Graeme Carey ~ Expelled from Eaton Park

 

Another head poked through the small open­ing in the door. This time it belonged to Rory, the flop­py-haired kid from next door. He was wear­ing a Santa hat and didn’t say any­thing to James, who lay on the bed with his hands behind his head and his eyes up at the ceil­ing. He just want­ed to get a look.

Everyone want­ed to get a look. All after­noon, heads had been pop­ping in and out of the room, get­ting one last look at him before he was gone. Had he tak­en his eyes off of the ceil­ing for more than a few sec­onds, he might have felt like some sort of zoo ani­mal being gawked at by the blank faces of spec­ta­tors, but he was too pre­oc­cu­pied to notice.

James Erp—although every­one called him, not affec­tion­ate­ly, the Serpent or sim­ply Serp—was about to be expelled. At least that was the word around Eaton Park, a pri­vate school named after the founder of the famous Canadian depart­ment store and locat­ed just out­side of Toronto, sur­round­ed by noth­ing but trees and hills. James was one of only three black kids at the school, the oth­er two being seniors and ath­letes, where­as he was a sopho­more and the fur­thest thing from ath­let­ic, so even among his own small group he was an out­sider. He was also the only one of the three who was mixed-race, with a white father and black moth­er. Depending on his envi­ron­ment, his race was inter­change­able, and nev­er to his ben­e­fit.

There were any num­ber of rea­sons for why James was about to be expelled, but he fig­ured it had to do with the lat­est inci­dent. Two nights ear­li­er, a port­ly fresh­man who insist­ed on being called Will instead of Willy had a bad reac­tion to a drug (like­ly LSD, which had been com­ing back in fash­ion late­ly around Eaton Park, replac­ing mush­rooms and mar­i­jua­na as the pre­vi­ous intox­i­cants of choice). Will not Willy had tak­en more than he could han­dle and wound up run­ning up and down the hall in only his school jack­et, scream­ing, “I’ll show you the life of the mind,” a line from Barton Fink, which Will’s room­mate lat­er claimed they had watched the day before in Mrs. Tillman’s English class (many of the stu­dents com­ment­ed on the phys­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties, minus the bot­tom­less­ness, between Will and John Goodman).

While there was no direct evi­dence impli­cat­ing James in the inci­dent, it was pret­ty well com­mon knowl­edge around cam­pus that most drugs came through him.

But real­ly that was just the final straw in a long line of straws that, when put togeth­er, could have reached the peak of the CN Tower. He’d been in fights, skipped class, pro­duced an under­ground news­pa­per that alleged var­i­ous fac­ul­ty mem­bers and stu­dents of cer­tain illic­it and sex­u­al acts (not all of which were made up), and stolen the dean’s car. The lat­ter had obvi­ous­ly nev­er been proven, oth­er­wise he would have been expelled a long time ago, but most believed that James was at least par­tial­ly respon­si­ble for the mys­te­ri­ous dis­ap­pear­ance (and even more mys­te­ri­ous reap­pear­ance two days lat­er with an addi­tion­al fifty miles on the odome­ter) of Dean Veer’s for­est green BMW 528i.

Serp?” James looked down to see the head of Tyler, the clos­est thing to a friend he had at Eaton Park. Like James, Tyler was a lon­er. When they hung out togeth­er they hard­ly said a word, instead com­mu­ni­cat­ing through their shared soli­tude. All of five feet and 115 pounds, with short red hair that always stood straight up, he was social­ly awk­ward in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way from James. He was an intro­vert with extro­vert fan­tasies, where­as James was always look­ing for new ways to hone his intro­ver­sion, such as by man­ag­ing to wrig­gle his way into the only sin­gle dorm room on cam­pus by pre­tend­ing to have pho­to­pho­bia, which required him to have com­plete con­trol over his room’s light­ing.

James didn’t say any­thing.

You okay?”

He shrugged his shoul­ders and went back to star­ing at the ceil­ing. He could feel Tyler lin­ger­ing in the door­way for sev­er­al sec­onds before final­ly leav­ing.

