YA urban fantasy
Chapter One: To Know or Not to Know
“Toby, don’t be rude; people are waiting,” snaps Mom.
Grudgingly I make my way downstairs. It’s been two weeks since Dad died but relatives I’ve never heard of keep coming out of the woodwork. Mom insists the more the merrier but without merriment it’s just more people, and a hell of a lot more lasagna.
All they want to do is reminisce. None of them want to talk about the fact that he was killed in the highest security area of the city. Or that he was killed. Or that they haven’t found who did it. But that’s all I can think about.
“Ohhhhh Toby,” they say in one communal breath, their eyes widening as they take me in. I’m wearing the same recycled Cage the Elephant T-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms I have every other day. I make no attempt to tame my wicked morning fro’ hawk either. I feel like shit, no point in pretending otherwise.
You’d think I’d been assigned the role of grieving widow in this family drama. My mother is dressed up, her bobble-head nodding along agreeably to everything these people say. I don’t know how she does it. I’ve heard her crying in her sleep but by day she’s someone else, someone pleasant and agreeable and completely foreign to me.
“Thanks for coming,” says Shelly, shaking hands and hugging people like a seasoned politician. Shelly’s two years younger than me but she’s a mini-me of our mother. Together they’re in on trying to sell the image: family moving on. I’m the only one who’s failing.
I shuffle around the room, let people wrap their arms around me and stifle cries against my shoulder. But I don’t recognize any of them. Not really. Not even family. It’s like we only have this one thing in common now and nothing more. I want to shout at them, tell them they’re supposed to try to keep it together for us, not the other way around, but I’m drained of everything, even my voice.
In truth, it feels like I’m underwater ebbing slowly in this tide of people but drowning all the same.
I turn to escape but get cornered again. “So, how are you doing?” asks a balding man, his gut threatening to send shirt buttons flying everywhere.
I whisper the lie. “Okay.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the truth. I don’t normally forgo personal hygiene. I don’t know why anyone even bothers asking.
“Well it can’t be easy,” says beer gut. No shit.
“How did you know my dad?”
“Mark and I worked together. Long time ago, before he became a defense contractor. I’m so sorry.” I nod and try to show some teeth. I have no idea if I achieve a smile or a sneer.
Worst of all is the quiet that follows.
“Excuse me,” I say and duck out of the room. I can’t breathe. It’s like someone vacuumed up all the air in this place. Just hearing his name sends a ferocious uprising of grief through me. It reminds me I’m the man of the house now,though I feel anything but.
…Yet that’s the thing—the thing I can’t shake. My father wasn’t a man. He was a force. He was a Marine, ex-Special Forces, intuitive as all hell, and with the body of a linebacker—because he used to be one. Who would be out of their mind enough to take him on? Who could be skilled enough to win? It doesn’t make any sense.
How could this have happened to him…to me…to us? I only think the question but it seems to well up in the back of my throat. I shuffle down the hall, looking to my left and right but no one’s around, not here anyway.
Reaching out, my trembling hand rattles the knob. Polite conversation snakes its way down to me. All this stupid talking but no one’s really saying anything. Not really. No one willeven answer my questions. They’re not even acknowledged, even by Mom. She’s the worst.
Yet there’s no way they haven’t wondered. It’s as if any talk about Dad is unbearable. As if they’d rather not know. But,for me, that’s not an option.
I have to.
I push into Dad’s study and close the door softly behind me. The hinge squeaks as I do—like a tiny little cry that only I can hear.
Chapter Two: Puzzle Pieces
At once it smells like him. I breathe in deeply. It’s that painful ache I can’t help but prod.
I would never admit this. Especially aloud. Especially because it sounds crazy…but I’m homesick for him. Can that even exist? Is that why I have to do this…?
I move over to his desk and slide into the chair. I have no idea what I’m looking for or where to look for it. I pull at one drawer after another after another. Only…they’re all empty. His entire desk is.
I swat at the computer. Maybe Dad kept all of his files electronically. I lean into the leather chair and wait for the screen to change.
Only it doesn’t.
I power it on and off. I control + alt + delete. I pray to the Norton Antivirus gods. But it doesn’t work. None of it. It’s just a black screen.
A black screen with one flashing—taunting—white bar.
F-U-C-K Y-O-U, I pound out on the keyboard. Suddenlyeven the white bar disappears. My heart sinks. Even the computer won’t talk to me.
I swing the chair around and scan the room. I haven’t been in here many times. It’s Dad’s own version of a man cave.
I get up and head over to the bookshelf. Half of it is filled with baskets full of old newspapers. Dad used to joke that in another life he was a historian—that’s why he keeps all these stories. Sometimes they’re even the same story, just different papers.
I move up to the next shelf and run my fingers over the couple of books housed here. An encyclopedia. A dictionary. Boring.
My eyes scan the room and settle on the only thing that’s left. My Mom, sister, and me. The three of us. Left behind. Ireach out and pick up the photograph, my fingers digging into the corners of the frame as I do. I can’t peel my eyes away.
We’re in Annapolis. It’s summer certainly. But what year?I know this. I should know this… The harder I seek it,however, the further it seems to get. A groundswell of frustration builds. Angrily, I yank open the back of the frame for the answer.
There’s another picture in here instead, carefully tucked behind the other. Slowly I pull it out and hold it before me. It’sfaded with the corners curling up but there’s no mistaking it. It’s my father and another man, both in uniform.
"Toby?” the door rattles in a knock.
My heart jumps. “Yeah?”
“What are you doing in there, dear?” asks Mom. “Are you okay?” she whispers.
“Yeah, fine. I’ll be right out.”
“Oh, okay,” she says quickly.
I stare down at the photograph, at the dark figure beside my father. I don’t have to try to memorize his face; it’s alreadyburned in the back of my mind. Quickly I tuck the picture back.
I grab Dad’s laptop and tuck it under my arm as I go.Under the door I see Mom’s feet. A long, shallow sigh escapes my lips but I force myself to move towards her, and to face the strangers in our house once again.
“Whatcha doin’?” asks Mom. Only she’s no longer asking about Dad’s study but the computer I’m clutching tightly to my side. The one she’s practically talking to.
“Get caught up,” I try to say casually. I may even shrug. I don’t know. I’m a shit actor and an even worse liar.
“Maybe even go back to school tomorrow.” It’s meant as a total kiss-up, bullshit answer but as soon as I say it, I mean it. I need to see Simon. I need to get out of this place…
“Please?” I add. I don’t mean for my voice to snag, but it does…just a little…right at the end. Mom doesn’t point it out.
Instead, she reaches towards me. I expect the laptop to be ripped from my arms. I end up in a deep hug instead.
“Of course,” she whispers into my hair. “Whatever you want.”