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I went back only because I forgot my toothbrush.
There was no other reason and I hated that the most, that I should be defeated by a simple toothbrush. Thing was, I couldn’t just get another one. No, that wouldn’t be right.
The door was how I’d left it, slightly ajar, but not enough that would make anyone worry. As easy-going as Ben and Kristy were, I might be able to disappear for a few days and they not notice. But how should I know?
I hurried through the front hall and up the stairs to my room. It was as expected, cluttered with clothes and toys strewn about.
It didn’t, not now anyway. The bathroom was across the room, the cabinet above the sink. I stood on my tip-toes to reach the knob. Being short was certainly not something I enjoyed but merely dealt with. And even that was hard every now and then.
It sat on the bottom shelf—the only one I could reach without help. The brush was propped against the side of the cabinet as though abandoned. Technically, it had been. I was lucky I hadn’t burned it the day that I’d been placed in this dump.
If I’d been able to find matches, I would have.
With toothbrush in hand, I bounded down the steps and leaped past the last three like I’d seen Garrett do a hundred times before. Then through the horrid pink-flower-wallpaper kitchen I went, down the hall and out the door.
It should have been harder than that, I knew, but figured it probably wasn’t a big deal. I’d already done it once before, after all.
The bag on my back wasn’t very heavy, containing three comic books, Spiderman, of course. Then there was a package of two Pop-Tarts that I had found in the cupboard, and, as of now, my toothbrush.
It wasn’t something that I could use… more like something I kept just to remember. A memento, some might say, though it doesn’t need a fancy name of any sort. I just like ‘toothbrush.’ It worked just fine.
My feet took me in their direction. I had no idea what I was to do when I got to where I was going. I actually had no intention of going anywhere.
Far from it.
I had no where to go and didn’t know where I would wind up. I seemed strange that I wasn’t scared, though I knew I should be.
Truth was; it made my skin crawl with excitement.
Out on my own… no one to tell me no…
The trees rustled quietly in their slumber, it being late afternoon. The leaves shone brilliant colors—all different. Sunrays stretched across the ground and left a long shadow at my feet as I stared at the cracks in the sidewalk.
Something stirred to my right. I glanced from the corner of my eyes, almost hoping that it might be something that could bring danger, adventure, or even something to help me find somewhere to go. But that would have been too good to be true.
And it was. A cat darted from underneath the brush and leapt into the air, its paws outstretched to capture a butterfly that flittered across my path.
“Scat!” I waved my arms at the cat to make it run and tried to hit the butterfly from its flight, but it wasn’t to be daunted.
I shrugged and continued.
My legs began to ache. I looked back over my shoulder to see how far away from the house I was and saw that I didn’t recognize the street.
Nothing to be afraid of. Not, really anyway. Except boogey-men… and Big-foot. And what had Garrett told me about the other night? Yeti?
No… they live in mountains…
I continued despite my ridiculous thoughts. Something seemed to be drawing me onward, towards an invisible force. Something strong.
Suddenly everything seemed familiar again. A house to my right with a small white picket fence… I had seen it before.
Then I remembered. This was where Garrett went to school. His school was a lot bigger than the one I went to. He had always said it was because all the kids were a lot bigger and needed more space. I wasn’t quite sure if I believed him or not yet.
I suddenly decided where I was going. Garrett would have to be at school now. Basketball practice was always after five in the afternoon.
So I continued down the walk, hoping that my feet would know the way. They did, surprisingly.
The school soon loomed before me. One of the doors was propped open with a kick stand. I walked in slowly, not really sure of myself anymore.
I was in a high school. That meant tall kids.
To my right there were huge double doors that all but dominated the hallway. I hurried over to one of them and grabbed the handle. Since I couldn’t peek through the glass at the top, I would have to open it.
This should be great…
I heaved the door open and peeked inside. Basketball.
But there were girls playing it instead of guys. One had already seen me. Her face practically melted right there. “Ah, look at him, you guys!” She stares at me and motioned for her friends to look. “Isn’t he cute?”
