“Drifting Through Life” by Stephanie Walker
Jimmy looked out from the curb at the sea of people, shoving his hands deeper into his pockets. He felt Emily hesitantly place her hands on his shoulders and whisper in his ear, “It’s going to be fine. Now I have to get to work, so have a great day and I’ll pick you up after school at three, okay?”
Jimmy barely nodded, still taking in the throngs of teenagers like himself talking, laughing, and weaving through the crowd. Except that they weren’t like him, they belonged here. Jimmy adjusted his navy blue tie and rotated his shoulders, trying to fit them into the stiff starched shirt that had been lying on the bed when he was shown to his room. Emily—no, mother—had obviously bought the school uniform as soon as the papers had been signed and he had become theirs, instead of a ward of the government.
Taking a deep breath, Jimmy walked towards the large white pillars at the front of the school and up the two-tiered stone stairs packed with students. He walked calmly and easily, neither hurrying nor dragging his feet as the crowd pushed and shoved him like a boat lost at sea. There was almost a sense of fluidity about the movement, as if Jimmy was absorbing the flow of the crowd and its energy was directing him towards the front office, instead of hindering him.
When he arrived, he put a firm hand on the tall wood and glass door whose view into the office was obstructed by heavy white blinds. Pausing a moment, Jimmy sighed, then slowly pulled the large brass handle and slipped into the office so quietly that the receptionist didn’t even lift her head of full blond curls.
Jimmy stood there a moment before taking a hesitant step forward. As he lowered his sneakered foot to the ground, a dry squeal from the wooden floorboards caused the receptionist—her name tag said Maryann—to raise her head. Her forehead creased momentarily, and then Maryann smiled broadly and asked in a warm tone, “Hi, how can I help you?”
Jimmy looked down at the ground, then mumbled, “I—I’m new here.” He slowly looked up, his head still tilted down and eyes not quite reaching Maryann’s bright green ones.
“Good, good, so I see you’ve got the uniform,” she said, voice lilting up to almost turn the simple statement into a question. “And what is your name?”
“Jimmy,” he said softly.
“And your last name?”
“Umm…” Maryann trailed off. “I don’t have any record of a Greenfeld…”
Jimmy looked up sharply, words stuck on the tip of his tongue.
Maryann’s fingers clicked away at the keyboard on her right for a few more minutes before she looked up. “I’m still…not finding you. If you want to wait over there,” she motioned to a half-circle of rigid armchairs, “I can go talk to Mr. Smith and get this straightened out right away.”
Maryann had lifted her bulk halfway up out of her chair before Jimmy finally pushed the words out. “It’s…it’s Bernard, miss,” Jimmy quavered, looking back at the ground.
“Oh, Bernard, I have you right here,” Maryann said, sinking back into her chair and opening a manila folder sitting open on her desk.
Maryann preceded to hand Jimmy form after form after form to sign, or take home to his “parents,” or simply to hold onto. After that, Jimmy was walked down the long hallway, some books were shoved into his thin arms, and a gaping blue locker was presented to him. Jimmy had barely set the books inside the tan interior before the door was slammed shut, a combination was rattled off to him, and he was dragged to a classroom where he was left standing inside the doorway with thirty sets of eyeballs trained on him. Although in reality most of the students turned back to their work after realizing he was just the “new kid,” Jimmy felt as if the weight of the students’ stare lasted for much longer. Mr. Anderson took his time making his way over to Jimmy and five minutes must have passed before he was done with his long-winded introduction. And still it felt like the eyes were picking Jimmy apart—his tie was crooked, his shirt was slightly baggy under his too-large trousers, his backpack had a layer of grime no one else’s did—the list could go on forever.
Finally, Mr. Anderson gave Jimmy a pat on the shoulder and pointed him to an empty seat in the back right corner. Jimmy took his seat slowly, trying not to attract any more attention, and carefully pulled out a notebook and pen. By the end of the class, Jimmy wouldn’t have been able to tell a soul what the class was studying because he hadn’t even tried to listen. They were in the middle of some discussion of a book everyone had read except Jimmy, so he quickly tuned out. Mind wandering, Jimmy’s pencil began scratching at the page and before he knew it he was sketching the roof line of a somewhat rundown house. Before that was finished, Jimmy moved to a corner and absent-mindedly drew his name in a graffiti-styling. Then he sketched a portion of chain-link fence before his pencil wandered back to the center of the page and he added a sidewalk with grass in the cracks, withering and dying.
Jimmy’s forehead creased as he became more engrossed in his work, shading it and only glancing up at the board occasionally. His side pictures grew in number, however Jimmy kept returning to the center of the page. He added a short chain-link fence keeping in a yard of dead plants and broken plastic toys before his hand skittered away to draw the face of a pit-bull terrier. Then he added the porch with a few caved-in boards and one of the railings missing, his face darkening and eyes growing blank.
