by Leah Browning
He left the day after he turned eighteen. He could have gone the day before—the duffel was in his closet, already packed—but she wanted to bake him a chocolate cake, the way she had when he was five or six, when she used to buy him a few comic books and wrap them in tin foil.
She wanted him to blow out the candles. She wanted him to sit still while she cut a thick wedge and set it just so on a paper plate. She wanted. She wanted.
This is what he thought about on the bus, as he stared at his reflection, and at the grasslands shooting past behind it. He couldn’t get far enough away.
It was night when the bus pulled into the station. He’d fallen asleep with an old sweatshirt wadded up under his head. It took him a second to get his bearings, and he stumbled a little as he dragged the duffel up the aisle, then down the steps of the bus and out into the semi-darkness. It was late summer, still humid even after ten p.m., out there with the bus’s engine still running and the air hot with the smell of exhaust. Moths were collecting under the streetlights.
That was when he had a moment of doubt, but he’d come too far not to continue, so he hitched the bag up on his shoulder and started walking.
It was only two miles. Still, there was a film of sweat on his face by the time he arrived on his father’s front porch. There were no lights on, which surprised him; he knocked lightly at first, then louder. He was suddenly afraid that his father wasn’t home, and he would have to spend the night outside. His father wasn’t the type of person to hide a key under the mat or forgive a broken window.
He knocked again, and this time, the door opened.
His father looked older. He was still short and wiry, with the same muscular arms, the same ragged blue jeans and plain white undershirt, but there were deep pouches under his eyes. He seemed unfocused, and he had to turn the porch light on before he ran his hand through his hair and said, “Oh, Gavin, it’s you.” He stepped back to let him inside the house.
A girl was sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette. She was older than Gavin, but not by much, he didn’t think. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she had a certain type of eyes. They were a light blue, but not the faint, watery color that eyes could be sometimes. They were a blue blue, a piercing blue.
“Where’d you come from,” she said. She reached toward an ashtray on the coffee table in front of her and stubbed out the cigarette.
“Home,” he said, thinking suddenly of his mother, back in the trailer with her empty box of cake mix.
He wished he could forget her, all her little quirks and habits, the way she pushed his hair off his face when he was hot or the way she would stand at the stove, yelling at him about one thing or another—because with her, it was always something!—and waving a spatula in the air to emphasize her point. She was a waitress, and there was something about food that she seemed to hate. Cooking, cleaning: she hated doing the same things at home that she had to do every day at work. (But she didn’t cook at the restaurant, now did she? And then sometimes she wanted to go out of her way to cook for him, like with the cake, but then she’d get mad if things didn’t go the way she wanted. When he was around her he felt like he was in the middle of a puzzle that he was never smart enough to solve.)
“Hey!” The girl snapped her fingers at him.
“What a space cadet,” she said to his father.
In the kitchen, his father got him a cold Coke. “Where you headed?” he asked.
“Here,” Gavin said, wondering if he had misunderstood the question, but his father nodded.
The girl watched as his father gave him a pillow and blanket from a closet in the hallway. “You can sleep on the couch,” his father said. “Try not to flush the toilet in the middle of the night. Chrissy’s a light sleeper.” He put his arm around her as they went into the bedroom.
- • •
In the morning, his father made a pot of coffee and poured cereal into bowls. Chrissy made a show of getting an extra chair from a little desk in the nook off the kitchen and dragging it as far away from the table as she could get. She poured herself a cup of coffee and stared out the front window at squirrels or whatever a person could stare at. Gavin didn’t care. He had a headache.
“I have to go to the studio,” his father said. “We’re recording today.” He squinted at a wall clock. “If you need to go somewhere, Chrissy can take you. She has a car.”
“He can just watch TV like a normal person,” Chrissy said. “What do I look like, a chauffeur?”
“He might want to get out of the house at some point.”
“Then you take him.” She turned to Gavin. “Or walk. You’ve got legs.”
Gavin’s father rolled his eyes. “Don’t listen to her,” he said.
- • •
He must have dozed off again, because he woke to a set of keys dangling over his face.
“Earth to Gavin,” Chrissy said. She’d brushed her hair and changed into jeans and a T-shirt. “Let’s go get lunch. I’m hungry.”
Gavin sat up. He felt dazed.
“Come on, Lazy. If you’re not outside in two minutes, I’m leaving without you.” Chrissy kicked his foot, and he winced as she made contact; her boot had a steel tip. She was already halfway across the room, opening the door, walking outside without looking back.