For some reason I felt as though I was on the front lines of a freak show at the carnival. I got out of there and fast.
To avoid being by any other potential fan-girls, I raced down the opposite hall and turned into the next. There was no sound behind me, so I stopped to catch my breath.
This hall wasn’t quite as long as the one before, so I ventured towards the double doors at the end. I could see people through the fuzzy glass that covered the half-windows near the center of both.
Could that be where Garrett was?
I almost laughed at myself. I was actually asking myself questions when I already knew the answer. It figured that I wouldn’t be able to find Garrett…especially on the day I needed him most.
A woman came out of one of the doors ahead of me. She gave me no more than a glance and walked right past. Maybe it wasn’t so unusual for a ten-year-old to walk through the high school after all.
I hurried down the hall and plastered my face against the iced-over windows. (At least it looked like ice on the windows, though indoors.)
The people inside were moving quickly, flashes of color across the blur. For some time I stared at the colors as they passed by, I’m not sure how long it was that I was caught in their spell. Then something touched my shoulder.
“What are you doing here?”
The voice was rough—too rough to be Garrett’s voice. I turned slowly to look up into the face of a terrifying man. He towered over me, his nose pointed into the air as though he owned the world. Before he said anything besides those five words, I knew I hated him.
“I asked you a question, young man.”
I stood dumb, not hearing him, not comprehending what the sounds that were coming from his lips meant. It made no sense until he said it again.
“Young man. I asked you a question.”
Before I had a chance to answer the door from behind swung open. I saw it before it actually hit me. But by then, it was too late to move.
The first thing I heard was, “how did he get here?”
“I don’t know. I thought he was at home”
The rough voice—the one I hated—was speaking to someone. “I want an explanation, Garret, and I mean now.”
“I told you Mr. Jensen! How should I know what happened when I was here since four? I have no idea why he’s here. My parents-“
There was another sound, somewhat of a grunt. “Make sure they know what he was doing while he was here.”
Footsteps faded quickly as the man muttered, “Sneaking around during after-hours…”
It was then that I dared to open my eyes. Garrett sat at the end of the cot I was laying on, his head in his hands. He hadn’t seen me yet.
“Are you in trouble,” I asked.
He looked up. His eyes immediately showed relief. “Oh, man. I thought you were out for good. Sorry for hitting you with that door…”
I propped myself up on my elbows and grinned. “That was you? Strong arm.”
He laughed and swung his feet to the floor from his cross-legged position. “So what are you doing here?”
That stopped me cold. I was the reason that man was mad at him. The only thing I could think to do was apologize. But I couldn’t get the words past my tongue.
Garrett watched me for a moment, then reached under the cot and pulled something from beneath. “Here. Might as well have it back.” He held my bag out to me and I took it.
I pushed up to sit, my legs hanging of the side of the bed. The room was white. All white with posters with pictures of human’s cross-sections. Bones too. Pictures of bones that stretched into skeletons. I had seen these before at my school. A nurse’s office.
I avoided Garrett’s eyes and stood. He sighed and got to his feet. “Alright, then. How ‘bout I take you home?”
I looked up at him, resisting the urge to say, “It isn’t my home.” Instead, I asked, “What about practice?”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. It’s almost over anyway.”
“Oh,” I said.
We were about half way back to the house when he finally broke the silence.
“The stuff in your bag…you were going to run away, weren’t you?”
I’m sure the scowl on my lips gave him his answer. He didn’t say anything more until we had gone another block.
“Why do you have a toothbrush in there and no toothpaste?”
Something about the way he said it made me angry, as though he was trying to demean me in some way. There was a hint of mocking tone to his voice.
“Something wrong with that?”
I think he was surprised by my sudden retort because he only mumbled something in return.
We got to the house shortly after. Nothing had changed, not even the way I had left the door. Ben and Kristy didn’t even know I had been gone for an hour and a half.