After stick­ing their heads into his room, most of the stu­dents report­ed back to the group that James had looked sullen and even depressed about his immi­nent expul­sion, but the truth was that the only thing he felt, star­ing up at the ceil­ing as though it might sud­den­ly spell out some sort of mes­sage, was indif­fer­ence. More than any­thing, he was bored, wait­ing to be called down to the dean’s office. He want­ed to get it over with so bad­ly that he had even con­sid­ered tak­ing the ini­tia­tive and march­ing into the office unso­licit­ed, but he thought against it. On sec­ond thought, he was in no rush.

The call final­ly came for him at five o’clock, just before din­ner. James saw it as one last jab from the admin­is­tra­tion, try­ing to ruin his appetite. A voice he didn’t rec­og­nize came over the inter­com. It wasn’t Veer and it wasn’t the admin­is­tra­tive assis­tant, Ms. Nicholson, a mousy lady who wore the same dress only in a dif­fer­ent col­or every­day (one for each day of the week). The fact that he couldn’t place the voice made it more omi­nous. It was low and seri­ous, almost somber, sim­ply announc­ing, “Mr. Erp, please report to the dean’s office. James Erp to the dean’s office.”

A dull roar from the stu­dents in the hall came drift­ing into his room. Before get­ting up to leave, he closed his eyes and tried to visu­al­ize how the meet­ing might go. He pic­tured him­self sit­ting across from Veer, with the big wood­en desk between them. He won­dered if any­one else would be in the room. It’s not that he was afraid of the dean, but the thought of being alone in a room with him—or any­one for that matter—gave him the chills. Even though his face and body didn’t show it, he couldn’t deny that he was ner­vous.

When he opened his eyes, he could have sworn that the room was darker—that some­how, in a mat­ter of sec­onds, it had gone from day to night. There was a col­lec­tive mur­mur as he walked down the hall, and he could feel everyone’s eyes on him. Not that he blamed them. Everyone secret­ly enjoys watch­ing oth­er people’s lives fall apart.

 

Ms. Nicholson was wear­ing a new dress, which for some rea­son was unset­tling to James. It was green and gold and a lit­tle less mod­est than the calf-length num­ber she nor­mal­ly wore. Without say­ing a word, she led him down the short hall to the dean’s office and knocked on the door.

Mr. Erp here to see you, Mr. Veer,” she said, open­ing the door just enough to stick her head in.

The dean’s response was inaudi­ble to James.

Go right in,” she said, step­ping aside and pre­sent­ing the open door to him. James tried to read the look on her face: a slight smile and upturned brow. Was it sym­pa­thy or mirth?

The walk to the desk was an awk­ward dis­tance. James stepped over the afghan rug as qui­et­ly as pos­si­ble, feel­ing almost like an intrud­er or bur­glar.

Have a seat,” Veer said while look­ing down at an open fold­er.

After James sat down, there was silence for what felt to him like sev­er­al min­utes as Veer con­tin­ued to con­sult the fold­er, which was so thick that James imaged it must have con­tained every detail of his life lead­ing up to that moment, every poor deci­sion he had ever made.

Finally the dean sat back, took off his glass­es, and rubbed the bridge of his nose as though he had just fin­ished read­ing the longest, most ardu­ous nov­el of his life. After tak­ing a deep breath, he looked down at James, and James knew that the sight of the dean, with his bald head high­light­ed in the dark room by the desk’s lamp, would stick with him for­ev­er. He could already pic­ture him­self sit­ting over a bowl of cere­al one morn­ing years down the line with this image pop­ping into his head.

Mr. Erp,” he began, and all the sce­nar­ios James had gone over in his head in prepa­ra­tion for the meet­ing instant­ly flew out the win­dow. Nothing could pre­pare him for the real thing. “I nev­er look for­ward to these kinds of meet­ings.” Something about the way he said it led James to believe that the dean had uttered those very words on more than one occa­sion, and they had long since lost their mean­ing. The state­ment also didn’t ring entire­ly true. “Do you know why you’re here?”

James thought, “In this room? In this school? This city? This world?” He shook his head.

Veer placed his fin­ger­tips togeth­er and made a ball with his hands. He rest­ed his chin on the ball and said, “I’m going to be blunt with you. This is not a good meet­ing. You’re here because of some very seri­ous inci­dents that have recent­ly tak­en place.” He paused. It took James sev­er­al sec­onds to real­ize that the pause was intend­ed to allow him to respond.