He got up from the couch and followed her out to the driveway. If he didn’t, he was certain that she would follow through on her threat and leave without him, though would that be the worst thing? Mostly, he was afraid his father would be aggravated. (With him? With Chrissy? Or with both of them, for not trying harder to get along? Gavin wasn’t sure, but regardless, he didn’t want to risk it. If this didn’t work out, he had nowhere else to go.)
“Don’t touch anything,” Chrissy said as he climbed into the passenger seat.
She already had the motor running, and she pulled out of the driveway before he had his seatbelt on. Gavin wished he’d had time to brush his teeth before they’d left.
As they drove, Chrissy lit a cigarette and held it out her window, driving with one arm and letting the other trail out the open window. “If your dad and I got married, I’d be your mom,” she said. She laughed: a short, cheerless laugh.
“When we get to the restaurant you should call me Mom. You know, for fun.” She stopped at a stop sign. Her left arm was still hanging out the window with the lit cigarette. A kid walking a bike was trying to cross the street, and she waved him across with a lazy flick of her wrist.
- • •
Chrissy ordered a chicken sandwich and a Diet Coke to go, and then she watched Gavin eat with an expression somewhere between fascination and disgust.
“Jesus,” she said. “Didn’t your mother teach you any manners?”
Gavin shrugged, but he stuffed the lettuce back into his burger and took smaller bites.
She gestured to the waitress. “Could we get some more napkins over here?”
The waitress, at a nearby table with a pen and pad in hand, said, “Just a minute.”
Chrissy leaned in and said, “What a loser. You’ll never catch me working some dead-end job for the rest of my life.”
What’re you gonna do that’s so great, Gavin thought.
Her eyes narrowed. “Come on,” she said. “I’m bored. Let’s go.”
- • •
The house looked different in daylight. Gavin hadn’t seen it in two years. He was taller than his father now: a tall, skinny kid. The house seemed smaller than he remembered, and more run-down than it had been. It had never been huge—his father had told him that he only stayed there in between tours—but it had been new when he bought it. The whole neighborhood seemed tired now, emptied out.
Chrissy strode ahead of him with her takeout bag. She pushed his blanket aside and settled down on the couch, spreading her food out on the coffee table and turning on the TV.
Gavin wandered around the house, looking at pictures and getting a drink of water in the kitchen. There wasn’t much to do. He stared out the window. How had he entertained himself when he’d visited his father? He’d been so much younger. Maybe toy cars, or a coloring book. They’d gone out to eat. Once, when he was thirteen or fourteen, his father had taught him how to shoot pool.
It was just a weekend here or there. Not much more than that.
She’d left Gavin here for a week one time, though, maybe more than a week. He’d been so young that he couldn’t remember the details. That time, before she drove away, his parents had had a fight, a bad one. At home that morning, she had packed Gavin’s clothes in a garbage bag, and in the middle of the fight, she had picked up the bag and thrown it at his father. They didn’t have a bad time, though, after she’d left. They ate bologna sandwiches, and his father took him to his friend Stu’s, and Gavin sat on a box in the corner of the garage while the band practiced.
- • •
His father came home with a bucket of fried chicken, a pair of six-packs, and $300 in cash, which he fanned out on the kitchen table. “We got a bonus for finishing early,” he said.
“It’s all white meat tonight, baby,” he told Chrissy, and they both laughed.
After they finished eating, he and Chrissy washed their hands at the kitchen sink and moved over to the couch. Chrissy had just finished watching Divorce Court and the afternoon talk shows, but she curled up next to his father, pulled Gavin’s blanket over her legs, and settled in to watch a rerun of Die Hard.
Gavin finished his drumsticks and coleslaw. “I’m going for a walk,” he said.
His father grunted without taking his eyes off the screen.
The only other person outside was a man walking a dog the size of a small horse. Gavin moved aside to let them by. He put his hands in his pockets. There wasn’t anywhere he needed to be.
- • •
When he woke up the next morning, his father had already gone back to the studio. Chrissy was sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee. Two slices of toast, burned black, were on a plate on the counter.
“That was the last of the bread,” Chrissy said. “If you want some, you’ll have to go to the store.”
Gavin cleared his throat. “I don’t mind,” he said.
She didn’t answer, or look up when he left the house.
He bought bread, milk, a bag of oranges, and a lottery ticket. On the way back to the house, he was in no hurry, and he took a circuitous route, winding his way through the neighborhoods. He was turning from one street to the next when he heard voices.
