Untitled Novel

Tyler Paskal

Chapter 1

I don't have a key to my parent's house and I wish I was dead. I laugh, squeeze my eyes shut, and realize how weak I am because I haven't eaten in days and I'm exhausted from the miles I've walked.

The old suburb is different. I see it clearer now but duller, uglier, although the night is coming on, and I'm in a sour mood, no time to be objective. The neighborhood is less intimidating, older looking, settled into the landscape, front yards all old trees, leggy rose bushes, and twisted chain link fences. Turning a corner, walking slowly, and nearly limping, I catch the first sight of the house in years.

My heels are blistered, my thighs are chafed. I can't even remember the past few hours.

But here I am. Right where I swore I'd never be again.

I kick at a pebble, a piece of gravel, and it skitters across the cracked asphalt into the gutter in front of what was once my home.

I'd be lying if I said that I walked here on autopilot and didn't even realize I was coming here until I was here. Don't get me wrong. I have been very dull and unfocused lately, but I knew what I was getting into. Understood what I was returning to. But now I know I can handle it because I've dealt with worse.

The house looks sunken behind the huge tree, bruised by the falling dark. The dusk nudges everything to a soft blue-gray, reminding me of my dreams, and despite my best efforts, I have to admit it still feels like home.

My shoulders ache under the sweaty straps of my backpack, and I resist the urge to shed it, let it fall on the pavement, and then join it. I slowly close the distance between the house and me.

The tire swing, hung once from an enormous branch, is now gone, but the chains it had been latched to are still deeply embedded in the bark. The grass is overgrown. Very overgrown.

This is surprising. Growing up, I'd wake up every Saturday morning to "Hey Junior" - I think he knew how much I hated being called 'junior' - "get your ass out of bed and go mow the lawn."

The yard looks nigh on abandoned now, the preferred child of my father more forgotten by him than I am.

I feel smug that he had failed to properly maintain his precious lawn the way he always had.

I could mow it while I'm here. If it's my own choice, it will hold some meaning. I relish the idea of dad acknowledging that I had to do his job for him.

But in my mind, I see Clem mowing it. He'd always wanted a yard and would have kept it nice. For a flash, I see him in old jeans and a t-shirt, sweaty, pushing a mower on a beautiful Saturday morning. I never wanted that life, so I'm surprised how saccharine it feels.

Shaking the thought from my head, I unlatch the waist-high chain link gate and step into the yard, dragging my feet.

I close the gate and look back towards the road to scan for cars, dog walkers, or people on their porches. I know how little I want to be seen, and I can't shake the fear that I've been followed.

The concrete walkway from the sidewalk to the front door is buckled from the roots of the old plane tree and stained from decades of sprinkler water. I deliberately place my feet on the most broken pieces of cement, the deepest cracks, standing on them for a moment, my stance unstable and my feet flexing in my shoes.

I step on the porch, notice the moths orbiting the buzzing light, and raise my hand to knock.

I rap a casual rhythm on the wood, and before my knuckle can tap the last time, the door opens, and my hand swings in the air.

"Who-" she starts, chokes on her words, and sputters, "Gideon, what the hell?"

My mother's tone would have once frozen me, but now it just sounds childish. I almost don't recognize her, and the feeling is likely mutual. "Hi, mom," I say. "I like your hair."

Her hand goes up to touch it. It's short, permed. "Thanks." She says it like I meant to insult her, and I had.

She doesn't invite me in. I drop my backpack to the ground and let it roll back off the front step.

She sighs. "You look like shit. Is that soot on your face? And what happened to your hair?"

"I walked part of the way here," I say, avoiding divulging the reason for my shaved head. "Along the highway."

"Jesus. What, you don't have a car?"

"I lost it."

A cricket begins to sing in one of the flowerbeds. I turn and retrieve my backpack, hold it in front of me and push past my mother into the house. She makes a show of swiping her hands over the side of her body where I'd brushed against her.

"Yeah, no. Great." She folds her arms. "You're visiting?"

"I guess so," I say. "It's been awhile."

"Yeah, you know why that is," she says, slamming and locking the door.

The inside of the house is lit orangely compared to the dusk outside. It's warm and smells like a mix of cumin and tuna. Different than I remember. It's also a mess. Mail is piled near the door, as well as opened packages and envelopes, and the entire staircase is blocked with a huge pile of boxes, all skewed and uneven with their contents spilling out.

"Christ, mom," I say. "What a fucking disaster it is in here."

"Don't speak to me that way," she says and sniffs. "Anyway, you're one to talk about disasters. You smell like sweat and campfire, really. What happened?"

"I had a cigarette," I say, avoiding her eyes, trying to prepare myself for the next question I'm going to ask.

"Mom, where's dad?"

She stares at me and shakes her head.


Still shaking her head, laughing a little, she moves into the kitchen. I follow.

She flips on a light, retrieves a nearly empty glass of red wine from the counter, and finishes it.

