Content warning: Physical and verbal abuse of a teenager
Thursday Night or Friday Morning
The night air hit me like a slap. I kept my hands in my coat pockets and ducked my chin to my chest. After crossing the grocery store parking lot, I headed up the main street, past the classy little boutiques, past the shoe store. Past the not-so-classy pizza place with the eternal neon sign in the window with two backward z’s: “Pissa.”
Gabe waited for me half a mile away. Gabe, who wasn’t in school today. Maybe he would never come back to school. Maybe this time he would really do it: stay with his friend Scott, who already graduated. Or rent a room and work full-time. Maybe he would give me an address to memorize and swear me to secrecy. I’d have to tell everyone I hadn’t heard from him and didn’t know where he could be.
Or maybe I would never see him again after tonight.
Behind the glass wall of a lighted laundromat, a dog slept curled up on the linoleum tiles. Next to the laundromat, the theater’s elaborately carved stone wall stretched toward the sky. I hopped on a bench and balanced across it before cutting through the bed of a drained fountain. Gabe’s text said he would be on the other side of the building, at the main entrance. I trudged around the edge of the huge structure. Floodlights stained the stone walls yellow.
On the other side, Gabe stood silhouetted against the artificial light from the theater parking lot. His arms made bow shapes on either side of his body inside his thin black nylon jacket. He had to be freezing. His long black hair blew across his cheek.
He didn’t move when I reached him. “One thing we have in common, Kaylee, is that we both always have our hands in our pockets.” His face was expressionless until I looked into his eyes. They smiled.
“It’s cold.” The wind cut through my jeans.
“Listen, Kaylee. I need your opinion.” He trembled, and his breath frosted the air.
“You must be freezing,” I said.
He snorted. “I don’t need your opinion on that. I know it already.”
“Here,” I suggested, backing into a recessed archway, a sort of fake entrance in the side of the building.
“Out of the elements and into a tomb.” He looked up at the nook’s low ceiling. To fit inside, we had to crouch down about six inches and brace our backsides against the wall. The stone leached heat away from my body, and I wondered whether this had been such a great idea.
Gabe adjusted his feet and sniffled in the cold. “What I need your opinion on is this. I haven’t been caught yet and I bet I could do it: run away without being forced to go back home.”
I wanted him to make it. But at the same time, I wanted my friend to stay close. “Are you saying…maybe you want to go home?”
“Well, if I leave, I won’t miss Jack. That’s for sure.” He sniffed, trying to keep his nose from running. “And I might miss my mom a little, but I could deal with it. The thing is, I need to finish school. I’ve only got seven months until graduation.”
I hadn’t thought about it that way. I was still a junior and the end of school had just come into view, a hazy horizon.
“If I left,” he went on, “even if Scott let me stay with him rent-free, I’d have to work full-time and go to school full-time.”
“It’s been done.” I took my hands out of my pockets and rubbed my ears to keep them from going numb.
He huffed and rearranged himself against the wall. “Yeah, well, not by me. I’d end up getting about two hours of sleep a night and I’m not sure I’d live. Besides, what about the time from now until I get a job? I have twenty-six dollars in savings.”
“It sounds like you already have your mind made up,” I said. “You just asked me to come out here for moral support. You’re making it sound like going home is the best thing.”
He wiped his nose on the cuff of his jacket. “Right. Only nothing’s going to change. This is the third time I’ve left. So I know how it goes.”
“Change how? Why did you leave?” I’d wondered before, but this was the first time I got up the courage to ask. He looked down at his bent knees and I felt tactless, so I added, “Because you and your mom don’t get along?”
He nodded, swallowing hard.
“Your mom’s worried about you. She called me this afternoon.”
He looked up at the stars, smiling without pleasure. “Like I would tell you where I was when you’re the first person anybody would ask.”
I nudged him with my elbow. “Like I’d tell anybody if I knew.”
