Chapter 1: Liam
I was fourteen when they left me and Jere.
It wasn’t foreshadowed either; everything was as normal as it could have been. But maybe it was never normal. On the kitchen table was each of our breakfasts; Dad with his burnt-to-a-crisp toast and brewing coffee, Mom and her fried eggs and sweet iced tea, Jere with his baby formula, and me with my Captain Crunch, no milk. It was traditional, nothing out of the ordinary.
Dad had one of Jere’s Power Ranger band-aids taped to the bottom of his freshly-shaven chin, and his light brown hair that I had inherited was carefully combed back. It took me extra long to get downstairs that day; Jere had woken up at three in the morning, refusing to go back to sleep unless he was sleeping in bed with me. Just like every other night.
Mom had to wake me up that morning, tapping me on the shoulder and whispering that breakfast was ready downstairs. Groggy from sleep, I grunted half-heartedly in acceptance and sighed, wondering why in the world I couldn’t just go back to sleep. But then Jere squirmed by my side and I cringed, remembering the agreement I’d made with Mom and Dad when they finally accepted that Rose was having my baby.
Sighing one more time, I carefully crawled out of bed and tucked Jere deep into the blankets, checking several times he’s in the middle of the bed so he won’t fall out accidentally. He’s only six months old.
But when I got back home from school that day, my mind muddled with sleepiness, they were both gone. After scanning the kitchen counters for a note and checking the voicemail on our home phone for any missed calls, I decided they were probably at the grocery store and had forgotten to tell me. Walking up the stairs of our two-story apartment, I gingerly took Jere out of his crib and tucked him into my side when I laid down in bed.
Even then, ten minutes after I got home, I could feel that something was wrong.
When night came and they still hadn’t come, I dismissed it as bad traffic and cooked myself Ramen - my (only) specialty. I lied to myself for a week before I finally faced the truth: they weren’t coming back. They left me here to take care of my baby by myself. My tiny, but huge mistake.
It’s been five years since that day.
Five years since they left me to raise Jere by myself.
Five years I’ve been the grown up.
Five years of being the abandoned child.
Five years of being ‘that kid who got that junior pregnant.’
Five years of watching my kid grow without anyone taking him away from me.
And we’re just fine.
... That was another lie.
“C’mon, kid, I’ve got a wife to get home to.”
And I’ve got a son to get home to, I think begrudgingly, but putting a little extra umph into my elbow as I mop up the floors. Bentley’s standing in front of the store’s open glass door, his key in hand and his foot replacing the doorstop. After one more wipe across the tile, I drop the mop into the sopping bucket and roll it into the supply closet where all of my cleaning supplies is kept.
“Ready, son?” his gravelly, husky voice calls. I swing my backpack over my shoulder and walk out of the closet, closing the door behind me with one solid click. I walk out of the shop without a word, my fingers twitching toward my back pocket. Bentley doesn’t miss it. “Got something’ on your mind, son?”
I stop and turn around, watching him lock the shop door behind him. I shake my head no. He glances up at me and chuckles halfheartedly, shaking his head and slipping his fingers underneath where his glasses sit on his nose, squeezing his eyes shut. “Alright, boy. I won’t bother you tonight.” He drops his keys deep inside his front pants pocket and lets out a loud, grumbling sigh, clapping me on the shoulder as he walks pass me. “Night.”
“Night,” I murmur, and then make my way across the empty street. I stare down at the pavement, watching as my feet step on each white line of the crosswalk, feeling like a member of The Beatles as they walked across Abbey Road. One day, I think, and then look up in time to find myself nearly running into a pole. I quickly sidestep the sign and make my way to the metal bench that sits facing a tattoo parlor. Mimi’s Tattoo Days.
I reach into my back pocket and pull out the rectangular box, flipping open the lid with one hand and pulling out a cancer stick with the other. Tucking the box back into my pocket, I fish out a lighter from my other back pocket and light the cigarette, sticking it in my mouth. I sit down on the bench, spreading my arms out on the back, inhaling a large whiff of the smoke. I open the side of my mouth and watch as black smoke whips into the air, forming a cloud and then disappearing into the dense air.
There’s nothing quiet about New York. There’s always some car horn blaring or a high whistle of a pedestrian; I’ve never known silence. Sometimes I wonder what it’d be like to just get away from it all; from all of the memories held up inside my house and the shouts of the city. The city that never sleeps. That’s a nickname I can believe when sitting right here, in a small part of the city right around the corner from Times Square.
I tap my cigarette on the curled, metal arm of the bench, watching as the ashes fall down and dissipate on the concrete. After a few more breaths and the cigarette is halfway gone, I dig the butt into the pavement and toss it into the trashcan adjacent to me.
