QASSYE HALL - FOR RIGHT NOW
Qassye Hall is a write of fiction and creative non-fiction. She is currently a student in the BFA and BA programs for Creative Writing and English at Arkansas Tech University.
For Right Now
Zach stares into the mouth of the fireplace with everything he owns in two hands: a duffel bag full of clothing and his computer box.
“Zach, can I get your help in here? Zach? Please?” The irritation in her voice brings him back into focus. “Will you reach and grab that bag of cat food and whatever else is up there? That’s where the extra pots and pans are going.”
The cupboard is stuffed with random things other than cat food: a stained white tank top, a bag of grandma’s sewing utensils, and a photo album.
“Hey, Madison, come look at what I found.” He motions for her.
The two of them flip through each page taking a minute to admire memories that were almost forgotten.
“Look at dad’s hair.” She laughs at Dad’s mane of curls, and Mom’s purple Cinderella gown.
He continues to flip through the album: more prom pictures and wedding pictures, more of Nan and Pa, more baby Zach, more baby Madison. It’s all here.
He flips back to the prom picture letting out a small sigh.
“Let’s hang it up with the rest of the pictures in the hallway.” She takes it out of his hands, puts it in a frame that once held a picture of mom and Aunt Maria.
“What about the picture of mom and Aunt Maria?” Zach hands it to her.
“Honestly, it’s not that important. I’ll go set it on Aunt Maria’s night stand.” Madison walks out of the kitchen with frame and picture in hand.
He returns to unpacking and cleaning.
Madison peaks her head around the corner, slowing her breath down. “Zack.” She jumps from behind the wall.
“Fuck.” Zach slams his fist on the counter causing Madison to laugh hysterically.
“Why don’t you go get your stuff from the living room and go claim a bedroom. Nan has given us free reign over any room that isn’t hers.”
He rolls his eyes and puts away the extra pots and pans and groceries. The pizza rolls are the last grocery that is put in the freezer when he notices Aunt Maria’s note:
“Make sure you clean the oven and polish the silver above the China in the dining room.” “Make sure Nan’s stockings are clean. Her legs are starting to swell again.” “The cats need their nightly dose of their dewormer. It’s getting really bad and gross in their litter box.”
Zach tosses the note on the counter, grabs his stuff and finds a room.
Nan’s house is only one story, but the walk to the back of the house seems like an eternity. The bedroom he picks is furthest away from any sign of life, and Zach is okay with this. An escape from reality sounds perfect.
The room is small. The walls are gray with white trimming at the top.
When Pa died, Nan kept everything: years of old shirts, old jackets, old socks and shoes not getting washed. It started to pile up in the corner of this bedroom. Musk and grandfather’s cologne haunt the air.
After getting a moment to breathe, Madison starts checking things off Aunt Maria’s list.
“Clean stockings…” Done and on her bed.
“Deworm the cat children…” Done with scratches all over my arm.
“Make sure to be at the diner at 4:30 PM. I need to go over somethings that have changed in before I put you on the floor.” She glances at the clock above the door way – 3:25 PM. Time to get ready.
Madison stares at herself in the mirror disappointed by her oversized uniform swallowing her chest whole. She finishes her make-up and walks down to Zach’s room.
His door is wide open and he’s made himself at home. His shoes put on Pa’s old shoe shelf. His duffle bad under the chair in the corner. His dirty towel on the floor in front of Nan’s old, oak dresser.
Madison sits on the corner of his bed. “God, what is that smell?”
He smirks. “What? Don’t like old man scent?”
Madison rolls her eyes. “Hey, take me to work.” She glances at her phone. “Aunt Maria needs me there in about thirty minutes.”
“Sure, but how are you getting back?”
“I’ll ride with Aunt Maria.”
The drive is too familiar to her: the pressure of gravity as the car turns, the dollar store where dad would let her buy her fish a decoration for its tank, the community center where she got her first kiss, and her family’s first house.
It was a quick glance, but it brings back a soft smile and mom. Madison’s smile faded as quick as it came.