We stood in silence for a few moments before he spoke again. “If I weren’t so cold, Kaylee, I think I’d be exhausted. How ’bout you?”
“The same, of course. Why’d you remind me?” I pushed away from the wall and stepped back into the wind. “Shall we?”
We circled the building and headed toward home together. Gabe lived only four blocks from me. The traffic light in front of the grocery store had gone to yellow flashers.
We turned down my street. No lights were on in my house. Good. No one knew I had gone out. “Do you think your mom’s still awake?”
“Nah. She’s not that worried about me. Hey, why are you asking all these questions?”
I hopped off the curb into the street. Because something is wrong in my best friend’s home life but he’s never told me what, and maybe it’s none of my business but I worry about him. “Just curious.”
“Hey.” His hand shot out and he pinched the waterproof fabric of the outer layer of my jacket arm between his thumb and forefinger to stop me. “Thanks. You were right. Moral support.”
He pulled me into a hug, and I melted into his chest as if I belonged there for always. When I thought we would separate, he held me more tightly instead and rubbed his cheek against my forehead. My muscles let go of tightness I didn’t know they were holding, and I didn’t want to go home anymore. I wanted to stand there in his arms until dawn.
His lips found the top of my head. The intimacy surprised me but felt right. I snuggled closer into his arms. But after a second, he sucked in a sudden breath and stepped back, looking down at the ground. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Why not?” My whole front side was colder now, feeling his absence. I already knew the answer to his question, or thought I did. But I wanted to hear it.
He bit his lip and looked past me. “Because I don’t want to lose my best friend.”
It was a gray day and a quiet one. Hanging out in Gabe’s room and drinking hot chocolate wasn’t unusual, and I felt at home sitting cross-legged on the worn carpet. Our knees were a few inches apart, and I wanted to move closer but didn’t dare.
He gave me a funny, half-smiling look and stood to set his mug on top of his tall dresser. “My mom wanted me to go with her to see my Grandma this morning, but I said no at the last minute. Because I wanted to see you.”
“You didn’t fight with her over me, did you?”
“Nah.” To my surprise, he took my hot chocolate out of my hand, leaned across my lap, and set the drink against the far wall. He sat down next to me, not quite touching, just smiling at me.
That made me laugh. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to figure out how to tell you to pretend I never said that thing the other night.”
“What thing?” But, once again, I already knew.
He stroked the back of my hand with his forefinger. Something fluttered inside me, as light and new as a snow flurry. He got to his knees and leaned over me and, when he kissed me, I could see the movement of our lips with my mind’s eye.
His touch changed from cautious to needy, demanding. I slid my hand up his side and onto his back, feeling his ribs through his shirt. When he took his lips from mine, there was a look in his eyes I’d never seen in anyone’s before, simultaneously hazy and intensely focused. He drew me to a standing position with him.
The window blinds had been hiked up high at a crooked angle, and the remaining leaves on an oak’s twisted branches waved against the rippled gray sky.
A hand against my jawline pulled me back, commanding me to turn my attention from the window to him. His mouth covered mine again and his hands cupped my hipbones and there was no more space between us, only the warmth of our bodies. I tasted our shared fear and hope, and I slipped my hands under his loose T-shirt, skin to hot skin. He pulled his shirt off over his head, throwing it onto the bed. For a split second, I didn’t know him. I’d never seen him without a shirt, and he looked long and white.
“Sorry,” he murmured with a smile. “I know my pecs aren’t much to look at.”
“That’s the last thing I was thinking about.” I placed my hands against his chest and they looked small and brown against his skin. For months, I’d known I wanted this. But I didn’t know if he wanted the same. Or if we would dare to make the leap from friendship to something more. “I’m just feeling…happy.” But also maybe a little bit scared.
He nodded. “Me too.” His hands were on my back again and his lower body once more against mine. “Whenever you want to stop, tell me.” When he turned a little, a dark, angry bruise came into view on the soft part of his lower back.