Jimmy’s foot started bouncing uncontrollably against the carpeted floor of the classroom as he filled in the solid door and windows in the front of the house. Then his shoulders sagged as he moved to the blank spot on the porch steps. He tenderly sketched the rough outline of a young girl. Jimmy’s hand kept inching towards it and then quickly moved away, suddenly fascinated by the lone flower on the corner of the house or the siding that was crumbling. From the sketch she looked to be about six with messy hair and dirty hands, but it could have been the lack of detail, the purposefully rushed lines, that generated that effect.
When the bell rang to signify the end of class, Jimmy slowly closed his notebook and carefully set it in his backpack. Then he took out one of the folded pieces of paper the receptionist had given him and read the small text. Zipping the bag closed, Jimmy moved slowly through the full hallways, stepping aside for a broad-shouldered guy here and sidestepping to avoid a clique of chattering girls there. As Jimmy traveled through the corridors, hearing snippets of conversations and passing a multitude of faces, the only details he paid attention to were the small black numbers above the classroom doors. And sometimes he couldn’t see one, but it wasn’t a big deal; he would catch the next. As a result, Jimmy was three doors past his next room before he realized it and began to turn around. But it seemed that he was going against the tide now, having to stand his ground as the students came towards him in an endless rush, and Jimmy wasn’t moving. For every step forward he took one back to let a tall girl through and then a quiet guy with thick-rimmed glasses.
When the bell rang, the students seemed to just disappear as they ducked into their classrooms and slid into their seats before the sound ended. And Jimmy was left alone in the hallway. He stood there for a moment, leaning up against the unforgiving white-washed wall. When the ringing in his ears had faded, he took a shallow breath and walked in large, slow steps to the classroom, head down and shoulders sagging. He rested his hand on the heavy door a moment longer before pulling it open and stepping into the doorway.
Immediately the eyes were on him and Jimmy ducked his head instinctively.
“Ahh, and you must be Jimmy, right?” the teacher asked enthusiastically, hands flying about in useless gestures as he bounced over to where Jimmy was standing. The teacher’s bright orange and brown vest matched his attitude and when he clapped his hand on Jimmy’s back, it could have been ice on Jimmy’s bones. “I’m Phillip. Class, this is Jimmy. He’s new here.” The teacher stared at Jimmy for a moment then gazed back at the cluttered room full of students. “And I’m sure he would appreciate you going back to your work and promptly ignoring him, but we couldn’t do that.” He looked back at Jimmy with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Jimmy.” Again turning to the class, Phillip said. “Since this is a rare experience for us, I want everyone to draw Jimmy, just as you see him. What impression do you get of him? How do your impressions differ? Clear?” The class nodded and Phillip turned back to Jimmy. “Welcome to art class. You can sit up front here and sketch whatever you like. I hear you were in art at your old school so show me what you know, okay?”
Jimmy nodded slowly then turned to take the stool at the front of the classroom. The gazes felt like pinpricks and Jimmy kept readjusting his tie. He ran his sticky hands down his thighs and picked up the pencil three or four times before it stayed in his hand. The lines he drew were shaky and dotted as his pencil bounced against the thick paper. Jimmy had selected a medium drawing pencil from the collection beside him, but after a few moments he laid it down and fingered a few shakily before grabbing a hard charcoal. He played with the weight of the pencil, moving it like a teeter totter between his thumb and forefinger for a moment before he set it down hard on the paper and drew a severe line.
Jimmy’s movements were rough and jagged as he marked the page mechanically. When he finally set the pencil down, Jimmy no longer felt the burning eyes upon him; he was so engrossed in his work. He slowly grabbed a medium charcoal and added detail to what could now be identified as a portrait with long, tousled hair. When Phillip called the students to a halt, Jimmy’s portrait was far from complete. The detail in the hair made it lifelike and the neck and cheeks stood out in brilliance, but the eyes above them seemed hollow, barely more than an outline. The nose lacked dimension and the lips were thin and flat. The image had been left blank, giving it a commonality. The figure was unrecognizable by age or feature, the gender only suggested by the long hair.
Phillip’s voice interrupted the little bit of concentration that Jimmy had. He announced, “Now let’s share our work with the rest of the class. So, who wants to go first?”
A girl near the front, wearing a short pleated skirt and large plastic-rimmed glasses, raised her hand. Phillip nodded in her direction, and the girl stood with a toss of her shiny black hair and marched to the front of the classroom. She slid her page under the bright light of the projector and it appeared on the mostly-blank white wall beside the door. She had drawn a figure that roughly resembled Jimmy sitting under a tree reading a book. Phillip thanked her and the next student was up. There were drawings of Jimmy standing in the hallway and sitting at the front of the class drawing and others that barely resembled Jimmy. One showed a boy dressed as if he were ready to go to a comic book convention and another tried to transform Jimmy into a slick leather-clad dude. After a while, Jimmy stopped paying attention to the multitude of images that time after time failed to capture anything remotely resembling him.
