5 am. I am leaving.
“Dameon, Dameon!” Sable calls, grasping an orange peel. She holds it out to me.
“Here. This is good luck. Gramma peeled it off in one piece.”
Somewhat reluctantly, I put it in my pocket. This has become a ritual- Sable tucking random oddities into my backpack, under my pillow, pressing them into my hands on the way out the door. This is my Grandmother’s doing.
She was the freest of the free spirits. She grew up in this little town, full of people who didn’t dare to look beyond the highway, people who believed every word spoken at the pulpit, never seeking more. She was different. Always in search of something more.She drove around the country for years, learning. She fell in love with a man. They burned sage and danced in the desert and howled at the moon, but her little sister and her mother got sick in the same year, and she had to come home to care for them. Even after my grandfather left her to go back to fantasyland, leaving her unwed and pregnant, she was still happy. She still burned sage and howled at the moon, but this time with the little girl who would become my mom.
People talked, of course. Their words got even harsher when my mother became pregnant with me at 17. Gramma couldn’t have cared less.
At least, that’s what she tells us. She tells wild stories.
Her word is truth to Sabel.
Sabel is a dizzy-headed kid. She has too many dreams, pumped full of empty air by my grandma and those stories. They’re too close. Instead of watching TV or scraping her knees with the other kids, Sabel listens to grandma, chin in hands, believing every word.
I was her once.
That magic faded long ago for me.
“Thanks, Sabel.” She looks up at me with big eyes and smiles.
I make my way into the living room.
My stepmother sits, staring blankly at the television, cigarette in hand.
Moraine is a flimsy, grey, distant woman. As sad as she is, as dark as the circles under her eyes are, as smoky as she smells, she is always kind.
She smiles warmly when she sees me.
“Have a great day, Dameon.”
I’ve read her diary, written in shaky handwriting, full of misspellings. She only wants the best for us. She has the same impossible hopes that Sable and my Grandmother carry so close to their hearts.
I don’t understand it.
Dreams get in the way of real life.
My mother, blinded by the light of the desert sun under our grey skies, sick of the thunderstorm she married, sick of her baby and sick of her son, ran away west in May of my eleventh year. The night before she came in and kissed my forehead and told me she loved me to no end. She left a long, melodramatic letter about “needing more” and “following her heart”, a necklace, and her wedding band.
My father trashed the letter later. Sable will never read it.
It was the worst thing a mother could do;make her child feel loved and then stomp them to pieces and leave them for “more”. We weren’t enough for her.
Grandma wore the ghost of a smile that morning, her eyes knowing. I know she had something to do with it. I know she encouraged her to go out and find whatever it was she was looking for.
She still loves her daughter, despite being abandoned. Talks about her all the time, like it doesn't cause her any pain to remember that she's gone. I know it hurts me whenever she talks about how it was back then.
When Grandma tells Sable about mom, Sable gets really quiet and her eyes get big.
She never takes off the necklace.
Grandma stands in the kitchen, Drinking tea. She smiles when she sees me.
“Dameon, did you see-”
I ignore her and slip out the front door.
I leave my little piece of luck on the side of the road.
The bike ride to school is short. We live by the highway, my school sits by the closest exit.
The restaurant where I spend my afternoons flipping frozen fish is the next street over.
I live in a four mile radius- School, work, home.
I arrive in the school parking lot exactly 35 minutes before everyone else pours in.
This gives me the perfect amount of time to do art with Mr. Peters.
It’s our secret.
During art class, when I have my walls up and I am nobody at all, I draw stupid pictures and laugh at jokes that aren’t funny because if I actually let any of the art in my head out, I’d be somebody. People would expect things of me, pretend that I’m more than just me.
Mr. Peters found a sketch that had fallen out of my binder and hung it up on his wall. For weeks, he asked everyone if they knew who drew it.
After class, I told him the truth. He didn’t believe me at first.
“Draw for me, then.” He said, pushing paper into my hands.
