Home Free

“And where is home?” she giggled.

The question hit like a ton of bricks, her weight against him suddenly oppressive. He pushed her away, the feeling rising in the back of his throat. Disgust.

Her face fell, cloudy confusion. “Jake. Where are you going?”

He was halfway to the door, pushing through the sea of people that had never felt so claustrophobic. He could hear her whining where he’d left her, “Jake!” Like a four-year-old.

*****

“You be the mommy this time, and I’ll be the baby, and you have to pick me up from daycare, and don’t forget this time and then we can go get ice cream with-”

“I’m not the mommy! I’m a boy!”

“Just pretend. I’m always the mommy.”

“Mommies are girls. I can’t be the mommy.”

“Okay, then be the daddy.”

His little face screwed up in concentration. “What does the daddy do?”

His sister looked at him, her wide eyes clear and happy. “Whatever he wants. He’s the man of the house.”

*****

He was sick in the bushes, just outside the front door. For a second, he chastised himself for not making it farther, already mentally debating how to clean it up so the front walk didn’t smell, before he remembered this wasn’t his house.

A hard slap on the back. “Had a few too many tonight, Jakey?” A blurry smiling face, teasing behind an easter-egg plaid polo.

*****

“Hey, Ty, I’m home!” she called out, setting her bags down to shut the door behind her. “What do you think about stir-fry tonight?”

He didn’t look up as she came down the hall, dropping groceries off in the tiny kitchen. “That’s fine.”

She sighed. Fought the resentment, pushed it down.

“Brad and the guys are coming over later so make enough for them, too.”

She stood up straight and didn’t respond.

*****

“You seem down,” she said, moving the food around on her plate.

Jake leaned back in his chair, the hard metallic back cold against his shoulder blades. “Just hungover,” he grinned.

“Jake.”

He wondered where she’d picked that up, the mothering tone that said “I know you.”

“I’m fine.” He smiled to show that he wasn’t lying and picked up his coffee cup.

*****

She heard the garage door come up and her heart froze in her throat. She grabbed the rest of the dirty dishes, in a loud stack. She made it to the silencing carpet of the staircase by the time the side door opened.

“Ruthie?” Jake’s voice was cautious, testing, unsure.

She exhaled hard, relaxing enough to feel the adrenalin in her veins. “Hey, Jake,” she said as he came around the corner.

He smiled at her, standing on the stairs with all the dishes. She set them on the carpet and came down to give him a hug. “Welcome home. You’re a day early.” She swatted him on the shoulder playfully.

He ran a hand through his hair and readjusted the bag on his shoulder. “Yeah, well. It gets a little awkward being on your girlfriend’s family vacation after you break up with her.”

“Jake! You broke up?”

He grimaced. “Yeah. Probably should’ve waited until we got back. I just didn’t want to be there anymore.”

*****

“Hey, did your paycheck go through today?”

She had purposely made her voice calm, quiet, unconvicting. It hadn’t worked.

“Damn it, Ruth, I told you I’ll give you my rent check when I have enough in my account, didn’t I?”

She averted her eyes.

“Didn’t I?” He waited. “I asked you a question.”

“Yes.”

“And I haven’t paid it yet, have I?”

“No.”

“Then what, Ruth? Then why haven’t I paid it?”

She didn’t want to answer but he was patient when he was angry.

“Because you don’t have enough yet.”

“Because I don’t have enough yet,” he repeated slowly, condescending.

She waited. “I didn’t mean that, Tyler. I was just saying that paychecks went out today; it’s the fifteenth, and I was just telling you-”

“I know it’s the fifteenth, Ruth. Do you think I’m stupid?”

*****

“Let’s count to a hundred.”

He couldn’t see her in the dark, but her whispered voice was right next to his head and his hand was clasped firmly in hers. She wasn’t crying, but he was, and she knew it. A door slammed downstairs and he clenched his eyes shut.

“One.” She waited patiently.

“Two,” he said finally.

*****

“Do any of you know what urbanization is?” Mr. Parker waited for an answer in vain. It was hot; the air conditioner was out, and everyone was sweating.

“No? No guesses? Okay,” he continued. “People were moving to the cities in huge waves, with populations exploding so quickly that the existing infrastructure couldn’t cope. These families in the cities, their home life became toxic, literally. There was nowhere to put all of the trash, no proper sanitation. Kids had to work instead of go to school, as young as five and six year olds, just to make enough money to feed the family. They were living in these matchbox apartments called tenements, eight or nine to a room, rats and cockroaches and disease everywhere.” He paused for effect and the girls made predictable faces.

“Can you imagine what that must have been like? There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to escape. Life sucks from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep. You dream about food and warmth and security and money and rest.

“The next time you feel like complaining about your life, remind yourself what that must have been like, to live in these ghettos, these tenements, these slums. And be thankful you’ve got a place to go home to.” He gazed intently at them as they squirmed in their seats.

