Sanctuary This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

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     Fine,” they both said. And then he walked away. His hands hung at his side, fisted to the point of reddening the flesh, but his breath was slow and controlled. Kara’s face was pale and her eyes bloodshot. She sniffed and wiped her nose on her sweatshirt. Her lips were swollen and quivering as she opened her mouth to yell to him, but she could utter little more than a whisper.

“Fine,” she said. She stood in the kitchen and whimpered softly. “Fine.” The word escaped without being heard. Nothing she said was ever heard. Her throat was sore. Her brown hair fell in limp strings below her shoulders, and she felt like sleeping, like crying until her exhausted body revolted against her mind and she was forced into oblivion. “Fine,” she said, and the tears started down her cheeks again.

Kara grabbed her purse. She didn’t bother putting on her jacket or taking her phone. She didn’t even say goodbye to the kids. This is how it always was. Nathan returned to his place in the basement, locked in by teetering piles of radio and computer equipment that covered all but one wall. That wall was consumed by the stained garage-sale couch with a floral pattern that Nathan slept on every night. Kara hadn’t been down there in a year. It was “Dad’s basement.”

“Where’s your jacket?” Kara would ask her 10-year-old son, and Timothy would reply, “Down in Daddy’s basement.”

Nothing was shared around here. Kara owned the kids. She owned the grocery shopping, the laundry, the spelling sessions and the dinner responsibility, usually consisting of a meager frozen casserole. And Nathan owned the basement. That’s just how it was.

Jason’s music whispered softly from his upstairs bedroom as Kara walked out the door. She closed her eyes and muttered a silent apology to her boys. She would be back in a couple hours, when she could bear to exist in this life again. This is how it always was. Go away until it didn’t hurt so bad. Go away until it seemed fake. Go away until she believed maybe there was a solution. And then she would come back.

Jason watched her leave from his window. He heard the door close and then watched as her frame moved silently within the spectrum of the single light that lit the driveway. He watched her slam the car door and pause to wipe away the remaining tears. He watched her take a deep breath and turn the key. He watched her leave.

This had been a loud one. Jason’s body seemed to hurt all over. The screaming had found its way up the stairs, slicing through his door and then battering his body from the inside out. He could hear every word, every biting word, until the argument escalated to jumbled screams. Then nothing could be distinguished until his mother burst into tears and his father walked away. He heard the basement door slam shut, followed by the front door as his mother stormed out of the house in search of a sanctuary. And it was over. For now.

“Fine,” he could hear his father say, hear his mother echo. It always ended that way. Fine. The argument played itself over and over again in his head. Over and over again, like a scratched CD. Like a broken record. Over and over again, until his door opened and Timothy crawled in.

Timothy was little for his age. He was both short and skinny and his jet-black hair sat in a scramble of chaos above two brilliant green eyes. His face was pale and flushed, creating an awkward contrast to his features. He, too, had been crying.

The questions were written all over his face, questions he would never get answers to: “Why do they have to fight? Why doesn’t Daddy care when Mommy cries? Will she come back this time?” They were all questions that Jason had once asked himself late at night as he huddled under his Spider-Man bedspread and listened to his parents scream. He remembered the many times he had cried himself to sleep, worrying his parents would get a divorce, and the many more times that he wished they would.

That’s what they didn’t understand. Things would be better for everyone that way.

There was no such thing as love, and Jason knew that. There was no such thing as a perfect ending, and no relationship that could last the test of time. Disney could pour all their creative generosity into it, but they would never be able to disguise the fact that Cinderella was just a whore on acid hallucinating the whole fairy godmother mess and sleeping with the prince until she got her way.

Timothy would understand this one day. Maybe it would take two more fights, maybe it would take ten. But sooner or later, Timothy would be left just as hopelessly scarred as Jason. That’s what they didn’t understand, that even with their facade still intact, the whole house reeked of unhappiness.

The basement was the worst. It smelled musty and worn. A stack of circuit boards stood in a leaning pile on Nathan’s desk next to a tower of bowls and glasses. The whole place needed a good cleaning, but Kara wouldn’t go down there, and he didn’t trust the boys with his equipment. So, he simply disregarded the mess, the chaos. It didn’t matter much anyway. Nathan wasn’t really into pretty. Give him a good processor, a nicely wired motherboard, and the whole murky world disappeared. Sanctuary.

