Free Me

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Avoidance Maneuver #37

I get home and see my mom making her awesome beef stew. After she goes to bed I’ll have to snag some for Zayne.

Her and I talk about her packing my lunches for school, I tell her I just don’t want to stand in line for food when I could get her better food for free quicker. A little flattery never hurts.

“Ariel?” I hear the door open and my dad’s voice boom through the house, “Everyone? I’m home!”

Arriana jumps out of her room and tackles him in a hug, her red hair a streak as she runs past the kitchen.

He catches her, the same he did when he would return from a trip when she was six. They’ve always been super close, she’s always been his princess. He kisses her head and asks her about school.

I wait until they’ve calmed down to follow mom out of the kitchen. He sees me and smiles, the longer the trips the more he misses us.

“How you doing champ? Your mom said you’ve been doing really good on your school work and have actually been getting out of the house. It’s good to know you’re back to your old self.”

“Thanks dad, it’s been good, but we definitely missed you. Careful Arriana, now that he’s home you have to share that cobbler!” I call down the hall with a laugh.

“Never!” she hollers back.

The three of us laugh as my dad pulls me into a hug, “I really did miss you kiddo. Go do your homework, we can all talk and catch up at dinner.”

I nod and walk off, looking back to see him pull my mom into a kiss. I’ve never doubted how much they love each other, I want what they have. Maybe now I can have it.

I start my homework when my phone starts vibrating, Zayne is calling.

I put in my earbuds and hit the answer call button, “Hey, how are you feeling?”

He sounds exhausted, “I’m ok, my mom is really worried. I heard her talking to my dad about what happened, she sounded like she was crying. I am so tired I don’t know if I have the energy to comfort her. I mostly wanted to call and apologize about today, you shouldn’t have had to see that.”

“Zayne don’t start, I would have been there no matter what. I wanted to be there for you, what they did was shit and you shouldn’t go through that alone. If I let you go through that alone what am I?”

“Eye candy,” I hear the smile in his voice and stop writing to laugh.

“Have you eaten?” He hesitates, “Zayne?”

“Yeah I ate. My mom made me a frozen pizza and got me settled before she left to get groceries. I ate a few slices before taking a nap. How was the rest of your day?”

“Long, I was really worried about you,” I check the light under my door to make sure no one is out there listening to me, “You can’t do that to yourself Zayne. Babe you have to eat, I’m serious.”

“I know, and I will. I’ll try to be better, I promise.”

I hear big footsteps come down the hall, “I have to go. I’ll text you soon, please eat some more. I’ll be sure to come over tonight. Bye.”

I hang up as my door opens and my dad steps in.

“How’s it going champ? Need any help?” He hangs in my doorway, still in his suit.

“Just Physics, I finished everything else in my study hall period. You ok dad? You seem off today,” I put down my pencil and take out my earbud.

“It was just a long trip, I haven’t been gone that long in years. It’s hard to always be away from you kids and your mom. It’s nice to finally see you all and I want to take it all in before I have to leave again. Dinner is almost ready, why don’t you finish up and come out to the living room? You and I could watch some TV and chat for a bit.”

I nod, nervous about what to talk about. There’s so much I’m hiding, I don’t know what to tell him. I take my time doing my work while I try to figure out what to do with my dad.

I check my phone and see a text from Zayne, it’s a picture of him lounging in his pjs on his bed with a big slice of pizza in his mouth. He’s wearing a purple shirt with the Disney logo and grey sweatpants, they look too big on him. None of his clothes fit him right, and part of me wonders if it’s to hide the weight loss.

I send him a text.

Tomorrow will be better. Finish eating and rest, I’ll see you tonight.

I put up my phone and finish my assignment. Walking into the living room I hear my dad yelling at the TV and the football he’s watching. I used to love watching football, but this past summer I’ve kind of gotten bored with it, every game is pretty much the same.

He calls me over to watch him, because I missed having him home I humor him. I listen to him yell at the players and ref even though they can’t hear him. I start dozing off on the couch next to my dad. He shakes me lightly to tell me dinner is ready, prompting to get up and go sit at the counter with my family.

We have a table, we never use it. For some reason we all silently agree to use the counter. I get comfortable on my stool while watching my mom poor out the stew into bowls for everyone, pouring hers last.

I sit and make half-hearted conversation while listening to Arriana gush about the school year so far. My dad listens intently as she goes on about her classes and the boys she likes, I try to be interested but I’m tired and worried about Zayne.

I eat and excuse myself, causing my parents to exchange a worried look when I tell them I want to go to bed.

“Do you want some more food before you go to bed? Maybe take some cobbler with you? It’s strawberry, you and your sister’s favorite.”

I give her a side hug before heading for the bedroom, “Maybe later mom, I’ll probably get up and get some in the middle of the night. I’m sorry, I just feel really tired,” I look at my dad who watches me with concern, “It’s really good to have you home dad. Maybe this weekend we can go out to lunch.”