Her mom made French Toast and scrambled eggs with cheese every Saturday morning. On Madison’s seventh birthday, she and Zach attempted to make mom and dad breakfast in bed. She fought with Zach on who was going to make the eggs. She won, and her rewards was a microwaved bowl of cheesy eggs sprinkled with shiny shell bits.
“Delicious, my daughter.” Madison remembers the brittle approval mom gave her as each bite crunched the unwanted egg shell.
As they pull up, Madison’s mouth drops. “Wow, this place looks so different.”
“Yeah.” His voice rose in response.
This is not how she remembers it. The outside of the diner has aged tremendously. Vines are growing up the side of the building. Weeds claim the employee side of the parking lot as their own. Around the corner, the parking lot is full.
A rope of jingle bells announces her presence. Her aunt yelled for her name – “Hey sweetie, come help me roll this silverware.” Madison nods her head and sits down in front of her.
Due to so much redesigning, it is hard to remember what it looked like before. The walls are now a plain, beige color to create “the illusion of more space.” The bar stools and booths are black. The counter is a navy blue. Weird paintings hang on the walls throughout the diner.
Even though Madison appreciates Aunt Maria keeping the old juke box, it all clashed. Who let her think that this was okay?
“Tonight, I would like you in the back with Cynthia.” Maria nods toward the kitchen as she rolls the last set of clean silverware.
“Cynthia?” Madison looks puzzled.
“Yes, Cynthia, don’t you remember her?” Aunt Maria stares at her. Madison’s can’t shake a memory of what Cynthia looks like.
“Yes, I –”
Maria cut her off. “Cynthia… Come out here.”
Madison quickly remembers Cynthia: the big, curly hair, the long acrylic nails that glow neon, and that god-awful perfume that reeks of cats and mothballs.
“Hiya, sweetie. How could you not remember me?” Her raspy voice pierces Madison’s ears.
“Oh, no, I do. You’re the psychotic lady at all the family Thanksgivings.” Maria kicks her underneath the table.
Cynthia let out a smoker’s laugh. “You betcha, always Aunt Marry’s plus one since the high school days.” She slaps Aunt Maria on the shoulder. “Where’s your brother?”
“Home.” Madison walks into the kitchen.
Aunt Maria’s voice mumbles in conversation with Cynthia. Madison can’t make out much except that Aunt Maria is ready to see Zach.
The second bell rings. He sits in the back and watches Mrs. Holiday write on the board. Fuck group assignments.
“Do you guys want me to assign you to groups or pick your own?” Mrs. Holiday has bags under her eyes and a stapled smile.
“Choose our own.” The class spoke collectively.
“Alright, remember to choose wisely.” She lumbers back to the desk.
Before Zach even got a chance to think about his group, Clayton and Will put their claim on him.
Clayton was the selected student ambassador who was asked to show Zach around. There was an immediate connection, but Zach pushed the idea out of his head. Clayton would never. He’s too much of a jock, a cool kid, a lady’s man. He was Zach’s first friend here.
As Mrs. Holiday walks to each group to check their progress, Clayton began making jokes underneath his breath that Zach and Will couldn’t help but chuckle at.
“Hey, Zach, five bucks that Nathan will stare at Mrs. Holiday’s ass again if she bends over.”
“You’re on, but I’m not paying you five dollars.”
“Okay, class, some of you are not pacing yourself very well. You only get this class period to work on it.” Clayton chuckles as he dropped a pencil near her feet. “Now, Mr. Matthews... Here.”
Overlapping her voice, Zach’s eyes immediately flash over to Nathan. The perverted senior’s eyes were glued and his mouth hung open.
“You’re such an ass.” Zach chuckles as he pushes Clayton’s shoulder.
As they finish the packet, the bell rings.
“Class, put the packets at the front, and have a great weekend.”
Zach heads toward the front doors to the car rider line – “Hey Zach.”
He turns around to see Clayton waving at him. “Hold up. Where are you headed to?” He sounds out of breath.
“Headed outside to wait on my grandma. Probably go home and game. Why?” Zach raise his eyebrow.
“Oh, boring, come check out football practice with me and Will. Text your grandma, and I’ll drop you off afterwards.”