Jimmy looked back down to add a few lines of life to his portrait’s lips. When he glanced up again, trying to feign interest, the picture on the projector was of a featureless boy playing soccer. Sighing Jimmy started to duck his head back down to focus on his work, but the next picture caught his eye. Jimmy looked up and stared for a few minutes. It was of a boy leaning against a cinder block wall. His right foot rested on the surface while his left stood on the cracked ground. He was wearing a light hoodie compared to the darkened surroundings. His head was tilted down, barely revealing the tip of a nose and a nondescript mouth. But that wasn’t what caught Jimmy off-guard. It was the graffiti on the wall, partly covered by the boy’s shoulder. He would recognize those letters, that styling, could imagine the green and yellow highlights anywhere. Brow furrowing, Jimmy turned to look at the artist and his mouth fell open a crack.
The girl’s hair may have been short instead of long, but it still had that tousled look. And now she wore spikes in her ears with her preppy school shirt and knee-length skirt, but the green eyes, the curve of her lips, and the dimple in her cheek were unmistakable. She was still Alice; she was still undeniably his little sister. She smiled at Jimmy then whipped her paper off the projector and swept back to her seat.
Jimmy blinked, and then looked back at his drawing as a sharp pain hit his chest. He felt like he couldn’t move; he was trapped in his own clothes. The air was thick and searing as it slowly crawled into mouth and down his windpipe, falling heavily into his lungs. Jimmy’s face became a blank mask and his shoulders crumpled down, making him look small and frail.
When the air began to thin again, Jimmy glanced up cautiously, looking at the students for the first time. There Alice was, sitting in the center of the classroom—no surprise there—staring unabashedly at him. Jimmy quickly looked down, picking up a random charcoal pencil and adding more lines to the bottom of his portrait’s hair. His hand quivered and the pencil touched down on the paper so infrequently it was impossible to tell that he’d made a mark. He willed himself to focus on the actions, trying desperately to block out the past that was catching up to him.
He jumped when Phillip clapped his hand on Jimmy’s back and said, “Fair is fair, now go ahead and share yours with the rest of the class.”
Jimmy looked up uncertainly at Phillip, scanning his face briefly as if delaying it would force Phillip to change his mind. Phillip’s expression remained unchanged, and finally Jimmy glanced back down at the table. He slowly rose and walked over to the projector with his head down and the paper floating after him. Jimmy cautiously slid his picture under the light, creating a blur of pencil lines before it resolved into the image. The class looked at it, tilting their heads in befuddlement, before turning towards Phillip.
“So,” Phillip said. “You chose to draw a portrait, albeit an unfinished one, which begs the question: who is it?”
“It…it’s,” Jimmy softly cleared his throat before whispering just loudly enough for the class to hear. “It’s Alice.”
Just then the bell rang, saving Jimmy from further embarrassment. As one the students arose, slung backpacks over shoulders, and burst from the classroom into the empty hallway. Phillip started to say something in Jimmy’s direction but gave up, instead pushing through the students to get closer. After glancing briefly at him, Jimmy ducked his head and disappeared into the crowd, letting them carry him out into the hallway and back into solitude.
Jimmy moved in a daze as his past rushed up and threatened to drown him. Shaking his head, he couldn’t rid his mind of the image of Alice standing on the porch, a look of betrayal painting her face. His mom was standing in the doorway of the house, her hand balled into a fist and shaking threateningly as the words rolled over Jimmy. He had pulled the duffel bag farther onto his shoulder and slowly walked down the crumbling sidewalk, only glancing back once; it was that image that was seared into his mind. Alice had been sitting on the porch steps, staring blankly out across the street and wiping tears from her eyes with small fists. He had wanted to go back—to bring her with him—but knew he couldn’t. She was his little sister and as much as he felt the need to be there for her, Jimmy knew that his efforts to protect her had only made it worse.
He shook his head. He knew he shouldn’t have gotten messed up in it, but at the time…
Jimmy flashed back to a few weeks prior. They had sat down for dinner and all there had been was a stale loaf of bread. As he and Alice had gnawed on the hard crust, their mother had been passed out in the living room, the sickly sweet smell of alcohol drowning her breath. That feeling, it was something he just couldn’t shake after all these years. It wasn’t the tight knot of hunger trying to claw its way through his abdomen that stuck, but rather the anger and disappointment directed towards his mother. Looking at his sister with tears in her eyes had felt like a sharp pain in his chest, constricting his breathing.
Jimmy’s muscles had strained to draw in yet another breath, and a sense of relief had washed over him. After that he no longer had to lie in bed and wonder what to do or whether any of this was his responsibility. The look on his sister’s face had been his call to action. Jimmy had lain in bed that night without the usual conflict that plagued him, causing him to toss and turn his bed into a knotted pile before exhaustion finally hit him a few hours before the alarm clock shattered his shaky sense of peace. Instead, Jimmy had spent the night staring at the ceiling, searching desperately for a solution. He had thought about it a thousand nights before that, but now the excuses that his idea was “too much work” or “might get him in trouble” didn’t seem adequate.
Jimmy had drifted off to sleep without the faintest idea what he was going to do, but that hadn’t allowed the issue to stray far from his mind. A few days passed before Jimmy had finally pulled himself together and decided that he had to do it. That day he stayed late after school to catch up with Franco Romero. The name still brought shivers down his spine. By the end of the week he had a few bucks and some stories he wasn’t in any hurry to share. He had snuck through shady alleys and scurried behind dumpsters at the echo of a water droplet striking the pavement. But Jimmy had never felt prouder than he was that day on his way home, Ramen in hand, even if he had felt the need to hide it beneath his coat and watch over his shoulder as if someone would come and swipe it from him.