“What happened?” I asked.
I brushed my fingers over the bruise.
“Oh, that?” He kissed me again, briefly. “Nothing.”
“It’s not nothing.” The bruise was as big as my fist. “How did you get hurt?”
“No big deal. I didn’t even know it was there.”
“Bullshit.” I looked into his eyes, not through the mist of longing that had been rising between us but friend to friend, as I always had. The way he wouldn’t say anything about it convinced me my suspicions were right. I’d wondered if his mom’s abuse of him was more than verbal, if that was why he kept running away. But seeing the evidence still made me go cold.
“Well, I forgot it was there. So can we forget it?” He snatched his shirt from the bed and pulled it on with rough movements. “Do the words ‘it’s none of your business’ mean anything to you?”
“Yes.” I felt quieted by his anger, but my calm clarity remained. My voice had always sounded squeaky to me when I tried to speak up for myself. For the first time, I didn’t care. “But what if I say it is my business?”
Gabe stared out the window, his fists planted on the windowsill, his weight all on one leg, his hair parting behind his neck and falling in front of his shoulders. A long moment passed before he spoke. “What do you think it would be like to have sex? Do you think it would change us forever?”
“What does that have to do with—”
He faced me and leaned back against the windowsill. “You know how I got bruised. So don’t make me say it. I’m too old for this shit, too old to let my mom do this. I hate that now you know I let it happen. But if I stood up to her, Jack would break my neck without thinking twice, and I’m dead serious.”
I stood silent, my breathing shallow, not sure what to say.
His expression softened, and he mustered a crooked smile. “We could just get naked and screw.”
I laughed with relief. Even though I knew he was joking, not really asking. Kissing was one thing, but I didn’t think I would be ready to have sex for a long time. It felt too huge, too irreversible a decision.
“Would you believe I actually have a box of condoms?” he said.
“Yeah. It’s more than a year old. I bought it with the crazy idea somebody might actually be willing to sleep with me within the foreseeable future.” He smiled again and shrugged. “But they’ll have moth holes in them before I ever find anyone who wants to bang me.”
I laughed again. “Moths don’t eat latex.”
He stretched across the bed, head scrunched against the wall. “C’mere.”
I cuddled next to him, my head pillowed on his upper arm and my arm around his waist. He nestled his chin against the top of my head.
“Sorry this is all there is to me,” he said. “This little room, my dumb little life.” With a snort, he added, “I wouldn’t be much of a boyfriend.”
I didn’t know how to answer that. All I knew was that at least for right now, I felt I belonged.
I was doing homework next to my dark bedroom window when the phone buzzed with an unfamiliar number.
It’s Jack, Gabe’s mom’s boyfriend, the text read. Do you know where Gabe is?
No, I answered. He never tells me.
His mom’s car is gone. Looks like he took it. I’m going to look for him. Come with me?
I hesitated. I knew Jack wasn’t always nice to Gabe. And I knew Gabe might not want to be found. But taking his mom’s car without permission meant he was being reckless. So if there was any way I could help keep him out of serious trouble, I would. I texted back, Sure.
I’ll pick you up in 10 minutes, Jack wrote. Be ready.
I went downstairs. Mom was in her basement workshop, and Dad was in his big chair, reading a book.
“Gabe’s disappeared,” I told Dad. “I’m going out with his mom’s boyfriend to see if we can find him.”
Dad looked at me over the rims of his glasses. “I don’t think this is a wise plan.”
“Maybe not,” I said. “But I need to do it.”
Dad adjusted the book in his hands and the library plastic crinkled. “Well, it’s almost nine. I need you to be home by eleven.”
A car door slammed outside. “Okay. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
I slipped out the front door and met Jack on the walkway. His sparse hair stood on end, blown by the night wind. “Helen has the idea you might know where Gabe’s friend Scott lives. I thought we could use that as a starting point.”