Zach shrugs. “Sure.” He pulls out his phone and walks outside.
“Hello, Starla here.” When someone calls Nan, she never looks at who it is.
“Hi, Zachary, I’m out here whenever you’re ready.” She hates how plain Zach is.
“No, I’m not ready. Some friends are asking me to go to football practice. Please say no.” His nerves are giving him gas.
“Why would I say no? Go have fun. Make friends.” Nan let out a chuckle. “You get your shyness from your mother. If they want to take you home, have them drop you off at the diner. I’ll be there bugging your sister and Maria.”
“Okay, Nan, I will see you after practice.”
Nan’s chuckle turns into an outburst of joyful laughter. “You have fun now, babe. Love you.” He ends the call.
After being in a few classes with Clayton and some of the other football players, one would think that Zach would be okay. Wrong.
“Let’s go.” Zach looks back at Clayton and his smile is more of a snarl.
After lunch rush, Madison walks straight to the sink. She is sweating from all the running around and is feeling nauseous from the special food of the day: bratwurst covered with sauerkraut.
The jingle bells sing as someone yells in the diner. “Where is my favorite granddaughter?” Madison drops the scrubber and throws the cloves down into the sink.
“Nan!” Madison wraps her clammy, soapy hands around Nan’s face.
Nan chuckles as she pushes her away. “You’re so disgusting.” She lets out another chuckle.
“Where’s Zach?” Madison questions.
“He wanted to go to football practice, so I detoured for some good food and a visit with you." Nan’s voice reminds her of mom.
She makes an effort to compliment everything now that they are together every day: her long, thick grey hair that never grew past her shoulders, her too red lipstick that was too red, her shirts with personified flowers on them, her bright yellow crocs, even her old lady perfume.
“Ma, what brings you here?” Aunt Maria walks from the office with open arms toward Nan.
“Oh, ya know, just wanting to stop for lunch with Madison if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind. Madison is here to work.” Aunt Maria’s half smile fades fast. “You can see her tonight at home.”
Nan quickly shoos her away. “I want my special: chicken fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, topped with white gravy and Tabasco sauce. And Madison, what do you want?”
“Ma, Madison needs to –”
Nan tells Aunt Maria to shut up by putting her hand in the air. “Madison, what do you want to eat, sweetheart?”
Madison’s palms are still sweaty. “French Toast and chocolate milk.”
Maria doesn’t bother to take down their order, but, oh well, Madison focuses on the good that came with Nan’s presence.
Nan reaches over and places her hand on top of Madison’s.
“You remind me so much of your mother: your smile, your hair –” Madison runs her fingers through her hair and smiles. “– those little dimples too. I’d take you, ugly ducklings in. You are more my children –”
Nan is interrupted by her own cough turned violent. “My inhaler…”
Nan is having a hard time getting the words out, and Madison began to panic. Nan throws her purse onto the table. “My inhaler…”
Oh, inhaler, yes, Madison hastily throws everything on the table in order to find her inhaler. Success.
Three deep inhales, three deep exhales, and two puffs of the inhaler, Nan is alright.
“Oh my god, I’m not ready to die just yet.”
Madison lets out a nervous laugh. “Are you okay, grandma?”
Nan starts to giggle. “Yes, sweetheart, this happens all the time.” Madison suspects her to by lying. She hasn’t coughed that bad since they moved in. “Don’t worry.” Nan’s laughs and smiles are contagious today. It causes Madison to feel a small ounce of relief.
There is silence until Aunt Maria brings food.
As she set the food on the table, she made direct eye contact with Madison. “When you’re done, there’s a dead rat waiting for you in the back.” There is frustration in her whisper.
Madison buttered her French Toast.
He is a natural. They took one look at his string bean shoulders and named him kicker.
Zach heads to Clayton’s game room outside in the backyard. Will brings the beer, and they all tell stories. Prepping and bonding for the last time this season. Each senior gives a toast about another senior; Drunk Clayton chose to speak to Zach.
“I was assigned to show you around the school, but little did I know that you actually turned out to be cool.” He put his arm around Zach’s waist. “So here’s to you and wherever our future may lead us.” He slaps his butt and took another drink.