He said noth­ing.

It’s come to this institution’s atten­tion that you have been dis­trib­ut­ing drugs to stu­dents.” He made it sound like James had been forc­ing them on peo­ple, as if oth­ers had had no choice in the mat­ter, as if they hadn’t banged on his door at two in the morn­ing ask­ing if he had any­thing, as if he was the only one who had played a hand in it all. He used to tell him­self that he start­ed sell­ing drugs to make mon­ey, but he soon real­ized that he did it in order to con­firm the school’s per­cep­tion of him. If they want­ed him to be the black thug from the city, he was going to be it. “More than that,” Veer con­tin­ued, “your his­to­ry of malfea­sance at this insti­tu­tion is quite exten­sive. Fights, poor atten­dance, incon­sis­tent school work.”

Although James was a gift­ed student—otherwise he nev­er would have been accept­ed into Eaton Park, no mat­ter how eager they were to enroll a stu­dent with a “unique background”—he had a ten­den­cy to skip the stuff that didn’t inter­est him, like math or sci­ence or just about any­thing that demand­ed spe­cif­ic answers. To him, life wasn’t so black or white.

Quite frankly, this was a long time com­ing. Since you entered this insti­tu­tion not two years ago, you have defied author­i­ty at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. It makes me won­der why you even came here in the first place.”

As if James had had a say in the mat­ter. As if he want­ed to be the only black kid his age at a school full of wealthy white kids. Sure they’d treat­ed him fine at first. In fact, for a month or two every­one seemed to want to be his friend. For a while, being dif­fer­ent was a good thing. Even his teach­ers had favored him, com­pli­ment­ing him on how “artic­u­late” he was. But then at some point in the sec­ond semes­ter of his first year, the nov­el­ty of the black kid wore off, and, as if the school had col­lec­tive­ly made up its mind, instead of cool and anti-white, he was sud­den­ly seen as dif­fer­ent. He’d been treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly at the school in the city, too, which is why his par­ents had decid­ed to send him to Eaton Park, well out of their work­ing class pay grade. At first he thought he was too white for the black kids and too black for the white, but then he real­ized that race had noth­ing to do with it. Maybe he was just dif­fer­ent, no mat­ter who he was around.

He’d been con­front­ed with a new­er, sub­tler form of racism at Eaton Park. Instead of com­ing straight out and call­ing him the n-word, they had all kinds of cod­ed phras­es and ges­tures that said it for them, like their own pri­vate lan­guage, and for some rea­son it was even more infu­ri­at­ing than if they were to look him in the eye and say it explic­it­ly. With a sim­ple look they could imply entire racial dia­tribes, yet if he ever called them out on it, they would plead igno­rance, mak­ing James look over­ly sen­si­tive or para­noid. And the entire school admin­is­tra­tion had fall­en for it. Every time he was dragged into the dean’s office, he was paint­ed as the insti­ga­tor, the one who had thrown the first punch, which was true only in the phys­i­cal sense.

I think we’ve been pret­ty tol­er­ant with you,” Veer said, low­er­ing the ball of his hands to the desk and glar­ing at James from under­neath his thick brow. The halo­gen lamps in the court­yard sud­den­ly popped on, cov­er­ing the left side of the dean’s body in a sodi­um glow, while the right side remained in the dark. “We’ve giv­en you plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to change your ways, yet time and time again you’ve defied the prin­ci­ples of the insti­tu­tion, leav­ing us no choice.”

James inferred from the silence that ensued that the dean was giv­ing him anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak.

Well, do you have any­thing to say for your­self?”

James looked around the room while he thought of some­thing to say. It was what he imaged every dean’s office to look like: shades of dark green and brown, leather-bound books, framed diplo­mas from schools that boast of their exclu­siv­i­ty yet every aca­d­e­m­ic seems to have attend­ed, busts of ancient fig­ures who look as though they’ve nev­er smiled a day in their life.

