It’s dark when he steps, awkwardly, (always awkwardly) through the sliding doors, and onto a red mat emblazoned with a glaring welcome slogan. The hollow crack of pins hitting polished wood is thick with nostalgia, that it is almost enough to send him away again in a similar scuttling, disorganized manner.
He rolls a little on his ankles, back and forth, but he doesn’t move to leave. He hasn’t come all the way over here to turn around and go back to home again, he rubs at eyelids sticking almost painfully to dry eyes.
Way to ruin a perfectly good evening, Ma.
The thin stereo speakers begin to crackle out an old Beach Boys track, and he distracts himself from his awkward thoughts for a little bit by altering his pace to the beat of the music.
...should ever leave me, well life would still go on, believe m–
Tom makes a face, disgust, and abruptly stops walking, cutting the song oﬀ in his head. He slides into the nearest booth and the lurid, gummy plastic covering sticks a little to his jeans. Probably aided by whatever was left behind on it by previous customers. A short, chubby teenager with a shirt that matches the red welcome mat asks if he wants anything.
‘A beer, please’. His feet fall oﬀ the edge of the seat as he fumbles around in his pocket for the notes. It seems a little cheerless to have a whole beer to himself, on the Christmas holidays, in a bowling alley, but right now it’s better than Amy talking at him, asking him stupid, pointless questions.
What was it with women –asking things anyway? Didn’t they know if he had something to say on the matter he’d just say it? Doug never–
Of course he was happy.
He was happier. Thank you for asking.
Irritated, Tom pulls his knees up, and pushes back into the seat; nesting into the bulbous folds. His eyes slide across the alleys. It’s families mostly, which makes sense, being that it’s so close to the big holiday and all. They don’t pay him any attention. They’re busy making sporadic slammerinos and drinking sugar addled pop adorned with festive accouterments. One family in particular–with a particularly vocal boy and his father keep catching his eye, but he can’t tell if it’s a kind of pathetic jealousy, or the ﬂashing Santa Claus hats they‘re wearing.
He orders another beer, and crouches behind it like a shadow, not actually drinking any. He doesn’t drink not to be mad, he reminds himself. He doesn’t drink to not remember. He especially doesn’t drink because his Mother asked him a few questions about Doug Penhall.
Doug. His voice is so strong in his head he’s unsure whether or not he actually said it out loud. Either way, it doesn’t really matter, and he can deny it later.
He washes away the ﬂush in his cheeks with a quick swig of beer.
‘Doug?’ A trickle of beer bubbles over his lips and rolls down his chin. Tom knows he’s said it aloud this time. Out the corner of his eye line, like some ironic, desperate hallucination generated by the power of his thoughts, is Doug.
Tom’s ﬁrst compulsion, like it is quite frequently, is to yell. Yell out and ask him what he’s doing here, and whether it was Amy or His Mother that told him to come look for him, and then tell him to leave, maybe throwing in some sort of insult about the shape of his head.
But his mouth just hangs open, listless, because he’s watching, interested now, realizing that Doug doesn’t even know he’s here, which means Doug is here of his own accord and– He doesn’t ﬁnish the train of thought for several reasons. He watches Doug sidle up to the bar, Doug order a beer, Doug scratch the back of his head for over a minute. Doug sit at a small table and watch the alleys.
Tom thinks the smell of oil and pepperoni has ﬁnally gotten to him, he’s going to be sick.
Doug could be here for any number of reasons, he tells himself -there is no reason to overreact, you know this. Doug’s here to try his luck with the ladies. He’s here for the beer. He’s here because he’s exceptionally fond of bowli– Okay, maybe not that, but it’s no reason to– I’ll just ask him, Tom decides ﬁnally.
Doug starts when Tom prods him, but recovers quickly.
‘Tom,’ A incongruous smirk. ‘Fancy seeing you here, in a bowling alley’
‘Very Funny. I suppose you thought you‘d ﬁnd some poor, lonely woman to harass for the Christmas holidays?’ Tom smugs back ‘Classy stuﬀ, Penhall.’
Doug shrugs. ‘Now Tom, don’t be jealous just because I can pick up more than bowling balls’ He pulls a chair out at the same time and gestures for Tom to take it, completely negating any spite in the comment. Against better judgment, and the urge to swat his friend out of the bowling alley like one might a raccoon, Tom sits down, rubs at his nose with the back of his sleeve.
‘I don’t need to do any of that, I can go home to Amy’
Doug nods. ‘Yeah, yeah I know. Love of your life right?’
Tom looks away just in time to see the kid in the ﬂashing hat make a strike. He thinks the sound of the pins falling sounds louder than it ought to, irritating.
‘Sure, look–Why are you here really?’ Tom snaps.