“Um, what do you want me to draw?” I asked. My hands never shook so much.
“What’s on your mind?”
My mother stared up from the page at me, laughing. Laughing at me.
“It is you,” Mr. Peters said, breathless.
That drawing sits in a massive portfolio at the back of Mr. Peter’s storage closet, with all my other secrets. Mr. Peters respects me. To my knowledge, the only eyes that have seen any of my art are mine and his.
“Dameon!” He says, grinning.
He always seems surprised to see me, even though I’ve been coming in early since October.
I nod in response.
I sit at the back of the room, hiding from nobody, and open the sketchbook tucked into my backpack.
Mr. Peters comes to sit beside me. He watches me draw, like a cat watching a fish tank, mesmerised, for what feels like forever. Him watching me makes me itch.
“Have you ever thought about doing anything with your art?” He says suddenly.
“ I know you’re shy about it, but, y’know, It could really take you places. You’re so talented. I want other people to know that.”
“You know how I feel.” I say, looking up from my work.
“Why do you make Art if you don’t want anybody to see it?”
“I don’t know.”
He gives me a look.
“I guess it’s because….”
“ I need to get it all out of my head. It keeps me sane.”
He smiles giddily.
“You really are an artist.”
I roll my eyes. I am not a artist. His syrupy words never change my mind. He knows we don’t see through the same eyes. I don’t think of myself as anyone but me, yet everyone else seems to be set on trickinging me into believing I am so much more. I am just Dameon.
I am not an artist. Artists are dreamers.
“Seriously. Dameon. The best I’ve ever taught.” His voice goes soft and it makes my skin crawl.
I check the clock on the wall. Three minutes until the doors open.
“See you later, Mr. P.” I say, Abruptly standing up. I shove my sketchbook back in my bag and breeze out of the classroom. He starts to follow.
“Wait, Dameon!We need to t-”
I shut the door before I hear him finish.
I go through the rest of my day, through endless classes and getting grease burns on my forearms and so much nothing, unknowing that I will be greeted by two men in blue standing at my door.
It seemed like a dream, turning onto my street and seeing that car parked out front, feeling my blood freeze in my veins.
Arms folded, faces twisted in superficial sympathy, they told me that my father was dead.
I remember the last time I saw my father. Laughing, Drugged out of his mind, then passed out. Moraine and I dragged him into the bathtub and let the cold shower wake him up. He looked disgusting, lying in that bathtub, grimy water pooling around him, his mouth half open. We stood over him, waiting, as the seconds stretched to minutes and I grew angrier and angrier, my eyes burning. Moraine squeezed my hand and whispered,
“You go to bed, Dameon. I’ll take care of him when he wakes up.”
Soon, he was awake, confused and screaming, Moraine trying, and trying, and trying to calm him down. In the next room, Grandma was reading to Sable.
Here, in the gravel driveway, with the Red-and-blue flashing, the cops explaining how they found my father forgotten, behind a dumpster, I feel that same anger boiling inside of me as I did watching him lay there that last time, the same resent as I did when he was gone for the third day in a row, when he ruined us over and over and over again. I am not sorry that he didn’t get to see his 38th birthday, and I am not sorry that he died drugged out of his mind, stabbed in the back by a stranger on a night he wouldn’t be able to remember if he made it home breathing. It’s almost a relief.
At least to me. Moraine is destroyed.
She clutches my sweatshirt, gasping like a beached fish.
I shrug her off, an action I immediately regret. She hugs herself, shocked, sobs racking her body.
“Where’s Sable?” I say coolly, catching the lump in my throat.
Moraine tries to speak through her tears.
“I’ll just check inside,” I mutter, opening the gate.
“I’m so sorry, son.” The cop starts. I brush past him and make my way into the house.
I find them in the living room, Grandma threading beads, Sable by the window, peeking out at the police car.
“Oh, Dameon.” Grandma breathes.
I didn’t even need to say his name. We all knew, somehow, his time was running out.
Grandma wraps her bony arms around my neck and holds me. I forget for a minute that I am supposed to hate her. In a way, if it weren’t for her, my father might be here, level-headed and happy. Maybe they wouldn’t have lasted, and things wouldn’t have ended up with doves and olive branches, but she didn’t have to leave him in the cold, with nowhere to turn. Grandma
But here and now, she is my grandmother, and I don’t feel so alone.
I bury my head into her shoulder, soaking it in.
“How?” Sable asks, quietly, breaking the silence.
I grit my teeth.
“He got in a fight with a stranger. A stranger killed him.”It wasn’t an overdose, like I had first suspected when they said those four words. He was stabbed. In that part of town, it could have been anybody. Probably a complete stranger, almost as high as him
. She doesn’t cry for him. In the night, when he was out of his mind, speaking words she couldn’t possibly understand, when Moraine's face and neck were covered in angry red lines, when all the money in the house disappeared, when she saw the little plastic bags and the blood and the scars, when she lay awake, listening, stood at the doorway, watching, I saw tears and I saw anger, boiling inside of her. Now, She shows no emotion. If anything, she looks relieved. He was the shadow blocking her sun.
I’m angry because I feel the same. I should be crying; I should be mad. We should be holding each other.
Later, at the station with the full police report, I learn that he lay there for what could have been hours, bleeding. Somebody could have found him, disgusting and dying, and saved him. They didn’t.
He didn’t leave a will. He didn’t leave any final testament.
We were left to sort everything out. Nobody tells you how much work people leave behind when they die. Nobody tells you how quiet loss is. It isn’t like it is the movies, at least not for us. Movies skip all the silence, and the fragility, and all of the ugly parts. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t draw anything but him, him lying in the water, his broken teeth, his sunken eyes.
Moraine took us into his room and told us to take anything we wanted. There wasn’t much.
Watches, heirlooms, anything he knew he could get cash for, was sold on the side of the street, or to the pawn shop by the gas station. I hadn’t dared to venture inside this room in ages. I was shocked by how clean it was. It wasn’t tidy by any means, but I had expected to see claw marks on the walls, thousands of cigarettes, empty baggies and bottles.
There just wasn’t much of anything.
Except, the corner of a box hidden under the bed.
I pulled it out, Sable crouching next to me.
“What is it?” She whispers.
“I don’t know, probably nothing.” I say quietly, waving her away.
I opened it to find letters. Letters to my mother, the handwriting becoming increasingly illegible as the dates progressed. They always started the same.
I can’t bring myself to tell them. It’s easier to make you the bad guy than to tell the truth. I’m sorry.
I found, underneath the letters, drawings. My drawings.
Ones that had gone missing from my sketchbook, my folder in my sock drawer, the box under my bed. Drawings from seventh grade, sixth grade, fifth grade.
Little notes on the edges, written in barely readable scrawl.
My son. My son!
Little drawings, like toddler’s, of flowers, of airplanes, of a little girl with wild curls and a woman with the biggest green eyes in the world, a second woman wearing a shy smile, a boy with shaggy hair and dimples.
The words, written in smearing ink, are incoherent and confusing.
I am so proud! So HappyHappyHappy!
WHo knew? My Daemon. He is headed someplace, i know it
I Can't be what they need
I can't be anything at all, not anymore
They hate me
I am a monster
But I AM a monster
They fill me up, they make me whole, they hurt me, they empty me, but I need them so much
I see it on her face, she hates me
I did this.
Goosebumps run up my arms as I flip through page after page. It’s like seeing inside his mind. His mind full of chaos, tainted by drugs and so much sadness. It’s eerie, seeing my art, knowing that once, he looked at it and loved it, he held it in his hands and he was proud.
I wish he would have told me.
There are so many papers. I feel like I’m somewhere I shouldn't be.
I wouldn’t Forgive me. (it’s okay, it’s okay, you’re okay.)