“I was at Scott’s place once, but I’m not sure I remember how to get there,” I said as I let myself into his old Nissan’s familiar passenger seat. “I can try.”
Jack slammed his door. “That’s all anybody can ask of you. Thanks for coming.”
I thought the conventional “you’re welcome” would seem insipid under the circumstances. “What’s Gabe’s middle name?” I asked instead, not sure why it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t know it.
Leaves crunched under the tires as he tore away from the curb. “How should I know?”
“If he were your son, you would know his middle name. Right?” I knew my question sounded stupid, but it had just popped out.
“Of course,” Jack said. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing, really. Do you have kids of your own?”
He watched over his left shoulder before merging onto the highway. “Listen, I need to concentrate on driving for a minute. Okay, Kaylee?”
“Do you know Scott’s phone number?”
“No. Sorry.” Pale light washed through the car in waves. One minute we were in sickly yellow illumination, and the next in near-total darkness. “But I think he lives on 17th Street. I couldn’t tell you for sure which house, though.”
“You might know it when you see it.”
I wasn’t sure of that, but I didn’t say so. “We don’t have any way of knowing if that’s where Gabe went.”
“It’s something,” Jack replied. “That’s all we’ve got.”
We exited the freeway and slowed down as we drove into the city.
Jack put on the turn signal. “I’m going to cut over on this street. It might be a little faster.”
I studied him in the shifting light from streetlights and traffic signals. I had never really looked at Jack before. He had brown hair, thinning on top. But he wasn’t very old. He and Gabe’s mom were younger than my parents.
A memory struck me and I opened my mouth and let the words spill out. “A wooden staircase, painted white.”
“Scott lives in the upstairs part of a quadruplex. You get to his place by going up a white wooden staircase.”
“How far do you think it is from here?” Jack asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, just keep looking then, and we’ll go slow,” Jack said. “Not too many white staircases around here.” He braced the steering wheel with his knee, put a cigarette in his mouth, and lit a match. When he had the cigarette burning, he shook out the match and dropped it in the car’s ashtray. I willed myself not to cough, breathing in the smoke in the closed car. Jack asked, “How come you hang around that kid, anyway?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you see in Ugly Boy?”
I flinched. “He’s my friend. You really think he’s ugly?”
“Naw. Skinny, though.”
“Skinny’s not ugly.”
“I give him a hard time about you,” Jack told me. “I say, ‘She’s smart. You’re nowhere. One day, she’ll figure that out.’ You think I hurt his feelings?”
Fortunately, I never had to answer that question, because I caught sight of a familiar building illuminated by a streetlight ahead on our right. “White staircase. Right there.”
Jack pulled over and parked in the street, stubbing out his cigarette prematurely as he opened the driver’s-side door. “The car’s not here. That’s not good.”
I led the way up the stairs with their peeling white paint. “You sure this is it?” Jack asked in a low voice. “Doesn’t look like the best neighborhood to go knocking on the wrong door.”
At the top of the stairs, I turned around and whispered, “Of course I’m not sure. But it looks familiar.”
Jack shrugged and knocked at the door. Someone shuffled around on the other side, and then a voice called out, “Hang on!” A few seconds later, Scott answered the door. His shoulder-length blond hair was tucked behind his ears. He wore sweatpants and no shirt. His torso was well-muscled in a way Gabe couldn’t hope for his own to be. That difference was the only thing that would have betrayed the discrepancy in their ages had they stood side by side. Scott didn’t look surprised to see us, just pointed a finger at me. “Kaylee. Right?”
“Right.” I was impressed he remembered me. It must have been nearly a year since the one time we’d met.
Behind Scott, a laptop screen’s light flickered from a crate that served as a coffee table. “C’mon in,” Scott said. “It’s chilly.”