“To Garcia.” Everyone cheers and shotgunns their beer, except for Zach.
Clayton makes his weekly rounds of sentimental hugs; Zach hopes to get one.
As Clayton stumbles over the coffee table and the rug one too many times, he gives up and sits down on the ottoman. “Hey, Zach, come here.” Reaching his hand out toward Zach for help to stand, Clayton embraces Zach. It is longer and awkward, but Zach didn’t want to let go.
“You okay, Clayton?” He nods and motioned for Zach to come closer.
“I have to tell you something.” Zach felt heavy inside the embrace of Clayton.
He leans in. “There is something so different about you. I wish I knew what it was.”
Zach pulls away in time to make eye contact with Will.
“Oh man, thanks, you are too.” He lets out a nervous laugh, a pat on Clayton’s shoulder, and heads straight for the bathroom to call Madison.
“Hey.” Zach straddles the toilet with his face against the wall, so his arm can rest on the tank.
“Hi.” Zach stays quiet. “Is everything okay, Zach?”
“Madison, I’ve got to tell you something.” No time to pause and think. “I have feelings for Clayton.” She doesn’t respond. “Do you remember the first I introduced you to him, and he spilled Coke all over Nan’s carpet?” Zach chuckles, but still nothing from Madison. “Well that’s when it started. I didn’t know what to do, or what to say. The feelings keep getting worse, and tonight –”
Someone tries to open the door. “There’s someone in here.” Zach waits a second before he starts talking again.
“Are you there?”
Zach sits in the floor with his back against the vanity. “Yeah, I am.”
“Okay, good, and I already knew, Zach.” Madison’s response is soft.
“When he’s over, you light up.” Madison’s quiet again. “Hey, I’m gonna go, Zach. I’ll see you at the game tomorrow. Have fun. Love you.” Zach wants to be relieved, but Madison’s voice makes him choke.
He doesn’t respond in time when she hangs up.
Will’s standing close to the door when it’s opened. “Did you hear that?” He points to the open bathroom.
“What? Oh no.” Will looks dazed. The beer must be setting in for him now. It was enough to convince Zach.
“Ah, never mind.” Zach flashes a smile and walks around the corner. He stops to take one more deep breath. His heart races. He forces more air into his lungs than they can handle.
“Hey Schmidt…” Zach hears Will’s deep voice vibrate the wall that separated the hallway and the bathroom. “I think Garcia’s gay.”
He walks around the corner and stops at the bathroom’s open door before Will can say one more word.
“No, I’m not.” Will tries to laugh causing Zach to push him against the wall. His arm pressed against his throat. “You better watch who you’re talking about.” Zach’s finger is in Will’s face when he finally let’s go.
“Matthews, I need my coat.” Clayton is asleep on a pile of jackets.
Clayton moves. “Why did you just call me Matthews?”
“I’ll see you at the game.” Zach avoids eye contact.
He slams the door behind him.
It’s been six months since the football season ended. A new year is here freezing the last year in a memory. Living at Nan’s is a challenge. She’s been sick a lot recently and finding it harder to walk. Maria’s list of things for Madison and Zach to do is longer and irrational.
“Don’t talk to Nan. There’s no reason to. If you need to, I’ll pass on the message.” “Make sure you pull the ticks off the cats.” “I need my laundry done soon.”
Each list becomes a new game of trash ball for Zach.
Madison cleans the kitchen from breakfast when Maria wanders in. Madison watches as she opens her discolored, pink robe to readjust it. Her tank is covered in coffee and pizza stains. There is a rip in the collar. She ties the robe back up, grabs her ice cream cones, and sits at the kitchen counter staring at Madison. Her stare burns.
“Madison –,” Aunt Maria raises her voice at Madison causing her to drop the dishes back in the sink. “Go make sure Nan has her taken her meds, then change her bandages. After that, I need you to go to the diner soon. You need to make sure everything is under control. You’ve been home too long.”
“Okay, whatever, fine.” A lot of time has been spent being bitched out by this woman, Madison is about fed up with it. “Can you at least call Cynthia right now and tell her I’ll be late?”