Garrett pushes the door open and peeked in before entering. “They must have worked late tonight…”
“Evidently,” I said.
He didn’t seem to notice, unless he was just ignoring me. Either way, it didn’t matter. I ran up the stairs and into my room.
The door slammed as though on its own accord. The sound was comforting, to say the least.
Ben and Kristy still weren’t home. It was past ten-thirty p.m. and I couldn’t stand it any longer.
Where are they?
Garrett had long since gone to bed. And here I was, sitting on the radiator in my room, staring out the window at the tree across the street.
It stood, undisturbed, in the middle of the yard of our neighbors. It was the best climbing tree on the block. No doubt about it.
The thought came like a hammer to my head.
I’ll sneak out and wait in the tree for Ben and Kristy.
My bag from a few hours earlier still sat on my bed. I jumped up and grabbed it. The window might be hard to open, but I could manage.
I hopped on top of the radiator and reached for the lock on the window. Unfortunately, I hadn’t grown much since the last time I’d tried getting out the window.
The crate I’d used before was in the closet. I scurried to get it and clonked it down on top of the radiator. Satisfied, I stepped up onto it. The lock was easy enough. One turn and I slid the window open.
A cool blast of air hit me full in the face. The storm screen wasn’t in, so I took my bag in one hand and stepped through onto the roof.
I got down on my hands and knees to crawl to the edge where the trellis was propped against the porch roof. Then there was a cough from behind.
“Where are you going?”
My pulse spiked to a million beats a minute.
I whirled on my knees. Garrett sat against the house, his legs pulled up to his chest and head tilted back as he stared at the sky.
He repeated himself. “Where are you going?”
“I wasn’t going anywhere.”
The laugh that erupted from his throat wasn’t one of mocking, like I would have usually thought. It was… happy.
“And that’s why you’re headed straight for the trellis, right?”
My face burned with embarrassment at being found out.
“Okay, so I was. Sue me, will you?” I sighed and crawled back up towards him. He half snorted, half grunted. “Since when did you become the sarcastic teenager?”
“I’m only ten,” I said.
Garrett glanced at me in the faint light. “Yeah, I know.”
I sat down beside him and crossed my legs. “Why do you think they aren’t home yet?”
He looked at me. “I don’t know.” Something flashed across his face that I couldn’t read.
“I was going to that tree over there,” I said without thinking. It surprised me that I had just let the words roll off my tongue like that.
“Figured as much,” Garrett said.
This surprised me even more than I had myself. “ Really? How so?”
A smile crossed his face. “I used to do it all the time when I was a couple years younger.”
I laughed. “You snuck out and sat in that tree during the night?”
That seemed to end the conversation. Not that I minded, but the silence was unnerving. “You asked me before why I had a toothbrush without toothpaste?”
He didn’t reply. Just as I was about to repeat myself he said, “Yeah. Why?”
I hesitated. Did I really want to tell him? Yes. Yes, I did.
“It was my mom’s.”
He was so quiet I thought he might have fallen asleep. Whether or not that was a good thing, I wasn’t sure. Finally he said, “You’ve never talked about your family.”
I hadn’t? “I am now,” I said.
I could hear the smile in his reply. “Do you like it here?”
The breeze picked up and brushed my cheek gently. Thing was, I didn’t want to answer him. Of course I didn’t like it. No more than he would like having to stay after school for a month every day to serve an hour detention. But I wasn’t going to tell him that.
“She fell down the stairs.”
This caught him off guard. “Who fell? Your mom?”
I nodded and dug through my bag to find the toothbrush. My fingers found it and I brought it out for him to see.
There was nothing special about it, certainly not. It was just an ordinary brush for cleaning teeth. The handle was blue, the head light purple. There was a rough, rubbery white grip that circled the body. The bristles were splayed every which way imaginable and there were specks of old toothpaste in it.
“Dad was going to throw all of her stuff away. He was so mad… he threw everything of hers from the medicine cabinet into a box and told me to dump it into the trash can behind the house.”
