In the end, it was simpler to just leave suspicion where it belonged - behind. Names were never specifically mentioned in the note, no evidence of co-conspirators existed. Besides, if the police were tipped off and it turned out to be a false lead, word would inevitably work its way back to me, which of course meant having to deal with her for the third time in as many weeks. No. There'd already been enough wrathful outbursts from her to last a lifetime. Better to leave things be, focus on what was really important: Systex. Thrash for Cash was less than three months away. This was no time for sloppiness. Progress had been made, no denying it, but there was always plenty of room for improvement, especially with me.
Just as Adam predicted, Mr. Merritt was sympathetic to my situation, saying I was welcome to the spare guest room until the turmoil between me and the rest of the Demin family calmed, which I was grateful for. Some might call that strange, illogical even. He called it charitable. I called it a place to sleep. No way was I about to incur the status of freeloader'. So, I had a roof over my head with access to hot water, albeit temporary, enough clothes and money to get by. Things would be okay, for a while. God bless the man who created fast food value menus. Maybe it was tragic, having to refer to one's family in the third person, but given all that occurred, nobody seemed too surprised by my lack of emotional connection. I wasn't going to extend the first olive branch, not this time. It might have been possible until I returned home to discover all my posters, magazines, clothes and the like bagged and binned.
It wasn't just my stuff Captain Bob threw out - he also threw out the last remaining shreds of family loyalty I'd been clinging to. Was I upset? Somewhat; not enough to spend countless, sleepless nights alone, moaning woe is me. Did I worry what others would think? Not in the slightest. I'd already been typecast a lost cause loner, why try to fix something deemed beyond repair? Besides it was true, to an extent. I'd been looking after myself for almost everything else, save for shelter, since my mid-teens. I'd be okay. I planned to continue going to school only to keep up appearances and eliminate as many questions as possible; assignments and the threats of detention or even expulsion no longer held any fear. My energy, effort and heart belonged to Systex, and nothing else.
So I thought.
Arriving at The Garage for Tuesday's practice, I sensed right away something was up. Everyone else was already there, gathered around the workbench, hushed whispering and suppressed laughter aplenty. We shouldn't be laughing, he's not gonna be happy as it is when he sees it. It's mean, too. Oh, but can't you just picture the look on his face?
I leaned my case against the wall and faced them. Ahem! Nobody seemed to want to look me square in the eye after seeing me standing there. "Okay, what's going on?"
"What you mean, Richard?" Mitchell asked. "Nothing's going on. How are you?"
Nothing, he says. "Sure. And UBC's awarding me an honorary doctorate. What's the big secret?" No answers. "Adam?" Surely my best friend wouldn't bullsh-t me.
"Have... Have you been around town in the last couple days, Richard?" His voice boiled over with a choked titter, which only made me mad. He seemed to sense my patience was all but worn out, lifting a crinkled piece of orange construction paper from the workbench, holding it out toward me. "You're famous."
"What -?" I took the paper and almost dropped it upon closer look. An old Polaroid of a chubby adolescent in black, wearing one of those stupid rocker wigs found in every dollar store during Halloween holding a guitar scowled up at me. Written above it in sloppy, misshapen block letters was the sentence MISSING! Richard Demin, 18, ran away...
You can't be serious. Tell me I'm not seeing this. You gotta be kidding me.
Adam was doing his best not to laugh. There's about ten of these around the town square, the bus loop. Believe me, that one's the most flattering picture we saw. You really haven't seen them before?
No. I wished I hadn't even seen this one.
Kneeling on the cold concrete floor, pounding a fist against his thigh, Jason read off part of the description, "S-s-somewhat quiet, in a, we - weird, wa-way, oh ha-ha-ha... before exploding with laughter. Never had I seen him laugh so hard in my life. Even Kayla was dabbing at her eyes, sitting on top of an old deep freezer, swinging her bare legs, showing a full mouth of perfect white teeth, the sides of her face lit up as she looked at me. Any other time, and I'm sure I would've thought her adorable looking, especially in those shorts, were my thoughts not elsewhere, looking at the makeshift missing poster. Why anyone thought this funny, I would never understand.
"Okay, ha-ha, joke's on me," I said, throwing the paper over my shoulder. "Shut up now."
Adam let fly a fit of chuckles that did little to cheer me up. Oh come on, it's cute. 'Cute' was about the last word in the English language I found suitable.
I especially liked the Gets angry when talking about music' part, Mitchell said in between ha-ha's. Then he stopped laughing. Hey, I thought you said you don't get along with your family?
I don't, I said, shaking my head. I don't know who or what is behind this - this, bullsh-t. If this is someone's idea of a prank, I'm not laughing.
Hey, don't look at us, Jason said, finally picking himself up from the floor, wiping a tear from his cheek. Adam's the one who found it. He was telling us about it just before you showed up. And come on, you gotta admit, it's funny.
That is a matter of opinion. Now, would anybody like to play a little music? We are still a band, right? That last sentence came out a lot ruder sounding than I intended. More dubious glances exchanged between the four guys, and girl. I got the feeling this wasn't quite over. Don't tell me there's more.
Oh, what else, there's a reward being offered for my capture, dead or alive?
Not exactly, Adam hesitated, drawing the N out of his answer a lot longer than expected. I was out driving earlier when I found the poster...
It just so happens I managed to catch the so-called prankster in the act. He paused. You're never going to guess who it was.
Oh, this is not happening, I thought. This is not happening. Have I not suffered enough in this lifetime already, putting up with the year from hell and the fallout from that? Adam, I swear to God, if you say her name -
No, no, nothing like that, he was quick to assure. I wouldn't dare tell you if it was her.
Her? Kayla sounded confused.
I ignored her question, Well, who then?
A small voice spoke up from behind. Me. I turned around, saw nothing, looked down and there he was. Just shy of five foot even, head lowered, expecting a furious, obscenity-studded rant to strike at any moment. Such thoughts didn't even strike me, the only one coming close to cogency was - him? Hi Richard, said my little brother.
Kevin? I was astounded. What the hell are you doing here?
Nice to see you too, he said, still unable to look right at me.
Well, of course I - Kevin? - Kevin, honestly, quit looking for cigarette butts! I'm up here.
Huh? His head snapped up at once.
It means stop looking at the ground, like you expect me to scream or hit you. How did you get here?
Him, Kevin pointed at Adam, who didn't look too amused, being called that. He saw me putting up one of my posters and said I could come with him if I wanted to see you. I didn't believe him until I heard your voice just now.
I could not imagine what Captain Bob would have to say if he knew about this: his youngest son willingly getting into a vehicle with a stranger - a stranger, in his eyes at least - to hunt down the black sheep, sometimes known as Richard the middle child. I see. Oh, and speaking of which - I bent down and retrieved the poster from the ground what the heck's up with this, anyway? I'm not missing, you see me right here.
You ran away though, after Dad hit you.
I had no choice. No way was I going back into the house after that. Thinking it over for a second, I softened. I was really angry. Dad was, too. We had to cool off.
So what? You could've come back later, like you always do, he said, sounding both sad and angry. Maybe I could have, yes. In times like that, though, you rarely have the time, or mental capability to consider all the options before you until well after the fact. Every faculty is usually too focused on the matter at hand, which for me of course had been staying the f--k out of Captain Bob's way and staying alive. No one else said a word as they sat around The Garage, pretending not to listen to our exchanges.
Eric was more pissed off, said Kevin.
He yelled more than Dad did after you ran away.
I didn't... Oh, never mind, go on.
He spent half the night telling Dad about how you... He stopped suddenly and looked at the ground again. Actually, never mind, you don't want to know. Probably not; knowing Eric, it would have been less than flattering and a waste of oxygen trying to find out something that would only infuriate me more for it. Kevin continued. I made the posters because Dad wouldn't do anything to find you. Of course he didn't, why would he have? In fact if he did, I might've been more fearful than I was fleeing the house the other night. Oh, and Andrea helped too, he said, which would explain the squiggly, misshapen lettering on the poster.
Well, you can tell I'm not missing. I'm right here, I said.
Yeah, I know. But you'll come home now, right? I don't think Dad's angry anymore, not as much. He hasn't said a word about Friday.
It pained me to see the hope in his face, the unmistakeable excitement that things would be okay after all; everything would go back to normal. My own societal hang-ups aside, bursting someone's bubble, or looking for opportunities in which I could reduce their dreams to smoldering ruins with one flick of the tongue was almost inconceivable, especially with my younger siblings. True, family life was rarely peachy, but if there was anyone with whom I could get along with, or at least tolerate within reason, Kevin and Andrea were on that safe list, along with my deceased uncle Len.
I... Well... I struggled to find the right thing to say, words swirling around my head, each one laced with unwanted devastation and cruelty. It didn't take very long to realize that the choice of words were irrelevant, the outcome wasn't going to change. Only one of the Demin boys was going back home that night.
I'm sorry, Kev. I know you just want to help, and good on you. But no, I'm not coming back, yet. It doesn't feel right. I heard a collective hush of breath behind me. Tempted though I was to look over, what my friends and bandmates thought were not my concern right then. Selfish, I knew. Things were already difficult.
It was a long time before Kevin could respond; his face twisting in varying emotional contorts. But why? he asked, the question coming out in a whining snort. How is this different from any other time?
I don't know, buddy. It's a feeling I have, one of those things you can't put into words.
You're scared of Dad, of apologizing for swearing at the table, or because you kicked him?
I am certainly not afraid of Dad! I retorted.
(Liar - yes you are.)
And remember, he's the one who knocked me off my bike. He hit me first. See? I lifted part of my shirt up and held out my arm, exposing the fresh scrapes and scabs I'd got from striking the pavement, drawing a wincing hiss from a couple of the others, it sounded male. I think he owes me the apology first.
(Are you for real, Richard? Do you hear yourself? You're arguing with a child - like a child!) Why, oh why did my conscience always pick the most inopportune times to voice its opinion? Did it ever have anything positive to say? Or did it hate me, too?
Kevin scowled, looking back at me. It's a horrible feeling, being stared at with such vitriol by someone shorter and younger than you. Fine - whatever; don't apologize then, heck don't even speak to each other, I don't care! Just come home!
Somewhere, deep inside the brain where emotion intertwines with logic on the mental information superhighway, diodes between motor function and mouth movement began malfunctioning, giving way to a well known demonic whisperer, urging my words to go for the kill - Ego, thou heartless monster. I told you Kevin, it doesn't work that way! my voice raised. Oh, and if Dad isn't so angry anymore like you say, tell me why I found all my stuff in the trash bin when I actually did consider coming home the other day? Huh? And why do you care so much that I come home? Where was this oh Richard, please come home' attitude in the past? Why now?
There's an old parable that tells of the feather pillow. Inside a simple fabric cocoon are thousands of feathers, ranging in size. As long as the fabric is in one piece, the feathers are safe and together. But if the covering should tear just once, no matter how small, there is only so much time before a single feather finds its way through the hole and escapes, never to be seen again. Then two more find their freedom, and another two after that. Without immediate repair, soon enough the covering will split, and all the feathers will be free. Only then do you realize you can never call them all back - what's done is done. The parable can easily be compared to words, those said in heat of anger most importantly. It is a sobering thought once the connection is made between the two, especially after the troublesome little ego-monster has retreated back to its hideout, leaving you to pick up the pieces and pay for all the damage done.
Why the f--k couldn't I ever have these revelations before it was too late?
A shocked, hurt face stared up at me, soon collapsing under its own weight, turning into an emotional mask I doubt I could ever understand. Because I miss you, Kevin shouted in a voice loud enough to trigger slight ringing in my ears. "You... You..." his lips twisted, fists shook, ...Stupid jerk! It was the worst thing he could think to call me in his upset. And how the f--k would you know how I feel anyways? He then broke into a sprint, running as far away from The Garage as his short and skinny legs would carry him.
I could only turn to my bandmates and watch as the obvious awkwardness made it hard for any of them to look at me straight. Mitchell seemed too interested in his guitar, Jason his hat, Kayla - I hardly knew what Kayla really thought anyways. Were those tears she was trying to hide? I should have been offended but wasn't. How do you put something like that into words?
(Congratulations, Richard. You've done it again.)
Kevin, come back! I yelled, racing after him. Someone called my name, impossible to say who. I was well across the street, running harder than any other time in my life. No small feat - being overweight is hard enough; poor preparation to sprint to the point where it feels like your lungs are about to explode is just no fun. A steel fork jabbed my side with each breath, calf muscles seized, pulse pounding away in my ears; a heavy drum playing tempo allegrissimo. How can those little legs move so fast? I wondered, about ready to slow down and give up when I saw him standing next to a signpost, sticking his arm out and waving. I began to wonder why he was waving at me when I saw the bus, a long, red plated steel behemoth on wheels, coming from the hilltop where Clark Street continued upward for a distance before connecting onto the main stretch of highway. The sign above the large windshield read 112 BRENTWOOD EXCHANGE.