“No.” Her aunt continues to munch on the empty ice cream cone. “You needed a job here; I gave you one. You need help running the damn store, you call Cynthia.”
Madison flinches on every “you” and “I” that explodes out of Aunt Maria’s mouth.
“You two kids don’t realize the shit that I do for you. I took you in. I feed you. I gave you a job.” Madison can feel heat building up in her cheeks.
She pushes Maria’s voice out of her mind and focuses back on putting away the clean dishes.
“Madison, Madison,” Madison zones back in when Aunt Maria starts snapping her fingers, “since we are talking about your job and your responsibilities,” Aunt Maria waves her finger in Madison’s face. “I am going to have to cut your pay even more –”
“Cut my pay even more? I am already pulling doubles every day to keep the doors open.”
“Well I have to do it. You don’t understand the stress I have to go through every single day. Mom is not getting any better. The diner is most likely going to close. You are taking advantage of me and Mom, constantly needing attention, and Zach with money. I can’t stand to look at you two sometimes. Your mom is all I see, and it makes me sick to my stomach –”
“I can’t do this anymore!” Madison drops the dishes, grabbed Nan’s medicine, and starts to walk out of the kitchen. “Oh, and the ‘money situation’ with Zach is quiet funny considering everything comes from my pay check – unless that’s yours too?”
Aunt Maria continues yelling at Madison as she closes her bedroom door.
Tears start to blur her vision. She needs space from her.
Off-season conditioning for football is the absolute worst. The football players do nothing but weight lifting, running, and run over new plays.
“Garcia.” Coach is assigning weight lifting partners. “Matthews.”
“Fuck.” Zach whispers to himself.
“Get to a place, and we’ll rotate clockwise.” Coach blows the whistle.
“Are you ready?” Clayton ignores the fact that it has been months since they last hung out. Zach quickly reminds him.
“Zach talk to me. This is pathetic.” Clayton lays down on the bench. Zach’s eyes scan over his body.
“There’s nothing to say. Just let it go, and let me go.” This whistle is blown again.
Not one more word spoken the rest of practice.
“Alright, this is short and sweet today, hit the locker room, seniors.” Coach points with his thumb for all of them to get out.
The whistle is blown and the pack of underclassman hustle by. He walks out from the field and to the locker room.
Avoiding eye contact with Will as he leaves the fieldhouse, Zach rushes his shower like he has every day since the season ended. This game is getting old.
As he dries off and changes back into his school attire, he hears Clayton on the other side of the lockers. He stops moving, so he could hear them better.
“Clayton, can I ask you something?” Will fails at being quiet. “What is going on with you and Garcia? You guys don’t hang out anymore.”
“I don’t fucking know what the hell Zach’s problem is.” Clayton’s voice gets louder.
“Okay, well I overheard Garcia on the phone talking about you and how he really liked you. I think he’s gay.”
“Really?” Clayton’s higher pitch echoed off the walls.
“Yeah…” Will’s voice cracked. “Do you like him?” There’s a nervous laugh. “I’ll be your friend no matter what.”
“No, I’m not. Why the hell would you think that?” Will says nothing. “If Garcia wants to start homo shit, he’s got another thing coming.”
A locker is slammed followed by footsteps that headed in the direction of Zach.
He makes eye contact with Clayton as he put his shirt back on.
Zach smiles back at him. A sense of confidence and adrenaline rush through his body, he is ready for this.
Aunt Maria fires two more people. One has quit. Madison is the only waitress, Cynthia the only cook. They work for nothing. There hasn’t been a customer in three hours. She is getting fidgety. The phone rings.
“Hello. Oh, hi, Maria.” She’s acting like a horse chewing that gum. “Madison is sitting here doing nothing. She has been for a while now.”
“What the fuck did you just say?” Madison mumbles it; Cynthia doesn’t respond to her.
“Okay…Okay…Uh-huh…Alright, we’ll close down, and yes, I’ll let her know.” Madison still hasn’t grown numb to the rasp yet. “Bye.” She places the phone back on the wall.