"He's dead."

It's a moment before I say anything. My mother's eyes don't break their stare from my face, daring me to say something.

"Oh," I whisper.

She turns and pours more wine into her glass." He's dead. He died. Your father died in February. You'd know that if you bothered to come around or check in."

We stand in front of each other, just looking for a moment. I don't know what to do with my arms, and I have no idea what to say.

"I - I'm sorry."

"Of course you are."

"How did it happen?"

She opens her mouth, her voice cracks on the first syllable she tries to say, and she closes it again. She raises her fingers to her lips and looks away. "Later. I'll tell you."

What a fucking week this is shaping up to be.

"Don't shower in my bathroom," she says, turning back and clearing her throat.

"I won't."

It's bitterly uncomfortable, but we both seem too unsure to be downright hostile. The TV is playing in the living room - the evening news and something about Bush.

"Are you in trouble?" she asks finally.

"No," I say. That's a lie, and the truth is, I'm not sure. The truth is, I might be.

"Would you like some wine?" my mother asks me. A peace offering, already?

"I didn't think you drank, mom," I said, rejecting it.

"Everyone drinks," she says. "Don't start."

"I'm alright."

It's quiet for a moment, except for the tick tick tick of her grandfather clock. I've always hated that noise. Some goddamn antique she'd hauled around for years. She refills her glass much higher than a standard pour, pulls out a kitchen chair, its feet scraping against the floor, and sits.

"I guess it's better late than never," she says, sounding sarcastic.

This should piss me off how she's acting. But I'm still in some sort of emotional shock, and at this moment, I'm just glad she hasn't pressed me about why I'm there because I don't know what I'd tell her.

I hear "forest fire" from the television and immediately listen closely.

Largest in state history, exacerbated by a historic drought and windy weather. Expect smoky conditions tomorrow. Volunteer firefighters are working around the clock -

"After you shower, I've got a casserole in the fridge," she says after a gulp of wine. "I know you always loved my casseroles."

I most certainly did not. "That's okay," I say, even though I am very hungry. I turn my attention back to the TV, but the anchor has changed the subject.

"How are you doing with all this?" I ask.

"Good," she said briskly, and we both knew it had been a stupid thing to ask.

"Me too," I say mindlessly, and she shoots me a sharp look before turning on her heel and marching away towards her and my father's bedroom. Just hers, actually.

I have to climb over the pile of boxes, but I go upstairs to my room.

I want to never forgive my mother for anything and everything, but I just don't have it in me to care, and I never had the same capacity for hatred as she does. Anyway, she had never had any means to contact me after I left, and I made sure of that.

I measure the possibility of change but resent myself for it.

I drop my backpack and empty my pockets onto the top of a sealed cardboard box. A wad of cash, wet through with sweat, probably a few hundred dollars, but I haven't counted. The top bill still glitters with shattered porcelain from the piggy bank it had been stored in. My car keys - mental note to get rid of those later. I shuck my filthy clothes off my body, throwing them into a heap in the corner. I walk naked into my old bathroom, which is still decorated with a seaside slash lighthouse motif, and close the door behind me.

I do look fucking terrible. Besides my bloodshot, sunken eyes, with bags so prominent they practically look like bruises, and besides the uneven, hasty butchering of my hair, my skin's streaked with smoke and ash running with now-dried sweat. I'm tomato red, sunburnt, and dehydrated. I cup my hands under the faucet and drink from the bathroom tap until my stomach is full of water.

I locate a packaged toothbrush and a travel-size tube of toothpaste in a drawer and bring them into the shower with me, so I can brush my teeth like when I was a kid. Like I did before living with Clem. My Clem. He hated when I accidentally left toothpaste residue in the shower.

I don't let the water get hot - keep it at lukewarm - and stand in the stream for maybe forty-five minutes. There's a bar of soap on a ledge with which I lather my entire body and a bottle of cheap shampoo that I scrub my scalp, face, and neck with. The water runs gray into the drain.

I brush my teeth, catch water in my mouth to rise with, and then sit down on the bathtub floor and let the water run over my body.

I want to cry and try to make myself, but I just don't have the emotions.

I start to fall asleep, so I make myself turn off the water and climb out of the bathtub. I towel off with a lavender towel that might have been decorative and go back into my room.

There's been some effort at erasing signs of my presence: my room is being used for storage space, for one thing, and is piled high with boxes. My closet's empty, and I stare at my dirty clothes for a moment before I decide it is better to sleep naked.

My bed's been cleared off, but the sheets and comforter are still there, and I find enough space to lie down. I have been prepared for the bareness of an empty room, cold or dusty, but this state of limbo, part mine and part no one's, the deadness, makes me feel the weight of the past. With my eyes closed, it feels natural to be here, even though my adult life has been dedicated to the goal of being somewhere else.

Despite how well I'd been functioning up to falling asleep, it would be nearly a month before I could get out of bed.