‘I just–’ Doug raises an eyebrow, cringes ‘Oh no, Tom.’
Doug shakes his head, and Tom wrinkles his nose, trying to remain calm. Only, it’s a little hard because he has his pride and well, Doug looks embarrassed, it’s clear as day, he’s– he’s pitying him.
‘What? Tom what?!’ He’s really grumpy now. Can’t he even have a beer in peace anymore, without Doug being intrinsically involved? The plastic chair is cold and unfriendly, hard underneath him. He wants to go back to the thicker folds of the hygienically questionable booth.
Doug scratches his forehead and leans forward ‘You didn’t think I was here because this is where we were when– I mean, we spent last Christmas here, when we were still-’ He licks his lips. ‘–well, you know’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.' Tom’s words are caustic, and his face is scalding. His favorite beer too, has turned against him and is now somehow trying to claw its way back up his throat. Pins falling, louder this time, and he raps his ﬁngers on the table, tries to block it out. He can’t decide which is worse, the possibility that Doug is here because of that, or that Doug thinks he thought Doug was here because of that. Or that– and this is unbearable –that Doug now thinks that he, Tom Hanson, was here for that precise reason. He stutters.
‘I wasn’t even, –I like bowling.’
‘I know you do.’ Doug replies, sipping his beer. ‘It’s unnatural.’
He’s clutching his half empty beer so hard the plastic makes odd clicking noises. That’s it. Tom is sure he’s had about enough of tonight, and peoples stupid assumptions. The cop in him wants to start making reports and charts to prove to everyone that yes goddamn it, things were ﬁne, and he’s deﬁnitely not –why would he mope over Doug Penhall? Things were much easier this way, much easier.
‘Why does everyone think I’m not over you anyway?’ He asks, before he can stop himself.
Doug grins again and this time it is genuine. The ﬁnk. Tom could never understand why his distress had always managed to be a source of amusement for Doug, but it made him eyeball his gun unnecessarily.
‘I don’t know. My charm and good looks?’ Doug ﬂicks his hair a little, preening sarcastically, and Tom prickles further.
‘I’m serious Penhall, it’s infuriating. My own Mom thinks I’m not happy, she thinks you adore me which clearly–’
‘Wait.’ A squeal of metal chair leg against greasy linoleum. Incredulous. ‘Your mother knows about us?’
Tom frowns, ﬁnally thinking about closing his mouth and keeping it that way. ‘She guessed.’
‘Huh.’ Doug is uncharacteristically quiet, shoulders hunched forward. ‘You should have told her why we–’
Tom gets a small ﬂash of anger when he remembers, he almost surprised it’s still there, after everything. He slides a ﬁnger across the plastic table, leaving a line of grease. Then he rubs it away with his sleeve. Exhales.
‘Anyway. I should go. Amy.’
Doug doesn’t really answer his tired string of words beyond a small nod, so Tom turns away. He walks steadily, but not too fast. The Beach Boys track is on again, which either means he’s been here longer than he realized, or the bowling alley has a very small selection on their loop. He suspects the latter. It isn’t exactly the Ritz of bowling alleys after all, but–
Doug is grabbing his arm, and manhandles him into a booth. Tom is so startled that he can only manage a disgruntled yelp as his back hits slick plastic and he tumbles sideways. Doug bounds in next to him and Tom sits up again, trying to regain control of his distressingly splayed legs.
‘I like the girl at the aquarium! Ha!’ Doug yells, rather unnecessarily considering the circumstances. Tom glowers, and pointedly lowers his voice when he speaks, as one might to a small child.
‘And you’re telling me now because?’
‘Well, you said your Mom thought I adored you,’ Doug replies, with an expression like it ought to have been obvious. ‘I didn’t want you to go home thinking I was pining away or something like some heartbroken Shakespearean hero. I have prospects.’
Tom grins this time, despite himself. ‘Don’t worry Doug, I’ve never thought of you as a hero.’
‘Oh, that’s nice–’ Doug doesn’t get to ﬁnish. On some sort of crazy, demented, beer induced impulse, Tom leans forward and kisses him. A chaste, quick, wet press of lips. He thinks it’s a bad idea about the same time he is pulling away and his face is ﬂushed and hot and Doug is smirking strangely again.
Tom blinks and apologizes. Twice. Cursing his stupidity, blaming the holidays, and the beer. He’s saying something about mistletoe when Doug grabs the back of his neck and kisses him back, equally brief but hard enough that he can feel the stubble, and the warmth that’s almost desperate even, like maybe they both know that this is really–
The chubby boy in the red uniform is back–thank god– half-looking at them awkwardly, trying not to stare. The kid notices the empty cup.
‘Can I get you another beer sir?’
Tom opens his mouth to speak, but Doug waves him oﬀ;
‘No thanks, he can have mine.’