Nathan sat in the black swivel chair and took a deep breath. His head hurt. His heart was beating too fast. He hated these encounters. The whole argument seemed to jumble together in his mind. How had it started? What was it about? Anger surged through his body as he tried to recreate the fight for analysis. She just seemed to get angry so fast, so easily. And when she cried ... that’s when he couldn’t stand it anymore. Like she wanted him to grab her and hug her and apologize for whatever it was she was angry about. But this wasn’t high school anymore and Kara needed to grow up. She always had to take it one step too far. Sometimes he thought she was just looking for a fight. If they yelled, if they screamed, at least they were talking. But Nathan didn’t like to yell. Everything was better if he stayed in the basement, if Kara stayed upstairs. She would be back in a couple hours and everything would return to a silent drone of normal. At least the kids were asleep.

But Timothy was not asleep, he was scared. His hands were trembling when he crawled under Jason’s covers. He rolled over and faced the wall, doing all he could to keep his shaking body under control. He knew Jason hated having to share the twin-sized bed. It was already too small for him, his large feet hanging over the edge between the slats of the wooden frame. While Timothy was small, his 17-year-old brother was big, built with broad shoulders, strong thighs and a towering stature.

Timothy pulled the covers to his chin. It was late. Too late. It was past his bedtime and if Mommy was home she would be angry he had gotten up. But he couldn’t stay by himself, not when those angry words seemed to be bounding off the dark walls of his bedroom. Here, classic rock poured from Jason’s computer in a soft, steady flow. He, like his father, had a passion for machines. They both found a peace in the hum of a small engine, in the box of opportunity.

The phone rang and Justin let down the curtain to grab it. Kayla’s number popped up on the display screen and he took a deep breath.

Sanctuary.

Her voice came quickly. She always sounded happy. Immediately, she was speaking to him, and Jason could feel his body calm. But he remained quiet as Kayla spoke, nodding in response to her questions as if she could see him. He was afraid of how his voice would sound if he answered. Afraid she would know. But of course, his silence was an immediate indication of his irritation, and Kayla noticed right away. A malignant silence fell over the line that connected them.

“Jason, what’s wrong?” He said nothing. He moved into the corner to provide himself some privacy from Timothy. And maybe some shelter from her question.

“Jason,” she said softly. Her tone had changed. The light bounce of enthusiasm had flattened into worry. “Jason, what happened?”

He could feel her reaching through the phone, see her sitting on her bed to focus, rather than walking around like she always did on the phone.

“Nothing,” Jason whispered, but it came out harder than he had hoped. He should just call her back. See her tomorrow in school, in a safe environment. This was not something that she should be part of, but he couldn’t bring himself to say good-bye. He just wanted so badly to be immersed in something different, and Kayla could bring him that.

“Liar,” she said and this time she was firm. She wanted answers. She wanted him to be happy. She wanted to understand. But Jason repelled her prying. She was too good for all this. She was too good for him, for his family, for all the problems that hovered in his mind all the time. But she was stubborn.

“Jason, please tell me,” she pleaded. He could see her tapping her foot, tugging on her ear in an attempt to remain patient. “Are you okay?” she tried again. “Is everything alright?”

No, it was not alright. He was not okay. Nothing was okay. But she couldn’t understand that, and he couldn’t explain.

He heard her take a deep breath. She was frustrated and her exasperation was showing. She didn’t like it when people were upset. She said anger was not a constructive means of communication, and only when a problem was acknowledged could it be solved. She was perfect.

“Fine,” she said after a couple more attempts to coax a response out of him. “Fine,” she said and fell into silence.

Jason’s heart exploded into activity. Suddenly, his palms were sweaty and he felt lightheaded. He leaned against the cold glass of the window pane.

“Please don’t say that,” he whispered. “Please, please, never say that.” And then he was crying. He realized his hands were shaking and he was embarrassed. He closed his eyes but it didn’t help. His breath was heavy. His face was wet. His little brother was ten feet away and his girlfriend was on the phone listening to him cry.

Kayla fell into hysteria. She said she was coming over. She told him she loved him. Jason’s deep gulps for air erupted into gags as his body shuddered and he slipped to the floor, his back huddled into the corner. He frantically wiped at his face and muffled his breaths as he begged her not to come. When he finally regained control, she once again asked what had happened, what she could do to fix it. His reply was simple: “Just talk to me.”

