Khalil didn’t recognize the landscape whisking past his window. His eyes flitted left and right, up and down, searching for any evidence that this place was relatively the same town he had grown up in. But the more he tried to discern the landscape, the more he realized he had absolutely no idea where he was. He didn’t recognize the white picketed-fences that now lined the entrance of an apartment complex he had never seen before. He didn’t recognize the mile-long line of Mercedes wrapped around the walls of a Panera Bread. And he didn’t recognize the three-story glass monstrosity that now towered over him through the wind-shield. Even the roads hadn’t retained their familiarity, he had no idea where he was. It seemed that, in his absence, the city of Dallas had moved on without him, and so had their efforts to gentrify the whole neighborhood.
The intersection light in front of him turned green, and he felt the car jerk underneath him as Brigit pressed on the gas beside him, cruising them down the road and past the intimidating glass building. Khalil’s curiosity bested him and he found himself shifting in his seat as they drove, looking through the side view mirror to catch one last glance at the building. A large brick sign in the rear-view mirror caught his attention, and he found himself intently invested in the large black block lettering. Palm Valley Prep: a liberal arts and college preparatory magnet school. It looked more like the newest TSIS department.
Brigit caught him staring at the sign. “Private school” she spoke. “It used to be a public park.”
Khalil remembered. It had been the same park that had cost him a trip to urgent care because of a stray nail and the enraged attitude of an older kid. His twenty-seven stitches and the scar on his left arm had been the talk of the school for weeks. Guys thought he was brave and girls fussed over him relentlessly, until another boy with a broken leg came in and stole his spotlight. Khalil, involuntarily, found himself rubbing the scarred skin on his forearm. Something in his eyes must have reflected the old memory, because the next moment, Khalil could feel Brigit’s eyes boring into the side of his face. He tried to disregard her stares, but Brigit had always been relentless.
“Are you ok?” she asked. Khalil hated the way she talked to him, the way she spoke to him like a child who might burst into tears if he was yelled at too harshly.
He ignored her words, the way he had been the whole car ride, but she had seemed inclined to talk regardless of his silence. Nevertheless, Khalil remained quiet, idly staring out the window beside him without actually seeing a thing.
“Khalil?” she questioned louder this time, though she knew he had heard her. She let out an irritated sigh beside him. “Khalil. Look, I get that you’re angry. You have every right to be! Your life has been full of obstacles and burdens that no teenager should have to deal with, but shutting out the people who are trying to help you because you’re scared” she paused, frustrated and searching for the right words “People who are trying to- ”
Khalil couldn’t contain a spurt of sarcastic laughter at Brigit’s sentimentalist trap. He had been subject to therapy to many times not to recognize when he was being counseled, and yet he still couldn’t resist himself.
“Help me?” he furrowed his brows in genuine concern, his lips pursed together in a line. “Is that what you call whatever it is you’ve been doing? Because, from where I’m sitting all you’ve ever done is make my life worse.”
“Making sure you have a roof over your head and a hot meal every day is making your life worse?” The softness in her voice was slowly fading away, replaced instead by a fiery anger Khalil was unfamiliar with.
“Making sure that you aren’t dead on the streets!”
Khalil scoffed, a tight lipped smile stretching across his face. As soon as the foreign words had escaped Brigit’s mouth, her face became overcome with guilt and her tone slowly began to soften once more.
“I-I just want to make sure that you’re okay.” her voice was quiet again, yet still wielding of authority.
“I’m fine Bri!” Khalil burst. “I’m fine” he turned to look at her, hoping that the anger written across his face would drive her to silence.
“I don’t need you to therapize me , and I certainly don’t need your pity-” Brigit opened her mouth to rebuttal, and seeing her apprehension Khalil kept going. “I don’t need you! I’m fine!” He practically yelled the last part, his voice rising exponentially.
Silence rang throughout the car for only a moment, before Brigit gathered the courage to speak again, Khalil’s outburst having no effect on her. She was used to his mood swings, and his resentful demeanor towards anyone who tried to show him any kind of affection, yet she was still determined to attempt to guide him, even if everything she said went in one ear and out the other.