His mom, in a rare bout of sobriety, had been surprised, then ecstatic, followed quickly by curiosity turned into anger. Jimmy had been reluctant to tell where he had gotten the food, but when his mother accused him of stealing, he had rashly defended himself, boasting that he’d earned it fair and square from Romero’s boys. His mother had become angry, the bottle of whiskey disappearing down her throat and her fists meeting the table with an impact that had smashed into Jimmy’s ear drums. She had been a whirlwind around him and all Jimmy could do was stand trapped in the eye of the storm as Alice huddled in a corner, hands wrapped around the jutting fridge handle for shelter.
Jimmy had survived that episode, but knew that Alice would never forget. And that was just the beginning of his mother’s rage. It was a few weeks later that she had thrown Jimmy out of the house. She had been calm and collected as she chucked a few of Jimmy’s shirts into a bag and tossed it out the door, shoving him after it. Alice had been bewildered, unable to comprehend what she had been caught up in and why Jimmy had to leave. At eleven, she was still blind to the dark side of the city that Jimmy had become acquainted with years earlier.
And burned in Jimmy’s retinas was that image. It started to flash back into his mind and Jimmy gave his head a violent shake, forcefully dragging himself back to reality. Whatever horrors this school and his new life held, Jimmy could face them, surpass them and ignore them, so long as he didn’t have to face down the past.
Moving to the edge of the hallway, fidgeting as people brushed into him and knocked him against the cold steel lockers, Jimmy reached into his bag and pulled forth the small, folded piece of paper listing his classes. Reading quickly, he then shoved the paper away and slowly made his way through the crowd. As he walked, Jimmy let a portion of his mind stray from the uniform black numbers above the numerous doors. He watched the students as they moved quickly past him, around him, and over him, but saw no signs of Alice. He wasn’t sure whether he was relieved or sad about it.
The rest of the day, Jimmy studiously took notes and listened to the teachers drone on as if knowing the derivative of a polynomial might fix everything. During lunch, Jimmy drifted through the cafeteria with his tray of still-frozen mashed potatoes, sickly-looking peas, and a congealed chicken patty. Not happening to catch sight of Alice’s effortless smile, he found a rickety table abandoned in the corner of the harshly-lit, echoing hall and softly rested his tray on its surface. Jimmy’s fork swirled his potatoes and rolled his peas while he flipped through the notebook and worked out practice problems on a page torn from the back.
The clanging of the bell was music to Jimmy’s ears. He slammed his notebook shut and went to his next class with some amount of joy to be escaping lunch. The last bell of the day was somewhat less exciting as Jimmy walked out of the school building and into the bright sunlight. Kids were milling around like ants, stopping to talk with a friend here or waiting in the shade near the building’s corner for a ride to arrive. Other students were unlocking expensive cars and flying off campus with a full backseat.
Jimmy walked slowly, studying the changes in texture of the pavement as he moved past the other students. He glanced up from time to time to scan the crowd, but when he didn’t see what he was looking for, his eyes gravitated back to the gritty surface with its small flecks of black here and shiny metal twinkling over there.
Jimmy was interrupted by a stiff voice breaking through the ambient noise, calling his name. Looking up, Jimmy saw Emily standing a few hundred feet away in her dark gray, pinstriped business suit. Her naturally brown hair was done up in a bun behind her head and the highlights made her head match the differing shades of gray in her striped suit. Jimmy moved towards her without hurry, glancing away and suddenly feeling his skin itch beneath the stiff buttoned shirt he wore. While trying to take a deep breath against the constrictions of the wrinkled tie, Jimmy heard a familiar laugh. Turning his head and squinting his eyes to bring the image into focus, Jimmy’s jawline relaxed slightly. It was the way she still flipped her blond hair when she laughed that convinced Jimmy it was Alice, even if her bob-cut didn’t produce the same effect.
Like a magnet, Jimmy was drawn towards her, even as his brain told his feet to keep tracking towards Emily’s waiting car. When he was ten feet away, he finally caught Alice’s eye and saw her brow furrow tightly then relax as she almost imperceptibly shook her head and turned away to the boy standing beside her.
Jimmy stood there awkwardly, not ready to make a move. And Alice seemed in no hurry to acknowledge him, instead grabbing the boy’s hand and leading him away. A hand on Jimmy’s shoulder frightened him, causing him to spin around quickly, his hands balling into fists. Seeing that it was Emily, or mother—whatever, Jimmy forced his fingers to slide away from his palms and lay in a gentle curve. She was the first to break the silence.
Turning Jimmy’s face towards her own with a gentle finger on the side of his chin, Emily asked,”Who was that?”
Jimmy drew in a sharp breath and looked harder at the ground. Emily waited patiently, unfamiliar and uncertain around Jimmy. Finally he muttered, “Alice.”