If you’re reading this, I’m sorry. Whoever you may be.
“Oh my god,” I breathe.
I shut the box, but it’s too late.
“What’s in it, Dameon?” Sable asks.
“Just junk. I’m going to throw it away.” I carry the box back to room and tuck it on my closet shelf.
I don’t want Sable to find it. Not yet. I can’t be sure what else lies in those pages. In those letter to my mother.
When I re-enter Dad’s room, Sable is wearing his jacket. It dwarfs her, sleeves reaching beyond her skirt, shoulders comically large on her tiny frame.
“He used to wear that all the time when I was little.” I smile, picturing that man.
She sits on the bed.
“Tell me a story. Tell me about him when you were small.”
“You know, he and our mom weren’t meant to be together…. They just…. Well, because of me, they had to make it work. He was quite, serious, focused. She was wild.”
Sable grins at that.
“She would always make fun of him. Call him “no fun” and “boring” and tell him to lighten up. He would smile and shake his head and he would always say the same thing.”
I catch myself smiling.
“‘Camille, the last thing you need is more chaos in your life.’“
I remember him then. Three years older than my mother, already working full-time when I was born. While my mother caused trouble for us and got lost in her own head, he worked. He had had dreams too, something I think she forgot. I remember, sitting on the porch, him downing a beer, just talking. He told me all about engineering. That was his dream, to create things. He started out working on cars, and ended up running a repair shop. Mom tried desperately to convince him to throw all our stuff in the van and run away, but our life was here, and saving our money, getting a steady job with no GED and no higher education, leaving everything behind, would be impossible.
I tell my little sister all about his cars and dreams and the man he used to be.
“Dameon….” Sable says gently.
“I wish I knew him.”
The carpet in the chapel is musty and old and I want to sneeze. He sits, now a pile of ash, in an urn. Waiting. Sable’s curls have been tamed into a low ponytail, and Grandma, usually decked in color, wears a tight black dress. Moraine, whose undereye bags have been poorly covered with cheap makeup, has made a feeble attempt to mask the past week. She looks nice. Almost pretty. I wear an old suit, worn by a cousin at a wedding once. A piece of notebook paper is tucked in my pocket, my eulogy to my father written in the span of one long night, the words never coming out just right.
I am shocked by how many people show up. Thirty, forty, fifty people pour in.
And then I see her.
Her hair falls around her shoulders, held back by headband. New wrinkles have settled around her eyes- laugh lines. She clutches her purse so tightly her knuckles have gone white.
When she sees me, her face softens. She stops in her tracks, mouth open.
I look away quickly.Sneaking a glance over my shoulder, I see she has faded into the back of the church. Nobody recognises her. She sits against the back wall with the people who barely knew my father, paying their respects more to the family than the deceased. Strangers.
I had no idea how hard it would be to keep myself calm up at the podium, reading my eulogy. Their faces burn into me, false sympathy and anticipation as I struggle through my reading. They expect me to say something beautiful and profound, but my words feel empty. My hands shake as I fold my paper and tuck it back into my pocket.
I take my seat next to Sable, shaking.
I think of a night when I found him on the porch, out of his mind.
“You better say something pretty at my funeral. Okay, kid? Start writing. The end is upon us!”
His whole body shaking, he laughed until he finally passed out cold at my feet.
The service ends with a song that Morraine picked out, one that makes her cry. She buries herself in my shoulder, Grandma rubbing her back. Sable holds my hand so tight, hers so small in mine.
In the florescent-lit banquet hall, a procession of people take turns talking to us. I want so badly to go, get out of here, leave all of this behind.
While people swarm around me, my eyes find her. Grandma sees her too. Something lurches inside me as I watch them embrace. Sable grabs my hand, suddenly shy.
“That’s her?” She whispers, unsure.
“Camille?” Grandma says. They hold each other so tight.
“Mom,” My mother breathes.
Her voice sounds the same.