What’s the point? You said it your­self. You’ve already made up your mind. You’d made up your mind ages ago. Anything I say right now is a waste of breath. I could defend myself, give you my side of the sto­ry, but it wouldn’t do any­thing. You wouldn’t lis­ten. You’re only inter­est­ed in your sto­ry, in the insti­tu­tion’s sto­ry. I’m just a side char­ac­ter who’s being pushed out of the nar­ra­tive alto­geth­er. You’ll have no prob­lem for­get­ting about me as soon as I’m gone. But I don’t care, because the phoni­ness of this place makes me sick, the way every­one walks around as if they’ve actu­al­ly done some­thing with their lives, as if they’ve actu­al­ly accom­plished some­thing. Like you, what have you done that’s so spe­cial? Why should I lis­ten to you? You’re just some guy. Sure, some guy in an expen­sive suit, but still just some guy. That doesn’t make you any­thing. And the teach­ers at this school. If they’re so great, then why are they teach­ing? They act as if by read­ing the books of great authors they’ve absorbed that great­ness. But it’s all bull­shit.”

Or at least that’s what James would have said, had he cared enough to say any­thing. Instead, he sim­ply shrugged.

Well then I guess there’s noth­ing left to say. James Erp, as of this moment you are expelled from Eaton Park.”

Of all the reac­tions, of all the pos­si­ble things he could have said or done in that moment, James did the one thing he nev­er imag­ined he’d do: he laughed. He didn’t mean to. It just hap­pened. He tried to hold it in but there was no stop­ping it. It start­ed off as a grin, then it pro­gressed to a chuck­le, and before he knew it he was laugh­ing so hard that he could bare­ly breathe. He grabbed his stom­ach and leaned for­ward in his chair, unable to con­tain the train of laugh­ter that was bar­rel­ing up his chest and out of his mouth.

Light from the hall­way poured into the room, and he turned around to see Ms. Nicholson—her dress now appear­ing to be more black than green in the dark­ened office—standing in the door­way with a con­fused and hor­ri­fied look on her face. The sight of her made him laugh even hard­er, until he spilled out of his chair and fell onto his knees on the rug. The mus­cles in his cheeks began to burn as tears flood­ed his eyes. Some part of him, per­haps the part that had caused him to begin laugh­ing in the first place and which he appar­ent­ly had no con­trol over, was enjoy­ing it, but anoth­er part, the part that didn’t know when it was going to stop, was ter­ri­fied.

Veer rose from his seat and joined Ms. Nicholson stand­ing over James. They watched with con­cern as he writhed on the ground in hys­ter­ics like a seizure vic­tim.

 

Even after he had been giv­en the news that they had already called his father, James con­tin­ued to laugh. And he didn’t stop laugh­ing until he stepped out­side. It end­ed just as sud­den­ly as it had start­ed, leav­ing him with a dull pain in his head like a eupho­ria hang­over.

It was now night­time. The last bit of light had drained from the sky, leav­ing it a swirly licorice col­or. The cam­pus was cov­ered in Christmas dec­o­ra­tions. Green and red lights ran up and down the poles along the walk­way. James rubbed his eyes, think­ing that his vision had gone blur­ry, before real­iz­ing that the entire cam­pus was cov­ered in a thick fog in the unsea­son­ably warm night. The Christmas lights, which looked out of place with­out snow, bal­looned to five times their size in the mist.

He decid­ed to skip din­ner and went straight back to his room. The halls were com­plete­ly emp­ty. His room seemed dif­fer­ent from when he had left it less than an hour ear­li­er. Everything was the same, but it was as if the col­or scheme had changed, as if he was star­ing at it through a new lens. He lay back down on his bed and stared up at the ceil­ing once more. The same but dif­fer­ent.

He tried to close his eyes but he was too anx­ious to sleep. If not for his father, he wouldn’t have cared about being kicked out. In fact, it was some­what of a relief. But every time he thought about his father’s unsmil­ing face, a pang of anx­i­ety trav­elled from his stom­ach to his throat. It wasn’t that his father was vio­lent or tem­pera­men­tal; it was just the oppo­site. James’s father, also named James but every­one called him Jim, was about as unex­pres­sive as a per­son could get with­out being cata­ton­ic. It was as if by not speak­ing or imply­ing any­thing his father forced you to project your own anx­i­eties and con­cerns onto his blank face, there­by mak­ing you reproach your­self. And in James’s expe­ri­ence, it was far more effec­tive than any lec­ture or scorn­ing he had ever received. He would have rather faced the wrath of an entire jus­tice sys­tem than stare into his father’s neu­tral eyes for even a sec­ond.