“Your aunt said if you sit around anymore. You won’t have a job.” Cynthia adds another piece of gum. “Oh, and Nan’s o-okay.” Madison doesn’t acknowledge her and gets ready to close down the store.
Counting the drawer, closing the blinds, mopping and sweeping, putting away clean dishes, and putting away extra food, Madison comes across food that has an expiration date for almost three months ago.
“Cynthia, what is this?” Madison pulls out the expired hamburger meat from the refrigerator and holds it out for her to see.
“I know. It looks bad –” Cynthia reaches for the meat, but Madison pulls it away.
“No, it is bad. Why is all of our food in the refrigerator and freezer way past their expiration date? Have you and Aunt Maria checked? Ordered more food?” Questions fall out of mouth; her cheeks inflamed from anger.
“Madison, calm down.” It makes her hands shake, her pulse pound. “I brought this up to Maria. Only use what we need, it would last long enough.”
“Why can’t we order fresh food?” Madison holds her breath then exhales.
“Maria said that she would take care of that, and I guess she never did. I imagine that with this little bit of money flow here recently it’s been hard to pay for it.”
Madison couldn’t believe this. “Alright, well I need to go get Zach. Lock up.” Madison slams the door behind her causing the jingle bells to scream and shake chaotically.
Zach does his best to avoid Will and Clayton. He’s been skipping out on workouts and math class. He takes the bus home, instead of Nan or Madison coming to get him. Anything that helps him stay out of sight is what he wanted.
As he walks out of the bathroom when his phone starts to vibrate.
It is a text from Clayton: “Hey, I don’t remember what happened or what I said at the party, but I’m really sorry, Zach. I want my friend back.”
Then another message: “Also, I need to talk to you about what Will told me. I know you overheard the conversation. Let’s meet up tonight at the same house, say 9PM?”
He feels uneasy about this but responds to the text in agreement.
It is time to be open with Clayton; maybe, he felt the same way. Zach has to rely on time to tell.
“Hey Zach, I’m here to get you.”
“Okay, I’m coming.”
No words are spoken. Zach flips through radio channels and taps his foot.
“How was your day?” Madison said nothing. “Madison, what’s wrong?” Her frustration over Aunt Maria, the diner, the expired food ended in a yell that intimidates Zach.
“Well, what’re you going to do?”
“Talk to her as soon as we get home.” Madison needs to focus on something else. “How was your day? How are things with Clayton?”
“It was good, and we’re fine.” His thumb rubs up and down the cracks on his phone screen.
“Are you actually talking to him?” Madison raises her eyebrow. “Zach?”
“Yeah. I’m going to meet up with him tonight. I don’t want to think about it.” Zach is annoyed by all the questions Madison is asking.
Madison and Zach sit in the drive way for half an hour talking about what Madison should say without triggering anger.
“Are you ready to do this?” Zach’s hand on the handle. She nods and took a deep breath.
When they enter the house, no lights are on, no sounds but the air conditioner.
Madison leans into Zach to whisper. “I’m going to go check on Nan. Go find Aunt Maria.”
Zach walks into the living room to find Aunt Maria sleeping in the recliner with NCIS on the television. He turns around and goes to Nan’s room.
Zach walks in as Madison is telling everything to Nan. “I’m not sure what to do, Nan.”
Nan has never looked so disgusted. “And to think, we ate that food.”
“I want to talk to her now.” Madison looks to Zach. “Where is Aunt Maria?”
“In the living room, sleeping in the recliner.”
“Nan I would never take advantage of you. Maria’s been such a jerk since you hurt yourself, and the diner is falling apart. She talks to us like she is doing a favor for us, and she’s constantly reminding me that Zach and I are no obligation to her.” Madison starts crying.
“I can take care of this.” Nan shuffles underneath her sheets trying to unwrap herself. “Get my house slippers.”
“Do you want us to go with you to talk to her?” Zach drops them at her feet.
“No, son, don’t worry about it, I’ll wake up Maria, and you guys go do homework or something.” Nan forces them out of her room.
After a few minutes, Zach leaves Madison in her room to eavesdrop on the conversation. He hears a slap, and Nan yell. He couldn’t understand what she was saying but understands the word “diner” and “failing.” This doesn’t sound good.
“I am so disappointed in you. How could use feed our customers expired food? How could you be so rude to your niece and nephew? How could you disrespect your father like that? What’s your plan, Maria?” Silence fills the house. “Are you not going to answer me?’
Zach hasn’t heard Maria’s voice once.
“Fine. If you want to act like a child, I will treat you like one. You’ve lost everything to the diner. Tomorrow, it’s mine –”
“It’s not going to happen. The diner is being foreclosed.”
There is nothing but silence.
There is no response, but footsteps…head down the hallway.
Zach rolls into the bathroom, waits a second, and then exits back to Madison’s room.
Madison asks about how the conversation went.
“The diner is being foreclosed.” Zach drops his head.
“I knew this was bound to happen sooner or later.” Madison gets up from the bed. “Shouldn’t you go get ready now?”
His watch reads 8:30PM.
Zach pulls up to the house a little after nine. This is a mistake. Clayton could never like someone like Zach. He even said that he’s not gay. Zach began to wonder why he was here, but Clayton is waiting. He took a deep breath and got out of the car.
Zach tries to open the door; it’s locked. Something about this doesn’t feel right.
“Are you looking for Clayton?” He turns around to be greeted by a manic smile, Will. “What, you embarrassed? You thought your love bug was going to come ‘talk to you’ about ‘his feelings’?” Laughter wraps around Zach. Will walks closer to him.
“Awe, gay boy doesn’t have anything to say?” He doesn’t move. Will is within arm’s reach. The smile covers more of Will’s face. He cackles. “That’s how you want to play it – quiet and still?”
Zach closes his eyes as one fist cut through the air hitting his rib. “I think I can beat it out of him.” A kick to the back of his calf; Zach is on the ground.
Zach refuses to fight back. Each heartbeat pulsating in his skull.
Someone picked him up by the collar of his shirt forcing him to his feet.
“Let this be your only warning leave. We don’t want your disease…” A warm, wet feeling traces the outside of his cheek and down his neck. “…If I ever see you around Clayton again, it’ll be worse next –”
“What the fuck is going on?”
Zach tries to open his eyes but can’t see past the engorged flesh.
“We were teaching fag boy a lesson.” Will’s cackle turns into an anxious chitter. “Clayton, why don’t you hit him?”
Zach can’t hear through the pulse. His knees aren’t supporting his weight. A hand goes around his waist before he collapses. Finger tips applying pressure. It hurts. Zach allows the pull to direct him.
“Oh, so you’re a faggot too?” Laughter crowds Zach’s mind.
“No, Will, I am not gay. In fact, neither is Zach. How crazy and pathetic is for you to assume shit? Really fucking –”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa…” Will’s voice causes Clayton to halt causing more pain for Zach. His head pulsating from ache. “That’s not what you said.”
Heavy breathing, his body feels heavier.
“What are you talking about, Will? What conversation? You and I don’t hang out outside of class.”
Clayton puts pressure back on Zach’s waist and leads him to the car.
Madison traces each crack on the kitchen table when there’s a hard beat on the door. Maria turns the knob as Clayton pushes through.
Clayton’s jacket presses against Zach’s head. Dried blood outlines his cheekbones. His bottom lip separated by a small red river that has stained his shirt.
Madison puts her arm around Zach for more support. Nan is still in the kitchen.
“What the fuck happened, Clayton?” Madison leads them to Nan’s bathroom.
“Madison, what’s going on? Who is this boy?” Nan cleans off her glasses.
“I’m Clayton, Zach’s friend from school.” He sticks out his hand, letting go of Zach.
Madison panicked. “Clayton, he needs to sit on the toilet.”
“What happened to Zach?” Nan pushed her way through, but Madison pulls her back. “Get the gauze.” She looks back at Nan. “Biking accident, Nan, nothing to worry about. No hospital trip or anything, we’re just going to put some gauze on him. It’s not too bad.”
Zach lets out a groan. “Hurry up.” Every word is a mumble. “It hurts.”