We stepped inside. Scott bent to the floor, picked up a bowl that contained milk with a few remaining Fruit Loops floating in it, and set it in his tiny kitchen. “Gabe’s been here, if that’s what you’re here about. He left, though. Don’t know where he went. Prob’ly he went home.” He faced Jack. “Who are you, by the way? You want a beer?”
“No,” Jack said. He didn’t bother answering the question about who he was.
Scott’s blue eyes met mine. “You want one?”
“No thanks.” My hands were tucked in my jacket pockets. I pulled them out, but within seconds, they’d found their way inside again.
Jack stared hard at Scott. “You sure he didn’t tell you where he was going?”
Scott shrugged. “Sorry I can’t help, man. He didn’t say. I just figured he went home.”
“When was that?” Jack asked.
Scott shrugged again. “Dunno. Maybe an hour ago.”
“Do you realize he took his mother’s car without permission?”
“I didn’t know,” Scott said. “Sit down. Relax or something.”
Jack didn’t move. “We’re only here because we don’t know where else to start looking for the kid. If he doesn’t bring the car back, his mother won’t have any choice but to file charges.”
I took a step away from Jack. Would he and Gabe’s mom really press charges against their own kid? For using a car that belonged to the household he lived in? Another look at Jack’s hard expression told me yes, he damn well would. I shivered.
Scott crossed his arms and leaned against the wall next to the kitchen. “That would suck.” He didn’t sound like he cared. “You staying or going?”
“Did he actually tell you he was going home?” I asked, feeling stupid and lost.
“No. But that’s usually where he goes when he leaves here.” His tone said, Duh.
Jack turned toward the door, shoulders sagging.
“She gonna press charges even if you find him tonight?” Scott asked.
“I don’t know,” Jack said. “Why? Do you even give a shit?”
Outside, Jack ran down the stairs two at a time. “Let’s go home and see if Helen has heard anything.” We got back into the car and tore off into the dark.
Jack drove too fast for the city streets. When we reached the highway, he did eighty or more. He gripped the wheel hard, knuckles pale. Funny, I found myself thinking. I didn’t know he cared about Gabe. Or maybe it was just Helen he was worried about because she was worried about her son. Or maybe he was just tired of all the hassle.
Jack didn’t offer to drop me off at home. He just took me back to their house. As we approached, a car pulled into the driveway, its dull paint showing brown in the porch light’s glow.
Jack brought his car to a stop behind Gabe’s mom’s sedan. “Well, Jesus H. Christ and holy hellfire. The kid ain’t stupid after all.”
When we got out, Gabe leaned against the side of his mom’s car, a perplexed half-smile on his face. He shivered visibly, and his breath made a white cloud in the chilly October air. “What’s this?” he called out. “You two been out on a date or something?”
Jack slammed his door and strode over to him. “Don’t be an asshole. Where the hell’ve you been?”
Gabe shrugged. “I went to Scott’s and hung out for a while. Had a drink. What’s wrong with that?”
“You took your mother’s car.”
“I only borrowed it.”
“And what the hell’re you doing drinking?” Jack said.
Gabe’s expression said Hypocrite, but he didn’t say the word. Instead, he held up one finger. “One drink. I think I can handle one drink. I’m six-foot-one.”
“Yeah, and a hundred and thirty-five pounds,” Jack muttered.
Gabe stepped away from his mom’s car, feet loud on the gravel in the still darkness. “A hundred and thirty-seven now, thank you very much.”
Jack cuffed him lightly on the sleeve. “Get inside, Ugly Boy, and tell your mom you brought her car home safe.” Gabe started toward the front steps. Following him, Jack added, “And why the hell don’t you cut your hair?”
Gabe paused and looked back over his shoulder. “Why the hell don’t you grow some?”
“You see what I have to live with?” Jack said to me.
Gabe opened the door and stepped inside onto the chipped flagstones. Light flooded the house. His mom must have turned on every lamp there was. Jack and I followed Gabe inside, and Gabe’s mom froze in the kitchen. Her eyes were red. She picked up a wooden cutting board, the closest thing at hand. “You took my car!” She hurled the cutting board at Gabe. It hurtled end over end through the air. He caught it deftly.