As he was leav­ing the dean’s office, Ms. Nicholson told James that his father would be down to pick him up at the end of the week. At least they had giv­en him a few days. Maybe they thought he had friends he want­ed to say bye to. Or maybe it was a cru­el and sub­tle way for them to assert their pow­er over him one last time.

But James couldn’t wait that long, so he jumped off the bed and start­ed to pack, tak­ing only the essen­tials and leav­ing every­thing else behind. As he was emp­ty­ing out his draw­ers, he heard some­one com­ing down the hall, fol­lowed by the sound of his door creak­ing open. Without hav­ing to look, he knew who it was. One of the many lit­tle skills he’d picked up through years of being a lon­er was the abil­i­ty to tell exact­ly who was around him with­out hav­ing to look. It was like the oppo­site of a superpower—a neu­ro­di­ver­gent pow­er.

Going on a trip?” said Kevin, the big blond kid from the end of the hall. Through a process of sur­vival of the fittest, the sole cri­te­ria of which appeared to be size, Kevin, whose face was so fat that it seemed to lack all fea­tures, had been deemed the ring­leader of the sopho­more bul­lies and there­fore the anti-James brigade, and he was con­stant­ly trailed by a hand­ful of cronies who hung on his every word and punch. So James was not the least bit sur­prised that he was the first per­son to greet him after his meet­ing with the dean. He was, how­ev­er, sur­prised to see that he was alone.

I said are you going on a trip?” Again James didn’t respond. He could hear the grin in Kevin’s voice. That grin had dri­ven James crazy for a year and a half and ruined more than one night of sleep.

Where you going, Serp? Taking a vaca­tion or some­thing? Somewhere nice I hope. Hey, be sure to send us a post­card when you get there.”

Still James said noth­ing and con­tin­ued to pack with his back to the door. All he want­ed to do at that point was leave. Each breath he took at Eaton Park felt more and more con­strict­ing.

Don’t for­get to pack your cocoa but­ter.” Kevin start­ed to back out of the room, but before he had a chance to leave James wheeled around and struck him on the top of the head with what­ev­er he had in his hand. There was a sick­en­ing crack­ing sound, fol­lowed by an even more sick­en­ing silence, before Kevin fell with a thud back­ward into the hall­way.

James looked down at his hand. He was hold­ing the New York snow globe his aunt from Brooklyn had sent him two Christmases ear­li­er. Snow swirled around the tiny Chrysler Building at a lan­guid pace as red streaks ran down the out­side of the glass. He placed the globe on the ground and peaked into the hall­way, where Kevin lay on his back with a grin still plas­tered on his face. His eyes were par­tial­ly open but blood had begun to pool around his head like an evil halo.

James looked up and down the hall­way. No one was around, but he knew they’d be pil­ing in from din­ner any sec­ond, so he hur­ried back into his room, grabbed his stash of drugs and his wad of mon­ey (which he’d brazen­ly kept in an unlocked desk draw­er, per­haps with the sub­con­scious desire of get­ting caught), and took off.

 

With his suit­case clutched to his chest, he ran until his steps syn­chro­nized with his heart­beat, mak­ing it impos­si­ble to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the pound­ings. It felt as though an invis­i­ble hand was push­ing down on his heart, try­ing to get it to sink into his stom­ach. Running was the only thing he could think to do, so he didn’t stop until the invis­i­ble hand went away. When he reached the end of the tree line, he turned around in the mid­dle of the road and looked back at the faint form of the cam­pus in the fog. It already felt like a dis­tant mem­o­ry.

There was no plan. All he knew was that he had to get out of there as fast as he could. The image of Kevin’s bloody, supine body hung before his eyes. For all he knew, the cops were already look­ing for him. In a mat­ter of sec­onds, his expul­sion had turned into an escape.