Garrett was listening now, his head tilted to one side as if to hear me better. “But you didn’t, did you?”
“No. I did take them outside to throw away, though. Then I searched through the box. There wasn’t much there. Medicine bottles and the like. A hair brush and curling iron… a hair dryer too.”
“And you took the toothbrush.”
I nodded. “Yeah. It was the only thing I could sneak back in without Dad noticing.”
“What happened then?”
It was simple enough, but the lump in my throat made it hard to speak. “He…he left.”
“Just up and left? Just like that?” He was staring at the sky again.
“To sum it up, yeah. He had a… beer problem too.”
“He was an alcoholic?”
I hadn’t known that there was a word for it. “Yeah. He left one night when he was drunk. Got hit by a car on the main road.”
This stopped him cold. He didn’t even move.
I shifted uncomfortably and tried to change the subject. “Do you think they’ll get here soon?” But Garrett wasn’t to be fooled.
“They both… died, then?”
There it was. That dreaded word. Died. I couldn’t say anything, my mind seemed to be frozen.
“I didn’t know,” he said just above a whisper.
My bottom lip trembled. “I really don’t like it here,” I blurted. “I want them back so bad.”
He nodded and stared out at the house across the street. I took his silence as an opportunity.
“I want them both back, right here, right now. I don’t want to live here. I don’t want to be sitting here with you. I want to be in that tree over there. I can’t cry anymore because my eyes are dried out. My chest hurts because I’m sure something tore out my heart—“
I didn’t realize I had been rambling until Garrett cut me off. “You really think about all that stuff?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t think that ten-year-olds could be so… in depth.”
This came as a surprise to me. I’d always been like this. Or so it seemed.
“It’s all true. I don’t like it here… and I want them back. Ben and Kristy just aren’t—“
“They aren’t your parents, huh?”
“Not my parents.”
He sighed and turned to look at me. “You know that they love you, right?”
I nodded. “Sometimes more than others.”
“Then why did you run away today? To the school, I mean.”
For the first time, I wasn’t sure what to say. I had no reason for running away. Maybe for the attention.
“I don’t know,” I said.
His teeth shone in the dark as he smiled. “I bet you do. You’re just not telling yourself.”
This was a new way of looking at it. I hadn’t thought of being able to hide thoughts from myself. “Maybe so.”
Then it hit me. Not a great revelation or anything. Just a simple thought.
I had wanted them to come and find me. Let me know that they were worried and that they never wanted me to do such a thing again. That they wouldn’t let me out of their sight another minute.
I smiled to myself and turned to Garrett. “I miss Ben and Kristy already. I want them to come back.”
He nodded. “Me too, buddy… me too.”
Then he did something that surprised me more than anything. He leaned over and hugged me.
It wasn’t one of those warm hugs that made butterflies dance in my stomach like the ones my Mom used to give. Or like the strong bear hugs Dad would give me that made me wonder if he could crush my ribs.
It was a small hug. Stiff. It didn’t last long. But I knew right then and there that that was the kind of hug a brother would give.
He sat back and ruffled my hair. “You’re some kid, Luke. Best foster brother I’ve had yet.”
I grinned. Nothing that wouldn’t ruin the moment came to my mind. And I didn’t want to ruin anything. This was what I had wanted. For Garrett to be my brother. For someone to take charge and tell me they needed me in some way.
Now I was needed. I was his brother.
The next thing I remember was someone pulling covers over me. I was in my bed. Garrett stood above me, arms crossed as he stared down at the floor.
He startled, then nodded. “Yeah?”
“Are they home yet?”
There was a pause.
“Yeah. I snuck back in after they went to bed.”
My eyes drooped sleepily. “How late is it?”
“Uh… two in the morning. Now go to sleep.”
Two in the morning? Latest I’ve ever been up…
He tapped my forehead with two fingers. “Now.”
I was out like a light.