Images of my mom pushing a young me on a swing was the last thing I saw before I opened my eyes. My heart was pounding in my chest so hard I felt the vibration on my lips. Sweat collected on my forehead. The realization that I was in Joan’s house and not with my mom sunk deep into my gut.
The happy dreams were almost worse.
I sat up in my bed in hopes of stabilizing my breathing. My hair stuck to my face. Every thought I didn’t want to have rushed in my vulnerable half-awake mind.
I closed my eyes for a moment, pieces of Pete fall out of me. Images of his face when I pulled away played over in my mind. I should have never held his hand for so long. He told me he wanted more that what we had. I said and did nothing until he tried to kiss after I leashed up Matilda. “It’s late. Things are messy right now,” I had said as Pete’s face dropped more with each word.
I hurt him. The last thing I ever wanted do.
The panic of knowing I’ll be awake for awhile began to race in my chest as an overwhelming loneliness filled my room. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my tin of joints and headed for the window.
The bitter yet peaceful air poured in around me, instantly giving relief to the screaming inside my head. The rare quietness of the streets folded me in a safer pocket. I scurried to the point next to the window where the two parts of the roof meet creating the perfect seat, the only thing I liked about that house. I tucked my legs into my chest, put the joint to my lips, and lit it.
Harsh smoke filled my mouth, burning my throat. My heart began to slow, though my mind hadn’t.
After Matilda and I had headed on our way, I looked back to find Pete with his head hung. I didn’t know the right thing to do, so I kept walking—now that the deadness of night surrounded me I was regretting it.
He was Pete.
I pictured the scene again. Pete’s soft words, “I like you more than a friend. It doesn’t feel weird.” His lips move closer to mine. But instead of panicking and pulling back, and hurting him I imagined me leaning back in. Right before I pictured our lips touching, I shook my head and the thought temporarily out of it. The vacant spot was instantly filled in by my mom scooping cookie dough out of the plastic tub before sliding the container to me. I took another pull from the joint; a deep cloud filled my lungs. After a while of sitting there fighting my thoughts, my mind finally slowed.
I stared in the mirror deciding if it was time to change my hair color. I held strands of turquoise hair between my fingers. My eyelids were heavy. I was stressed. I only managed to get a couple of hours before Matilda woke me up to take her out. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through the day. It made me nervous to think about working with Lincoln that night. My head was torn in two, and I wasn’t close enough to myself to know what I wanted.
The moment Glen’s voice screamed my name a light went off in my head, a small warning, a feeling—a hope even, that everything was going to change…again.
Glen swung the bedroom door open, causing the door knob to puncture the sheetrock. I stared at the cracked paint.
I stepped back; my whole body was on the defensive. A signal went off in my head, sensing the danger Glen was carrying on his shoulders. He raised his hand; his lips were in a tight line.
Matilda jumped off the bed and started barking.
Glen froze, his eyes holding me in their angry focus.
He dropped his hand.
My hands curled into fists. If he raised his hand at me, I’d be ready.
“The Kalowski’s called. Fred says you were on Joan’s roof smoking pot.”
What an ass. He didn’t need to tell on me.
My mom’s voice whispered in my head to pack a bag.
“Nothing to say? You are going to rehab. I found a sixty-day program.” His voice recited the words as emotionless as judge reading a sentence.
My heart was pounding in my chest. “Like hell, you are sending me to rehab. This work and therapy thing are gonna work for me.”
“Is that why you were getting high?”
I grab my thick black hoodie off the desk chair. “You were looking for an excuse to get rid of me.”
“I’m trying to help you.” His voice trembled with anger.
“I call bullshit.” I scooped up my phone, camera, and dropped them in me pocket. “You have been figuring out to get me handled while you count the days until I’m eighteen.” I walked over to my closet and swung the door open.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” Glen took a few angry steps toward me.
I turned to look at him before yanking my backpack off the back of the door. “Getting the hell out of here.” I began pulling clothes down without taking account for what item it was and shoving it into my backpack.
Glen grabbed my arm tight, enough to hurt. Our eyes locked. “You don’t get just to do whatever you want.”
I dropped my bag and pushed him back. My whole body was trembling. “None of this is what I want!” I screamed my words without intending to. Matilda stood next to me barking.
“What’s going on?” Brain’s little voice broke through.
Glen stepped back.
Tears filled Brian’s eyes.
I grabbed my bag off the floor and Matilda’s leash from the closet doorknob. I pushed past Glen, knelt down in front of Brian. I cupped his small perfect face in my hands. “I’ll come back for you.”
His lip quivered. “Don’t leave Elliot, please.”
I pulled in a broken breath. Mom’s cries poured down around me. The night’s of devastation in her lack of future is part of what keeps me from sleeping.
