One Track Minds Don't Register Hunger Pangs

December 12, 2008
By Nicole Palpal-latoc, Daphne, AL

The front door creaked opened and I stepped into the cold, dark house. That door always creaked, Dad still hasn’t fixed it. Someone had left the AC on this morning, making the house shivering cold despite the warm spring air leaking through the open front door. I shut off the window unit in the kitchen when I walked into it. I flipped on the light and made my way to the counter, where I absentmindedly started putting a sandwich together. I had forgotten to bring a lunch to school with me today, and I was completely ravished. I had just finished putting the cheese on my ham and cheese sandwich when it hit me. Jacob should be home by now, eating an afternoon snack at the kitchen counter like he does everyday after school; like I am now. But he wasn’t.
This was the third day in a row he hadn’t come home. He’d done this before, gone over to one of his friend’s house without warning and didn’t come home until the next day. I’d never really thought anything of it until his visits started going from one night at a friend’s house, to three nights. If he doesn’t come home tonight this will be the fourth night that he’s been absent.
I was starting to worry. He’d never gone this long without calling at least. I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and flipped it open, completely forgetting the sandwich in the process. Pressing and holding the number 1 down sent the speed dial on my phone to work and was connecting with Jacob’s phone in less then a second. He didn’t answer.
Okay, so he either wasn’t picking up his phone deliberately, or maybe he just didn’t have it. I breathed a sigh, hoping it were the latter. Leaving my stuff on the counter, I made my way to the hall behind the kitchen. Jacob’s room was the last room in the hall, the smallest in the house. I pushed the door open to find his room a mess: clothes strewn everywhere; his Xbox a mess of tangled cords and controllers; stacks of dishes that he’d been to lazy to take out of his room. I rolled my eyes at the mess but looked around anyway, hoping he’d maybe left a note when he’d come home for clothes.
And there it was, sitting on his pillow. I thought it odd that his bed was made, the only neat thing the in the room, but my brother was clever despite his shy and quiet demeanor. He knew I’d look at the bed if it was the only clean thing in this pig-sty; he wanted me to find that note. Carefully, so that I could avoid stepping on anything that might be alive or something, I maneuvered my way to his bed on the far side of the room and plucked the note from his pillow. From his chicken-scratch handwriting I was able to discern one thing, one thing only.

Dear Lily,
I’m sorry. You’re probably really mad right now, but please don’t be. I just have to get away from everything and everyone. Don’t come looking for me, you’ll only be disappointed.
Love you,

He’d run away from home. My thirteen year old little brother who I’ve had to take care of since he was six and I was nine, had run away from home. The little brother whose smiles use to come so easily and didn’t have a care in the world; my little brother who started to take everything personally, started to think everything was his fault; my little brother, who my dad practically ignored and my mother was only aware existed because she birthed him herself. My breathing started to hitch, my blank mind coming back to me in panicky bursts. I had to find him, there’s no way he’d make it out there without me. There’s no way I’d make it without him.
Quickly, I pulled myself together. I had no time to panic. From what I could tell, the ink had only recently dried which means he had been here earlier today. Jacob had probably skipped school for this. It also meant he couldn’t be far. I turned quickly, not caring what I stepped on, as I raced back through his door and down the hall. In the kitchen I grabbed my phone and car keys and rushed out of the house in one swift, but not so graceful, motion. The sandwich I had prepared for myself lay abandoned on the counter, my grumbling stomach forgotten in the light of my brother’s absence.
My rusty, old, red, double cabbed truck sat in the driveway. I don’t know much about cars or trucks, so I wasn’t sure of the year or the model or the make. All I was sure of was that it was a strong truck and got me from place to place just fine. That and it happened to have an annoying lack of muffler and necessary amount of glow plugs. But that’s about as much as I understood.
Right now though, I didn’t care. All I cared about was getting the thing started so I could go look for my brother. He was probably on foot and I had a vague idea of where he may be. I’d get there faster if I could drive. With my luck though, today would be the day my truck decided it wasn’t in the mood to start up for me. I kept cranking the engine, but nothing was happening, the spark plug wasn’t coming on. Oh yeah, I only have one spark plug. I sighed in frustration, laying my head on the large steering wheel. I loved this truck, but sometimes it was pure evil. I tried to breathe normally, but it seemed my lungs were panicking for my brain and I wasn’t able to take any deep breaths. Slowly, whilst trying to calm my breathing, I grabbed my phone and dialed the speed dial again, except pressing the number 6.
It rang four times before my dad decided to answer.
“What?” He growled into the phone at me. He didn’t like being called at work.
“Dad, the truck won’t start.” I told him, silently berating myself for sinking so low as to call my dad. The man didn’t care about me or Jacob. All he cared about was himself. Sometimes I understood why my parents were married, I could see the love they shared when they looked at each other. But it was a rare occasion. A marriage really isn’t worth salvaging if you haven’t seen your spouse for more then five hours in the past three years.

And I’m only exaggerating a little.
“Well, why the hell not?” He asked me with an irritated tone.
“I don’t know dad, that’s why I called.” I sighed out, trying not to raise my voice or my temper. The situation was stressful enough.
“Why are you trying to start the thing anyway? You’re out of school, where could you possibly need to go now?” I was hoping he wouldn’t ask that question. He wouldn’t care if I told him the truth, he’d tell me I was being stupid and shouldn’t worry because ‘the kid’—his nickname, and I’m sure only name he knew, for Jacob--would come home soon enough. If I lied to him, he would be able to tell and I wouldn’t get anywhere.
“Jacob isn’t at home; I have to go get him.” I answered. It wasn’t the whole truth, but it wasn’t a lie either. I heard my dad sigh on the other line, and wondered what he may be thinking right now.
“Get that engine starting spray stuff from the garage. Don’t spray too much; I’m not in the mood to clean up your guts from the driveway.” He told me quietly. I could have laughed at his reluctance to help his only daughter to find his only son. He was better then mom at least; she probably wouldn’t have answered the phone, being to busy with her Latino janitor or something.
“Thanks dad…” I said as I headed for the front door at a speed walk.
“Call me when you find him.” My dad said firmly before hanging up on me. I was surprised, to say the least. Find him? How had dad known I had to find Jacob? Did he pay more attention to us then I thought? Did he really care?
‘False hopes get you nowhere’ I thought to myself as I shoved my way back into the house, through the kitchen once more and out into the garage. There, sitting on my dad’s tool box that hadn’t ever been put to its full use, stood a cylindrical can with a small red spray-nozzle. Engine starter.
I snatched it up and hurried back out to my truck. Quickly, I popped the hood and sprayed a sparse amount of the oily smelling spray into its proper place. I slammed the hood back down, tossed to spray to the side, and jumped back into the truck.
My truck started instantly. The engine was rumbling in a very unhealthy way (my stomach I noticed seemed to mimic it in a mocking sort of way), but it was up and running and I had no time to consider the engine troubles I was going to have within the next week. All that mattered was my brother right now.
I pulled out of my driveway, flooring it as soon as I saw that no other cars were on the street. I lived in one of those suburbs, where all the houses looked alike, despite their noticeable differences; where the lawns were always mowed and fences were only allowed in the back yard. My parents may not care about my brother and me as people, but they did want us to live comfortably.
There was a small creek behind our neighborhood, one that the contractors that were still in the process of expanding the neighborhood hadn’t plugged up yet. It would be gone in a few months, but for now it was a local haunt of the neighborhood kids. Even I went down there sometimes. Jacob went there all the time.
The street pulled up short, stopping at the woods. I had to walk a quarter mile into the woods to find it, but finally I came up to the creek’s banks. There were three kids there, two of them looking to be about ten, the other at least seven. I shouted to get there attention, seeing as they were being rather rowdy, splashing around in the water like scared cats. One of them, the seven year old girl, looked up at me curiously.
“Have you seen my brother?” I shouted to her. I didn’t know if she knew who my brother was, but it was worth a shot.
“Jacob?” One of the ten year old boys shouted back up to me in answer.
“Yeah; is he here?” I asked again.
“We haven’t seen him since Saturday.” The second boy answered, shaking his head. I groaned inwardly but didn’t show the kids my distress. I hadn’t seen him since Saturday either.
“If you see him, tell him I’m looking for him.” I shouted before spinning away from the creek and practically flying back to my truck.

Where else would Jacob go? Down the road from the middle school in midtown where Jacob went there was a bowling alley with an adjoining skating rink. It was a popular place to go after school for the younger kids, even in the downtown and uptown areas. Maybe I’d find him, or someone that knew where he was, there.

My truck started instantly once more with that heavy rumbling that only distantly worried my one-track mind. I drove quickly out of the neighborhood, hitting the highway in record time for this truck. I was about halfway to the middle school when my truck started to shudder, rumble, and slow. I had had this happen before, a breakdown in the middle of the highway. With a groan, I managed to steer my now rolling truck to the side of the road; it had stopped running after a loud pop from the engine.

My breaths came in short, panicky bursts once more and this time could have cried with utter frustration. I wanted to kick the truck so hard that I left a dent, but the thing was pure steel and breaking my foot probably wouldn’t be the best thing to do right now. I growled under my breath, turning my frustration into determined anger, and jumped out of the truck after popping the hood. Smoke steamed out and I knew instantly that the old thing had overheated and that I needed water; which I had none of.

With another growl under my breath I went back into my truck and grabbed my phone, pressing the speed dial number 2 down until the call connected with my boyfriend Josh as I walked back around to the front of the truck once more.

“What’s up chicken butt?” He said as an answer. Any other time would have giggled to reassure him that his lame sense of humor was adorable to me, but not this time.

“Can you bring me a gallon of water?” I asked him immediately. There was a short pause.
“A gallon of water? Did your truck overheat again?” He asked me. Josh had helped me fix the truck more times then I could count; he knew it better then I did.
“Yes.” I answered, telling him where I was with a few crude directions.
“Give me three minutes.” He said and hung up the phone.

It took him four minutes and twenty-three seconds to find me. He pulled over to the shoulder as soon as he saw my truck, hopping out immediately with a gallon jug of water in his hands.
“You’re late.” I yelled to him over the noise of the cars on the highway. He grinned in response but said nothing to me as he hurried his way up to the front of my truck. I watched him work as he pulled something free, a lid or something to my radiator, and started pouring the water in slowly, checking to see how much was in it every once in a while. When the jug was all out of water he tossed it to the side and I made a mental note not to forget it. I watched his wide athlete shoulders work methodically in my truck, pushing things and pulling things; he stood on the fender holding the hood up with one hand and fixing my truck with the other. He groaned quietly under his breath as he pulled away, wiping his greasy hands on his jeans.
“That should do it. Go try to start it.” He said to me, pushing his dark brown hair out of his blue eyes and wiping the sweat from his brow, leaving black swipes of dirt or grease or oil in the wake of his grimy hands; it suited him in a way. I hurried around the truck and jumped into the cab. I turned the key three times before the truck started, but at least the rumbling was its normal rumble and not its unhealthy rumble that the engine starter spray gave it. I sighed in relief and gave Josh an exuberant smile. He smiled back, proud of his work.
“Thank you!” I told him as he came around the side of the truck after slamming the hood down. He gave a half shrug of modesty and bent through my open window to give me a small kiss.
“Where are you going anyway?” He asked as he rested his arms on the open window sill. I knew he’d wanted to ask me this ever since he’d pulled over, but Josh knew me and knew I wouldn’t say anything until he asked because I always had been the type to do it myself without help. It was even a small struggle for me to ask him to bring the jug of water, but I didn’t have time to walk to get some on my own and I knew that.
To be honest, I didn’t have time for this conversation. But having Josh around made me relax a bit about the situation; I don’t think it is possible to be more stable and calm then Josh in a crisis.
“Jacob ran away from home. I’m really worried about him. He started the drugs not to long ago, you know that. What if they’re the reason he left? What if he’s hurting? What if my parents did something and I wasn’t there to help? What if I’m the reason he’s all alone, smoking pot and selling pills to kids at his school? Where’s he gone? Is he okay? Is he alone?” It wasn’t much of an explanation, more of an almost coherent babble of terrors I’d been bottling inside. Josh just watched me, waiting for me to take a breath. When I finally stopped my rant, he was watching me with narrow eyes.

Josh didn’t say anything to me as he pushed himself off of my truck and walked around the front of it. I thought he was going to stop there and ask me to pop the hood again, but he kept walking around until he was at the other door. It stuck a little, but he finally managed to jerk it open.
“I’m coming with you to help find him,” was all he said, and I knew there was no arguing that intense look he had. It was the same look he got on the soccer field, determined and headstrong. Besides, I wanted his company. I’d much rather not go at this alone, no matter how independent I may be.
“You’re a lifesaver.” I stated simply and pulled off the shoulder. We made our way, slowly this time so as not to overheat the radiator or whatever again, to the bowling alley. The neon lights flashing from the entrance told us that it had been open for at least an hour or two and was already packed with kids. We parked in the closest spot we could and jumped out of the vehicle, making a quick and steady procession to the door. The guy at the entrance where you’re supposed to pay to get in almost refused to let us in but when Josh got into his face and started threatening him to tell the cops “everything”, he obliged to let us pass. It was a reluctant move on the owner’s part, he wanted us to pay. But we weren’t planning on bowling, so naturally we refused.
“What is this ‘everything’ that you were going to use as leverage?” I asked him quietly as we quickly strolled past. There was a sea of kids everywhere I looked and I only recognized two or three of them from when Jacob had been their friend. Now he hung with a new crowd.
“It’s been a rumor for a while now that he has illegal aliens working the bowling machines. I didn’t think it was true, but now I’m starting to believe some of the shadier things I’ve heard about him.” Josh answered, a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth that he was fighting. It really wasn’t a time for humor, but the thought of a guy running a bowling alley with illegal aliens in tow was pretty humorous. I gave a low chuckle as we made a beeline for a kid that I recognized as Jacob’s old best friend, Hank.
“Hey Hank, can I talk to you?” I asked him as Josh and I came up to his side. He looked over his shoulder at me and something in his eyes made me think that he knew what I was there for. He pushed away from the table he sat at with a group of friends and followed Josh and me off to the side.
“What’s up?” He asked nonchalantly, but there was an edge to his hormonally squeaky voice. His glasses were fogging up and he was sweating all over his acne covered face.
“Where’s Jacob? He hasn’t been home in days and I know you of all people would know where he is.” I demanded. Hank lost his nerve a little, looking down at the ground nervously and shrugging his frail, thin shoulders.
“I haven’t seen him in school since Monday.” Hank said quietly to the floor.
“Then where is he?” Josh asked from behind me. I don’t think he meant to be threatening, but Josh was a big guy—athletic, strong, attractive, and popular; all of the things Hank wasn’t and was intimidated by—and seemed to have frightened Hank even more then my harsh scrutiny.
“I-I don’t know man.” He stuttered the words, almost as if he really were afraid of Josh. “I noticed him hanging around Bailey a lot lately, maybe he’s at his place.” Hank continued, with another frail shrug.
“Bailey? But Bailey goes to school with us not you guys.” I said, more to myself then anyone else. Josh grabbed me by the elbow and led me away from Hank, towing me back through the building as I sorted through the thoughts in my head.

Bailey was the high school drug dealer; a drop out but still able to be inconspicuous at our school. Everyone knew he was a druggy, even teachers, but he was never caught for it. Bailey was a clever guy with lots of friend in a lot of high places. He mostly sold to the high school kids, overlooking the younger crowd mainly because they didn’t pay as much. If Bailey was hanging around my little brother that meant that Jacob had something that Bailey wanted, and he wanted it bad.

But what could Jacob possibly have that Bailey would lower his standards for a seventh grader? What did my little brother have to offer that scum? A wider market, that’s what. The only logical reason for Bailey to start meddling with my brother was so that he could traffic drugs to the younger kids and the high school kids at the same time.

Or maybe I should say rational, not logical. Other reasons for Bailey’s sudden interest in my brother popped into my head: like me for example. It was an arrogant and conceited thing to think and I felt ashamed that I had come to such a conclusion, but still. I mean, I wasn’t unattractive in the least and I knew this. My face was symmetrical and delicate; my hair a dark chocolate color, falling in waves to the middle of my back on most days; I had a good figure, I exercised regularly and ate healthily enough. In some sick and twisted way, it made sense that Bailey would hang out with Jacob to get to me. I shuddered at the thought, equally disgusted with my arrogance as I was with the possibility of it being true.

Josh had decided along the way to my truck that he was driving. I wasn’t in any shape to handle a motor vehicle anyway. Josh floored it before we were back on the highway, making his way toward the rougher part of town. It wasn’t a place you’d expect drug dealers to be. The houses were all Victorian, all old and abandoned. It was the perfect place to squat; ideal for the type of activities that go one there. It just didn’t look like it would be. They all kept there lawns mowed, surely paying someone to do it for them. None of the houses were extraordinarily shabby or broken down.
Josh knew his way around here better then he would like to admit. He’d been like my little brother, alone and out of place no matter what. Josh had done drugs, but not for long. As soon as his middle school gym teacher told him to try out for soccer and he ended up making the team, he dropped the habit. It wasn’t something we talked about.
“Bailey’s place is at the end of this lane…” He murmured to me a few minutes later, taking a sharp left and coming onto a street of tall house with wrap around porches and white fences wherever you looked.

Josh stopped the truck in front of a large yellow house that looked a little shabbier then the others on the lane. The sunlight reflected of the dull chipping paint, but it didn’t hurt my eyes like it would have if it were newly painted.

I jumped out of the truck and ran up the walk so fast that by the time I was banging on the door, Josh had just managed to shut off the truck and was only halfway out of it.

He made it to my side the instant the door opened, my brother standing on the threshold. He looked a little skinnier to me, his dark hair falling over his dark eyes with dark circles underneath them. Everything about him was darker. He didn’t look like the smiley, happy brother he was with me. He looked like a street hoodlum, a stranger I’d avoid at all costs.

I could have cried with relief when I saw him though. At least he was in one piece. A sob escaped my lips as I pulled him to me, hugging his thin, stiff frame. He didn’t hug me back for a second, but then I felt his arms weakly wrap around me and his shoulders started to shake.

I shushed his crying and told him to go sit in the truck.
“What’re you going to do?” He asked me before taking the steps down off the porch. I noticed he had a black eye when I saw him in the sunlight and not the shadow of the porch. Anger boiled up inside of me and took over everything else. I felt Josh’s hand on my elbow, pulling me toward my brother.
“Just get in the car Jake; I have some loose ends to tie up with Mr. Bailey.”

Josh tried pulling me away again, seeing the murderous expression on my face, but I pulled free with one jerk of my shoulder. But before I could get anywhere, there was suddenly someone in the doorway, blocking my way into the house.

“Mr. Bailey? I kinda’ like the way that sounds.” Bailey said, grinning at me with disgusting yellow teeth. My body was instantly rigid, anger at his boldness, at his pure confidence. It radiated off of him in the way he was leaning on the chipping door frame, grinning like an idiot. I was suddenly overcome with the urge to kick him.

“You little bast--“ I started to say, involuntarily leaning closer to Bailey, when I felt Josh’s arm around my waist, pulling me away. Bailey’s eyebrows raised in surprise. His dirty blonde hair fell in greasy strands across his face and I noticed he looked a lot thinner than the last time I had seen him.

“Josh holding back a fight? Never thought I’d see the day…” Bailey said casually, but he knew it would get under Josh’s skin. I felt Josh’s grip loosen slightly before tightening again more then ever. He had more sense then I did right now, but my tempered mind would allow me to see or register that. I was surprised he wasn’t getting mad by this point; his temper was almost as bad as mine sometimes.

“Let me go Josh, now.” I ordered, trying to sound calmer. I don’t think it worked but he let me go anyway. I stood stiffly in place, looking at Bailey with the most scornful look I could muster up. It didn’t seem to affect him, so I leaned into him one more time, speaking in a low, quiet voice that oozed my anger in ways my fist couldn’t.

“If you ever touch my little brother again, I swear you’ll regret it. You’ll be sorry.” I told him, with one hard poke into his chest. He laughed, but I could see the edge in his eyes. I was pretty sure I got my point across.

I turned away from Bailey and without looking back, stomped down the stairs and made my way to my truck. A few paces away from it I felt Josh’s hand slip into mine. He squeezed once reassuringly and dropped my hand. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth but I hid it. He always knew exactly how to help in his small little ways.

“Lily, can we go home?” Jacob asked me when I got back into the passenger seat of the car, Josh driving again. I looked over my shoulder at him and gave him a small smile.

“Sure kiddo. We just have to go get Josh’s car and then we’ll go home and I’ll make you some dinner. How’s that sound?” I asked him. He smiled in response.

I leaned back in my seat and relaxed for the first time after getting home from school. Suddenly, my stomach rumbled and growled and I was gripped by wave after wave of pure hunger. Josh laughed and glanced down at my stomach before looking back up to the road.

“How about I just take you two to get some food, then go get my car? I don’t think Lily can make it all the way home.” Josh said, grinning at Jacob through the rear view mirror. I smiled too and looked out of the window, not really seeing anything, only thinking that everything was going to be better now.

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