He nods as I walk out and fall on my bed. I text Arriana and quickly fall asleep.

Put some stew and cobbler in Tupperware for me? If you could wake me when mom and dad are asleep so I could go see Zayne I’d appreciate it. Love you guys

I fall asleep faster than I ever imagined possible. I still have on my jeans and socks but I don’t really care, especially if I’m going out tonight. I think I hear my phone buzz a couple times but I ignore it and embrace the pull of exhaustion.

Waking up close to five hours later, I jump up. I don’t know what time it is, I don’t know if anyone is still awake. I grab my phone and see the time, it’s after ten o’clock and I have five texts from Arriana and four from Zayne.

Is everything ok? You hung up really fast.

Josh? Are you ok?

Did I do something wrong? Please answer me

Arriana told me you’re napping before coming over, let me know when you wake up. I miss you.

I read through all of Arriana’s texts, all of them are her telling me that there’s food for Zayne, that he called her because he was worried, and that mom and dad are in bed. Those are from an hour ago and I can hear my dad snoring.

I hear my door creek open as Arriana peaks her head in. I start to slip on my shoes as she gives me the food and I thank her for calming Zayne down. She also hands me one of her special yogurt and strawberry filled chocolate bars to give to Zayne.

Before climbing out my window I give her a tight hug and gather the food in my backpack. I slide outside and run for my bike, texting Zayne I’m on my way.

Peddling fast and hard down the road I feel my phone go off in my pocket, I pull it out and see Zayne’s caller ID.

“Hey, sorry I hung up so fast earlier, my dad came home and wanted to talk,” I start panting when I stop at a crosswalk.

“How long until you get here?” His voice sounds low and desperate.

“Ten minutes if I book it. Are you ok?”

He doesn’t say anything for a couple minutes, “Yeah, I just miss you right now.”

“Alright, I’ll be there soon, Arriana and I have some stuff for you so hopefully it’ll help.”

“Ok, see you soon. Bye.”

“Bye,” He hangs up the call and I start peddling again. I make it there in a little over eleven minutes and start stomping up the stairs.

His mom greets me at the door and tells me Zayne has been in his room all day.

“Today was really rough on him, I so badly wanted to do something I just didn’t know what I could do that would actually help,” I put my head down, ashamed I didn’t do more.

“Josh, honey, none of this is your fault. There’s only so much you can do to help and you did so much. You were there when he needed someone, you called me to get him out of that bad situation. It would have been much worse had you done nothing. He’s just struggling right now, aside from asking for some food, he’s been avoiding me and everything else all day. Except you, so why don’t you get in there?”

I nod and put my hand comfortingly on her shoulder before I head for his room. Opening the door I see him facing the wall in his bed.

“Zayne? Babe, what’s going on?”

He rolls over and I see just how bad he’s doing. His eyes are red and puffy and he’s shaking. I dart over and sit next to him.

“My dad is thinking about sending me to a camp.”

“What?” I don’t fully understand what he’s talking about, if it’s what I think it is I might just punch a wall.

“When my mom was gone I went in their room to find batteries for my TV remote. My dad keeps them in his desk so I opened his drawer and found a brochure for a conversion camp. I’ve heard the horrible things these camps do to people like us. Josh I’m scared,” he starts crying again.

I pull him close and kiss the top of his head, “No one is going to take you away, you won’t get sent there. I won’t let it happen.”

He sits and cries in my lap. I try to comfort him but I don’t really know how, I didn’t even know there were camps anywhere near here, I didn’t even know they were still legal.

I sit with him until he calms down, not long after he falls asleep in my lap. I don’t want to let him go, instead I just wrap my arm around him and cradle his head.

Conversion camps were some of the things I came across during my research after that party freshman year. Stories of survivors haunted me with thoughts of electroshock therapy, verbal abuse, the use of drugs, and more. The thought of Zayne, or anyone else, in a place like that makes me sick.

Taking my time, I carefully turn him and lower him onto his pillow. I pull his blankets up to his chin and slowly back up to sit in his desk chair. I sit there for over an hour before his mom comes to check on us.

“Josh, is everything ok? How long has he been asleep?” She comes over and kneels next to him, brushing a few strands of his pink hair out of his face.

“I have no idea, it feels like forever. He’s just in such a bad place right now, I feel like I just need to stay right here to be here for him as much as I can.”

“What happened?”

I don’t know if I should tell her Zayne’s fear, if she doesn’t already know then I don’t think Zayne will get sent away. His father wouldn’t be able to do that without telling her first, and if I tell his mom how will he react?

“He’s just... Getting worn down by it all. It’s all this negativity and pressure pushing on him.”

I watch her as she watches him. I wonder if my mom ever did something like that to me or Arriana.

“I should get home,” I pull out the food I brought, “These are for him, the chocolate is special from my sister. Make sure he gets it?”

She nods as I dart out the door and leave their apartment. I can’t help but cry, I cry the whole way home, all the way until I fall asleep.

I can’t lose him. I can’t.

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