The sky had just changed from dusk to real darkness when we heard the familiar rumble. Dawson bolted out of the house as the car turned into our cul-de-sac, and threw himself onto the shitty hood of the shitty black Subaru. He landed with a crunch that made me wince, but rolled off without a dent to his gleeful expression. The car shuddered to a stop and its driver jumped out without turning the key.
“What do you think you’re doing, fucktard?”
He seized Dawson’s slim frame and heaved him to his feet, pushing him back up against the car.
“Get off my car, bitch.”
“I’m sorry, did you say get off in your car? My pleasure.”
They both laughed, and Dawson laid an experimental punch to his aggressor’s stomach.
“Marcus, buddy!” Punch. “We missed you, man!”
Marcus caught the next punch and pulled Dawson into a hug.
“I’ve missed you losers, too.”
It had been months since we last heard from Marcus and almost a year since he left with no explanation other than that he had places to be and I was in charge. There had been four of us in the house when he left – Me, Dawson, Randy, and Marcus – all dropouts and deadbeats from nowhere in particular and going nowhere fast. We loved each other because it usually seemed like no one else would.
If Marcus was back to stay, there would be six of us, including my brother – whose residence was unofficial - and my boyfriend, Luke.
Luke was working a night shift and I was glad for that. Alex and Randy were both standing beside me now, watching the shenanigans between Dawson and Marcus. Randy looked standoff-ish and skeptical, which was the same way he looked at everything from mashed potatoes to serial killer documentaries. Alex looked questioningly at me, and I avoided his gaze because I never seemed have the answers to his questions anymore. Instead I hopped into the car, idled it into an actual parking spot, and shut off the engine.
Finally, I had Marcus’ attention.
“Angie!” He howled and barreled towards me.
I braced for the impact, but found myself laughing as he scooped me up and spun me around.
“Looks like you didn’t burn the place down, eh?” He joked as he set me down.
“It’s completely baby-proof!” I said, stepping back and resisting the urge to punch him in our more tradition greeting. “Still working on Dawson-proof, but we’ll get there.”
He grinned and turned to the other two. He and Randy exchanged thumps without words and, satisfied that nothing had changed there, Marcus surveyed Alex. They stood eye to eye for the first time.
“Damn, kid. I guess Angie’s been feeding you.” He clapped Alex on the shoulder, and Alex smiled in spite of himself. Even though he was my brother, and almost a decade younger than me, Alex stood a full head and shoulders above me. He was my opposite in almost every other way, too. We only seemed to share green eyes.
As he lead our haphazard parade into the house, Marcus knocked his knuckles on the top of the door frame, like he had never left, and bellowed something about “party time.”
I cut them off at the fridge and grabbed a beer out of Alex’s hand.
“Dammit,” he muttered.
I pointed at him with the bottle, “Don’t fucking swear at me.”
He rolled his eyes, “Thanks for being such a great role model.”
“You’re fifteen,” I replied, “You aren’t supposed to be self-aware. Don’t you have homework to do?”
As he grumbled away, I turned to find Marcus staring at me. “What?” I asked him.
“I’ve been gone for a year, Angie. This is a celebratory moment.”
“This is a Tuesday night,” I corrected him, “And the rest of us have work in the morning.” I looked pointedly at Dawson.
He wiggled his eyebrows, but still chugged his beer obligingly.
“Come on, Angie.” Marcus tried to block me as I put Alex’s bottle back in the fridge, “The diner doesn’t even open until one.”
I closed the door stiffly. “I don’t work at the diner anymore.”
“Oh?” Marcus raised an eyebrow, “And where do you work now?”
“At the library,” I replied, doing my best to down play this new information “At the school.”
Marcus scoffed, “Well that explains why you’ve got such a stick up your ass.” He turned away from me and headed to the couch. “I’m celebrating tonight, with anyone who cares to stay.”
Dawson muttered something along the lines of, “Gotta lot of appointments at the shop,” and fled with a remorseful expression.
Marcus looked questioningly at Randy, who shook his head and followed Dawson. Marcus shrugged, avoided looking at me, and turned on the TV. I went upstairs for the night.