Madison finishes taping the gauze, gave him four ibuprofens, and helped him into bed.
“Are you sure he’s okay to sleep?” Clayton panics.
“Yes.” Madison closes the door. “Let’s get a drink, then explain to me what happened.” Clayton nods.
As Madison pours some soda for the two of them, Clayton explains what has happened; how he knows about Zach; the feelings were mutual, but nothing can never come of it.
“Why?” Madison is offended.
“Because I’m not ready, and my parents would disown me.” Clayton sips from his cup.
“Yes, I do.” Madison doesn’t ask why. “I am always intrigued and fascinated in everything about him. I want to get to know him better, but I refuse to let anything come of it.”
“I get it, Clayton, but don’t lead him along.” Madison doesn’t give Clayton enough time before she leaves to the kitchen to check on Zach.
Madison confronts Maria about the foreclosure on the diner. Offending her in the process, Maria starts to blame everything on Madison and Zach again, but this time, Madison refuses to let her get her way.
A small argument starts to heat up but is immediately interrupted by shattering glass.
“Nan…” “Mom…” Both yells overlapping one another, running into Nan’s bedroom.
Her night stand was turned on its side. There is a broken lamp next to it. Pills are scattered out of its bottle. Her right arm is covered in shards of glass from the broken lamp. Her left arm holding her chest.
“Did she have a heart attack?”
“I don’t fucking know. Go get help.” Maria reaches down to check her pulse and immediately loses all brown complexion.
Time speeds by the moment Madison hung up the phone. Sirens resonate outside of the house. Men in navy carry Nan out of her room. Madison stands there until a pull on her arm leads her into the kitchen. Aunt Maria follows the men in navy outside leaving Madison alone.
After Mrs. Holiday lets them out of class, Zach packs up and follows Clayton out to his car.
“Hey, Clayton,” Zach puts his hands in his coat pockets. “I want to talk to you about something.”
Clayton slows down. “Yeah, man but get in the car.” He turned the keys in the ignition.
“Madison told me everything you said.” Zach stares out the windshield. “Clayton,” he wants to tell him for himself, “I don’t like you like that. I’m sorry. I never have honestly.”
Clayton’s hands fell into his lap. “Alright.” Zach looks at him. Clayton’s smile is gone.
His chest tightens. “Okay, I have to go. Madison’s waiting on me.” Zach opens the door and look back at him one more time. “I’ll text you later, okay?” Zach smiles.
As he walks away, Zach focuses on the tears that covered Clayton’s eyes to make it look like glass. The squealing tires behind him cause him to flinch. He knows lying was wrong, but it was the best decision for both of them.
At the will-reading, Madison and Zach sit as far away as they could from their aunt.
“Starla Jean Hickman has stated in her will that she has put away money that no one knew about in order to make sure inheritors were taken care of after her passing.” The lawyer begins the read. “Maria, Mrs. Hickman is leaving you with $10,000. Madison and Zach, Mrs. Hickman has left you both with $20,000 each to attend college.”
“Okay, well what about the house?” Aunt Maria’s frustration causes a panicked outburst.
“Yes, well, Mrs. Hickman has left the house and everything in it to …” Silence fills the room. “Madison and Zach.”
“What? How is that?” Aunt Maria rips the will out of the lawyer’s hands, and there it is. Nan’s signature in black ink.
Aunt Maria storms out of his office.
“Mrs. Garcia, I have a letter from your grandmother for you, specifically.”
Madison reads it and tears streamed down her face. The letter explains why she felt the need to leave her and Zach the house: her love for them, how proud she is of them, the sacrifices Madison makes for Zach. She feels that Madison is going to benefit more from the house than Maria could.
“Let’s go home, Zach.”
“Why don’t we stop and go get some food and go bowling?” Zach changes the subject. “We haven’t had any brother/sister time in a while.”
Madison agrees. It should be fun.
When they get back home, Maria and all of her belonging are gone. There is no explanation, and Madison doesn’t care for once. She is happy to be Maria-free.
Madison stares into the fire place as Zach ignites the flame. Both stare at the flame surrounded by everything they own.
This is their home.