And so she did. Jason laid down on the floor and listened to her tell him about great places she had been, about a song she had heard on the radio, about the summer she had gone swimming in the middle of the night.

Jason fell asleep with the phone next to his ear. It wasn’t until two a.m. that he awoke to the sound of the front door. He heard the dead bolt snap shut, heard feet coming up the stairs, and then the master bedroom door creak to a close. He went back to sleep.

***

Timothy couldn’t find his math book, which meant he couldn’t find his math homework. He once again began to search his backpack as Mrs. Prewitt came closer to his desk. Suddenly, he looked up to see the middle-aged woman hovering in front of him with her clipboard.

“Homework?” she asked. Timothy could only shake his head. No, no homework. Her eyebrow rose just as the lunch bell rang. The others began to file out, laughing and carrying their lunch bags.

“Timothy, stay with me for a couple minutes, please,” Ms. Prewitt said. His face felt hot.

Mrs. Prewitt was a nice lady, really. She was soft on the edges, and wore thick-rimmed glasses, just like any good fifth-grade teacher should. But sometimes, she really scared Timothy.

She pulled a chair up to the other side of his desk and sat to face him. She removed her glasses and clasped them between her hands.

“Timothy,” she said, and he nodded without looking up. “Timothy, where is your math homework?”

This time he shook his head. “With my math book,” he managed, but he did not look up.

“And where,” she continued, “is your math book?” He started to think really hard. He squinted his eyes in concentration.

“I think it’s in my bedroom,” he finally said, but he didn’t really know.

“Timothy, you need to start being more organized. Ask your mom or dad to help you pack your backpack at night. I’m sure one of them would help you check and make sure you have everything for school. Just do it before you go to sleep.” Timothy nodded. She brought her face down to his level so that he was forced to look at her. “Okay?” she asked.

His face got even hotter as he looked into the thick cheeks of his teacher.

“Yes,” he whispered, and Mrs. Prewitt put her glasses back on and told him he could go to lunch. In the lunch line, Timothy thought of his parents fighting. He thought of asking them to help him find his math book and pack up for school. Then he tripped over an extension cord, dropped his tray and spilled milk on his pants.

***

Jason knew it was going to be bad from the second he walked in the room. Timothy was seated at the table, looking down at his folded hands. His father was at the refrigerator pouring a glass of iced tea, his back turned to his angry mother.

“Nathan,” she said. And when he didn’t respond, she said again, “Nathan.” His father nodded his head slightly but continued to pour his drink. His mother was holding a piece of paper, and as she waved it around, Jason watched her face tighten. He looked at his backpack laying in a limp pile on the other side of the kitchen. Was it worth walking into a war zone to get?

“Nathan, what are we going to do about this?” and then she looked at Timothy.

“Can you explain why you are failing three subjects? Can you tell me why Ms. Prewitt thinks you need to get more sleep at night?” Her voice rose slightly with each question, but Timothy just shook his head slowly. Jason could see that he was beginning to cry. The paper in her hand was an e-mail from school.

Nathan closed the refrigerator and began to head downstairs. But Kara stopped him.

“You are not walking away until we’ve fixed this.” The heaviness in her tone seemed to be referring to much more than just Timothy’s grades, and for the first time in a long time, Nathan actually looked at her. Her forehead was wrinkled and there were dark circles under her eyes. Nathan couldn’t remember when she had looked so tired, or turned old.

“Nathan,” she said, this time much more quietly. “Do something about your son.”

And then, just like that, the screaming started. Kara screamed. And Nathan screamed. And Timothy cried. Jason grabbed his backpack and headed for Timothy, only one thought in his mind: Get the hell out of here. Timothy was shaking when he finally reached him. He scooped him up with one arm, and began to mutter softly, “It’s okay, Timothy. It’s okay.”

“I’m sick of you doing nothing! I’m tired of you not helping out!” Jason heard his mother scream. “Look,” she yelled, “You’ve made your son cry! Your son, Nathan!”

Suddenly, the focus shifted to Jason and Timothy. Jason cursed under his breath, and Nathan screamed, “Stop crying, you little pussy!”

Jason lost it. He put Timothy down and walked over to his father. Standing a good four inches taller, Jason grabbed the front of his father’s shirt and twisted it into a knot.

“Don’t you ever call him that again,” he said slowly and heavily. He turned to his mother. The silence in the room was biting.