Emily cocked her head slightly and her brow wrinkled. After a few seconds her face relaxed and she asked softly, “And how do you know Alice?”
“She’s my sister,” Jimmy said softly with a shrug.
Emily drew in a sharp breath then looked back down at Jimmy with a small, “Oh.”
Jimmy fidgeted uncomfortably, moving his toes back and forth on the concrete with a scraping noise and tapping his fingers against the smooth material of his navy blue slacks.
After a minute, Emily gathered herself together and said slowly, “We could invite her over for dinner…so the two of you could catch up.”
Jimmy didn’t respond, his mind distant from the conversation and only hearing her voice as a foggy distortion.
“Jimmy?” Emily asked hesitantly, giving his shoulder a small nudge. “Are you still with me?”
A small shiver ran down Jimmy’s spine and he looked over at her quickly, eyes slightly wider than normal.
“I’ll invite the Handelsons over this week, okay?” When Jimmy didn’t respond, Emily continued. “I know Sarah, Alice’s mother, from our church group. I’m sure she’ll be happy to come over. Okay?”
Jimmy stood there for a few minutes, looking blankly at the ground as his eyes clouded over. Drawing in a breath he said, “Yeah, sure,” and turned to head in the direction Emily had come from.
Emily opened her mouth to speak again, but instead closed it and followed. When Jimmy began to lag, his toes dragging against the rough concrete, Emily moved ahead. Jimmy settled into a loping pace not too slow, but not quite up to the brisk tempo that Emily was setting. He followed in her wake, the path becoming cluttered with students as Jimmy fell behind. Not trying very hard to keep up, Jimmy moved at his own pace, weaving his way lazily through the people and only glancing ahead occasionally to correct his drifting.
When Emily reached her sleek black Lexus, she unlocked the doors with the press of a button on her keys and then waited outside for Jimmy to reach her. He moved to the other side of the car and slipped into the passenger seat with a certain resignation while Emily efficiently landed in the driver’s seat and turned the key to release the comforting purr of the engine.
She backed out slowly, watching like a prey animal as students passed unaware behind her, touching the car’s bumper as if that would stop it from tapping into their legs. Putting the car into drive, she navigated the slightly less treacherous waters with a stiff movement, jerking the car from side to side. Meanwhile Jimmy had collapsed into his seat, shoulders slumped down and knees raised uncomfortably. His jawline was set and his breath came out in shallow puffs as they wove through the traffic.
Avoiding looking out the window at the passing cars, Jimmy instead glanced around the clean, impersonal interior of the car. A black leather purse sat atop the center console and an air freshener swung gently from the rear-view. The only other objects in the car were a tidy manila folder shoved beside the center console, a phone charger, and deep pink lip gloss slid into a compartment in the dash.
Above the compartment was a slot for a CD and a radio with ice blue LD lights outlining various buttons and knobs. Coming from the speakers was a soft mix of old rock and eighties pop. As much as the car made Jimmy uncomfortable in its rigidity, the music was more his speed. Taking a deep breath, Jimmy watched as Emily flew down a tree-lined street and pulled into the drive of a large two-story gray house with severe white trim. The garage door cranked open in time to clear the car’s low roof and Emily came down hard on the breaks as she reached the end of the garage. Cutting the engine, she emerged from the car and waited by the door for Jimmy to finish lifting himself from the low bucket seat.
She closed the garage door, cutting out the warm rays of sunlight, and then held the house door with its cold blast of air conditioning open for Jimmy to step through. They both removed their shoes, placing them in a neat row by the door, her elegant black heels contrasting with his worn down sneakers. Emily led the way into the kitchen and Jimmy stood awkwardly in the doorway, unsure of where to place himself amid the stiff-backed furniture and pristine tile flooring.
Emily looked up from the folder she was flipping through on the center aisle and caught sight of Jimmy. “Would you like a snack?” she asked with warmth to her tone that didn’t match the severe quarters or the formal attire.
Jimmy stood there awkwardly, shoulder leaned against the cold wall but not pressing into it, as if afraid that he might smudge the wall if he got too comfortable.
Taking the lack of response as an affirmative, Emily pulled a blue and white china cookie jar from the corner of a cabinet and opened it on the center aisle. She drew shortbread from the jar and took a small nibble, turning again to look at Jimmy.
He ducked his head down slightly then moved awkwardly over to the center aisle, backpack still thrown over one shoulder, and reached a large hand into the narrow mouth of the jar. Pulling out the cookie, he rested the tips of his other hand on the counter and held the cookie uncomfortably in front of him.
Emily had gone back to studying the papers, and Jimmy slowly took a bite of the buttery shortbread. After a few minutes, he slipped his backpack from his shoulder and awkwardly coaxed the bag open while holding the cookie and the bag’s strap in one hand. He drew out of it a small sheath of papers, having to bend them to get them through the opening that had closed in on itself to form a rounder hole. Jimmy held them for a few moments before Emily glanced his way. Seeing the papers, she placed her black fountain pen down on the folder’s contents and asked, “Are those for me?”
Jimmy nodded and moved the papers slightly closer to her, unsure where to place himself.
Emily grabbed them firmly, pulling lightly on Jimmy’s hand before he could release his grip. As Emily studied the papers, Jimmy finished his cookie in small, quick bites. After a few moments she glanced up again and said with a smile, “Well, I will fill these out for you to take in tomorrow. In the meantime, why don’t you go up to your room and start on some homework or something?”
Jimmy nodded slightly then turned and headed down the hall in long strides. He climbed the wooden staircase somewhat more slowly and silently closed the heavy wooden door to a white-washed bedroom. Once the door was closed, it was as if the air had been expelled from Jimmy’s lungs and he took a deep breath. Laying his backpack haphazardly on his bed, Jimmy pulled his unfinished drawing from within and settled into the rolling desk chair comfortably.
He pulled an obviously used set of charcoal pencils from the otherwise empty center drawer of the desk and fingered one with familiarity. Turning back to the drawing, Jimmy ran his fingers lightly over the face, feeling the warmth of the flesh as if it were real. Shaking his head, he gripped the pencil tighter and his foot began to tap a senseless rhythm against the chair’s casters.
The lines he drew were efficient and sure of themselves now that he was alone, bringing life into the eyes and a dimple to the left cheek. The right cheek was darkened and a seemingly out-of place streak was made against the jaw bone. The right eye was also darkened, and the eyelid thickened, giving it a slightly drooping appearance.
A knock on Jimmy’s door for dinner sometime later caused him to hurriedly flip the page over and stand up formally, straightening his tie before the door crept open. Jimmy was quiet through dinner, offering small nods and shakes of his head as the conversation rolled around him. Marcus—father—expressed his disappointment in a case he was assigned to take. Then Emily entered the conversation with a client who could not be pleased, first complaining that her decor was too formal, then too relaxed, and now it was too authentic—whatever that even meant.
When the conversation turned to Jimmy he didn’t offer up much except to duck his head and chew more slowly. Marcus was excited at the prospect of meeting Jimmy’s sister and Emily announced that she had made arrangements for Thursday. Since that was still two days away, she reasoned it gave them plenty of time to decide what to cook. Jimmy didn’t offer any suggestions.
The next day at school, Jimmy still had no friends and there was little indication that he would be making any in the near future. He played the role of a good student and kept an eye out for Alice, but he didn’t run into her. There was a moment in the hallway when Jimmy thought he saw her disappearing around a corner, but he hadn’t been sure. When he got to art class, he was sure that he would see her, but she was absent.
On Thursday Jimmy was impatient to get the day over with. All through his first class his fingers were drumming on the table and his toe was tapping wildly. A few people turned to look at him as his drumming began to overtake the teacher’s droning voice, but Jimmy couldn’t still himself. He was quiet for a few minutes, then his toe slowly started up again, followed by his fingers beginning their drumming, picking up speed on their own accord.
When the bell rang, Jimmy sprang from his seat and hurried to art class, hoping to catch sight of Alice before class started. He lingered outside the door, waiting to enter and take his seat until after the bell had begun to run. Alice slipped in a moment later, taking her seat calmly in the nick of time. During class, Jimmy kept glancing over at Alice instead of focusing on his acrylic landscape. By the time they were required to turn the piece in, Jimmy’s was still mostly splashes of unrefined color.
He slung his backpack over his shoulder early, intent on getting to Alice before she slipped out of the classroom and back into the crowded hallways. When the bell rang again, Jimmy sprung from his desk, waiting at the door for Alice to pass him. When she did, he tried to grab her arm, but in the rush of people, she evaded him. Jimmy followed her, trying to keep up, but he wasn’t tall enough to see over everyone else and she steadily wove her way through the crowd, putting more distance between them until Jimmy could no longer see her.
Jimmy’s shoulders slumped and he walked slowly to his next class, now certain that Alice was avoiding him. The rest of the day seemed to drag on. Jimmy couldn’t invest himself in any of it and the thought of dinner made his skin crawl. If Alice was putting this much effort into avoiding him, would she even show up? And if she did, what would he say? She obviously couldn’t forgive him for what had happened that day.
Jimmy was quiet on the ride home from school and went straight to his bedroom when Emily pulled into the garage. He pulled his sketch out of a desk drawer with a renewed sense of urgency. Yesterday he had wanted nothing to do with it, but now Jimmy felt as if he needed to finish it, as if that would somehow make everything better.
In his own twisted way, Jimmy couldn’t move past the event until he made himself really look at it. As Jimmy shaded in the face, a black eye faded in on the right side and a slightly oozing scar showed up running from the girl’s nose to the corner of her jaw on the left. Her entire face was bruised and battered, destroying most of the resemblance that had been present yesterday. Adding a final drop of blood dripping from the girl’s misaligned nose, Jimmy sat back and stared at it.
A mixture of emotions flitted across his face. His eyes began to moisten and the line of his mouth became wobbly. Then his brow furrowed and his nostrils expanded as Jimmy inhaled sharply. When he finally let the breath out, his shoulders sank and his chin dipped to his chest. Jimmy’s fingers curled into a fist and an eyebrow rose, turning one side of his frown up slightly as his fingernails bit into the flesh of his palm. Then he bit the corner of his lip and his eyes filled again, this time leaking over slightly before Jimmy roughly brushed the beginnings of tears away.
That afternoon—the afternoon that his mother had kicked him out—was the source of everything Jimmy was feeling. He had been late getting to his sister’s elementary school from the high school, and when he finally did arrive, Alice had been standing alone by the flagpole, looking lost. Her disappointment had been written in her crumpled face and teary eyes. As soon as she had seen him, Alice had begun babbling about how she needed to get home soon, something about a friend swinging by to pick her up; they were going to the mall together.
In order to appease his little sister, Jimmy had told her earnestly that they’d get there in time—he knew a shortcut. Instead of taking the main roads home, Jimmy had ducked into a side street, tracking diagonally through the run down houses and unkempt yards. Alice had followed, skipping every now and then to keep up with his fast pace. The streets were silent except for the claps of their footsteps against the sidewalk and the occasional dog barking in the distance. It was a pleasant day with a clear sky and a gentle breeze rifling through Jimmy’s short hair.
They had been walking for some time when a group of boys appeared around the corner, walking slowly and talking loudly. Seeing Jimmy, the boy in front had called out, “Hey, I have a message for you guys, stop selling in our turf!”
Jimmy had slowed down, looking at the group of boys quizzically.
When he hadn’t responded, the boy had called out again. “You’re guys have been selling on our turf, and we aren’t okay with that, are we boys?” he had asked, turning to the group following him.
They had all looked between each other and Jimmy, nodding, and a boy in the back had said, “No we aren’t!”
Jimmy still hadn’t responded, instead shifting his weight from side to side and glancing at each of the boys nervously.
Tired of not getting a response, the boys had covered the rest of the distance between them and Jimmy and the leader had said, “I think you need some help remembering.”
The rest of it had happened quickly as two kids grabbed him by the arms and held him. They had turned him around to face his sister, who was similarly restrained by two boys. Jimmy had watched as a fifth boy had taken careful aim and swung at his sister, again and again. He had felt each punch at it made contact, as if it had been him. Jimmy had pulled frantically, trying to get away, but he was no match for the two holding him. One had taken his spare hand and socked Jimmy in the nose to quiet him, sending a shot of pain up his nose and a warm stream of blood down his face.
Then it was all over, the boys had released their holds and walked away. The leader had turned back only once to call out, “You make sure you tell yours guys that, alright?” Then they had gone, disappearing around the corner as quickly as they had come.
When Jimmy and Alice had made their way home, their mother had been waiting. After seeing Alice and his story, she had put two and two together, directing her wrath at Jimmy. And she was right, it was all his fault.
Jimmy was startled back to reality by a knock on the door and Emily’s voice saying, “The Handelsons are here!”
Jimmy quickly shoved the picture back into his desk drawer, slamming it shut as he got up and walked out of his bedroom. Standing in the spacious foyer was a thin blonde woman standing next to a tall man with an angular face and slicked back hair. Both were dressed in semi-formal wear. Standing slightly behind them was Alice dressed in a knee-length puffy yellow dress. Marcus was shaking Mr. and Mrs. Handelson’s hands and directing them into the dining room.
Jimmy walked down the stairs slowly, placing each bone of each foot down individually on the stair step and then lifting them individually off the step as the other foot went down. He walked down the corridor slightly on his toes, arriving in the dining room as the Handelsons were sitting down in the antique wooden chairs. Jimmy careful moved to the empty chair next to Alice as if nobody would notice him.
As Jimmy was lowering himself softly into the chair, Marcus said, “And this is Jimmy,” motioning towards him.
Mr. and Mrs. Handelson nodded politely while Alice purposefully avoided his gaze, instead looking out the window at the evening sky beside her. Jimmy sunk deeper into the rigid chair.
“So,” Emily said, coming into the room with a wooden bowl filled with a fresh spring salad and a carafe filled with a creamy blue-specked dressing. “Tell us about your childhood Jimmy.” She laid the dishes on the table and began passing them to the left, towards Mrs. Handelson.
Jimmy glanced down at his lap, his right hand fiddling with his spoon. Feeling the weight of eyes on him, Jimmy finally moved his eyes up and said softly, “It was a long time ago.”
“Well, did you have as much fun as Alice seems to have had?” Mr. Handelson asked with a smile on his face. “When did you get separated? Alice never really mentioned you.”
“It was a long time ago,” Jimmy said with a small shrug. “It was alright though.” The salad reached him and he served it slowly with a slight tremor in his hands. Jimmy put down the dressing carafe and picked up his fork in one movement. He had a mouthful of lettuce in his mouth before anyone else could ask him a question.
Marcus turned towards Alice, who was twirling her lettuce around her plate with a look of boredom. “So,” he said cheerfully, “Do you remember Jimmy?”
Alice’s eyes slid over to Jimmy then back to her plate. She muttered, “Yeah, we weren’t that young.”
“Were you guys close?” Mrs. Handelson asked, looking from Jimmy back to Alice.