“If you were fine-” Brigit paused taking a breath. Khalil watched as her hands slowly tightened their grip around the steering wheel. Her voice was calm and composed and held no hint of anger, which Khalil had not been expecting. “I wouldn’t have found you on the streets of Oklahoma...away from your family”
“Those people weren’t my family.” Khalil replied matter-of-factly, the intensity of his voice mimicking hers.
“They could have been. They could have been your way out, but instead you ran. Again.”
“You and I both know that I have no way out!” Khalil bellowed. His hands in his lap had become fists, and his once shallow breathing had become erratic. He was tired of having the same conversation over and over again, and he was tired of everyone holding onto false hope that didn’t exist. His future had already been written for him and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t comprised of a happy ending.
“Nobody wants a teenager, and as soon as I turn 18 in a couple of months I’ll be back on the streets like I was before. You can’t save me.”
“No one can” Khalil muttered this last part under his breath. If Brigit had heard him, she had done a good job pretending she hadn’t. Her eyes were focused on the road in front of her, as if the silence had never been broken.
“Just promise me-” she began a few moments later, and Khalil could have sworn he had heard a break in her voice.
“Promise me you won’t run here. Promise me you’ll try.”
The car once again regained its eerie silence, Khalil completely ignoring Brigit. There was no point in making empty promises, and he was sure that she knew that he would leave again the first chance he got.
The scenery on the other side of Khalil’s window gradually began to change and the number of restaurant chains and fancy cars slowly began to thin out until miles of shabby broken houses and rusty fences was all that was left. Khalil could feel his heart pounding out of his chest as they began to draw closer and closer to their destination, his stomach somersaulting in anticipation and anxiety. Being back in Dallas - in this town - was resurfacing memories that he had buried deep inside a long time ago, memories that hurt to much to revisit. Yet, as he and Brigit rounded a long bend, shrouded by large bushes and trees, Khalil found all his memories manifesting right before his eyes in the form of his - untouched - childhood home.
The house looked exactly the same as when Khalil had left it. The same faded red shingles clung to the small windows, all of them rotted through and practically falling off their hinges. The same weed-filled yard and tall overgrown grass decorated the front lawn, the aged stone pathway underneath it now hidden from view. It was funny how, as hard as he tried to run from this place, he somehow always ended up stuck between the same peeling wallpaper. Sirens rang out in the near distance, engines revving like the sound of thunder, a repetitive occurrence in the dubious neighborhood. Cedar Creek hadn’t changed a bit.
He felt himself suffocating at just the sight of the small bungalow, and even thinking about going inside sent shivers down his spine. It had been years since he had even stood on the sloping wooden stairs yet the familiarity of it all made it seem like he had never left at all.
Khalil threw open the passenger’s side door with a rough shove as Brigit brought the car to a stop beside a steep curb. Her Altima distinctly notable compared to the old broken down cars that lined the street for miles on both sides, she stood out like a sore thumb in her navy pantsuit.
Khalil hadn’t realized just how much he had been dreading come home until he was forced to stare down the prison that he had once called home, and he suddenly felt as if he were glued to the seat, at a loss of all motor function. His “family” in Oklahoma was starting to look a lot more promising, too bad he had ruined that just like everything else.
The sound of Brigit’s finger tapping on the window of the car brought him back from his reverie, though the dread creeping up the back of his neck refused to dissipate. Khalil’s beat up trainers pounded against gravel pavement as he forced himself to stand from the car. He bent down, shouldering a strap of his backpack, then moved to retrieve his trash bag of clothes from it’s place on the floor, before finally closing the door with an audible slam. Brigit gave him a demeaning look from the other side of the car, but he only scoffed in response. Turning around with a distinct groan, he began to trek through the thick, unkempt grass and up to the front door of the group home, his hefty bag flattening the grass behind him, leaving a trail which Brigit followed in the wake of.
Khalil made it up the concrete front steps the porch first, dropping both his bags to the ground with a thud. He prayed that Brigit wouldn’t try to give him another lecture before she handed him back into the system, but she only repeated her pleading from before, “Promise me you’ll try.”
The same stuffy scent of cigarettes and must greeted Khalil’s nostrils as he stepped over the threshold and into the small rotting house. It was dim inside, the only form of light, two small lamps sat table-side, decorating the two ends of a beige stained couch. The, once polished, hardwood floors were now chipped and broken, missing planks here and there that even walking was a hazard and Khalil could practically hear the oak stairs in the middle of the entrance creaking from where he stood. He had nothing but bad memories of this place, and they were all beginning to come back to him one by one.
