That first night Gabe spent in his grandfather’s house, he moved the old furniture against the walls and drank whiskey on the floor with Amy and Rae. His grandfather had died sitting in one of the chairs—Gabe didn’t know which one, so he didn’t want to touch any of them. He wouldn’t have wanted to sit on any of the furniture, anyway. Everything in the house smelled like an old man who’d spent the last twenty years sitting in a building that was twice his age.
There was thought of sleeping upstairs, in his grandfather’s bed later, but Gabe had changed the sheets and pillows and hid the old quilt in the closet and figured he’d probably be drunk and sleeping with either Amy or Rae that night (he didn’t have a preference, it would be whichever girl was too drunk to drive), so it didn’t really matter.
It was too cold for Florida that night. St. Augustine was right on the Atlantic Ocean and the cool wind dropped the temperature to almost freezing. Gabe didn’t know how to work the heater in the corner, so he sat on the floor in his jeans and sweater and drank whiskey to warm him until Cole showed up to figure out the heater. The girls danced to a song Amy picked from her laptop, which rested on the mantle above the useless fireplace. The small speakers played something classical that Amy and Rae waltzed to, arms around backs, feet tangling and girls giggling. They were both short and thin and had long brown hair, and it took Gabe almost a week after Cole introduced them to remember who was who. But he liked watching them, liked seeing their cheeks all warm from the liquor and the way their hands slid around the other’s hips. He wished they’d both stay. He wondered if they would, if they were all drunk enough later.
The girls kept waltzing as they heard a knock, a motion that shook the old door in its frame.
“Come in,” Gabe said from his spot on the floor, because he thought that standing up might make the room spin even more.
Cole walked in, his face red from the cold and hair disheveled. He must have come right from work, because he still smelled of horses. Cole steered around those old horse-led carriages that were priced for the tourists. He was a glorified taxi driver, but one who got to stand and pet the horses and smoke while he waited for that young couple with enough disposable money to spend on such a novelty.
“Cole, look at this fucking huge place,” Gabe said, as if Cole had never been to the house before. Gabe had lived with Cole in a tiny apartment on the other side of town, away from the restored cobblestone streets and quaint bed and breakfasts. All the good bars were on this side of town, though, and if they were both too drunk to drive, his grandfather would let them sleep on his pullout sofa bed. Gabe had always felt a strange pull of guilt at this; he could tell his grandfather only wanted to not be alone and Gabe just wanted a place to sleep off the booze. The last time he and Cole had done that was six months ago. The last time he’d seen his grandfather.
“I know, man,” Cole said back, grinning, because even though he’d seen the place before he knew what Gabe meant—as in, look at my new fucking huge house.
“A drink?” Gabe asked, holding up the whiskey bottle.
“Sure.” Cole hugged both of the girls, who lingered and swayed with him in attempts to get him to dance, too. Rae paused a moment longer, nuzzling Cole’s neck.
“Rae, a drink too?” Gabe asked, watching her closely.
“Yes, please.” They sat down crossed legged on the wood floor, forming a semi-circle, and passed the whiskey bottle to one another.
Eventually, Cole got the heater to work, which emitted a faint burning odor that at least covered the old man smell of the house. They emptied the bottle and played the new Friendly Fires album and danced around the large, empty space. Rae still complained of the cold so Gabe brought down his work uniform, a heavy red coat he wore as a Revolutionary War re-enactor, and Rae slipped it on and talked in a poor British accent. They spun in circles and pretended that the furniture was lava and they couldn’t touch it and guessed which chair he had died in. Rae made a joke about his grandfather probably pissing his pants before he died so it was most likely a chair with a stain and Gabe felt a sudden resentment, a burn that had nothing to do with the whiskey. He wanted to fuck her especially now, but on the hardwood floor after everyone left and not on the bed, not on his bed. This tinge of loyalty to his grandfather surprised him. Gabe wasn’t close to anyone is his family, despite the generations of his family that’d lived in St. Augustine. Maybe there was too much family here, too much history, that it swallowed Gabe whole, suffocating him.
His job as a solider re-enactor made it almost impossible to escape the burden of history, but the job was another thing that his grandfather had set up for him, largely due to a role his grandfather played in some St. Augustine historical preservation society. He hadn’t been back to work since his grandfather died last week, but he hoped he had job security. He was too tired and apathetic to look for another place to work.
It was almost four in the morning when the dancing and drinking caught up to them. Cole said he’d take Amy and Rae home, back to their apartment near the college campus, only a handful of blocks from Gabe’s new house. It would be strange to be living on this part of town now, near the undergrads and the good bars. The girls stood, but Gabe pulled on Rae’s ankle and she fell back down into his lap, all giggling and warm.