I let my hands drop from his face and stood up. I glanced at Glen; his round face was washed red. I brought my eyes on my littler brother, “I can’t be here anymore, not if I want to get better.”
“Are you going to go to Pete’s?” Brian was crying now.
I grabbed my laptop and pushed in-between my clothes. “Probably at first.” Pete’s rejected expression flashed in my head, making my stomach even sourer.
“I will come back for you.”
Brian threw his arms around me, hugging me tight. I wrapped my arms around him, relaxing it would be a while before I saw him again.
“Hang in there bud.” I rubbed his head, said nothing to Glen as I walked down the stairs, out of the door without any idea where I was going. All I knew was that I couldn’t be there anymore. I looked down at Matilda to my left. I didn’t know where to go with Matilda other than Pete’s.
The cold burned as it whirled around me. My feet and Matilda’s paws walked in sink over the cracked and uneven sidewalk. The closer we got to Pete’s the more I didn’t think it was the right thing. I would be safe there, but emotionally it seemed like more than I could take. Pete and I got complicated. Or, at least we were at that moment.
I stopped walking. Matilda sat in response. I grabbed my phone. I glanced at Lincoln’s number for a second.
No, bad idea.
Without any more deliberation, I called Molly.
After a handful of rings, a cracked and whiny version of her voice said, “Hey.”
She had been crying.
Temporarily forgetting my turmoil, I asked, “What’s wrong?”
“My piece of shit aunt has notified me there are sending me to a two-year boarding school for troubled girls. They can’t just treat me like a sofa that has gone out of style. I just left. All my belongings are in my truck.” She sniffed at the end of it. “It’s cliche to run away but what are you going to do?”
“Feel like a partner?”
“What’s going on?” Molly’s voice picked up in tempo a few notches.
“Neighbors told my step dad I was smoking pot on the roof. He said rehab. Things got scary. I left with Matilda. Inevitable I suppose.”
“Where are you right now?” There was no evidence that she had been crying; she only sounded like a concerned friend.
“On my way to Pete’s, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. He has feelings for me. Things are messy.”
“I told you, and by the way, you have feelings for Pete. Poor Lincoln has no idea what he’s getting into.” The sound of Molly lighting a cigarette paused our conversation for a minute.
“Molly.” I groaned.
“Okay, okay! I’m on my way. Go to the bus stop I picked you up at the other day.”
I pulled a cheesy, gravy soaked fry from the paper tray of disco fries we grabbed from the diner. Molly slugged back her second Red Bull. We had been sitting in her car in the mall parking lot for over an hour, as we plotted our great escape.
“I’m gonna come in with you, so I can ask Malachi if we can crash for a bit.”
“Then, where to?” I asked knowing full well she didn’t know the answer.
“How could we swing that?”
“There is always a way.” She grimaced at the fries and clutched her stomach. “You can kill them. I can’t eat anymore.”
“You barely had any.”
“Trust me that was a lot for me. Habits are hard to break.” She shrugged, her eyes went somewhere far from where we were for a moment, but I didn’t ask her where.
“Ready?” I asked instead.
“Yep, will Matilda be okay in the car?”
“I’d rather not leave her in the car. What if we went around the back? Through the smoking spot.”
“That could work.” She turned off the engine and climbed out of the car. Her red hair was knotted and twisted in a haphazard bun on the side of her head. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, but her patterned, high-fashion clothes hung as usual over her bony figure.
Matilda and I followed up through the parking lot, past the east wing parking garage. Molly said something about making a go at it down the shore would be easier in the summer, and how we needed a place to chill in the mean time. We rounded the dumpsters, slipped in through the propped open door, and through the dank hallway.
When we pushed open the door to Angry Crow’s stock room, Malachi was hunched over a thick stack of papers.
“This is shipment is all wrong.” Malachi saw us and tossed the list into the unorganized heap on the desk. His eyes settled on Matilda, “Why do you two have a dog?”
“This is Matilda,” I mumbled.
“I love dogs, but she can’t be in the store.” A thick, leather choker hugged his neck.
“Well, that’s why I’m here. I wanted to ask you a giant favor.” Molly forced a strained smile.
“The last time you started with that, we both got arrested.” Malachi crossed his arms.
“Oh that so doesn’t count.” Molly smacked his arm playfully. I was beginning to realize I adored everything about her.
“My aunt told me this morning she was sending me to a boarding school.”
“So you left,” he stated it as a fact like he saw this coming. Malachi looked at me. “That doesn’t explain you and your dog.”
“My sentence was rehab.” I nibbled nervously on my lip.
Malachi ran his hand over his dreads. “Too many shitty people out there,” he said first, mostly to himself. “I’ve got Lincoln on my couch.”
“We’ll take the floor.”