“Whoa! Whoa!” Gabe said. “I brought it back. I just borrowed it. My god, I’ve only been gone a few hours.”
His mom wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “You are not driving my car again as long as you live here. You hear me?”
“Okay. Okay.” Gabe held out his free hand in a gesture that begged for peace. “Just take it easy.”
She wiped her nose on her hand again, then wiped her hand on her jeans. She looked from Gabe to Jack to me and back to Gabe. “Okay.”
Jack slipped past Gabe and disappeared toward the bedroom end of the house. Gabe walked forward slowly, with long strides. I followed him, my hands once again finding the safety of my jacket pockets. His eyes steady on his mother’s face, Gabe put the cutting board on top of the gingham-patterned plastic tablecloth in the kitchen.
“Hi, Kaylee,” Helen said, sounding apologetic.
“Hi.” I stood in the kitchen doorway, tense and out of place.
“I just had to go for a while, okay?” Gabe said to his mother, standing close to her.
His mom leaned on the counter and put her forehead in her hand. “I wish you were out of this house already.”
The air felt thick with tension. And if I didn’t get home soon, my parents would be worried about me. I backed away and let myself out the front door.
I only made it to the end of the driveway before the rubber soles of Gabe’s sneakers tapped down the three concrete steps and crunched across the gravel at a full run. He clasped my arm and spun me around. “Where are you going?”
He still held my upper arm. “What happened to goodbye, good night, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“I don’t know.”
His mouth twitched into a half smile. “Don’t just walk out on someone you love. It’s bad manners.”
The cold wind blew across my raw cheeks. “Does that mean you think I love you?”
“I know you do.”
“That’s a weird way to tell me you love me,” I said gently.
He laughed. “I’m just a weird guy, I guess.”
I glanced past him at the yellow light of the windows. His house looked cheerful, but that was only a facade. I took his hand. “Come home with me.”
He squeezed my fingers and held on. “I—it’s late. I should—”
“I don’t mean just come over. I mean to stay.”
“Your parents won’t—”
“If they understand,” I interrupted, “they’ll let you stay. Just until you graduate.” I didn’t know this for sure. But I did know I wasn’t going to let him walk back through his front door tonight.
“But my mom…”
“You’re eighteen,” I told him. “She can’t make you stay.”
My mom let in a blast of cool air and bright sunlight when she opened the front door, rake in hand. I zipped up my jacket and picked up the other rake. With a yard full of oak and maple trees, we kept rakes in the entryway this time of year.
The door of the spare bedroom at the top of the stairs swung open, and Gabe clattered down the steps, buttoning his shirt. “I’m in this too.”
Mom paused in the doorway and handed Gabe her rake. “Here. There’s another one in the garage. I’ll get it.”
Outside, dragging golden-brown leaves into piles, Gabe and I had a few minutes to ourselves while my mom puttered in the garage. “Did I hear you on the phone with your mom last night?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes and lifted the rake up to pull stuck leaves off the tines.
“Is she mad?”
He let the rake hang at his side. “Maybe? It’s confusing. I told her she’s still my mom. That I love her. But I told her again that I’m not changing my mind. I’m going to live with you until I go to college. And—she seems like she’s starting to be okay with that. Like—maybe she meant it when she said she wanted me out of the house.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m glad, too. But I’m sorry. Wait, sorry, I’m not making sense.”
He smiled. “No, you are. I feel both ways, too.”
Mom came around the corner and we all three attacked the raking job. From inside the house came the sound of the coffee grinder, a sign that by the time we finished, Dad would have breakfast ready.
Gabe helped my mom fill a huge plastic bag with leaves. He was part of my household now. He was also my—maybe someday?—boyfriend. And now, if anyone asked me where he was, I would have the answer: right where he belonged.