Jimmy looked at Alice, brow furrowed, and Alice again just slid her eyes over. Then the two looked back at their respective plates. Jimmy nodded slowly while Alice shook her head. The adults all paused, looking at Jimmy and Alice with confused expressions on their faces.
Jimmy stared into his plate, drawing his shoulders down and closer together to make himself smaller while Alice opened herself up, sitting taller and straighter, though still glancing down. The tension in the room grew, making it feel as though any sudden movement could cause and shatter thin layer of civility. Alice’s brow furrowed and her hands tightened on her knees. Suddenly, she slid her chair back and stood up quickly. Alice banged her leg against the hard chair as she left the room. Mr. and Mrs. Handelson looked at each other, raising their eyebrows. Meanwhile Emily and Marcus looked after Alice, equally confused by the events. Then all the adults turned to look at Jimmy, who was still staring into his plate, as if he would be able to explain.
Feeling the eyes on him, Jimmy sank farther into his chair, trying to disappear into the tan fabric of the seat. The silence stretched on longer and Jimmy’s toes began drumming silently against the cold floor. Then he stood and slunk out of the room. Nobody made any effort to stop him.
Jimmy peered around the corner and walked down the long hallway. He turned to go up the stairs, running into Alice. She was sitting with her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands. Jimmy stood awkwardly at the foot of the stairs, wanting to go up to his room but not sure how to gracefully pass Alice in the narrow corridor. He cleared his throat softly.
Alice ran her fingers through her short hair then slowly looked up with her eyes. Seeing that it was Jimmy, she looked back down, unwilling to hold the eye contact.
Jimmy slowly sank to the step below Alice, on the same level as her feet. He licked his lips a few times and his eye began to twitch. Finally, he spoke, using slow, even words. “I’m sorry,” he said with a look of pain on his face. “I never meant for it to happen.”
After a long pause Alice snapped, “I know!” Drawing in a deep breath she retorted, “Do you think that means anything to me?”
Jimmy allowed his head to fall to the side, eyes cast down at the grain in the wood. His breaths were shallow and few. After another long moment he said, choosing his words carefully, “I tried to come back for you, you know? I was stuck in a group home nearby and ran away to go back. But they tracked me down and caught me before I made it to the door. They dragged me into a police car and drove me back.”
Alice nodded imperceptibly. “I saw,” she whispered.
“And you still can’t forgive me?” Jimmy asked, anger starting to creep into his voice. “Was what I did so wrong? I never meant for anything to happen!” Pulling in another breath, he continued. “Is it really that bad to take a detour on the way home?” He stared at her accusingly.
Finally Alice looked up, wiping streaked eyeliner away before turning to Jimmy. “No, no it’s not that bad,” she said in a broken voice. After swallowing hard, she continued, “But you were supposed to be my older brother. And you were supposed to look out for me.” She glanced over at the wall then back to Jimmy. “And instead you stood there and watched. Because big brothers are supposed be there. And you got yourself into a situation where you couldn’t be.”
“I did what I had to do,” Jimmy said firmly, no longer caring who heard him. After another moment had passed he added on, “And I did it for you.”
Another long moment passed before Alice wiped her eyes dry and turned her entire body towards Jimmy. “Look,” she said firmly. “I know you didn’t mean for anything to happen and you were trying your best to protect me, but I found a new life, okay? I just don’t want you messing it up.” Her eyes began to water again. “I finally moved on from this stuff. That’s why I was ignoring you. I don’t want to be stuck in the past, I want to move forward.”
Jimmy was speechless for a moment, and then he looked up from his lap and met her bold gaze. “I just need to know that you don’t hate me,” he whispered mournfully.
“I don’t hate you,” Alice said without any quaver in her voice. “I don’t think I could ever hate my brother.”
With those words, color filled Jimmy’s cheeks and a brightness filled his eyes. The nervous tic had disappeared and a smile spread across his face. Finally he nudged her shoulder and said, “Shall we go back to dinner then, sis?”
Alice gave him a small smile and allowed him to help her up. They walked back into the dining room with content expressions on their faces. The tension in the room melted like ice and the adults sat back in their chairs, expressions of worry blooming into smiles.
As the families ate, they laughed and smiled, enjoying each other’s company and the stories their children told about each other. Mr, and Mrs. Handelson learned that their daughter used to spend hours combing her plastic horses’ manes only to knot them while trying to braid the manes and put them up into cool buns. In return, Alice told Emily and Marcus about how Jimmy used to play with her Barbie dolls. The families ate heartily, digging into the food between talking. The whole table laughed for a solid five minutes as Alice and Jimmy tried to explain how they used to rake the leaves in their yard onto an air mattress in order to jump from the tree down into the leaves. Jimmy reasoned that they always saw kids jump into leaf piles in movies, but never got enough leaves to cushion the fall.
The candles set in the windows of the dining room were burning low by the time Mr. and Mrs. Handelson finally stood up, starting to make excuses for them to leave. When the door finally shut behind them, everyone was exhausted but pumped from the dinner, promising to organize another one soon.