The bus came to a screech­ing stop at the side of the road. The dri­ver appar­ent­ly hadn’t noticed the dark fig­ure until the last minute. As he board­ed, he low­ered his head and quick­ly walked to a seat at the back. The only oth­er pas­sen­ger was an old woman with a pair of gro­cery bags. As they pulled away, he sunk down into his seat and threw on his hood.

 

The first thing James did when he got to the city was find a dark alley, the exact oppo­site of what he had been taught as a child. Using the light from a near­by apart­ment win­dow, he pulled out a dime bag and expert­ly rolled a small joint. Unlike most of the stu­dents at Eaton Park, James didn’t ven­ture out very far when it came to his drug of choice. He had tried oth­er stuff—mushrooms, acid, ecsta­sy, Quaaludes, ket­a­mine, fen­tanyl lol­lipops, and just about any­thing else that came in pill form—but after all the exper­i­men­ta­tion he real­ized that he was a pot guy.

As he smoked at the edge of the alley’s shad­ow, he stared out at the down­town street and watched as the world twist­ed and changed around him: col­ors becom­ing height­ened, sounds dulled, and the fog even thick­er. With each drag, his face became vis­i­ble in the dark, illu­mi­nat­ed by the orange glow.

After he fin­ished the joint, he lin­gered in the alley for sev­er­al min­utes while con­sid­er­ing his course of action. Assuming the news hadn’t already reached him, he fig­ured he still had until the end of the week until his father came look­ing for him, and he had more than enough mon­ey to fend for him­self until then. In fact, if he want­ed, he had enough mon­ey to last for months.

Not yet ready to be alone in a hotel room, with the lit­tle bit of courage that he’d gained from the pot, James stepped out of the dark­ness and into the street. The sky had turned a shade dark­er, now some­how black­er than black, as if tinged with a pur­ple hue. With no place to go, he chose a direc­tion at ran­dom and start­ed walk­ing.

One of James’s favorite activ­i­ties when he lived in the city was street­walk­ing. He used to spend hours roam­ing the streets, tak­ing lefts and rights at ran­dom, skip­ping school to spend entire days just walk­ing, not even stop­ping to get food. He liked the feel­ing of being among peo­ple with­out hav­ing to engage anyone—a part of, yet dis­tinct from, the crowd. Unbeknownst to James, it was because of these walks that his par­ents decid­ed to send him to Eaton Park. It wasn’t the fact that he’d been get­ting into fights on an almost dai­ly basis at his old school; it was because his moth­er, while out run­ning errands one day, had come across him on one of his walks. Rather than con­front him for not being in school, she left him alone, sens­ing for the first time her son’s lone­li­ness. The next day, how­ev­er, she and James’s father told him he’d be trans­fer­ring.

As he start­ed walk­ing, he won­dered if, rather than return home to face his par­ents, he could sim­ply walk the streets for­ev­er like a peri­patet­ic lon­er, peer­ing into win­dows as oth­ers exist­ed com­fort­ably in their inside worlds. But before he could even reach the end of the block, he began to sense that he was being shad­owed. In order to test his hunch, he picked up his pace and sure enough the foot­steps behind him sped up as well. Using his height­ened sense of spa­tial aware­ness, James inferred that there were at least four of them. Without giv­ing away that he knew he was being fol­lowed, he turned left at the near­est street and wait­ed behind the wall.

As soon as they appeared, he lunged for­ward, using his suit­case as a shield, and man­aged to spear two men to the ground. He dug his elbow into the face of one and kicked the oth­er in the gut, enough to keep them off their feet for a few sec­onds while he dealt with the oth­ers. In one motion, he jumped up and threw a wild right, con­nect­ing awk­ward­ly on a fore­head. He spun around to con­front the fourth mem­ber of the group but was tripped by one of the men on the ground, the oth­er still reel­ing from the kick to the stom­ach. James wres­tled for a bit, absorb­ing kicks and punch­es to his face and body before squirm­ing free and get­ting back to his feet. His face was slick with blood, and he could bare­ly see out of his left eye. With no spe­cif­ic tar­get in mind, he low­ered his head and threw anoth­er right, putting all of his weight into it like an out­field­er mak­ing a throw to the plate. He con­nect­ed square­ly on the bridge of a nose, his hand instant­ly warm with blood, but then just as he was wind­ing up to throw anoth­er punch, he was hit on the side of the jaw. He lost con­scious­ness so quick­ly that it was as if some­one had sim­ply flipped a switch in his brain, caus­ing all the lights in the world to go out.