“I’m not supposed to have dogs at my place, so it can’t be long.” Malachi’s heart was big; his eyes were warm as he spoke the words making it clear he meant it all.
“I’ll figure something else out.” Even though I had no idea how.
“We will.” Molly corrected.
Lincoln walked into the store room from inside the store. His eyes widen when he saw me. “Hey.”
Everything is complicated.
“Hi,” I said back. He clutched a small stack of comic books in his right hand.
Matilda wagged her tail.
“You have a dog.”
Malachi cleared his throat, “We all have a dog.”
“Huh?” A confused expression took Lincoln’s face.
“Molly and Elliot are gonna crash on the floor for a while.” Malachi turned to the small electronic box and clocked out. “Meet you at my place?” Malachi looked at Molly.
“Yep.” Molly slid the leash from my head, and an unwanted glimmer of panic shot through me. Somehow sensing this she said, “I’ll take care of her.”
“Thank you,” was all I said.
“Of course, I’ll be back at 9:30 to pick you up.”
Matilda looked happily at all of us, excited about the adventures.
“I can drive her,” Lincoln said, then looked at me, a small perfect smile played with the corners of his mouth. He shrugged. “We are going to the same place.”
“Yeah, okay.” My voice was barely audible.
“Okay kids, see ya at home,” Molly sang as she flipped her hair back. It was amazing to me that Molly was capable of suddenly being so upbeat. She could turn it on and off as if it were a switch.
Malachi and Molly disappeared through the door with Matilda. The space between Lincoln and I was suddenly way too close. My heart felt like it was full of air.
“Is it weird, that I’m gonna stay where you are staying?”
“I think it’s cool.”
My stomach flipped.
He lifted his comics up, “What do you say, we read these while we babysit the front of the store?”
“I say that sounds good.” It struck me as strange how suddenly I found myself excited and felt like anything was possible, which was something I hadn’t felt for a very long time.
As the lights from the hallway dimmed, the inside of the Angry Crow was even darker. I straighten a table of band shirts, but my mind was a million miles away in several different directions. Lincoln walked up and started folding t-shirt’s next to me. It became impossible not focus on the proximity between us was barely existent.
“A comic book fact for your thoughts?” His raspy voice rattled in my ear.
“What’s the fact?”
“Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are Magneto’s twin children that he had with his gypsy wife.”
“My life is a mess, and I’m not sure what my next move is,” I said turning toward him.
His eyes were two perfect dark orbs, holding me somewhere I wanted to be. “Then we have something in common,” he whispered before kissing me.
I leaned my body into his, losing my hands in his hair. His lips pressed hard against my mouth. His arms folded tightly around me, pulling me in closer.
“That’s why?” Pete’s crumbling words ribbed me away from the moment with Lincoln.
Pete stood there in the entryway of the store with an expression that was so much worse than one I caused last night.
My stomach dropped to my feet. What had I done?
For a moment that felt like an eternity, we all stood still, stupid and saying nothing.
“Pete.” My voice broke around each letter.
“Him? Really?” Pete’s voice was broken. He threw his hand out, “Screw this.” He turned around and walked away.
Without hesitation or any explanation to Lincoln, I followed Pete out of the store and finally caught up to be right outside of the mall entrance three stores over. He stood near where the parking lot met the sidewalk. He lit a cigarette and as if he knew I was right behind him, he turned around.
His eyes hardened, but I knew him too well not know he was devastated.
“I’m sorry,” I said even though it was nowhere near enough.
“You’re Elliot, and I’m Pete. You aren’t supposed to be with Lincoln Bachman.” He took a drag from his cigarette.
“I don’t have a clue what I’m supposed to do Pete. I need you as a best friend right now.”
“I can’t just be your friend El, especially not while you date that.” He pointed toward the mall as if Lincoln was standing right there. “You have feelings for him? He’s bad news Elliot. What do you think is going to happen? He doesn’t know you like I do.”
“I don’t know.” I felt like I was losing everything.
“You are running from your grief, and you are trying to leave me behind with it.” Tears clouded his crystal blue eyes but refused to run down his cheeks. “I want to be with you El.”
“Today. What happens when you play the next show, and a dozen girls are trying to get in your pants?” I regretted the words as soon as I spoke them.
He took a stepped back and grabbed his stomach as if I had just punched him. “I don’t believe you. You have to know it would be different with you.”
I reached for his arm even though part of me knew it was too late, “Pete.”
Pete shook his head, “I gotta get out of here.”
“You are my best friend!”
“I don’t know what I am.”
Pete walked away. I didn’t follow, this time, instead I collapsed into a puddle on the edge of the curb and cried. He disappeared into the parking garage without looking back.
I’m not sure how long I was sitting there before Lincoln showed up next to me. He extended his hand, offering to help me up. “You ready?”