Gabe put his lips to her ear and said, “Stay.”
“Okay,” she said back, barely above a whisper. Gabe tried to not grin at how easy it was. The two boys locked eyes and Cole quietly set his arm around Amy’s shoulders and led her outside.
“This house is awesome,” Rae slurred, falling back against Gabe. He hadn’t realized she was still this drunk but he didn’t care either way.
“You’re awesome,” Gabe said, wincing at his own pathetic attempt at flirting, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Soon, the room definitely didn’t smell old and like his grandfather, but instead like whiskey and hot breath and tongues and sweat, and Gabe closed his eyes and wondered whether his grandfather had ever done this, fifty or sixty years ago, right here on the wood floor of his house, feeling young and knowing his entire life was ahead of him. Gabe had always wondered how his grandfather survived so long living in this town, but maybe if he’d had nights like this, life here couldn’t have been too terrible.
The Annual British Night Watch Parade was scheduled to start that Saturday night at eight o’clock. The re-enactors were discouraged from smoking or eating in their costumes, but Gabe and Cole still shared a quick cigarette in the parking lot of fort Castillo de San Marcos, which was the designated start of the parade route. Gabe always thought they were ridiculous in their long red coats and pointed hats, faux-worn uniforms. The British called the color of the uniforms “madder red” after the root that was used to dye the fabric; Gabe had always remembered that odd fact, perhaps because he liked the word “madder” and liked to think they meant it to mean deranged and crazy instead.
The parade commemorated the period when St. Augustine was under British rule; during that time the guards would march down the lantern-lit streets to lock the town’s gates at nightfall. During the holidays, the entire town would come outside with candles and watch the guards and sing carols. From the parking lot, Gabe could see the people lined up on the avenue, holding their candles. He could faintly hear “Frosty The Snowman” being sung.
“I’m glad the closing ceremonies are close enough to the bar,” Gabe said, thinking of the two-story place by the water that would no doubt be packed tonight with tourists and locals alike. But the bartender always gave him the happy hour price, so it was worth the cramped space and lack of seating.
“Don’t we have to stay and take photos until midnight though? You said we were getting paid for four hours.”
Gabe sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Have you talked to Rae lately?” Cole asked.
The question surprised him, and Gabe looked at Cole, at his straight mouth and arched brow. It was hard to take Cole seriously in his costume, and Gabe let out a small, nervous laugh.
“Nah, not really.” It had been almost a week since he’d slept with her. He hadn’t talked to anyone, really. He worked a few day shifts at the fort and then spent the rest of his time in the house, going through his grandfather’s things, mixing in his few furnishings with the ones he was keeping. His mom asked him a dozen times if he really wanted to live there or if he’d prefer to sell the house and pay off the taxes, but Gabe couldn’t do it. It was the first real thing he’d owned in his life.
“She’s a good person,” Cole said next, and Gabe had forgotten what they were talking about. Rae. Right.
“Yeah, yeah she is.” Gabe looked back at the fort behind him, to the solid stone walls. He felt he’d offended Cole somehow—maybe Cole wanted Rae. Regardless, he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“Let’s go with the group, we should be starting soon.” Gabe started to walk away. Cole followed behind, but Gabe didn’t turn back. They were handed their fake muskets from Gabe’s boss, who glared when he smelled the cigarette smoke. He and Cole stood in formation, backs and guns straight. Instead of thinking of Rae and Cole and his grandfather, Gabe imagined life as a British soldier. Maybe he would have a wife waiting at home for him, sitting patiently by the fire for her soldier husband to return home. She would have steaks ready on the table, a little pink, and would drink gin on the rocks with him and let him do the dirty stuff later that night as she whispered his name over and over: Gabe, Gabe, Gabe. His lips curved and he stood taller as he thought of his pseudo-wife at home, and not of the big empty building that was waiting for him.
Maybe he would buy a dog.
Gabe woke early the next morning and spent an hour in the kitchen trying to make breakfast. His grandfather had old appliances he didn’t know how to use—a coffeemaker that only worked on the stovetop—so Gabe took his time figuring them all out, feeling accomplished when he had a decent plate of French toast and bacon to show for his efforts. He liked to place the bacon between two slices of French toast and eat it like a sandwich, the way he did when his mother cooked him breakfast when he was younger. Gabe wondered what sort of things his grandfather had liked for breakfast, what he and Gabe’s mother would talk about while she cooked.