When the lights switched back on, James was on his back in the mid­dle of the side­walk with his arms and legs to the sides of his body as if prepar­ing to make a snow angel. He lay on the ground star­ing up at the pur­ple-black sky for near­ly a minute before sit­ting up. Then the pan­ic set in. He jumped to his feet and fol­lowed a trail of his belong­ings around the cor­ner to find his suit­case lying open on the side­walk. They’d tak­en his stash and every last dol­lar.

 

It was anoth­er form of expul­sion. No longer able to pay the price of admis­sion to even the cheap­est place in the city, James sat on the ground with his back against the wall and weighed his options. After being kicked out of just about every place he’d ever been, he real­ized that his fan­ta­sy of becom­ing a street­walk­er was more like­ly than he’d imag­ined.

Wondering where some­one goes when they have no place left to go, he got up and start­ed walk­ing. Before he could think of an answer, he looked up to see that his feet had answered his ques­tion for him, as he was stand­ing in front of his old apart­ment build­ing. Without real­iz­ing it, he’d walked the entire dis­tance to his home, no less than 10 blocks.

It took him near­ly an hour to build up the courage just to enter the build­ing, pac­ing back and forth on the side­walk like a crazy per­son, with drops of blood trac­ing his route. When he final­ly went in, he couldn’t get past the lob­by, so he sat in a chair next to the mail­box­es and fell asleep.

James?”

He snapped awake to the sound of his mother’s voice. It was still dark out but she was already head­ing to work. She’d start­ed work­ing full-time in order to help pay for the high cost of tuition at Eaton Park. Seeing her with bags under her eyes in her cheap grey pantsuit near­ly brought him to tears.

Oh my god, James. What hap­pened to you?”

He start­ed to say some­thing but she spared him.

Come upstairs.”

As he ascend­ed the stairs to their apart­ment, he was com­fort­ed by the fact that his father, who often worked night shifts, was like­ly to be asleep. Because of their work sched­ules, his par­ents were bare­ly ever home at the same time, see­ing each oth­er just enough to say hel­lo and good­bye. For some rea­son, though, on that day his father was still up, sit­ting at the kitchen table with a cup of cof­fee and a news­pa­per. He didn’t say any­thing when he low­ered his paper and saw his son’s bloody face in the door­way. But then he didn’t have to say any­thing.

Sit down,” his moth­er said, ges­tur­ing to the chair next to his father. She wet a cloth and dabbed at the bruis­es on his face. “So, what hap­pened to you?”

So much had hap­pened that night that he didn’t know where to begin, so he decid­ed to tell them every­thing, from the begin­ning, with­out decep­tion. Not just every­thing that had hap­pened that day, but every­thing that had hap­pened lead­ing up to it, purg­ing him­self of every­thing he’d been bot­tling up for years: the drugs, the fights, the fact that he felt like an out­cast wher­ev­er he went. It was more than he’d said in the last year and a half com­bined, and it took him near­ly an hour to get it all out. When he fin­ished, the sun had risen, and he felt so light­head­ed that he thought he might pass out. After sev­er­al moments of silence, his father final­ly spoke.

Well,” he said, and for a minute James thought it might be all that he was going to say, before he con­tin­ued, “you’re home now.”

For the first time in his life, he was able to inter­pret his father’s blank stare, and he read gen­uine con­cern in it.

After eat­ing and chang­ing his clothes, James lay down on his old bed. Once again he had the sen­sa­tion of being in a room that felt the same but dif­fer­ent. The light blue walls, the posters of musi­cians whose music he’d long grown out of, the win­dow that looked out onto the soot-cov­ered apart­ment build­ing across the court­yard. Nothing about it had changed, but it wasn’t the same place.

He closed his eyes and tried to hear what his par­ents were say­ing in the kitchen, but in a mat­ter of sec­onds he fell asleep to the sound of their muf­fled voic­es.

~

Graeme Carey’s work has appeared in Voices de la Luna, Five Quarterly, and Grub Street Literary Magazine. He was named an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers.