Sophomore Year Kid
Updated: Jan 20
me & your ghost
One : Sophomore year kid
Benny Stuart Rodriguez ruins Byron’s life.
Or, more accurately, his mom does it on his behalf when revealing him to be Byron’s long lost biological brother. This is funny to Byron—though, the humour will only reveal itself on his twenty-first birthday when recounting the events to some guy unlucky enough to ask why he had happy 18th birthday decorations strung around—because he’d already had a brother.
This is true in the same way Byron knows he’s right handed, has a bad habit of laughing too loud and long at jokes that aren’t half as funny, and that he’s two months removed from his eighteenth birthday. Byron’s had a brother since he was ten years old and overheard some kid with a scar on his left cheek—ears that were slightly too big for his head—sing the praises of a comic book that at the time, Byron thought was god awful. And because it’s a good thing—one of the truly great things that’s happened thus far in Byron’s life, even after getting drafted to the local baseball team and finally having Jumped-Up Jennings admit that he’s one of the worst students she’s had to teach—it has to end, right?
Graham is his blood brother—not with any actual blood relation, and ignoring that one time when they were thirteen and tried to make a blood pact but actually ended up with an infection and were banned from seeing each other for two weeks—and it’s not something Byron has ever been prepared to debate or negotiate. In his eyes, it doesn’t matter if they aren’t technically related, he’s pretty certain he’d die for Graham and it goes both ways.
Byron’s never been particularly close with either of his parents, but he’d always considered it relatively normal. There aren’t enough hours in the day to really raise your son when you’re trying to start a business, and then you’ve got to run it. Then when that’s done, your kid is already eight years old, self-sufficient and looking after the other sprog you’ve popped out—why even bother? There’s an image to upkeep, and when he’s twelve years old with this kid he more or less found on the street acting as a sibling, it might be time to step in. They’re just Tracey and Jonah Andrews, existing in whatever version of their reality helps them sleep at night—far away from doing much more than shouting and reprimanding him when he’s stepped out of line.
But then it wasn’t just Tracey and Jonah, stuck in a cycle of ignoring their kids in pursuit of the Dream—of a point of metaphysical being that makes everything worth it, worth his mom not speaking to her family for the third year, staring longingly at the telephone mounted on the wall when July 8th arrives and there’s no happy birthday call. What will it take, he’s heard her whisper to his Dad in the dead of the night, when it’s just the quiet hum of the refrigerator downstairs, and the echoes of Byron’s own thoughts, what will it fucking take to have them notice me? Be proud of me?—parading their happy family of four around in a town full of people who can barely look up from their own problems to watch the show.
It was Tracey Andrews, the business woman, the woman single handedly responsible for bringing jobs into the neighbourhood. Drinking iced tea on a Tuesday afternoon; the one with two kids with bright blonde hair, the lady driving the truck with a banana bumper sticker that turned brown a long time ago. Byron’s mom who goes slightly misty eyed when thinking about home—home to Minnesota, living in a small two bed with four other people, with elbows guarding food around the dinner table, slipping between two languages, slipping between two different Tracey’s. Home to Russia, the beginning of her origin story, in hopes of meeting her real people, to a family too sharp to soften to change, to pursed lips and wrinkled skin, the clench of fists and stiff shoulders that didn’t want to say goodbye. She’s always been in pursuit of something, caught in a race where she’s the only competitor and the finish line doesn’t exist.
Tracey Andrews with two kids on the brink of asking too many questions. What’s that mean? Where’s Dad? Who’s he?
It was Jonah Andrews, the working man, a family man—a dependable man. A man trusted to do the things expected of him, no questions asked. If Byron’s Dad says he’s five minutes away, he’s definitely five minutes away. It was working, family, dependable man facing down the barrel of the reality of his youth—lucky enough to still call it youth, avoid being held accountable for actions he already knew weren’t acceptable; call it a stupid boy wanting to do something reckless, call it destroying his home from the inside out and still finding a bed to sleep in amongst the wreckage. His mom’s husband, cooking breakfast on a Sunday morning, drinking beer on a Tuesday afternoon; that Andrews boy, with the drunkard for a brother and a monster of a father left behind, existing in the middle, only managing to communicate in words in Byron’s lifetime.
Jonah Andrews not around to hear his kids and their never ending questions, to hear his wife’s pleas as she cried herself to sleep, muffling herself against the pillow; to hear anything over the echoing of his heartbeat, his stomach dropping, his world ending.
Byron had always considered his family relatively scandal free.
There were other people for the gossip and drama—his mom’s best friends for a start, or some of the people living downtown if anyone wanted to bring their name up in polite company. The Andrews’—all four of them, once his dad found his way back to a home already rebuilt and awaiting his return, being introduced to Graham, hearing in his mom’s tone the accusation, the you disappear for six months and now he’s gone out looking for the love you were incapable of showing him—managed to function in their own bubble of mediocrity for as long as Byron could remember, okay with their place in the pecking order and never causing too much of a stir.
He’d always been chasing excitement—with Graham at his side and even his sister, Kasia tagging along—to disrupt something, make it stop, slow or swerve. Maybe not something in so general a term, if Byron’s as honest with himself as he wishes to be, but the image of his parents—of their life, of his life, of the life they wanted to have, of summer barbeques and gossiping about other families with dynamics so alien to their own, of finally making them stop and notice him, wondering if he’d have to shout to be heard at a whisper.
What will it take? He’d said to Graham one night, looking up at him from his bedroom floor—they’d made the executive decision that Byron took the floor when Graham slept over purely because the guy moved too much in his sleep for it to be comfortable sharing the bed—Graham leaning over the bed to focus on the shape of Byron’s face in the middle of the night, the only light coming in from the corner of the window the curtain couldn’t cover. His parents were awake, downstairs, a world away, entertaining—or whatever they called it, pretending to have adult conversations that didn’t go anywhere outside of circles—his sister at her best friends. They’d been fourteen then, a year removed from the Blood Incident, voices on the verges of breaking, and the world as they knew it on the verge of falling apart.
What will it fucking take to have them notice me? Be proud of me? Graham always knew the right things to say, or, at least, Byron had always thought so. But then, lying on Byron’s bed at one in the morning, looking down at a Byron sprawled on the floor under a blue blanket, barely able to make his face out further than the line of his cheek, the corner of his mouth, he choked. What could it take? Coming from a boy who had to wear the truth of his own childhood—the silence filling his home, the smoke from a cigarette sitting in a cracked ashtray, the muffled words barely audible from his mom, face pushed into the pillow—who had become absorbed into another family to the point that it would be his new registered address by the time college applications came round.
Maybe die, he’d said at last, not the words Byron had been aching to hear, but the laugh he ultimately needed. His chest—almost considered too broad looking to be comfortable in relation to his neck, that almost got caved in at Kasia’s skateboard tournament—had sunk, holding himself taut in preparation for the answer.
Nah, they’d love the performance of the tragedy.
Then it came, all of the excitement he’d spent so much time chasing—the brief snapshots of his parents undivided attention—pulling up right outside his house in a battered blue car that chugged to a stop and coughed as the engine was turned off.
Byron’s the one to open the door, unlucky in everything—even when his own life is on the brink of turning on its head. It’s the kid on the doorstep, sophomore year kid—from his sister’s year, and even he’d heard the whispers, stood out in the hallways, trying to peek through the hatched windows at the police interviews, wondered what was wrong with him—scratching at the dead skin on his left thumb.
“Erm, can I help you?”
Sophomore year kid— there’s a name there, of course there is, right there but out of reach, Kasia’s voice playing in a distant echo; trying to understand why people are the way they are, trying to understand how a boy like him has targets on his back—he doesn’t blink. His eyes are big, brown, almost black, sloping on the sides, staring not at Byron directly—which he could easily do, his chest has that same almost too broad to look comfortable quality, reaching Byron’s height if he didn’t stand hunched over—but at the stretch of skin between his eyebrows, most likely at the scab that’s days away from flaking off.
His mouth moves—maybe not to vocalise words, offer a reason for him standing on their doorstep on a Sunday morning, but more so to have his face not look so frozen. His words, whatever they would have been, mumbled between chapped thin lips, don’t get further than the back of his teeth before a woman steps out from behind him.
“We hope we’re not interrupting,” she says, adjusting a white tote bag on her shoulder, smiling and angling for friendly, approachable, in on a joke between just her and Byron, ignoring who can only be her son in front of her. They look the same, light yellow toned brown skin, brown eyes, brown hair, mouths that could potentially be considered too wide, but the width of their faces makes up for it. She misses the mark, though, her smile too weak and wavering at the edges, her assumed son lingering on the outskirts of what is now a conversation between two different people.
“Um, well, we’re actually in the middle of breakfast. So, you know—if you’re selling something or trying to convert us to something, we’re not interested,”
“Oh,” here her smile drops, caught looking just like her son, both attempting too hard to move their faces in ways that make them look human, “you’re Byron.”
“Guess I am.” Could he have been anyone else? For someone who looks to have done their research, they haven’t come prepared—throwing her son at the door so she’d have an angle to weasle in, disrupting them on a Sunday morning when he hasn’t had a chance to brush his teeth, let alone have a short middle aged woman speaking to him like she knows him. He wonders what she’s heard, who she’s heard it from—if all her knowledge starts and ends with her son, with whatever he could have found out, observations from a nameless guy, a guy who’d existed in invisibility until last week.
“Is your Dad here?”
“Well, y’know—again, we’re kind of in the middle of something. I can let him know you came by a—”
“Jonah’s expecting us.”
Sophomore year kid—for all of his attempts to make himself look smaller, fade into invisibility, who’s still scratching at the dead skin on at the bottom of his thumb, that now looks raw and sore—he speaks louder than Byron had anticipated. Maybe it’s not the volume, because if Byron’s honest with himself, expecting someone to speak at a whisper and having them talk at normal speaking volume isn’t really revolutionary. There’s a finality to the way he speaks, like he’d exhausted the option of remaining silent and talking is the only way they’re going to get anywhere.
“Yeah? Look, if you’re some kind of quacks who don’t believe in traditional medicine—sure, you do you. But like . . . you can’t come here looking for my dad to like, sort out your black eye.”
“T—That’s not why we’re here. We have to speak to Jonah.”
Byron had always considered himself the kind of person that could be in a room with anyone and come out of it unscatched, managing to get along with someone at the very least—thinking this of himself is very different to practical application, he’s not sure he can remember the last time outside of this circumstance where he’d interacted with someone new without Graham in reaching distance—but there’s something about sophomore year kid, with his limp mousy hair and the slope to his eyes, and now the look on his face; no longer timid, shy, unsuspecting boy knocking on his door because he’d got wrangled in to a plot by his mom, but like Byron owes him something, like he’s the one disturbing their Sunday morning plans.
“Yeah?” Byron crosses his arms then, shoulder pressing in to the doorframe. “Let’s go see Jonah, then.” He steps back, waving them inside.
Whatever gusto the kid had leaves him, his knee jerks as he looks at his mom to make the first move. She does, hefting her white tote bag higher on her shoulder, and taking the first step forward, crossing the threshold and huffing as she steps past Byron. She must have been here before, probably slipping her way into the background during a July 4th barbeque, because it looks like she knows her way around pretty well—heading straight for the kitchen. Her son moves, then, dragging his feet with a grimace on his face. Byron shuts the door once they’re both in, following behind them.
“Maria?” It’s his mom talking, Byron’s surprised she’s bothered coming into the kitchen and not immediately holed herself away in her ‘workspace’ that is actually just the utility room with a desk shoved in the corner. “Are you okay? Is something wrong?”
“No, Tracey, everything’s fine. I—I . . . it’s time for the conversation.”
When Byron makes it into the kitchen, navigating around Sophomore year kid who is now frozen in place, it feels like he’s gone back to the time his Dad came back. At that point, his Dad had been awol for three months, it felt like so much longer for a man who left only for work or to visit his relatives that he never spoke about. It had been a long three months, with long silences around the dinner table and his mom sitting downstairs until well past midnight each night before slowly making her way up the stairs and hoping not to wake either him or his sister up.
It had been a Thursday evening, and Byron had been in the process—for what would be the fourth of countless times—of explaining to Graham the one correct way to eat pizza. Kasia was sat on the sofa too, ignoring them, which she’d recently gotten really good at doing successfully, and his mom, she was existing somewhere in the house, not in sight unless she wanted to be. The front door had opened then, a slow creak—before it’s inevitable replacement two years later—that had made the three of them pause. Byron remembers the sound of keys dropping on the floor, the muffled shit! and then footsteps making their way to the living room.
His dad stood in the doorway, not unlike Byron’s last memory of him, but with an edge that made him unfamiliar. “Hi, daddy,” Kasia said, standing up and not too sure if she should approach for a hug. She’d been ten, and to this day she has never and most likely will never speak about the six months their dad upped and left—with no word, no warning, no goodbye, nothing other than the scratchy kiss to their foreheads before he stepped out the door.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he said, smiling, holding his arms out for a hug she ran into. “It’s good to see you.” He turned to Byron then, who sat, frozen, unsure if he’d move even he could. “Good to see you, too, son.” He hugged Kasia a bit longer, crouching to have a conversation about her grades and her friends and whatever bullshit he thought would be good enough to skirt around the issue of where he’d been for three months—eight baseball games where he’d been hounded with questions asking where his dad was, why wasn’t he at the front of the stands, why was it just his mom.
“Who’s your friend, Byron?”
“Graham. You’ve met him before, Dad.”
“Well, y’know, you’ve always had a lot of friends.”
Byron slumped in his seat, flicking between the tv shows. His dad took it as his cue to stop whilst he was ahead, focusing back on Kasia. Graham shifted beside him, picking at the cheese on his slice of pizza. It goes on like that, Byron feeling the burn of his Dad staring at him, most likely waiting for something of importance to be said, an opportunity to attempt normalcy again, to pretend he’d been here everyday, involved in their lives.
“Where’s your mom?”
“In her workroom.”
He made a lot of noise walking through the living room, but that may have just been because Byron had never been so quiet in his life. Kasia watched him leave, moving slowly back to the sofa. The three of them sat there for what must have been inching towards half an hour, hearing what at first was a quiet conversation between his parents until it escalated into screaming, shouting, his mom crying.
His Dad re-entered, hands pushed deep in his pockets, shuffling back across the room.
“Daddy, are you staying?”
“No, sweetheart,” he stopped, leaned down to kiss her forehead, “not yet.” His hand brushed across Byron’s shoulder on his way out. The silence lasted long after the front door shut behind him, when Kasia went upstairs to her room—probably to compartmentalise, it’s what she thinks is a healthy way of dealing with any remotely stressful situation—and Graham turned to him then.
“That wasn’t so bad.”
“Really? I thought it was awful.”
“No,” Graham shook his head, “I’ve been through worse.”
It went the exact same way when he came back three months later, this time for good, this time bearing presents and stories about visiting their grandpa and how he missed and loved them. He even, briefly, had a conversation involving only himself about the earth being flat and meat being bad and how even though he wasn’t around for any of the fucking important moments or even the day-to-day boring stuff, he still loved them and he was their dad, so he was entitled to their love, too.
Byron can even recite it word for word: “I’m sorry I wasn’t around, I’ve been really trying to sort myself out and build something for myself, but I love you. You’re my kids, of course I love you. I’m your Dad.”
Standing in the kitchen reminds him of that first time, for the ache in his chest at the audacity of people who hadn’t been there when they needed to be, walking in when the timing was convenient and wanting to reap the benefits.
“The conversation,” his mom repeats sophomore year kid’s mom’s words back to her, “I don’t think now is a good time.”
“When? You and Jonah both keep saying that. It’s been so long, Tracey.”
“Can’t it be a bit longer?” His mom asks, huffing. Her hand goes to her head then, tilted back and looking at the ceiling. “Maria, please.”
“Tracey,” she says, moving the bag off her shoulder to hold in her hand, looking back quickly at her son, “I can’t.”
Byron watches his mom look first at him, then Kasia sat at the table, like this is the first time she’s seen at either of them, then, she sighs. “I . . . I’ll get Jonah.”
Once his dad arrives—the man of the hour, golden boy, the man everyone wants to see when the time is right—the five of them have already seated themselves around the table. Byron sits, with the realisation that breakfast has truly been ruined, having just brushed his teeth and dragging a streak of bacon around his plate. Kasia sits to his left, looking about ready to explode from her own nervous energy and over thinking, and on her other side is their mom, tapping her nails against her chipped coffee mug. Sophomore year kid and his mom look ready for action, this a moment they’ve been gearing themselves up for, and when his Dad appears in the doorway of the kitchen, all heads turning to face him, they sit up on high alert.
“I—wow. Maria, are you sure about this?”
“Jonah.” His mom snaps. “Come on.”
“So,” Byron says into the silence, looking at sophomore year kid going to town with the scratching, and his dad’s own fidgeting, “they’ve come to see Jonah. What does Jonah have to say for himself?”
“Byron,” his mom reprimands him under her breath, but his nudge of insolence pushes the conversation further along.
“I—well, y’know. I was a boy, a stupid boy and um, the thing is that I wasn’t in a good place and I did something that wasn’t worthy of the promise I made to your mom or what she deserved.” His dad pauses, then, tapping his fingers on the table before wiping his hands on his jeans. “I met Maria before I met your mom, we’ve always been really good friends. She helped me a lot when I was in that bad place, and, um . . . one thing led to another, I suppose and—”
“Oh,” Byron’s mouth feels so dry, his chest too tight. He wants to say, distantly, that he’s disappointed, even upset at the man his dad has proven himself to be, but he’d known—instinctively, even when he was twelve years old, that Jonah Andrews, the man who got by existing in the middle space, was so desperate to be the good guy in a story where he couldn’t even realise exactly the kind of person he was—and always had done, that he was right about him, “this is your kid.”
His name is Benny Stuart Rodriguez.
He is fifteen, inching slowly towards sixteen. He speaks English and Spanish, writes with both his left and right hand. Other than Kasia and Byron, he has no other siblings. He has known, always—skin deep, bone deep, etched into his very being with a dirty knife—that he was unwanted. He has this fact as a reminder, a severe nut allergy because his mom enjoyed a peanut butter smoothie three months into her pregnancy because she read a listicle about things not to do whilst pregnant.
He is also sophomore year kid, whispered behind his back and sometimes, though rarely, said directly to his face. Sophomore year kid: the schmuck unlucky enough to cross paths with Adrienne Matthews and not immediately fall all over himself to impress her, the one to start the lie that spread like wildfire, the one left resenting the secret he’d had to hold.
These are the things said around the table, when they’re asked, nicely, the three of them, to make an earnest effort to get to know each other now the cat is out of the bag. “We know it’s not ideal,” his mom says, and Byron wishes and wonders that he could understand her, why she’s still here, after so long, after so many lies, why she keeps trying to pick up the pieces of a picture that’s been shattered one too many times. “But now that you know, maybe you can all . . . hang out, or I don’t know, do something together.”
“This is fun,” Byron says, pushing himself away from the table, “but, I already kind of like, have a brother so I’m gonna say no.”
“Look, we all love Graham, but he’s not your brother. At least try to get to know Benny.”
“I’m sure you’re a nice guy, kid,” Byron waves briefly at Benny sat across the table, before focusing again on his mom, “but let’s not kid ourselves. He gets beat up at school—I mean like, absolutely knocked out, and now you reveal who he is. What do you want from us? Is this about money?”
“No, of course not!” Benny’s mom rushes to say, looking offended at the suggestion. “It’s been a nightmare keeping this a secret.”
“You don’t want money, you don’t want us to protect him,” he stands up then, “don’t tell me you want a family with that piece of shit.”
“Byron!” It’s his Dad who finally makes the move to offer a defence for himself that doesn’t revolve around muttering words behind a mouth that could barely open, relying solely on his mom to do the fighting for him.
Benny looks up then, away from the intense stare he’s had down at his lap for the duration of the conversation, straight at Byron and ignoring the bickering between their parents. “It may seem like you missed out not having him in your life,” Byron tells him, “but I don’t think you have.”
“I know you’re upset,” his Dad says, standing too, “but you’re getting out of line.”
“Out of line?” Byron laughs then, knowing it’s either that or let the enormity of the situation put him in shock. “You’re the one who sat there for twenty minutes excusing yourself for going out and having another kid!”
“And I’ve said, I was a stupid boy who fuc—”
“It’s funny,” he raises his voice then, above the sound of his mom choking on her words to try to get everyone to calm down, the scratch of chairs against the floor as Benny’s mom stands up to defend her presence here, “that you can say you were a stupid boy. He’s the same age as Kasia, so you were what? Twenty eight? When do you grow up? When do you call yourself an adult?”
“You can be angry at me, but it’s not fair to take it out on Benny. He’s as innocent as you are.”
“I am angry at you!” Byron shouts, his mouth drier and chest tighter. “I think you’re a scumbag who cheats on his wife and then you try to call it something stupid. It’s not like you forgot to buy groceries—or forgot to give us money for a school trip. You had another kid with someone else and knew about it this whole time.”
“Byron,” his dad says, “I’m so sorry.” He wishes he could understand how people who have done something so wrong, so awful, so unforgivable, still delude themselves into thinking a sorry after the fact is enough for people to move on. His dad was sorry when he forgot to pick Byron up from school once, sorry when he missed Kasia’s first skateboard tournament when work ran late—but you can’t simply be sorry when you abandon your kids for six months, or when you’re caught up in a lie that gets revealed, when you cheat on your pregnant wife, when you have another kid who sits across from them at the dining table.
“Oh, shit,” Graham says, once Byron’s gotten through the dramatic retelling of his Sunday being ruined, “that’s crazy.”
“Fucking abnormal, dude.”
“That’s so . . . weird, though, like c’mon—you’re family?”
“Dude,” Byron says again, abandoning his chem homework to throw the textbook on the bed beside Graham, “I know.” Graham’s sat with his back against the wall, focusing intently on rolling a joint, leaving Byron to swivel in his desk chair and wonder what his life has now come to. He’s on day four of ignoring his dad, going from his room to school and only leaving here when dinner’s ready, Graham’s house is never ready for guests. His mom had cornered him on day two of silence, he’d gotten back from his classes to find her waiting on his bed, ripping tissue in her hands.
“Oh,” she’d said, standing up once he stepped into the room, “you’re back early.”
“Class finishes early on Wednesday, remember?”
“Right.” She’d sighed, looking dwarfed in her work coat. “Byron—can we please talk about it? Your Dad and I—”
“I’m not interested in anything he has to say,” he moved around her, putting his stuff away. If he’d stopped for a second longer, he probably would have seen how a few days had taken its toll on her, what with the pale look to her skin and the bags under her eyes. “How long did you know?”
“When Benny was three.”
“Hm. Did he tell you?” He asked, turning to face his mom and sitting on his bed. She took the cue and sat down next to him, her blonde hair barely staying in her bun.
“No. He’d bought baby clothes and left them in the truck. I confronted him about it and then he told me the truth. I thought about leaving.”
“But—you didn’t. You’re still here.”
“For you. And Kasia. And because,” she let out a deep breath, almost sinking in on herself, “because I wanted a family that could work.”
“I wish you’d left,” he said, honestly, though the look on her face and the way she recoiled wasn’t anything she’d been looking to hear. He’d almost forgotten that his mom was his mom, who would go to great lengths to maintain an image, to get the outcome she desired. He guessed she’d been in here hoping to get his forgiveness for both their parts, so they could continue to function in whatever way she wanted them to.
“It’s not always that easy, love.”
She’d squeezed his hand, he’d stopped her and gave her a hug, and then she closed the door behind her.
“So. You’re like—what. Gonna get to know him?” Graham asks, putting a voice to the thoughts that have been turning in Byron’s head.
“Uh—no. I wasn’t planning on it. The guy’s a loser.” Graham looks away from his inspections of the quality of the joint he’s rolled, right at Byron from the other side of the room. His chin is partly hidden in the neck of the navy hoodie he’s wearing, and Byron is still adjusting to looking at his best-friend-cum-brother with no hair on his head following a pretty dark three-am kickback. Graham’s not a judgy guy, Byron’s not too sure if he’s programmed to do much of anything other than roll with the punches and ride the motions of the lives’ they’ve found themselves stuck in. He knows, really, that if he was to say to him that the thought of getting to know sophomore year kid would feel akin to forgiving his dad, and he knows that he shouldn’t be punishing the kid, but it seems the only way anyone will accept his anger; then Graham would look right at him, the light hitting the scar on his cheek and making the jagged line shine, and he’d nod, slowly, understanding everything Byron wasn’t able to put into words.
“Mmm,” he agrees, moving to rummage in his bag for a lighter. Byron reaches back to crack the window open. It’s going to smell anyway, but it’s about the pretense of it all. “I swear your sister is the only normal kid in that year.”
Byron barks a laugh, finding the ashtray to put on his bed between them. It’s always so easy with Graham, easier than he could have ever imagined it being with his parents if they were ever to consider raising him. “Would you rather be sophomore year kid or that weirdo wh—”
“Yikes. What happened to your hair?”
“Wow, Kasia,” Graham sighs, “it’s really nice to see you, it’s great you’re learning to knock before entering.”
“I wasn’t even expecting you to be here. What happened to your long distance thing?”
The long distance thing has been going for two weeks now, a not-so elaborate plan between Byron and Graham to try to prove a point that they’re completely capable of living separately from each other. Which is great in theory, forgetting they see each other at school, at baseball practice, on the weekends, and now, for the first time since the Blood Incident—and the dark ages when Graham was fifteen—in moments of crisis. If anything, it’s made Byron realise that all that time messing around and being general nuisances to anyone lucky enough to know them pales in comparison to how things can get fucked up when they’re apart.
“Our long distance thing is great, actually,” Byron tells her, watching her dump herself down on the bed beside Graham. “Greater if we were left alone—but, I mean, I get it, I’m hard to stay away from.”
“You’re a joke, more like. Dad’s gonna kill you if he knows you’re smoking in here.”
“Guess I’ll have to fight him then.”
Kasia may be three years his junior, and he may feel partly—wholly, if not for a rat of a guy called Logan McKenna who still wore sneakers with reversible tongues, loser—responsible for encouraging her talent in skateboarding, and even for raising her outside of the times when his parents actually did parent, but he’s pretty sure she worries enough to be a forty six year old woman. Byron’s kind of gotten used to it being one of her things, like Kasia Dakota Andrews: will most definitely worry about any situation at any given time to the point where he’s expressed genuine concern over her blood pressure; has been going back-and-forth in a loop of on-again, off-again seeing another loser not worthy of her time; hands sweat if writing too long because she’ll be overthinking the consistency of her handwriting; is also, likely, the only person Byron cares about more than Graham, but telling her this would make her kind of sick because she’s quite frankly incapable of communicating any positive feelings in any positive or healthy way.
“It’s a joke, Kas.” Graham interrupts, nudging her with his shoulder. “C’mon, Byron wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight against anyone. Remember what happened at that skateboard tournament?”
“Not like she needs the reminder.”
“No,” she waves Byron away, turning to face Graham fully, “tell me again.”
“Okay, no,” Byron stands up, waving his hands in front of him, “this is not happening. Graham is here for approximately twenty seven more minutes, so—if you don’t mind, he can tell you shit stories that aren’t funny or worth repeating another time.”
“Jeez.” Kasia laughs, sharing a look with Graham. “I’ll leave you to like, consummate your reunion then.”
“Thank you,” Byron says seriously, “maybe next time you’ll knock.”
“Maybe next time I won’t have to hunt you down just to ask if you’re okay.”
“Ugh—always worrying,” he groans, sitting back at his desk and swivelling around. Maybe if he’s dizzy enough this conversation will actually get somewhere, and the feeling he’s been meaning to vocalise about the situation can finally get heard. “I’m fine—I mean, not interested in getting to know the guy or forgive dad, but like, I’ll get over it. I don’t want him to feel like he’s gotten away with it.”
“But hasn’t he already?” Graham asks, pulling at the drawstrings of his hoodie until it’s tight against his neck. He blinks back at Byron, slowly, not so much to challenge or goad him, but so they both know how serious he is. It looks more severe now that his usual and familiar brown hair isn’t getting in the way of his face. “Like, your mom hasn’t left and I don’t think she’s going to, either. And now there’s no secret to hide. So hasn’t he? Gotten away with it? Won.”
Kasia’s head is down, she’s sat cross-legged in silence, rubbing at the knob of her right ankle with an intensity Byron knows is deliberate—to distract herself and give herself breathing room to spin it whichever way she wants, whichever way will make it a bit easier for her. Byron kind of wishes he could do the same thing, bury his head under the sand and only rise when the scenario in his head is better than the reality, to be able to ignore the truth of Graham’s words for a sweeter sounding lie, but it’s another one of those promises they made—this one not borne out of the Blood Incident, but another night when they’d been awake much later than they should have been—another promise that Byron feels duty bound to honour. It’s always the truth when it can be afforded, always the words that may seem out of line or harsh or mean or even nothing either of them wants to hear, but the understanding is that no-one cares about the other as much as they do, will look out for the other as much as they do—and these truths, in whatever form they come in, a reminder that they have always and will always look out for each other—and this is what they owe each other.
Graham clears his throat, wiping a finger across his mouth, “I dunno. He’s a loser, whatever, a creep—but you said he’s spent so long knowing about both of you and now that you both know, too . . . don’t you, like—feel like you should give him a chance?”
“Wait,” Kasia says at last, giving Byron a chance to get the dryness and guilt out of his throat, “you know?”
“Um,” Graham frowns, giving Kasia a funny look, “yeah. That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh,” she opens her mouth, thinks better of the words that were going to leave and no doubt be callous, and closes it again. She tosses her hair over her shoulder, he wishes she’d get it cut, there’s no need for anyone to have hair going down to the bottom of their back considering she does the bare minimum and leaves strands in her wake everywhere she goes. “I wasn’t going to tell anyone—not even Caggie.”
“Well, yeah, considering Catherine isn’t a genuine friend, but like, I dunno—you should be able to tell someone else.”
“Why would I? Nothing’s happened or changed.”
It looks like whatever story she’s twisted up in her head over the past four days since The Reveal has rooted itself in deep. Another Kasia Dakota Andrews thing: she will, at all costs, have everything go her way, even when it doesn’t. No doubt, she’ll get through high school the same way she has done so far, knowing, vaguely of Benny’s presence, wrapped up in ‘Caggie’s’ bravado and running to catch up, and she will think only of the past few days as Byron, as always, getting into a disagreement with someone who didn’t appreciate his humour or a prank gone awry. He sighs, wishing he could wake her up from this dream she lives in.
“It’s not productive—”
“—to ignore the truth. Graham, you’re getting old. Tell me something new. I’m not ignoring anything, because my life isn’t any different.”
“Wow,” Graham laughs from beside her, “you’re incredible.”
From there, the conservation moves too quick for Byron to track where it went, as it always seems to do when the three of them are in a room. Kasia leaves, eventually, mentioning something about dinner that he can’t quite hear over his own laughter, and then it returns to being just the two of them, now approximately six minutes away from Graham’s departure.
“So,” Graham says into the silence, “Hilton’s birthday.”
“Dude.” Byron gives him a sharp look. “Another time.”
“Mm.” Graham turns, picking up his bag and zipping it closed.
“What are you doing?”
“Uh, going home?”
“You’re what?” Graham sits on the edge of the bed, putting his sneakers back on, focusing on his task instead of looking at Byron. “You can’t.”
“Isn’t this part of our agreement?”
“Dude, I’m in the middle of a crisis.”
Standing up, Byron watches his best-friend-cum-brother hold back the smile that is pulling at his mouth. He’s barely taller than Byron, boasting about three quarters of an inch taking him to almost being 6”1. His hands meet in the middle of his pocket, looking at Byron who sits, slumped, in his desk chair. Making it to day four of silence hadn’t been so bad when he was looking forward to having Graham in his life again, but now that window is closing, he’s not too sure what he’s going to do with himself. Have normal, healthy conversations about his feelings and how The Reveal has ruined the hope he had that the image he’d had in his family—that he’d always thought was an over dramatisation as a result of having to share their attention with Kasia—is actually frighteningly accurate? Byron’s sure his chest would actually cave in with the effort.
“You’re going to think about getting to know him, right? You can’t just write him off because you’re mad.”
“Ugh. If you’re going to be reasonable about it then you can leave.”
Graham laughs, and Byron even manages a small smile back before they say their goodbyes, and then it’s just him sat in the silence of his bedroom.
The attempt at reconciliation occurs on day seven of silence.
Byron had wondered, briefly, if his dad would ever find the courage to approach him directly and not hide behind messages couried through his mom and Kasia. Most of his self-imposed exile from the Andrews’ family dynamics had been spent trying to understand if he could overcome the Benny Dilemma. He knew, really, kind of instinctively, but also unwillingly, that the easier option would be a.) the Kasia technique: point blank ignore what had happened, continue with the idea of happy families, forget what accumulated to fifteen years of a lie for the sake of an image that looked a bit busted, but if you stood far enough away and squinted with your head cocked at a precise 34 degree angle, looked pretty decent. Pros of the Kasia technique: he could, in theory, continue on with his life the way it always had gone, wanting his parents to be more than people wrapped up in the patterns of their lives, playing around at life with Graham, not know what it meant to have his life shifted off its axis. Cons of the Kasia technique: he would ultimately—though, taking a slightly lower fraction of the blame—be just as bad as his dad. He’d had eighteen years with his parents, and Benny had had fifteen years of wondering what could have been, and to have this opportunity present itself where he was carrying one less secret, a burden lighter, it was probably opening doors for the kid he’d always thought locked. What would Byron be doing, if not keeping the door jammed and not answering the knocks on the other side, if he ignored his existence?
As a guy who operated on extremes, the other option was looking bleak, too, b.) getting to know Benny. Right, so the kid was a bit of a loser who had proven that he couldn’t defend himself in a fight, and he was eerie to look at if you found yourself trapped in a lengthy conversation, and he was, by his own admission, not very good when it came to making it clear how he was feeling. But he was, also, Byron’s younger brother. It felt like a responsibility now, like he was being pushed into doing the right things and taking on a role he felt wholly unprepared for. How could he not get to know his brother? It’d been something he’d always wanted, making do with Kasia well enough when she wanted to do something other than watch TV, and now the chance was here for him to grab. Pros of getting to know Benny: he’d be doing the kid a fucking favour, first of all, giving him drabs of affection he’d likely never had anywhere else; it would make things easier for everyone else, he could likely finally have breakfast at the kitchen table again. Cons of getting to know Benny: would his dad take it as forgiveness for his own act? Was he out of line to equate acceptance of Benny to forgiving his Dad? Was he stupid to not see it as the same thing? And what about Graham? Graham was rooting for him to make the right decision here, leaning towards being in favour of point b, but what about a few months from now? The whole reason why their friendship had initially worked out so well is because neither of them had brothers to contend with—but what now?
It’s been the noisiest Byron can recall his head being, and as he unearths from his room the Sunday after, he wonders how Kasia can cope with the pressure. It doesn’t help matters when he enters the kitchen to his dad waiting for him at the kitchen counter.
“Mornin’,” he says, barely above his breath before he walks over to the fridge.
It’s silent whilst Byron pours himself a glass of orange juice, his dad standing frozen in place, watching his every move closely. “So, I know it’s been a bit tense, lately, and um,” Byron rolls his eyes watching his dad stumble his way through a simple sentence that should have started with an apology. “I don’t want it to be this way forever. I was—you see, I want us to have a boys day.”
“Boys day,” he echoes, staring down at the pulp pooling in his glass.
“Yeah. You. Me . . . Benny.”
It is always about decisions, about choosing a plan of action and committing to it. Byron had known he couldn’t sit on the fence and stew in his anger if he wasn’t prepared to choose a side. He looks at his dad, who looks about ready to run out of the room with the nerves all over his face. “And Graham?”
His dad sighs, focusing intently on Byron’s face. “And Graham, too.”