After breakfast Gabe wandered up to the attic, where the bulk of his grandfather’s old things had been stored—worn dress shoes, VHS tapes, faded books, items that weren’t in any shape to be sold or donated. And he didn’t want to throw them away either. Instead, Gabe sat in the middle of a pile of things that had filled his grandfather’s life and felt a heavy anchor in his chest, a feeling that his life too one day could be reduced to things in an attic.
Someone moved up the ladder; it was Cole, his head popping through the opening. “Hey, I’ve been knocking,” he said, not coming all the way inside but instead resting his elbows on the floor, looking like half a torso of a man. “You disappeared last night, after the parade. Thought you wanted to get a drink.”
“Yeah, I was just tired,” Gabe said, looking over the spines of old books. They were mostly encyclopedias and history books. His grandfather had loved Florida history, always collecting items that he thought had been from their ancestors.
“The girls wanna do something today. Interested?” Cole asked.
“Sure. I’ll get dressed.”
They met Amy and Rae at a coffee shop close to campus, one that was full of students boasting their school name on their sweatshirts. Almost everyone had a laptop open on a table next to their coffee mugs. Gabe had considered college before, briefly after graduation, but he had no idea what he wanted to major in. His “year off to figure it out” had somehow turned into six.
The girls talked hurriedly of their classes and final projects and something funny one of their professors did last week and Gabe nodded along, looking at Rae every so often. She never met his gaze. Cole had probably said something to her. Gabe decided to drop it and let Cole have her, if he wanted.
They spent the afternoon browsing touristy shops, the same ones they’d been in a dozen times. They visited friends who were sitting bored behind cash registers, waiting to ring up whatever overpriced gimmicks they were selling. They walked to their favorite bar as soon as happy hour started, and over beers Gabe started talking about what he’d been finding in the house, and they all seemed interested and even Rae smiled at him, once. It felt good to talk with his friends and have a drink and he started to order another round, but the girls said they had to head home because they had class in the morning and homework to finish. Cole left too, something about dinner with his mom, so Gabe started the walk back home.
He stopped at a liquor store first and felt sort of ashamed to be walking through the streets with a brown paper bag clutched in his hand, maybe like a homeless person, and he jangled around the keys in his pocket to prove he had a place to go. When he turned onto the cobblestone road of his new address, he opened the bottle and started drinking from it, keeping it concealed in the bag. He was thankful to live on such a quiet road. He wondered how well his neighbors had known his grandfather. He would ask them all tomorrow.
He headed right to the bedroom and saw his Revolutionary War costume still tossed on the floor. He laughed and slipped the coat on, thinking that sitting at home in his red coat and drinking was hilarious. Gabe only fastened two of the buttons, enough to keep the coat from sliding off, and stood straight and looked at himself in the mirror. He instantly felt like a boy playing pretend. These were not his clothes. This was not his house. Suddenly it was hard to breathe, so he went up to the attic, climbed out the window and onto the pitched roof.
He felt the pull of the wind right away, a strong cold breeze blowing from the water. Then he took in the incredible, glowing view, the houses and restaurants lit up, the water rippling and the boats swaying in the port. The lighthouse, with its black and white stripes, shone on the horizon. He was glad for the thick coat and pulled it around himself and continued drinking from his bottle.
Gabe looked down at his small backyard, at the soft thick grass that his grandfather somehow maintained. He wondered how it would feel to fall through the wind right now, slip off the roof and onto the grass. It seemed that easy too, that he would just slip and it wouldn’t hurt at all, that he would bounce like a cat and roll in the grass and spill none of his drink. He could probably do it.
And now he was daring himself, and even though no one was around, he felt compelled. Two stories was a long way to fall, he knew, but he had no idea what the rush of the fall would actually feel like. Maybe it was the coat, maybe the madder red was rubbing off on his skin, the madness seeping in, but suddenly he wanted to know. He had to know.
His heart was pounding now but he relished it. He felt crazed, but he was feeling something and it was wondrous, the exhilaration. He took a long, final sip from his bottle, enough to make him wince and push on his gag reflexes. He perched on the edge of the roof, toes dangling off the side. On the count of three. He was going to do. He rocked himself.
One. He thought of Rae and Cole and wondered if Cole had lied about dinner and if he was really going to Rae’s tonight instead.
Two. He thought of the wind behind his back and how it would feel to slice right through it, like a cannon blast from the mortars on top of the fort.
On three he thought of his grandfather, of how sorry he was he never made an effort in their relationship, how sorry he was that he was now jumping off his grandfather’s roof, of how sorry he was that he was wearing his uniform and drinking, two more things he shouldn’t be doing.
And then he didn’t think of anything because he was falling, the thrilling and terrifying feeling of nothingness. He closed his eyes and smiled wide and waited for the impact.