A few white pickup trucks were parked in front of a construction site. He could see his father, talking to a man he’d never seen before, and Stu, carrying a pile of boards into the open space where the front door of the house would be.
Instinctively, Gavin stepped back. He retraced his steps and bypassed the site, walking toward his father’s house as fast as he could.
Chrissy was still at the kitchen table where he’d left her. “Took you long enough,” she said, and got up to carry her mug to the sink.
Gavin was having trouble catching his breath. “Where’s my dad’s guitar?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “In the bedroom closet? What do you care, anyway?”
She went in the bathroom and closed the door.
He stood alone in the living room. The milk was sweating, and he put it in the fridge. He threw the bag with the other items onto the counter.
- • •
His father came home late, drunk. “I did not win at cards tonight,” he said, and Chrissy rolled her eyes.
“Do you ever?” she asked.
She bent down to unlace his shoes.
Gavin watched her help him into the bedroom.
- • •
In the middle of the night, the bedroom door opened. Gavin was asleep on the couch, and the sound woke him.
Chrissy came out of the bedroom wearing a short red and orange kimono. She walked into the kitchen, her bare feet almost soundless as she crossed the floor. Gavin heard the refrigerator open, and she walked back through the living room carrying a wine bottle and two empty glasses.
She must have had a napkin, too, because she dropped it as she walked through. Gavin could see the white paper flutter in the dark.
Quietly, she put the glassware in the bedroom and came back out for the napkin. As she leaned forward to retrieve it, the kimono fell open a little, exposing the swell of her breasts. She looked up and caught Gavin’s eye.
She stood up and pulled the sash tight against her waist. His cheeks burned.
He turned toward the back of the couch and shut his eyes. The door closed again.
A little while later, there was rustling, then the creak of a bed. The sounds were soft at first, then louder. From the other room, he could hear Chrissy panting and moaning.
Gavin put his pillow over his head and tried to think about something else.
- • •
Had it been a dream? He wasn’t sure.
It was daylight again. Someone was moving around in the kitchen.
He got up. It had been a hot night, and he’d kicked off the blanket. He’d slept in a clean pair of boxer shorts.
The door of the bathroom was closed. Gavin could hear water hitting the shower stall.
He stood in the hallway, waiting.
The water stopped. A towel was pulled off the rack. Gavin heard the snap of the medicine chest, then a drawer sliding back and forth. He went on staring at the bathroom door.
When it opened, his father was in blue jeans and a light T-shirt with a square of darker colors in the middle. The fabric strained over the muscles of his arms. He was so much shorter than Gavin now. He paused in the doorway.
Gavin was standing there, waiting. His father reached out and pushed him hard in the chest. It knocked him back against the wall.
For a second, Gavin couldn’t catch his breath.
“You think you’re such hot shit,” his father said, “but I could still take you.” Gavin shrank, waiting for another blow, but his father strode past him and down the hall instead.
Gavin stood outside the bathroom. The door was hanging open now. There was still steam on the mirror over the little porcelain sink. His hands were shaking. His arms, his legs.
Inside, he was a ghost, empty. But then the fog lifted. In the mirror, his face looked the same as before.
He had $200 in a Band-Aid tin in the bottom of his duffel. After he heard the front door close, he packed up and left.
On the way to the bus station, he stopped at the construction site. His father was up on a ladder. Gavin called to him.
“I’m going,” he said. The only other thing he could think to say was, “Thanks for the fried chicken.”
This elicited a grudging laugh. His father laid his tools on the scaffolding and climbed down the ladder.
“You take care now,” he said. He clapped Gavin on the arm.
What happened? Gavin wanted to say, but he didn’t. The man standing in front of him was someone he didn’t know.
They both nodded; then his father climbed back up the ladder. Gavin hiked the duffel up on his shoulder and turned away. On the way to the station, all he could hear was the sound of his footsteps.
That morning, Chrissy had opened one of the kitchen windows. He found her sitting at the table, smoking, looking pensive.
“Bye,” Gavin had said uncertainly.
He couldn’t have said why, but at the last second, he felt guilty about leaving her there alone.
She didn’t look up. She raised her hand in his direction—a dismissive wave—and took a drag on her cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke through the pores of the window screen.
About the Author
Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books and five chapbooks. Her fiction and poetry have recently appeared in Coldnoon, Superstition Review, Chagrin River Review, Fiction Southeast, Bellows American Review, Santa Ana River Review, and Waypoints; with audio/video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse; and in Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence from White Pine Press.