“Now, remember, read chapter 26 by next class; we will have a quiz, so be prepared!” The bell rang and there was a general shuffle of movement as everyone stood up, slightly guilty expressions on their faces.

*****

“You went to a party last night?” It was a casual question, but neither one of them missed the line of inquiry underneath.

He nodded cautiously. “Sig Ep house.”

“I thought you were going to that formal tonight.”

“I am.”

“Two nights in a row?” She wasn’t looking at him.

“Don’t give me that shit, Ruth.” He was angry, irrationally, suddenly, overwhelmingly.

She looked up, wide-eyed. “Jake.” Surprised.

“I don’t want to hear it, okay? And who are you to talk, huh? You’re a fucking maid, Ruth. You walk around that apartment like you’re scared to breathe and you tell me you love him and it’s shit and you know it, so don’t try with me, not today.”

She was hurt and he knew it and he couldn’t stop or care.

*****

“So why didn’t you guys just, like, stop going home?”

His arms were warm around her in the dark of the night. The ending credits to a movie were still playing, the music distant and calm. She turned her face away so he couldn’t see her in the dim light of the TV.

“You could’ve just stayed with friends or somewhere, right?”

She didn’t want to answer. “We didn’t have friends, not really. Not anyone who knew anything about it.”

Tyler was incredulous. “You never told anyone?”

She shook her head against his shoulder. “Not before college, at least.”

There was a pause.

“We had each other, me and Jake. It would have been different, I think, if there weren’t two of us.”

*****

He was aware of the footsteps out in the hallway, sluggish, slow, off kilter. The crack of light as the door opened.

The muttered curse, “Damn toys,” and the sound of his Happy Meal action figure skidding across the floor.

He closed his eyes, willing himself to ignore what was happening.

*****

“Hey, Ruthie, wait up!”

Ruth turned to see Caroline jogging towards her, her blonde hair splaying out behind her. Ruth smiled.

“Did you check the assignments for that APUSH project yet?” Caroline continued without waiting for an answer, “Parker put us together, of course.” She grinned. “All it takes is a little batting the eyes, a little laughing at his jokes, and he’s your bitch.”

Ruth laughed. “You’re awful.”

“But I got us partnered together, didn’t I?”

Ruth conceded. “Yes. You did. Thanks, Caroline.”

“So anyways, I’ve got practice, like, all this week because regionals are coming up” – she pulled a face – “but I’m totally free this afternoon. I was thinking we could just knock it out tonight. It’s Parker; it should only take, like, five seconds. I would say we could do it at my house because my mom has all of this extra scrapbooking stuff, but P.J.’s Boy Scout troop meets in our living room on Mondays and let me tell you, you do not want to be there. Fifteen-year-old Boy Scouts are just wrong. So anyways, just meet me after school and we can head to A.C. Moore or somewhere and then do whatever we need to do at your place – you live over in Woodbine, right? – and we’ll be done by dinnertime. Sound good?”

Ruth’s head was spinning. “Um. I can’t tonight, actually.”

Caroline’s face fell. “Ruth, come on. You know you don’t do anything on Mondays, or, like, ever. I really, really, really, need to do it today. Please.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t.”

Ruth walked away quickly, scanning the hall for Jake, desperately searching for his face among the crowd.

*****

“What are you doing?” she whispered harshly in the night.

“I can’t sleep,” Jake whispered back, crawling on to her bed.

“Be quiet!”

“I am!”

They fell asleep, faces inches from each other’s. A door slamming into the wall across the hall woke them up, and they clenched each other’s hands violently as the doorknob to Ruth’s room turned.

*****

He was instantly awake, instantly aware, already out of bed before he registered the knocking on the door. In his sleep-muddled brain there was panic and fear. The knocking was loud, insistent. He heaved a few deep breaths, trying not to get sick, told himself verbally to calm down and stumbled out into the hallway. He barely registered seeing the girl he’d brought back passed out on the couch with his roommate over the sound of the knocking, briefly wondering how it hadn’t woken them up.

He opened the door as far as the chain would allow and the light from the lamp outside blinded him for a moment. A girl. Ruth?

He closed the door, unlatched the chain, opened it again, and held her in his arms. She was sobbing, he could tell that now.

“Ruth, what’s wrong?”

His roommate shifted on the couch, and he pulled Ruth inside the apartment, shutting the door behind them. They went back into his room and sat on his bed in the dark, huddled close like they did when they were small.

“We broke up.” Ruth’s voice was pitiful.

Jake didn’t know how to respond. He wasn’t upset about it.

“I don’t know what happened. We were arguing and all of the sudden -”

“You were arguing? Or he was yelling at you?”

Ruth was quiet. “Jake, don’t, please.”

“I’m sorry.”