I swore and raced forward. Kevin! What are you doing? He turned to the sound of my voice, recognition set it and he turned right back around. The bus came down the hill, slowing to a stop, its wide glass paneled doors swinging open, ready to welcome my little brother aboard unless I got to him first. Faster and faster, each step seemed to take a terrific effort. Kevin!
Shut up! he said. Leave me alone, I'm going home.
Kevin, come on. If you'll just let me explain... His only response was to stick an arm out behind him and give me the finger, shaking it for emphasis as he boarded, the tiny f--k you following behind. Hey, don't you flip me the bird! I cried. Come back here! It took every last bit of energy for that extra burst needed to catch up to the bus, only for the doors to swing shut in front of my face. I banged on the door to no avail. The driver mouthed some string of words at me, words I probably wouldn't have liked hearing if I stood a chance, and pulled the bus away from the curb, setting off. No sign of him from any of the windows. I turned to move but didn't make it past the first step. The steel fork in my ribs turned into a dagger in the short time I'd come to a stop. My stomach rolled and tightened. The fronts of my shins felt full of cement. Running after it even at half speed was out of the question. Even walking seemed impossible now.
Godf--kingdammit! I screamed, balling my fists tight enough to turn the knuckles white, profanities rolling out of me like the Niagara Falls. Hopes of repairing this feather pillow were dead and gone. Let me throw something, anything; a rock, empty beer bottle, it doesn't matter, just something. A few of the neighbors peered through windows, some from behind curtains or blinds. Go ahead - stare, I thought, resigning myself to a sore walk back to The Garage.
Well, he's not coming back, I announced in between pants, wiping palms of sweat from my face when I got back. Five will get you ten those posters come down by tomorrow. I tried to laugh, walking up to join the group. Even an unsympathetic cackle would be better than the silence I was getting. There's always something. You think you've cleared the last boulder from your path and - WHAMO! - cue the second avalanche.
Silence was all there was; agonizing, demoralizing silence. Jason, who'd spent most of Demin v. Demin, round umpteen watching from the steps, got up, went to the fridge, pulled two bottles of water and held one out to me. Y'know, Richard - he started to say.
I stopped him in his tracks. It's okay, you can say it: I've f--ked up royally this time.
He seemed startled to hear that. Huh? I was only going to say I've never seen you run that fast, even in the pits. He cracked his own water, taking a healthy swallow. This may come as a shock to you, but I am quite capable of exercising a little discretion in awkward times. Besides, you think you're the only one who's ever had nasty fights with siblings? Mitchell grunted at that. Kayla nodded. Adam was an only child but he nodded too.
Touch, I guess, I said, holding the cold bottle against my face, letting the condensation run down.
Jason chuckled. And try being the youngest. Trust me, it's a million times harder.
I'll take your word for it. After downing the entire bottle and tossing it into the bin, I wiped more sweat from my eyes and said Whatever. I'll deal with it later. Let's play. Mitch, you wanna try that 5/4 chord pattern you were working on against my Empty Shell lyrics? I got a good feeling about those.
Mitchell scratched his stubbly chin, casting a peculiar glance at Adam, then Jason, then me. Eh, yeah, okay, he said. If you're sure...
I'm sure. Let's just play. I'll live. People began moving. Adam just sat there, looking like I was the strangest human being he'd ever laid eyes on. Well? Come on, saddle up, cowboy. Jason looked over, thinking I was referring to him before continuing to tune his bass. A couple of the lower notes sounded a touch sharp. Kayla ground out a couple of power chords to test for volume, no changes needed on her end. Our eyes met, she flushed and smiled at me, her way of letting me know things would be okay. I smiled back as if replying to her, I hope you're right. So it came as no surprise when she repositioned her setup close to me again. Better sound balancing, my eye.
The movement around him was enough to convince Adam to setup and ready to play. I like that pattern, Mitch. Why don't you lead in solo, and I'll jump in with my snare-to-tom pattern when Richard lays down the first verse? He spoke without once averting his gaze from me. Whether it was out of concern for one's friend or not, it was getting a little uncomfortable. I didn't say anything.
Okay, Mitch said, readying his hands. The pick to fifth string, fingers to fret two. Roll on five, one for free. Players to positions, instruments on standby, and the mike gripped tight in both hands.
And to think, earlier I was actually trying to convince myself I didn't care about family. Liar.
And one-two-three-four-and -