Old Things Die (But Not Us) -- Chapter five: Storm Fronts

Fiction By Madalyn Clare // 12/11/2018

Butternut the Bird took center stage that evening, with Miles and Lissa begging to hold her. The bird had perked up since our first introduction and was singing like she was just fine. Josh was careful not to tire her out as he carried her around the house, allowing Miles to gently stroke his small finger over her fine head. Butternut chirped whenever his finger made contact with her. Her beady black eyes blinked with a quietness and calmness that she didn’t showcase a few hours ago.
Dad had to carry Miles off to bed, all bundled up in his dinosaur footies. He insisted he wasn’t tired and didn’t need to go to bed at 8:30, then proceeded to fall asleep in Dad’s arms.
I wondered if I was that easy to sleep when I was Miles’ age. Then again, I didn’t have any memories of my real dad, so there was no real way of knowing. I watched them disappear down the hall as Lissa, Josh, and I sat in the living room. Butternut was perched on Josh’s knee.
Lissa leaned forward and rested her round cheeks on her fists. “How was the camp, Josh?”
Josh looked up from his bird, but was silent for a moment. “It was good. The seasons are pretty quick to change around here, so the leaves were already red and stuff. It was nice.” He leaned back in the sofa, his arms crossed, as he watched Butternut hop from one knee to the other. He had showered and his clothes were clean, so he didn’t look as ragged, but was still small like a child.
It was his personality that made him that small. He was timid and quiet, like a mouse. If he was in the least bit a more welcoming person, perhaps his smallness wouldn’t have stood out.
I melted into the sofa. I knew for a fact that Josh wasn’t telling the whole truth. Obviously something was bothering him.
Well, things were bothering me too. Like his reaction to hearing about Devika. I knew I should’ve told him about it, but I hadn’t, and he just looked like a martyr for it, turning the mood all joyful and sentimental as a Hallmark movie. I, personally, didn’t appreciate that. I didn’t like it when people faked things. Why couldn’t he just be angry or upset with me? At least I’d be feeling awful for a reason.
But how was I supposed to tell him? All this was bothering me, but it didn’t seem like a subject that needed discussing. I mean, how do I tell him, ‘Hey, you should have been angry with me’. What would that fix?
He was stewing in something too, but he didn’t let on anything but thoughtfulness, as were his ways. His eyes flicked whenever Butternut chirped.
Lissa seemed to be dying in the silence. “Well,” she sighed, “I think I’ll be getting to bed. Good night, Josh.” She stood and fled from the scene.
“Good night, Lissa.”
The silence returned with a vengeance, and I didn’t know what to do. I went to the fridge and got some grapes, offered some to Josh, but he politely denied them. I didn’t really want grapes but I needed to do something. As I sat back down with a bowl of unwanted grapes, grudgingly making myself eat a few, Josh took in a deep breath.
“I’m happy for you, Levi.”
He didn’t sound like it. Nevertheless, I placed the grapes down on the coffee table and thanked him.
“When did you start dating?” Josh gingerly gathered Butternut in his hands and cradled her against his chest.
I cleared my throat. I thought I got a grapeseed stuck in there. “Um, we actually went on our first date this afternoon.”
“Oh.” Another excruciating pause. “Is she nice?”
I nodded. “Really nice.”
All of a sudden I didn’t want to talk about Devika. I was afraid I’d run off and gush about her, and bore Josh to death. He was obviously not excited about it, so I decided I’d spare him the parts he didn’t ask for.
“That’s good.”
This conversation was eating me up inside. I really, really wanted him to just leave at this point and I could find a way to explain myself, maybe learn to balance my new obligation with my old one.
Josh glanced at me, then took in a breath. That sort of tired, conclusive breath. The breath that meant he was done.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Levi,” he finally said. My heart calmed at those words and I smiled. Josh perched Butternut on his shoulder – under his hood, so she’d stay dry – and stood.
Dad came in all of a sudden. “You’re leaving, Josh?” he began. “Are you going to be okay?”
Josh nodded. “Pretty sure. It’s almost nine, right?” He glanced at the clock. “My dad’s probably passed out right now.” He smiled in a small sort of way. “I’ll be okay. See you tomorrow, Uncle Henry.”
He retreated towards the mud room quickly, as if he didn’t want us following him out. I was about to go out with him but he was gone anyways.
I mumbled goodbye and put my hands in my pockets. I was cold. Unusually cold.
The door shut tight behind him, barely leaving enough opportunity to the rain to make itself heard.
Then it was silent again. Just me and Dad. Just me and a very confused, almost offended Dad.
I cleared my throat again. I must have had too many grapes.
“What was all that about, Levi?” he asked. His voice was quiet but not gentle. His arms were crossed over his chest and his blond brow dug deep into his eyes.
I swallowed and sighed. “I’m sorry,” I said. I was almost as quiet as he was, because I felt like there was a fragile civility between us that would break if I wasn’t careful. I mean, we both respected each other and wouldn’t say anything specifically to hurt each other, but the situation was complicated and I didn’t know what exactly would happen if I didn’t understand my place right now.
“I don’t want an apology, Levi,” he interrupted. “No apologies. I’m not the one you completely dismissed today. What I do want from you is an explanation.” He tried to follow my embarrassed eyes. “Josh needs an explanation.”
Why did Josh need everything from me? Every now and again it would have been nice to be receiving some help. A favor, a congratulations. I don’t know. But I knew I was sick and tired of being his servant, his soldier, his everything.
“Josh didn’t ask for one,” I said, but I regretted it. I raised my eyes to the ceiling, regretful that words could not be snatched out of the air and eaten.
Dad’s eyes darkened further. I wasn’t usually the one to make him upset; I didn’t often see this side of him. I didn’t even expect this level of anger. He gestured silently for me to follow him to the kitchen, where he sat down at the bar table and made me sit with him.
“I know that there are many factors to your situation,” he finally said. “I know you haven’t had much of a childhood, between taking care of your siblings while your mother worked and protecting your friend to the best of your ability. And you haven’t had much of a teen experience either.”
I didn’t know that that was what I wanted until he said it.
I blinked, reflecting on everything. I grew up quickly. I was on track to graduate this year, with scholarships galore to MIT, and after that I’d be set in a prestigious career. I was never a normal kid. I never got that chance to be a kid. To be a teenager, to act like my age for just a little bit.
Dad’s brow rose, and he inclined his head to me. “But, Levi, that’s the way things are. You can’t go back and change the way things have developed thus far. However, I know you, and you wouldn’t want to. Levi, I don’t blame you for wanting just what any guy your age has. A girlfriend, free date nights, whatever they’re doing these days. I don’t at all. But you have to keep balance.”
I nodded, but inside, I slumped a bit. I don’t think he really understood. I didn’t. I got confused, disorganized, and that was it. If I got to get it back together, everything would be fine.
Dad was looking at me, waiting for a reply. I nodded again and hopped off the stool. “Yeah, I get it. It won’t happen again.”
“What won’t happen again?” Dad asked.
I didn’t think it all through. What was the problem? I knew that I wasn’t acting like myself, but that was easily fixed. Nobody got hurt. I forgot to bring up Devika in a conversation.
I decided to give myself so much slack, so much credit, that I voted with myself that I wasn’t the problem tonight.