“We were arguing and then it was just over and he told me to get out and I didn’t know where to go. I don’t understand what I did wrong.”

He bit back a response and held her while she cried.

*****

“Who’d have thought we’d make it to graduation?” His gangly elbows popped out of the sleeves of his gown, still skinny after his recent growth spurt.

Ruth smiled at him and stood on her tiptoes to fix his tassel. “I knew we would make it.”

“That makes one of us,” he teased. He paused. “I’m not going home again, Ruth.” Serious this time.

She looked at him, and the fear in her eyes was so familiar he wanted to cry. “What?”

“I’m not going back there. If you want to call it home.”

Her voice was thin. “So where are you going?”

He shrugged and gazed over her head. “Anywhere but there.”

“Jake. Where are you going to sleep? The street?”

“Sounds better than the alternative.” He paused. “Don’t you get it? We’re done, Ruth. We paid our dues. We graduated today. We graduated. We’re done. We don’t have to go back there again.”

“What’s changed, Jake? All of the sudden you can make it on your own? You get handed a piece of paper and all of the sudden you don’t need anyone any more?”

His head hurt and he massaged the bridge of his nose. “I got a job.”

“What?” She was hurt. He hadn’t told her. He’d never kept a secret from her before.

“At Subway. It’s nothing glamorous, but it’s enough. I’m done.”

She was crying now, not caring who saw. “What about me, Jake? You’re going to walk away, just like that, and leave me there?”

It was getting hard to breathe.

“Let’s just go home, Jake. Please.”

“That place isn’t home. You go if you want, but I’m never going back there.”

*****

“I got you something.”

Her big, round eyes were glittering. “What?”

He took her hand and they ran around to the backyard. He led her behind a big oak tree and they knelt down on skinned knees. He reached in a bush and pulled out a Barbie doll with one shoe missing and bangs askew.

She gasped. “Where’d you get it?”

He shrugged and rolled his eyes. “I found it.”

She took it in her hands as delicately as though it were a jewel. “Did you steal it?”

“Does it matter?” he said angrily, standing up.

She squinted up at him. “You can’t steal, Jake. You’ll get caught.”

“I didn’t steal it, Ruth. I found it.” He snatched it out of her hands. “If you don’t want it, I’ll just throw it away.”

*****

“What are you drinking tonight, my man?”

“A beer’d be great. Whatever’s left,” Jake said, slipping down the overcrowded staircase into the basement. He followed P.J. to the bar, accepting the bottle he was handed.

Next thing he knew, he was waking up on the bathroom floor upstairs to the rise of vomit in his throat. He got sick for a few minutes, sweaty and way too drunk to focus. He fell back on the cool tile floor, panting, the sounds of the party still raging below him.

He closed his eyes, and thousands of snapshots flickered against his eyelids: Ruthie’s Barbie doll on her nightstand, the light of his bedroom door creaking open, the catch in the back of his throat as the car pulled into the driveway, Ruthie on the stairs with the dishes, the face of his manager at Subway when he showed up late for the sixth time, the first shot of tequila a pretty girl handed him in the eleventh grade, Mr. Parker telling him he was going to fail if he didn’t focus, Ruthie’s eyes full of fear, the underside of the bed where he’d hidden for four hours one night, the unsigned field trip permission slips, the way Ruthie had smiled at him when they’d crossed the stage at graduation one after the other. He realized he was groaning and he put his fist in his mouth, biting down.

He wanted to scream, but knew people would come.

He was sick again, and there was more, uncontrollable, unwanted: his fourth grade teacher telling him it was time to go home now, the nights spent huddled next to Ruthie, the feeling of wanting to be able to reciprocate an invitation to a sleepover, the numb days living in his car before he made enough to make a down payment, forging his guarantor form, the night he had sex with a girl for the first time and the accompanying feeling of disgust, and the endless endless endless nights.

There were people knocking on the door, opening the door, girls with wide eyes, their lips moving, P.J.’s hand on his arm, pulling him up off the floor, the silence as he stopped screaming, the eyes following him to the door, the blast of the heat of a summer night.

*****

“Hello. Is it Jake or Jacob? How are you doing today?” The woman smiled. Her lipstick was annoyingly perfect, and he focused his attention on it.

“Jake works. I’m fine.”

She looked down at her notebook for a second. “Alright, Jake. My name’s Wendy. Do you want to start off by telling me why you decided to come here today?”

He turned his head to stare out the window. “My sister thought it would be a good idea.”

She paused, waiting for more. “Are you close to your sister?”

“We’re twins,” he said, by way of answer.

“Were you always close with your sister? What about when you two were young?”

He didn’t answer, didn’t look at her.

“All right. Why don’t we start at the beginning, your childhood?”

He couldn’t look at her.

“What was home like for you growing up, Jake?”

He closed his eyes, knew what was coming, felt the burning in the back of his throat.

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