Jack slouched on the lumpy brown sofa. He leaned forward to avoid touching the musty cushions at his back. His shoulders hunched as he rested his elbows on his knees. The blinds on the office windows had been pulled down halfway, letting in enough indirect light to give the room a dusty glow.
The current, unengaging, reprimand he was receiving paled in comparison to those from his previous foster home. He was able to pretend that his scruffy sneakers were the most interesting thing in the room.
“How do you explain yourself,” Mr. Green asked. He stood in the middle of the room, arms crossed. Behind him was a desk, flooded with an array of papers and forms. He was angry, actually, disappointed would be more accurate. Jack heaved both shoulders in a shrug, not bothering to look up from the floor. Smoke was practically coming out of Green’s ears. “You’re lucky you didn’t get expelled! You do understand that the stunt you pulled is the reason you’ve been kicked out of another home?”
How could he forget? The thought burned in the back of Jack’s throat. He swallowed the desire to explain what happened; how getting sent here was the only way out. It’d be better to cut this reunion short. Hunger pains pinged at his gut and exhaustion vignetted his vision.
“Am I being detained, or am I free to go,” he joked in poor taste. He knew the bite in his tone risked another half hour of sitting here, but he was scraping the bottom of the self-restraint barrel. Green clenched his crossed arms.
“Why am I wasting my time,” he mumbled loudly. He wanted Jack to hear it. Reverse psychology would have worked a few years ago. Time had changed things. Green adjusted his reading glasses and scratched at the edges of his graying hairline. He didn’t recognize the kid in front of him. Not anymore.
A weight hung around Jack’s shoulders. His dark hair hid a face by heavy eyebrows. Maybe he should have kept his mouth shut, he thought as he braced himself for an encore. The room sank in silence. The wall clock ticked out the passage of time. He looked up from his extended shoe inspection.
“Go on,” Green sighed, waving out the seventeen-year-old. “You know what room you’re in. I’ll decide your punishment later.” Jack pushed himself to his feet and turned to leave before Green could change his mind.
He swung open the heavy office door, narrowly missing the kid standing on the other side. The kid leaned back to dodge. His dark brown curls bounced with the motion, though his expression didn’t change.
“Sorry,” Jack said involuntarily. He caught the door before it swung back in. The kid watched Jack’s palm slap the wood. His face remained blank.
He looked about twelve or thirteen, had a head of loose curly hair, and a complexion that was a few shades darker than what was typical of the local community. Jack didn’t recognize him, but he didn’t expect to know any of the kids here anymore.
The kid walked past Jack and into Green’s office without a word. Jack continued through the medicine room into the hallway, not bothering to think about it too hard. A lot of kids here were weird, besides, if he didn't eat something soon his stomach might digest itself.
The building was set up to look like a house. Sort of. If houses had the concrete floors of public schools and half a dozen dorm rooms, then it was a house. The cleaning products used made it smell more like a hospital. The main hall was empty for now. He headed towards the other side of the home.
A dim fluorescent ceiling light cast a yellow hue over the white-tiled kitchen. A pine tree blocked most of the view from the window above the sink, cutting off most of the natural light. The muffled howls and screeches of kids playing in the backyard still found their way in.
The dishwasher next to the sink hummed. A pan had been left on the stove. Leftovers were a rare stroke of luck; not that leftovers were rare, luck was. The government-regulated mystery meat was allegedly edible when put between slices of bread. A textbook version of a sloppy joe. The watery red-brown sauce left smear marks on the paper plate.
A sharp cry sounded from the backyard. Jack sighed as his appetite disappeared. He needed to go somewhere quiet; somewhere without toddlers.
A picnic table had been dragged out past the hill; out of sight from the house. There was no telling whether or not it would still be there now. If not, he could always wander into the woods. Maybe a stray bear would maul him. With the paper plate in hand, he turned back to the main hallway and out the back door.
The playground of a backyard was occupied by a pair of underpaid adults and ten little kids. Jack pressed on past the gate at the back of the fenced yard. The pine forest behind the property extended for miles without any sign of a neighboring house or road. Jack’s footsteps crunched on dry leaves as he followed the path uphill. The last of the cicadas droned from yellowing trees.
At the top of the hill, he could see the picnic table was still there halfway down the slope. So were Chris and Devon. They sat at the table talking while Devon smoked.
Chris was facing away from Jack, his head resting in his arms as he listened to Devon. His frame looked thinner than Jack remembered, or maybe longer, and his dusty-blonde hair had been buzzed.
Devon was on the opposite side of the table. He held a cigarette between the fingers of one hand while folding a leaf with the other. He seemed to be doing most of the talking, but it was hard to tell from this distance. The yellowing leaves behind him complimented his mellow brown skin tone.
At least I’m not alone here, Jack thought.
Devon spotted him at the top of the hill. It took him a second to register who this person was before smirking and waving a beckoning hand. Jack inhaled sharply to accommodate the sudden tightness in his chest. He hadn’t seen Chris or Devon in about two years, and they probably already knew what got him sent here. It didn't help that it happened at their school.
“Hey stranger, I’ve been hearing a lot about you the past few days,” Devon said as Jack came within earshot. A faint skunky odor hung in the air, barely covered by the overtone of tobacco. Devon patted the spot next to him for Jack to sit.
Yep, they uh, they definitely know, Jack thought.
“Suspended on your first day after transferring back. How’d you even manage that?” Chris asked, unwilling to sit up. Dark circles stained under his eyes. Both of his eyebrows were missing in action.
“Picking fights with girls,” Devon said, ashing his cigarette off the table. His smirk was one of interest, not acceptance. His square jawline was tense.
