The grandparents didn’t say anything when I stumbled into their hallway half an hour later.
Someone must have called and told them, because Grandpa just gave me a hug and walked back ito his study and put on some Mozart.I ran back into my dad’s old room and starfished myself on the bed, trying to inhale the linen. It smelled musty, of my sweat from the previous night and the mothballs that lived permanently in the closet. I could smell Graeme's awful hair gel too, and something else... something at once bright and dark.
A little while later I felt the door creak open and sensed someone standing over me.
Grandma was holding out a mug of tea and a plate of rusks.
I rubbed my eyes.
“Come, Jakey, have this. You’ll feel better.”
I sat up, and took the tea and rusks from her in silence. She sat down beside me.
“Do you want to talk?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know this is hard for you, but you should know that your mom and dad love you very much.”
I was furious that there wasn’t any tone of anger in her voice.
“How can you sound so calm?” I snapped. “Dad’s your son. And now my mom’s gone and—”
“Of course I love your father; he’s my child,” she said slowly. “But it’s not for me to judge. I… I’ve been in a place where… well, people have problems. And none of this is your fault.”
My mother and father were officially having Problems.
A fucking huge Problem. People were going to be talking. I was living in one of Grandma’s stupid soap operas.
“Can I be alone, please?”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
Twilight crept through the louvres. Part of me wanted to go and bash my head against the wall so I could wake up in an alternate universe. I knew this was not a dream, but some shitty fork of space-time I’d been unlucky enough to end up in. There were other versions of my life where Mom hadn’t gone and had an affair, where I was captain of the lacrosse team, and where Dad was home early every day.
I dived under the covers and tried to hide. The dark-bright scent hit me again, and I flinched. I'd recognised Liam—the citrus of his cologne, the salt of his sweat.
I shot up and walked downstairs to the phone in the hallway and dialled Graeme's house.
Mrs Solomon answered in her nicotine-cracked voice.
“Hello Mrs Solomon, it’s Jake. Is Graeme there?”
“Jacob, dear. I’m sorry, you just missed him. He went out with a friend of yours. I thought you’d be with them?”
“Some boy called Liam. Is everything all right?”
“It’s fine... thanks.”
I tried not to slam down the phone. My brain twisted with fury: what the hell was Graeme doing with Liam? And why wasn’t he there for me now, when my mother had had an affair with someone and was now carrying his child? Why was a jock associating with two of the biggest nerds in the school? And why in God’s name was I feeling so pissed off that the two of them were hanging out together? It never bothered me when Graeme hung out with Jess Fulham with her eyebrow ring and patchouli incense even though fuck knows why they had anything in common.
I forced down scrambled eggs and toast, trying to watch TV in the lounge. Grandpa had passed out with Pish-Tush in his lap, snoring loudly, while Grandma worried away at some sewing.
Everybody was acting like they were munitions experts trying to defuse a bomb as delicately as possible.
And nothing exploded, which was a million times worse.
I stayed on the couch when they eventually went to bed. As silence washed over the house my eye settled on the drinks cabinet, a bowl of lemon slices slowly withering where Grandma had poured her customary gin and tonic earlier in the evening. I stared at the rows of bottles, most of them unopened, gifts from visitors over the years: Cointreau, Chartreuse, Benedictine, Advocaat. A dusty bottle of Jack Daniels nestled in the corner. I picked it up. It was heavy. The amber liquid inside was a viscous oil. Manly, grown-up, distilled testosterone.
Why not. It was right at the back of the cabinet and I doubted they’d miss it. I slipped out through the kitchen door and walked slowly to the edge of the woods. I opened the bottle and raised it to my mouth.
The whisky was a liquid dragon. It burned in all directions, blinding me, igniting my throat and mouth and nose. I didn’t care. I chugged it down until I gagged, which was only a few mouthfuls in.
I puked in the delphiniums and collapsed onto my back.
The trees became ghouls and the earth a barren crater. I hated even the very act of breathing. I wanted to curse the stars and the oceans and the mountains; I wanted to dissolve; I wanted to fall asleep and never wake up again.
I heard a grunt. Startled, I got up, then caught my foot underneath a fallen log. I faceplanted onto the ground and tasted iron in my mouth.
“Hard tack is bad for kids.”
I looked up and yelped.
He was sitting on his haunches just a few feet away. I got up and dusted myself off and brought my hand to my lips, wincing when I found the small laceration.
“Why are you out in the woods?”
“I was just taking a walk,” I lied.
“With a bottle of whisky?”
The last thing I needed was some crazy old hobo worrying me. “Why the hell are you so nosy? And what are you doing here?”
“I live here,” he said, and raised himself to his full height.
“Now you’re being nosy, kid. Go back home. Your family’s gonna worry about you.”
“You’re not my father,” I huffed.
“Whatever’s wrong kiddo, drinking that stuff isn’t gonna solve anything.”
He held out a withered hand. I snorted and gave him the bottle.
He took out the stopper sniffed at it. “Thanks. Think I'll keep it if you don't mind. I’ll make it up to your Oma and Opa. Did you give her the... the package?”
“Yes. What was in it?”
“Something she needs,” he said, and stared at the sky. “Fog’s comin’ in. You should go back inside and get some rest.” He turned around and walked back into the woods.
“Wait–where are you…”
But he had disappeared.
I ran my tongue over the cut on my lip. Fuck my life, I whispered, and wandered blearily back to the house.
I stayed at my grandparents for the next few days. My dad moved out into a motel a few blocks from the hospital. My mother called several times each evening but I refused to speak to her. The days at school felt pointless.
Graeme was pale when I told him at first break the day after the shit went down.
“Fuck,” was all he said after I’d vomited out the whole story.
