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Sunday morning


Jared was still staring at his phone when Emily came rushing in from the kitchen.

“Did you see it?” she asked.

It was a text from Mom: I’m so sorry. I need to get away for a while to think. Be in touch when I can. I love you.

But it didn’t feel right. All while Mom had been gone, she’d called. Why text now? Afraid they’d talk her out of leaving?

“I saw,” Jared answered. “Hold up.”

He hit the button to dial Mom.

“We know her phone is on,” he said to Emily as it rang. “Let’s try her. Maybe if she knows Dad is out …”

But it went to voicemail, just like when Emily had tried earlier. Mom really didn’t want to talk. Or maybe didn’t want to be found. Phones had GPS. There were ways to turn it off without turning off your phone, but Mom might not know them. Did she think they were going to track her down?

He hung up without leaving a message. Emily looked like she was going to cry again, and Jared couldn’t blame her. He wanted to rip Mom a new one for what she was doing to Emily, and was immediately ashamed of it. Wasn’t that the same thing he’d done when Mom moved out? Default to anger. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Text her back,” Jared said, afraid of what he might type. “If that’s how she wants to communicate, text her.”

Emily sat down next to him on the living room couch and started typing feverishly. When she hit send, she looked up, spearing him with her gaze. “Now you,” she said.

Jared felt hot and cold all at the same time. A message that would bring Mom back and not drive her away. It seemed impossible.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell her how much we miss her. Tell her about school. Say anything. Make her want us.”

Her voice cracked, and Jared’s hands tightened on his phone, as if he could take out all of his aggressions on it.

“I’ll try,” he said.

He stared at his phone for a full minute before typing, Mom, you have to come home. Dad’s not even here right now. You can come and go without seeing him. Emily is in tears. She’s so hurt. She doesn’t understand. Neither of us does. Explain it to us.

They both sat there waiting for an answer, ignoring the TV Jared had paused in the background. Seconds felt like minutes that felt like hours. No response came.

“At least we know she’s okay,” Jared said. He did feel better about that. Some knotted up part of him released.

Emily sniffled.

He held one arm out to her, and she skootched along the couch to settle under it. They weren’t a really touchy-feely family. They probably hadn’t cuddled up together since they were kids, falling asleep on each other in the backseat of a car during road trips. Happier times. But he hugged her now and she hugged back. He kissed the top of her head like Gran had done and reached for the TV remote, ignoring the fact that things looked a little blurry, like he had tears gathering in his own eyes. He tried to wipe them away with a shrug of his shoulder, but he only had one free, and it didn’t work very well.

He hit the play button on the remote to reanimate the Simpsons, and sat there watching with Emily until their father came home. Emily hopped up to show Dad the text, but Jared didn’t move. He felt like he was made of lead and couldn’t imagine what it would take to get him off the couch. Mom was gone. Nothing else seemed important.

His phone lit up again in his lap and pinged with the sound of an incoming text, and his heart gave a leap. For the first time since he’d known her, he was disappointed to see it was just Aaliyah. He’d never before thought “just” and Aaliyah in the same sentence.

Hey, you. Sorry, I slept in. Hope you got back to sleep. How’s your morning going? You at your Mom’s? Is it nice?

Jared’s heart turned into a brick and sank like one. He started to type back, but just couldn’t. He couldn’t say his mother had left them. It felt too raw and yet still didn’t feel real. Gran said Mom would come around, but then what? Were he and Emily supposed to just forget being abandoned and open themselves up for that kind of hurt and rejection the next time things got tough? What was the alternative? No more Mom? Things didn’t work like that, even if he wanted them to, and he didn’t, despite everything. What he wanted was for all of this to never have happened—his parents not to have fought like honey badgers, his Mom not to have moved out. Not to be gone.

But wanting was useless. Wishing was useless. Things were what they were. He was mature enough to face up to that.

“I’m going running,” he announced, forcing himself up from the couch.

He still felt like lead. His heart still felt like a brick, too hard and stiff to pump the blood he needed, but he’d had crappy days before where he didn’t feel like running. The trick was doing it anyway. Sucked for the first mile or so, but then the endorphins kicked in.

Jared went to his room to change before anyone could protest. Not that they would. He changed into a tracksuit, grabbed his earbuds and hydration backpack—the one for here, not the one his mother had given him for the apartment he’d never even seen. He wished he could get out without facing anyone, but he had to stop in the kitchen to fill his hydration bladder from the filtered water tap.

It was okay. No one tried to talk to him.

He finished with the bladder and was out on the street in no time, looking up and down it for inspiration. He no longer felt like running, not in either direction. He realized what he was really looking for was his mother’s car. Or maybe some sign that she’d been there. Tire marks from peeling out or … He had no idea. But he spotted nothing in either direction except Mr. Meyers sculpting his hedges. The annoying sound of the trimmer decided Jared.

He started running in the other direction, jogging at first, getting his body and his muscles warmed up. Maybe the temperature would go up later in the day, but for now, it seemed their warm snap was over. The air was brisk. The morning fog hadn’t yet burned off, giving the whole world a semi-surreal quality.