I get up from the bench and make my way around the tall building that separates this deserted street from the most well-known street in New York. The more steps I take that bring me closer to the street, the louder it becomes. Horns, shouts, whistles, advertisements, laughs, chatter. Then appears the bright lights: The large screens that advertised shampoo or Broadway shows, and the sleek, mustard yellow of the taxi cabs. It never grows old, even after seeing it every day for the past six and a half years. It’s too remarkable for it not to make you just stop for a moment and make you stare in awe.
I slip two fingers between my lips and suck in, letting out a whistle that only New Yorkers can expert. Immediately, three taxi’s horns go off, one of them being only two cars down from me. Other pedestrians scramble off to the other two, throwing me a grateful smile before hopping in, and I jog over to the taxi that awaits me and hop inside the back, the stench of Rocky Mountain air freshener slapping me across the face.
It’s not the first time I’ve smelled it, but it still makes my stomach go into knots.
“Where ya goin’?” I close the door behind me and look up to see an elder man with dyed, Irish orange hair, and a beard that grows into a mustache. His blue shirt is stained with what looks like ketchup on his collar, and he has a jovial glint in his black eyes that tell me that my ride home isn’t going to be silent.
I tell him my address.
“Ah, that’s not too far, now is it?” I can almost hear the disappointment. I purse my lips and nod, adjusting my view to the window. “Not much of a talker, eh?” I shrug, bringing a chuckle out of him. “It’s alright. I’m sure I can do most of the talking for the both of us.”
I tune him out. He takes a route that not too many drivers take to my apartment, causing us to pass the frozen yogurt shop that Jere and I eat at Thursdays and the high school I graduated from. I watch as students walk out of the main entrance, some in groups of twos and threes, and others alone, keeping to themselves. After the freshman year, when I had finally determined that me and Jere were better off on our own, I was like them - I was quiet and alone.
I remember being an actual kid before the incident - a loud and obnoxious fourteen-year-old that loved to sass the teacher and make my classmates laugh, and leaving the classroom with only a small scolding. I’d been funny, my friends always sticking around me to see what new fake stories I had to tell, or what small pranks that would get me a soft scolding from the teacher but everyone else a hard laugh.
The teachers noticed my change. I’d gone from smiling in class to silently doing my work over the course of two months, during the process of the news from Rose getting to me, and then getting to Mom and Dad. And then, when they had left, I really changed. I stopped being everything I once was, and became a dad. A real dad. A single dad.
I’d gone from Liam to Mature Liam over the course of one week, all because I didn’t want to get in trouble and the teachers or principal having to call my parents who weren’t home, or for me to have to stay after school when Jere needed me home.
I couldn’t - still can’t - leave Jere home alone. I just can’t. That’s why I raised him by myself all these years in secret - I can’t stand the thought of someone trying to take him away from me, sending him to a foster home. Leaving me alone. Making him go crazy with all the change. Making him depressed. He needs me, but I think I need him more. He’s just too important to me.
“Hey boy!” I blink and turn my head to look at the driver. He’s staring straight ahead, one of his hands firm on the top of the steering wheel and the other one laying on the console. His head is turned slightly towards me, his eyes glancing at me every other second. “What’re you doing out here so late? There’s no colleges out here.”
I look back out the window. “I don’t go.”
“Can’t afford it, eh?”
My jaw goes hard. “No.”
“Well, that’s too bad, bud. I really feel yuh.” He continues to tell me about his early life story about how he became where he is sitting right now. I don’t really listen like last time, but words seem to slither their way to my ears.
All words that refer to me too.
I look over the pudgy man again, wondering, Is this how I’m going to turn out in twenty years? A damn taxi driver? I frown and look at his dyed hair again. I really dont want to be that desperate. But it’s not like I’m going to be able to keep my job at Juke Box Hero for the rest of my life, and I don’t even think that, when it comes to it, retirement will be in the question.
Familiar apartments zoom pass my window and the driver slows to a stop in front of my door. “Thanks,” I say, hand him a twenty from my backpack, and get out. Once I close the door behind me and the man gives me one wave and speeds off, I turn to see Jimmy’s blue car sitting a few parking slots away. I sigh. I’m late again.
I dig my key out of my backpack and open the front door, entering the apartment I’ve lived in my entire life. It’s a two story apartment, considering when Mom and Dad bought it, it was for four people instead of three, and all of the walls are painted a primary color.
Mom was a house decorator - the name of it is as foreign to me as France - and she made everything exactly the way she always dreamed her apartment would look like one day. Mom wasn’t from New York, but from Oklahoma, and she had frequently told me how she always dreamed as a little girl to come live here in the big city.
“I followed my dreams, Lee,” she had whispered one night to me, sitting on the edge of my bed with me tucked under blankets. “I hope one day you do, too.”
With memories like that one, it’s hard to believe that they left us. I was really convinced that they loved us.
But now I’m just not sure.