His breathing began to hitch in his throat as the stuffy smell of the house became the only thing he could focus on, struggling to inhale with each breath in. He wasn’t sure when he had closed his eyes, but suddenly all he could see was black, his thoughts somersaulting around in his head as breathing became more ragged.
Suddenly, flashes of red and orange began to blur his vision, encircling him until he was consumed in the harsh red glow. Sirens blared in the background, the piercing sound drawing nearer and nearer until the sound was nearly deafening in his ear, but still all Khalil could see was red. Shrill screams cut through the air, joining the sound of the sirens in a symphony. Khalil’s eyes flew open at the speed of light, yet red and orange still burned in the corners of his vision. He instinctively reached out for the chain around his neck, squeezing the cold metal pendant tight in his hands until the whites of his knuckles were shining in the dim lighting. His breathing instantly began to ease at his newfound comfort, his breathing becoming rhythmic once more.
Every doctor, counselor, and therapist he had been to had diagnosed him with the same verdict: PTSD. They all wanted him to talk out his problems, therapeutically, as if reliving the worst night of his life in his dreams wasn’t enough. They didn’t want to talk about the fire, or his parents, or their deaths. They only wanted to censor him, to manipulate the truth so they could hide the the true story from a public that was to sensitive to handle what had really happened. They could deceive the public with ease but, though the case had since been dropped, Khalil refused to give them the benefit of the doubt.
“Khalil!” a loud exclamation and a flushed, smiling, face broke Khalil from his reverie and in seconds a pair of warm, broad arms had been thrown around his waist, a small head nuzzled into his chest. The woman embraced him tightly, squeezing him with a firm grip, before she pulled back, holding him at arms length as she began to take him all in. Her eyes flickered from his unruly ebony black hair-sticking up at all angles-down to the black trash bag at his feet, before roaming back up to his eyes as she took all of him in.
“Gosh” she exclaimed, smiling tightly as she grabbed his arms in excitement. Khalil wished that she would let him go, but the woman plowed on as if she hadn’t noticed his stiffness.
Khalil recognized the woman’s voice, it was the same voice that had haunted his childhood for years, but it was hard to believe that the old woman standing in front of him now was the same person who had been in charge of this same group home over a decade ago.
“What were they feeding you up in Oklahoma!” she tried to lighten the mood, but to no avail. Khalil didn’t want to be back here and he was sure she could see it written across his face.
Donna, like the house, hadn’t aged well either. Her once flaming red hair had almost turned completely grey, and her eyes no longer bore the brightness they used to, but were instead accented by small wrinkles, tiredness etched across her face. The effects of spending your entire life devoted to the care of seventeen vivacious little boys. How she had managed to survive this long, Khalil had no idea.
Khalil remained silent, even with Brigit’s eyes boring into the side of his head beside him, but Donna’s pleasant demeanor remained unwavering.
“Thank you!” Brigit spoke, breaking the awkward silence that was threatening to spread throughout the room. “For agreeing to take him back in.”
“Of course!” Donna waved her hand midair, dismissing Brigit’s praise without a second thought. “I don’t think I could ever turn a child away.” Khalil rolled his eyes unnoticed by both women, their pity disgustingly annoying. Neither of them cared about him or the rest of the boys in this house, they were only concerned with the arrival of their next check, but Khalil couldn’t blame them. This was a man eat man world, and he refused to be eaten by society.
“Ok” Brigit began with an audible sigh, clearly preparing a goodbye speech that Khalil was certain he didn’t want to hear. “W-well. Remember what I said and-”
“I’ll be fine.” Khalil said, his voice completely monotone. “I always am.”
“Just..just try not to end up on the streets again.” she whispered the last part as if it were an untold secret. He rolled his eyes, opening his mouth to argue with Brigit one last time, but was promptly interrupted by a loud, booming voice exclaiming through the air, feet pounding down the stairs with a thunderous roar.
“The boys are fighting again!” the voice yelled. Though the boy’s breathing was ragged from descending the long staircase his voice retained an air of annoyance, as if he were fufilling a daily routine. But it wasn’t the urgency or the annoyance in his voice that made Khalil swivel around hurridedly, it was the sheer familiarity of the boy’s voice. He had assumed that all the boys that had been in the group home with him years ago were gone, he hadn’t expected to recognize any of the young kids that now occupied the same small rooms and empty hallways. And he definitely didn’t expect to recognize the ash brown haired boy that stood at the foot of the dark staircase. Donna let out a breathy sigh in front of him, she was annoyed too, but Khalil still couldn’t bring himself to take his eyes off the boy at the bottom of the staircase.
Donna quickly glanced back at Khalil, a look of pure irritation on her face, profanities floating about the air. With another loud sigh she pointed to Beau beside the stairs.
“I’ll take care of it!” she complained, shuffling over to the staircase, calling over her shoulder. “Beau, would you please show Khalil to your room?” Though she didn’t give either of them a chance to respond before her heavy footsteps were pounding up the stairs at a sharp staccato, her high pitched voice screaming at the top of her lungs. Silence reigned in the entryway of the small cottage, Brigit’s reassuring presence gone, leaving both boys to stare at each other stiffly. Khalil found himself, involuntarily of course, clutching the silver pendant around his neck once more, but the coolness of the metal on his skin did nothing to ease his anxiousness. Donna’s loud voice could be heard faintly from the floor below, the recognizable sound of children’s whines’ following.
Beau was the first to break the deafening silence in the room, an unreadable expression on his face. Khalil had no doubt that Beau would recognize him, but that still didn’t stop him from crossing his fingers and praying with all his might for a fresh start.
“You’re back.” Surprisingly, there wasn’t a hint of malice, or even smug mockery on his face. He sounded matter-of-fact when he spoke.
“And you’re still here.” Khalil hadn’t meant to say it as spiteful as he had, but he couldn’t stop the words from free-falling from his mouth. Though he hadn’t been in this house for years he could still remember the day he left with clarity. He could remember the flashing red police lights and the fighting, and he could remember Beau at the center of it all. The hand that wasn’t wrapped around the pendant around his neck immediately curled in on itself until Khalil could feel his nails digging into his skin with ferocity.
Beau, oblivious to Khalil’s internal struggle across the room, crossed his arms over his chest, pursing his lips together as he nodded his head back and forth. He seemed unbothered, which was more than Khalil could say for himself, but Beau hadn’t had to spend two years in a juvenile detention center, or been forced out of another foster home and instead onto the streets. No, while Khalil was out in the real world trying to survive, he had been here, eating real food and sleeping on a real bed, without a care in the world.
“I guess we both must be doing something wrong then.” he tried to joke, but Khalil found no hint of amusement in anything he had said.
“Relax” he furrowed his brows with a small smile. “It was a joke”
Beau, quickly, began to move past the awkward silence that threatened to swallow the room again, shoving his hands in his pockets with a wide-eyed glare, conspicuously rolling his eyes in the opposite direction.
“Follow me.” he urged with a soft, annoyed, sigh. Khalil fisted his bags in his hand once more, and made to follow Beau back up the creaky oak stairs, to the landing of the second floor. Everything looked exactly the same as Khalil had left it, even the moth-bitten burgundy curtains Khalil had torn in a restricted game of tag still clung to the stained windows. There were four rooms in the hallway, two on either side of him. Beau stopped at the first door on his left, un-pocketing his hands, only for a moment, to push the splintered door open.
“Cozy.” he whispered to himself, surprised by the lack of space in the room. Though Khalil wasn’t sure what he had expected to see in the house, it definitely wasn’t the cramped and unkempt room that met him now.
The room was practically miniscule, only big enough for two twin-sized beds, and a pair of bunks all shoved to one side of the room to conserve space. The rest of the empty space in the room was taken up by a small desk, cluttered with papers in no particular order or organization, and two small dressers made of the same wood as the bed. The windows in the room were blocked by by piles of clothes that appeared to be stacked atop every available surface, so the only source of light in the room were two bulbs attached to the fan that had yet to burn out like the others.
“This is your bed.” Beau gestured to the only small, rickety, twin-sized, bed in the room that wasn’t occupied. It barely looked as if it could support half of Khalil’s weight. A dingy mattress, that you could hardly tell the original color of anymore, sat atop the oak slabs, along with a few sheets that smelt strangely of smoke. Khalil sat his bags on the floor next to the bed, taking the opportunity to take in the rest of his surroundings.