It took a monumental effort to keep pace. Worse than usual. But after a few blocks, his body didn’t feel quite so heavy—as if he was made of clay, not lead, and it fractured away with the force of each footstep. Like stomping off muddy boots. Another block and he took the turn toward Edger Addison Park. He was moving faster now, more smoothly. His stride not even broken when he had to hop off the sidewalk to avoid a woman with a stroller, her friend walking alongside so that he couldn’t pass. He dodged a shaggy dog on a leash who lunged for him. He’d met the dog before, Stanley. If he was at the end of his run, he might pause and let Stanley jump up for face licks and ear ruffling, but he wasn’t. Momentum kept him going. A day like today if he stopped he might never start again.

He ran through the park—overly warm now, though he knew better than to remove his jacket—around the lake, dodging obstacles with Linkin Park and Five Finger Death Punch and Three Days Grace fueling him. Linkin Park’s “Numb” was pounding through his head, skirting the thoughts he was trying to outrun. He wanted to be numb, instead of what he was. Angry. Hurt.

Green Day came on as he hit the end of the park, which signaled his cool down. He’d started to slow when the music suddenly cut out for a ping that said he had a text coming in, and it stopped him cold. It could be Mom. Hope beat out anger and pain for a second as he freed the phone from his armband holster. He pressed his finger against the sensor to unlock the phone.

His heart dropped.

Aaliyah again. Hey, you there? Checking in.

Right, he’d never answered. He’d done that before, or she had—in a movie, in the shower, whatever, but he’d never gone the day without saying something. Damn. He had to keep moving, but he had to text Aaliyah. He hit the button for his microphone to do voice-to-text and started jogging in place.

“Sorry so silent. Stuff to work out. No Mom. Running to clear my head. I’ll call when I’m back.”

He hit send without actually checking the readout, so he hoped voice-to-text got things right for once. Then he slid his phone back into his holder and kept going, slowing even further as he hit his neighborhood from the other end, stopping at the Meyers’ fence to stretch out, since he no longer heard the sound of the trimmer or saw any sign of their neighbor. Not that he was a bad guy, but Jared didn’t want to talk, and Mr. Meyers could be … not so much a talker as a questioner, as in, “How is your sister? Your parents doing well?” Not questions he wanted to answer today. He wondered how his son Andrew survived the constant surveillance.

He was stretching his quads when Mr. Meyers’ head popped up above the fence. Not finished, apparently; just bagging the clippings.

“Young Mr. Graham,” he said cheerily, pushing his black-framed glasses back up where sweat had slid them down, leaving behind a smudge from his gardening gloves. “It’s good to see you. I wish I had your drive.”

Damn. He’d nearly made it home, free and clear.

“Hi, Mr. Meyers,” he said, hoping his real feelings didn’t show. “Good to see you. Hope you don’t mind me hanging onto your fence while I stretch.”

Mr. Meyers waved that away. They’d had this conversation before. It had never been an issue.

“How’s your mother? I was so sorry to hear she’d moved out.” Mr. Meyers’ glasses made his eyes look big, owlish.

The endorphins that had flooded Jared’s system seemed to wash out in one great wave. “Fine,” he said tightly. “I have to get home.”

He skipped the other quad. He’d have to finish stretching at home or on the way before he tightened up, but he needed to not be having this conversation. If he didn’t want to talk to Aaliyah, he sure as hell didn’t want to talk to Mr. Meyers, who already knew too much. It had been his house he and Emily had run to the night of his parents’ final fight. Or maybe not so final.

He started off again, but Mr. Meyers paced him along the fence. “Jared,” he said, slowing him up, since he was too polite to just walk on. “Tell your mother that Carla and I are here if she needs to talk, okay? She has our number.”

Jared really looked at him now. Sean and Carla had been close to his parents. “Sorry to hear” that his mother moved out implied she hadn’t talked to them directly. Probably not since she’d left. Certainly not last night, when she was upset enough to leave and not come back, but apparently not too emotional to drive. Not so devastated that she sought out a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on.

On the other hand, if Mom couldn’t be bothered to stay part of his and Emily’s lives, it would have been crushing if the Meyers had made the cut.

To confirm, Jared asked, “So she hasn’t talked to you at all since she left? You didn’t hear from her last night, maybe?”

Mr. Meyers gave him a sharp look. “No,” he answered slowly. “Why?”

“No reason.” He was to the end of the fence now and starting to speed up again.

“I’ll check in with Carla,” Mr. Meyers called after him.

He waved but didn’t look back. He hit his yard at a power walk and stretched out on his front porch rather than go inside just yet. Lunges, hip flexors, calf stretches, back. The sweat was starting to dry, and the shade of the porch made the cool-down a bit too literal. He finished up fast and went in for a shower, keeping the earbuds in until he got to the bathroom so no one would try to talk to him.

He took the shower as hot as he could stand it to wash away the grime. If only his excess emotions would sluice off as easily as the sweat.

When he got out, he called Aaliyah, as promised.

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