“You think this is all his fault? You think Timothy falls asleep in class because he wants to? No, it’s because you two are screaming all night long. Don’t you f---ing see what you are doing to him? To both of us? Don’t you f---ing understand?” Jason was angrier than he had ever been. His lips were tight, the top one jutting out in a scowl. His whole stature seemed to be a knot, his shoulders bunched up around his neck. Jason let go of his father. He grabbed Timothy from the chair and headed for the door. This time he didn’t watch his mother leave, he left.

***

Kayla didn’t ask any questions when she opened her front door. She didn’t ask why neither of them had shoes, or why they were standing there so late on a school night. Instead, she just let them in. She gave Jason a small kiss, ran her hand through Timothy’s hair and got them both a glass of water. When Timothy was asleep in the family room under a pile of comforters, Kayla sat down next to Jason and laid her head on his shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her forehead. For a long time they did nothing but listen to each other breathe.

Jason didn’t know what came next. He had physically assaulted his father, verbally assaulted his mother, and essentially kidnapped his younger brother, using his girlfriend’s house as their hide-out. He didn’t know how long it would be before his mother found him, before she dragged both back to an environment full of an entirely new type of friction. At least now they knew.

When the doorbell rang, both he and Kayla jumped from their sleeping position on the couch. Jason’s heart began to race. His courage had been temporary, and was gone now. He just wanted to go back to sleep, tangled in Kayla’s arms. When Kayla re-emerged, Jason’s father and mother were with her. Both of them. Together. Jason kept his gaze low as his mother picked up Timothy, then quietly thanked Kayla for giving him a place to sleep. They all took one car home. Nobody spoke until they were all seated at the kitchen table, Timothy struggling to keep his eyes open.

“Thank you” was how the conversation started. It was Nathan’s voice piercing the stale air. Jason looked at his father and for the first time saw an emotion other than apathy. It was shame. “Thank you for finally making us see something other than ourselves.”

Kara placed her hands on the table and leaned forward, “Jason, we’re sorry.”

And Nathan continued, “Timothy, I’m sorry.”

Jason almost couldn’t comprehend what was happening. At first he was scared, then shocked. He looked at Timothy, who was now fully awake and displaying the same astonishment. Who were these people?

Nathan looked at Kara. Kara looked at Nathan. There was silence.

“Boys,” their father finally began. “After you left, your mother and I talked. We actually talked. No yelling, no screaming, just talking. And when we looked at everything that has been happening, we made a decision.” He stopped again. Jason knew what was coming.

“We’re getting a divorce,” Kara finished. “This is unhealthy for all of us. Your father and I have a hard time communicating, we always have. Up until this point, we always thought it was better if we just worked through it.” She stopped. “But now we know it’s not.” She looked at her children; she had expected so much more emotion, tears or screams. Instead, they just sat there, unresponsive.

“Boys, I think you should go to sleep. Things are going to start getting better.” The boys disappeared up the stairs.

Kara looked at her husband. He was a stranger to her. “What are they thinking?” she asked him.

Nathan stared into the distance for a long time. “They’re happy,” he finally said.

Timothy’s bed was warm when he crawled in. He could hear Jason’s music flowing through the walls. “Blowin’ in the Wind.” He nestled his face as far into the pillow as he could. The aroma of laundry soap and cotton flooded his senses. He had barely closed his eyes when the door opened and a streak of light split the darkness. His mother sat on his bed. She ran her hand through his hair, and gently rubbed his back.

“I love you,” she finally said. Timothy couldn’t remember the last time he had heard her say that. Timothy sat up slightly on his elbows. His mother’s silhouette was leaking across the wall. He finally found her eyes in the darkness, and while looking right into them he whispered, “I know.”

Kara tucked him in and closed the door. Downstairs the house was quiet. He could hear Jason’s music flowing through the wall. His comforter smelled like his mother, and for once, his bedroom wasn’t scary.

In a room that he had slept in every night since he was born, Timothy finally found his sanctuary.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the May 2006 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.






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This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

Abby:) This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Apr. 29, 2009 at 12:16 pm
You are a great writer. This story is so emotional, and I could feel what the characters were feeling to the point where my eyes were getting wet. Thank you for this story.
 
KatKrazy said...
Jan. 6, 2009 at 12:11 am
It's hard to believe I am the first one to comment because this one was so amazing. I couldn't stop reading until the end. You have a real talent. Keep writing.
 
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