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At the sound of Megan’s voice calling to him, Caleb swiped an arm across his eyes before turning to scan the trees for his friend.
When she called his name again, he finally spotted her, picking a careful path down the wooded hillside. He had been sitting on the tracks with his back to her, but now stood facing her. He shoved his hands awkwardly in his worn out jeans’ pockets.
Megan finally emerged from the trees. He thought she looked pretty in her jean shorts and aqua blue t-shirt. When she saw his eyes, red and swollen, she asked, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he replied, looking at the ground.
“Don’t be embarrassed.” Megan’s eyes sought his.
“I’m not embarrassed,” Caleb mumbled.
Megan shrugged her thin shoulders, and repeated, “What’s wrong?”
Megan sighed the universal sigh of frustration of women whose men are less than forthcoming about their emotions. She changed tactics, and asked instead, “What are you doing out here by yourself?”
“I just wanted to be alone.” Caleb shrugged. “It’s quiet out here.”
“Do you want me to leave?” Megan asked, offended.
“No.” Caleb was quick to answer, not wanting her to leave at all. After a moment of Megan silently watching him, he asked, “What are you doing out here by yourself?”
“Looking for you,” Megan answered, sitting down on the rail.
“How did you know I was out here?” Caleb sat down beside of her.
“I saw your bike in the bushes.”
“Oh.” Caleb picked up one of the small gravels around the shining rail and rolled it between his fingers.
“Is something wrong at home?” Megan tried again.
“Depends on what home you mean.” Caleb tossed the rock into the woods with the same motion he used to skip a rock across the lake.
“At your uncle’s?”
“Everything is fine there.”
“At your brothers’?”
“Who knows, really?” Caleb didn’t try to keep the bitterness from his voice. He was tired of trying to have a good attitude. “I’ve not even heard from Clay or Josh since me and Trav moved in with Uncle Titus.”
“I’m sorry,” Megan said softly.
Once she got Caleb talking, words poured out of him like a dam suddenly burst. “I rode my bike over there twice this week, and they’re never home. They’re always working, or out with their girlfriends. Uncle Titus said he called a few times, but they never answered. I miss my brothers.” Caleb’s voice trembled, but he went on. “We always fought a lot growing up, and they were mean sometimes…a lot of the times…but they’re my brothers. We always had each other. And now, even Travis is always out till late. He got a job at the grocery store. I never see any of my brothers anymore!” Caleb’s voice cracked, and he abruptly stopped talking.
Megan reached over and took his hand in hers. She didn’t say anything; instead, she just tilted her head a bit to let him know she was still listening.
Caleb cleared his throat and fought the tears that were threatening to spill down his cheeks again. He glanced away from Megan, and said, “I really miss Mama, too.”
“I know.” Megan squeezed his hand. “I miss my parents a lot.”
“Are you close with your parents?” Caleb asked, realizing he knew very little about Megan’s family life.
“Not really.” Megan shook her head. “But we were always together until this summer. It’s just so weird being here with Papaw and only talking to them a couple times a week.”
“I’ve not talked to my mom even once since she went to the hospital.” Caleb said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “She’s been at my grandparents’ house for almost a month now, and she’s not called me a single time.”
Caleb shrugged. “Things get hard for my mom. She’s never been very good at taking care of us. Not since Daddy died, at least. I think she had a nervous breakdown or something.”
“That sucks.” Megan leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Yeah.” Caleb nodded. “If Uncle Titus didn’t spend so much time helping her and doing stuff for her…taking care of us boys…we probably would have gone to foster care. There was a social worker for a while—when we were younger.”
“Titus is kind of your guardian angel, huh?”
Caleb smiled. “I’ve never thought of him like that, but, yeah, I guess he is.” He sighed, and added, “That’s why I feel so bad about how his life is going lately. He’s always been there to take care of us…and Mama…and now he’s stuck with us for good, and Jamie left him because of it.”
“That’s not your fault,” Megan protested.
“It feels like it is. And I feel bad about it. He’s so sad all the time now, and I wish I could do something to help.”
“Will your mom ever come home?” Megan asked.
“I don’t think so.” Caleb’s eyes filled with tears, and he didn’t even care anymore. “I heard Uncle Titus talking on the phone last night. I don’t know who he was talking to, but he was saying stuff about going to court to be our permanent guardian and I think he was talking about moving. He was talking about selling a house. I couldn’t figure out if he was talking about his house or our house…Mama’s house.”
“Do you want to leave Little River?”
“I don’t know.” Caleb turned his hand over so he was holding her hand in his. “I can’t imagine not living in Little River. It’s all I know.”
They sat companionably together until Caleb’s stomach rumbled loudly. He blushed when Megan laughed at him.
“I’m starving.” Caleb grinned at her. “Want to go to my house and make some sandwiches?”
The two made their way up the hill and out of the woods, picking up Caleb’s bike when they emerged. As they walked, Caleb pushing his bicycle, Megan told him about staying with her Papaw and how much she hated the evenings when he fell asleep in his recliner watching T.V., and she was left bored and lonely for the rest of the night.
“I know the feeling. I was always used to a lot of people around all the time until lately, now it’s…” Caleb’s voice trailed off as they approached Titus’ house. His mouth hung open, his words dying on his tongue as he surveyed the damage before him.
Toilet paper hung from the trees, beer bottles were smashed to pieces on the front porch steps, and the word “faggot” was spray-painted in red across the front door.
©2015 Rachel Holbrook
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, and various other literary journals. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.