles, he always had the same look of delight in his eyes with a big grin. He also had the habit of welcoming me and asking how my day was, something Sam did daily at school.
When I approached the car and Niles looked up, he stared directly at me and frowned. Then he glanced at Sam and his frown grew deeper.
“Austin?” He asked, reaching into the car to grab one more bag. “I didn’t know you were here today.”
His voice was muffled, speaking with his head in the car.
“Hey, Mr. Christ,” I replied, feeling slightly cheated out of my usual welcome.
“If you would, grab some of these groceries,” he said as he walked passed us. He gave me the huge grin I was accustomed to. “Anna’s making eggplant parm tonight, you’re more than welcome to stay for it.”
“Thanks, but I have to head home soon,” I told him. The thoughts of a puzzle filled my head again. If I didn’t complete a little more of it before dad got home, I was probably in trouble. Not only that, but I felt tired already, spending the day with Sam.
I reached for some groceries and found Sam surprisingly quiet as we walked inside.
Anna, was Sam’s mother. She had blonde hair that fell over her shoulders and wore jeans, sandals and a green shirt. She was a naturally thin woman, and when she smiled you could see small creases on her face – however her eyes were a sharp blue, so most would barely notice. Sam obviously got his father’s face, and his mother’s eyes.
“Place the groceries on the table boys,” she instructed as she pulled out a pan. Reaching of the olive oil, I watched as she turned the stove top on high and poured oil thoroughly inside.
“Austin are you staying for dinner?” Anna asked, already half distracted by the task of cooking, but not losing her hospitality. The kitchen was already a buzz of activity, as she brought down bowls and utensils from the cabinets. The yellow walls were illuminated by the spot lights installed in the ceiling, revealing clearly all the tools she had laid out on the counter beside the stove.
“Sam, could you come here for a moment?” I heard Niles call from the other room. Sam walked out and I gazed as he did so. A tinge of awareness hit me. Something was wrong with Sam. He left the kitchen and disappeared as he turned right toward the living room. On the wall, was an enlarged framed photograph, I hadn’t seen before.
Wait, what had Anna asked?
“I’m sorry,” I interrupted my thoughts and turned to her. “What did you say, ma’am?”
She glanced over her shoulder with a kind smile.
“Are you staying for dinner? More than enough for you.”
“No thank you, I have to head home in a few minutes. My dad and I have plans.” Well, that wasn’t completely true. But as soon as my dad found out I hadn’t worked very much on the puzzle, I was sure he’d want me home.
My eyes caught sight of the photograph again. It was displayed in a well designed frame about two feet wide by a foot and a half in length. I stepped closer to inspect it, leaving the kitchen. It was beautiful, shot at an angle over a beach, revealing layers of nature. At the bottom of the photo was an up close and plentiful flowerbed that reached from one edge of the frame to the next. The flowers were enlarged and you could see each petal and seed. Raising your eyes revealed the distant beach, and crashing ocean that collided with the sky and clouds. The entire picture was in black and white, which brought out surprising detail. I stood, studying it in surprise and wondering if Sam had taken such a photo. At the bottom was a small inscription.
‘Ageless’ – Albert Popov
Oh. So it wasn’t Sam’s. Regardless, it was stunning. I was sure it was a photo my friend looked to for inspiration.
“If you don’t want to go see Papa, that’s fine with me. But you’re a liar. Next time be honest! I couldn’t believe when I saw Austin.”
What was meant to be low voices, reached my ears. I turned my head in the direction of the living room, where Sam and his dad stood out of view. His father’s voice rung clear and I realized Sam was getting scolded. Still, I stood frozen at the word I heard.
I had never associated that word with Sam before.
“I’m sorry, dad.” Sam’s murmur was filled with his own disappointment. At that moment I realized this wasn’t a time to easy drop. It was none of my business. Quickly I turned around and stepped into the kitchen. The aroma of tomato sauce and spices surged over me like a wave, clouding most of my senses. However in the corner of my eye, as I moved out of sight in the hallway, I spotted a figure into it.
Had someone seen me?
At that moment, Sam walked into the kitchen. His eyes met mine and he gave me a slight questioning look. The glance he gave shifting to his mom whose back faced us and remained unaware, until landing on me again and frowned.
Anna’s cooking was preceded great excitement by her husband and son, but I had no opinion of it myself since I had never tasted it before. The wonderful aroma filled the air of the house. Unfortunately, fate would once again intercede, and the food would not touch my tongue tonight. Quietly, I munched on vinegar and salt chips, while I called my dad on my cell, semi- absently watching his mother stir tomato sauce in a large pot.
I hung up after a brief conversation with my father.
“He’ll be picking me up in five minutes,” I announced to the family.
Niles looked genuinely displeased. “That’s a shame. Next time, Austin you make sure to eat with us.” Whatever had bothered him before seemed to have all but been forgotten. With a slight tilt of my head I gave a weak response.
Five minutes rolled quickly, and before I knew it, my dad’s headlights shone through the small drive way. It only took a moment to wave goodbye and walk out. The air was cool, and the sky had dulled to a dark blue that carried large thick clouds of gray. Bright lights blocked my vision as I approached my father’s truck.
“Hey… sorry about what you heard.”
The voice came from behind me, and I turned to acknowledge it. There was no point in pretending, so I shrugged in response.
“It wasn’t my business,” I responded, unconcerned with the matter.
An expression of relief came over his face, as he stared back, also now unconcerned of his apology.
The smell of sandwiches, fries and hot air conditioning overcame my senses the moment I opened the passenger door. I found a familiar smile from my father, taking in his stained work shirt and greasy hair. ACDC played loudly in the car, so he turned down the volume midway and asked, “You have a good time?”
At that moment, I heard Sam reply in a low voice, drowned by the music and my father, but loud enough still to reach my ears.
“I figured that’s what you’d say.”
There was a hint, a dose of something that contrasted the smile he displayed moments before, in his voice. Worried, I turned to confirm what he meant and what his face had become. Back already turned, Sam’s silhouette remained alone before he closed the front door.
Not wanting to let the cold air in the warm car, I pulled myself in, grabbed the handle and closed mine as well.