“Not exactly.” Jack laughed nervously. He’d rather not be known as a guy that hit girls.
“What happened then?” Devon asked, unamused.
For a second Jack considered starting from the beginning. He’d explain how summer had been a personal hell in more ways than one. He’d tell them about how his friend made everything worse, how he-
He couldn't finish the thought. Putting the events of the last three months into words was hard on a good day. There hadn’t been one of those yet. If he found the words, he wouldn’t be able to say them anyway. It wasn’t safe.
Devon and Chris were watching as the awkward silence stretched on. They saw how his face changed as his thoughts took him. He had trouble keeping his eyes focused on anything for very long like he was fighting sleep.
“Heather’s been wailing about being assaulted but won't say what you did,” Chris said. He recognized those expressions; resigned helplessness echoed through all of them. He’d never known Jack to be physically aggressive, not in any meaningful way. His bark was worse than his bite. On top of that, Heather was an infamous exaggerator. Chris made eye contact with Devon; a signal to lighten up.
“Right,” Jack said, breaking out of his head. Another wave of nervous laughter escaped his chest. “It was really stupid.”
“C'mon man, I want details,” Devon said, finding it in him to relax. Jack glanced at the plate in front of him, deciding if he was ready to vent or not. Red sauce pooled around the edges, soaking the thin paper. He wasn’t going to eat either way.
“I was late for school, my foster had to drive me. They don't live near here, so I couldn't take the bus,” Jack said stiffly, trying to cut out unnecessary information. “I walked into bio in the middle of a dissection. The teacher split up a group to pair me with Heather. She wasn't following along and the whole thing really grossed her out. I had to do most of the work-”
“-Wait, why did you switch schools?” Devon asked, exhaling a cloud of smoke away from the table. Jack winced.
“Is it relevant?” Chris asked Jack but was looking at Devon.
“Not really,” Jack said, trying to come up with a better excuse. Nothing came to mind, and the truth wasn't an option.
“Nevermind I guess,” Devon said while looking back at Chris, slightly annoyed. “Heather’s squeamish?”
“Yea, real bad. She kept squealing and when the teacher told her to participate she just squealed closer to me. She grabbed my arm.” He paused to take a breath. “I didn't even think about it, I just-you know. I threw the frog at her.” He wasn't proud of his actions, but it had made the perfect cover story for his ex-fosters to kick him out. “Parts of it uh, stuck to her face.”
“Pfft-“ Chris snorted.
Devon coughed from laughing. “That's it? That's what got you sent back here?”
“It’s fucking stupid, right?” Jack asked, relieved that someone finally agreed with him.
“You’re an idiot,” Chris said, shaking his head.
“That’s fair,” Jack agreed.
“No-“ Devon coughed, “-you're an idiot ‘cause she was hitting on you.“ Jack froze.
“Think about it,” Chris said. Jack tried. His eyebrows tightened with the effort.
“I don't get it.” He was pretty sure she was just annoying.
“She acted overly cutesy and made an excuse to touch you,” Devon elaborated.
“That's not flirting,” Jack said as he realized they were probably right.
“Yea it is,” Devon chuckled.
“No wonder Heather-” Chris said, stopping cold. His eyes locked onto something in the woods behind Jack and Devon. “Incoming.”
Leaves crunched under foot behind them. A large hand pressed down into Jack’s hair, aggressively mashing his head from side to side. The anxious knot in Jack’s chest tightened again.
“Look who's back, my little Asian nark! How’ve you been?” Kyle asked, out of breath. Jack didn't have the energy to address Kyle’s attempt at digging up ancient history. He batted Kyle’s arm away and turned to face him.
His face wasn’t where he’d expected it to be. Kyle had grown over the past two years. He towered over Jack at six feet. His greasy blonde hair stuck to his head against the breeze.
“I’m pretty sure he’s mixed,” Devon said blandly. He took another pull off his cigarette.
“What, you think you’re some sort of race expert,” Kyle asked. No one moved for a second. The cicadas even seemed to pause. Chris closed his eyes, his brow twitching.
“He just looks kinda white,” Devon said, casually stubbing out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe. If he talked back Kyle would share a snide remark targeting Devon’s skin color. Getting mad wasn’t worth the effort.
“How’s Sunoco,” Jack asked, trying to change the subject. Kyle scooted in on the other side of the bench. Chris pretended to be asleep.
“I don’ know, don’t work there anymore. Another nark. She reminded me of you,” Kyle said, leaning forward against the table. His bulky forearms threatened to enter Jack's personal space. Jack’s ears were hot at the second attempt to dig up ancient history.
“Get over it,” Jack said before he could stop himself. Being the cause of Kyle’s night in juvie had haunted him for four years. Kyle clapped condescendingly.
“Standing up for yourself! I like it! No more crying to Devon,” He asked, grinning with yellowed teeth.
“Kyle,” Devon warned. Kyle looked Devon up and down before deciding that, despite being the bigger guy, he probably couldn’t beat Devon in a fight.
“Alright, I’ll see you guys later,” Kyle said, backing off. He moved to stand. On his way up he lifted the edge of Jack’s paper plate. Wet sloppy Joe slid off and down the front of Jack’s shirt. Red sauce seeped into his basketball shorts. Kyle turned back towards the house, grinning.
“Jack. Don’t.” Devon warned, watching him inhale slowly.
A lifetime of shame, endless babysitting, a month of humiliation, and now this. He stood while scooping a hand full of meat off his chest. He aimed for Kyle’s back.
The chunks splattered against the back of Kyle’s head with a sickening smack, coloring his light hair a reddish-brown. The satisfaction only lasted a second. Kyle spun around and took a running start.
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