“Fuck knows. I don’t really want to know, because I’d probably kill him. And why the hell does my dad need to be the one who moves out? Anyway, she can stew in it.”
Graeme squeezed my shoulder. “Dude, it sucks, but I don’t think hating your mom will solve anything.”
“I don’t hate my mom. I’m just pissed at her, okay? Fucking super pissed. I’ve never been this angry at anyone.”
“I get it. Do you think they’re going to get divorced? Is that even allowed in your church?”
I twitched as he said divorced. “I don’t know, dude. I don’t want to think about that now.”
“I understand. But… the baby? How far is she pregnant?”
There was a thing growing inside my mom that shared half my DNA.
“Jesus,” I said, and felt sick. “That’s too much right now.”
I took a deep breath. “Where were you anyway, last night? I called but your mom said you went out.”
Graeme tapped his foot against a leg of the lunch table. “I um, went to...”
“To Liam?” I pressed. He widened his eyes and looked away.
“Yeah. He was having problems installing stuff on his new computer.”
“Oh,” I said, my voice full of snark. “Are you two like best friends now?”
“Dude, he asked me, that’s all. Are you jealous or something? He’s not a bad guy.”
I squeezed my can of Coke. “I didn’t say that. I just needed to speak to you last night .”
“Jeez, bud, I’m here now, aren’t I?”
“Fine. What computer does he have, anyway?” I asked, trying to simmer down.
“The latest!” Graeme grinned and rattled off a litany of technical specifications that I tried very hard to pretend to understand.
I didn’t see Liam until later in the day after chemistry.
He had a new, ripening bruise above his left eyebrow.
“What the fuck happened to you now?” I asked.
“Oh... just a tackle,” he said, shrugging. “Never mind that. I’m sorry to hear about... you know."
”How did you know?"
He shifted uneasily on his feet. "Uh, Graeme told me... I didn't mean..."
“Whatever. It’s okay.”
“Shit, man. You ...you...wanna go to the movies or something?”
“Movies? Are you asking me out on a date?”
“No, dipshit. I just meant maybe you could do with like being distracted or something. A day without studying isn’t going to hurt your Einstein brain. I mean, you and Graeme can go, I just thought...”
His awkward tone was somehow touching. “Okay,” I said, cautious. "Aren't your jock bros gonna make fun of you, hanging with my species?"
"C'mon, Brody. They've never done anything to you, man."
"But they have to Graeme."
He was silent for a good ten seconds. "I know that's not cool. Just know I've never..."
"Never mind, boy scout. You choose the movie, I don't give a fuck."
It turned out to be a good idea after all. The film was gory and silly and kept my mind off things. I drank a giant Slushie and didn’t care that it made my chest wheezy. It was still the days when everything had tartrazine in. The world is safer now, I guess, but less colourful.
Classes officially ended on Thursday with Final Assembly, and then we were off until examinations started the next Monday. Assembly was boring as hell, and I ran out of the hall as soon as Mr Turlington launched into a rickety version of “Gaudeamus Igitur”.
I froze. My mother had been waiting for me at the entrance. Her face was sallow, bags under her eyes, her lovely mouth pressed into a thin rictus.
“Can we talk?”
I tried giving her a death stare, but when my eyes met hers I could only think how I had inherited exactly her irises of speckled hazel, and the rage at the back of my throat evaporated.
“Okay,” I said cautiously.
“Do you want to go for an ice-cream?”
“Whatever,” I said, and followed her to the car.
That ride to the mall was one of the longest silences of my life. We didn’t say anything until I’d taken the first spoonful of Mango Madness.
“Jakey, I’m so, so sorry.”
The words were limp, leaden, and painfully sincere.
Damn you, Mom. Damn you for talking to me in a little girl voice and calling me Jakey like you’ve done since you read me bedtime stories and put iodine on my grazed knees. Damn you for never having a life and doing everything for me and my sister and my father.
“What do you want me to say?” I managed.
“I don’t expect you to forgive me. Believe me, I wanted to move out, but your father insisted.”
“I know. We spoke on the phone.”
She put her head in her hands, and I knew tears were welling as her coffee cooled and the sorbet started melting into a sickly yellow pool.
“I’m glad you’re keeping in touch. I know this must be awful for you, and it’s exams and...”
“Would it matter if there weren’t exams?” I snapped. My tone was bitter and haughty.
“No. But I want you to know that I love you.”
“I know you do, Mom.”
She wiped her eyes. The people at the next table were looking at us, but when I turned around they quickly retreated into their lunchtime specials.
“You’ll always be my special boy.”
“Were you... were you lonely or something?”
I had cornered her.
“I know Dad’s like never at home. Like he’s married to his job.”
I scrambled for words to fill in the vacuum. My tongue worried around the healing gash inside my lip. I twinged with pain.
But it made the next phrase come out easy.
“Are you guys going to split up?”
“All your father said is that he wants space.”
“That’s all he said to me too.”
"Have you told Abby?"
She opened her handbag and reached for a tissue. In the maw of the bag I saw a host of crumpled-up ones, as if my mother had been collecting clouds. She blew her nose.
"I didn't want to tell your sister over the phone. I'll tell her when she comes home next weekend."
"I guess that's kinder."
“So are you ready for your exams?”
I let out a deep breath, grateful for the change of subject. “I think so.”
“I know you’re going to be fine,” she said with a half-smile. “You work so hard.”
Yeah. I fucking well had to. The better my marks the sooner I could apply to a university far, far away and get away from the freak show that my family had turned into.
“Don’t overwork yourself,” my mother said. I felt a pall wash across me. She’d said that to my father so many times. “Make sure you do something fun.”
The party. It would be tomorrow night.
“I will be,” I said, trying to hide a sudden smile as I thought of Elaine’s boobs.