The next day, I returned home from work with Alex in tow to find Marcus in the same place. I had expected him to tour the town, visiting our old haunts and accepting all the free liquor his valiant return could offer. Instead he remained prone on the couch (still drinking my liquor, though). Randy was at the kitchen table – sometimes I think he’s the only one who uses it – reading a magazine.
I was about to suggest that it was too early for bourbon, when we heard footsteps above us. Marcus did a quick scan of the room, then said, “No one else is home?” It sounded like a question, but I heard the accusation he intended.
I looked at Randy. “I forgot,” he said. Great.
Luke paraded down the steps and threw a lazy arm over me, “Hey Ang.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow. “Ang?” Accusation again.
Luke turned to Marcus, seeing him for the first time. “Oh hey,” He said congenially. Luke was always congenial. He strode over to Marcus and stuck out his hand, “I’m guessing you’re Marcus. I’m Luke.” He said it like Marcus should already know who he was.
Marcus stood slowly, or maybe I saw it in slow motion because I knew what was coming.
Marcus punched Luke across the jaw.
Luke buckled, but didn’t go down. I was proud of him for that – I’d seen Marcus land enough punches to know it took some mettle – and grateful that he stood up to Marcus in this way I could not.
“Ang.” Marcus said again, spitting the word and spinning to face me.
I punched him back. I’d always had Marcus, or Randy, to throw my punches for me, so it took a lot of will power not to yell the compounded curses that streamed through my mind as my fist made contact with his face. I just hoped Marcus was as surprised as I was.
There was a silent moment when Luke straightened, Marcus rubbed his cheek, and I fisted my hands so they wouldn’t see me shaking.
Marcus pointed at Luke, “I would have done that whenever this started, anyway.” Then he turned to me, demanding, “When were you going to tell me?”
“Maybe when I thought you were enough of an adult not to punch everyone you meet.”
“You don’t just let people into this house and act like it’s no big deal.”
“You left me in charge! This isn’t your house anymore.”
The door slammed as Dawson came home.
“Hey, hey, hey!” He shouted, “I see the crew has all gathered!
Marcus’s fierce expression melted easily for Dawson, and he grinned, “That’s right, which means it’s now officially party time.” He headed to the fridge, before turning back to me, “You alright with that?”
“Do whatever you want.” I snapped. I grabbed Luke’s hand and pulled him out of the room.
“Talk to you later,” Marcus called after me.
But he didn’t; we worked hard to avoid each other in the following weeks. Autumn turned from crisp to cold in a day, but the state of the house deteriorated slowly. All of its occupants returned to the same lives they led before Marcus had left, in a surreal mirror image of how they had changed in his absence. Dawson used all of his sick days at work, and still kept coming in late. Randy was largely an automaton: the stiff counterpart to Dawson’s stumbling recklessness, but he engaged in Marcus’ debauchery nonetheless. I tolerated it all with gritted teeth until, finally, Alex skipped school.
I stormed into the house that day, snapping his name before the door even closed.
“Yo.” My brother replied easily from the living room.
“Where were you today?”
Marcus waved a beer, and I tried briefly to remember a time I’d seen him without alcohol in his hand. Nothing came to mind. “’Fast and Furious’ marathon! This is where it’s happening.”
I looked at Alex. He shrugged. “That’s it? I waited for you at school. I pick you up every day. Everyday! And you decided not to be there today, without telling me.”
He shrugged again, “Apparently you used to skip school all the time.”
“And look where it got me!”
Marcus patted the couch lovingly, “Greatest place in the world.”
I didn’t look at him, “You drinking all of my beer is not great. Jobs are great. Diplomas are great!”
Alex looked away. Marcus scoffed, so I whirled on him, “You and I need to have that talk.” I stalked upstairs. He followed, laboriously rising from the couch and probably making faces at Alex.
As soon as Marcus got into my room, I slammed the door shut. “What kind of shit have you been telling him?”
“Shit?” Marcus laughed, “It’s all the truth, Angie. Even though you try to act like you’re some miracle child and none of it ever happened, I don’t have to make any shit up.”
“This is supposed to be a better place for him. As long as that bitch gets her check and no one bothers her, I can keep him with me and I can keep him happy.” I sucked in a breath. “If the school calls her and she pulls the plug, it’s on you. If anything happens to him, I’d better never see your face again.”