“The bottom two drawers are yours.” Beau pointed to the dresser at the foot of Khalil’s bed, though Khalil made no move to unpack and instead stood staring at what was supposed to become his new home. He couldn’t believe he was thinking it, but Oklahoma was starting to look more promising.
“Make yourself at home.” Khalil barely contained himself from letting out a spastic laugh, at this point he wasn’t even sure what a home was.
“Dinner is in an hour.” Beau finished hurriedly. Khalil had a feeling Beau was trying as hard to get rid of him as he had been trying to rid himself of Beau, though there would be no complaints from his department.
Hands still stuffed into the pockets of his jeans and his lips pursed in a line, Beau turned around to leave the room, but stopped halfway from the door. “Oh” he exclaimed in revelation, turning on his toes.
“And your uniform is hanging up in the closet.”
“Uniform?” Khalil’s interjection stopped Beau in his tracks. He nodded his head, his brows furrowed as if Khalil had asked a question with a blatant answer.
“For school” Beau shrugged his shoulders, oblivious to the mental effect those words had on Khalil. He might as well have told him that the world, as he knew it, was coming to an end. Khalil wondered if it was to late to call Brigit back and beg for forgiveness.
“School?” Khalil questioned yet again, and he could start to see Beau losing his patience. Khalil hadn’t gone to school in Oklahoma, he had been to busy trying to survive on the streets to learn quadratic formulas, but now that he was being forced to go he remembered how much he had hated it. Maybe he could skip a day or two without anyone knowing, or maybe he could run away again altogether.
“Yes school. The bus comes at 6, so we have to ready by five thirty.”
We? Khalil had traded in a life of free will, where he was obliged to do anything he wanted, to be confined to the restrictions of a schedule that dictated where he had to be every second of every hour? That in in itself was enough to make him bawl, but the cherry on the icing was being stuck with Beau in the midst of it all. He had to find a way to get out of this suffocating house as soon as possible.
Dinner was the furthest thing from Khalil’s mind when Beau finally left him to settle into his new room and he could barely rest easy when all the lights turned off and the sound of soft snores blanketed around him. The comfort of sleep evaded Khalil all night, his mind to alive with thoughts of new worries that would plague him in the morning. His eyes would drift close for a few moments before they shot back open, the suffocating scent of smoke and the red tinge of flames still burning in his memory, until he found himself straining to keep his eyes open, afraid of what would happen if they closed for even a moment. He trained his eyes on the faint streak of moonlight that had managed to peak through all the mess in the room.
“Mom!” Khalil could hear the faint screams of a small boy in the distance, but as he grew closer the screams began to turn to sobs until the child’s words were barely recognizable in the wake of his cries. He was running after a stretcher, a lady in a blue uniform pushing it down the street to an ambulance parked a few feet away. People yelled the child’s name, pulling at his arms and shoulders trying to stop him, but he trekked on, never once taking his eyes off the lady in the dark blue uniform.
“Mom!” the boy kept crying, still chasing after the stretcher, until finally the lady came to an abrupt stop behind the truck. She had noticed the boys small footsteps behind her, oblivious to his cries and pleadings, she left the stretcher and moved around to the front of the car. The boy began to run now, his feet pounding against the gravel pavement of the street, and his booming footsteps didn’t slow until he had come nose to nose with the stretcher. He was so small his face barely reached the top bar, and yet he stood on his tip-toes, bending over to see the mass that lay underneath the white sheet. Screams reverberated through the air and, at the speed of light, the lady in the dark blue uniform was once again at the back of the truck, this time followed by two other men dressed in the exact same way. The tallest of the two men grabbed the boy from where he had collapsed onto the ground in a fit of hysterics, but the damage had already been done. The boy had seen the peeling flesh of what was left of his mother, the unrecognizable body that he had called “Mom”, under the sheet. The image was burned into his mind.
No scream emanated from Khalil’s throat as he jolted upright in the small bed, loud creaking sounds mirroring his movements. He couldn’t remember when he had closed his eyes and fallen asleep, but the sweat soaking his body and his sheets served as an incentive for him to keep his eyes open. The boys in the room were still sound asleep, completely oblivious to the world and devoid of any thought, but all Khalil could think about was how he was going to sneak out of this house without a sound.