I hold my breath until she looks up. Her eye catches mine and I look away, but I can’t escape her. She is wrapping herself around me, suffocating me, her perfume messing with my head.
“Dameon, baby.” She whispers, stroking my hair, an action so familiar to me.
I say nothing. She grabs me by the shoulders and looks me in the face. Her eyes widen. Sable stands, ignored, watching us intently. My mother’s eyes are glassy and she smiles at me with love like I’ve never seen I hate her and I hate her and I hate her.
“You’re- you’re so old.” She gasps, covering her hand with her mouth.
“I’m so sorry. I wish I could have-”
“You could have. You made a choice, remember?” I say, untangling myself from her.
I turn and walk out into the afternoon, hands shaking.
She finds me in the garden. Sable. I feel so small, sitting on this concrete bench in these ill-fitting clothes with a seven-year old rubbing my back, my head in my hands.
“Sable, go back to Grandma. You don’t have to be with me.” I say, wiping my nose on my sleeve.
“Sable, really. Go talk to your mom. Get to know her a little.” I say icily.
“I don’t want to.”
“You don’t? I thought….”
“Is she going to stay?”
I throw my hands up in the air. Sable laughs.
“I came here to get away from all of that, Sable. Can we… not think about any of it? Just for a little while?”
She takes off her shoes and puts her feet in the fountain. I roll up the ankles of my pants join her.
Talking to my little sister about nothing, about beetles and the sky and whatever else is running through her mind, I really do forget about it all. We stay until our toes are pruned up and I see people leaving in their cars through the flowers.
“Sable, do you think we should go back?”
“Let’s be brave,” She says, swinging her legs over the side of the fountain and picking up her shoes. She dips her hand back into the water and splashes me.
“Sable!” I laugh, chasing her as she runs away into the dining hall. The funeral feels a little less bleak after sitting in the sunshine, smiling in spite of it all.
Moraine looks at my mother like she’s a work of art.
I can tell, watching her watch my mother smear of lipstick. Imitating the way she sits up with her head held high, shoulders relaxed.She is like the quiet kid in the presence of a popular girl, adjusting her hair in the mirror, only smoking on the porch.
She has stepped down as woman of the house with my mother around. Her unassuming presence has been outshined by my mother’s boldness. She has slept three nights in this house, and already the fridge holds her food and her clothes hang next to Moraine's.
She has taken over the house, rearranging, cooking, pitching in.
I am grateful that at least she has left me alone. She doesn’t attempt to start conversation, just stares. She can feel my hatred from across the room, my looks causing her confidence to waver.
She thinks she can change it. She’s really trying.
New socks on the end of my bed, clothes ironed and folded.
Sable sticks with me. We are inseparable at home, silently rebelling against her.
I expected her to be fascinated with her every move, following her around with stars in her eyes, but after our talk in the garden, maybe she realises how much hurt this woman has caused us.
I like having someone on my side.
I forget that he’s gone sometimes. He was so far gone before. It hits you, every once and awhile, washing the dishes, riding to school. The nevers and the could haves.
Mr. Peters knows somehow, but he doesn’t talk about it. For two mornings, I work in silence. Until he drops an envelope in front of me, grinning like a maniac.
“We need to talk.”
“Please don’t get mad, Dameon. I- Oh, man. I know you’re going to get mad. But, I made a portfolio, all of my favorite pieces of yours. Wrote a little essay, and I sent it to HAU. They sent this letter back.”
All I can do is stare.
“What the hell, Mr. Peters?”
“Harrison Arts University is interested in you. It’s kind of a big deal.”
I can’t believe this.
“You realise that’s illegal, right? Forging a college application?” I laugh.
“I didn’t pretend to be you. I explained in the essay that I’m your teacher, and every day I see how passionate you are about your work. It wasn’t really an application.”
“So, what was it?”
“Well, the university is incredibly interested in your work. They want you, Dameon. If you want to, they strongly encourage you to apply.”
