Richard guides the rental car down the narrow street, hands choking the wheel. He’d never planned to come back, to have anything to do with this place ever again. And yet, here he is, driving past the battered sign, once again plunging into a life he thought he’d escaped.
“Shit,” he mutters, bouncing over potholes, lurching past the same mobile homes he remembers, feeling the same curious eyes drilling into him. It feels like forever before he reaches the back, where Jack’s trailer slumps, looking even more ramshackle than ever. Maple trees hug the roof, tiny seedlings sprouting from the gutters. Black mildew sprinkles the siding and dented door, weeds crowding the small garden area near the rickety steps.
Damn, had he really lived in this shithole for eighteen years? Richard turns off the engine and sits for a minute, gathering himself, mentally preparing. Someone taps on the window by his face, startling him.
It must be Alice Godfrey, although she looks nothing like the woman he remembers. This woman is fat—double chins wagging as she laughs at his expression. Where she used to be spare, she is now more than generous, wearing the stereotypical old fat woman stretch pants and flipflops, despite the chill weather.
Richard pushes open the door and gets out, leaves crunching beneath his boots.
“Well, look at you, Richie Pike! Aren’t you the fancy man now?” Alice crows, her sharp eyes raking up and down his body, lingering on his expensive wool coat, the tight jeans.
“You were always a handsome lad, but now—” She whistles and for one horrifying second, he thinks she’s going to touch him, and takes a step back.
“Thanks for letting me know about Jack,” Richard says, dismissing her. He turns away and strides up to the door, hoping she will get the hint and go the hell away. Fucking busybody.
“Door’s locked,” Alice calls from behind him. “I got the key right here. I guess you’ll be wanting it, but have you seen Jack yet?”
Richard sighs before turning back around. “I’ll take that key now, Alice.” The fat woman blanches, and then walks over and drops the key in his outstretched hand.
“You haven’t changed much,” she mutters as she stomps back to her trailer. “Still the same little asshole you always were.”
“Yeah, and you’re still the same fucking busybody,” he mutters, unlocking the door.
It smells of burnt coffee, old bacon, old man, the stink gone into the cheap plasterboard walls. Richard rubs his nose, takes in the sink filled with dirty dishes, the mail scattered across the table, the worn boots carelessly tossed beneath a chair. Same old Jack. Flickering sunshine tries weakly to make a dent in the gloom, fighting not only the grime of glass, but the depression that hangs heavily in the air.
Richard yanks open the fridge: an open quart of milk, a package of cheap hotdogs, a bottle of ketchup. He lets the door shut, wipes his hands on his jeans. The bathroom is unbelievable, and he shuts the door on that nightmare with a shudder.
His pulse pounding the farther he goes, Richard’s boots thump as he treads down the narrow hallway and into his old bedroom, memories flooding his mind, strong enough to make him stumble and grab onto the doorjamb for balance.
--Richie huddles under the thin blanket, hands over his ears so he doesn’t have to hear the cursing and shouts, the crass jokes coming from the kitchen where Jack is hosting the first of a regular series of Saturday night card games. There’s about ten men crowded in the tiny kitchen, the whiskey is flowing, and the little boy in the back bedroom wants nothing more than for all of them to go away. Jack’s meaner when he drinks, and tomorrow his head will hurt, and Richie will bear the brunt of his foul temper.
--Richie slides into the backseat of Jack’s rusty sedan, dropping his school bag to the floorboards. There’s a strange woman in the front seat, where he usually sits, and when she turns around to smile at him, he looks out the window instead.
“Hi, Richie! I’m Colleen! How was school today? You’re in the third grade, right?” Colleen has bright blonde hair that puffs up around her face, black eye makeup and buck teeth.
When he says nothing, Jack snarls at him. “You better fuckin answer her or I’m gonna smack the hell out of you.”
“Fifth grade,” he mumbles, and the woman squeals, clapping her hands.
“Oh my god, are you serious? Jack! He’s so—little, right?”
Richie feels his face burn. Bitch.
“He’s a shrimp, but he’s fuckin tough,” Jack crows. “Got a call last week from the school about how he and another kid got into a fight in the hallway. Richie—ha! I never was so proud—he broke the kid’s nose.”
“Oh my god, are you serious? What happened?”
“Two-day suspension, a written apology to the kid, but I told the school no way. Why should Richie say he’s sorry when that little bastard was tryin to make him do something? He just defended hisself, that’s all.”
Later, after they eat supper (boxed macaroni and cheese, hot dogs), Jack and Colleen go into the bedroom and Richie flees, walking back into the neighborhood where his friend Chris lives in one of those big, fancy houses. If he’s lucky, his friend will be in the driveway shooting hoops. If he’s not home, Richie will wander around for a couple of hours, maybe hang out at the park and throw rocks at the fence.
Richard thumbs through the photos scattered across the top of the dresser, dusty and left behind. It doesn’t look as if Jack ever came in here, just let it sit. Hoping his son would return? No. Not that. Not after Richie stole Jack’s stash, four wads of $100 bills and then punched him when Jack tried to keep him from leaving. No, Jack never wished he would come home.
He flexes his fingers, remembering how good it had felt to drive his fist into that mean mouth after so long. Maybe he should feel guilty now? He doesn’t.
The top three photos are snaps of Richie and Chris, posed pictures taken by Chris’s parents, who didn’t mind Richie so much when he was little.
Richard picks up the final photo, and freezes. It’s a school picture of Isobel Crane. He wipes off the dust and sits down on the bare mattress, staring at it.
He remembers that red hair, that pretty mouth and what it was like to kiss her, those gorgeous stormy eyes, that lithe body. What is she doing now? She’d be twenty-six. He feels a twinge of regret that he never contacted her after he fled but chalks it up to self-preservation. Cutting everything and everyone out proved to be the best thing for him.
Enough. It’s not until he’s outside in his car that he realizes he’s still holding the picture of Isobel. Rubbing his thumb over her face, he considers looking her up, or at least doing a Google search, find out what she’s doing now.
“Idiot,” he mutters, and tosses the photo onto the other seat.