I didn’t get much sleep that night.
I lay awake in bed, my eyes not closing. Just staring up at my ceiling. Like it was interesting or something.
But while I tried to go to sleep, all that was going through my head was Josh. I was starting to feel guilty, then and there. Now that I think about it, I really did feel guilty the whole day. I gave into, admitted, the guilt to myself then.
I sighed, but it was more of a groan. I was tired. I was really tired. But my brain was racing, replaying scenes in my head, just to make me feel worse.
Scenes from today, scenes from YEP, scenes from weeks ago. Even years.
I think I ended up getting to sleep. It wasn’t restful, though. I know it didn’t happen in real life, so I must have fallen asleep, but I heard the familiar sound of my window slowly sliding open in its quiet, ominous scratches. If I was anyone else, I’d probably be freaked out; it’s a really scary sound. But I knew that window sound well.
The only thing I feared was what he’d end up telling me.
I sat up slightly in bed. I looked around the room. The walls weren’t covered in college options, and my desk had fewer books on it than usual. A baseball hat hung limply on the back of my chair.
Wait, this wasn’t tonight. This wasn’t the present.
I looked back to my window. A leg popped into my room, followed by a body, and a worn-out pillow. The body rolled onto the foot of my bed, silently leaned over, and closed the window.
Josh sighed to himself, his shoulders slumping, like he didn’t relax until he was here in my room.
Josh was smaller than usual, and his hair was grown a little too long. He was dressed in an old, oversized shirt and sweats that were a little too big. He came in just socks.
“Josh?” I whispered. My friend gasped quietly and looked down at me.
“I thought you were asleep,” he replied, even quieter than me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“What’s wrong?” I sat up in bed. My voice wasn’t so quiet anymore. I turned on my lamp. Josh blinked slightly at the light. I saw his face.
His hair was messed up, and it wasn’t the bedhead kind. His eye was bruised and it looked like he had been trying to nurse a split lip. When he saw my reaction, he shied away from me.
“I just wanted to sleep here,” he muttered. “That’s all. Just go to sleep.”
“What did he do to you?” I hoisted myself onto my knees. I wanted to reach out to him, I wanted to hug him, I wanted to comfort him. Josh wasn’t the kind who wanted people to touch him outside of what he asked for. I didn’t know what to do; he was obviously beat up and a mess.
Josh swallowed hard. He turned away from me and passed to my closet. We kept a cushion in there just in case he came over in the middle of the night. He pulled it out, laid it down on the floor, unloaded a blanket from my dresser, and flopped down. A long, drawn out sigh that was too old, too worn, escaped him. Like he was relieved it was all over.
“I really don’t want to talk about it.”
I didn’t protest outwardly. But inside, I was yelling at him. He never talked to anyone besides me and banned me from saying anything to anyone but Dad. How could anything get better unless he was honest? If he didn’t fight back in any way, how would his life improve?
I grudgingly scooted back under my covers and turned away from him. I shut my eyes tight, hoping to sleep.
“Levi?”
“Hm?”
A hesitation. “I’m really glad I have you.”
Shut them tighter, shut them tighter.
“Good night.”

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