I sit back in my chair and laugh.
“Holy s***,” I smile.
“No way. Mr. Peters, with all due respect, this is absolutely ridiculous. I can’t- this is impossible.”
“But it isn’t. Read the letter yourself.”
He was telling the truth.
They wanted me.
Late into the night I am staring at the letter, rereading it over and over. Nobody is awake, so I sneak into the garage and start our ancient desktop.
I type Harris Arts University into the search engine, scrolling through endless pictures of art done by kids like me, through articles about alumni, pictures of the campus, dorm rooms, and find myself dreaming.
I find a page on their financial aid program, my fists clenched, ready to be crushed by what I read.
“What’s that, Dameon?” My mother asks, scaring me to death.
“What the hell?” I say, startled. She bends down to pick up my letter, which has fallen to the ground.
“What’s this?” She asks, reading.
“Dameon,” She gasps, looking at me with big eyes, a smile creeping across her face.
“Give it back.” I say, reaching for her.
“Wait.” She says, pulling away.
“Who do you think you are? Give it back.”
“Dameon, I had no idea. This is fantastic!”
“Give it back.” I say in a hushed voice.
“I have to show this t-”
“Give it back!” I yell, snatching the letter out of her hands.
She looks shocked.
“Dameon, why are you ac-”
“It doesn’t matter, mom. It’ll never happen! This is just some stupid….”
“Dameon, don’t you want-”
“Just forget it. Please. When I’m ready, If I ever am… Just forget it. For now, this doesn’t mean anything.”
She nods, understanding.
Before she goes back through the door, she turns to me.
“I can help you. You won’t have to worry about money.”
I say nothing.
“You can come to california. If you apply… you’ll be in state. And I’ll be there. There’s a future for you there.”
“We can be together. Sable can have a better life, out there.”
“You had your chance.” I say.
“Give me a second one?”
“What I did… It was Awful. Evil. I know this. I guess… I thought I’d be back.”
I am spilling over, everything bubbling to the surface.
“I did too. I hoped, everyday. I’d come home and you’d be back. You’d say you were sorry-”
“You’d say you were sorry and everything would go back to how they were. I’d be enough for you. But Months turned to years and you gave me nothing.”
“What? Dameon. I’ve written hundreds of letters. Remembered every holiday. Even valentine’s. You never sent me anything, ignored me for years. I mean, I don’t really blame you, but even after years of nothing, But I still wrote. ”
“What are you talking about?”
“You- you never saw?”
“Oh my god.”
“He must’ve- I’m so sorry baby.”
I can’t bring myself to tell them. It’s easier to make you the bad guy than to tell the truth. I’m sorry.
He hid her from me, all these years.
“But, you… you still left.” I sob, hiccuping.
“I didn’t leave you, not really. ” She says quietly.
“Yes, you did. Even if I read all those letters… It’s not the same. I needed you so much. He turned into a monster.”
I am shaking now. My body is racked with sobs, shoulders heaving.
She envelops me in her arms, and this time, I hug her back.
“It’s 3 in the morning, baby. You should get some rest.”
When we come back inside, we find Sable listening at the door.
There is not much for me here. I have my job, sure, a few friends, a few exes. Mr. Peters. As I bike to school, watching the same world go by, I find myself imagining California.
It’s always warm in southern California. I wouldn’t have to bike in the snow. I could be somebody else, on the other side of the continent. I would be given a fresh start.
Maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid. Maybe I could show people my art. Show them myself.
Should I say yes? Leave that house, full of painful memories and falling apart? Leave Moraine, alone, sure to find some other jerk to toss her around?
I think of Sable. She could go to the ocean whenever she wanted in California. She could feel safe from addicts and violence and sirens away of this neighborhood. She could be happy.
There is future for me in California, like Mom said.
I have not forgiven her completely. That hug in the garage did not heal every wound that we share. Still, I think it’s worth giving her a second chance.