“We can all be happy, Angie.” Marcus opened his arms, “Hell, you can even be happy. Things were fine before – you were fine and Alex was fine and we were all fine and happy! You’re the one that’s got everyone all stressed out.”
“Caring about keeping a job is not the same thing as stressed out! We have lives now, that’s not the same thing as stressed out.”
“We had lives before!”
I took a furious step towards him, “We were going nowhere before. I decided I wanted to go somewhere, but when I have places to be, I don’t abandon everyone I care about.”
He scoffed – God, I hated that sound – “That’s great, Angie. Thanks for everything! Thanks for saving the fucking world! Is that really what you think you’re doing?”
“I didn’t have to do anything. You did everything for me when you left. You stopped holding us back. We grew up.”
“Yeah,” he leered, curving his body to lean over me, “You think Peter Pan left Neverland and you all got to grow up. Guess I forgot to wear my tights today.”
I pushed Marcus away from me, “They only ever got into trouble because of Peter Pan. Read a goddamn book.” I walked around him to the door. “You don’t control us anymore. We decide what’s best for us. We decide tomorrow.”
My stomach twisted as I left the room. Somehow that – the walking out, the last word I’d never had – felt like Marcus leaving all over again.
It was strange seeing everyone assembled at the kitchen table that evening. I didn’t know if that had ever happened before, and I felt like it required some grandiose speech. Instead, I told them the truth.
“You guys know Marcus and I have a different way of doing things.” We always have, I thought, but I didn’t add it. “Well, we don’t want to divide you and we’re tired of fighting. We want you guys to choose which one us is in charge of the house.” Only Luke held my gaze; Alex looked away, Dawson fidgeted, and Randy read a magazine. Marcus said something about how glad he was to be back with them, no matter what.
And that was it. There was nothing left to do, but still I paced my room furiously. To the bed where Luke would try and snatch my hand, to the door where I hesitated before deciding not to go downstairs. To the bed. To the door. To the bed where Luke eventually fell asleep. To the door where I reenacted my stupid speech. Over and over across the room and inside my head.
“Hey,” Marcus said. I turned to face him. He stood in the doorway, his shadow vanishing into the dark hall.
I shook Luke awake. He stood and walked stiffly towards Marcus.
Marcus moved out of the doorway and into the room. “Sorry I hit you, man.”
Luke jerked his chin in a nod. “You weren’t really going for me.” He walked out, leaving us with too much history and too little time.
Marcus and I stood; looking at each other, looking through each other, looking into each other’s past year and wondering what answers it held.
“I was in Greenville,” he said finally. “That’s where my family lives.” He sat on the edge of the bed.
I didn’t know Marcus had a family. These people were all I had, and I had always assumed the same was true for him. I couldn’t imagine having a real family and choosing to leave them.
He hung his head in his hands. “My mom is dead. She died. She was sick and she died.”
I imagined families for all of us; my dead parents’ faces standing over Randy, over Dawson. I imagined a stout woman with Marcus’ almond shaped eyes. I imagined him learning how to curl his lip when he was angry by watching her.
Marcus scrubbed furiously at his short hair. “She’s dead, Angie. She’s gone. She wasn’t sixty years old and she’s in the ground with nothing left to show she ever existed.”
“She has you.” I said gently.
He just looked up at me remorsefully.
I didn’t know what to say. Maybe I could comfort him if he cried, but his eyes were dry. I realized then that I hadn’t said or done anything kind to him since his return. I wondered why I couldn’t bring myself to comfort him. I wondered how he left his family. I wondered if I would leave if the boys chose Marcus.
After another ragged breath, Marcus spoke again. “They’ll choose you, Angie. They should choose you, after everything you’ve given them. You’ve tried so hard to earn them, when none of us could ever deserve you.”
There was another pause. I had everything to say; everything I hadn’t said since Marcus came home. But none of the words in my head fit out of my mouth.
“Thank you for that. Thank you for everything.” He stood and kissed me on the forehead. He left the room softly, like he’d come. Downstairs, I heard the rustle of him putting on his jacket and the squeak of the door swinging open. There was a soft, final rap on the doorframe.
“Thank you,” I whispered.